The most special things are the things that don't really belong anywhere but here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


You know that cliché, “I have no regrets, because if I made different choices, I wouldn’t be here today”? For the most part, I kind of believe that. I think you can learn wherever you’re at, and every experience has something to gain. I like the idea that there are no “wrong” choices (well, aside from deliberately evil choices that hurt others) because life is really just about having a human experience and trying to be better at being a human. I believe this for the most part.

There are certain attitudes that I wish I had when I was younger, but are no obviously great paths that I walked away from or any decisions which resulted killing or maiming, thank god! When it comes to big regrets, things that still hurt, I really just have the one, and it happened in 1992.

Obviously working on
something great.
Every year at Dimondale Elementary, The Brianstormers contest would come around. Us kids wrote and illustrated stories, submitted them, and then the Brainstormers picked their favorite ones to act out at assembly. Sometimes, the kids in the audience were asked to be actors too. (They made my painfully shy older sister play a mouse one year, which I think she simultaneously enjoyed and hated.) I loved Brainstormers. People acting out MY stories? On a stage in front of everyone? It became my dream. I sat in the audience wondering what it would feel like to suddenly realize that I had been chosen, that everyone was enthralled by something from my imagination, but two years in a row, I didn’t win. I was baffled by this since I had decided by five that I was a writing prodigy, but my stories were usually too strange to ever win anything. (This definitely foreshadows things to come, but maybe that’s for another blog.)

In 1992, I was perpetually sick (and tardy—14 in one semester, thank you very much), and I also hated school, so I stayed home. A lot. One morning, mom woke me up and asked if I felt better from the illness that I had pretty much recovered from the day before. I wiggled my legs—they were still a little achy, right? I knew I was basically ok, but I told my mom “no.” Then, during an afternoon bath, I was filled with dread as I suddenly remembered what day it was: Brainstormers day. As soon as school got out, I called my friend Brandy.

“Did I win? What happened?”

“They did your story!” Brandy said. “They acted the whole thing out!”

I had missed it.

The next day at school, I asked one of the teachers, Mr. Feighner, if they taped it. “No, we didn’t. I’m sorry,” he said, and handed me my certificate.
At least I was reassured that "Writers Are Cool Dudes!"

I tried to comfort myself with the fact that it wasn’t actually my story. Because it wasn’t, not completely. Weeks prior in class, we had been given roll play activities to act out. Me and my friends Becky Million (how could you forget a name like that?) and my frienemy, Shannon Rudiman, were given this prompt: “You go to a friend’s house, act rudely, pull out her toys from her toy box and don’t clean up, then you leave.” Well, as you can imagine, this was great fun to act out. At the end, we were asked what we should have done differently to be a good friend.

As a second-grader preparing for Brainstormers, I had a new strategy; I was going to write about this exact prompt that we acted out, and in the end, there would be a little devil and an angel on the girl’s shoulders arguing over how she should have acted. It was only 30% original material, and I had the vague awareness that I was sort of copying (although Austin Kleon might just argue that I was “stealing like an artist”), but I also had the vague, intelligent awareness that this was a simple right vs. wrong plot that would probably win. There were no dream sequences, no witches, no time travel or ghosts—you know, nothing interesting. This may have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done—the highlight of my decision-making so far. (Considering the book I’m trying to get published now, I’ve clearly learned nothing.)

Even though the story wasn’t a manifestation of my true essence, the feeling that I would have felt winning, the feeling I would have felt watching other people act out and validate something that I had written was a moment that I grieved over, and still do. I imagine myself sitting cross-legged on that linoleum cafeteria floor, smiling with my friends, relishing in my glory. No-- I prefered to sleep in. 

Staying home on March 26th, 1992, instead of going to school, is my only real regret in life. The jury is still out on the long-term damage of this decision, but if you find me drunk under a bridge in two years, now at least you know where it all started.

You know what scares me more than the path not taken though? When you took a good path by accident, when something good almost didn’t happen, like the time I met one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg, because I had happened to catch a commercial on the radio that she was doing a local reading, or when my college pals and I narrowly didn’t get the house we applied for and I had to room with a stranger, who ended up becoming one of my best friends (also, that house turned out to have black mold, so I’m glad that didn’t happen for a few reasons). The biggest almost-didn’t-happen though was going to New Mexico for grad school.

In the winter of 2007, I was freshly rejected from a few MFA programs and was resigned to staying at home another year when my mom noticed something in the trash.

“What’s this letter? From New Mexico Highlands University?”

“I threw it away because it looked like it wasn’t real.” (This should be funny to anyone familiar with that school or with the Las Vegas, New Mexico area in general).

Mom picked the letter out of the trash and read it. I was being recruited to apply to their MA program. The letter sounded kinda nice. There were “rolling hills.” Dad had wanted to go there himself back in the day. I looked at the website. There were a lot of typos. The school didn’t look real. I visited the campus. They forgot I was coming for tour, and a kid with long toenails showed me the football field, even though I told him I was an English major. The school still didn’t look real. The town was strange and everyone stared at me.

“I don’t know why, but this feels really right,” I told my mom as we drank coffee at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas.

“It’s in the flow,” Mom agreed. 

