It's July, which means the annual tradition of waking up at 5 to watch the Tour de France live on television. There was a time when July meant actually traveling to France to cover the Tour in person, but this is a lot easier: make coffee, watch the start, leave for practice, then home in time to catch the finish. It's the Tour without all the logistics and driving and frantic late-night searches for a hotel room that are part and parcel of being there as a journalist. Watching the Tour on television means that a lot of those exhausting memories of covering it live return — and I remember all over again why I stopped covering it in the first place.
July, of course, also means the Fourth. This year, Callie and I hosted a small barbecue for family. I've been working on a new script that has somehow delved into that gray area of family issues. It's weird to find what has been swept under the subconscious rug, and how it comes out through the writing process. When characters start speaking for themselves and revealing disturbing truths — and all writing is a search for truth, otherwise the reader won't fully believe the story — it's a little discomfiting. These imaginary people whose issues are all their own have an unerring way of pointing a finger right back at the guy writing them down.
So it was with our Fourth of July celebration. Any time family comes over all the forgotten stuff makes a comeback, but when you've already prepped by writing around those thoughts and memories, they stop you cold. As I cooked under a warm July sun, the distant brown hills ringing my hometown blending with a blue sky to make for a spectacular afternoon, thoughts of a period of my life I refer to as "the wilderness years" came crashing down around me. It was in my early twenties, a period of being so utterly lost that I had no choice but to find my way out of that mess without anything resembling a map and compass.
A lot of mistakes were made. Lessons were learned. Who I am today and the way I approach life was learned in that wandering. It led me far away from running and back again, eventually giving me the gumption to leave the corporate world and risk the writing life. Once you've gotten so lost that each and every one of your dreams withers and dies, the choice to wander back into the wilderness to chase a brand new dream that feels right and true is a very easy decision to make.
To this day, however, I can't help but marvel how far off the beaten path I trekked during those wilderness years. A profound measure of shame still accompanies memories of that journey, no matter how necessary it might have been.
As I cooked, my mom was sitting a few feet away. We've had our wars, but she's getting on in years and has enough moments of confusion that it can be alarming. She's actually quite endearing, a far cry from the Irish-Catholic terror who held together our household while my dad was in Vietnam. There have been years when we didn't speak. And even more years that our version of speaking was the act of trying to shout each other down.
Shouting? Wrong word: Screaming.
But there she was, sitting in the shade of our patio cover, sipping red wine and asking me whether or not I had a girlfriend — then suggesting I ask out the pretty brunette sitting next to her, which was my wife, of course.
It got me thinking about traditions and the way we approach them — Fourth of July, Christmas, birthdays. They are endearing and comforting, giving our life an annual structure that provides a continuous font of memories as the years pass, if you let them.
That's another thing about traditions: if you add them up over time, you see that there are good memories and bad, but in those highs and lows we are bound together. And every time we gather to observe a tradition, there's a very good chance that a memory will return, sizzling a raw nerve and bringing forth thoughts of the past. And so it was on the Fourth.
One of these days I'll write about the wilderness years. A lot of crazy shit went down. Most of those antics are better revealed through fictional characters but I think that's the coward's way out. It's more real to just write the story. Play it as it lays, so to speak.
A funny thing about writing is that you can't really tell a story until there's enough emotional distance between the incident and putting words on the page. Sometimes the process takes just hours, as when I used to cover the Tour de France and wrote about the experience immediately. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes, decades.
Playwright David Mamet points out that every drama has a precipitating event — without it, the drama does not exist. In some way that I do not yet understand, this past Fourth of July felt like a precipitating event all its own.
And that's pretty cool.