if our hearts are never broken
I'm a storyteller.
I may not do it well, or properly, or how anyone else does it, but it's what I do. Ten years ago, I wrote a letter to myself on my birthday, the first one. The birthday posts have always been my favorite to work through (likely because the navel-gazing-dial gets set to max). They are far too wordy, grammatical nightmares - just like my academic papers ding-dong! - filled with bonus adverbs and commas galore, random trains of thought that stagger off the tracks to wander aimlessly, endlessly, in circles. I know. I can give a masterclass in all the things wrong with me, and my writing, and what I do with this space. But for ten years (minus one) it's how and where I take stock of my life, privately, except for the part where I hit publish so it can outlive me to be mocked for generations to come. Telling stories has always been less about the story itself and more about the telling, what it teaches me about myself, the mirror that it holds up to my heart. It illuminates what is important, what matters right now, what I feel needs to be written down for no other reason than for the sketch I create, bent over my laptop with my song-of-the-week on repeat in my ears while I barf up whatever and all I want to remember. For ten years now, I've returned here only when and with a story to tell.
Last year I didn't write one. Last year I was drowning, and oh, I wish that this was a letter about how I fought and triumphed and am bursting forth into my forties with a full heart and a
tight ass charming smile, but it's not.
This year has, quite literally, been the worst year of my life.
There are a few ways to look at it, sure. I survived the second year of the PhD program. I swam in the ocean, I snowshoed up mountains, I finally learned how to ride my bike with no hands. I gave a TED talk - a magical, lifelong bucket list kind of storytelling evening. I kept Annie alive even when she spent a month in diapers. After three years away, I boinged back onto the triathlon scene and
mostly walked ripped off a race. Like everyone, I've survived seven months of social isolation in a global pandemic while the world persistently ignites with hate and rage. I figured out how to make people not bright orange with Lightroom. I published my first paper, lost fifteen pounds, bought a new bike for the first time in five years. All of these things are true, I could mangle this into a story, shovel it through a rose-tinted lens, and it would not be a lie.
I discovered just a few days ago that I am a 'cultural omnivore.' It doesn't really mean much, it just explains why one day I'm playing air guitar and singing doooooown to the whippin' post / good lord I feel like I'm dying in the shower, and the next it's non so più cosa son, cosa faccio / or di foco, ora sono di ghiaccio and then for three days in a row it's a 9-year-old Snow Patrol song that I've only just discovered but is probably close to the most-played song in my library. It means there is dissonance in my listening behavior and goddamn if I didn't just automatically start to cite that. I cannot think of a better way to describe the last twelve months of my life than that. Dissonance. A serious, and severe, lack of harmony. A traumatic absence of resonance.
I'm going to do that super shitty thing bloggers do and not talk about what I am living through, I'm not sure if we still call it vague-booking or if we have updated slang for how annoying it is, but it doesn't matter, I'm just - not. Partially because I can't and partially because I won't. And honestly, what has happened, the variety of horrific nightmares that have unfolded over the last year, isn't the point. I've read dozens of posts over the years where bloggers reappear after a long unexplained absence and recount the depths of their darkness, the strength they showed in navigating their ugliest moments, and how they've now emerged, serene on the other side. But here? Now? I'm not yet through to the other side. Not really, the earthquake - it's still happening. I'm not showing up glowing in the after with a sleek haircut and a happy ending.
This year taught me about how I respond to adversity. At first, it appears that I let it shatter me. I fold. I scrabble around trying to patch a hole from a bazooka with a SpongeBobSquarePants band-aid. I search desperately for a rewind button in hopes of hip-checking my former self out of the path of the tidal wave. It's useless, all of it. There are some snakes that just won't get squashed back into the can, things that, once destroyed, can't be plated over with gold but instead should have been heaved in the dumpster the day they fell apart. Fish and houseguests, relationships left to rot. This year taught me, not for the first time in my life, that I never give up on anyone and there are plenty of times when I should. Because when I don't, it chips off little pieces of me, barely noticeable at first, but when it happens over and over, those pieces swirl away. Until there is just not anything left.
This year taught me that simply enduring your life, your pain, is devastating. I don't thrive there, in that empty, echo-y place where I'm only just surviving, none of us do. Maybe it's the first step to resilience - stay tuned for next year's blog post! - or maybe it's paralysis. Perhaps it's the dissonance awake and roaring, when you want simultaneously to give up, to walk out of your life, to pull the covers over your head, but also, to find the courage to be who you are, once again. This year taught me about what I value, where I will not waver, which lines I will not cross. In some of the most terrifying and distressing moments of my life, I did not run. I was not weak. It's something I can be proud of, amidst the ruins. But even now, months later, it's hard to look back and see anything other than what it cost. The toll it took.