My two years in Las Vegas, New Mexico, were the strangest years of my life. As my friends and I concluded, you can’t explain the place to anyone who hasn’t been there except that everything that’s normal becomes abnormal and everything that’s abnormal becomes normal. If you grew up in the midwest, it's the opposite of your home. I felt like I belonged to it, but it didn’t belong to me.

Happy Birthday, Betsey!
After being in Las Vegas for a few months, I started staring at outsiders too. I ordered food in a northern New Mexican accent without meaning to. I went to a dog’s birthday party where we all sang to a dead rabbit. I left a bottle of urine outside of a church on the road from Santa Fe during a snowstorm. (Why am I sharing this?) My friends & I found Tom Cruise’s scientology base and started to drive to it. (Started to. We got scared.) A man approached me at Wal-Mart and showed me his mangled hand because he saw my leg braces and thought we had the "same disease." You know, the usual.

Pretty sure my Tulpa is haunting this apartment.
It only takes a mild concentration, and I can still feel my feet on the slanted floor of my apartment, feel the turn of the creaky broken kitchen faucet, the intense, dust-blowing winds that would blind me and nearly knock me off the sidewalk, or how it felt to turn my key in the stubborn lock to the basement of Douglas Hall. It’s so vivid, it’s like I’m actually there, and it freaks me out. I don’t understand this. Maybe it’s just because I was literally traumatized by moving so far away from everything, but there is an intensity to that time and place that I’ve never felt with anywhere else. My two years in New Mexico weren’t all sunshine and roses, but something was happening every day, and I was proud of myself every day just for having the guts to be there.

The jury is still out on what this time of my life will actually end up meaning in the long run, but I equivocate those years to being on the LOST island. All I know is that when I die and walk into that purgatory church, the friends I made in Las Vegas will be sitting in the pews, waiting to shake my hands and clap my back, even though I murdered them.
(Let's use this moment instead of when Vincent lays next to Jack as he dies because I can't.)

It's difficult to imagine my life without that experience, and it almost didn’t happen, because I literally threw the invitation away.

Which brings me to this: it’s easy to say we regret nothing since it brought us to where we are if we are unaware of where we could be. How can I have regrets if I don’t know what I’m missing? How many invitations have I thrown away? How many invitations have I not even seen or recognized? How many friends did I never make? How many potential husbands did I never meet? How many dreams did I never see start to come true? How many good accidents did I avoid, either because of fear, laziness, or ignorance? This truly, truly terrifies me.

So, this is when I try to comfort myself with my own thoughts, when I say to myself that I think you can learn wherever you’re at and every experience has something to gain. I like the idea that there are no “wrong” choices (well, aside from deliberately evil choices that hurt others) because life is really just about having a human experience and trying to be better at being a human. I believe this for the most part.

Your turn: What, if any, real regrets do you have? Will there ever be a way to truly determine when kids are faking sick? What are some of your best accidents that almost didn’t happen? How can we recognize invitations when they are in front of us instead of throwing them away? Should we make our mothers guard the trashcans of our lives? Discuss!


  1. Those pictures and descriptions of LV, NM have me all teary-eyed! I'll be the first one in line to shake your hand in our LOST purgatory!

    My mom has mastered the magic of determining when kids are faking sick--we never got to stay home (unless we qualified with one of the four Bs--bleeding, barfing, broken bones, or burning up), so I think the answer to question 2 is absolutely.

    NM was an almost-didn't-happen for me, too! First, the letter said something about sending me the letter because of the GRE and I was sure that no one could possibly want me after those scores . . . and then they sent the assistantship application, but the deadline for it had passed by a long time, so I was like oh, if I don't have that, I can't afford to go, so I'm not going. I'm still not actually sure how I actually got there. Barley is my happiest almost-didn't-happen, though.

    All of my biggest regrets have to do with death, and that's kind of morbid, so we'll just leave that out this--but maybe in 2 years I'll be drinking under the bridge with you ;)

    My mother probably shouldn't guard my trashcans because I don't know that I want her to see just how many candy wrappers end up there on a daily basis!

    1. Thank you for saying you will greet me in LOST purgatory, Beth! I just pray that James isn't also there for some strange reason. Your mom's 4 Bs are great-- I will remember that when I become a mother at age 65. And yeah I think we all kind of ended up in Vegas for really strange reasons that confuse us to this day. I'm still convinced it was because Desmond didn't hit the code. I'm assuming your big regrets are saying goodbye to people before they died and whatnot? Yes, that is sad. :( I mean, I hope that's what you mean and that I'm not friends with a secret murderer. I guess we'll see...

    2. Haha! James probably will be there and Jacob probably is watching us as we sit here typing and waiting to swoop in and interfere in our lives. Maybe the LOST purgatory will at least be in the Death Comes for the Archbishop church or the one with spiral staircase in Santa Fe. At least we'll have a neat location to reunite with James. No worries--not a secret murderer--although I could be a much cooler LOST character if I was. I just don't do the saying goodbye after people died thing--like I stayed inside while the rest of the family buried my first (and most special) dog, etc., etc. So I always just kind of feel like I don't get closure, but at the same time I can't make myself go to funerals or any thing along those lines.