I've been thinking about stories a lot recently. Mainly because I've been reading, and trying to write, a lot of them. The only thing I remember from English lessons is that 'every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end'. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
I started writing my last letter to you in November. Well, it was actually a letter to my dad, on what would have been his sixtieth birthday — had he not died sixteen years earlier. I haven't written to my dad in a long time. I used to send messages to his phone for a while after he died, and I tried talking aloud to him a few times. I never believed in an after life though, so I was never really sure what I was hoping for. But there was always this nagging desire inside me, to send those words into the world in some tangible form, for whatever reason.
I still think about my dad constantly. Subconsciously, and usually slightly out of focus. But for the past few months, those thoughts have been sharper. I've been having conversations with him, well with myself, over and over. And that same urge started to tug at my insides again. The urge to send those words into the world and make them real somehow. So I thought I would write him letter and send it to you, since he died so long ago that he didn't even have an email address.
I had written hundreds of letters to him in my head. But when I came to write the words down, I couldn't get further any than: "Dad,"
The next time I started writing to you was a week ago, on my birthday. It was the start of a new year for me, and not long after the start of a new year for you. I used to be crushed by the weight and expectation of every new year, before it had even begun. I always felt immense pressure to make big resolutions, set big goals, and change my life for real this time. As much as I liked to believe that pressure was external, it only ever came from me.
I eventually stopped putting all that pressure on myself, when I realised that lives are rarely changed by resolutions made on January 1st. Lives are rarely changed in huge, earth-shattering ways. Lives are changed quietly, little by little, over time. Lives are changed on April 19th, and July 3rd, and October 27th. Lives are changed by choosing a direction, and walking.
I stopped believing in endings the moment my dad died. I stopped believing in beginnings too. His death made me believe that the only thing a story truly has is a middle. Our stories existed before the beginning, and they will continue after the end. The only thing that matters are the moments in between. Like this one, right now. And this one, and this one...and this one. Every second of our story up to now has been leading to this moment.
Anything and everything is possible.
It’s 4:08am and I can’t sleep. I feel restless in a way that’s different to every other night that I’ve been unable to sleep. The BBC weather app tells me that the sun will rise at 4:53am, so I decide to make a flask of coffee and head to the beach to watch it. As I’m walking I try to remember the last time I was out early enough to see the sunrise and I can’t, it’s been a while.
I’m at the beach by 4:17am. It’s cloudy.
I walk west until the beach meets the cliff and walk back again. It’s now 4:49am and I’m sitting on a buoy in the sand, looking out to sea. It’s still cloudy, but those clouds are beginning to glow as the sun starts rising inside them.
A seagull has been circling above my head for the past few minutes. Every other seagull is eating or heading somewhere while making seagull noises. This one is circling tightly around my head, staring directly at me, making not-very-seagull-like noises. I get up and walk to the other end of the beach, towards the sunrise. The seagull flies in front of me, back and forth in arcs, the whole way. Any time I stop and stand still, it goes back to circling.
I start to think about “Guardian Angels”. I remind myself that I don’t believe in any kind of angel, but I decide this seagull is definitely a sign that I’m in the right place at the right time. Because that’s what I do these days, believe and take comfort in “the signs” — otherwise known as noticing any coincidences and deciding not to be massively paranoid or freaked out about them.
A few months ago I was staying on the English coast that’s directly opposite this Welsh one. Every morning a seagull would wake me at sunrise by relentlessly smashing its beak against the glass door in my room until I acknowledged it. The first morning I tried to ignore it, the second morning I tried to scare it away, but it would always start banging on the window again. By the third morning the seagull and I were spending sunrise together on the decking.
I heard the banging of beak on glass, got up to make coffee, then sat on the doorstep watching the sunrise — while the seagull watched me. Once the sun had fully risen and my coffee cup was empty, I went back inside and the seagull flew away. This went on for a week or so until it was time for me to go home. It was a weird relationship, but something about it felt right. I enjoyed being a morning person for once, and for a few weeks after I got home my mornings seemed a little more empty. I tried not to think too much about the seagull, or the fact that it was probably now spending its mornings with someone new.
I just realised that I haven't seen a sunrise since that week with the seagull. I’m not sure if this seagull at the beach today is that seagull — it’s impossible to tell without a glass door between us — or if I just want this seagull to be that seagull. But here we are, hundreds of miles away from where we were: me watching the sunrise with a coffee, the seagull watching me. Both of us feeling like we belong in this moment and in this place. Both of us feeling right.
You are alert and engaged enough to read this thing on a Monday, which you can chalk up as a victory. Even though this thing is in an email, which often feels like the opposite of a victory. Which is a loss.
You think about the things you have lost, the things you have discarded, and the difference between the two.
You think about that place, and that person.
You think about time and distance. You wonder how twenty four hours can feel either so short or so long, depending, and how you're not sure why. You think about how many days you’ve spent on this earth, and wonder how many of those days you lived more than you existed.
You think about the list of things that you need to get done today, and the list of things that you want to get done.
