Last Black Friday I got sideswiped by a bus. The year that’s followed has absolutely been the worst of my life. Maybe it’s been bad longer than that, but when it comes to starting points getting hit by a bus seems as good a place as any.
The problem with a narrative is that we’re all unreliable. We can’t get out of our own heads and are riddled with flaws. I’m constantly surprised by the things that become significant to me despite allegedly knowing better. A few weeks ago I got Chinese food on lunch and opened a fortune cookie that said “Do not seek happiness. Create it.” It reminded me of a saying Bob Dylan once attributed to his grandmother: “Happiness isn’t on the road to anywhere. It is the road.”
I was oddly touched by the sentiment, but I knew that it wasn’t some ancient Chinese wisdom. I edited a book about odd American jobs a few months ago and there was a spread about fortune cookie fortunes. They’re just made by writers. One was a freelancer that wrote 700 fortunes at 75 cents each. Probably wasn’t even worth all that work after taxes. Freelance writers should never give anyone advice, even if it is delicious.
The rational, sometimes cynical part of me knows this. But I’m full of knowledge that sits in direct opposition of the things I want to believe, the heartstrings that—despite all my logic—get tugged when I see words on a slip of paper wedged between the folds of a fragile tan cookie. You can know the how and why of something and still find your own meaning in it. It’s why songs written about places you’ve never been can feel like home.
Even the logical part of my brain creates patterns and meaning that’s fallible. In an ocean of uncertainty and randomness our bodies crave order—an arc to follow and look back at with a hand shielding your eyes against the harsh sunlight. The pattern I see in looking back on my recent past is one of loss and mourning. Of failure and missed chances.
Most of that narrative is entirely true. The suit I bought for two summers dotted with weddings has been worn to deliver a eulogy and carry a casket. That gray cotton has hugged more friends and family to offer condolences than I could have ever prepared for. I lost count of the wakes and funerals until I collected all the prayer cards in one place recently. A lot has been lost these past few years. Much more feels like it’s still slipping away.
Of course, between the long string of bad news there have been beautifully brief pockets of good. The weddings were all wonderful. There have been trips filled with new friends and that brought me closer to people worth caring about. These flights and long drives to new places have taught me things about myself I didn’t know. I’ve put more miles on this last year than I ever have. Maybe I’m catching up or maybe something truly broke in me when the pain in my neck prevented me from sleeping at night and I finally started fixing myself. I think I’m getting better.
And in a way it’s comforting to know I know I’m not alone in this bad year. My narrative says my life went downhill the moment a bus drove my car into a curb on a rainy Friday night in Buffalo, but that’s just a convenient memory to look back on. We all have bad years. We comfort one another the best we can but we all cope in different ways. We keep going.
I’ve found that my ways to cope surprised me as well. I started rock climbing. I tried to challenge myself. I started telling more stories. Better stories. More honest stories. I embraced different freelance projects and threw myself at my career a bit harder. I’ve leaned into the things I think might help me find the way forward.
But it’s not the new in my life that makes me feel stronger or better or more certain about anything at all. I still feel unmoored and a bit uneasy about what comes next. But I’ve realized now it’s never the new that makes these things more clear. A week after Thanksgiving I covered a Sabres game for the first time this year—Jack Eichel’s first home game. I did so by doing the same things I used to. I followed routine—ate fast-casual tacos and drank lime-flavored Coke Zero and played board games on my phone at a table alone. I decompressed a bit before the rush of adrenaline that comes with being in a press box.
But somehow it felt odd to do these familiar things nearly a year later. It wasn’t the setting or the time, it was me. I had become different. Maybe it was the better haircut or the new coat. Maybe it was because my credential was from a magazine, a publication that asked me to work for them. It felt like everything fit slightly better. The press box had new carpet. Things had changed, the Sabres won and the cheers still rang in my ears. I left the building alone after interviews and the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority failed to forcibly guide my life down a new path.
Even if you’re in the same place doing familiar things, I realized, you can feel the changes in your life. If you focus hard enough, stare straight at what you were, you find the growth and newness of it all. After the year I’ve had, I’m so grateful to see something unfamiliar in the places I’ve always been. Because just like the fortune I didn’t keep but still remember, knowing its origins somehow doesn’t make it less significant. Strangely, it makes me feel better.
I think it’s good to know how bad things can get. It’s important to realize that even after all this terrible, we are still here. The how might change, the why might remain unanswerable, but the world we live in continues to exist and be good enough to keep us in it. It’s good enough, maybe not because we have a choice in the matter, but because it has to be.