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The Do - Over

In November 2012, about a month after my dad was diagnosed with the glioblastoma that would take his life in April 2013, my husband and I decided to spend Thanksgiving with Dad in Baltimore, even though we usually don’t travel for the holiday.


Though we had a great time, it didn’t feel quite like Thanksgiving. There were little things that made the holiday feel odd, like the difference in menu on Turkey Day itself and the additional guests (whom we didn’t know well) at Dad’s table. I simply didn’t have the normal indicators of one of my favorite holidays.


Even though I was celebrating with people I loved, which was more important than food or guests, Thanksgiving 2012 just felt like a random Thursday rather than the holiday I love.


I’ve since realized the biggest thing that made Thanksgiving 2012 not feel like Thanksgiving was the knowledge of Dad’s diagnosis—even though I was very much in denial about his prognosis and my expectations of how much time he had left.

On an adventure

Since I couldn’t put my finger on what seemed off about Thanksgiving that year, I decided to have a do-over—at least of the parts I had control over. For New Year’s Eve that year, we invited our closest friends over and I made a turkey with all the trimmings. We enjoyed the stuffing recipe I liked best, an atmosphere of gratitude, and lively conversation and laughter with some of our adopted family.


But even though our New Year’s felt a little Thanksgivingy, this do-over didn’t actually help me feel like I’d celebrated Thanksgiving. Instead, 2012 just felt like a year without one.


I’ve been thinking about that attempted do-over quite a bit lately. 2020 is a year that has taken so much from so many of us, including the celebratory markers that help us measure and enjoy the passing of time. Perhaps if we all go back to bed and start 2020 over again, we can get a better result the second time around.


But there are no do-overs.


No resets.


No ways to turn 2020 off and turn it back on again.

Just as there was no amount of post-Thanksgiving turkey that could make 2012 feel celebratory after my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor, 2020 will feel like a year without many of the joyful way stations we count on to help us anticipate and savor the passing of time.


But as sad as that may be, it’s also freeing. Letting go of those expectations opens us up to possibility.


Here’s what I’ve learned about letting go of the do-over:


Rien, Je Ne Regrette Rien (Nothing, I Regret Nothing)


Thanksgiving 2012 was not the first time I have ever longed for a do-over. For much of my 20s and 30s, I lamented my reading tastes in my formative years. Why did I waste my time reading (and rereading and re-rereading and re-re-rereading) Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters and Douglas Adams and Agatha Christie and Susan Isaacs and Alisa Craig and Charlotte MacLeod and Mercedes Lackey and Minette Walters when I could have been filling my impressionable head with really good writers? If I'd been consuming "good" literature then, I'd be writing "good" literature now.

Books, films, TV shows, music, OH MY!

I have spent an unreasonable amount of time thinking through the books, stories, films, television shows, music, and other entertainment that I would gobble up if I could have a do-over of my early years. If only I’d had better influences, perhaps I would be further along in my fiction writing career. I have a running list of books that I should have read back when I was a teenager.


But you know what I don’t do? Actually read those books now.


It turns out I’m just not that interested in them.


Why do I wish I’d read different things when I was a teenager? Because I often find myself envying the careers of fiction writers who seem to have read “better” books. Perhaps I would be farther along in my longed-for literary career if I had made different decisions in the past—or if I could have a do-over.


But wanting a do-over on my early literary influences is not only impossible (barring some sort of 17 Again body swapping/time travel situation), it would also be useless. I like what I like, and I’ve been influenced by the art that I like, and regretting those influences is just me trying to live up to an unrealistic expectation.


So instead of regretting what I read, what I love, and what I revisit every year, why not embrace it? In fact, embracing things as they are can sometimes reveal some benefits you never realized were there.


