As our story begins, Danny Ward is 36 years old and standing in the shower in his parent’s new apartment in downtown Detroit. It’s two days after Christmas. And last night, he had one of the most vivid and odd dreams of his life. So odd, he’s barely noticed that the water pressure is waning and the temperature is starting to drop rapidly. He can’t shake the images he woke with, the tear soaked pillow he woke on, and the feeling of change it stirred within him.
Four years ago, Danny returned home from a not-so-brief stint living in Sweden. And living with a woman, his fiancé… ex-fiancé. As he stands in the shower, the water temperature steadily dropping, he tries to recall his first shower in the US after returning. It was in an airport hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare. He closes his eyes and lets his mind drift to those first months back, the first months living in his parent’s house – at the time, they were living in Farmington Hills in a huge condo they’d moved into during Danny’s first semester at college.
Danny was 32 and found himself living with his parents for the first time since 18. And even now, four years later, there is a slight feeling of failure having had to do that. He’d always hoped that by the time he reached his 30’s, he’d be slightly more stable financially, emotionally, further along in his career and personal life. He’d really tried on all fronts – especially the personal. He’d fallen head-over-heels in love. He lived out his hopeless-romantic adventure, moving around the world to be with the woman he loved. And for five years, he really tried. He tried to fit in in Sweden. He tried to be a more stable, future-minded individual, not always trusting in the “it will happen.” He tried to have a “plan B,” something he previously never wanted, because as he often said, “If you have a plan B, plan A has already failed.” And he did have moments of actual happiness in that life. There were days, sitting on the couch, nestled next to the arms he loved and smiling at the face he woke next to every morning. There were dinners that were filled with laughter and inside jokes. And nights he would sing silly songs as they climbed into bed, making her laugh in a way he thought only he could.
But, much like the pressure and temperature of the water on the 27th floor of the Detroit City Apartments, life isn’t always steady. Sometimes it just drops out from under you. Danny’s life dropped out from under him at 31. He moved home eight weeks later, at 32.
It’s an odd thing to reset your life at 32. He often compares it to the freedom he felt at 17 and 18, when choosing which college he would attend. But even more so. He had just enough money to move wherever he wanted and start a new life. He contemplated Los Angeles, though he knew that was just an obvious professional option, not one that would make him happy. He knew what he wanted to do – which is what he ended up doing – but, he’d spent years with someone that had convinced him that plan B was a good thing to have and was maybe a more viable option for his life’s plan than his dreams were. So, he took some job interviews in Detroit. He thought, “well, Detroit is resurging, and it’d be cool to be a part of that rise. Maybe after a few years in advertising, I could think about making movies again.” Each time those words floated though his mind or came out of his mouth, his heart ached and his body squirmed. That isn’t who Danny is. That isn’t the life he was meant to live. But neither was the life he’d lived in Sweden. And truth be told, nor was it the life he’d been living in New York before meeting his ex. So, what was Danny to do?
He really didn’t know. And he spent a lot of days, sitting in what used to be his sister’s room, staring at his new computer, wondering what the hell he was going to do. At night, he’d smoke pot and watch movies, crying to himself, wishing he had made each and every one of them. And not just the great ones he loved, but the horrible, the cheesy, the poorly-written, the haphazardly edited, the blockbusters, the no-budget indies, the commercials that aired before them and the trailers he watched while deciding. Why the fuck wasn’t he making movies? And what the fuck had he been doing with himself and to himself instead of doing something FOR himself all these years?
He’d, at the time, just finished and launched his largest undertaking, a sitcom pilot called Highlighters, which he wrote, directed, produced, starred in, edited, and pretty much everything else he could do. It was filmed in Stockholm with an amazing cast and crew only four days after Danny had been told his life was being pulled out from under him. Which, he’d be the first to tell you, actually helped him prep for his character, Jeremy, the walking embodiment of Murphy’s Law. But it didn’t make the discovery that his relationship, which he thought was going to last the rest of his life, was over.
He stands in the now dripping, cold water, recounting every decision he’s made since that day, all the while, reliving last night’s dream. He recalls the morning he went to his final job interview in Detroit, returning to his parent’s home suddenly completely aware of what he was going to do.
He tries to adjust the water to bring it back to life as he remembers marching upstairs and spending the rest of that night rewriting his first screenplay, the amazing feeling of finally knowing it was done and ready, the moment he told his parents he wasn’t going for plan B, that plan B was, as it always had been, the only way he’d ever view himself a failure. He needed to return to New York – and not to the life he’d left, as that life was unhealthy and unproductive. But to start a new life in New York. To return to make his movie, to fulfill his dream, to become the man he always knew he was going to be and always wanted to be.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The following three years had a lot of ups, but also a lot of downs. And each one challenged and tested Danny. Would he return to the darkness and the bottomless pit of bad decisions he’d swum in before his heartbreaking adventure overseas? Would it finally be too much? Or could he persevere? Could he be stronger and could he be more than he was before? Perhaps this was all for the best. Perhaps he needed to learn the lessons he learned and that he would never settle for a plan B, no matter how much he loved the beautiful eyes urging him to follow it. Perhaps that’s what he needed.
