Promises were broken. Some were made to you—NaNoWriMo, post consistency, that I’d be working on the book—some were more important than that, like the promises I made to myself. This is a pattern. “Never again is what you swore the time before.” There’s an ache and a shame to the act of breaking your word that makes returning feel like the greater burden than staying away. But that’s a lie.

That’s a lie the darkness whispers to maintain your purgatory, paralyzing progressive and thoughts of escape. It makes you think you’re alone in this land of broken promises, where intention empties away into wasted days and inaction. But you’re not. I am not.

This thing we think of as a small cave is really a rather crowded cavern, a maze wandered by many, over and over, entering and exiting like lonely sleepwalkers, blind to the camaraderie around them. Sometimes we know how we tripped fell into this rocky abyss, sometimes we know we were pushed, and sometimes we just reach out one day and stop seeing our hand in front of our face and realize that “I will” became “I didn’t.” But regardless of how we got here, whenever we arrive, we know it. We know it like a headache, impossible to recall until it hits.

We recognize the scent, the cold clamming-bite of the air in our lungs, and the pitch that prevents us from finding the exit sign. This place goes deeper, it echoes in the spaces beneath the Dark Playground. Here, you don’t dally for a day; this is where months go to die, where depression festers like mold and years have their joys eroded the stagnant waters of “But you promised…”

Artists, and notably among them, writers, people this place more often than most. Personally, I’ve divided my last decade between it and the world at large, but as time goes on I’ve started learning the curves of the walls, the stones on the paths, and the echoes to the outside. I’ve started realizing where I tripped, the distance I fell, and steps back. And I’ve learned what keeps me there.

Fear of failing to escape, fear of returning to the undone, much like with procrastination, stops me from acting. But that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I don’t try, I can never leave, I can never fail again, I can never do anything. And that’s why I called this place a purgatory. It’s circles within circles, fears chasing anxieties chasing failures chasing fears. No one wins. Nothing happens. And having stumbled upon this idea, chiseled it in the stones to remind my fingers everytime they find it in the dark, my stays have been briefer. As a result, I’ve realized that backward thinking (what did I do wrong? what should I have done? what would have happened if I had done this instead of that?), obsessive afterthought (why did I do that? why didn’t I do that? why am I here again?), and reflection (what’s the cause? what do I need? what’s the plan? who am I as a result?) have hard limits.

Wishful thinking cannot unbreak a promise. It cannot write a novel or fill yesterday with checked off chores. Ultimately, in regard to the old lists of undone, after you understand them, the only fruit those thoughts bear is guilt.  But seriously, of what am I guilty?

Processing familial conflicts, renovating a relationship, spending time with my 99-year-old grandmother and a brood of neices and nephews, experiencing new things, editing someone else’s book, attending to self-care, and curling as much affection as I could muster about the needs and broken body of a 14-year-old  dog who nonetheless died two weeks ago. I was living. So why the fuck do I feel guilty?

If I had only worked, successfully ignoring everything else, gotten stories published, poems printed, books pitched–would I be happy? In some ways, I likely would be. But I would’ve purchased that progress at the cost of connection. Is one more important than the other? Do I have to choose? No. But I do have to accept the choices I made. So, yeah. It sucks that I didn’t succeed in weaving the patterns and cementing the rituals that will carry me towards the me that can do both. It eats at me that I didn’t follow the plan. That I didn’t plan better. That I didn’t have more control. That I didn’t—

Do you see how pointless that is? Seriously, what the fuck is lamenting going to do? Make me regret showing up to more birthday parties of loved ones than in any year past? Encourage me to bemoan my emotional growth? Taint my accomplishments? Insist I resent the people and things that matter beyond a passion for prose or drive for industry? Fuck. That. Noise.

Sullying life in hindsight is toxic and you need to stop it. I need to stop it. You have zero control now over what you did two seconds ago. It is past and permanent. You can’t go back and tilt your head left instead of right. You can’t unread these words. You aren’t a Time Lord, and even if you were, you can’t just go mucking about all over your own timeline until you’re satisfied. Particularly because, laws of space and time aside, you’ll never be satisfied. There is no perfect day. And least of all if you’ve spent it only looking back and lamenting.

All of your power lies in the present, in this moment and the chain of choices that carries you into the next. I’m choosing to type these words; you’re choosing to read them (or stop abruptly out of spite, urged by petty issues with the authority inherent in 2nd person narration. Lookin’ at you Alix).

So here’s the bottomline: Stop feeling guilty for living life. Now I know some of you are probably like, “Yeah, easy for you to say. You were being productive and taking care of shit and loving on people!” Yep. But do you know what I was doing in between all those perfectly understandable things? Watching copious amounts of tv, smoking, talking, ignoring health problems, crying, couching, procrastinating, fiddling with “display” (no, no really) action figures, making messes, cleaning messes, making more messes, reading, and yes, even writing a little. Still sound productive?

Look, I want to say I wasted time. I want to say I wasted  a lot of time. But I need to stop myself because that isn’t true. Every second was an experience, a lesson, rejection, confirmation, surprise. Every second was a chisel strike sculpting who I am. And the resulting chips and cracks are just as important as the smooth edges and inviting curves. I can use each to fuel not only my art, but my progress as a person, as my progress as a creature just fucked up enough to be alive.

Without the trials of the past few months, without the poisonous thoughts bouncing off the walls of that purgatory of broken promises, without the whispering dark, this post wouldn’t exist. You’d be elsewhere and so would I. And neither of us can say whether or not that would be better. Neither of us even knows what better is. But I do know one thing for certain.

Nothing is wasted unless you let it be. Not time, not loss, not pain, not even regret. No action is empty unless you hollow it out. So yes, we should write. We should improve. We should work and learn to tango and become polyglots. We should craft patterns and consistency that help us rather than hinder us. But we should never regret the living that happens in between.