I’ve been told that life never gives you more than you can handle, but I often question whether or not that is true. In my experience life surprises you when you least expect it. Not just once, but again and again and again in short, rapid succession until you look up one day and find that nothing is as you remember it. Amidst the chaos and calamity the path you had been traveling upon changed, possibly several times over, and the steps you once walked are now far out of sight.
There has not been a single calendar year in the last decade where I have not spent at least three days in the great state of Texas. My record for a single year is somewhere in the vicinity of ten days, which was split between two separate trips to the Lone Star state at different times in the year. I started visiting to attend SXSW (South By Southwest) in Austin, which I have returned to nearly every year since first going in 2008. It wasn’t until far more recently that I began to explore the state for reasons of pure interest, but in that time I have explored much of the space that stretches from Arkansas to Dallas, as well as the roads dotted with tiny towns that guide you from Dallas to Houston and Austin. These are long stretches of mostly flat road that rarely provide more eye candy than fellow travelers and rolling fields, but over time I have come to find a comfort in the quiet solitude they provide.
That’s the thing about Texas. As crowded as the cities may get you are never more than thirty or forty minutes from a place so sparsely populated you pray you never find yourself stranded there in the dead of night. The long stretches of largely empty land make you appreciate the skyscrapers that dare to greet the clouds, much like how the bustling sidewalks of Dallas or Austin can make you yearn for a small amount of space to call your own. In Texas, people are afforded the opportunity to have it all, or at least have access to it all.
This past weekend I traveled to Dallas on my own for the first time in my life in order to speak at a music conference held by a good industry friend. It was my second time appearing at one of their events this year, and I was anxious to see what experiences would unfold. I knew I would have a good time because that is generally what happens when I visit Texas, but beyond seeing a few friends and doing the work I love to do I really wasn’t expecting much. This was not because I did not believe Texas could provide more, but rather because life has been throwing me for more than one loop as of late and I was uncertain if I was prepared for any further surprises. Just this year I have lost two of my three remaining grandparents (six months apart from one another), and in doing so watched my mother lose the two people who raised her. I also watched my marriage end, which meant losing a best friend, leaving Minnesota, and saying goodbye to a life I thought I would lead. To say I had been feeling a bit lost before leaving would be an understatement. I knew I was ready to move I just didn’t know how I was going to do so, and writing this now I still don’t have all the answers.
But something happened to me in Texas. I have sat at this computer and tried to type this exact paragraph maybe half a dozen times since I realized what had occurred and each time I press the delete key so hard my middle finger begins to ache because every word I write feels cliché. It was not a single action or the result of anything I did myself, but much like I described above my whole world seemed to tilt on its axis in the span of nothing more than a few brief moments. If whatever happened took longer than a second to occur I would be surprised because if so I dare say I would be able to pinpoint what exactly unfolded, but alas I cannot. I don’t even know that I blinked. All I know is that I woke up in Michigan on Saturday morning and when I laid my head down to sleep for the first time in Dallas my spirit felt restrained by the confines of my physical form for the first time since in longer than I care to recall. More importantly, it was a new sensation, brought on by what I can only imagine was something else entirely new. I was alive and I wanted nothing more than to feel that feeling for as long as my mind could possibly process the sensation before it undoubtedly gave out after having fully depleted whatever supply of joy my body had in stock.
The clocks changed that evening while I was out, but I have to assume it was nearly dawn when my eyes finally closed. When I awoke that same innate understanding of life anew was there. I did not want to return to the night before, but to get out and greet the new day in front of me. My hope was that by returning to the conference I might stumble upon whatever it was that took me by surprise. After all, the entire reason I came to Texas was to speak about music to people who loved music as much as I did. The room was alive and full of friends both knew and old, but whatever had caught me off guard the night before we not as quick to reveal itself. I could feel its presence still, and I knew it was because of the people in this room and their entrance into my life that it had come to exist, but what it is (or was) remained a mystery. Still curious, I agreed to spend the afternoon with a close friend who lives her life a thousand miles from where I live mine. We tried to visit Houston, but traffic was not our friend. So we chose to return to Dallas after an hour or two spent lost in the Texas countryside. It was the kind of day you need in order to remember the things that truly matter in life have little to do with work or success and everything to do with the connection you make.
