The Life I Could Have Lived












Cheers fill the brisk 39-degree square, a woman with a microphone starts singing “Auld Lang Syne,” dancing ensues, and fireworks shoot over the historic Gettysburg Hotel.

2015 has fallen into oblivion, and I’m wondering how my life got here.

~ ~ ~

Before setting out on this #wintrywanderland road trip to the North, I debated returning to Gettysburg — the city that was far and away my biggest surprise of #RunningTo, a nowheresville town tucked into the middle of my home state with a thriving young adult community of Christians, artists, and coffee-lovers.

Gettysburg moved me so much, it was one of the few cities I revisited during #RunningTo. I looped back there a month after the first time, staying a couple days longer. I felt out the place and the people more, attended a Sunday morning service and a Sunday evening Bible study, played some games, watched some movies, and ate at the fantastic Lincoln Diner after midnight.

“So, when you moving to Gettysburg?” Jake had asked me over steaming bowls of chili.

“After my road trip,” I’d said with a crumbling of crackers to the bowl. “Maybe February?” It was meant as a joke.

But maybe not.

~ ~ ~

As #RunningTo ran out last March, Gettysburg inexplicably found its way into my top three choices for a new home. I mulled over my decision in an isolated cabin in the Smokies, and I started playing out what a Gettysburg life would look like.

At long last, a return to my home state.

Instagram pictures with every Lincoln statue downtown to the battlefields.

Late night meals and coffees and conversations at the diner and my new friends’ artsy communal hangout.

The small-town charm.

And yet for all the reasons to turn my key and drive straight into the heart of the Keystone State, I couldn’t escape all the reasons not to.

A backward step to the state I used to call home.

The same old Instagram scenes over and over.

The same diner food, the same people, the same soft hills that don’t quite turn into mountains or lead to raging rivers or glimmering skyscrapers.

The small-town suffocation.

Ultimately, I decided Gettysburg was just too tiny and too townsy for me.

Or maybe I assumed myself too grandiose or unworthy of such a tight-knit community.

~ ~ ~

I’ve barely kept in touch with Jake over the last year. We don’t text often, and he’s not on Facebook or anywhere online, really. I debated reaching out to him before leaving Charlotte on my holiday road trip last month, but reach out I did. I told him I’d be spending Christmas in Philadelphia and would love to pass back through Gettysburg if he’d have me.

He’d love to have me, he said. He’d be back home for Christmas several states away himself, but he’d be back in town for New Year’s.

And so I traded out last year’s Times Square extravaganza for something a little more low-key in Lincoln Square.

~ ~ ~

Rolling back into Gettysburg, I was reminded all over again of the homey appeal. The houses and buildings are centuries old, the street layout is simple, and the history is palpable.

Waldo’s, the town’s non-profit artsy community joint started by Jake and his friends, has totally transformed since last year. The big empty room isn’t quite so empty anymore. There are tables and chairs and couches and chairs and a coffee bar with tall stools. Dozens of boxy bookshelves line the walls, the cubbies covering every genre.

Drawings hang from the walls, and a musical stage adorns the front corner. The back features individual art studios and a photographic dark room with a swiveling door, and Jake tells me about plans for woodworking and pottery areas to come.

Gettysburg has grown a lot in the last year.

And to think:

I could have grown right along with her.

~ ~ ~

To say I’ve thought about my “parallel life” in Gettysburg over the last year would be a severe understatement. I’ve often been consumed with this fantasy of Tom’s 2015 Story had he chosen the small town in Pennsylvania over the burgeoning metropolis in North Carolina.

The friendships that could have formed here, the purpose I could have found here.

Or perhaps the misery of unmet expectations would have crippled me here with no escape for seemingly eternal miles of stifling Pennsylvanian countryside.

Eating chili in a Lincoln Diner booth after midnight a year ago, I would have never predicted ringing in 2016 in this town. If indeed celebrating the next new year in Gettysburg, I would have never predicted not living here.

~ ~ ~

It’s maddening, thinking about the life you could have lived had you made a different decision or someone else hadn’t made a life-altering choice of his or her own.

Throughout the duration of this #wintrywanderland road trip, I’ve thought about my life beyond last year’s relocation decision, thinking back to childhood and everything in between, tossed to and fro amid countless waves of lives I could have lived.

More joyful fruitful lives.

Less painful confusing lives.

More purposeful communal lives.

But what can you do? What can any of us do but live the life we do have, the life we are living, the storyline weaving before us rather than pine for the invisible lines running along either side of us?

~ ~ ~

I enjoyed returning to Gettysburg for the first light of 2016. I did. I enjoyed seeing the new Waldo’s, I enjoyed reuniting with Jake From Couchsurfing and some of his friends, I enjoyed sipping coffee back at my #6 coffee shop in all the land, and I enjoyed the musical antics of Schmikey Taters and other folksy New Year’s performances in Lincoln Square.

But as the clock hit midnight I saw 2015 flashing before me, and I couldn’t help wondering what that celebration would have been like had I spent the entire last year in this community rather than the last few hours. What friendships would have formed, and which ones would have fallen? What kind of job would I have possibly found here, and would it have changed my life or sucked me dry?

Alas. I’ll never know that Gettysburg life I could have lived.

I’m kinda struggling to be okay with that. But I’m also striving to be more present-minded. For 2016 and beyond.

#RunningTo: Gettysburg, PA

Happy new year, my wanderers. I hope you live your life to the full this year and join me in the journey facing us ahead. Occasional side-glances permitted.

  • naturgesetz

    Oh, Tom, Tom, Tom.

    • Oh, naturgesetz, naturgesetz, naturgesetz.

      • naturgesetz

        But your comment doesn’t quite have the ring to it that mine has.

  • I don’t subscribe to the idea that you’ll never know the Gettysburg life you could have lived. You simply don’t know it right now. This life is a very small glimpse of one particular path. To think we’d never get the opportunity to see alternates doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We learn by seeing more than just what’s in front of us, right? Successes and failures and mistakes and all. So why would it not make sense to sit down on a proverbial beanbag next to God one day and walk through some recaps of our life? As the “film” of our life plays out in front of us, we can chat about what we did (and probably a lot more DIDN’T do) and what lessons came/come from it, yeah? It’s part of the reason for doing this life thing in the first place, so we can learn from it first hand. And we’ll have a lot of “time” to consider every aspect of it then. We have an eternity, after all. So I see no good reason why, on that day yet to come, you couldn’t binge-watch “Alternate Reality Tom’s Life in Gettysburg: Season 1.” 🙂

    Now, if you WOULD watch it, that’s another story. Because my experience tells me when all that knowledge is there in front of us for the taking, we’re going to realize how these things that seemed so huge (and all the what-ifs) don’t quite matter in the same way as we once fretted over. I think God will offer you that particular DVD (and others in the What If collection) and you’ll shrug and say “I don’t need it. I have everything I need.”

    Guess we’ll see, either way!