We’re turning the corner, finally, with this pandemic. Soon, within the year, most of us will begin dining out, vacationing, throwing backyard parties, etcetera. I cannot wait. A sense of renewal, of regeneration emanates through the atmosphere. Not unlike, being on the other side of an awful illness; you feel the life, the vitality spreading throughout your body. However, let’s not discount the reality that danger continues to lurk around every corner.
One thing I have done the last few years is journal. I use, like all millennials, an app—Day One. Every night I write a short prayer, something I’m grateful for, add photos, and bullet the key events of my day. And every night, when I open my app—Day One—I can view my entries that I wrote last year, two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, etcetera.
The memories I read, right now, consist of entries from Covid’s first days. I archived news clips of Trump telling us it will all be-over-with by spring (2020). I have my take on folks emptying the shelves of toilet paper, paper towels, and other (never before conceived) essentials. I even saved articles into my diary from the, Washington Post of folks buying up all the hand sanitizer and then selling it on e-bay. I looked ahead a few days and saw where my wife and I purchased a roll of toilet paper from China for $60.00 because there was none left, at all, at the time. This was all in the final days of March. Can you believe it?
Like most of you, covid killed my work; I was a brand-new realtor, and well, I’m not anymore—I think. I just didn’t have the comfort of walking into other homes, nor did I have the connections needed to survive, and I, most important, didn’t have the time; I was needed at home. I decided, like many, with death looming around, and the fear of catching this virus striking my borderline hypochondria (a joke, but I fear sickness), to reprioritize what matters. My wife played a critic role in this.
Before Covid, I was the poster-boy of preppy, healthy, and hard-working. I was raised in Appalachia (southwestern Virginia), pronounced apple-at-cha, and I spent my entire adult life trying to separate myself from those early days. I never thought myself better than another, but I certainly didn’t want to live on the bottom. So, I worked, and I became whatever people needed me to be. It was not long, sometime after my father died, my early twenties, that I noticed I pretended so much for everyone else, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
As the years passed, and I obsessed over saving money (a good thing), and pleasing others, I began to take a much more comfortable route to life, one where getting honest with myself wasn’t required, and, so, I wore a mask, I wore all masks.
See, I had always wanted to do one thing: write. Well, besides that short season, when I was a kid, that I wanted to be a biologist—I’m obsessed with Darwin and evolution. One of the things I always loved was historical fiction, and if I’m being honest, and I am, I wanted to write and publish historical research. I love that stuff!
Like many people, I never got the chance to be who I truly was. It wasn’t just that I lacked the courage or the support-system, it is the fact that I never had the chance. I have worked a full-time job since I was fifteen years old.
When I was in high school, I worked five days a week, 4pm to midnight at a Sonic-Drive-In (I still don’t eat at Sonic, lol). In college, I worked the night shift, 10pm-6am stocking groceries for a couple years (going to class at 8am and sleeping in my car between gaps), and after dropping out, I worked at a factory, 50-55 hours a week for three-and-a-half years, and was a waiter at Applebee’s in the evenings. I’m not complaining, I just had to do what needed to be done: bills have to get paid.
In short, when I moved to Michigan, interned for Google, and then became a general manager for The UPS Store (a job I held for five years). Money was tight, and I saved what I could, and I struggled, and that’s when the pain that I was throwing my life away really sat in. If I was going to struggle, couldn’t I at least be happy doing it? Having a good job didn’t matter to me. I woke up every day doing something I know I wouldn’t choose to do, if I had the choice (don’t we all?). And only people of privilege say folks have a choice. They don’t know what it’s like to push one bill out, so you can eat. Not the kind of environment where a dream is ideally fought for, or hell, America’s poor would all become success stories.
Either way, I met my wife in Michigan, and my faith flourished there. But the identity crises began emerging toward the end. I left my job, and took a break, I had a significant amount of money saved, and could live years without working—if I played it right. A friend and I traveled all over America, we went to forty states, and I spent that summer hoping, just like in the movies, under desert stars I would rediscover who I really was. After that, my future wife and I went to Europe, got engaged there and I entered a blissful season, where my identity crises was band-aided—I tied my self-worth to her vision. After all, I had no honest vision of my own; I did not even know who I was anymore.
