By Alyssa Spang
I don’t want to live exciting plot line; I want to be a compelling character…
At first, the dash only trembled as my green Toyota, affectionately named Eleanor, rolled past familiar Pennsylvania mountains ablaze with autumn, toward school. I was a second-year English teacher, and I happened to teach at the same high school I attended five years earlier. I’d never anticipated that my childhood and adulthood would mingle together so closely; I’ve since noticed there’s an awkwardness to wearing a freshly pressed, very adult button-down shirt at an Ikea desk in contrast to the memories of prancing about in a whimsical, girlish sun dress from locker to classroom. By my Corolla’s fifth bend in the road, things took a turn for the worse. The car convulsed: this was the end. Little Eleanor, with her unassuming hand-crank windows, was no more.
Perhaps it’s silly to attach nostalgia to random objects. Yet somehow Eleanor remains much-missed even though my blue Nissan is newer and flashier.
Driving is nearly synonymous with thinking; it’s a place where the rubber meets the road on multiple levels. Memories become experiences. Cars transform into friends. Guardrails bear witness to meandering one-sided conversations.
Earlier that year, my boss had asked out of sincere concern, “Who took away your spirit?” I knew the question was kindly meant, so I was ashamed I could not answer. Solitary driving hadn’t brought much light to the situation as the most relevant and pressing questions are often the most difficult. I can’t trace it back to a specific moment; there had been so many spirit-sacrificing moments since I had been a bright-eyed high-school student at his school.
There was a time when musty old books whispered to my soul, offering an aimless drift into daydreams as the hours continued to skim by. In college, principles pounded through my brain, and ideals flared to life as the wind outside the window beckoned to the inner adventurers of becoming a dutiful scholar. Or so I imagined. Innocence versus experience? Synthesize and learn the sub-text by heart. Commit your academic triumphs to paper, and revise your academic sins. Information and brash ideas fluttered through hallways, a confusion of remembering and forgetting self. Competition. 4.00 semester. Words, words, words. Speech and chatter. Pretension, humility. Esoteric. Quotidian. We knew so little. The library of endless noise reverberated with pounding hearts until every day the sun rose with a dimmer brightness. And we forgot that we were searching for enlightenment. Or, at least I was.
So he asked again, “Alyssa, who took away your spirit? We remember that you once had more…boldness.”
“I don’t know if you’re asking the right question. Perhaps you should ask, when did you decide to lose your spirit?”
It wasn’t a specific moment because the business of getting lost takes time. It’s a long string of compromises smashed together to form strange new memories.
I didn’t lose my spirit in college. It was something older and darker, shadowed by years gone by.
Sometimes we believe that in order to be interesting, we must fill ourselves with experience and pain. We bear our remembrances and take center stage. Crimson cheeks and tearful sighs create a popular rendezvous point for scintillating conversation. We’re in love with the idea of living a thrilling story, and we allow the allure of a tantalizing plot line to overshadow the beauty of being a compelling character. There’s the rub. The sighs of tragic, interesting memories are real. And electrifying. Oh, so perfectly luscious. But they hurt. And we forget that we were once content with being beautiful characters.
I didn’t think, until to it was too late, that I was actually compromising parts of my identity in order to live an interesting life. More frighteningly, I didn’t believe I could be interesting without stories of pain.
That’s why I’ve since tossed my yearly journals into the trash, at least ten notebooks of thoughtless rambling hurled right into the dumpster. There is nothing less interesting than a quest to be interesting. The problem started long before school, long before a career, long before the question of where to locate a lost spirit.
“Who took away your spirit? When did you first start feeling this way? When did you stop being who you were created to be?”
The answers as to what concoction of experience and emotion have tangled together into real-time thoughts are still elusive. Some memories exist forever and some fade. Some emotions trump memories; some memories trump emotions. Some recent experiences combine with old experiences and create a newly contrived experience. Is it necessary to analyze every layered memory in order to be able to breathe normally? To stop seeking experiential sparkle?
There was once a girl named Eve who reached for a certain fruitful piece of power and now the philosophers and theologians puzzle over her detrimental dining extravaganza. I like to imagine her singular reach may be the summation of distorted angles and ideas. And now we’re all bent out of shape and reaching just like she did.
I’ve always wondered, what was she reaching for? She had everything she could have possibly wanted.
Then I realize that she didn’t reach because she didn’t have enough. She reached simply because she wanted more. She wanted an exciting plot line more than she wanted to be of worthy character.
But if you look closely, I did too, and I lost it. I bartered away my spirit over the years just like Eve bartered away her soul for a couple of bites of simple fruit. In the beginning, no one noticed; I didn’t notice. Just like the first two feet of Eve’s fateful reach were relatively unremarkable. It wasn’t until the final grasp, tear, and bite of that fruit that it all came crashing down. My most recent memories are the rawest because that’s when I finally noticed I’d been spending my spirit on bite-sized chunks of shimmering nothing.
But, I know there’s real nourishment beyond the horizon, in the entrance to eternity, where our spirits will be restored to our bodies, and our identities will lie in something grander than what we’ve quantified with our five senses. I’ve heard it’s a place where we won’t have to trade ourselves for a pocketful of interesting stories to tell as anecdotal evidence of a life not wasted. It’s a place where being as we are made to be is finally fulfilling.
…What compelling character do you see yourself becoming?
Alyssa Spang teaches English at Grace Prep High School in Pennsylvania. When she’s not hanging out with literary-minded high school students, she’s probably sitting at a coffee shop or wandering through the woods. Aside from her Creator, there are few things she loves more than freshly fallen snow. Her short story “Let me Tell You about Mount Vesuvius” was published in the collaborative novel Frozen by Fire. She hopes continue writing in the future.