If the sound of your voice was the only thing that the people you love the most would hear for the rest of their life, what would you want it to sound like? What would you say? What words would persist no matter the wreckage?
There are distinct moments when my mind focuses on the voice with which I’m thinking in. There are several versions of the voice I’m most comfortable others receiving and several more I haven’t yet figured out. When I present in front of a room full of colleagues, my voice shakes. When I’m talking with someone close to me, my voice waits. It sees an open window and thinks three times before going through it so as to include contemplation in the way it moves. Both are important and valuable to observe if you want to know me.
When I think about what hurts, I’m almost never ready for the vulnerability it brings. I’m almost never ready for the heartache I’ve harbored, always looking for a safe landing, even if it’s lined with bricks I can’t see. There are mountains of dirt under the living room carpet that I’ve continued to sweep into a semi-neat pile. “Nobody will see this but me,” I tell myself.
Every morning, I make a pot of coffee. I brew enough to fill a to-go mug and exactly one cup of coffee to drink before I leave my apartment. There are small moments when I’m sipping that I wander around my apartment in contemplation of the day, the week, what is yet to come and what has already had time to be. I scan the books on my shelf and think about all the stories I have waiting for me when I come home. I pick one of them up—Catcher in the Rye, one I haven’t read in a while—and think about the first time I held it in my hands. I was an 11th grade mess trying to figure out why I had to take the ACT, never really considering the full weight that a book carries, never really making an effort to balance it in my hands. I remember seeing myself in the main character, Holden Caulfield, and feeling like I wasn’t so alone, even through some turmoil and angst.
Now, a 26-year-old writer, I hold the same book and feel a different heaviness. How changed I was after reading it for the first time and the last. How I’ve allowed it to be a story I’ve kept in my back pocket for the times when it’ll be useful to me or those around me. Something is different about all these stories I keep so neatly piled next to one another. I think about how many of them I’ve read multiple times, finding the ending only to turn it back over and start again, eager to find something I hadn’t seen the first time. There’s something new and old in these spines I’ve arranged, something I don’t always consider each day, particularly when I’m struggling to straighten my own spine.
I finish my cup of coffee and set it in the sink. For a moment, I stand lost in thought. There are photographs lining my refrigerator of all the people I’ve learned to love well—still learning to love well, I should add, to varying degrees—all these years. There’s a collage of folks neatly parallel to one another, careful to not let the pictures touch too much so they don’t steal each other’s magic. It’s representative of how much I’ve regarded their individual magic and not how, collectively, the magic bleeds into the frame and down my wall.
I only just recently put some of these on display. It’s not that I wasn’t proud of the picture of my mom embracing me when I graduated from grad school, or that I didn’t value the picture of me cradling my niece in my arms for the first time. It’s just that I’m not always good at showing the world what matters the most to me. I’ve thought myself out of joy more often than I’ve allowed myself into the heart of it. These photographs are reminders of some of the most intimate moments of joy I’ve experienced in the years leading up to this day. It wasn’t until I sprawled them across that which protects me that I realized how much they’ve left a permanent imprint.
There exists a part of me—the 15%—that I’ve dead-bolted to this body, burrowed deep in the marrow of who I’ve come to be. It’s unseen and unseeable. It has grown from the beginning as a part of my body held close, immovable, and only accessed by me. To open it and share with the world is to forklift heavy things from my soft spots to whatever landing areas others have made available; I am comprised of blood and water, harboring trauma and love simultaneously, and I don’t always know what to do with the fringes. They go into this box that I compartmentalize, stacked neatly next to joy and heartbreak and other things we’ve learned to wrestle with daily.
Sharing the 15% means cutting into seams I’ve woven tightly together to keep out the dark parts this world continues to dead heave into my bones. It’s in these parts that I’ve mined meaning out of, molded into the most distinct parts of my compiled identities, and handed away in quiet moments.
Sharing the pictures on my wall is to share the small fraction of me that doesn’t contain a self-defense mechanism naturally. It’s to open the window on each side of this chapter and shine light in its corners. Still a whole life ahead of me, I know that I’ll learn to use these fringes to transform my body, my headspace, and the love I have to give.