I decided money was the common denominator to a peaceful life. I knew it wasn’t everything, but I knew without it, personally, one lives a miserable life. So, I went to Wall Street, and became a MLO at a huge financing conglomerate. My entire time there, training months included, I never worked a week under 60 hours. Not a single one. I made BIG money, but didn’t even have the time to do anything with it. Everyone around me wore Rolex’s and drove black luxury sedan’s, and, although I tried, because I always become what people think is the best version of someone is, I couldn’t sustain pretending that I wanted those things too. I found, I wanted to just save again so much money, I could spend the rest of my life writing. I use to need a few drinks every night to settle these demons down.
The thought came in one night, my hand under my pillow, my suit still on, four or five whiskey’s drowned, so randomly that I thought I snapped. I remember thinking I was having a nervous breakdown. I hadn’t truly thought of getting serious about my writing in years, though, I did from time-to-time start, but never finish, projects.
I decided then and there, I would find away, but, again, it never happened. A few months later, I was bogged down, it had been 31 days since I had a full-day off, and my fiancée reveals she had enough with her job, too. She was the envy of everyone around her, but she couldn’t go on pretending either. We decided to move to Boston, a shared dream of ours and look for jobs. She found one first, I quit a couple weeks before we moved, and found, believe it or not, another job as a General Manager of The UPS Store franchise in Beacon Hill. Though I quickly took to operating within five different stores at once. I have always, and I mean always, had a strange knack for leadership. I even like it, but, again, that is just a mask I am great at wearing. Hell, I would have become a stripper before going back into finance. You couldn’t pay me $500,000 a year to do that again (which realistically, is what I would make if I was still there). So, I didn’t mind making less, and having time to see my fiancée again.
We lived downtown, got married, went off to Paris and Bordeaux, and lived our happy, well-off, healthy young body’s life. Then we got pregnant.
We wrestled with staying in the city. The cost of daycare was close to 3,000 a month per child, our apartment was 2500 per month, and we would absolutely need to go bigger, but we were unwilling to live outside of Back Bay or Beacon Hill. So, we wrestled and wrestled and wrestled some more with what to do.
We decided to make another move. You know, get the big house. We loved the city, but we didn’t want to work ourselves to death just to live in a certain zip code. People really put themselves in awful situations over keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s—we are not those people.
We moved to New Hampshire—closer to her family, and she transferred offices. We got the big house, and a nice spread on our personal P&L sheet—budget. I became a realtor. That was something I had always been interested in doing. My wife told me, “if you do that, you can get pretty flexible with your schedule and write. You’ve always wanted to write. Maybe this will help.” And so, it did.
However, the winter after our first child was born, Covid hit. Pow! I hadn’t been successful yet in real estate, but it imploded. The day care closed its door to us, we weren’t essential, and we worked from home. Pretty soon, I was daddy-day care.
Well, I saw the real estate experiment coming to an end long before I allowed myself to think that way. I tried riding that dead horse for months after. I hate failing, and I took it pretty hard. I started drinking for the first time really heavy. My father was an alcoholic, and that scared me, so it only lasted a couple of months before I reigned it in. I was taking some writing classes, because I never went too far away from it, just far enough to not get serious about it, and I decided I would finish my degree. After all, the pandemic was a great opportunity to recenter one’s life.
And that’s what I have been doing since Covid hit, working on my degree and raising my kids all day. I don’t have ulcers from the stress of pretending anymore. I did struggle pretty hard with telling my in-laws about school. But at some point, I figure they will see that I won’t be much good as a father if I’m miserable. I can’t exactly raise my children by example, if, well, I didn’t pull myself up by the bootstraps and get honest with myself. Sometimes the only way to move forward is to walk all the way back to your biggest regret and strike a new path from there.
I decided to pursue my dreams and write, finally. And let me tell you, for the first time in my life, I never think about money, and I have learned to write some pretty elegant, at times, prose. I already have two pieces submitted to publishers. This is not a pipe-dream. Somehow, I just know I have it. That this is the path, and I know many fail here, but I don’t worry about that (I honestly don’t). I don’t do it for approval, I do it because it is the most natural thing in the world to me.
To be continued…
W. Alexander Dunford I will never forget the television’s blue light that night fifteen years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond played. Outside, beneath black skies, rain pelted our windows and the house’s bones braced against high winds. Thunder shook the walls. It was Father’s idea to watch the movie. He loved violence, and I loved…