Driving through the back country roads of northern New Jersey on dark December nights is enchanting. The smell of wood-burning stoves filtered through the vents and warmed every part of me. Sometimes on those freezing winter nights, I’d even roll down the windows just to let the crisp air fill me to my brim.

We were on our way up the twists and turns of Layton towards a family friend’s house for Christmas Eve’s celebration. Hand in hand, we took on the juggling act of maneuvering the holidays to see as many loved ones as possible; we started the day forty miles south of Layton and bounced around two counties throughout the day.

We walked in the farm house to be met with hugs, wafts of coffee, and leftovers that everyone munched on to satiate their buzz. We recanted our day and all laughed over the familiarity of older couples remembering their younger years, playing the balancing act over the holidays.

As we settled into the living room, side conversations swept the crowd, and the two of us were brought into a puzzling one at best.

“So, you two are, what, eighteen and nineteen now? Yes?”

We smiled and nodded. Officially old enough to buy cigarettes ourselves instead of paying others to buy them for us. And vote for the leader of the free world. But more importantly, at the time, cigarettes. We nodded proudly.

“Man, when I was your age, I settled in too. Fell in love, dug my heels in, and settled down. We’ve got a nice life built for ourselves and everything, but you two, you two need to get out there! Go to clubs! See the world! Have your cake and eat it too. You’re young, and you can.”

I looked at Sean and praised the Universe — that same Universe that produced the smells of wood-burning stoves and star-dotted black skies — for creating someone that I knew would never grow into this jaded, nostalgic for wildness, what-if’s kind of man.

Humans are egocentric creatures — we impose our experiences of life on others, assuming that we know best. When we impose those kinds of limitations on others, we rob them of their right to experience their life on life’s terms.

As a couple of high school sweethearts, we heard this sentiment regularly, even into our early twenties — that we settled down too early.

For some, finding love early can detract from individual growth.

For others, it is the Martha Stewart of recipes for creating individual growth.

Most importantly, I would never dream of imposing my belief of which category another couple falls into.

Tonight, almost a decade after that earlier encounter, we celebrated our wedding anniversary. After a relaxing but adventurous day of cruising the back roads of Tantalus, we ended up on a bench in Ward, to-go Americanos in hand, wrapped into each others arms in that way that familiar couples are — knowing exactly how to twist into the other for optimal comfort.

As we recanted the beauty of our day together, the topic lead to what’s been working all this time — what has made each day better than the last, in a world that has repeatedly told us that it only gets worse!

We came to the conclusion that the common element of every day life for the two of us has been dreaming, creating, and supporting each others process; gently prodding the other to capitalize on natural strengths, rather than criticize weaknesses.

We didn’t want to change each other. And we didn’t want the other to fear that they had to stay the same. We wanted for each other to become the best version of what’s already there.

As we drove home tonight, a familiar song came on the radio, and our hands readjusted to hold the other tighter. I leaned my head against Sean’s shoulder as he drove, and looked up to take him in — to see the years pass in his face and the familiar dancing of his eyes when he sings in the car — I took a deep breath.

Driving along the twists and turns of the back country roads of northern New Jersey or the city boulevards of Honolulu, we have changed, everything has changed, and nothing has changed at all.

If I could do it all over again a hundred times, I’d choose this life every time.

kelly and sean florida