Exorcising The Ghosts Of The Past

What I used to record portions of the Live Aid concert in 1985

In the days before the Internet and FaceTime and Zoom and texting, people wrote letters. A stamp, a pen, and a piece of paper were all you needed to share the contents of your mind and heart with someone who was worth the effort of your time and questionable penmanship. As is the habit for many people, I saved quite a few of the letters I received over the years from friends and boyfriends. I kept them in a box that once held my cassette player (back in the days when cassettes were a thing). Over time, that box got rather stuffed with random correspondence. I didn’t open it very often to read its contents, but I dragged it with me each time I moved. It would relocate from the top of one closet shelf to another, from apartment to apartment. There was something about knowing those letters were there if I ever wanted to trot down memory lane or perhaps clarify a memory that had become distorted or foggy.

When my husband and I got engaged and decided to move in together, he was helping me move boxes into my car when he came across that one. He asked me why I was bringing it. After all, if these letters represented relationships that had long since gone defunct, why was I clinging to them? I honestly could not give him a suitable answer. If I’d said I was keeping them for sentimental reasons, that would only make the box more of an issue in our relationship at the time. I didn’t know how to respond. In the absence of a viable response, he asked me if I could add them to the dumpster along with the wooden case holding 100 cassette tapes I no longer needed since he had a CD player he was willing to share. I acquiesced because he had never asked for anything from me, we were getting married and he was my future, and it seemed like a small sacrifice I should be willing to make for someone who had never been anything but kind, loving, supportive, and patient with me. With a pang of disappointment, I lobbed them over the wall of the dumpster, turned around, and tried not to look back. I was twenty-six then, he twenty-four.

In the years since, we both have felt deep regret over that event. He has felt horrible for asking me to toss a box of papers because he felt a little jealous about its existence. I have felt anger at myself for not defending my right to keep them because they were harmless mementos from my youth. But there is no unringing that bell. They are long gone. So now we just carry around the shame regarding that missing box instead of carrying around the box itself, which we have both agreed is so much more emotionally cumbersome than that damn box ever was.

This decision, made in our youth when we were not emotionally mature and had no real experience to gift us with greater perspective, has laden us with invisible baggage that we have hauled for decades. It’s something he doesn’t like me to mention because he feels just that bad about it, but I don’t blame him because the box is gone. I blame myself for not being self-aware enough to tell him it was part of my life I wasn’t ready to jettison. But it’s time for us to unload our disappointment in ourselves and the choices we made when we were younger and not able to see so far into the future. Seriously. Who can see twenty-seven years into the future when they aren’t even twenty-seven yet? The guilt and shame we feel needs to go. That box has long since been replaced by countless wonderful memories and experiences as our life together has been filled with love and fun and two absolutely-perfect-in-nearly-every-way adult sons, not to mention dozens upon dozens of cards and notes we have written to each other and saved. Therefore, I am declaring it time to move on. I may not be able to read those missives again, but I have something much more important. I would never trade my current life, our family, our shared experiences for those pieces of paper and neither would he. It’s way past time for us to toss the shame and self-flaggelation in the dumpster and move forward.

Do You Have The Chops?

That's me...jumping over fire at the Warrior Dash (which for me was really more of a warrior partial jog)
That’s me…jumping over fire at the Warrior Dash (which for me was really less of a dash and more of a warrior partial jog)

“Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This morning I found myself reflecting on my post from last night and considering how difficult it is for me to say no. I am getting better at it bit by bit, but it still troubles me that my inability to say no is such an obstacle to maintaining my sanity. Sometimes I’m willing to sacrifice my mental well-being and my free time because the immediate path of least resistance requires me to accept something I didn’t go looking for and don’t really want to do. And I will say yes against my better judgment merely to avoid an uncomfortable situation. Sad but true.

What’s more striking (and sad), however, is how rare it is for me to say yes to a true opportunity that I should embrace when it presents itself. There’s always an excuse as to why I shouldn’t take a risk or put myself out there. And, oddly, it’s easier for me to say yes to something I wholly do not want to do than it is for me to say yes to something that could truly benefit me and that I honestly desire.

With these thoughts in my head I was scrolling through the updates on my Facebook news feed today when I came across this video. Apparently Billy Joel was conducting a Q & A session at Vanderbilt University where he was set to play a concert. Students were taking turns in an auditorium posing questions to the Grammy-Award winning songwriter and performer. When one gentleman found it to be his turn at the microphone, instead of asking a typical question, this young man started with a statement. He told Joel that New York State of Mind was a favorite of his. Then he did something truly bold. With a trembling, tentative voice, he asked Joel if he might accompany him for a performance of that tune. The crowd in the auditorium gasped, presumably jointly thinking “What a presumptuous little creep.” But what happened next was pure magic. Joel agreed. The young man walked on stage, exchanged a few words with Joel at the piano, and began to play a well-practiced introduction to the song while Joel sized up the kid’s talent. Joel then stepped up to the microphone and sang the entire song. Afterwards he applauded the young musician, exchanged a few more words with him, and told the audience to remember the name Michael Pollock. He then paid him what I think is the ultimate compliment. The guy’s got chops.

After I watched the video, I found myself questioning whether I would have the nerve to ask for what I wanted in that same situation. I’m sure there were plenty of other students in that crowd that wanted the same thing Michael did but didn’t have the cajones to ask. Whether because of fear, some notion of the rules of etiquette, nerves, or a myriad of other reasons, they wouldn’t take the risk. Sadly, I’m positive I would not have either.

We often hear the tired cliches: Nothing ventured, nothing gained and You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. We know these statements are true, yet how often do we let our fear rule our actions? There was always the chance that Mr. Joel would have politely and respectfully told Michael he was not interested. But there was also always a chance that he would consent. Michael chose to focus on that potential positive outcome, and he bravely asked the question. It paid off. And now for the rest of his life Michael will remember that he once played accompaniment for Billy Joel to his favorite tune because he was ballsy enough to ask. What a memory he created for his life’s storybook.

Some people are born with chops. It comes naturally to them to ask for what they want and to say no when the feel like it. The rest of us need to earn our chops. We’ve got to work at it. We’ve got to conquer our nerves and our fears about conventionally accepted behaviors and we’ve got to be willing to go beyond them. It’s not easy. But with time and repeated success it does become easier. With that in mind, I have a new goal for myself. I’m going to start working towards my chops. I don’t want to spend my life wondering what if or realizing I let pivotal moments slip by because I was afraid. I may not have been born with balls, but I’m going to acquire some before my time here is through.