So it goes.
Growing older means grieving that which has always felt like a gift. Love. Something that was once a rush, an anticipation, a sense of weightless living that is now heavy and infinitely more deliberate. And then it grows legs and walks out the door. What’s left is misery and healing, the two often being mistaken for each other. To feel something so deeply—something with which you believe you can reach inside of yourself and massage with your fingertips until the hurt you’ve come to know has softened—is a gift. The real work begins when that pain is given a seat at the table of your heart; invited in, given space to be heard, given a platform to make a case, bargained with, and eventually, albeit slowly and lacking grace, invited to leave. This sort of stubborn debating is a result of what mountains you’ve promised yourself that you’d move but only seem to exist on really old to-do lists. It’s a culmination of everything you’ve ever felt and nothing you’ve ever conquered.
Once it’s gone, the healing happens. Stitch after stitch, we are put back together. Never as we were, always as we are supposed to be. Broken and bruised but always getting better. It’s not the time that does the stitching. It’s the willingness, despite the cold and bitterness that exists outside, to get up. To layer yourself. To fight. To take a deep breath in and tell yourself you should go outside despite the grayness.
What is true about heartbreak is that you will always hold onto it and always know what it feels like once you’ve felt it for the first time. In everything that you do, you will carry it with you. People around you will come to know how it shows up in your life every single day and shapes you slowly each day. They’ll learn to catch the parts of you that you have forgotten about—eating right, sleeping, writing writing writing—and they’ll grow weary but never fed up of who it is that you are now becoming post-destruction.
They’ll carry the weight that you’re too afraid to carry and the heartbreak will eventually cease.
And then there’s the writer’s heart. It’s never really finished going through what it’s going through; always reimagining a beginning, middle, and end to everything. It will learn to put it through the spin cycle every single day. Much like a favorite album or movie, it will replay over and over and over again until the speakers break. Until the record skips. Until the silence comes.
It will go over the small details in an effort to convince itself that what happened was real (is still real) and that it happened the way the heart remembers it. That, if it could go back in time and change things, it would know exactly what to do from that point forward so as to never (always) feel this deeply again.
There’s a certain way to sort through the waves of heartbreak. I suppose I’m writing this to tell you that the litany of fractures are bruises and aches that we’ll learn to live with. We’ll write about them. They’ll matter. We’ll matter. And when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky and the moon spins circles around Earth, we’ll do the only thing we know best: keep moving forward.
There are reveries I’ve climbed out of where some of the deepest parts of me have lived unexamined. I stay there a while to make sense of them, moving slowly to observe as much as I can, and finally slipping into unconsciousness. Awake again.
I’m sitting across from a dear friend—someone who has grown to know much of the 15%—and I’m realizing this time next year, I won’t be sitting across from him. We won’t be able to drive to a coffeeshop to write and talk and laugh as we’ve done for nearly two years. He’ll be leaving soon—onto grander adventures than that which Indiana can offer for the chapters ahead. There are tidal waves smaller than the grief I’m already holding close for his departure. Funny how the body reacts in a visceral way when we anticipate loss, temporary and permanent, though we cannot know which will be true until it’s already happened. Things change. No two years are ever the same. Neither are we. And yet, amidst our treacherous fight to stay afloat, to find joy, to thrive, we find commonalities that will break ground in a part of us that someone hasn’t before. It’s the truest form of connection; to find a small group of people that you regard with the highest amount of withness, love, and respect, and to show up for them time and time again. I’ll miss this friend. Not in the kind of way that circles the idea that he’ll be gone from my life completely, but in a way that knows truly how we will see each other again. Time and time again. A friendship immediately renewed when one of us gets out of a plane or into a car in the direction of the other.
There are zip codes and timezones between some of the most important parts of me. Everything and everyone that has given me life is on a fast track stretching every direction away from where I’m standing. Though there are timely reminders from folks who love me deeply, affirmations are not always my strong suit. Quality time—in person, flesh and blood, in-the-moment kind of presence—is what I’m gravitating towards. There are only so many miles I can run myself before my bones are tired from all this moving, all this evolving, the commotion of a life spent on roads, always showing up and always leaving. My veins haven’t felt this stormy since I came into the world; boiling and bleeding myself into existence. I’ve always wanted to be a love song to every ear that cranes itself in my direction.
