Ten years ago today, my apartment building caught fire and nearly killed me when I was almost trapped inside. I lost almost all of my belongings that I owned because my neighbor in the New York City apartment building I had moved into 3 weeks before set her gas stove on fire and then ran out of the building without turning off the gas. I used to think of September 5, 2009 as the worst day of my life. Now I think of it as my best. I wouldn’t wish my path on anyone, and I also wouldn’t change it, not one bit of it, because I love my life now and each of these difficult steps brought me here.
The first few years
Over the several years after the fire, I was dealt a hefty dose of PTSD that still persists in fits and starts today. I had intense anxiety attacks that would take over my mind and body without warning. I often felt like I was watching myself fall into madness. Being conscious of your descent and having no ability to stop it is a terrifying existence. I would be lying to you if I didn’t fully admit that there were nights I would lie awake in bed and wonder if life was really worth it. Many days, my answer to that question was “no, it’s not worth it.”
A nightmare that led to a dream
One night, I had a nightmare that I had climbed out to the balcony of my apartment and jumped to my death. I woke up just before I hit the pavement on Broadway down below. Obviously, I woke with a start. The moon was so big and so bright just outside my window that it was almost blinding. I went out to my balcony, and in my foggy state of mind, I could swear that moon spoke to me. I was in a job I didn’t like, in a romantic relationship with a narcissist, and I spent most of my time profoundly unhappy. Out on that balcony, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, that I had always wanted to be a writer, and if I had died in that fire, I never would be. I’d die with stories still in me. That’s when Emerson Page, the protagonist in my novel that would be published almost exactly 8 years later, began to take shape in my imagination. I would later learn that the name Emerson means “brave”, and that’s what she’s taught me—to be brave. Deep in my gut, I know that the moon and Emerson saved my life that night, and that they have saved me many nights since.
Several months after the fire, I wasn’t doing well. One day I found myself sitting on a New York City sidewalk crying. I didn’t remember where I was going or how I got there. It’s as if I had fallen asleep and woken up in a place I didn’t recognize. A man put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was okay. My honest answer was, “I don’t know.” Shortly after that, a friend convinced me to go to therapy and recommended a therapist to me. Our first meeting was basically me throwing out a lot of words and a lot of emotions, Brian listening, and then him telling me two things that changed my life: “I’m not afraid of you” and “I think I can help you if you want to be helped.” And that was it. I entered weekly therapy for 3 years, and to this day I still go to see him here and there when I am struggling. It is not an exaggeration when I say Brian pulled me out of my deepest darkness many times and that he is one of the tiny handful of reasons that I survived those early years and went on to build a life I love today. Without him, my life now would not be possible. He is a miracle worker. I owe him everything.
Making peace with my past
As it turned out, the fire was one trauma that burned away the wrapper I tightly bound around many other traumas I had endured over the years. Once the fire happened and my PTSD was in full effect, I could no longer hide nor contain those earlier traumas. I had to deal with them. Those traumas were festering and wreaking havoc in my life in all kinds of ways that I hadn’t even known or acknowledged. It was painful to do the work to heal myself, and it was necessary.
About a year after the fire, I got my first dog on my own as an adult. I had grown up with dogs and loved them so much, but had convinced myself that I needed to be in a relationship before I could get a dog because raising a dog and taking care of one in New York City on my own was something I just couldn’t do.
My fire gave me a lot of occasions to say, “Well, if I’m not going to do this now, then when?” And so, I decided to foster a dog. The fostering lasted about 5 seconds. I saw my dachshund, Phineas, a rescue who desperately needed a loving, supportive home, and I knew he was the dog for me and I was the human for him. We have had our ups and downs – plenty of mental and physical health issues for us both – but he is by far one of the best beings I’ve ever had in my life. We rescued each other. We still do.
Grateful for the lemons
My fire stripped me bare of any and all pretenses, excuses, and denials. Though at first it made me afraid of everything, it eventually made me fearless. It made me strong and confident. I had run from a burning building, lost almost everything, and rebuilt my life—mentally, physically, and emotionally—from scratch. What did I have to be afraid of? What could I not do? That fire taught me that my only constraint was me. I wasn’t making lemonade out of lemons. I was and am grateful for the lemons, just as they are.
My life is not perfect now, far from it. There is still so much I want to do. There are so many places I want to go and see. There are still so many experiences I have yet to have, that I want to have. For today, I’m putting those aside. Today, I’m just happy to be here at all, still broken in some places and with all the pieces I need to be whole. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being here with me. It means more to me than I have words to say.
“I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” ~Jack Kerouac
No matter you age, your past choices, or your current situation, every day is a blank page. You can see it as empty, or you can see it as an opportunity. It’s the same page, just a different perspective. Your move.
I was walking home from a memorial service yesterday. The person being honored at the service poured his love into the universe, into every person he met, and it came back to him many times over when he needed it most. Even in the depths of his incurable illness, he found the light that every day offered. Right to the end. His life is a powerful example of the glow that comes from the blank page. He could do anything he wanted, and he chose to be of service, to create community, to welcome love into his life with wide open arms. And because of those choices, his impact will far outlast his much-too-short life. We should all be so lucky, and we can be, if we choose to be.
Everything in life is a long shot. Nothing is easy. Everything worth doing takes time, effort, and passion. And this idea is freeing, not stifling. If it’s all difficult, then you might as well do what you love.
