I like to press blackberries to the top of my mouth with my tongue. If they’re good, they burst without me having to involve those sharp and aggressive molars most people use to chew meat. With an abrupt pop they’ll explode, and my taste buds will be overcome with an all-at-once sweet and tart juice that can only come from something created by nature. The flavor radiates like another powerful force of nature I know.
I know that not everyone has the same sensual relationship that I do with blackberries. I know that not everyone has had the experience of eating them off bushes on a rain-forested mountain when they were figuring out who they are. Not everyone has been so lucky as to take a small bus to the peak of a mountain each morning as they listened to corny jokes and excited strangers. Not everyone has had the wondrous opportunity to photograph well-off businessmen as they screamed down a zipline and experienced a euphoria they had probably only ever felt if using very expensive drugs.
It wasn’t a very skilled position, photographing tourists on a mountaintop zipline in North Carolina. But it was important for me, at the time. On those days, I would bask in the clouds I was so fortunate to be hugged by, or soak in the rays of light coming from a glowing orb that felt close enough to touch. On those days, I would read books about the hopeless culture we’d created for ourselves that is utterly unsustainable and doomed to failure unless we each look inward and recalculate the truths we’ve grown up with. I would lie in a fabric sling and snooze to the sounds of jubilant visitors flying blissfully through the canopy of trees around me.
On those days, I would feel the putty-like peach core of self-pity; the showers of doom and dread; the overwhelming realizations of a world at large. I knew, on those days, that our consumer culture was going to be the downfall of this Earth. I knew that if we could not move past our need to always have something more, something better, something new, that we would destroy the one planet we have to live on. The planet covered with the people that I loved so much.
I would be nearly crushed between the delicate molecules, that affect this life in so many forms, hovering in the clouds above me and flowing in the river below.
This world moves me. The people, simple creatures with complicated backstories; the environment, mystifyingly interconnected. Maybe it’s because I almost lost it all once, or maybe it’s because I’m growing up.
Sometimes it all washes over me: the depth and intensity of the inner workings that make this existence what it is. In those moments I feel splashes of pain mixed with passion and a complete lack of comprehension. In those moments, I feel the weight that is my perpetual ignorance; I feel the truth that I will never understand it all. In those moments I feel an abrupt and powerful surge of desire to love, to give, to learn and to embrace. An utter need to take on this life and all that it can be.
In those moments I collapse inward. Simultaneously, I feel both miniscule and immense. I consider the possibility of my impact on this existence to current and future generations, or of my triviality and complete inhalation from the human experience and psyche.
I ground myself.
I spent a few months living on an island one summer. Some days I would retreat to the water after work and feel its breath. I would slide into the chill mass that is the Boston Harbor and emerge feeling cleansed, despite the plastics bags that scattered the beach and the heroin needles rumored to decorate the sea floor.
That summer was an enlightening experience. For the first time in my young-adult life, I was permitted the autonomy I have always craved to explore a beautiful place while also uncovering and solving issues within an organization that I truly believed in and felt a part of. I mattered, and no one doubted that.
I would go to work and instead of my supervisor telling me what to do, he would offer me a list of tasks and ask what I thought we should do first and how we should do it. His ocean-blue eyes mimicked the waters we were surrounded by, and peeked from behind his reddish-blond beard. The combination instilled confidence. They showed me he trusted me with good reason. We worked day-by-day and side-by-side to create an environment of learning for the inner-city students that would visit the island, and to give the instructors more time to focus on the most important parts of their jobs.
Most mornings, I would rise from bed as the sun snuck above the trees on the east side of the island. I would dress in my athletic tights and cut-off high school event shirts and run. I would run nearly the entire length of my floating home, and appreciate the diversity offered between the beaches, fields, and wooded sections of our small island.
I immersed myself into the natural beauty of the island; I absorbed and recycled the compassionate culture of the organization I was working for and people I was working alongside; and I imbibed the awesome power of my profession of choice.
I was floating on a dream of fulfillment.