You know you’ll probably do most things from the first list and one from the second, two if you’re lucky. But you’ll remind yourself that there’s always tomorrow, even though you know that’s not true.
You want to start Monday right for once and have a good and productive week, but you’re already feeling tired and deflated and beginning to wonder what the point of all this is anyway.
You are the point.
You are more loved, more special, and more appreciated than you will ever know or think or feel. Even if it feels weird to acknowledge that.
You feel weird.
You worry that your thoughts are too dark, or your personality is too bland, or your self as a whole is too something that it shouldn’t be. You should be whoever you are.
You like pizza and ice cream and wish you felt a little less alone sometimes.
You are not as weird as you think.
You are definitely not alone.
You should call your mom, if you have one, or imagine calling her if you don’t. You should listen more than you talk.
You should fall in love, or be in love, even if it’s only with yourself. Especially if it’s only with yourself.
You should eat a little better, exercise a little more, and drink plenty of water. You know hydration is important.
You should not take every piece of advice you’re given.
This is about you.
It is also about me.
This is just another Monday at the start of just another week.
We’re in this together.
One: I wake in the new year on a boat. I sit and I drink coffee and nothing feels different, but everything feels possible. This has nothing to do with the new year of course, or a new me. This is life. Even when nothing is different anything is possible. Especially when nothing is different actually. This boat has the potential to sail anywhere in the world, but for now it is anchored and still. Everything is possible.
Two: I sleep too much and I eat too little. I start to feel unsure and overwhelmed. I don’t drink enough water. Everything is fucked.
Three: I write a lot of lists and I convince myself that this is how things get done. I know that this is not how things get done, but everything has to start somewhere. In a couple of days I’m flying to Denmark with my girlfriend Jayne. I need lists to operate.
Four: I get my hair cut and for the first time in a long time I don’t hate how it looks. I feel like me and it feels good. Back at my car there is a big yellow parking ticket stuck on the windscreen, waiting.
Five: Denmark is flat in a way that feels right and full of potential.
Six: The most beautiful sunset is happening in the most southern town in Denmark. The icy wind pushes against and then through my exposed skin and seeps deep into my bones. My core is frozen and painful. I thank a god that I don’t believe in for heated seats.
Seven: I wake up closer to 40 than 30 and I feel no different. I wonder who I will be when I reach 40 and I hope that I’m myself, whoever that is. I make pancakes for breakfast and we drive.
Eight: I stand at the edge of the white cliffs and look down at the turquoise sea. I follow the gradient upwards to the dark blue horizon and I can’t get a line out of my head: The ocean is six miles deep.
Nine: I manage to hit the only pothole in Denmark and our tyre blows completely. There is no spare wheel. We sit in the middle of nowhere for five hours and play squares, luckily we have snacks. It’s below freezing outside. I thank a god that I don’t believe in for heated seats.
Ten: The castles in Denmark look like really big houses, except they have towers and a moat. Anything can be anything.
Eleven: Today we eat lunch at Noma and neither of us are ready. We eat ants and leaves, fermented things and chocolate covered moss, we have mashed potato for dessert. They make me a birthday cake and we fly to Berlin and in between we share a Daim McFlurry. We are still not ready.
Twelve: I buy art supplies and eat at Angry Chicken. They give me 9 pieces of So So Angry Chicken instead of 6. I wonder if this is how it feels to be rich.
Thirteen: Today is bad, but it’s ok.
Fourteen: I watch 20,000 Days on Earth for the 20,000th time. It makes me feel both good and bad, inspired and paralysed, understood and alone. I think I need to drink more water.
Fifteen: Snow day!
Sixteen: I can’t stop thinking about Nick Cave, and the chefs at Noma, and a blur of people who never really come into focus. I wonder if I’m meant to be something more than I am. I worry that I’m having delusions of grandeur. I should spend less time on the internet.
Seventeen: I read the two drafts I’ve written for this newsletter. One is about the year just gone and one is about the year ahead. I delete both and start to write about today. Seventeen days feels like nothing, but the past seventeen have been so full. There are only 20.5 more seventeen day periods between now and 2018. Anything is possible.
I tend to think pointing myself in the general direction I want to go is better than meticulously planning my route to get there. Mainly because I never have any idea where there is, and I'm only ever vaguely sure of the direction I'd like to be heading. So I try not to plan much these days. Plans make me anxious. Seeing my future planned out on a calendar fills me with dread, in the same way that a new book I've written being released into the world fills me with dread.
Dread is the exact opposite to how a new book you've written "should" make you feel, in case you were wondering. Obviously I'm excited too, I think, but it's the kind of excitement where you're actually so anxious that you just have to keep telling yourself it's excitement. You know that one, right?
The weird thing is, when I'm confronted by something that makes me anxious my default response is to plan. Plan like my life depends on it. So I had planned a lot of things for my new book, which came out a week ago(!), by the way. I had planned to send you this letter the night before, for one thing. My sleep time had been hovering somewhere between 4am and 7am for the whole of August. And since The Nocturnal Journal is all about making good use of those hours you should be sleeping, I thought it would be a cool kind of "meta" experiment to write this letter while basically not sleeping. That night I was in bed by midnight.
