On Starting Over

The tricky part about starting over is figuring out what to leave behind, says Emily Rapp.

This is what I did in 2013: lost my son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease, got divorced, moved in with the love of my life, bought part of a house, published my second book, quit one of my jobs, wrote thousands of pages, went on a book tour, got pregnant, got engaged, and at the very end of the year, went on a babymoon in Mexico, a place I’ve wanted to visit for 20 years.

I thought about the thunderous progression of these events at midnight in Guanajuato, a charming city in Northern Mexico, as the New Year’s bells chimed, drunk diners kissed the cheeks of companions and strangers, and K.D. Lang and Tony Bennett sang a duet on the wide screen television mounted on the wall of the Diego and Frida Restaurant. Our waitress gave us each a bag of grapes so we could feed each other wishes for the upcoming year.

We walked home at 2am along the cobblestone streets past Quanajuato’s many art museums, the darkness cut at a particular moody angle by soft streetlights. I felt like we were moving through a fine yellow fog or had landed in a scene from a 19th century novel. We should remember this, Kent said. It’s the small moments like these that are the most magical. A dance party with a DJ was still going strong near the zocalo.

Earlier that evening we had stood with others in the entryway of a packed church as a priest encouraged the gathered penitents to put God first in the new year. As is the custom, many people had wrapped up the baby Jesus from their home nativities and bundled him in colorful, fuzzy blankets for the journey to the church for a blessing. Blinking, multicolored lights jazzed up the altar where the priest stood in full cream and gold garb. The crowd we stood in shifted and coughed in the chilly night air. My rudimentary Spanish skills, left over from a few spacey high school terms and one totally checked out college semester, had me catching every other word. It didn’t matter. One year was ending, the other beginning, and it felt like the whole world had spilled into the streets.

I kept thinking my son is dead. He is not in this world, what world is he in?

Kent was right about small moments being those that stick. When so many life-changing things happen in one year, adding up to a literal life reboot in my case, it can be hard to know what to feel or when to feel it. I texted my friend Cynthia many times this fall: I thought I would feel this way when this happened but I felt this way. Last year felt like recrafting the template of expectation, which is a big part of what makes life thick with joy and sadness. I found and still find myself distracted for days at a time, then focused for hours, then numb. Is it the continuous process of grief? Or is it something else and if so, what? I thought about this for two weeks.

Mexico is a country with concentrating ambient noise. In Mexico City, below our friend’s spacious and light-filled third floor apartment, a street market set up once a week. We strolled through, buying cheese and baby slippers for our daughter, nuts and fruit and shaving cream. The knife sharpener called in the street, taxis honked, the click of high heels on the sidewalk punctuated mobile conversations. In Guanajuato, the chime of the basilica marked the hours, barking dogs patrolled rooftops while others nosed through bags of garbage on the street. Someone was always whistling or setting off a firecracker or shaking out a rug on a patio. At least once a day there was the sound of a parade starting up or an errant trumpet trilling. A lone mariachi singer fastened onto one note somewhere in the neighborhood, practicing. Children cried and parents argued to the sounds of food frying.

One of the best elements of travel is the way it allows you to see outside yourself, and from that perspective, see yourself and other people anew. I decided in Mexico that I would try to feel lucky, even though I’ve been told my entire life that I was spectacularly unlucky, and even though I try not to believe in luck.

The tricky part about starting over is figuring out what to leave behind and what to carry into the next year. I’ve tried everything to clear a path for newness—burning up “stories about myself” in fireplaces, chanting, yoga, big workouts on the first of the year, but life, if my 2013 has anything to say, happens on its own, whether you want it to or not. Life brings you experiences, not luck.

Back in Palm Springs, where it’s a sunny 70 degrees almost every day this first month of 2014, and where we are planning our wedding and shopping for baby clothes, it’s luck I’d like to kick to the curb, or at least my attachment to it. I think about all the things people said to me in 2013: I would die if I were you; God must know you can handle more than other people; you are so brave; you are so tragic; I can’t imagine being you.

Here’s why luck is a concept I’m trying to free myself of for good in 2014, and why wishes remain wishes and not goals or lies: Nobody is brave or tragic.

These are not choices people make in any year, at any time, or in any place. You can choose to live or die, of course, but some people, like my son Ronan, are not even given this rudimentary choice. If luck is understood as only chance and not as the outcome of some moral path or “making good choices” to achieve some end, then we are all at its mercy.

So let wishes stay wishes. Let them stay pure. Bite them in half and eat them like grapes. Nobody makes their own luck, but we are each responsible for making—and sometimes remaking—our own lives.

Role/Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp, is a professor in the University of Cailfornia-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.

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