On Being Wayward

As I sat down to write this, I searched my memories for the books that stood out the most. I started with books because, just until recently, in the last three or four years, any sort of writing wasn’t really on my radar. And then I began to notice, why am I going into this story as if it revolves around books? It doesn’t work that way, honestly. Books are there, and I will bring them up often. Truthfully though, this is a story about my mom, moving, and a struggle to share stories. It is about the seemingly universal forces keeping us apart and the eventual words, both written and spoken, that bring us back together. Mom, this story is for you: for being the most significant catalyst of frustration in my life and the biggest source of my growth, and most importantly, for being the one I can share the most meaningful stories with.

By the time I was in first grade, my family had already moved twenty-two times. People often asked why and assumed we were a military family. The truth is we were just poor. My parents were young and had three children by the time they were twenty-one. Looking back, It is easy to see that they were doing the best they could, even though it didn’t often feel that way. Escape was something you do when you spend lots of time in cars, moving from place to place, and when I was in a new school every year, paying attention didn’t seem as if it was required.

In the first grade, I read Judy Blume’s A Tale of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I would read while the other kids were playing, or when the teacher was teaching, honestly, whenever I could get away with it. I remember this book about the chaos families could have with small children around; each person their own moving part that does not always operate synchronously. I’m pretty sure at one point someone swallows a turtle. I didn’t realize it was abnormal to move all the time, but this book helped me feel normal about my family.

In the second grade, it was a new school and new books. The teacher would tell me I don’t play enough and ask, “Why are you reading so much?” Reading felt good. And the stories felt more adventurous than the life I was living. That first couple of years, I read a lot but lost interest around the third grade. I imagine it had something to do with moving. Since it seemed we were always packing up, we never really kept hold of much, and the houses we would stay in were sparsely furnished and had few knick-knacks. We never took more than our car, so a few boxes of essentials were all that we kept; books were never included. At the same time, my mom got very religious. I began to notice the books we had in the house were all about God, and all the music that was played was religious. First, these stories may have held me, though they ended up a familiar repetition that I found myself bored within. More than anything, I craved adventure. I wanted a fantasy that felt like the Bible’s stories, but I didn’t want to pretend that they were real. I wanted an experience that was expanded on and new. You’d think that the moves would bring that adventure, but they all felt like the same story, just in a new place.

The fourth grade would have been my twenty-seventh move, though home felt similarly as before. Empty and uncertain. I remember learning about Christopher Columbus that year. I remember having an old white teacher who would spank black students. I bring this up because school was confusing. The books were thick, the print small, and the stories didn’t seem relevant or fun. The teachers always seemed angry and abusive. As books became more about learning or God, I read less and less.

Move twenty-eight, and the fifth grade solidified many struggles I carry with me to this day. We went to a small school in a church where there were only a dozen kids. It was culty and a place where I truly learned what it felt like to be judged. It seemed anything we liked that wasn’t associated with the Church was wrong. Music, books, sports, games, and even food was something to be judged for. I hated it, and I just didn’t understand.

It seemed that the move from another place to another school in sixth grade brought much of that judgment home with me. The stories I liked and the music I enjoyed weren’t something that was appreciated by my mother. There is a list of things that my mother didn’t want me to get into. Ironically enough, that year, I felt I had found my people. I made friends that I loved, I felt seen and acknowledged, and they introduced me to one of the true loves of my life; Dungeons and Dragons. My introduction to this game was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I have ever had. If you aren’t sure how Dungeons and Dragons work, maybe think of it like this. One of the players assumes the role of the Dungeon Master; they share part of a story that you, the player, react to. They share another part, and the player responds. They move on to the next piece, and you respond again, in turn. Imagine improv doused in the best kind of nerdiness where creativity and imagination take center stage. Wait, I can share stories that we make up with people who also like those same stories? The good news was that I had found something I truly loved. The bad news is that in 1991, Dungeons and Dragons were looked down upon. The late eighties and early nineties were rife with propaganda that nerdy kids having fun telling stories about wizards and dragons must be devil worshippers. Oh yeah, we moved again after that school year. I left those friends behind, and the stories I loved weren’t approved of, so I left those behind as well.