Growing up, I suffered from crippling anxiety. For an 8-year-old, that meant that I couldn't turn doorknobs in public buildings with a bare hand. It meant I couldn't eat anything that seemed even slightly suspicious by its smell or texture. I had to use the restroom anytime I even thought I had to pee, and wash my hands after touching any surface or object that I viewed as questionable, the criteria for which was unbeknownst, even to myself. I would watch the fire alarm’s light blink on and off, and tremble with worry that it would stop flashing and start screaming. It meant that my curiosity was stifled by fear, and my joy drowned by irrationality.
It meant that, without warning, my eyes would grow wide as my heart raced. My breath would quicken and shallow while a sense of complete and utter doom overcame my senses. This could last anywhere from two to twenty minutes, usually not developing into much more, but sometimes dissolving me into a puddle of tears and horror on the purple shag rug that lie on the floor of my room.
Now, these moments come and go as quickly as a flash rain. Now, I grip the nearest sturdy object and knock three times.
I ground myself.
Some days, I can feel the intensity of my self-pity lodged in my throat. It is similar in size to the core of a peach, yet more malleable and dense. It threatens to erupt through my tear ducts, to overtake the façade I've worked so hard to establish: that I am more powerful than my neuroses, my darkness.
On these days, I work to allow myself no indulgences. I crave moist and precisely crafted muffins, or sharp and unforgiving nips of the vodka I’ve had in my freezer for six months. I used to allow these things, and I would sink further yet into my darkness. I would breathe deeply the contents of a glass bowl, crafted locally with only one intention. I would grab a bag of pretzels and retreat to the television to melt my conscious mind away from my body. I would watch episode after episode of shows where people’s lives were more difficult than mine, hoping it would make me feel better.
I wanted nothing more than for my undesirable body to be detached from my poisoned mind. I thought that poisoning my body, too, would help make this happen, even if just for a time.
I had no steady surface to help me find balance.
When I write I pretend that I am writing for a reader who also faces multiple neuroses on a day-to-day basis. Maybe this person has worked hard for many years to bring the loud rush and crash to a dull roar. But maybe this person is new to this world of overwhelming trains of thought that speed by, unyielding in their wrath. Maybe this person has recently found themselves collapsed upon the floor, returning to that physical position of safety from which we originate, with tears rushing down their blushed and downtrodden cheeks. Maybe even a person with walls of steel discovered a crack and felt the rush and pull of a strong current.
I want to say that it’s O.K. to feel this current sometimes, but I don’t actually feel that way, because it isn’t. Some of these places and transitions we experience will bring us to our knees, but I wish they didn’t. I wish things were easier, and that people were nicer. I have a lot of wishes that won’t come true.
I ground myself.
There are times when I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t care how well things are going. It doesn’t care that my personal and professional efforts are paying off. It doesn’t care that my budding relationship is on track to bloom, thrive, and sail across the seas.
It doesn’t even care that I’ve been exercising consistently and eating well. In fact, it is trying, and sometimes succeeding, to convince me to stop all that. It wants me to eat fried and sugary foods and stop running. It wants me to give up on my fundraiser, or at least feel like it won’t make a difference. It wants me to destroy my relationship from the inside-out with a lack of confidence and an underlying paranoia.
I don’t want that; it does.
It greets me every morning, and puts me to bed each night. It saunters by during the day, when I’m not paying attention, to tell me that I’ve earned that latte; my boyfriend doesn’t love me; I’m going to fail so why try anyway? It tenses my shoulders while I sleep so that I wake up without actually having rested.
It doesn’t care how many times I prove it wrong; making it through the day without that candy bar, gaining more support and sponsorships, receiving caring messages or phone calls from my love.
No, it really doesn’t care about all that good stuff. It doesn’t care about me, and it doesn’t care about anyone else, either. It works to pull me under; deeper below the surface where the sun still glints and glimmers.
It laughs at the ground on which I attempt to grip the soles of my shoes.
At least when things are bad it makes sense to be this way. I can actually justify my worries and compulsions if I’m alone, struggling in a class, or having an issue with a friend. But when there is none of that, when my life is utterly devoid of strife, I cannot even attempt to decipher what these anxieties are gripping to. Gripping, with their nimble and dexterous phalanges, to anything they can.
But then I see something. A man with a bright red visor, age worn into the creases next to his eyes, an unknown experience removing both his legs just above the knees.
