I’ve been gone for three months. My travels have taken me from San Diego to Israel for a time, a stop in West Virginia for a while, as well as Chicago, on to North Carolina before hiding away at my childhood home for the holidays on the beaches of South Carolina. It was a beautiful and chaotic time, but I suppose that’s how traveling can be, beautiful and chaotic… as well as life, life can be like that too.
My extended time away was not premeditated, it just sort of happened and it might have kept happening had it not been for a dear friend who decided to get married on New Years Eve in San Diego. It was her wedding that called me home, and so I packed up my travels, flying halfway across the country, landing in Texas and hopping a ride to drive the rest of the way back to California. It’s safe to say I love to travel. I love being in the act of it, anticipating where you are going, being present where you are, finding the balance between the two and making room for both. Sometimes I take the long way to the grocery store just so I can travel a little bit longer.
Truth be told, I could have passed up going to my friend’s wedding for the sake of travel, but deep down something in me knew that something about this life had more to do with people than it did with how many locations I could get to in one road trip, and so unlike myself, I hurried home.
I made it just in time to see my friend walk down the isle. She was every color of beautiful, in part because the colorful tattoos all over her body made the white in her dress shine an extra shade of bright, and in part because you could tell her heart was about to explode with joy as she held her breath to walk towards the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She made her way down the isle, caught a glimpse of me in the audience, and as if to be further surprised by joy, she mouthed “Oh, JJ!” She held back tears and smiled. My heart lept and everything about rushing home was 110% worth it.
“Relationships,” I whispered to myself, “people. There’s something about people that I know this life is about. Even when it doesn’t seem like it matters, it does.”
We danced the night away at her wedding. She shares the same affection I do for 90s hip-hop culture, so between Mariah Carey and Boys to Men, we could have broken the concrete floor with how hard we danced. “Dancing,” I whispered to myself, “there is something eternal about it. I feel too alive when I do it for it not to last forever.”
We sent my friend and her husband off in style, with sparklers and chants and fist pumps to the air, or to God, whichever your preference.
The wedding reception ended with a long night still ahead of us. In eager anticipation of welcoming in a new year, my friend and I wanted to keep dancing, but seeing as how we aren’t as young as we used to be, we get tired earlier in the evening… I’ll speak for myself. Knowing we didn’t feel up to bar hopping but didn’t want to go back home, we drove out to Shelter Island to get the perfect view of the city. The moon hung low over downtown San Diego, nearly touching the tops of the tall buildings.
We made plans to come back out one night and take pictures, which is still sitting patiently on our to-do list. After driving up and down the little island we noticed a hotel still lit up for Christmas with welcoming doors. People were walking in and out, some on smoke breaks, some on cell phones, and figuring it must be some kind of New Years Eve Party, we decided to venture over.
There was an older man sitting out front who noticed us looking in the windows, “just walk in like you own the place, turn to the right, go all the way back and there is a live band with dancing.” Perhaps it was obvious we wanted to be involved with what was going on but didn’t actually know what was going on. “OH! Thank you!” we said, and with that I adjusted my jacket to make it look like I owned the place, opened the door and walked in.
We crossed through the lobby without anyone saying anything, “it’s working,” I said to myself, almost laughing as I passed the right we were supposed to take and walked straight back to open a door to a private party. I opened the door with an “I own this place” smile on my face and was greeted by a bouncer who responded to my owner’s smile with “do you have a wristband?”
“OH!” I said out loud (and “dang it” to myself). Just as I was about to explain myself, my friend grabs my jacket and tells me we were supposed to go right. “Oh, we were supposed to go right,” I said to the bouncer whose facial expression did not change. We adjusted our route and made our way past a dinning room full of older to elderly overdressed people. It felt very clear that we were outsiders as we kept walking, pretending like we knew where we were going.