Yesterday, my life and career went full-circle. The company where I work now is a service and product provider for the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College. I worked at the Annie from 2003-2004. What’s more, our products and services are mainly used by the person who now has my former job. I spoke to her yesterday. She sits in the same office where I used to sit, and many of the same people are still at the theater. And to further bring it all around, I found my name and contact info at the Annie in my current company’s opportunities pipeline. (Apparently, I even got a cold email from my current CEO as he was prospecting for the business at the Annie and he sent me his first book on email marketing!)
This reminded me how often our circles cross and overlap, how timing really is everything. Every once in a while, an opportunity comes around a second time, perhaps in a different form, and it clicks in a way that it couldn’t the first time. A missed opportunity today always has the possibility to find its way back to us. I wonder what other opportunities will find me again.
Yesterday I spent some time talking to a friend of mine who’s a real estate agent. She’s helping me get on a path to homeownership here in New York, which is not a task for the faint-hearted. After talking about my financial picture, we talked about the idea of willing dreams into existence. This last set of years have at times been extraordinarily difficult for me and greatly blessed. All in, they have led me to the place I am now: in my favorite neighborhood in my favorite city, starting what I have high hopes will be a dream job, and a book 8 years in the making about to be published in just over a month. A year ago, this scenario was unlikely. Hell, it felt flat-out impossible. Today, it’s my everyday life, and I don’t take a single moment of it for granted. It’s not perfect, but I’m extraordinarily grateful for it, even in the moments when I’m most challenged. With effort and a belief in the wisdom of what we don’t yet know or understand, life becomes exactly what we imagine it can be. Every difficulty and blessing I’ve had was needed; each one played a role in making my life today possible. Perspective is a beautiful thing.
It’s daunting to think about what you’d title your autobiography, right? How do you sum up a life in one line? Let’s try.
I love tough challenges and I’m happiest on a vertical learning curve. If I had to pick one phrase to describe myself it would be “endlessly curious.” As such, the title of my autobiography would be I’ll Figure It Out: The Christa Avampato Story.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
I talked to a neighbor this weekend and learned that she’s also a yogi. She’s had a rough couple of months. She’s working hard to clear out her life and restore peace. There are remedies for surviving a tough time.
Give it space.
Give it time.
Talk it out.
Walk it out.
Read it out.
Celebrate small victories.
Understand that this is all temporary. Everything. All there is, in the end, is change. The shifts won’t always be comfortable or quick, but let them happen. Something better is falling into place.
“It’s all messy: The hair. The bed. The words. The heart. Life…” ~William Leal
Sometimes this is how life feels—messy. We want everything in order, in place, fixed, neat, perfect. I get this in moments, but overall life seems to trend much more toward messy. It’s nature. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. In other words, entropy naturally increases unless there are outside influences that restore or re-balance the system.
If we apply thermodynamics to our very illogical, emotional human lives, those outside influences are critical to prevent the systems of our lives from disintegrating. Friends, family members, passion projects, exercise, eating well, hobbies, art, books, spending time outside. All of these forces help to re-balance our messy lives. They help us restore some sense of order, peace, and equilibrium. Life will always tend to entropy. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help to put it back together. We can only fight entropy together.
Today was an upside down, turned around kind of day. Today I can say that I lived. Really lived.
My pup, Phin, happily played at daycare for 12 hours while I: ran about a dozen errands, set up his gate and noise dampening curtain, and had two very solid job interviews where I spoke my truth and it was appreciated. A sweet, cuddly, adorable 10-day-old baby slept on me for 2 1/2 hours. A dear old friend needed a shoulder and an ear, and I gladly and gratefully offered mine. And I lost a friend today whom I had not seen in a long time but will remember as someone who was always focused on how others were doing. She was whip-smart, incredibly capable, and never afraid to speak her mind. I admired her for all of that, and she will be missed.
Today had incredible highs and incredible lows. Moments of activity. Moments of calm. I am trying hard to remember that life will flow if we let it, for better or for worse, through difficulty and ease, through discomfort and freedom, if we believe that it can. I wish you a day full of life, and all that it brings.
“What are you going to do in New York?”
It’s a logical question when you move to a new city. My neat and tidy answer catches people off guard: love every minute of my life. Someone cracked me up yesterday when they responded, “No, really. What are you going to do here?” My answer stands.
I do have some more specific answers for more specific questions. For work? I’m looking at many avenues that bring together my passions and my talents. For love? I’m dating. For my writing? I’m promoting my first novel, writing the prequel chapter by chapter, writing my second novel that is the next in the series about Emerson Page, and pursuing freelance nonfiction writing. For fun? Phineas and I will be enjoying our long walks in the park. I’ll be spending time with my wonderful friends here, and making new ones. I’ll be at the theater, in the museums, listening to live music, creating art, and following every interest I have. I’m hoping to teach writing classes, mentor young people, and volunteer in my community. I’m going to try to learn to play a real song on the piano.
Anything can happen here in New York City, and it often does. While the city has a reputation for making people hard and tough, I think it’s much easier, and more enjoyable, to be a little soft. People can be gruff and self-absorbed. You have to stand up for yourself and then shrug it off. This city moves fast and carefully crafted plans have a way of disintegrating at the most inopportune times. Flexibility is key. If your dream today doesn’t work out, tomorrow you’ll have a new one. That long night of disappointment in-between is a tough thing to endure but you have to endure and persist and be determined to keep rising in spite of it all. New York is a tall order, and it’s the only one that really fits me.