continually bracing for impact
My greatest fear in life has always been that my husband would die.
I had nightmares about it for years, terrifying dreams that broke me awake, shaking and silently crying, reaching over to touch him in the dark. Soon after we met, he told me that he was certain he would die in a car accident, and it haunted me. On long car trips I sat on edge, jumpy, continually bracing for impact. Quite illogically, I have always believed that fear will protect me. Too often, though, it dominates me and I succumb to the dangerous edges of what it brings forth. It means I run when things get hard. I hide when I'm in pain, careful and silent and still. Early in life, I was taught that a defensive position is considered weakness. I learned that it is always the right decision to attack first, that the only way to survive when things fall apart is by crouching behind barriers hoisted sky-high, covertly reloading. It's where and when I learned to be dry, sarcastic, flip and ironic and self-deprecating at every turn. In my marriage though, over the years, I tore down some of these fences. I allowed myself to feel safe. Which meant that when my husband left, nearly a year ago now, the devastation was beyond anything I ever could have imagined.
I've always struggled to explain how I feel out loud. This blog, emails, letters, fifteen text messages in as many seconds, somehow the written word is an easier place for me to elucidate the strength and depth of what I am experiencing. When I am storming, when I can't sleep, when I am terrified or exhausted or a hairsbreadth away from giving up, I return to this space. I hope that I might find something that's new, something meaningful, that I'll be able to disentangle a single thread from the mess of my ping-pong ball brain. I'm not quite sure what there might be to say right now, but I'm curled up on the couch, I've got a handful of crap songs on repeat in my noise-cancelling headphones and I am certain that if there is anything, here is where it might be laid bare. How long you have travelled, in darkness weeping.
There are a lot of shitty and trite sayings about marriage, and I've heard them all over the last eleven months. It takes two. I believe that. There are two vines in a marriage - yours and mine - but there is also the one that grows up between us, intertwined, over time. And there is no better way to see every mistake you have ever made, illuminated under the jarring house lights that blow away the dusty spell of the play once the curtains come back up, then in the moment someone neatly cleaves that vine in two. When my husband unexpectedly left, one of my best friends flew to Indiana. We went out to walk the dogs. It was sleeting, or snowing, maybe hailing, the grey misery of late winter in the midwest. After we got back to the house, I turned around and left again. I walked for hours in whatever the hell the weather was doing, leaking tears, jackknifing in half on the sidewalk again and again with grief, only able to see every wrong thing I had ever done, filled with regret, lost in the rain, broken, ruined.
I fought for my marriage. I was fierce for months, a gladiator trying to save us. I won't ever be ashamed that I did that. Pieces of me that I never knew existed came out into the light, pieces I am proud to claim. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, where insults are compliments, we cold-cocked Santa, there is a small streak of fire and revenge buried somewhere inside of me. But when it came down to the worst moments of my life, when I had to choose between trying, heart open to the unguarded possibility of hope, or digging up years of ugly bones and chucking them across the battlefield, I chose softness. I chose love. I did not run, or retaliate out of anger. I've learned a few times this year that one of my best-but-also-worst qualities is, in the face of emotional carnage, overwhelming pain, I lead with forgiveness. I show up, again and again. It's not always a good thing, this white underbelly of tenderness. But I prefer it to going to war.
In the end, it wasn't enough. In the end, sometimes poison roots through soil, blossoms into fruit, the venom kills off the vine. I did everything I could. More than I ever thought I would. Eventually there came a time when, exhausted and battered and empty, I could see that the only choice left was to die on the vine as well, or to set myself free. To set us both free. I'll always value the more-than-a-decade that we spent together. From within my own imperfections, I loved as hard as I was able, as deeply as I knew how, and I won't wish away those years just because we've come to the end of them now. I had to decide if I wanted to let our relationship coast, wallowed in misery and resentment, or if I wanted to reach, cautiously but deliberately, for the sun. I chose light. I chose a life where I don't ever stop evolving, learning, growing, where I would rather be on my own than be stuck, fleeing from the groundlessness of the world. I chose joy. It's that simple. And it's that over.
