In third grade, my music teacher told us the story of Beethoven. I think it was Beethoven. I’m too lazy to google it now.
When Beethoven first started losing his hearing, he inserted a metal tube into his ear to help him drown out the excess noise and focus his hearing. As his hearing worsened, however, the metal tube served less and less effectual; to compensate, Beethoven drove the tube deeper and deeper into his ear canal.
He wanted to hear. He needed to hear. No matter the cost.
For months and multiple years now, I’ve felt like Beethoven jamming a rigid metal tube into the ear canal of my soul. Since #RunningTo ran out in March of 2015, I’ve heard myself sound like a broken record in my longing for the road. I can’t imagine how broken I must sound to others.
On the road, I’d never felt happier.
On the road, I’d never felt more purposed.
On the road, I’d never felt more enthusiastic about people and places and my lot in life.
No longer was I incapable or less than. I’d never felt more fully myself and fully alive than when I was behind the wheel with nothing but the present moment and an endless horizon of possibilities.
Over the last two and a half years, I’ve struggled to relearn stationary living. To stock a room full of tangible things. To see the same people all the time. To clock into work, day by tedious day.
Oh, jobs. They’re the worst.
At least, they used to be. Jobs were the worst until I moved to Asheville a year and a half ago.
I’ll never forget walking in for that first interview, construction workers still drilling, the walls still unpainted, dust swirling around the front door blocked by a large table.
“Am I in the right building?” I asked myself. Right on cue, my interviewer emerged from the first room on the left.
“Tom?” the man asked, and I followed him into the single room void of drill and dust, oversized Post-it sheets taped with checklists to the purple walls.
This building, this brand new nonprofit still had a long way to go. But hiring the flagship crew to open this therapeutic boarding school was a pivotal next step.
I was working with youth in wilderness therapy at the time, my first full-time job, commuting three hours to the woodsy Blue Ridge Mountains from Charlotte where I lived. Work shifts lasted an entire week at a time, hiking and cooking and sleeping and managing minute-by-minute chaos with kids in the woods.
The work grew “old” after just a few months, as jobs generally go for me.
Charlotte got old, too. A life beyond the road, one void of yellow and white lines — what is that life?
But this new job opportunity in Asheville sparked something in me a year after my road trip. The chance to help breathe life into a new enterprise born from literal dust — in a city and region so pivotal to my life’s journey, no less, my old camp just twenty minutes down the road.
I left that first interview feeling the most confident I’d ever felt about any job interview in twenty-nine years. I was invited back for a second interview, and I felt even better.
Two weeks later, I got the job: a mentor and a math/writing tutor. I packed up my things in Charlotte and moved westward again — this time, just two hours to Asheville. The Jewel of the Blue Ridge.
It hasn’t all been roses and raspberries, let me assure you. Kids are crazy, whether or not they walk the road of drug and alcohol recovery, as they do at this boarding school. Kids will drain you, and kids will make you wonder why — of all the possible professions — you’ve chosen to dedicate your energies and risk your mental faculties on them.
But kids will also show you what other adults cannot. Kids will speak with an innocence you forgot existed, an endearing bluntness. Kids will comment on your new shirt or shoes or hair, for better or worse, and when kids write you birthday cards or thank you notes, their words will carry a weight none other can match.
For seven years now, kids from coast to coast have been redeeming wounds from my own childhood: one marred by bullying, isolation, and a purposeless void. Over the last seven years, I’ve interacted with kids at three different camps, two different learning centers, a wilderness therapy program, an elementary school, a middle school, and most recently, a therapeutic boarding school in the Blue Ridge.
For the last year and a half, the teenage boys at this school have drained me on a regular basis — their persistent language and perverted talk, their rebellion and aggression.
And yet these same boys have inspired me and infused me with more life than any other group. They’ve affirmed my work. They’ve shown a desire to change. They’ve grown when growth looked impossible. They’ve succeeded in school. They’ve succeeded in the program. Their borderline jokes often cracked my usually stoic exterior.
However, as my other blog has grown with a crazily successful Patreon page over the last year, I have found writing and other content-creating endeavors demanding more of my time and heart and energy — a good problem, to be sure. In recent months, I’ve been forced to ponder what I really want to do with the rest of my life.
The rest of my life starts today; today is all we have.
A man I met on the road told me that most people wait 40 or 50 years to save up for what they really want to do with the rest of their life — whatever’s left of it at that point.
But what if we started doing what we want to do with the rest of our lives now? How would that change us? How would that change others?
It’s no big surprise revealing my heart for writing and traveling. Wouldn’t it be something if, one day, I could live a life of full-time writing and traveling? Wouldn’t that be something for me? Wouldn’t that be something for others?
Wouldn’t it be something if I started the rest of my life now?
Dreams are scary things to plant. They are seeds that turn to roots that either grow or decay into only God knows what.
Last Friday, I left the greatest job of my life. A full-time job where I worked for the last year and a half of my life here in Asheville. I left stability, I left comfortability, and I left a whole lot of redemption.
I’d wrestled with this decision for months, wondering if I was being selfish for leaving these boys behind in pursuit of my own wild dreams. Isn’t it a good thing to be grounded, to serve others, to do something beyond yourself?
And yet as I considered all the reasons I should stay — among them, paying off a vehicle — I couldn’t help considering that all the reasons for staying behind were the same reasons for plodding ahead.
To ground myself in my writing.
To serve others with my storytelling community.
To do something beyond myself. Beyond what I’m surely capable of doing alone.
I’ve quit my job to tend to the seeds of my dreams and properly grow them. I want to travel and I want to write: making stories and telling stories.
I want to dive deeper into this mystically relational aspect of writing that helps all of us feel less alone in our journeys. I want to meet these other people with other stories in the flesh. I want to tell stories however I can, whether by blog or book or podcast or even film. Stories that make others feel a little more alive. Myself, too.
If there’s one thing I’ve hoped to impart on my students, it’s that we only have this present moment. We might as well make the most of our todays, right?
Now is the time to act, and yes, sometimes “acting” looks like staying. Sometimes acting looks like “putting in your due,” so to speak, setting yourself up for future success by doing something today that you do not necessarily want to do today.
But sometimes today is the day to step out and leap and change your destiny — changing others — because deep in your bones you know you must.
Last Monday, I told my students I’d be leaving them by week’s end, and I nearly broke down in tears multiple times that day. And all week. Especially my final day.
You wouldn’t think a bunch of teenage addicts in recovery to be sweet or sincere, or at least I wouldn’t have. But gosh have they surprised me with their little hearts of gold.
“You’re the best math teacher I’ve ever had, Tom.”
“I’m gonna miss you, Tom.”
Even: “I love you, Tom.”
On Friday, some hugged me multiple goodbyes, and they all gave me more than a fitting sendoff, reminding me I still have worth and purpose in this world. They really have no idea the old adolescent wounds they’ve repaired in me these last seventeen months.
I am who I am today thanks to these students. I will be who I am tomorrow thanks to them. The stories I tell will forever bear their fingerprints and whispers of their dirty jokes.
Thank you, Montford Hall. Thank you, boys. Thank you, fellow staff. Thank you, God.
Stories never end. Stories only turn another page.
And now for the next page, the next chapter. It starts today.
I’m hitting the road again.
And, soon, I hope to hear again.
To be continued . . .