This was a massive rift in my relationship with my mom. Nothing made sense. So, to avoid attachment and conflict, I began to create this alternate version of myself. I stopped liking music and books. I avoided them because if I brought them up, they would just get looked down upon. Over the next several years, we would move eight more times, settling finally, as I entered the ninth grade. We lived with a guy who my mom was dating. I skipped school and spent as much time away from the house as I could. All of the moves had affected how I saw home. The idea of home didn’t feel real. Even though I stayed in the same house for all of high school, it still felt temporary. Besides, my developed fears of disapproval of the things I liked affected the content I would bring home, leave out, or play on my radio. I fought with my mom and her boyfriend, I got into trouble, and was barely passing school. Ironically, my English teacher in my senior year pulled me aside. He let me know that if I failed his final, I wouldn’t graduate. Perhaps this is a seed for later, but I studied and got a B+. Imagine that.

With high school behind me, I joined the Navy, and two weeks after graduation, I left home. The first time I deployed, my family sent me a care package full of books. It was interesting because the titles were all a bit cliché and nothing super deep. There was A Hunt for Red October, a story about a super-secret Russian submarine. It was easy reading a generic formula that was dependable, fun, and easy to digest. Most importantly, they didn’t require a ton of energy to read. Books were something I had avoided for so long. I allowed my mother’s perceptions, judgments, and religious beliefs to get between me and the things I loved. And now, this seemingly innocuous package became a gateway to my self-discovery.

As time in the Navy went by, I began to read more, especially at sea. The more I was away, the more I read. If you were in your bunk at sea, you were alone, where no one could judge you. And while some of my shipmates were packing their rack space with candy and soda, I was packing books. A spark for words had been reignited. Around the time I was twenty-two, a book by Michael Creighton called Timeline stood out. I was deployed at the time on a submarine, and when you are beneath the sea for weeks and months at a time, there is little you can do to escape. But there it was: this book packed with science fiction, crossed with a medieval setting (sort of), and real theory about photons and multiple dimensions. For me, that book, just like Judy Bloom in the first grade, was a dimension away from a challenging life, an opportunity at adventure, and, most notably, a means of escape. To be honest, that escape was how I viewed it at first. A portal into a land of pages where images were being created in the recesses of my mind. The more I think about that portal, and those photons, and these multiple dimensions structured within my make-believe, I ask myself if that world has to be any less real than this one?

When I was twenty-seven, I was stationed in Virginia and living alone. I had recently moved, broken up with another girlfriend, and my son lived up north with his mom. At the time, I had this long-distance friend. We would share music, books and talk about the stuff we were reading and watching. This was a new experience for me. I usually only read at sea in the privacy of my bunk, never really talking much about it. I hadn’t shared stories since the sixth grade. It was here that my life truly began to shift, and words and messaging became much more important. More importantly, sharing those words with others had become valuable.

I was reading a book called Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. Without getting too much into the story, it was eerie how much the main character, Victor Mancini, resembled much of what I was experiencing. As he navigated the struggle that was his adult life, there were flashbacks to him and his mother moving all the time. These intense images of running and always leaving things behind. Victor, throughout the book, wasn’t a good person. He hid who he was, always scheming to get what he needed to accomplish his goals, all of which were surface level at best. His plots and machinations all caught up with him, and in the end, he was exposed and left with nothing. I felt as if this story had been written for me. There was a twist, though. The final words of that book weren’t about lament. They were about the opportunity that comes with being fully exposed. They were about taking the rubble from the wreckage of your life and building something new with it. You could create infinite possibilities. I was astonished. For the first time realized I could take my experiences and learn from them. I called my friend, and I cried.

Around this time, I began to talk to my mom more; even though things were at an arm’s length, the things we began to share became more profound and salient. She had become a pastor, which made me nervous, as I struggle with church and religion. As part of my exploration of books, stories, and life, I would call and ask her questions. She studied biblical stories in depth. I was looking for similarities, differences, and, more importantly, a connection.

