It’s how the light gets in

Sometimes it’s hard to write in this blog, considering how personal it can be. Really hard to write. I agonize over what I should share and what I shouldn’t. When you write, there is a fine line as to what is self-exploitation and what is getting the story told. The story really doesn’t care much about the writer. It just uses us, day and night, until it is told, or it kills us. So, there is some debate. Sometimes I overshare.

The other day I watched a Brenee Brown YouTube where she says, “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability.” That’s just a smack in the face with a cold fish to hear someone put it that way. I think of some of my favorite pieces of literature. The books Unbroken, or Wild, or the poetry of Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, Silvia Plath, or countless melancholy bands that I love to listen to on a dark night when the rain is tapping on the windows. TV shows like Fleabag, movies like Good Will Hunting, the Razor’s Edge, or so many others.

I have to gauge what my boundaries are. I’ve read several Townsend and Cloud books. There’s nothing in there about how to set boundaries for a writer. I don’t share everything on the page, and often the words I put down are done to serve the story. Though at times, the details and the emotions may seem exploitative. It’s a form of expression. A very deep and intimate one you share with your readers–whether or not you know them. Someone close to me once told me that I needed to write unafraid. To keep telling the story.

So I’m going to share a story. It’s a love story.

It was probably one of the last beautiful nights of the summer. Nobody uses the phrase Indian Summer anymore, not only because of how sensitive everyone has become about being culturally sensitive, but also because the last two years has made the change in seasons pretty much meaningless. It was a cool night, but not cold. I pulled a kitchen chair onto the sidewalk in front of my apartment. I put on my fedora and my recent playlist and lit up a cigar which I smoked until long past sunset.

A couple summers ago, this was a ritual for a Friday night with someone I was dating. She introduced me to cigars and it is one of the bad habits I don’t regret. What other vice forces you to sit down for 45 minutes to an hour and just do nothing else. It is meditative. Which is often what I do as I draw the fragrant smoke into my mouth and exhale it as phantasmagoric tendrils of white smoke into the night air. It is therapeudic.

She and I used to sit in front of the firepit, sipping whiskey or wine, eating cheese, smoking cigars, and just chatting about life. Our relationship lasted only about nine months. It took me a long time to get over her. I had friends who sat with me in that grief and made me feel safe. They reminded me that I was worthy of being loved, even if she was gone. Someone who loved me so hard, but still left.

That night, I thought of her clearly for the first time in almost a year. Gone was the grief. It was laid bare and I missed only the company we shared. I have had no desire to seek her out for over a year. I held up my drink and toasted her. I felt gratitude for those moments and was happy to remember them. I wished her happiness and hoped she too was enjoying a night like this, maybe with a man she was in love with, or her big family, or maybe just by herself. I still carry a love for her inside my heart, without feeling that pull of regret for things having ended.

The next day was rough.

I need to finish work on the house and I have been procrastinating. It’s almost like a feeling that if I finish it, I won’t have anything left to distract me from my problems. Upcoming court hearings, work, relationships, family, etc. The house has been good for distraction, but I’m at a point where I have only a few things left. Right now I see only the flaws of a DIYer. I still see a lot of work ahead of me. Which eventually needs to be done.

I drove to get supplies. It beat sitting in the house with my thoughts and worries and pieces of my life which I feel like I have been holding onto like sand. The tighter you squeeze, the more slips through your fingers. Not even the three hour round trip could ease my racing mind. Nothing seems to help. Not alcohol or binge watching TV shows or playing hours of fetch with the dog.

I haven’t been sleeping lately. Last night I got two hours of sleep. I’ve been shaky and not wanting to be social at all. (Posting this will be the end of a two day self-imposed communications blackout.) My cough is back again. So I took a nap, or tried to.

It was in the liminal space between sleep and being awake that I realized a lesson I was on the verge of learning on that last night of summer. Nobody asks us to love them or stop loving them. Love doesn’t mean getting your way. It offers no guarantees. It is not something that allows you to control someone or make them feel shame that they don’t love you enough or in the way you might expect.

That isn’t how it works.

It wakes you up in the morning. It sings and rocks you to sleep. It keeps you close when everything feels like it has cracked and broken. It sends pens to scratching on the surface of notebook pages, bleeding out ink like blood onto the page. It calms you down and helps you breathe. It can also kill you if you hold it in, just as sure as an anuerism.

In its truest form, love lasts long after we are gone. When everything else has broken down and been washed away, it stands on its own. It doesn’t demand anything. It doesn’t incite jealousy. It allows you to recapture joy from a single moment sometimes that meant something. It’s enough to push back the night that feels so cold and endless. Whether it is hearing the laughter of a baby who is grown up and gone away, or a first kiss and long embrace of a lover, or a grandmother fussing at you as she cooked you bacon, or a pet who never left your side when you were sick, it is always going to be with you.

It is stronger than we give it any credit for being. It is like gravity. It never goes away when it is real, no matter how much we might wish we could forsake it. Like a story, it is independent of ourselves, though we can draw upon it. It outlives us because we pass on the love we have to others and they get to carry it with them.

