Sometimes in life we find ourselves so wrapped up in the “right now” that we find it nearly impossible to look at the past. We tend to put our heads down and pay no attention to the world around us, barely even looking up to see where we’re going, much less where we’ve been. I was granted a prime view of my own past as I found myself riding around in the town I grew up in yesterday. It was very eye-opening. I saw things that I remember from my past, and new things that weren’t there before.
It has been about 6 years since I lived in Tazewell, Virginia full time and about three years since I moved away altogether, but I can still smell the air, still see the first stars piercing the deepening blue veil of the night sky. I can remember so much without even trying, but the flood of memories that came back to me while I was riding around shocked even me. From seeing the old high school, to the first place I ever worked- Grant’s Supermarket, where I served just under two years as a bagger and cashier during high school – my childhood was nearly tangible to me in those moments. Just riding the roads helped bring me back through the years to memories that I’d even forgotten I had. I saw things I’d enjoyed as a child and things that I’d never seen there before. Despite the years since my residence, little has changed in the old place. The roads are a little wider in places, the storefronts a little more modern, but the thing that struck me most was that the shape of the town is still the same. The mountains that looked over my youth, shaped my adolescence, sheltered me when the world around me threatened to press in too tightly, are still the same. They are the same mountains that looked over generations before me, are currently looking over my friends and family that remain there, and will look over the generations of future residents.
Isn’t that a comforting thought? Once upon a time I might not have thought so. I can remember, as I’m sure many of us do (perhaps particularly those of us who grew up in Tazewell, where sometimes you could literally just sit and watch the grass grow) I wanted nothing more than to put my hometown behind me and move on to bigger and better things. Now I’m a little older and, I like to think, a little wiser, and I do miss it. I miss the way the sun rises over the mountains in the winter, the fresh, hot rays pulling steam from the icy roadways and frigid waters. I miss the sounds of summer rolling through the fairground as the town prepared for the demolition derby – because who doesn’t like a bit of destruction, right? I miss the quiet that settled down over the town at night. I used to have bonfires with my friends in my backyard, and sometimes we would be laughing and talking and joking until sunrise, but even on the most raucous nights there would be times that we would just grow quiet and be in awe of the silence, the world seeming to end at the edge of the light produced by our tiny fire. Those were times of peace.
Of course, I thought my life was hard sometimes. I went to school, I worked, I did chores, and I maintained a social life. I was a regular marathon man. Looking back on it now, after graduating college twice, being a regular part of the full-time workforce and paying bills for years, I wish things could go back to being that simple. I wish I hadn’t taken the small town life for granted. Riding through the old park, below the lake where my grandfather and I used to go fishing, I saw a glimpse of the old town theater through the trees. I used to live within walking distance of the place, and memories of countless movies came flooding back. Midnight releases of the latest Harry Potter movie, watching “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” there no less than six times, seeing Toy Story there for the first time. Granted I remember the trip to the theater to see that more than I remember the full movie, but it’s the memories that brought me back to who I was in those days, who I still am, who I occasionally lose sight of when the bills seem too expensive or the days seem too short.
My experiences really inspired me to think about my life and who I am, and it hit me that I owe so much of my own life to where I came from. I can pinpoint so much of Tazewell and the surrounding areas that played crucial parts in helping create the man I am today. Most importantly I can look back at that life and remember the things that led to me being a writer, a lover of literature, a lover of music, a lover of family and laughter and happiness. Those things that I hold dear, the things that I was always sure would get me out of that small town life, are things that I can directly attribute to being part of that very thing. If I hadn’t had Larry Hypes as a teacher in high school I may not have such a love of “The Great Gatsby.” If I hadn’t had Jill Vogel (then Rhudy) as a teacher, I may not have been given the right nudge toward my writing. If I hadn’t had the friends I did, I may not have the lust for life that lets me know waking up in the morning is one of the most crucial and rewarding things I can do.
My point is that sometimes in life we have to look back on our past to appreciate where we are in the present, and remind us where we want to go in the future. Life is a huge and multi-faceted thing. Sometimes you’re on the top, sometimes you aren’t. Sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield. But no matter where you are or where you go, there are memories that you hold dear that keep you going when times are tough. The older I get, the more I appreciate the place I came from. I told myself for years that I wanted nothing more than to get out of the town and never look back, but now I’m more than grateful for the things it gave me, for the person it made me. More importantly I’m beyond thankful to God for putting me there and giving me the life I’ve had.
As my ten year high school reunion grows nearer, I realize a part of me has been worried of where I will be at that time in my life. Often in popular culture we see references to high school reunions that indicate it should be little more than a one-up contest. Who got old? Who got fat? Who went to jail? Who has kids? Is anyone famous? Naturally, that worries me. As someone who has been writing for more than a decade I always expected to be able to walk into that reunion with a novel or two under my belt, maybe even be able to walk into the school library and find my own title on the shelves. So far that hasn’t happened. I’m still plugging away, blogging and writing, publishing when I can. I’ve got a couple of novels complete, but for one reason or another I haven’t pushed them out to publishers yet. Maybe it’s because I’ve been afraid of NOT being able to have the pleasure of putting that on my resume for anyone interested in seeing what Damean Mathews is up to. Yesterday showed me how wasteful that is. When I go back to that place and see all the people I grew up with again, I’ll going with my amazing wife and some amazing memories to share with everyone. Sure, there will hopefully be a book or two along for the ride, but those things won’t be what makes me who I am. It’s the love and the memories I have and the ones I continue to make that contribute to who I will become.
I fully believe – and have since I first seriously put pen to paper – that God put me on this earth to write. I have stories in me that are bigger than even I understand, and I know that this is my purpose. Seeing the things that helped inspire my writing, visiting my old haunts where I used to write for hours, and seeing the places that I still associate with some of my favorite memories really showed me that I have a lot left to do to get where I want to be in that aspect. But it also showed me that my dreams have never been more attainable. I’m a happily married, hard-working, fully dedicated man with a passion and a destiny, and I see that now more than ever. The dedication and determination that helped put me through the tough times in my life were reignited with a fiery passion in those moments, and I know now that I can’t rest until I make it happen. And it’s all because I took the time to stop and revisit the past.
If you’re having a hard time in life, feeling a little lost, or even if you’re on top of the game and loving every aspect of your life, take the time to stop and revisit where you came from. Step out of your present and leap into the memories of the past. See what you saw before, put yourself in the shoes of the person you used to be and see if you’ve accomplished what you intended. See if there is anything you can do to be be truer to yourself. There’s nothing like a blast from the past to remind you what you want for your future. Looking back I would probably take the time to breathe in the night air more often, enjoy the simple things. I would spend a few more hours on the front porch, take the time to throw a few extra logs on the bonfire and ride out the sunrise one more time. I wouldn’t complain so much at the slow speed of things in town. Life will be speeding up plenty soon enough.
Have you revisited your past? When was the last time you rode through the town you grew up in? What has changed? What did you learn? I look forward to seeing if this has happened to anyone else, and if you’re out there reading this and you feel like you need a nudge to push you in the right direction in your life, I suggest taking a step backward and looking where you were and using that knowledge to help you take a step forward and go where you want to be. Trust me, it’s worth it.
I’d like to say a special thanks to my beautiful wife, my amazing friends, and my awesome family who have helped me be the man I am today. I know I sometimes let the rough patches in life make me step back from my purpose, but I think now I’ve got a great way to combat that. Thank you all for your support through the years, and thank you for helping me build the life I have, and the life I’m continuously working toward.