This year taught me about the brutal magnificence of showing up. At any point across the now-forty years of my life, I would have said that the most powerful thing you can do for someone else - for me - is to show up. Get on the plane. Make the phone call. Send the fucking flowers (I like tulips). People did that for me this year, old friends, new friends, people that surprised me, that I never would have expected, that I certainly don't deserve. The friend who will dose your dogs with Benadryl on the side of the road in Nowhere, Indiana, the one that drives around in the pouring rain to find you if only to take your head off hollering, GET IN THE FUCKING CAR. The person who says, that stops now, that's over, after you spend the better part of an hour fighting back tears, barely able to speak, scared to breathe, because you can no longer pretend everything is fine but don't know how to convey the frightening reality of the truth without falling apart. The person who lets you sneak into his pool when the world is closed, the friend goes on vacation with you for five days and shushes you every time you try to apologize for your random and uncontrollable crying, the one who will walk miles by your side while you stomp through your anger, relentless and boiling. This year has taught me, again, about the darkness and shame of depression. About how none of us can bend without breaking, about the stillness that arrives with this eclipse, a quietude that has nothing to do with peace and everything to do with the overwhelming numbness that engulfs you when your heart is wrenched from your body. This year taught me about what it feels like to be lost, but also, the brief and startling radiance that appears when someone notices, and comes searching to bring you back home.
Now we are here, as one of my closest friends says. Now I am forty. I've watched other friends, strong brilliant majestic women in my life, turn forty. And with it, sometimes, comes a perceptible shift. I remember someone telling me in my early thirties, when you turn forty you'll stop giving a fuck about what everyone else thinks and I'm pretty stoked to notice that I'm nearly there. But it's more than that, it's more than realizing that it's time for a really serious commitment to Vitamin C serum and how destructive a single glass of wine can be and why your parents always limped the first eight steps out of bed in the morning. In all these years, all the stories I've told, in looking back I can see that I have lived, I have been lucky, I've experienced so much. And it is all my story to tell, even now, as I try to wrangle the last year into a tale worth telling or maybe just a lesson worth learning, while my cultural omnivorousness rolls by on repeat, if our hearts are never broken, then there's no joy in the mending. Right now, yes, my heart - my spirit - may be broken. I have been silent, because I don't know how to be anything other than exhausted and ruined. As a musician, I believe that the most powerful thing another musician can do is allow for the silence. But it's not the silence that holds the power. It's knowing when to start again, when it's time to crash back into song, and the way my heart feels in those moments when it's done properly is just about as brilliant, as exquisite, as explosive with joy as I have ever experienced.
Dissonance, in a world, at a time, when I am desperately seeking resonance. It comes from reverberation, it can't exist in stillness. So, yes. For months now, I've been silent, I could say that I've been healing but maybe it's like ironman, before you can train you have to train to train, maybe I'm healing only enough so I will become ready to heal. Or maybe I haven't learned anything, maybe I'll show up a year from now with another round of whining about how my life is crap and I've feebly collapsed under the strain. But also, maybe, it's time for resurrection. I'm walking forward into a new decade with nothing left but the purest, most fundamental pieces of who I am, damaged and exposed and scarred, but here. I am still here. This is who I am. I'm a girl - a woman, now, I suppose - who swears too much and wears short shorts and drinks whiskey and has a standing desk not for health but for dancing. I buy dozens of new books all the while ignoring the piles of unread new books stuffed on the shelves. I'm always going to need one more bicycle and late night drives to nowhere and a flock of golden retrievers and the Doobie Brothers and run-on sentence storytelling to be happy. I'm loud, socially awkward especially after so many months of isolation, I'm a clean and straight shot. I trust too freely and I love too deeply, I'm fiercely loyal and stubborn as a hippopotamus and pretend to be a big ol' bitch but underneath I'm about the softest softie there ever was. I believe that people come into our lives when we need them, that nothing is an accident, that family matters most, and that if I sleep with the bedroom door open a big hairy monster will come in and eat me.
This year. I swam in the ocean, I snowshoed up the mountain. I'd tell you it's simple, there is nowhere else that I belong. I know what joy feels like, I know where to look for it, it's all over these pages, for years now, over and over. It's the weight of the water pressing against the power of the stroke, it's flipping around at the top of the mountain, grimy with the dust and sweat of the climb. It's here. I can find it where I started, I just need to lace up my shoes, scrape back my hair, and run. West, into the sun, the long neon lights, the eek of the ocean. The fire just starting to spark. So tomorrow - today, now - that's what I'll do. The sun will rise while I'm in the water and set while I'm on the dirt, and between those moments, I'm going to try to break the stillness. To move forward. To crash back into song.