Eventually we found the room with the live band and dancing. It had the vibe of a company party, business people letting loose for one night, my friend and I being thirty years younger than everyone in the company. I watched while the band played Stevie Wonder songs and older-to-elderly people got down on the dance floor, “this is gold,” I thought to myself. “We’re totally staying here,” I said to my friend. “Oh, absolutely we are,” she said, and our friendship made sense.
We danced until the ball dropped with perfect strangers imperfectly dancing. We welcomed in the new year with people thirty years our senior, and even though we didn’t know each other, something about the whole thing felt eternal; all of us celebrating together for one cause as if we were family. Perhaps it was the dancing, perhaps it was coming together of different generations, perhaps it was Stevie Wonder.
It was the best New Years I can remember having in a long time. Maybe at some point we all say that. Maybe there’s a point in which some people never say that. I tend to forget that New Years isn’t just some holiday in which I deserve to have a good time. Having fun on New Years Eve isn’t a right, for some people it’s just another night of trying to figure out how they are going to make it through. In those moments of realization I feel helpless, crippled by anxiety over the state of humanity, which is the exact type of thought you’re told to put away on occasions like New Years. After all, you don’t want to be Debbie Downer at the party. I don’t know where the balance is between living your life and keeping aware of the lives of others, but I think it might be somewhere in between gratitude and time and action.
I’m grateful I had such a good New Years, because not everyone gets one, I’m even grateful I allowed myself to have such a good New Years. Had I have sat on my worries about the state of the world, I would have missed out on the people right in front of me, not only my friend who I had the time of my life with, but also the people who’s story I don’t know, who may have had a hard year despite what their expensive dress says.
People are people, rich ones, poor ones, nice ones, mean ones, and sure, I’ll admit some of them are easier to love than others, but people are still people. Loving the poor and treating the rich like dirt is the same heart condition of loving the rich and treating the poor like dirt. People are people, with stories the likes of which we have no idea. I think most people are the way they are because of their stories, and I am increasingly convinced that listening to someone’s story will change the way you see them.
I’m grateful for where I am at in life, I’m trying to be present in the places I find myself spending time, and I want to do something when it is in my ability to do so to help other people, which doesn’t always mean giving someone money (in part because I don’t have any). I’m trying to embrace the life I’ve been given, allow myself to become more of who I was created to be, and in so doing, setting other people free to be them… something I think people need more than money… the freedom to be themselves.
Now that I am back in San Diego with a new year ahead of me, I am excited about what is to come, nervous too, but mostly excited. I set out to go for a walk the other day and less than a minute into my walk I ran into Richard, my seventy (+) year old neighbor. He asked over and over again how I had been and where I had been and said he was worried about me. Three months is a long time and I didn’t get to see him before I left, “I thought something had happened to ya,” he said, “I went down to your coffee shop and asked about ya.” Richard and I visited with each other often. The first time I met him he helped me put air in my bike tires. The second time we went for a bike ride all over the city.
Richard told me he how worried he had been, “I thought something happened to ya,” he said over and over again. “I didn’t know you were leaving… are you glad to be back, it’s good to be back, right?” he asked, almost nervous I might leave again. I felt both happy that Richard was so anxious to see me, and sad that I had not told him I was leaving. Honestly, I didn’t think it mattered, only because I had forgotten that when it comes to people, even when it doesn’t seem like it matters, it does. I didn’t realize what our frequent run-ins meant to him. I felt happy that Richard would care so much about me, and sad that I would be so careless with Richard. “I want to be more intentional with people,” I thought to myself.
Richard invited me in to share some ideas with me. As he asked what my plans for myself were, he said he had an idea. “Can you play a guitar?” He asked. I said I could. “Can you carry a tune?” he asked. I said I could… well enough. “You start practicing everyday, get yourself 25 minutes worth of material, you think you could do that… be in front of people for 25 minutes?” I laughed thinking about where he was going with his idea, “yea, between stories and jokes and singing, I think I could last 25 minutes.” “Good,” he said with excitement, “now you get yourself an act, practice everyday, record a little demo and send it to people. You start driving up the coast in your van and send the demo to people to say you’re coming, then you can perform in places all the way up to Oregon.” He laughed and smiled as he carried on planning my “career” as a performer. “Not everyone can do it,” he says, “but you could, you got the personality, you could do it!”
