I wake up in a pool of sweat, mind reeling, room spinning, clutching my chest. Blood soaks the sheets and my fingertips I pull from a gaping hole where my heart once was. I try to take a breath but I can’t, it won’t let me. I shake again, now I’m actually awake. There’s no blood, just a thumping coupled with an uneasiness I hadn’t felt in days and thought I wouldn’t have to feel again, at least for awhile.
Another nightmare about her. One that took me back to a cold Albany parking lot possessed by demons. Yes, it was one of the shittiest breakups, stripped of all dignity. Is love that blinding? That we refuse to ever believe the ones we love could ever do such a thing to us?
I sit up, grapple for my glasses and walk to the bathroom. “You were just someone’s long rebound,” my mind declares as I stare into the mirror. “When will this end?” I say to myself. My mind snarls back, “Did you really think someone was going to stick with you?”
I walk out to my car and glance down the street at the ocean in plain view. The strip of blue slowly disappears in my rearview mirror on my ten minute drive to work. Today I turn off my religious routine listening to WNYC to hear Matt Thiessen’s new lyrics roll off my tongue, meeting me exactly where I’m at, exactly when I need them, guaranteed, every time. My connection to this band is unlike any other. Call it fate, circumstances, providence, or destiny, somehow, someway, one of my best friends from college ended up living in a vintage 1950s bus turned mobile recording studio in Thiessen’s bandmate’s backyard. Coincidence? I think not.
I arrive at work early, make myself a cup of coffee and head to my office; a giant desk with two desktop computers and a gorgeous view of the woods. I’m at peace, doing what I know I’m supposed to be doing exactly where I know I’m supposed to be doing it. I’m surrounded by amazing, creative coworkers that genuinely love and care about me and are so happy to have me. I take a deep breath and shake away the remnants of the previous evening’s nightmare. “I’ve come a long way,” I quietly whisper to myself, ridiculously grateful. I think about how my work feels so meaningful, like I’m a part of something big.
2015 was brutal. The year completely ravaged me. Everything happened at once, like falling dominos. It started when the business I was set to inherit fell apart. Everything I had planned over the last several months was thrust into chaos, and all of a sudden, I had enemies and unwanted drama. I was confused, sad, shaken, uncertain, and fearful. I had to move out of my apartment, leaving my Jersey Shore for my home city of Philadelphia, at the very start of the summer season. I went full speed ahead into starting my own publication, something I had planned and plotted throughout the previous year, never knowing it would be all I’d have. Confident in my idea, the project was executed efficiently. It always seems impossible until it’s done. There’s something amazing about the thrill that goes through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. 200+ years later, my supporters and I remade history and revived the city’s first newspaper. The thrill of the venture made me forget about the loss of my former job and circumstances. I was hopeful. There seemed to be so much potential and the paper really catching on throughout the city kept my spirits up, despite the fact that the savings I had put away to start this business were now being spent, for the most part, on myself. I took on some odd jobs I didn’t really tell anyone about and ended up hiring an ad salesman.
He had all the credentials and experience and showed such confidence in my project. He was “all in” and I felt a relief! That night I watched The Early November perform at the Union Transfer with the girl I loved, who would, many months later, wake me from a nightmare that inspired me to write this post. Times were tough, but she was saving grace. In the summer and early fall, I hand delivered every single one of my 12,000 papers to different establishments throughout the city, in the sweltering heat of summer. By issue two, I combined printing with distribution. I was working ten, sometimes 12 hours a day, hitting the streets, trying to sell advertising, trying to garner interest and drum up support from businesses, organizations, and philanthropy, while at the same time designing, writing, and editing. There was so much fascination and attention. The audience grew tremendously. Yet despite all of this, there was hardly any investors. I started to become discouraged. My “experienced salesman” failed to sell a single ad, and started treating me poorly. He took advantage of my kindness and I would eventually discover through email that he planned to take over my business and cut me out of it entirely, working hard not at selling ads but at trying to make me somehow financially dependent on him, exploiting my situation. I immediately severed ties.
As I struggled to pay rent and all but depleted the savings I set aside to start the business, I applied for hundreds of jobs and went on 31 in-person interviews over the course of six months. I searched only within the tri-state area, and especially New Jersey, because I was in love. All I wanted was to get on my feet, to feel secure again, so I could build a life with her. In a sense, she was the driving force that made me vigorously job search. I kept the business going, but I knew unless something drastic happened, it wouldn’t be sustainable. But then! Out of nowhere, a former mayoral candidate of my city called me up and asked to write for my paper. He then expressed interest in funding it through his various connections. For months we met and corresponded. His office became familiar, and with each meeting I felt closer and closer to this whole thing working out.
But I kept applying for jobs anyway, in the midst of working the odd jobs here and there to keep me going. It was exhausting.
