Sometimes we feel fragmented, abstract; we are connected.
I keep unfolding this origami shape, trying to make a kite.
What’s the right way to look at the work we do? Does anyone notice the difference between folding and flight?
We are told to do the work, and we want to, and it comes as easily to us as flight does to a thousand paper cranes.
It is easy to believe we are doing it wrong. It is easy to believe that there is a dull ache, there are sore muscles, even when we are doing it right.
And everything is right.
Everything is all right.
I’m not not spelling it out in order to obfuscate; I wouldn’t do that to either of us. I’m not spelling it out because the test is wrong, and I know the answers, but not to these questions. We know everything, and we have never known any single thing.
I know this: I draw hearts in Douglas fir sawdust with my fingertip, believing always in yes, now, this.
We whisper wishes into night, day, storm, sun. We whisper gusts. We keep the kites aloft.
Some days I don’t know where to begin. I think of how hard our psyche rushes in the background, trying to escape remembered danger or pain that isn’t anything now, isn’t more than paper in a puddle, but we wake up exhausted anyway.
Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the way we work is in a straight line, as if we don’t loop back around again, as if we won’t need to. And I think of the way a kite stays up, and the way when I was little, I ran in circles trying to catch the wind in the muddy field with my father. My feet in boots navigating slippery clumps of soil, heavy grey clouds churning above his head as he ran for the string that slipped through my fingers.
And I think of catching and holding, and running, and waiting for the wind, and fighting it, and those few moments in between when it’s all just grace and flight and lift and it feels like it’s no work at all.
Let’s give each other the space and grace to navigate, to slip sometimes, to falter. I’ll give chase for you.
Sometimes work is a four-letter word, the way we put ourselves back together every day, for ourselves, for each other. Do we privilege one audience over another, and why do we feel maligned for doing either, or both?
I’ve been gripped for the past several days by a certain melancholy I can’t quite source. Touching base with a number of people in my life, I hear they also feel marked in this way. I think about the things that we sense collectively, the cold heaviness of a loud, mean world. I think of the way it makes us feel separate, though we are feeling the same thing, each in our own way.
I think of this: sometimes the kite string doesn’t simply slip from our grasp because the wind was strong or because we slid in the mud. Admit it. Sometimes we let it go. Sometimes we woke up exhausted. And I think, I’ll chase that for you today. Will you help me start again, tomorrow? I think of the way I was given paper. The way I watched you transform a thousand origami cranes into kite, the way I managed to let the wind take mine again, though getting into the air in that day was a feat, and you said so.
Sometimes I try and take the view of the kite, and look down on the field, on all the endeavoring, and I’m struck by the earnestness of it all, by the web of string, the kaleidoscopic pattern of arms outstretched, by the chasing we are willing to do, for ourselves, for one another, even though you can only see it from this vantage point.
Sometimes you have to close the door on perspectives that don’t serve you.
There’s a narrative at work in our world in which human brokenness plays a key role. The idea that the pain of our lives, of the world, breaks us is not a new one, but social media proliferates it in different ways. Not long after my divorce I stumbled across this Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I affixed myself to that notion. I viewed it as a roadmap. Not only did it acknowledge how I felt and insisted that I wasn’t alone, it showed me that there was something I could do about it – get stronger.
The first guy I dated after my divorce actually told me I was broken, and very generously offered to help put me back together – the way he thought I should be. Unsurprisingly, that situation did not work out. If I was going to be strong at the broken places, I knew my first feat of strength would be to oust him from my life. I recently saw a meme about the way dating in your 40s and 50s is like going to the dump and looking for the least broken and disgusting thing. It reminded me of the way he had looked at me, and how much I’d hated it. But it also reminded me that this “broken” narrative was also a story I had told myself for some time, and hints of it still came back. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful ones that exist. This notion of human brokenness is an idea that many people respond to, and it’s not exclusive to the way romantic relationships impact us. The world is brutal enough that we all feel this way sometimes, just like Hemingway said. The world breaks everyone, with tragedies tailored uniquely to our own hearts.
But, I’m through tolerating this analogy. Even if you haven’t thought of yourself in this way for a while it’s easy to fall back in to. We begin to see ourselves as healed, as actually stronger in the broken places, and then life pushes back. We face a challenge that’s harder to work through than we thought, or we find ourselves in the process of evolving into a new relationship, and consequently a new version of ourselves, and it naturally forces us to look at who we’ve been. That can hurt, and it can make us feel as though we haven’t come as far as we thought. Or, we witness a friend or loved one going through a tough time and it reminds us of challenges we have faced, and how maybe we didn’t come through to the other side as strong as we imagined. Through all of this, it is remarkably easy to fall back into thinking of ourselves as broken. It’s easy when faced with the pain of growth to feel as though we’re not as strong in the broken place as we thought, that maybe we are still broken, that maybe parts of us will always be broken. But in reality, we are simply changing. They aren’t called growing pains for nothing.