So the book came out and I hadn't sent this, or even written it. I felt bad, because it deviated from The Plan and The Rules. But I felt even worse because I still hadn't even seen an actual copy of the book myself. My author copies were...somewhere else, and I couldn't get passed that. I couldn't write a thing. People started to send me photos of their own copies, telling me how proud and excited I should be, while I waited in for the post. Which obviously never came. I thought about crying. I went outside instead, and walked as far as my feet would take me.
A few days later, I popped out to get coriander from the Turkish supermarket at the end of my road. Bleary eyed, in my pyjamas, with my hair sticking up everywhere. An author. I checked my email in the queue and saw that my books had been sitting in a mobile phone repair shop for over a week. I paid and ran out of the shop, barely feeling the 3 full tote bags of shopping I was now carrying, and sprinted to the place. I spoke ein bisschen Deustch, and was handed a box with Penguin Random House printed on the side and my name on the top. I carried it home feeling whatever the opposite feeling of anxious is, as the tote bags slowly cut off the blood supply to my arms.
Back home I sat perfectly still on the sofa, staring at the box, waiting for my arms to work properly again. I woke up an hour later and unboxed (ripped open the box containing) the books, forgetting to make a cool video of the process as I had planned. I felt proud and excited, and relieved. The book looked amazing, way better than I even imagined it would. And now I'm here, finally writing this letter, telling you about the book. The book that is in shops now and that people are (hopefully) buying. The book that I have seen, so I know that it's real and exists. The book that glows in the dark!
If you have bought the book, thank you, genuinely. You're a huge part of the reason I'm here right now, hundreds of miles away (in every sense) from where I had planned to be, back when I used to make plans. The reason I stopped making plans is because I realised that every single good thing that's happened in my life has been something I hadn't really planned for. Travelling the world, moving to a new country, falling in love, and writing books were all the result of chance encounters, making mistakes, pretending I know what I'm doing, and being completely open to whatever life sends my way.
Nothing ever turns out how you planned (it often turns out better).
You start with the end. Which is actually an end, rather than The End. This end is also a beginning, as ends always are. But let's not confuse things. Although there will be many of these ends in your life, for now focus only on this one. This end can be anything you want it to be, anything you really want. It can be a place, or a thing. It can be a person, or people. The end can be a feeling.
If you don't have an end in mind, here is a way to find one. Imagine yourself at some point in the future. As far as you can go into the future, while still being able to comfortably imagine yourself, and your life. 10 years is good, 30 is better, but even next year or next month will work too. You can close your eyes when you're ready to do this, if it helps.
Try to get a deep sense of yourself in this future. Imbibe the person you have become, the person you are. Ask this person questions, as many as you can, and listen intently to their answers. Do they have children? What was their greatest achievement? Do they feel more happy than sad? What was the scariest thing they ever did? Do they believe in God? What is their biggest regret? Do they believe in themselves?
As you ask more and more of these questions, this person and their life will take shape before you. You will begin to see the all of the endings they have lived through. Maybe they finally wrote the novel they were always talking about, or travelled the world for a few years. Maybe they started a business, or formed a charity. They probably fell madly in love, at least once, and hopefully they feel... something.
Now remember, this person is you. All of those endings are your endings too. The endings you are imagining and creating for yourself right now. Think about which of those endings you want most. Again, this end can be anything, anything that you truly want for yourself and your future. Decide on an end, even if you're not sure that it's the right end. Just go with it. Especially if you're not sure that it's the right end.
Got one? Okay, good.
Now take one step backwards, away from the end. Just one, and look around. Where are you? What are you doing? Are you getting ready for the premiere of your debut film? Are you moving to another new country? Are you preparing your restaurant for the grand opening?
Once you're done there, take another step backwards, and do the same thing. Then another step, and another look around. Then another. Step backwards again and again. Have a long look around each time and take it all in, every detail of every step. Step backwards through the final draft of your first book, or the birth of your first child, or getting the keys to your first house.
Step backwards to quitting your job, or graduating, or buying a one-way plane ticket. Notice how these steps start to seem smaller with each one you take. Step backwards until the steps don't even feel like steps any more, until they become so tiny that they feel insignificant.
This is where things will start to feel messy. This is the place where all steps are basically the same, no matter who you are, or what end you have chosen. This is the place where your steps don't seem to be heading anywhere, or making any kind of difference. Step backwards to sending a few emails, or looking up courses, or sticking a world map on your wall.
Step backwards to seeing them for the first time.
Keep taking these tiny steps backwards, until you're here. Now. You are reading this email. It is March 16th 2018. You know the end that you want. You have walked each step between there and here. Your finger hovers over delete, and you have two choices...
1: Go about your day as normal, like all this never happened.
2: Take one step forwards.