By Courtney Rockwood
Imagine a rushing stream.
Imagine the water running swiftly downhill, bubbling and gurgling and inevitably getting right to where that water needs to go.
Now imagine a stone, stuck right in the middle of that stream. Incapable of moving with the water’s flow, it is too heavy and instead the water rushes around it as the stone remains in place.
That stone is me — or at least the perception I have of myself.
I am a classic 21st-century product of divorced parents. In my case, I thankfully wasn’t old enough to remember the mess of the actual separation and lived a childhood of blissful ignorance peppered with once-a-year visits from my mother. My dad married my stepmother when I was 5 — there was no wedding, and I remember sitting on the couch in the front room of our single-story brick house in Georgia, late afternoon sun coming through the windows — “We’re married now!” And so it was.
My childhood comes to me in flashes of images and colors. The gray streets of London where I spent kindergarten, just my dad and me, holding his hand as I tripped through the puddles. The green mountains of Appalachia — warm summers filled with fireflies and screened porches during our time in Tennessee. My dad again, grilling steaks with a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand. The dusty orange tones of Arches and Bryce and Zion national parks, my own feet dragging in the dust as he disappears around the corner ahead of me — showing me the world that he loved, that was his goal. He was everything to me.
My dad died when I was 22 years old.
He had a rock-climbing accident; he was showing a new friend the joys of climbing in Joshua Tree and things didn’t go as planned. I still remember my mom’s voice over the phone — asking if my boyfriend was with me, could I come home, was I OK.
I was OK — I was strong. I was going to get through this. I was going to prove to everyone that I was the daughter he had raised, and I was going to behave how he would have wanted me to. I comforted others, particularly my family, and bonded with his old college classmates at his Celebration of Life over funny stories and drunkenly sung songs accompanied by an off-key piano. I moved to New York City right after the celebration. I made sure to keep in touch with my family. I started my job as a consultant two weeks after his death. I moved in with my boyfriend. I adopted a dog. I was OK.
And then I broke.
“If anybody else ever says that I’m an incredible writer again, I won’t believe them. Because they are not my dad. I have learned that the identity I developed for 22 years of my life was based on one person’s opinion and respect of me, and now he is gone and I don’t know left from right.”
One of my favorite memories of my dad is from my time at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. It was parents’ weekend, which he attended religiously every year (whether it was to relive his college glory days by drinking room-temperature light beer on the front porch of a frat house or to see me, we’ll never know), and we attended a reading by one of my professors. Afterwards, speaking to this professor, my dad — the writer, the poet, the one who did everything — said, “Courtney is an incredible writer.”
Fast-forward to current me, sitting, incomplete, on my couch, with my dog, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. If anybody else ever says that I’m an incredible writer again, I won’t believe them. Because they are not my dad. I have learned that the identity I developed for 22 years of my life was based on one person’s opinion and respect of me, and now he is gone and I don’t know left from right.
Don’t get me wrong — I haven’t dropped out of the “school of life” completely. I do things — jesus, do I ever do things. I live in a perpetual “year of yes.” My friends and I coined this phrase in college – the “year of yes” was our way of living each moment of our senior year at Vanderbilt to the fullest; saying yes to everything meant we never missed anything. Now, I want my life to be one big “year of yes.” I go to concerts; I go to music festivals; I become utterly absorbed in the rhythm of a good bass beat or in the searing rip of a saxophone through a crowd. I travel — to Ecuador, to ski weekends, to Miami just for a weekend. Everything that comes my way, I absorb. People tell me they are jealous. Jealous. Of me?
I am unstable. I teeter on a thin tightrope between two rooms — the room in which nothing can go right and the room in which nothing can go wrong. I’ll dance for five straight hours then leave to sit by myself in a chair in the corner of a room. When my boyfriend doesn’t unload the dishwasher, my brain jumps to the extreme — why would I date somebody who doesn’t unload the dishwasher? I haven’t made a confident decision in my work life since I started my job as a consultant almost two years ago, and making strong decisions is pretty much a consultant’s job description. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told to “have more confidence – you ask good questions; don’t be afraid.”
“Because there is one thing I’ve learned from my life turning itself upside down over the past couple years: There’s nothing more important than my own happiness. It’s become starkly apparent to me that this is my one life. And I better fucking live it.”
And even though I hear that, I have a screaming, questioning voice in my head — Am I really doing it right? Is this what I want to do with my life? Just get up. Just do it. — I smile and I accept and I fade, back into the cool pocket of water where I’ve found myself lodged.
Because there is one thing I’ve learned from my life turning itself upside down over the past couple years: There’s nothing more important than my own happiness. It’s become starkly apparent to me that this is my one life. And I better fucking live it.
I have friends who are contentedly making their way through their lives doing what they believe they should be doing — they are graduating, they are getting good jobs, they are putting money away in savings accounts and generally living life as they “should.” They are doing it right. Am I doing it wrong?
That will always be my first thought: I’m doing it wrong. The water is rushing around me, it flows over me; I’m drowning.
And then it subsides. I get a breath of fresh air.
I hope to abandon my rung on the corporate ladder soon and give it to somebody more deserving. Maybe I’ll move to Portland and dream up my own line of organic soaps. I want to travel to New Zealand. I won’t worry about how many vacation days are left on my calendar or what the client might think about my time off, and god forbid, no, I will NOT align to a career path at 23 years old. I need to be happy, and call me cheesy, but I will be happy — in this one life.
Guys, do you know? We only get one.
Let the water rush by. I was never one to go with the flow anyway.
Courtney Rockwood is a music and nature lover in Brooklyn, New York, currently exploring the other half of her personality as a consultant.