The man in this picture once told me something I have never forgotten. “Don’t be afraid to say no to people when you have to, but don’t say no to yourself.”
He said this just after he hired me as a reporter for a paper called the Gloucester Daily Times, the daily that served Cape Ann, an island about 40 miles north of Boston and a world unto itself. I must have looked confused or maybe he just wanted to be sure I understood because he went on.
“There are going to be days when you’re heading home and you’re tired, or you’re on your way to cover a story and you’re running late. That’s when you’ll see something out of the ordinary, maybe a group of people gathering unexpectedly, a fire engine rushing by, a child or an animal doing something that everyone would like to see. These are opportunities. You can stop, find out more, take that picture and make your page that much better. Or, you can keep going. That’s saying no.”
He was talking about the job, of course. I was 21 and Peter Watson was doing one of the things he did best: mentor. He offered his experience and insight but then let you decide whether to use it or not. I confess there were times when I did not. Shame still flickers when I recall hearing a story idea from one of my readers and then forgetting it until I ran into her again, when it was too late. And on a glorious summer day, I shot one funny, beautiful, or telling photo after another, only to find I had forgotten to reload my Canon AE1 after my last deadline. [Digitals were still in the distance at that point.]
The lessons were painful but effective. In saying no to those opportunities, I let him down, made life more difficult for my editors and everyone else who had to put out the paper. And the residents of Rockport, who opened their pages every day to Page two found less than they would have if I had seized the moment or had been prepared for the lucky photo op that came my way.
It was the regret, though, that lingered. This is what Peter was trying to tell me. You don’t get those opportunities back. I was haunted for longer than you would expect by the missed opportunities because the ones I had the sense to grab taught me so much.
Peter and his beautiful family remained in the center of my life even after I left the Cape and, eventually, journalism. No matter what I was doing, though, opportunities came, often disguised as inconveniences or things that seemed outside my comfort zone or simply things I thought could wait: jobs, love, a cup of coffee with a person I’d just met, writing. Writing always fell aside. The urge to put off, avoid, give into fear or fatigue has continued to reside in me like a virus, ready to flare.
Peter died on November 24. The last time I saw him was in May. We’d said our farewells inside the house but he called to me and I waited while he walked toward me. It was not an easy walk. His balance was compromised by the tumor in his brain and he was very tired. But he took one step after the other. He put his arms around me and hugged me, harder and longer than he ever had before. He said, “Good bye, old friend.”
We talked often and I planned to see him again but it didn’t happen that way. I am so grateful to him. He could have stood in the doorway and waved, pretended that this moment was like any other but he didn’t. He acted on whatever instinct made him come to me and say that good bye.
A week after he died, when the grief was raw, the month of December looked completely different than the one I had planned. There was a eulogy to write, a trip east to plan. Family was coming, there were errands, gifts and for a time it seemed overwhelming. That was when another friend I have known and cherished for most of our lives, Rae Francoeur, got in touch with a proposal. She knew I’d finished my novel and was submitting it to agents. She told me that if I had my blog up and running, she could “tag” me in something called The Next Big Thing Blog Tour. The problem: I had to have my blog up and running in time for the new year.
I could say no. For over a year, my blog has been languishing on my hard drive and in drafts on WordPress. What would a few more weeks matter? Then came the echoes of Peter’s words.
This time, I know there is no one I will be letting down if I don’t do it. The world is not waiting breathlessly for another writer or another blog. But I also know that regrets sharpen with every year that passes. The opportunities to connect, to grow, to try something new, don’t always come when we want them but they come. I can say not now and tell myself there will be other moments like this one. Or I can say yes and see what happens.
Check in next week for the “Next Big Thing Blog Tour.”