This photo is a pivotal image in my life. It's not appealing, but honest and raw. The time was midnight on Saturday, September 10th, 2022.
What you don't see is the torrential downpour - the unrelenting storm that rose on the mountain just in time for my birthday. You can't feel the icy cold 55mph winds, the deep hurt, and what would turn out to be the worst birthday in five decades. There's another word that's essential to describe this event - unforgettable.
At the end of the Summer of 2022, I started looking at my life as a Netflix season. After all, we've been saturated with streaming drama since we unplugged from cable. Strangely, the end of my 59th year (Season 5) had a tragic and transitional plot that set the stage for Season Six. Sure enough - it was a classic cliffhanger with an unpredictable season ahead.
About two years ago, I lost my job of 38 years at our local newspaper. Now I have to let go of my marriage to Kelli for the past eight years. I lost a family and a future. We had it all and got lost along the way.
Walking through a crisis is always tricky. This trap door is life's way of shaping you from the inside out. It's dark, disorienting, and transformative.
There's nothing unusual here. There's no wisdom to discover here. This is life. It doesn't take long to hear stories of greater sorrow and, at times, sound advice. This refuge makes me a part of the human race as others overcome these episodes together, but letting go is a work of art – and it's hard work too.
Earlier in the year, I hoped to enjoy my 60th birthday with my family and friends to soften the blow into my sixtieth year.
When that all changed, all the old dreams vanished. So I needed some advice. When the gust of wind finally lifted me from the bottom - I turned to friends.
My network of family and friends is a blessing, and I'm grateful to all the people who color and make up my experience. Everybody has been a big part of my life, and their loving feedback leads to exactly who I am - for better or worse.
Jerry Petzoldt is a close business associate. He's a self-made transplant from Florida who moved to East Tennessee, started a commercial real estate agency, met a forever wife, and gained a daughter.
A little over a year ago, we discussed my career transition. I invited him to lunch at the end of August and shared the disheartening Season 5 script. His advice is always honest and, more important - an outsider's perspective.
Jerry is a listener. That's one thing that makes him unique. I worked with him many years ago on successful projects, including his primary company TCI Group, a real estate community Old Island Estates, and other successful economic development partnerships in East Tennessee.
When he heard my story, he paused and looked out the window. After several seconds, he looked back and said. "Here's what you need to do."
His detail surprised me. "You need to book an Allegiant flight to St. Petersburg. Check into (he named a specific hotel), stay there for a week, and do nothing but think."
He paused again for emphasis and continued, "Think of the five things you want to do with the rest of your life. When you get back, whatever doesn't fit into those five things - let'em go. They're wasting your time."
Before I tell you about Jerry's advice, another friend asked one question while eating Thai on the river in Old Kingsport. She asked this question. "Are you a better person?"
Without a beat. "Yes."
Season 5 was filled with a front-row seat to Grace and Anna. When I met them, they were barely teenagers. It was fate; we were focused on our future together, fueled by some mad hope. It wasn't easy. I know nothing about being a parent. I pray the best of me will be carried into their futures as they craft their own lives.
I couldn't be more proud of their outcomes as young adults. Grace became a mother this past year. She's a natural too, and we knew all along what family meant to her. It's everything. She's been raised well, and it thrills me to see how wonderful she is as a mother. Fate brought Matt into the picture too, and together with Tommy, they have a beautiful future together.
Anna has jumped deeply into her unknown and nomadic life - another searcher. She is courageous and intelligent and always excels at any opportunity. Leaving home a short time after her high school graduation, she inspires me as she continues to explore the world, discovering her passions (a tattoo is on my bucket list this year). Watching it unfold is just as exciting as if she were really my daughter.
So, I'm a better person. Raising children and teenagers and the awkward complications of a blended marriage take work. But, worth it. I am a better person because of my life with Kelli and her incredible daughters, who will improve the world.
And one more piece of advice from the circle of friends. The source for this recommendation needs no introduction. His text message read to get back up, "like Godzilla on Tokyo."
Now, back to Jerry's suggestion.
I couldn't see myself going to St. Petersburg. That's where I proposed to Kelli in the Gulf Of Mexico. So, I modified the plan. Instead of one trip, I would plan several weekend trips. Those trips will be future stories as each had twists and turns and made for a good season-ending.
All Summer long, my goal was to ride 800 trail miles on my bike and start taking better care of my health. While riding the Virginia Creeper Trail, I decided to do something I had always wanted to do before I turned 60. I wanted to camp out overnight under the canopy of the stars atop Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Yes. A bucket list item for a long time.
I also planned two other trips before that, as a retreat from my former life and my decade in the fifties. If nothing else, the time and the stories were a cathartic getaway from the years of watching my marriage dissolve. Along the way, I'd had plenty of time to think.
That's what my friend Jerry suggested. These getaways would be the scaffold for new dreams, deep introspection, and renewed hope - fresh with possibilities.
To get there, I had five trips to consider the five things I wanted to do. That model would roll out over several weeks, and these titles will soon find their way into the open. Season Six is ahead.
• The New River Escape
• The Road To Damascus
• 60th Birthday - Lieutenant Dan revisited
• Welcome New Americans
• Reflections from the New River
So this ends Season Five. It sucked. It was beautiful too.
I'm not going to compulsively toss another hollow cliche into the Universe. I have nothing to proselytize and no reason to prove myself anymore. I'm broken, and now's the time to recreate once again.
Rick Rubin's book on "The Creative Act" speaks to a Japanese form of art called Kintsugi. Known as "golden joinery," this art of mending cracked and broken pottery with gold to reinforce the break. I like that metaphor. The cracks filled with gold add story and strength and a new form of beauty to the object itself. The new pottery is stronger, and the gold filling - adds a new dimension of imperfect perfection. Otherwise - it would be like all the others. Not anymore.
These are fortunate times we have together. Perhaps our darkest moments can become our most fertile ingredients for deeper meaning in our lives? But then we're back to the lesson that keeps repeating - the art of letting go.