Failure Comes in Many Forms

The roadtrip: a time-honored tradition.

The roadtrip: a time-honored tradition.

This past weekend, I had a plan to drive from Minneapolis to Chicago because my college roommate Alison, who now lives in Hawaii, was going to be in the city. I hadn’t seen her for a year and a half, and hadn’t even been able to go to her wedding because I’d been in Washington state. Now we were just six and a half hours away from each other. I planned to drive down Friday after work and come back late Sunday morning. I’ve driven across the country by myself. My routine drives from home to college took fifteen hours. This was nothing.

Yet everyone I mentioned this to said, “You’re driving by yourself?” as if it was not only unheard of, but downright dangerous. “Yeah,” I’d respond, with a shrug. “I like long drives.” Even my boss, after letting me leave work early, said, “You better be careful out there! Have you checked the weather?” Of course I’d checked the weather: clear skies in Chicago. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I had a printed set of directions and a working GPS. I was looking forward to watching the hills and fields of the Midwest stream by me while I sang along to the mix CDs I’d made for the occasion.

As I merged into the 3:30 rush-hour traffic, I was already rehearsing how I’d tell my friend about how uptight everyone had seemed about my roadtrip. I was both bemused and frustrated by the reactions. When I’d lived in Spokane, people had a tendency to say things like “That store is all the way out in the Valley,” which in reality meant it was a twenty-minute drive, at most. Maybe this was a similar problem: not driving a route often enough to see how manageable it actually was. I looked forward to telling them all what a great time I’d had come Monday.

After nearly two hours of driving through fog, blowing snow, and quickly deepening dark, I pulled off the highway in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and checked into a hotel. I was unbearably embarrassed. I had not checked the weather in Wisconsin, even though approximately 70% of my trip involved driving through the state. I thought about waiting to see if the snow would let up, but I still had five hours to go, and I’d spent the last thirty minutes gripping the steering wheel in semi-terror, unable to see the road signs, just trying to stay in the tracks the car ahead of me was cutting through the thin snow.

Still, I told everyone, including Alison, that I would leave early and see them on Saturday. I am a person who holds loyalty and friendship in high regard and goddamnit, if she was in Chicago, I was going to see her. This was the girl who lived with me for four years of college, proofread all my French assignments, and once ran and jumped into my arms just because I was curious if I’d be able to catch her. If I didn’t make it to Chicago, I didn’t know when we’d be able to see each other next.

Like I said.

By the time I checked the weather at 6:00 the next morning, it was clear I would not be making it to Chicago at all.

Sunday’s forecast was calling for blowing snow and hazardous driving conditions throughout the Midwest. I toyed with the idea of driving down while it was still clear, having lunch with Alison, and driving home the same day, but the thought alone was exhausting. I pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep until it was time to check out.

On my drive back, I didn’t recognize anything. The sun was blazing, and the roads were clear and empty. It was a compressed version of the drive I had been looking forward to. There were the cornless, wheatless fields covered in snowdrifts. There was the shining silo. There was the straight road on and on and on in front of me. There was a red barn with the inexplicable words Top Shelf Genetics painted over its doors.

My friends in Chicago told me I’d made the right choice; they were glad I was being safe. I took myself out to lunch and bought two new books; I deserved it, they said. But it felt more like a pity party than anything else. I had lived in Minnesota long enough to know that the weather was unpredictable and most often cruel. How could I not have even considered this might happen? I couldn’t remember the last time a plan had backfired on me so completely.

More than recent rejections from literary journals, more than messing up at work, more than the fact that I haven’t been writing, this felt like a Failure with a capital F, staring me in the face and pointing its dumb, fat finger at me. For whatever reason, unlike the other cases, this wasn’t a failure I could easily file away or brush off. Maybe it loomed larger because I’d been so smugly assured that everything would work out. Maybe it was the culmination of all the other things I’d been pushing to the back of my mind. But as my pity party came to a close last night, I dealt with my failure in a way that surprised even me. I wrote a poem—the first one I’ve felt good about in months.

This is not an everyone lived happily ever after story. True, I wrote a poem. Also true is that in a week, I’ll probably want to scrap it. This is not the part where I relate my roadtrip snafu to the writing process. The fact is, I’m still not good at dealing with failure. Of all the things they tell you about “the real world,” the guarantee of failure seems to get left out. Or maybe I’d always ignored it. To be honest, I’m not used to failing. If there’s one thing I’ve realized in the last five months of being in the real world, it’s that.

3 Comments

  • Monet Thomas says:

    I’m sorry about your trip, Casey. Rejection from a lit mag is not a failure, and neither is messing up at a new job. Not writing — well I’m there with you. In all categories, your intentions were in the right place and, of course, your friends knew that.

    and if nothing else — poem and two boooooooks

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    This hit home so hard! Maybe it’s this time of year…

    For me, those personal failures – not seeing friends, not being somewhere you’d said you be – sting so hard because those were supposed to be the easy things now. During grad school, we put those things on hold because we were supposed to be singularly focused, and supposed to be learning skills that would enable real life to happen more naturally afterward. But real life is also hard, hard in a different way. It’s hard for me to divorce all that hard work in school from a sense of “I deserve for life to be easy now.” It’s even harder to admit, but that’s how I feel a lot these days (especially on the days I fail hard at work).

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