Overlooked Benefits


2012 was a year without a Thankgivingy-feeling holiday for me. And that definitely made me a little melancholic. But that trip back to Baltimore for the fourth Thursday in November offered a number of benefits that I could have enjoyed more if I hadn’t been so focused on how different things felt. It’s been a while now, but I can remember some of the overlooked moments that I wish I’d savored more at the time:

  • My dad gave my eldest son, who was 2 years old at the time, a 1950s style toy ray gun and they had a wonderful time playing with it together.

  • We all spent Black Friday with my father’s best friend, laughing and chatting and eating leftovers.

  • Dad showed my son some of the same old dad “tricks” he used to do with us. (Like when he’d have the kid hold down Dad’s hand while Dad pretended to twist his thumb with his other hand. When the kid let go, Dad would flip his hand over, back-and-forth, back-and-forth quickly, then slower, and slower, as if it were a windup toy that gradually lost energy).

No, I didn’t have the kind of Thanksgiving that I was expecting or used to experiencing, but I did have some pretty great stuff happen on that trip that I could easily have missed entirely because of how much I wanted the holiday to feel like years past.


My lamentations about my writing influences make me overlook similar benefits to the career I’ve had rather than the ones I envy.

Writing Every Day - One Good Thing

For instance, it just recently occurred to me that I have written pretty much every single day for a decade. November 2010 was when I started my freelancing career by writing personal finance articles for $25 a pop.


That's significant because I have felt a low-level guilt for 25 years for not making my writing a daily priority—ever since I learned as a 16-year-old aspiring writer that writing on a daily basis was the path to success. Add in my misguided sense that writing about money wasn’t “real” writing, since it wasn’t fiction, and I’ve spent a great deal of time wishing for do-overs in my writing life.


But I need no do-overs. I’ve made daily writing a practice and a habit for a decade—and gotten paid for it, to boot! I’ve managed to work in references to some of my favorite authors in my pieces about money, as well; meaning those influences are not going to waste.


Accepting that the career I have is the right one for me can help me recognize that I don’t need any kind of reset. I’m where I’m supposed to be, even if it doesn’t look the way I expected it to.


So What Do We Do With 2020?


Of course, it’s a lot easier to accept the overlooked benefits of a satisfying (if not precisely expected) career than the overlooked benefits of a final holiday with a beloved parent or the small bright spots in a year marked by tragedy and upheaval. It’s understandable why we may want a do-over of 2020, as impossible as such a wish might be. If only we could experience the normal joys of our year instead of feeling stuck in a dumpster fire limbo.

But looking for things to turn out exactly how we expect them to, is a good way to feel dissatisfied by everything (not to mention harbor weird decades-long guilt for not writing enough when one’s entire job is writing, ahem). 2020 has not gone the way we expected. It’s fair to be sad about that, or angry about that, or overwhelmed by that. But wishing it were different or wishing for a do-over isn’t going to make the year any easier to bear. It will simply throw into stark relief just how far apart your expectations and reality are.


Focusing on how you’d like a do-over means missing the quiet and silly moments with your dad on the last Thanksgiving you will ever celebrate with him because you can’t see past how it is different from all the others. It’s giving up what you have because it’s not exactly what you want.


Like everyone else, I am upset about what 2020 has taken away from my life (though I know I’m lucky to be mostly untouched by the harsher realities of this year). Like everyone else, I wish this year were different. But I’m not going to wish away the reality by pining for a do-over that can’t actually happen, because then I’d miss out on the real life happening while the dumpster fire rages on.


I’d miss out on the long chats over coffee my husband and I have enjoyed during the shutdown.


I’d miss out how close my boys have grown together while they are busy making up games to pass the time.

And the Grand Prix Winner Is....

I’d miss out on the recognition of how important my friends are to me.


I’d miss out on the moments of gratitude, grace, and gumption.


Having lived through one year without a Thanksgiving, I don’t want to give up more of what’s in front of me because I want something that can’t be had.


Life’s too short, and 2020 has been too long, to overlook the small moments of beauty where we find them.

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Milwaukee, WI

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© 2020 by Emily Guy Birken