I noticed a guitar in the corner of Richard’s living room, “do you play?” I asked. He said he did as he laughed and waved his hand, “not so much anymore, but I used to.” I asked if he could teach me a thing or two on the guitar. “You don’t need a teacher,” he said, “if you got the basic skills, which you do, right?” I nodded. “Then all you have to do is practice everyday. So many people want to move on to the next thing and do all this fancy stuff, but they never master the basics, so they never really learn to get better, they just find new tricks.” I thought this to be true to my life in many ways, always anxious to move on to the next bigger and better thing without really taking the time to invest in understanding the basics, like loving people well, sending them thank you cards and letting them know you’re leaving town and won’t be back for a really long time, not to worry.
I asked Richard if he would play his guitar for me one night and he agreed that he would. He went back to talking about my plan to drive up the coast and perform in music venues and coffee houses. “And listen up,” he said, “you get paid to do this… no freebies! People are gonna want you to perform for free, but you say no. I mean, every now and then a freebie is okay, it’s good to give back, but you can’t do all freebies, you gotta get paid.” He smiled and stared off into the distance as if he were reliving a dream, “yea, you could just drive up the coast and play at night, it would be wonderful.” I agreed that it would. “I’d do it myself,” he said, “but I’m too old.” He laughed at the thought. “Think about it,” he said before I left, “you could take your van, plus you’d be good at it, you’d make people laugh.”
I thanked Richard and gave him a hug before I left. We planned our next bike ride. I walked to the coffee shop where I used to work and was greeted with hugs and screams of excitement. “YEAAA!!!” my friend yelled, “I’m just so excited I want to pick you up and pace back and forth with you in my arms!” So she did. My heart felt happy and loved. I walked to the bank to pray there’d be money in my account, also to deposit a small check, which was an answer to prayer (a combination of human initiative and divine interaction). I thanked God.
I walked down Newport Avenue, the main street in town, and I took in those fresh feelings of returning home. I took note of everyone I walked past, seeing some familiar faces hidden in the herds of tourists. I high-fived a friend and coffee shop regular coming out of his shop. I felt like I was right where I belonged. I walked to the end of the street that dead ends at the ocean. Everything had it’s place, the seagulls, the buskers singing at the ocean’s edge, the surfers gliding across the water, even the tourists walking aimlessly around taking pictures. Everything seemed to be just as I left it, and everyone seemed to belong, even the tourists.
I took in a deep breath to smell the salt water. I thanked God that I was alive and that I lived in Ocean Beach, California.
Last year was tough, despite what social media suggests, but I’m sure that could be true for many if not most people. In many ways I was nervous to come back to California. I was nervous to have a repeat of last year, and seeing as how that was the last thing I wanted, I almost resorted to not coming back. While it’s always an option to leave when the going gets tough, it’s also a way to miss out on the goodness of life, some of which is so simple you could easily miss it.
Rejoicing at my friend’s wedding, sitting in Richard’s living room, hugging my co-workers, high-fiving my friend on the street, smelling the ocean air are all simple joys I would have missed had I have not come back to California, not to mention prolonging panic mode as I tried to figure out what to do next. I so easily forget that my past experience doesn’t have to define my present one and that while I might have made mistakes before, it doesn’t mean I’m destined to repeat them. Prone to, yes, as humans we are all prone to repeating our mistakes, half the battle is being aware of that, but destined to? Absolutely not.
And so for now, I am home, enjoying my neighbors and living the adventure of doing every day life with the people around me. It is an odd combination of simple and wonderful, but I think that is what the best stories are made up of… the simple wonders that take place when you love the people in front of you.
May 2016 be a year of simple wonders for all of us.
My friend Richard.