I’ve heard the phrase “It takes a while to unlove somebody.” I don’t think this is possible. We just let the grief teach us something, but we can never unlove someone once we have loved them.

Ring the bells that still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack
a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in
It’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

That crack is what happens when we grow. It hurts. It sucks. And it feels like it’s going to kill us. But the love we receive is the light that gets in. We get to keep it, even if the ones who brought it are gone. Until we are ready to give it to someone else.

So, when I think of what Brenee Brown said about boundaries and vulnerability, I probably should have just kept this revelation to myself. But if it sets just one person’s mind at ease and gets them through a rough patch like the ones I’ve had lately, I’m prepared to argue that with Ms. Brown. And with me will stand every poet, artist, writer, musician, and anyone else who has ever expressed the abundance of feeling from that cracked vessel they call their hearts.

I guess the right you have to sharing this story with me is that you are here and you are reading. Even if some might consider it oversharing.

The moment you let love in is a moment when you feel at peace. I hope this helps.

Thank you.

Cry

“I wish I could cry.”  He felt like his insides were filled with stones, holding him down, making it impossible to breathe.  If he could just cry like the way he did when he was a little boy, the stones could come out, he would feel hollow inside for a while, but lighter again.  Other than happy moments, he hadn’t been able to cry for years.  He just continued to fill up with those stones.  He could be full of them and sit at the bottom of the ocean.  You can’t crush stone even with the weight and pressure of the entire black ocean rising up above you.

The last time he remembered crying was when he was 17, watching the Fox and the Hound with Suzanne in her basement.  With her parents upstairs, the two of them sat under the same blanket, thin and frayed, smelling a little like cat urine.  They had movie evenings like this before, where usually they passed the time kissing, how many thousands of different ways to kiss as the movie played in the background.  He didn’t even remember which ones they had seen together.  There was something about this movie though that hit him a different way.  Not long after it started, Nick felt something break inside of him.  The tears filled his eyes and a dam burst someplace inside, they kept coming, running down his cheeks.  He couldn’t stop them.  He wept and Suzanne watched him with astonishment, eventually taking him into her arms and just holding him.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  Laughing between tears he apologized and tried to wipe them out.

“There’s no reason to be sorry.  Are you okay?”  She just kept holding him.

“I just can’t stop.”

“You don’t have to.”

That night after the movie was done, he felt so empty, like all the poison of his life up until that point had been drained out of him, like a boil.  Suzanne never mentioned it again unless he brought it up.  For his birthday, she bought him the VHS of the Fox and the Hound, which he never had the courage to play again.  Certainly not alone.  

He never cried like that again.  Not when his grandparents died, not when he had to euthenize three of their dogs when he was married.  The stones started filling him then.  Sometimes his eyes would well up with tears of joy.  Anything random could set it off.  A television commercial or the kids smacking the tv screen when they were toddlers. 

Then there were moments like that Valentine’s Day, when he sat alone on the quad, his back up against a pine tree outside the building where he worked.  It was a clear, mid-February day.  In Colorado, winter takes a break for a few weeks and returns in full fury at the beginning of March.  Usually around Valentine’s, the temperatures climb into the sixties or seventies.  The grass is dead and the color of honey, but insects begin to buzz around. For a few days it feels like a rumor of summer.  

He sat staring into the distance, feeling the weight of so many stones that had gathered in his heart—his marriage, the stress of his job and how it never seemed to be enough, and the debts that kept building, the opportunities for his kids being missed over and over, his solitude, the friends he could no longer talk to without being criticized, the beginning of estrangement from his parents.  A student approached him, walking straight towards him across the grass.  He watched her come closer, figuring she was just another campus crusader.  Oftentimes they stopped to talk with him about Jesus or attending one of their services.  He was still young looking in those days.  His early thirties. They were eager to put butts in pews.

“Hello!” the young lady said when she approached.

“Hi,” he said.  There was a feeling inside that made him wonder if his wife was somehow watching.  She wouldn’t like him talking to a pretty college student.  The girl was blonde, with her hair braided into two long braids.  She wore overalls and rubber rain boots. Yellow with red flowers painted on the sides.  

She sat down across from him and reached into a bag she was carrying.  She handed him a Reeces Peanut Butter cup.  “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said.  She offered him the candy, which he took reluctantly.

“Thank you,” he said.  He held the candy bar gingerly, like a baby chick.

She beamed and offered her hand to shake, which he took.  Her hand felt small in his palm.  The skin was soft and smooth. He could smell her shampoo. His heart fluttered a little bit.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had touched another adult like this. It felt more like a hug to him than a handshake.  He was touch-starved, alone, and that touch felt like glass cracking all the way up the length of his arm to his chest.

“Thank you,” he said again, feeling tears welling up into his eyes.

“You looked like you needed to be someone’s Valentine.”

