Remember the small things

“How’s life?” they ask.

 “Life is pretty good,” I say. “Nothing to note, really.”

 Usually, everything is just status quo.

The funny thing is, the best things in life often take you by surprise—offering a minute or two of happiness that fades into the rest of the day. Sometimes, these little things don’t get the attention they deserve.

The first snowfall. Free pizza. A $20 bill that survives the wash in your pocket. Running into an old friend in a city of nine million people. Cursing the crowds in the subway, only to look up and see your favorite poem on the wall.

 A couple from college having their first baby. Listening to the rain while you’re cuddled under a blanket, nursing a cup of tea. Driving on an open road with the windows down and music blasting.

When any Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, or Third Eye Blind song plays at the bar.

 A letter from a friend…in the mail.

A brilliant summer sunset that catches you off guard. Going to work on a “bad” hair day but getting more compliments on your hair than ever. Going out for a run and feeling a surge of energy, like your legs aren’t even yours, like you could keep running forever.

A conversation with a younger sibling and feeling overwhelming pride at the person they’ve become.

The realization that someone you like, but never thought you would be with, likes you too.

So often we “create” happiness—planning for vacations, weekends, dinners out with friends. We anticipate exciting things like a new job, an engagement, a move to another city, or other major life events that will lift our spirits for months at a time and change our outlook. But so many of life’s joys are unexpected. They’re threaded right into the fabric of the day along with the stresses and monotony. The smaller moments that happen so fast are among the happiest moments of all. We just didn’t think to take pictures of them or write them down.

 “How’s life?” they ask.

 “Life is good. Life is great,” I’ll say next time. Because I know it’s not always full of dramatic ups and downs that make for great stories on the phone.

Most of life is filled with little details we choose to either remember, or let slip away.

But together, they add up to something incredible.

Together they add up to a pretty good life.

Gets me thinking.

Somehow this song always gets me thinking. About life’s big questions, and which ones I should try to tackle in my writing. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” is quite well-known — perhaps Death Cab for Cutie’s most famous song. I’ve been listening to it for years and it never gets old.

The song definitely represents sadness and uncertainty, but it doesn’t necessarily make me “sad.” Just pensive. More willing to delve into parts of me I might otherwise close off. The words are honest, which makes me want to be.

I’ve found it’s so hard to make writing both “happy” and interesting. I want to experience happy things, but lately I don’t want to write happy things. I want to write about struggles I encounter within me and observe around me, small and large. There are so many things we don’t face in conversation but can face with written words.

Sometimes I feel everyone, including myself, is trying to be so perfectly zipped up, put together and presentable, all while wishing everyone else wasn’t so put together and presentable. We are too busy “doing great” or “having wonderful weekends” to mention our kid has been sick or we’re having a really tough time in school. We’d rather put on a mask than put someone out. It’s only to close family and friends that we might say “I’m okay,” or “I’m doing fine, but not great.”

We uphold honesty as a virtue but actually being honest can make us feel selfish and needy. Why is that?

Faith. Life. Death. Love. The song posted below is so powerful since it touches on life’s most difficult themes- and its wide appeal reminds us that everyone wrestles with them, even those who have “got it all figured out” on the surface.

Praying for headlights

–Published 4/16/12 in The Observer.

“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show is one of those songs college students love.

The moment that distinctive introduction blares from the speakers, arms link, glasses clink and the room erupts in cheering.

In true spring break road trip style, “Wagon Wheel” played multiple times on our drive from South Bend down to South Carolina a few weeks ago.

The first time it came on, I was behind the wheel and we had just crossed the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. We had all been silent for awhile, enjoying the green and gold scenery that unfolded before us. The open road softly rose and fell as we sped at 80 miles per hour south down I-75.

The lyrics of “Wagon Wheel” filled the empty space between us, representing all the things we were thinking, but hadn’t said.

In my head, I tried to define what the song is about. On one level, the song is about freedom — having the freedom to pursue what matters most. It’s about remembering the people and places you care about after being away for a long time.

As a senior in college, this aspect of the song seems especially relevant. I’ve spent months abroad and summers away in different cities. In four years, my younger siblings have grown up, and people in my childhood neighborhood have moved out. Like the narrator, I’ve gone away to mature, and will return both different and the same.

“Wagon Wheel” is also about the beauty of simplicity — that life can be reduced to a single person, a single car and a single desire. You don’t need to know the song to relate to it — the music reflects some reality about the future we all can find truth in.

On our way back to South Bend after spring break, “Wagon Wheel” came on again while I was driving. This time, it was about 10 p.m., dark and raining, and the song had a much more sobering effect.

I realized then that the song is bittersweet, even sad. Loneliness and regret infuse the lyrics because the past still weighs him down. It’s possible that after all those years of longing, after seventeen-straight hours of driving, his vision for a new life could be shattered.

At its core, however, “Wagon Wheel” is about faith. It’s about having faith that the one you love will still be there when you come home, about having faith that you can drive straight into the unknown and everything will end up okay.

With May 20 quickly approaching, I feel like I’m speeding at 80 miles per hour towards graduation, and after that, the unknown. But before then, I hope to share a few more swaying “Wagon Wheels” at Finny’s, indulging in one of those rare moments when we all feel exactly the same thing.