A few Thanksgivings ago we started a tradition. We’d each write write what we were thankful for in a card and seal it up for the next year. It was a way to measure our blessings, to reflect on all the good things we bring to each others’ lives.
This year, as a large portion of our family was celebrating Christmas in New York – for some of us our first overseas trip, for others, the first trip in 30 years of marriage – we decided to write cards again. My mother-in-law picked out the cards and my talented sister drew on the envelopes, things that reminded her of each of us. She drew me a deer in mid-leap, with antlers over the “B” in my name.
On Christmas day I sat down to write in my card… and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t sure why. I had so much to be thankful for. After three years of planning, saving and dreaming, we were finally traveling again. We were in the greatest city in the world, and on Christmas!
But… it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Nothing on this whole trip had gone exactly to plan. The California leg was too rushed – we spent the whole week herding people from place to place, sleeping on trains and buses, walking more than some of us had walked for years. New York wasn’t quite as I remembered. The streets were grimier, our neighborhood rougher, and the subway stations were full of the lost and desperate. We’d hoped for snow, but other than a few pretty flakes, the city was drier than California. And I hadn’t written. My well was as empty as it was when I left home.
But then I realized: that’s exactly the point. That’s the very purpose of travel. To defy our expectations, to take us out of our comfort zones, to challenge and grow us. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood that when things don’t go exactly to plan, that’s when the magic happens.
When I eventually wrote in my card a few days later, I wrote about the good things that had happened on our trip so far. I wrote about secret Santa shopping at the Christmas markets in Central Park, how we all had to huddle together against the cold, and buying hot apple cider when it seemed our fingers might fall off. I wrote about the grandeur of Yosemite in winter, the coyote that walked right onto the path in front of us with a deer leg in its mouth, the snowball fight on the bridge. I wrote about picking up our first real Christmas tree, all seven of us trailing after Michael as he carried it, lumberjack-style, through the city streets.
But I didn’t stop there. I also wrote about the trials and disappointments, the illnesses, grime and near-misses, and how wonderful it can be when things don’t go exactly to plan. Passing sleepless hours on the plane, eyes gritty and sore, but being awake to watch the sun rise over the Pacific. Driving windy mountain roads in a rainstorm, trying desperately to stay alert, and the warm bed and amazing meal that met us when we got there. The snow in Yosemite melting before we made it to the valley floor, the roads to the Mariposa grove being closed, but then finding a bridge covered with snow at the end of a long hike. Constant, drizzling rain on our first visit to the West Village, running into the first pizza store we saw, and discovering it has the best pizza in New York (according to assorted celebrities). Going back three more times because the pizza was just that good. The simple blessing of a warm place to sit and free hot chocolate.
Nothing on our Great Overseas Christmas Adventure went exactly to plan. And I like it better that way.
After Christmas, our trip continued to surprise. A few days after writing in that card, something tripped inside me and suddenly I was bursting with inspiration, more than I could possibly contain. Turns out the best thing I could possibly do for my writing was not write, not even think about writing, go for months without a single idea.
On New Years Eve we tried to catch the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty from afar, but we missed the ferry we’d intended to catch. Online bookings for Liberty Island were closed, and the previous day the in-person line had stretched right down Wall Street, but on a whim we decided to try our luck. There was no one there. We reached the front of the line within minutes and booked ourselves on the next boat to Liberty Island. On the way, we froze our faces off standing outside on the deck, but we didn’t care. It was beautiful, miraculous, and we were so, so happy. I’ve never been quite as cold as I was that day. My fingers and toes hurt so bad I was actually worried about getting frostbite. But I never stopped smiling, because here was a moment that went beyond planning and booking and lines. Here was a moment that was magic.
On Mum’s birthday in DC, it rained and rained and rained. We were wet from the moment we stepped out of the car, and cold, too. But I’d never, ever take that day back. The quiet conversations as we walked from monument to monument. The awe on people’s faces as they read the inscriptions on the Jefferson Memorial. Stealing warmth when we found it, in public restrooms and in cups of hot chocolate. Seeing Mum feed a piece of popcorn to a squirrel, her simple delight. And that night, going back to our favorite Irish Pub and finding it better than we remembered, so incredibly cozy on a cold, wet night with its low lighting and open fireplace. Being able to share that with my family, especially with my mum on her birthday, was just magical.
On the day after my parents and sister left for home, we drove to Colonial Williamsburg with a rebellious GPS which took us an hour out of our way. But if it hadn’t, we’d have never seen the gentle Virginia countryside, the one-lane roads, the farms and woods and villages. That night, buying chocolate at a candy store from one of my favorite books. Holding every scent, sound and sensation inside me, storing it up because I never, ever want to forget what it feels like to step inside a world you only ever imagined.
And perhaps most magical, on the day we were due to fly back to California, it finally properly snowed on the East Coast. Michael woke up at 4am dreaming of snow. He checked out the window, but there was nothing there. A few minutes later he checked again and… there were thousands of tiny flakes falling from the sky! We played in the snow until 6am, when the hotel owner opened up breakfast for us because he was worried we might freeze. We made snow angels, threw powdery flakes into the sky, blew snow off tables until it stuck to our lips and eyelashes, turning us into snow kings and queens. After breakfast, we went out again. We played and played and laughed and cheered until it was time to head to the airport and back to a warmer climate. We thought we’d missed it. But the weather had other plans.
On my way home from the airport, I started reading Joss Whedon’s biography, and what struck me most was how so many of his great successes were preceded by monumental failure. Job losses, rejections, moving back in with his father. Series cancelled, movies ruined, pitches turned down. And then, blockbuster movies, cult TV series, biographies and fame.
I think my favorite part is how he spent three years writing a script, only to have it reworked and butchered by a director who didn’t share his vision. Not to be deterred, a few years later Joss completely reworked the project into a TV series. He kept some of the characters, the premise, the plot, but he turned something pretty terrible into something brilliant: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
For Joss, the end was never the end. Failure did not equal defeat.
Let that be true for you, too.