A weird thing about having a blog still limping along some eleven years down the road is that it makes it all too easy to look back at where I've been, what I've blabbered on about, the things that have been important at any given time. There are (at least) two ways to look at this. The first is, it's easy to see that what I value has not changed. If anything, it's strengthened over time. Loyalty, integrity, joyfulness, passion, vomiting up my emotional underpants to a wide world of strangers. The feeling deep in my heart when I press off the deck, the moment before the water envelops me. When I'm laid low in the bars on the bike, four minutes into eight, the road churning hot and fast under my wheels, the sweat and delicious grit of every moment passing by in slow motion. How important it is to live a life where I feel like I can stand in the sun. Filling up these days with my wild and wandering taste in music, snorting with laughter from the bedrock of my soul, throwing myself with reckless abandon at anything that looks like it might be a spine-tingling delight, red wine by porch light, golden retrievers and scrambling around in the mountains and unrelenting curiosity about the crap I am dragging up from deep inside myself. What it can teach me, how I can use it to try and bloom into a better human, a better life, to offer better into a universe that I have to believe still desperately wants me to find my way. So lift up your heart now, to this unfolding.
We are all so addicted to avoiding pain. But when our world shatters into a million furious pieces and there is no escape, when life has pinned us to the mat, there is this insane and extraordinary opportunity to open up. I can't believe I'm going to even mention ironman in the same breath, but it's why I stood on the line so many times. Nothing else in the world can teach you what it's like to be held accountable, to take responsibility for your actions, like ironman. I didn't feel like eating. Cool, enjoy your six-hour walk (been there). In your failures, if you are brave enough, you can confront the worst and ugliest parts of who you really are. Most of us don't have that kind of courage. Many times in my life, I haven't. And I'm not doing it all that well right now, but goddamnit, I am trying. I have failed. From this fragile and ravaged state, I have showed breathtakingly poor judgement. I have stumbled, lost my temper, made mistakes with long-lasting and devastating consequences that I am now forced to carry, scars that I will bear forever. But I do know, I have learned enough about the world to understand, that until I can confront my shit, all of this harsh darkness, I won't ever find my way. That's another reason why I kept coming back to racing. Not because of the hammer, it feels so good when I stop, but because we don't get that many opportunities in life to unearth the brutal honesty of who we really are. Ironman was one of them. Heartbreak is another.
The other way to look at all these years of blog crap, of course, is that I'm never going to learn anything. I'm just going to keep fucking up my life in exactly the same ways a thousand times until finally, one day, with no shortage of relief, I get ruthlessly flattened by a bus (attempting some levity here because, sheesh).
I suppose that there are times in life when all we can do is hold on and wait out the storm, no matter how much we'd really just rather move the fuck forward already, thanks. The last few years of my life have been one hell of a storm. It feels like I've done nothing but relentlessly clobber myself against some message from the universe that I can't seem to internalize, banging my head into the grime and muck of the ground. Continually bracing for impact. That's no way to live, waiting for the shell to explode, checking to make sure all your limbs are intact and then tensing again, convinced only that another bomb is certain to go off. I'm here to say that it doesn't work. In fact, it's a disappointing waste of life. To be so tragically, intensely, beautifully alive is to be mercilessly ripped from the ledge, forced headfirst into the shriek of the hurricane. Fleeing from that, hiding or avoiding or lying or cowering, fidgety with fear, refusing to confront yourself and your own reality, that's living a life that is frozen, suspended in time. And even if it did work, it's not the life I want, no matter how excruciating and uncomfortable it is to wade through the candid highlight reel of my own bullshit. How much happiness will I miss if I spend my life paralyzed by bitterness, focused on not the blessings but the adumbrated curse? Pema Chödrön: Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.