There are languages that we discard when the only person we share it with winds up leaving. Our own departures can be measured by the way the void left behind is internalized by the people closest to us. What leaving looks like is often a well-lit pathway with no traffic signs, nowhere to be and everywhere to go, and still no fuel for the moving. We will all be coming and going to someone else, intentionally or not. I imagine this is how Latin became a language considered dead, but always longed for by those who remember how it came to be. How many languages are born from one another, taking some of the best (and sometimes the worst) parts of each along the way to create something new. Something transfigured; adorned by something prettier than what used to be, still, but with a foundation of histories welded together.
“And so it goes / one foot after the other / ‘Til black and white begin to color in / and I know / that holding us in place is simply fear / of what’s already changed”
–Sara Bareilles, “Manhattan”
I can’t decide what angle to take this. What reason? How do we write simply about the life of things that aren’t simple? How do we boil down—whittle away, create an outline for, summarize—the parts of life that are dense, layered, and, at times, not processed easily or quickly?
A candle doesn’t lose its flame when it lights another candle.
I’m piling up streets to give to you—every trail or parkway or avenue that has meant something to the both of us, together, in kindness and through laughter, with tears or hurt or healing. I don’t always know how heavy this will all be. But I do know that it’s what you’ve deserved. It’s what we’ve given to each other along the way: a conditional love that doesn’t feel like enough. We never feel like enough. So we keep giving and giving and giving into one another until there’s a better way out of all this or no way at all.
I don’t normally cry often. Usually there’s a build-up of hurt or misdirected emotions that become this conglomerate set of unkept benches that won’t dissolve until the tears come. When Joel passed, I didn’t cry deeply. I didn’t yet know what it meant to take on the loss, to feel it throughout my weather veins. I contemplated and felt many things, but eventually, I went about my life and didn’t think twice about the void building in me. When my grandmother passed, it only hit me when I received handwritten postcards sending good thoughts–among them, one with the lyrics of the Sleeping At Last song Saturn scribbled on it.
I fell apart. Tears streaming down, I laid my head down on the lap of my partner and felt that hurt throughout my entire body. She was here one day, gone the next, never breathing from then on. Still, this realization levels me. How fragile the human body is. How healthy we can be today and end the week with bruised lungs and a litany of fractures that our body absorbs.
With the fragility of this life, I reach out to my father and feel the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt with him, pouring myself into question marks around who he is to me and who we are for one another. Through all of the hate that I carried for him, I loved him. It resides in a place I don’t really know—a darkness that light can’t always penetrate.
And then more hurt. This whole life sometimes feels like scene after scene of bruising as a result of the things we do to one another. Each moment, a reflection of who we are that day. Each act, a collection of deep things. The gaps between one another that we didn’t see before. The fighting we continue to do—every day, every week—and the space we pretend to give one another. All this hurting. Never enough breath for me to understand how we got to this place, how we’ve ignored the way we both require to be loved, how we point fingers and are set on being right. How far away we’ve moved from one another and how the distance transformed the way we allowed ourselves to be loved by one another. But still, here we are. In this place. Feeling these things with depth. Not always understanding and not giving grace permission to stretch out very well.
How do we keep doing this to each other? This heartache dance, this room-with-no-corners approach to fixing one another?
How do we heal? What does ‘going on from here’ look like? How do we give ourselves the space to, instead of looking for an immediate resolution with urgency, look for the reason why the hurt is happening in the first place?
Pulling at roots that have taken to this ground we’ve built so much on. I cry because the grief is heavy. And I feel alone. And sometimes, all that’s left is to rest.
It’s still miraculous that, even after all this falling, the trees forgive themselves every year and find the courage to soon grow again.
Love me Don’t / walk away.
