October 25, 2011

Things You Learn

When life gets overwhelming, it's easier to rush blindly through the day, checking off tasks, getting things done, firing on autopilot. If you don't take the time to slow down, you find you can avoid all the messy emotions that make things difficult, brushing past the loneliness and worry and dread in a focused effort just to get through another 24 hours. Days once anticipated for their possibilities, now reduced to a string of responsibility: work, run, shower, sit at the hospital, stop by the store, eat whatever is in the front of the fridge. And somewhere in between, you sleep. When there are too many things to do than fit easily into the daylight, you stay up as long as it takes, visiting the treadmill in the middle of the night, answering emails after that. When days are empty, you fill them with naps. But first, you turn on a movie to occupy those last few moments, so thoughts won't have the opportunity to crowd in and delay the blissful silence of sleep. 
After a while, you get to be really efficient in denial, finding that each time someone asks, (on the rare occasion that the question is not "How is someone-close-to-you?" but "How are you?") the "fine" sounds a little more convincing. And even though you're not sure how you could be, there are moments when you believe that you are. If you can just keep your head down, do what needs to be done, and outpace the shadows that are constantly at your heels, maybe one morning you'll wake up to find everything fixed. Surely those flashes of pain that reach up out of nowhere to trip you can't continue forever. They wouldn't make all those promises about a light at the end of the tunnel if there wasn't really an end, much less a light.
So days become weeks and life blurs by, until without warning something unexpected makes you smile, and the movement feels foreign. You think back and try hard to remember the last time you laughed without it being forced, how long it's been since something got past that sturdy little wall you've so painstakingly built. That wall that you suddenly realize keeps out the good just as effectively as the bad. And before you know it, you are choked with laughter over something that is not even remotely funny, just because it feels raw and honest and right.
Then inevitably you encounter a few hours for which nothing is planned and nothing is required, and you get a little nervous. But you take a chance and ask yourself, for the first time in a long time, "What would I like to do?" And whether the answer is get out and just drive, clean out the closet, play some great music and dance around with the cat, or sink into a warm bath, you don't question it... you just do. You stop for ice cream and you run in the rain, you buy a candle that smells like fall and you take it home and light it, taking time to notice how it warms the room with a glow that is at once thrilling and comforting. 
At night, you turn off the TV, turn off the light, and lie there. In the few minutes before sleep comes, you finally have no choice but to be honest with yourself. Honest that things aren't okay, honest that you're not okay. Honest that it hurts, and that it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. Honest that you have no choice but to hang in there, to keep taking one day after another, refuse to let the stress snowball and be buried in that avalanche.
But with this comes another kind of honesty: that wall has got to come down. As carefully constructed and steadily reinforced as once seemed necessary, it has now become more obstacle than shelter. Despite the best of intentions, your fortifications block the rain and the wind and the sun and the warmth alike, shutting out not only bears but butterflies as well. And as you are reminded, in the brilliance of a fall sunset, the soft fur of a snuggling cat, the thrill of a perfect run: even the smallest bit of good can outshine any amount of overhanging darkness. It will always be worth a few tears to remember how to smile.



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