It doesn't mean that any of it has been easy. I still haven't collected the sleek haircut that accompanies my happy ending. It doesn't mean that I didn't spend weeks - months - stomping through my neighborhood with four dogs attached to my waist or around and around Macintosh Lake, roaring at the carnage, so many sleepless nights, burying myself in work, miles run over the dirt, fuming into the abyss. It doesn't mean that I've handled myself with anything resembling grace, although I have to believe I get at least one gold star for trying, particularly amidst a global pandemic and a revolution and wildfires and comps and an insurrection and which dog needs to go to the emergency vet at 2:30am now and god even knows what else has happened to the planet over the last year. More than once, I thought I was gathering myself together. More than once, I started to smile again, picked up a camera again, got on a bike again, posted idiotic memes on Instagram again. Eminently vulnerable, a baby deer staggering, only just learning to walk. And more than once, a left hook I never saw coming, the rug pulled out from under my unsteady feet, slingshotting me right back to the start, please try again, to whatever lesson I am unconsciously but persistently refusing to learn.
The truth is, I suppose, there has to be an end to every storm. (And if not, just lie to me for a while). Once the destruction has been leveled across some broad and echoing landscape, the winds will die down, the pounding of the rains will cease. The truth is, I fought like a wildcat for my marriage, as hard as I've ever fought for anyone, and I'll always be glad for it. I came out the other side still believing that anything can heal, if you let it. It might take all you have, but the most exquisite things always do. Because I have to imagine that there is more to life than just surviving.
It means something, to still be standing once the storm has passed. Weak, frail, subdued by the unyielding slaughter, but also somehow strong, somehow brave enough to face the candor that breezes in once the world has cracked you wide open. The truth is, I trust too freely and I love too deeply, but maybe rather than obstinately bucking up against it, I need to accept that it's a fundamental part of who I am. Maybe I need to figure out how to let it guide me, clean and clear and free, into the future that unrolls before me. The ninth path, the sister ship of the journey you did not choose. Ten thousand angels light your pathway. They will surround you and make your way straight.
Everything is going to be different now. I can see how important it is to be continuously renovating your life, rebuilding towards the newest and sweetest direction of whatever will next bring you comfort, wonder, peace, pride, delight. I can see now, more than I ever have before, how lucky I am to have people in my life who not only love me for the marvelously weird human that I am, but, more importantly, are willing to let me love them back in the best - and the only - ways that I know how. Sometimes that does mean that it will take me two months to return a text message because I don't know how to say, my life right now is choked with unimaginable pain. But sometimes it means that you tell me that pizza is your favorite food and I show up on your doorstep the next evening with a medium pepperoni and a smile. It means that I'll definitely forget your birthday but also that I'll mail you a fuzzy blanket, fuck yeah socks or a jar of peanut butter for no reason, I'll force you to wake up at 2:45am to drive two hours and then hike two more just to catch forty seconds of the most dazzling sunrise you have ever seen. I'll introduce you to my favorite restaurant - does anyone remember restaurants? - and then sneak fries or spoonfuls of curry off your plate all night long. Someone once described me as, a lot, and that's the shortest and most hilarious truth I've ever heard about myself. I am a lot. But I promise you that your life will be better, fuller, richer, if I am in it. Definitely not easier, certainly not any less loud, but sometimes it has to be nothing more than finding a way to gently relax into the family that chooses you, no matter how unexpected or startling they may be. The universe is sneaky and mischievous, it will often deliver exactly what your secret heart has longed for, but not at all in the ways that you expected (spoiler alert...). And in those moments, we get to choose. We can freeze, continually bracing for impact, backing away, completely freaked out, paralyzed by fear. We can drum our heels on the floor and pout that no, actually, we didn't want that, or we wanted the blue perfect moment, not the pink one. Or we can absolutely tear the earth into pieces, exhilarated, accepting the untamed wildness of what it's like to be alive, racing forward to dig up great clods of joy. Thinking not about who is missing out or playing small, but who is here. All of our hearts together, resilience comes from belonging to other people, a hand ever so lightly on your back, holding it there until our breaths become a single tide, exhaling softly across the universe, grateful and graceful, exactly where we belong.