That same day, the second day, a man entered a Texas church in the middle of morning service and opened fire on an unsuspecting congregation. More than twenty people lost their lives and dozens were injured. This would be considered a massacre in any city, but in a town of 649 people — like the town where this incident happened — it is pure devastation. The news was on every channel and quietly playing in the background of every bar, tattoo shop, and restaurant in Dallas. It was unavoidable, much like the numerous other tragedies that have befallen the United States in recent months, but due to the fact I was in the same state it felt closer than usual. As much as I wanted to think about all that I had felt for the preceding twelve hours I couldn’t stop thinking of those in that church and the people who loved them. I thought about how somewhere in the same state where I stood there were families gathered in a makeshift waiting room preparing to hear the worst news anyone can hear about someone they care about. News that would have seemed unimaginable even a day before. They, like me, had woken up in an entirely different reality than the one they left the night prior.
It was during this time I recalled something Patton Oswalt quoted from his late wife, Michelle McNamara, during his latest comedy special. McNamara was a true crime writer who dedicated her life to helping people find answers when the unthinkable happens, and as a result she grew to hate those who liked to claim everything in the universe happen for a reason. Oswalt claimed to have once disagreed with his late wife, but following her unexpected passing her began to see things differently. Her words than rang truer to him than ever before, and the message they carried was simple: “It’s chaos. Be kind.”
Why me? This was the very next thought in my head after recalling McNamara’s advice. Why did I wake up in a new reality that made me feel more alive than ever while an untold number of people awoke to a new reality that resembled their worst nightmare? Surely this things happens all the time to all sorts of people in all kinds of situations, but my foolish did not care for such reasoning. This was a rare moment when the universe seemed to sway in my favor, but if it came at such a great cost to people I never even met was it a reality I wanted to live in?
This is when I realized I forgot the first and perhaps most essential part of what McNamara was trying to tell the world: Life is chaos. Not just for you, but for everyone. Even if you choose to subscribe to the notion you are on a path defined by a higher power you cannot go on living under the believe a win for you is automatically a loss for someone else. Likewise, you cannot believe your hardships come so that others can succeed. There may be instances where that is true, but not often. Life is most likely a random sequence of opportunities and setbacks that are only in your control to a very limited extent. You can resist having to make tough choices, but life will make them for you. On the same note, you can plan every moment down to the tiniest detail and life will still find a way to knock the wind out of your lungs. Life does not want you to win or lose. Life does not care. Life is a bulldozer, pushing forward relentlessly without concern for the things that come in its way. Your options are to experience it fully, riding out the good and bad as they come, or resist and be crushed. Either way, we all reach the same finish line. In short, no one makes it out alive.
As this whirlwind of thoughts swirled through my head the sun set and a new night presented itself. I laid in my hotel bed starring at a popcorn ceiling dimly lit by the small amount of light piercing through the hotel blinds until my mind finally gave out and allowed my body to rest. When I awoke I felt not confusion, but the passion and excitement that had greeted me the day before. In fact, this time I felt it even stronger. I also had something of a realization, which was that the investigation as to the reasoning behind life choosing to surprise me when it did was not as important as the recognition that it had, in fact, been forever changed. I knew what that meant for me and I not only accepted it, I welcome it with open arms. I leapt from the bed and threw open my blinds, revealing a gorgeous Dallas skyline, and in that moment I felt like I was finally on a path I almost recognized. It was still new, but I understood where it could lead, and that place was/is a happiness I sometimes believe only exists in memories. The kind of happiness that neither time nor circumstance can deny. That happiness is possibly the only thing I have ever truly sought, and it only dawn on me this past weekend that I may be what that happiness has been seeking all along as well. I’m here, happiness. I’m here and I’m ready for you.