These are letters I never thought I’d write. I’ve labored over them to give you the most honest responses that you require to be on your way. And you’re on your way. I’m on mine, too. There’s nothing we can do to stop the way gravity pulls things down–smack-landing, sweet symphony of electricity we used to feel when it didn’t hurt as much. I’m leaking things so the universe can do the rest. There’s a state between you and me; we don’t know how to minimize all these miles and miles of highways we’ve once traveled to shrink the distance. Even a few miles can make a difference. I remember coming to you and feeling lighter when I entered your orbit. Never too far out and off that we couldn’t find a way. Now there’s no way to find, no signal strong enough to split our distance in half.
When I think of peace, I think of how simple of a life I want to live. It’s waking up on a Tuesday morning and feeling like it’s a Saturday. It’s a lack of something pulling me in different directions outside of myself. It’s being surrounded by stories and books and articles that I’ve discovered myself in and that will inspire me to continue to uncover parts of myself. It’s coffee and quiet. Nobody around, nobody questioning my whereabouts, nobody interrupting the soul searching that I yearn for each day.
It’s time and space unbound to think and feel and discover what a soul is and what it’s meant to be, what the world needs more or less of. It’s a mountain to climb but no timeframe with which it needs to be scaled. It’s a lack of noise crowding me and the space to create. Write. Breathe deeply and explore each passing thought until I’m at the bottom of them. To interrogate the ways I’ve hurt others, observe it, and let it go. To understand the person I was, the person I am, and the person I have yet to be.
“What if, sitting there just then, I found myself truly caught up in belief? How would it feel inside a future like that?”
–Tracy K. Smith, “Ordinary Light”
I am reminded of my journey, how many interruptions to the soul’s work can pile on top of one another before it’s too much, too heavy, too alive to bury. There are days at a time when there is no true north with which I’m traveling towards, just that I’m traveling and that it should be enough. That I’m enough right now even if I’m not in the corners of my mind.
There are bruises we’ve saved for one another. Over and over again, we create soft spots for what we believe each other needs, for small moments that we’ve longed for since the beginning of it all.
“We teach boys that in order to become men, they have to kill off their emotional selves. My masculinity is a well-hung portrait in a hallway of a crumbling house. And every time the wind blows, it’s the only thing I think to grab. Nowadays, I’m afraid it’s all I’ll have to hand down to my children.” –Javon Johnson
When the young boy who I wrote about a year ago—the one who I found in the bathroom crying, hurting, changed by the words of a poet that vibrated within him—walked into the same coffeeshop I’m sitting in, I’m reminded of how such a grief can take us over. It’s something we embody without knowing it’s visible to the naked eye. I’m reminded of what it means to be a young boy in a world that requires manhood so early; we, as boys, are asked to fit into a box of broken things in an unbroken and unbending way. Crying is seen as useless and lacking any purpose at all. The humanness in such a vulnerable act isn’t valued. Instead, we are asked to stand tall, posture commanding presence, and be the strongest one in the room. Bold. Immovable and full of conviction for what it means to be a man.
I’m reminded of how imperfect it can be to embody that structure given to men. I resolve, instead, to support what manhood looks like in each of us, how different that can be, and with what heaviness we may carry, I decide how brave it can be to be anything at all. How courage can seep into us and out from all directions and how humans who identify as men can be who they choose to be or who they choose not to be.
Being a man comes with its many privileges that are sometimes too many to count. But when one man teaches a boy the toxic ways that men are “supposed” to be, further down this rabbit hole we go. Further we travel into the idea that to be a man is to be fragile most of the time, but it must be a secret well-kept. Further we venture into a reality where men do not share, do not grow emotionally in a healthy way, and continue to harm everything in their path because they’re told that they must. This, until breaking is all they come to know. Until broken is a life the have no choice but to live with.
I resolve to support human connection—body to body, mind to mind—in such a way that allows for all vulnerable things to rise to the surface, not judged, but welcomed.
When I see this young man in this coffeeshop, I am reminded of what strength is. How being vulnerable is not weakness, but a sign of healing, of confidence in the courage we carry, the energy we give, and the love we’ve blossomed in our hearts. This is something to teach our boys.
And we, remaining honest to goodness, have felt what it means to be pulled, two ships no longer in the harbor, passing one another, anchors up, by the tide that once drew us together, away once more.