The warm water starts returning, as does the pressure, and Danny sighs relief. Some lingering sleep-tears slide down his cheek as he recalls the dream’s start.
He was walking into an event he’d attended weeks before, a charity benefit for the Sonoma fires, hosted by a friend. He was with his favorite friends – his life-lines, Natalie and Michael. (The two of them had been much of the reason Danny had not fallen into the darkness and old ways upon his return to New York.) The event went, as would be expected – wine, food, fun. But, as Danny left, the hostess and he began to argue, which is most unlike them. She was upset he was leaving before the night’s big toast and that he was expected to stay. Danny replied rudely and the same was returned at him. Then more. Then, the hostess, who in reality is the loveliest, became Danny’s self-judgement. She tore into him. She eveicerated him to the core, making sure no point of self-prescribed weakness and failure were left to the wayside. With his entire being in a state of defence, not knowing how to reply, anger surged. He threw punches, he threw daggers of hate from his mouth, he knocked her down and pounded his inner judge into the pavement. It wasn’t a woman he was beating up; it wasn’t his dear friend he was pulverizing on the lower Manahattan street. It was him. And it felt good to call himself everything he’d always wanted to, to hit himself the way he’d always wished he could, to knock-back at the voice that for years had been telling him he wasn’t enough, he was a failure, he was a waste, he was damaged and broken and not deserving and that everything he ever wanted was already missed out on.
He stood and stumbled off, wishing he could call his friends, he could cry to them and let them make this moment feel better. In the dream, he still thought he’d just beat up a friend. It’s only in the shower, thinking back on it, he understands the subconscious message his brain was sending. Over the Manhattan bridge Danny walked home, through the stillest parts of the night, until he woke, in his bed, still reeling. He called Michael and began to tell him the story. They agreed to meet and Danny headed into the city, meeting Michael in the backroom of a Chinatown bodega – which is a completely normal place to meet, apparently. Upon Danny’s arrival, the hostess was there along with a young Asian boy, who plays no further role in the dream, but is worth mentioning because it’s strange. Michael tried to get Danny to talk to the hostess, to apologize. But betrayal is all Danny felt. How could his friend do this? He told him what she’d said, how she’d attacked and how she’d hit him so deep, he wasn’t sure he’d ever come back. So, Danny left. He turned and walked right out. The hostess ran after, apologizing and explaining. With warm tears flowing, Danny turned and faced her. He wasn’t upset with her, but ashamed and scared and hurt, not by her, but by years of burying who he was, by years of denying who and how much he was. And, in his defeat, they embraced. Which made Michael happy. And he announced that Danny’s movie was about to start playing on an enourmous screen in the park outside the bodega. So, they all watched. And Danny cried. And people asked for his autograph. And people offered to finance his next film… And then he woke up. His face planted in a tear soaked pillow, his body shaking, and for some reason, his mind clear and focused and, for the first time in many many years, at peace.
His mom is knocking on the bathroom door, asking how long of a shower he plans to take. He realizes he’s probably been in there quite a while. But the water has just returned to hot and Danny takes a few more minutes to fill the room with steam and warm his body through and through.
While Danny’s story started long before he turned 36, that’s exactly when the story he wants to tell starts. He looks forward to this year, and the next. He doesn’t mind when he wakes up to damp spots on his pillow where his eyes pressed against it. He doesn’t mind that life was pulled out from under him. He doesn’t mind that he’s had relationships that failed. He doesn’t mind that his twenties were spent in darkness (with flickering moments of great light). He doesn’t mind that he is fluent in bitter and anger and heartbreak. He doesn’t mind that he wandered and got lost along the way. He doesn’t mind the pain he feels on most days. He doesn’t mind the moments it isn’t there and true laughter reigns king. He doesn’t mind that he has friends he doesn’t get to see as often as he’d like or that he can’t afford to do all the things he wants to with them. He doesn’t mind that he’s usually broke. He doesn’t mind the letters his landlords send him. He doesn’t mind the memories of those that aren’t here anymore. He doesn’t mind that he misses them all the time. He doesn’t mind who is. He doesn’t mind how he is. In fact, with the help of a lot of friends and people that love him, he’s come to quite like it. And I think that’s the story he’s going to be telling from now on. And he hopes you can do the same.
I don’t mind who you are either or how you get to where you want to be.
It is all those experiences that make you the beautiful person you are.
Always follow the dream and treasure the big heart you so freely give.
It seems to me that you have been, wittingly or unwittingly, laying a substantial foundation of experience, both professional and personal that will serve you well going forward. It takes years to hone a skill, to master a craft. You have already notched several of those years on your belt: your ability to write as well as you do combined with what I perceive to be a real ability to “organize and prioritize” big projects are no small achievements for a 36 year old. Keep going. Follow your passion. Read Camus’ essay “Sisyphus” and just keep pushing that damn rock.