In September of 1990, the band Extreme released their balled “More Than Words” off their album Extreme II: Pornograffitti. Unlike anything the group had ever done before, the song features just two of the band members singing while playing acoustic guitar.
By January 1991, the song had hit #1 on the Billboard charts.
I loved that album. I still love that album. Extreme was a Boston-based heavy metal band that reached the height of popularity in the early 1990s with songs like “Kid Ego,” “Play With Me,” and “Hole Hearted.” I liked “More Than Words” when it was released, but I was and still am a fan of all their music.
In September 1990, as “More Than Words” began climbing the charts, I was living in an apartment in Attleboro, MA with my friend, Bengi, in a home we affectionately called the Heavy Metal Playhouse. Bengi was attending college at Bryant University, and after being kicked out of my home following high school, I was managing a McDonald’s in Milford, MA.
We were struggling at the time. Not enough money to turn on the heat and surviving on macaroni and McDonald’s leftovers. We huddled under blankets and watched a black-and-white television perched atop a baby-changing table. When the pipes burst in one of the two bathrooms, we simply closed that room off and never used it again lest the landlord discover that we couldn’t afford the heat.
I was less than two years away from being homeless, jailed, and tried for a crime I didn’t commit.
At the time, I didn’t see much by way of a future. College – my lifelong dream – was an impossibility. I could barely feed myself, so finding the funding for higher education seemed like years and years away. A good-paying job – or my dream job of teaching school – was well beyond my reach. I was living paycheck to paycheck, battling constant car trouble, and I was too poor for credit card companies to even consider giving me a line of credit.
My future was bleak. Though I wanted so much more out of my life, it was hard to see past my meager existence. But I never lost hope, even when things got very bad, and I’d always remained optimistic and positive. But rationally, I wondered how I’d ever make my dreams come true.
Thirty-three later, this past Sunday, I was sitting beside Elysha in the dining room at Canyon Ranch, a resort and spa in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, dining on turkey tartine in a seat that overlooked a snow-covered scene of perfection. I had performed two shows over the course of the weekend, which had afforded Elysha and me the opportunity to indulge in Canyon Ranch’s world-class amenities and fine dining.
Over the course of the weekend, Elysha enjoyed a massage and a facial. She spent time in the hot tub and cold plunge. I exercised in their gym, wrote while watching the sun rise over a snow-covered mountain, and read books beside a roaring fire. We learned to play pickleball. Relaxed and talked and read in many picturesque settings. Played music bingo. Met interesting people. Made new friends. Ate world-class cuisine.
I tried many new foods. Didn’t hate any of them and even liked a few.
There was even a pillow menu from which we could order a variety of pillows ranging from buckwheat to memory foam.
And as we ate lunch at that table overlooking that scenic perfection, I heard “More Than Words” begin to play on the restaurant’s sound system. It wasn’t the version I have heard one million times from the Pornograffitti album but an instrumental version played on piano and accompanied by strings.
Listening to that song, I was struck by how far I had come.
Had you asked the 20-year-old version of me if I would ever find myself at a resort in the Berkshires someday, performing for audiences, dining on turkey tartine alongside my wife, watching the sun rise while lounging before a roaring fire, and listening to an instrumental version of a song originally written and performed by Extreme, I would’ve thought you were crazy.
Never in a million billion years.
Yet it all happened. Change is real. Hope springs eternal. You can forge the future you’ve always wanted, and perhaps a future you couldn’t even begin to imagine, with a lot of hard work, a little bit of luck, and what I think has been most important on my journey:
A relentlessly positive attitude.
My future was bleak back in 1990. My possibilities seemed endlessly limited. I had no support system whatsoever. Other than the kindness of friends who weren’t doing much better than me, I was on my own.
The chances of making my dreams come true seemed unlikely at best.
But I kept hoping. Never stopped dreaming. Always maintained the faith that a better future might be possible. Continued moving forward.
Sitting at that lovely table, listening to the instrumental version of that song, and staring at my beautiful wife, I was reminded of how much more that younger version of me wanted from life. Even at my lowest point – homeless, cold, hungry, and awaiting trial – I had never surrendered hope. Had not stopped trying to make every single tomorrow better.
For a moment, I really couldn’t believe where I was sitting. Couldn’t believe what had become of my life. Couldn’t believe how far I had come.
Sometimes you need a reminder – a moment when the past and the present are brought together in near-perfect symmetry – to allow you clarity on your journey. A folding of time and space so that two moments – more than three decades apart – seemingly become one.
Then you tell yourself that story. Recount the journey, honor your struggle, acknowledge your success, recall your stumbles, credit your effort, and celebrate your achievement.
Regardless of whether you never tell that story to another soul, you tell it to yourself. Speak it aloud.
As human beings, we need to be alert to these singular moments in our lives when circumstance or fate or (if you believe in such things) divine intervention offers us a glimpse of the past and present with blinding clarity. We must be attuned to these moments of realization and revelation. These are the moments – often unnoticed and tragically unacknowledged – that can make us feel better and whole and good.
Find them. Hold onto them. Tell them. Speak them to yourself.
Never forget that the most important audience for any story you will ever tell is yourself.