It was 2008. I was a college graduate with a degree in creative writing who had just gotten back from my second extended period of time living in France — this time, spent teaching English to high school students. For the hundredth time I had taken back up the apron at Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg, PA, where I was charged in particular with delivering food and staffing events at the local Volvo Construction Equipment plant.
This afternoon in particular, I was manning a daylong series of meetings that involved me keeping assorted cookies and canned sodas stocked from a tiny in-house kitchenette. I had brought a French novel to read in the moments when I wasn’t fanning out stacks of navy blue cocktail napkins. And I was sitting on top of an overturned milk crate, knees to my chin, whenever my friend Conrad Jackson appeared.
I don’t remember what we talked about. He most likely asked me, as a fair amount of people did, why I was back here, meaning in Shippensburg, working three minutes from where I grew up. (It was a question I hated; I was in Shippensburg because I wanted to be.) I would have answered with some bitterness — half because of his question, half because I didn’t have an idea about where I wanted my life to go — that I didn’t have anywhere else to be yet. I believe he then questioned whether or not I wanted to go back to France, and I sighed with deep, romantic sighs, and told him that it was impossible because I had obligations and life and family and college loans and a cat who would miss me.
And Conrad looked at me with a very funny gaze and said, “Just go back to France. Stop standing here and telling me all the reasons why you can’t.”
I opened my mouth and shut it. I firmly believed (and still do) in the validity of my family and college loans and cat. But I heard him more deeply than I knew at the time: sometimes the only thing standing between you and your life is you.
Sometimes choices don’t exist. Sometimes decisions are made for us — sometimes made long before us — and we have no option but to follow them. Sometimes we lack power and possibility for multiple reasons — money, situation, time. However, I am pretty sure that many of us have more power than we think.
I have never been one to say “I can’t,” but I have certainly believed myself to be incapable. I may want something deeply, but I am not always able to see a pathway. For the best of us, a solid life is hedged up by an enormous amount of structures — family expectations, financial constraints, solid logic, personal obligations, logic, conflicting dreams, the desire to not hurt feelings, and fear of speaking up — but most of these structures can bend if we are willing to lean into them.
The phrase “why not?” does not just convey careless indifference; it is a legitimate question that I sometimes have a good answer to and often don’t, a question that Jon Hoey asks me often. Why not spend extra on a good meal for the two of us? Why not take an extra day explaining that concept to my French 2 students, even though the syllabus doesn’t say so? Why not be honest when I actually don’t have time to do what people have asked me to do?
What really is standing between me and the rest of my life — even if it’s only my attitude — that is causing me to believe that the possible is impossible?