2015 taught me one word, and it changed my life

About this time last year, I was perched on a precarious slip of optimism and thinking to myself, “well, that was the hardest year yet; I’m sure things will lighten up in the new year.”

I can see where I was coming from, there. In 2014, I’d faced a family crisis, weathered a chaotic and unforseen breakup, and shattered my pelvis in a biking accident, landing me in the hospital for weeks and rehabilitation for months.

True, I’d also graduated from college, watched my brother get engaged to the girl of his dreams, and received a Fulbright scholarship to study overseas, but by the end of the year, I was deeply weary. Battered, and unwilling to admit just how shaken I was by all that had transpired.

I’d been skating fast and blind across thin, spindle-cracked ice — don’t look down, don’t look down.

In 2015, I went crashing through. The water was knife-cold and numbing at once.

On the Eve of 2015, I was with family; I sat inside my skin and watched time unfolding, felt a borrowed happiness seeping into my lungs. Deeper, though, was the dull ache that had grown inside me, malignant and quiet.

I still hadn’t found the word for what was killing me: loneliness. I feared the silent, consuming sadness, so I turned to quarantine, locking down, cutting a moat around my core. I walked away, lived on the far banks of my own mind, safe from feeling, and immobilized.

I lived for months this way. It was better to be absent, I thought, than to inhabit this sore skin, within reach of reverberating doubt, or the grasping hands of others.

I was visited once by my sister, early in 2015. She came in the middle of a cold January, to my apartment where I lived alongside others, but alone. We laughed and I spoke to her of all the good things in my life — of course, there have always been many. And for a few days, that felt like a true story. The day before she left, though, I cried, hard, in the shower. I cried as I mopped the water from my hair, cried in my towel, in my clothes. Wordlessly. My sorrow was ferocious and frightened us both. But there was nothing to do, so we said goodbye.

I spent the next two months running — I hop-skipped through countries. I napped in Turkish courtyards, climbed mountains in Nepal, drank thick sweet chai across from a Mumbai temple. I sat hushed in holy rooms — Sikh, Muslim, Catholic — and hoped the voice of God would find me, pluck me like a harpstring. Anything to break this chilling silence inside me.

I woke to a pool of sunshine one Istanbul afternoon, my head on the smooth, clean step of a mosque. I watched two women remove their shoes, bending flat-footed from the waist to scoop water from a stone cistern. They washed. I loved their dainty motions, the soft arches of their feet when they kneeled. The moment was sweet, clean and fleeting, a splash of jasmine fragrance mingled with cool sunshine. There was no one to share this with. I scratched in my journal pages, stretched, moved on. That night I ordered dinner for one; when the plate came, I wondered what I looked like, chewing rice across from an empty chair. I imagined the scene through my waiter’s eyes. It stung.

In the backseat of an Indian taxi came the first revelation. Windows open, my hair stirred by wind the flavor of dug soil. The sun was closing in on the western horizon, the fields were deep-wide, rich-green, gilded blurs. It was beautiful. It was thousands of miles from any place I’d call “home.” And my fear was still with me, pulse-near. I was alone.

Not “independent,” only. Not “strong,” simply. A week and a half later, I shed the tears that were born in that taxi. My emptiness swelled, a tide I’d nearly outrun. I gave in, crossed over, turned the key of that rust-streaked lock, and faced my terror-ridden heart. Alone, you are alone. You’re half-alive, oxygen-deprived, freezing your veins for fear of bleeding again.

I’d built my life with too many long corridors, too-wide corners. There was too much space, and only me to fill it. Abused by a few, I’d thrust the whole human race across the threshhold of my heart. And I raced through my days, my footsteps pounding the sounds of self-sufficiency. I scaled peaks, I took risks, I landed on my feet. From a distance, my half-exiled friends took comfort in my apparent ease. I made excuses for not talking, and we each took the others’ silence as reassurance: all was well.

Months later, I’d sit on plush, generic furniture in New York, across from a stranger who would become a friend. She was new, too, both of us still blinking at the bright strange fact of our lives in The City. She asked me what I’d learned from my “experience abroad.”

I paused. This girl was lovely, her smile dimpled, her voice lit with warmth. I knew nothing about her, and she didn’t know me.

Loneliness, I told her. I learned loneliness. I learned that I can break.
Her eyes welled. She was startled; she understood.

This was what 2015 brought me. The humility that comes with becoming a heap on your mother’s couch; of telling loved ones, “I need.”

I learned to speak of myself as the fallible, incomplete thing I am — I came to see that I am suspended by a hundred threads, that even what is essentially “me” is only one thin note when sung alone. I learned that I can be afraid; that I can feel real, bone-wracking doubt.

I learned that people break promises sometimes, and sometimes they just break.

I learned what it’s like to be the one who falls apart, to watch myself become a bundle in someone’s arms instead of always bearing up.

I learned to look for people whom I can trust to see me, and then to make a pact not to disappear. I live my life in concentric circles, always keeping my core close — the souls who love my light and hate my demons. I plant myself close to them. Sometimes, we bump shoulders, graze elbows, and I feel an impulse to run for wider air. But I remember the silence of that freefall, and I recall my promises. I will stay on the grid, I will deliberately tangle myself in the gorgeous, bewildering web of interlocked living. I will cultivate community, watering the grounds with time and mindfulness. I will stay vulnerable, I will allow myself to be “interrupted” and, even, to interrupt.

I might — I will — be hurt again. I am accepting this, slowly, too. I have decided the bravest thing to do is to inhabit this life, to accept double-edged birthright of our human fate. We will love, and lose, and ache, and never quite understand the why of any of it.

But I am choosing to be here. Today, my blood is in motion. I will not make a tomb my home again.

I will live close enough for bruising, close enough to kiss.

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