There is a total bliss about him as he allows the driver of the bus I’m on to help him to his spot. He and his wheelchair rise with the lift as the bus driver holds down a red button on the remote that controls it. She straps him to the floor with large metal hooks, and he turns to ask where it is I’m lolly-gagging off to.
Immediately, there is a change. I take out my headphones from the podcast I was listening to because I know this is more important. He tells me about his 57--no, 86--grandchildren and his third wife who passed almost ten years ago. He asks if I ever planned on getting married, as if it were already too late for that, and suggests any of his many grandsons. I tell him that if things don’t work out with my current boyfriend I’d give him a call.
He is happy. He sees the light everywhere. I can tell, because it reflects from his eyes. It ricochets throughout the bus and affects everyone on board. It was hard not to want that; to be happy and magnetic. It made me want to choose to be happy, but I know it doesn’t work that way.
I ground myself.
In this world there are big things and little things. There are things in between, of course, but I’m more comfortable with this dichotomy.
Because, after all, sometimes even just that fact can be too much. The big things in the world become so monstrous and unbearable that we need to fall back on the littlest of things. We need to crouch down in the middle of a busy sidewalk, a grassy field, a trail in the woods, an unpopulated beach; we need to crouch down and squint our eyes at all these little things.
Our top and bottom eyelids will come so close to touching, our lashes nearly blocking the view altogether, as we focus on these little things. A blade of grass, each sliver made of precious threads; a fallen acorn, its dark brown exterior delicately caressed by lines of a light tan streaming from the cap to the tip; a tiny shell, the life once occupying it gone on a new adventure; a piece of stone, potentially a conglomerate of thousands of years of pressures, waters, and changes.
The vastness of the world of little things is nothing to scoff at, I’ve found. The amount of flourishing and success, of trouble and strife, is comparable to our own world. The mystery of a modest world much unnoticed; the romance of empires we may never access.
I live day by day swaying with the tide of these humbling acknowledgements.
At times I feel suddenly aware of the fact that everyone around me has an entire life happening concurrently with mine. That each individual is starring in their own story and their life is incomparably invaluable to themselves.
In these moments, I wonder where the people sitting in the park are from. I wonder if they have ever been in love or had their heart broken. In these moments, I might smile and hope that the people in my favorite coffee shop have lovely parents. I might not, but I might.
Sometimes in these moments, I am lead down a path of projection; of making assumptions about people I don’t know based on people I think I know. But other times these moments lead to understanding, which is a short skip-and-a-hop from empathy and patience, some of my favorite values. Sometimes in these moments, I realize that I am not the only person in the room experiencing any number of neuroses. I realize that maybe the reason anyone does anything ever is to satisfy a neurosis: paranoia, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, depression. Did she buy a muffin because she is sad, or was it because she did well on a test and thought she deserved it? Do those have to be mutually exclusive?
I go on, and sometimes feel so intensely the empathy this line of thinking can provoke that I take a sharp breath and shake out of it.
I ground myself.
As I walked through the rain I thought about the power of water. It’s power to change the color of my pants, and wash dirt away from the streets. I wondered if it could wash away my pain.
I thought about water and its many forms, and I realized that it is just like our minds. That sometimes, like a steady rain, feelings seep into our minds and through our bones. Sometimes these feelings are chilling like a late fall shower, and we hate that they last so long. Other times these feelings are warm and welcome, like a mid-summer downpour that we are so willing to dance in. Water can arrive in the form of a tsunami or a hurricane, devastating those in its wake. I read somewhere once, “hurt people hurt people,” and I think that’s what an emotional tsunami probably is.
Most of all, though, I relate to waves. Waves in the ocean, rolling gently across the sea and breaking as they see fit. Occasionally a wave breaks across me, and just like when I lived by the ocean it seeps its cool and refreshing power through my body. These waves dictate how I approach the next decisions of my day, and although their power seems unruly and ungovernable, I know where they come from. I might not be able to choose what waves break across my body and through my mind, but I sure as hell can choose if I lean in or let them knock me down. I find my power in these waves around me.
I lean into them, and find comfort in the power and fluidity of a world that moves me.