From Princeton to Egg Harbor Township, New Hope to Freehold, New York City to Trenton, New Brunswick, Atlantic City and my home city of Philadelphia, I went in for interviews. It became routine, and I had at least one a week it seemed. I changed up my resume, doing everything I could to get noticed. In 13 instances I made it into the “top 5” candidates and in six, I made it into the “top 2.” That’s like a coin landing on heads or a ball in a roulette wheel hitting black 6 times in a row. My self confidence started to deplete. I felt confused, depressed, and hopeless. To top it all off, her parents didn’t like me, and thought me hopeless, too.
I was unsatisfied and unhappy, far from where I wanted and hoped to be in life. But my love for her and her parents disapproval of me pushed me even harder. I picked myself up and kept going out there, kept applying, kept working odd jobs, kept plugging away at what was left of my business and its ever-increasing audience acquainted with a culture of expecting media for free.
The former mayoral candidate / philanthropist fell through. There would be no funding of my endeavor. I kept applying, kept impressing, kept making it into the top, kept getting rejected. I remember one particular night when I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I was staying over at my parents house and I had just received another job rejection. I had reached the tipping point and quietly broke down in the spare bedroom. My dad came in and saw my tears. We had grown closer over the past two years, especially since I finally understood what it was like to be in his shoes and own a business. He had done so for 26 years and was the hardest working human being I’ve ever known. He held me, a 27-year-old man, and told me that he was with me in the trenches, that he would support me no matter what, and he said he was proud of me for having enough courage to fail, even though he didn’t see any of it as a failure. Quite the contrary, he saw it as a learning experience far greater than any schooling, and indeed it was. He and I always learned better that way: hands on. It was one of the most moving nights of my life.
At Christmas I sat on my girlfriend’s couch and unwrapped a gift. It was a leather journal with my initials engraved on the front and it smelled so good I wanted to eat it. She knew what gifts would capture my heart, and this one did it, just like the blanket she crafted for my birthday. For days I wondered what I would write in the journal. It couldn’t be just anything, it was too precious. I took some time to dwell on it.
Later that evening, the two of us drove to the beach town where our relationship became “official.” We ate at a meatball pizza at a restaurant one block from the boardwalk.
“I wish I lived here,” I said, reveling in my love for Asbury Park.
Toward the end of 2015, there was drama and strife between my dad and my uncle. My uncle had done something that really hurt my dad’s feelings, but there was a pride issue that made it impossible to resolve the matter, and sadly, my relationship with my uncle somewhat deteriorated. This just added to my struggles.
And then came more strife, this time between myself and my former boss. We were once so close but she had always held her art above our relationship, and now she was lashing out at me with disdain for my business. I felt attacked out of nowhere and she made life so difficult for me mentally and emotionally to the point of having to block her on social media. It was devastating for myself and my parents.
Valentine’s day weekend I took the girl I loved to see a play. We had an amazing weekend, despite all the pain in my life and she gave me a handmade card that said: “I’m so glad I finally found you.” She had a way of making all the pain go away, and even though I was poor and everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong and my circumstances continued to spiral, I felt like the richest man in all the world, because of her.
Finally, I knew what I would write in the journal. I was so thrilled I texted her that the answer had come.
“What will you write in it?” she asked.
“One day you will see,” I said.
That night I started jotting down our story. In no time the pages were filled with some of the best writing I ever produced as I expressed in great detail my love for her. At last I would finish writing a book, I thought. It sat before me, blank, begging to be written. I plotted it out and knew the story was far from over, but I figured perhaps one day in the distant future I’d package it in a box of chocolates when I was done writing it and hand it to her as a finished product while we sat together on a bench in Savannah, and include a ring.
‘Visit Philly’ the tourism giant of the city brought me in for an interview. Everything went extremely well, except instead of seeing my potential in the business I started which showcased my love for the city they existed to promote, they saw it as a threat, and told me so. But I was in the top two for a magazine based out of Plainsboro, NJ, geared toward cancer patients and survivors. I really loved that job because I felt like I could use my gift to help people. At the same time, I was in the top two for a position at an ad agency in the city, owned by two men who had been impressed with my business venture before I even started it. Surely one of these would work out, right? I was preparing for having to choose! And then, both went to the other candidate, and I was back to square one.
At long last, I finally received two offers, except one was for a job I wanted least and didn’t even see myself as fit for. It was based in Princeton Junction, NJ, about 45 minutes from Philly. The other seemed like an ideal fit, but it was, well, quite far away. I was reluctant to take the first, but I decided to, knowing I would be near the girl I loved. I was trying desperately to engineer my own circumstances the way I wanted.
