I’ve spent years as the quintessential lost twenty-something, recklessly curious about the lives of other people I bumped up against and the different paths they took, vaguely uncomfortable with my own. The dots never seemed to connect for me; my trajectory always seemed so confusing that I struggled feeling alright with myself and my story.
My life has had its share of disheartening and painful experiences and I’ve gotten into a habit of trying to create something presentable out of it all. I try to make sense of my disjointed, zig-zagging routes. I hope grief and pain will work themselves out into something better, so that I can point to the reason for them.
This pattern holds true for success stories I read on social media — someone was at rock bottom and climbed out, and is now offering the chronicle of their struggle as a source of relatability and inspiration. I have nothing against those stories but I see the tendency in me to want to follow that narrative in my own life in a way I don’t like. To smooth the wrinkles and have something presentable to show everyone. I often measure my life’s story up against other people’s, silently hoping I’m not too “off,” that my loose ends tie up just as nicely at some point so it all makes sense.
I know we’re all works in progress but I’m quicker to forgive other people’s unfinished masterpieces than I am my own.
While hiking in the wilderness a few months ago, I came up against darker parts of my life and self that I’d been working to smooth out.
I stayed in an Airbnb surrounded by miles of ambling farmland and purple, mist-covered mountains. When it was too quiet at night in my rustic studio I turned on music and heard a song that made me feel like I was crashing into an older version of myself. The climbing crescendo of the voice, the lyrics, the harmonizing chords all brought memories rushing through space and time to collide with current me, like an accordion folding in on itself.
When I first heard that song I was on an adventure on the other side of the world, taking in the sweeping, salty wind from the coast and lilting and musical accents. It was playing in a cozy little bar by the sea, and I hastily scribbled random lyrics onto a napkin.
Years later in that Airbnb somewhere in the mountains, that song brought me back to who I was when I discovered it. I was free and happy, yet not. I was also bound by fear and anxiety and longing. I was a different person, but deeply — almost painfully — familiar. I felt a gentle familiarity in the reminder of that older version of myself, a softness toward the difficult things I had been going through at the time and the deep sadness I had been carrying around long enough to see it as an old friend.
A song can bring back everything from life — the love, loss, goodness, and pain — in a sudden, unavoidable way. In this case, the misadventures and detours of my journey coalesced into something I was strangely comforted by. It can be painful to be reminded of grief and loss, of our past selves, selves we’ve forgotten or tried to forget. So much so that when music brings it all rushing back, it almost becomes self-affirming. A vessel of all the emotions and experiences we can hold within us, still hopeful, still going, all these years later. This is where I came from.
My path, as confusing and sometimes painful as it can be, is mine.
While none of us live the same life or share the same thoughts, experiences, or perspectives, there exists a magical little intersection between us. In that intersection we find the human emotions and experiences to which we can all relate: loneliness, love, death, shame, fear, hope.
We tentatively step into these gray, intersecting areas wanting to connect with each other. It’s why we make art, in any form. It’s why we volunteer and gather. It’s why we tell stories. And I think our trying to get to these intersections is also a way of pulling back the veil on the darker parts of ourselves we try to hide and using them to connect. It’s our way of asking forgiveness for being human. Our way of saying, “This is me, is it okay?” and “Can you relate to these things I’ve felt and done? To the things that terrify me? Do you understand?”
It’s being so tired of silencing our inner demons that we let them speak to someone else’s out of desperation.
I’m still searching my dark corners and learning not to jump at my shadows, reminding myself that while sometimes my life’s individual note might be playing a clashing, dissonant chord, or an unresolved chord heavy with tension, it’s still part of some mysterious and magnificent concerto. The messiness that shapes us underscores the things that mean something and the things we use to connect with each other, and through that we emerge into something to be proud of. Through that we create a life full of stories worth telling.
Once during an art class the instructor had all of us draw the same object two ways: first by memory, looking only at the page and not at the object; and second by intuitive feel, looking only at the object, not down at the page. When we drew by intuition I pulled my pencil across the paper without lifting it, sketching what I hoped would look like the pottery jar I was staring at. My pencil came up at some point and I immediately felt disoriented; I would have to touch it back to the page blindly.
When we compared the drawings side by side, the pottery I had sketched without looking at the page was obviously less perfect than the first drawing. But. But while it was messy and unpolished, it actually looked better than the tighter, more perfected version I had drawn when I was carefully watching my pencil on the page. My lines were looser and freer, maybe in part because I had lifted the pencil, gotten disoriented, then said fuck it and sketched away blindly.
The rest of the class had a similar experience. We all created something without a path forward, so to speak, and the intuitive drawings were uniquely… bad. But most of us liked them better that way.
If we let ourselves and our paths be messier, freer, less perfected, we might end up seeing something that looks so much better than we thought. The only predictable part of life is the constant interplay of light and dark, of harmony and clash. If we’re brave enough to let that play out and curious enough about who we become through a life lived real and raw, we might end up befriending the parts we tried to hide away.
We might end up in awe of our own stories, the aggregate of our love and grief, bravery and cowardice, our mistakes and shining triumphs, every loss and every gossamer hope.