It was around this time that I stopped hiding the words that were most important to me. Don’t get me wrong, this process is still something I work on today. I began to bring things I learned to use at work. I would let them change who I was, not through some sort of evolution but by really allowing my exterior to fall away. And somewhere around this time, I guess, was when I began to write. It was copying at first. Sharing quotes from books or songs or movies to help me lead sailors. I would share things from books and films that felt just as important as any lesson you could learn in a holy text. I began to develop language to reach more people who didn’t connect with the tradition of what their parents had always done. I started to collect vagabonds, miscreants, and rogues; they were my real people. These wayward souls floating around chaotically in life not only looking for meaning but also for themselves.

There is this story I would tell those who enlist in the Navy. Back three to four hundred years ago, the press-gang was how many wooden ships filled their ranks. A group of men, which would often include the master at arms, would head out into port looking for possible recruits. They didn’t go to the nice part of town; they went to the seediest spots they could find. They looked for drunks, those who were recently tossed in jail, or causing problems in town. If you had passed out in an alley, you might wake up onboard ship with threats of getting to work or tossed overboard. Press-ganging was abolished in 1835, but those wayward vagabonds and rogues are still those who enlist. I didn’t join the Navy because I knew who I was; I joined because I didn’t. The rest of the story I would tell to junior sailors was that even though we are wayward and metaphorically lost at sea, we still accomplish amazing things. We take a machine that displaces seven thousand tons of seawater to the depths of the ocean and back. Imagine all the energy we put into something we don’t love; imagine pouring that energy into something we did. With me, I took words and returned with ideas. I would encourage my sailors to do the same; I’d ask them to dive into the solitude of themselves to write down the next page of who they are.

Anyway, I stayed in the Navy for twenty years. I would pack my rack, leave stuff behind, and go to sea. This was a huge struggle because I was processing and shedding the last real thing I needed to let go of; the Navy. Seventeen years into my career, I had reached the precipice of who I was, and to move forward, or level up, I was going to have to tell someone no. I hadn’t agreed with what we were doing as a Navy for years, but the solitude it gave me, was some sort of weird exchange that had worked up until that point. I was able to escape my past. I could pretend to not have a home. Eventually, the weight of the sea, both literal and as an allegory, was becoming crushing. Anxiety and depression had become a regular part of my life. This, juxtaposed against the high performance expected of me, was something I could no longer hide. There was an event. A violent release of the last of me that I had kept tucked away in a secret place. On March 27th, 2015, I knocked on my Commanding Officer’s door and told him I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be a part of leading wayward men to the depths. It was time to leave this version of me behind. That day I left the ship behind, I walked off feeling a freedom I had not ever experienced. I called my mom.

A couple of years later, we were sitting in a coffee shop. I was writing a speech, and my mom was preparing a sermon. For whatever reason, that is the day my mom and I began being honest. I told her about the struggles of my childhood. I told her about my struggles with depression, anxiety, and my thoughts of suicide. I shared how leaving the ship was the first time in my life that I made a choice solely for me, regardless of the consequences. I told her that Dungeons and Dragons was not devil worship. My mom told me stories of her childhood, religious cults, and why it was crucial for her to be in the church, trying to change things.

I deleted my whole speech that day and rewrote it. I told a story about telling lies to yourself and what happens when you pretend to be something you are not. I know where it leads. All those moves growing up I used to look at with such disdain. Today, I can genuinely see how they have benefited me. I can now see what an entire story looks like. I can also see that this story isn’t finished. Every time you put pen to paper or fingers to keys, you explore, you create, and allow yourself to release. You’ll learn to see how every part fits together and how the intricacies cancel out or add to, depending on the context. With every word and every connection, I realize that being wayward was never a bad thing. In fact, so many people spend life idle, with a deep fear keeping them from ever writing a single word. Your imagination doesn’t have to be different from your reality. Because every time you allow your imaginings to become words, they become real.

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