Thank the Lord for happy places. You know – the place your mind escapes to in dreams and daydreams.
I have three happy places.
Two are physical locations to which I can return with a bit of money, time, and planning, but my happiest of places, the third and most elusive, I can return only through fading memories, a place in my mind that spans a year, the year I turned ten. The year my parents moved the five of us, eight suitcases, and fifteen boxes from rural Newfoundland to Nottingham, England, best known for industrial revolution textile mills and Robin Hood. My first best-friend, the blackberry-lined paths by my house, the mild, grey days, the cherry blossoms outside my window all contribute to this memory but my happiness flourished because of my new school, a one-story brick building set on a large field overlooked by grey row-houses and run by a kindly Headmaster with terrible halitosis.
We’d leave our colorful classroom, cluttered with art supplies and books, wall mosaics and science experiments once a week to walk to the local swimming pool. In true British style, the teachers took a brisk no-nonsense approach, leading us through vigorous lessons on the crawl and breast stroke before directing us to exit the pool.
“Any child that would like to take his turn at the high-board, please form an orderly line behind the class prefect.”
The growing anticipation of climbing the ladder harnessed my thoughts, pushing the echoing chatter and jostling kids into the background as I focused on staying in line, my determination wavering a dozen times in those few minutes.
But finally it was my turn.
I climbed the ladder rising to the height of the bare tree-tops visible through the fogged windows. And I’d stand at the end of the high-board acutely aware neither the teachers nor the kids behind me would tolerate any hesitation. I’d look to the water twenty feet below one more time, plug my nose with my fingers and jump feet-first, gangly, never swan-diving. And the exhilaration of my free-fall and the quiet swim to the surface rivaled Caesar’s sense of victory after he conquered the British Isles two thousand years before.
Since then, I have jumped into all the best things in my life. Last March, I jumped into my book on scars. I jumped headfirst: I tracked down strangers with scars, I interviewed people, I interviewed photographers and met Tim Acuna, I set up photo-shoots, I reached out to people to tell them about what I was doing and wrote and rewrote and rewrote the stories.
In my swim to the surface, in the quiet moments, I learned it takes three minutes to discover how someone acquired a scar but you can write a book on what the scar means to someone.
I saw how each person in the book stood on the high-board not by choice, how they were pushed into a free-fall. I heard each person tell me what occurred under the surface, alone, holding their breath, confused to which way was up until they figured it out pushing upwards until they broke through the water, eventually swimming to safety.
I heard again and again how struggle changes a person. And what divergent paths we follow because of struggles, in this case a struggle represented by a scar.
To some people, a scar tells the story of the worse day of their lives or the culmination of many terrible days. But scars also almost always remind people of their triumphs: finding solace in religion, overcoming fear, promoting social change, personal reinvention all because of the new path their scar pushed them towards.
This type of alternate future scenario reminds me of one of my favorite movies: Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the character Helen.
Helen leaves her job in downtown London earlier than usual one afternoon. She misses the early train home by seconds. The next scene, she makes the early train – arriving home earlier than usual. From there, we watch Helen’s life diverge onto drastically different paths, unfolding through parallel stories. (Vague spoiler alert to follow) The version of Helen’s life, the one where we feel happy for hers ends tragically. The version of Helen’s life in which we witness her exhausting struggles ends in triumph.