How to Start a New Year

by Jan 9, 2024People, The Blog, Wilmington

The author of the memoir and travelogue Looking Up shares the life lessons she learned when her life hit rock bottom.

The alarm did not go off on January 1, 2019. Why set one? After about 11 years as an investigative TV news reporter, I was formally unemployed. No longer, “Casey Roman (pause) WECT News.” Just, “Casey” now. And “Just Casey” did not seem worth waking up for.

Casey Roman WECT Reporter Wilmington NC

Outside was a typical bleak, rainy winter day in Wilmington. A cargo van sat in the driveway. Inside was a partially cobbled-together bed and kitchen. That makeshift RV had been tasked with one very big job: to save my life.

In the span of about one year, I had lost my dream job, my beloved historic home and practically all my possessions. The separation process had relocated my consciousness to the most shadowy corners of the human mind. If I did not do something soon, I knew I would not be alive much longer. Grace comes in unexpected forms. In my case, a Ram 2500 cargo van, lovingly named “The Babe Bus.”

Casey Roman Wilmington NC Cargo Van

That is how my New Year began in 2019.

It took a hard landing on rock bottom and that cargo van to teach me that God does not move parked cars, so to speak. We have to keep moving forward before we get direction.

By July of that year, I had outrun tornadoes in Texas, helped birth a baby cow in Buffalo, shot an impromptu rap video in the “Murder Capital of the US” and nearly played football with an armadillo in Georgia. By myself. In a cargo van. By the end of 2019 I was flying around the country in First Class, shooting videos for a company of retired CIA agents. Imagine what I would have missed out on if I had been unwilling to endure the discomfort. If I had played it safe instead of leaning into all the blind curves.

That 12,000+ mile journey did in fact save my life and spawned not one but two new businesses. In 2023 I published the story as the memoir and travelogue, Looking Up.

None of that would have happened if I had not stepped on the gas.

If 2024 has a giant question mark over it for you, as 2019 did for me, here are a few lessons I have learned through life’s sudden exits, mile by mile:

1. Reverse Engineer Your Story
I did not wake up one morning and decide to chase highway exits with the wind in my hair for fun. Instead, I was given a glimpse of the final seconds of my life, when I would be looking up at a hospital ceiling. Coming to terms with the passage of time recalibrated how I saw my present circumstances. I asked myself, “When that time comes, what decision will I wish I had made right now?” If this new year is beginning with a heavy heart and major changes to be made, think with the end in mind and then work backward to the breath you just took. When there is no time left for a re-do, what decision will you be glad you had made? What creates the story you’ll be proud to tell? None of us are getting out of here alive. There’s a future version of you counting on the present version. Don’t let yourself down.

2. Risk the Hard Reset
You can’t have a comeback without a setback. Be willing to go backward to go forward. If you can’t endure a few weeks (or months) of discomfort to be in a better place by this time next year, you’re going to get what you’ve gotten. We all get exactly what we tolerate. For more than a decade I tolerated an industry that barely paid a livable wage, where journalism was exchanged for high-volume “content creation.” The unknown seemed scarier than the devil I knew. If I had not taken the leap that would likely still be my reality. Here is the funny thing about parachutes: They do not open until you jump.

3. Don’t Make Permanent Decisions in Passing Storms
When it feels like there is nothing to look forward to, sometimes preventing tomorrow from happening seems like the only way out of that pain. I get that. It is the reason I took a gamble on that van and each mile I drove. Many stops and states after those darkest days, I found myself running wild in a farmer’s barn, snuggling a newly born baby bull. I will never forget staring into those big, brown, adorable eyes. The day had been filled with so much wonder and serendipity. Had I ended my story months prior, I would have missed out on so much.

While I was writing Looking Up, my father, a colleague and a friend all committed suicide within weeks of each other. Of all the traumatic layers those situations laid bare, what I grieve most is knowing there was a future filled with happy moments that they will never get to experience. I promise, out there on the horizon, there are days full of color again. Please do not rob yourself of them.

4. Keep Your Nose to the (Literal) Grindstone
In Indiana’s Amish country looking for directions and, Lord-willing, electricity, I stumbled into a grist mill. I found a man in overalls who had restored the mill from near decay, despite not having a shred of motivational evidence that doing so was a sane idea. He had felt that tug on his heart, that whisper in his soul that we all experienced and, sadly, often ignore. Despite vandalism, public backlash and arson, for years he forged ahead in the reconstruction if only to honor that little voice that said, “Keep going.”

When he sprinkled the fairy dust of freshly ground flour into my hands, still warm from the stone, I saw the influencer America actually needs. The mill will never make him a millionaire — at best he got a chapter in my book. But it gave him joy, it was honorable work that fed his community and it fulfilled a quiet calling.

The takeaway? Talk less, listen more to those whispers and give God a little elbow room to work in your life.

5. Tip the Hourglass
In Fort Smith, Arkansas, I came across a family fumbling with a camera, trying to take a photo together. One of the women introduced herself and said, rather directly, that she was terminally ill. Truthfully, it was obvious. I took more photos of them than they asked for, and together we watched the most glorious sunset over the river. With every fiber of my being, I fought distraction to remain as present as she was in that beauty. Catching a glimpse of her face, awash with sunbeams, I could see was fully absorbed in each second and in every color we witnessed shooting across the sky. She understood the value of time in a way I could not comprehend.

Start measuring your minutes differently. If I put an hourglass on your dashboard filled with a grain of sand for each minute you had left on this green orb, then turned it over, you would make different choices this coming year. You would not let anyone waste your time. You would not spend it scrolling social media. You would think twice about cashing in another 12 months at a job or in a relationship that makes you miserable.

Certainly not after you saw how many “grains” they were all costing you.

6. Next Door Adventure
One of my most memorable stops was in St. Simons, Georgia. You can “hunt” for fairies in their trees. After dark I pulled the van next to the lighthouse and cooked (read: burnt) dinner underneath the orbiting light and to the sound of the lapping waves. It was incredible. It was also something I could absolutely have done anytime I wanted to at home. There is a lighthouse on Oak Island and a camping stove in my garage. I could have that same feral, outdoor experience at my leisure and without buying a $30,000 cargo van and spending months converting it into an RV. So can you.  A sense of adventure does not require a far-off journey.

7. Don’t Avoid the Detours
Often my prayers started with, “God, I see you took today off…” Frustrated at what did not work out. Resentful that the perfectly paved path I planned turned into off-roading. I had to remind myself that not getting what I want can sometimes pay huge dividends. What had felt like punishment in the loss of all my “things” was preparation. Having no job, no house/mortgage, no rent and no belongings was the blessing. What I labeled as “loss” was in fact the gifting of the freedom I would need to have the experience of a lifetime. Freedom to chase mile markers. So don’t avoid your detours. They may be the scenic route.

Keep your eyes on the horizon in 2024.

Casey Roman Book Cover

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