And then came the final blow, the girl I loved broke up with me over the phone, and completely closed the door on my life. The person I had dedicated myself to, who was the main character in the story I was writing on the pages of the journal she had given me, who had become my very best friend, was suddenly gone. It was like a death, and I did not understand why she was giving up on me. In a throwaway culture of infinite variety and people getting tired of each other and moving on to the next high, I had fallen victim, and I didn’t see it coming. But I should have. I refused to see the signs because I was just caught up in the fact that someone wanted to spend their time with me. Until she didn’t.
One day, when I was again feeling at the very end of my rope driving back to my parents house after a lonesome day trip to the South Jersey beaches, feeling tempted to floor my car as fast as I possibly could into a tree or off the Delaware Memorial Bridge. I sat alone, writing and sulking but when I looked up, I watched as the biggest rainbow I had ever seen in my life happened to materialized right before my eyes out over the Chesapeake Bay. It was a promise, and I hung on to the little morsel faith I had.
Suddenly, another job offer came through, and this one was better than the first, so I decided to take it until out of nowhere, an even better job with an even better salary snuck up on me. The Communications Director for the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey reached out to me, impressed with my work starting my own publication, and offered me a job that was more ideal for me than every single one of the jobs I had applied to. And the best part, it meant moving to Asbury Park. Within weeks I tracked down an apartment, two blocks from the restaurant I had shared pizza with the girl I loved and said, “I wish I lived here.”
Somehow, someway, it all fell into place almost immediately, and a peace swept over me like dust settling after a massive storm. 2015 was over, and a brand new life was set to begin. My expectations were exceeded beyond belief! I didn’t have to settle for anything less than what was perfectly tailored just for me. It took me awhile to process it, and I still find myself in awe as I walk the beaches and ride my bike through Asbury, Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, Avon-by-the-Sea, Belmar and Long Branch. I remember standing on the beach in Atlantic City over the winter with my best friend Jason, saying how my circumstances living in Ocean City were the best, and I figured I’d never get anything like that back again.
As much as my faith faltered during 2015, I held on to a tiny fragment of it. But that small mustard seed was enough to move mountains. It wasn’t about being delivered from adversity but being delivered in adversity. God does not give us overcoming life – he gives us life as we overcome. The strain of life is what builds our strength. All along I was hoping, praying, asking and begging for life, liberty, and joy. But that couldn’t be given to me without accepting the strain. Otherwise, how would I ever know or appreciate or recognize the immense joy to come?
What we see as only the process of reaching a particular end, God sees as the goal itself, learning to having absolute certainty and trust in him despite circumstances. In the midst of my suffering, my faith was growing, and as things got worse, I was clinging more to it than ever. Why do we have to wait for our circumstances to fall apart in order to finally cling to our faith? It seemed as if God used the hardships of 2015 to grow me and simplify my relationship with him to that of a child. I thought back to my dad holding me in the spare bedroom, saying how he would never give up on me. It was the ultimate portrayal of God.
I thought back to all of my circumstances throughout life, and how God always knew better than me. Every time I tried to go my own way, he would somehow direct me toward his way, which was better. Just like a loving dad would. I was sure I wanted to go to Washington, DC for college, but the door opened for me to go to Kentucky. “Asbury” University of all places. The name didn’t mean much to me at the time. Every time I tried to engineer my own circumstances and pursue what I thought I wanted, life would show me that wasn’t what I wanted, that God knew my desires better than I did, and that there was something better for me if I would only trust.
In a box inside my parents garage, I found some of my writings dating back to 2008. I had written: “If we trust the wind that directs and guides presumably without course, we’ll end up precisely where we’re intended to. But only if we trust.”
My life changed completely, and for the better. I got a new haircut and started getting my self confidence back. I met more people in two months than I met in over a year. I found out who my true friends were, and sadly, who were not. It was sad to think that the girl I loved only knew me in my worst circumstances. If she only knew me now. But you know, it’s easy to be in love when things are simple; it’s harder to be in love when it feels like every part of your life is a struggle. It may not have happened for me, but I want to believe that when both parties mutually decide to choose each other, they become much closer as a couple when enduring shitty circumstances together, as opposed to the uncomplicated phases of life.
My faith has grown tremendously, and I’ve learned so much through pain and suffering. You really can’t appreciate the gloriousness of a sunrise without first having to wait through the darkness. And now my circumstances are better than they have ever been before, but I don’t want to hold my life so close. I know better now than to sit back, settle in and get too comfortable or let circumstances define me. Sure, I will bask in this wonderful new season of life, and do so still mourning loss and dealing with grief and nightmares that occasionally shake me awake, but I want to intentionally take risks, step outside my comfort zone, do things I’ve always been too afraid to do; choosing to live a good story. Nothing is wasted and everything is used, and someday the pages of the journal will take on new meaning to serve a new purpose. I’m sure whatever it is will be much better than anything I could have planned.