She stood up and continued on across the grass, leaving Nick holding that peanut butter cup.  When she was gone, he was still holding the candy and he heard himself sniff.  He let out a single sob and two tears rolled down his face.  He couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad tears.  Maybe one of each.

He unwrapped the candy and took a bite. Maybe the girl was an angel, he thought, and he could keep the gift she had given him safe inside himself.  The chocolate and peanut butter were the best and freshest he had ever tasted.

Nick thought about last year when he and Holly would stay up late texting each other.  He was still nursing the wounds of the end of his last relationship: Kate. Love in the Time of Covid was the working title of that story. Over the years, he and Holly had their run of flirtations when either of them was single or in close proximity at least, but mostly they talked about things. Hopes. Burdens.  Dreams.  The 500 miles between them were a deterrent for romance, though nothing was impossible. He had always thought she was pretty. Curly hair and heart-shaped face which always seemed to carry that sweet smirky-smile.

When Kate left, Holly was the first person he told.  He didn’t know why.  He just had to reach out to someone as his heart was shattering into pieces.  They hadn’t talked for months other than the occasional hello or checking in on each other.  He liked her posts on Instagram and Facebook too and watched her daughters grow and the sweet smile she always wore. Summer under lock down passed easily when they filled the nights with long conversations. They listened to each other about everything. They never flinched.

“Have you ever read the book, Wild by Cheryl Strayed?” Nick asked her one night.

“Yes!  I love that book!” Holly said.

“I just started reading it again.  I read it at the beginning of my divorce.”

“It is incredible.”

“She’s just so honest.  Raw,” he said.

“And that scene on the beach—“

“Oh jeez,” he said.  “I know what you mean.  I like the movie and the book equally but for different reasons.”

“Oh yeah?  Please tell me,” she said.

“That whole area is beautiful, but you never see that in the book.  Just the journey of discovery in herself.  The movie at least shows us the scenery.”

They decided to read the book again together and when they were done, a few weeks later, they watched the movie.  They texted back and forth as the movie played, talking about each scene as though they were there.  That was a moment Nick’s tears were happy.

In the nights he was reading the book, it was hard to get through it as quickly as Holly had been reading.  He had to stop and scribble down notes of what he was feeling, putting into words the things he wanted for his own story which were demanding to be told.  Cutting as deep as he could.  Sometimes he felt himself on the verge of tears.  This time sad tears.  Something deep inside coming up that he could do nothing to stop.  Like a whale rising from the deep blue towards the surface, about to take a breath.

A year later, Holly was gone as well.  Their paths diverged, with each of them going where the other could not follow. Her absence left another weight in his chest.  Another stone to pull him under.

He watched Wild again, alone.  Trying to feel the way he felt when they watched it together.  A completely different person now than he was even a year ago, when they were both starting out on an amazing journey together as close friends. Then something more. Back when she let him in. Back when she was pretty instead of beautiful. Now he took his place among many others and she lost sight of who he was. Maybe even herself. Now he was just another in a long list of names to be forgotten. He knew well how it felt to be lost.

He remembered how deeply that movie cut him.  How he wished he could write anything that honest.  How the nights reading that book (one of the only ones that he read more than once) were often start and stop, with him reading a chapter or a few pages and drawing the courage from that to write from places so deep that it was better than crying.  Cathartic.  

He sat down again to write.  The words fell into the pages of that leather bound notebook she had given him, scratched out onto the heavy gauge paper in scribbles of black ink, manifesting what his heart told him.  He couldn’t cry anymore.  Never again would it be like that night of watching the Fox and the Hound half a lifetime ago.  His tears were the ink from his pen now, falling onto those empty pages.  

Gradually, he felt the weight of the stones begin to lighten.

Copyright 2021 Clinton A. Harris

Nobody will read this

For whatever reason, the most hits I get on this blog is about 25. It’s frustrating, because it’s nice to write, but it’s better to be read. I’ve seen sites where someone posts a pic of a bird and a pun and they have a shit ton of readers.

Facebook limits the exposure you get too. Traffic is very low from Facebook, unless you pay for a boost. It’s a gimmick. The boosts don’t work.

Lately to me, Facebook is frustrating. It’s a waste of time. Same with Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest. I have a lot of work to do, and I’ve been using social media as a convenient excuse to avoid it. Why? Because the book scares the hell out of me. It’s so much. And I’m closing in on the first draft and I know I’ve just got upwards of five more drafts once it is done.

Imagine painting your ceiling with two 1/2″ artist brushes and you’ll see what a first draft is. Because once it’s done, you have to do it all over again.

Today I sat in a hot springs and had a long meditative afternoon with myself. I’m getting in my own way and after thinking through all the turmoil in my life right now, some things fell into place. I have a story to finish. Self care is crucial. So is just sitting in your feelings and working through them. Time for another chapter.

The book is demanding to be written right now, which means I’m not going to be on social media if I can help it. I might not even be sleeping all that much. I’m going to listen to the story and make sure it is true and told with conviction, honesty, and love.

Not that I will be missed on social media.