It’s true that hearts break, it’s true that we feel overwrought and undone by life’s pain. But it is a tragic way to think of people. It is an achingly solitary way of looking at ourselves. Whether or not we are trying to do our own repair work, or hope that others can somehow fix us, or hope to align ourselves with someone who has some sort of complimentary brokenness – as if our fractured or missing pieces can somehow fit together – the idea of brokenness still seems bleak. It is a notion filled with despair, easy to embrace, and difficult to move away from.
Within this notion of brokenness, we slide further and further away from ourselves. We imagine a fractured version of us, and insist it is who we are, and the world agrees.
I’m not saying there is something wrong with feeling broken. I think it’s pretty unavoidable. If you love any human or animal in this world, one way or another you are going to crumble. Sometimes I’ve felt that the breaks I thought I repaired are in fact poorly healed, weak spots that continue to pain me. Sometimes I’ve felt that no matter what I do, some breaks will always be there, as if their sole purpose is to remind me to question happiness that comes my way. Many of us who have experienced deep pain have at least for a time believed that the things that have broken within us have rendered us incapable of loving properly, trusting fully, of receiving the love being offered to us. But we have to stop telling ourselves these stories. We have to make other ideas just as real to us as brokenness.
It’s not enough to say, today I’m stronger at the broken places. Because tomorrow may re-break us and then what? It is certain that we need ways of looking at pain that make it palatable. We need those roadmaps, and to feel understood, and to feel less alone. Let yourself feel broken when you feel it, but don’t ever let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you are. Search the world for other metaphors.
I spent the spring exploring the natural world in search of metaphors about renewal and growth (remember those crickets we talked about?). Lately, I’m loving this idea of rebuilding, rehabilitation, renovation – not of broken things, but of the parts of ourselves that get neglected when we the world hurts us. The process of renovation is slow, and non-binary. It is not a journey from broken to repaired, or, to come back to Hemingway, from broken to stronger. It’s a process of devoting attention to different areas of our lives and quietly reviving them, nurturing them, clearing away debris and shining a light on the strength of our foundations. It is about making things stronger, but the focus is not on the brokenness. The focus is on seeing all the potential and helping it come into being in a new way. It recognizes the past but builds toward the future.
The rest of that Hemingway quote is this: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway saw first-hand much of the world’s pain and he did a fair amount of causing it himself. Maybe we can listen to other stories than this one. Maybe there is no roadmap to renewal in quotes about the way life is either going to break or kill us. Let’s not live by quotes or memes. Let’s remember resilience, let us recall strength that comes not from how many times we’ve gotten ourselves through something tough, but the strength that’s deeper than that in us, that has always been there. There is a part of us willing to find new metaphors if that’s what we need to move forward, there’s a part of us that embraces love even though we know the risks, there is a part of us that recalls even in the most painful moments of our lives that we are more than a collection of broken parts. Let us remember that in insisting on our own brokenness we inflict more wounds.
We all handle hurt differently. I rally around metaphor, my Pied Piper leading me someplace new. I crave new ways of looking at things, hoping to understand better the world around me, the people in it, the universe of my own heart. I think our strength lies in the seeking, more so than in whatever we find.
Maybe vulnerability and trust are not connected in the way we thought they were.
Being away from our usual routines often affords us new insights, but sometimes it isn’t until we return home that new ways of looking at things emerge. I recently travelled to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for a week-long writing retreat. While there, I attended a panel discussion with other writers, led by the retreat’s faculty members, on being vulnerable and what it means as a writer. Inevitably, in the days that followed, I considered what it meant to be vulnerable as a regular woman-person, not exclusively as a writer-person. Like many people, I have experienced the emotionally wrenching side effects of vulnerability. I don’t see much difference between allowing one’s self to be emotionally vulnerable and the notion of being open hearted. It is a deliberate choice, an act, to open ourselves to others.
As writers (in our relationship with our work and with our audience), and as “regular” people (in our relationships with the loved ones in our lives), the risks of vulnerability include pain, rejection, being misunderstood—in short, isolation. We expose ourselves in order to seek connection, and the risk we take is that the opposite effect will occur. And the more we’ve been hurt in our past, or misunderstood, or rejected, the greater the perceived risk of this exposure. We simultaneously want to protect ourselves and want to be open, to seek out all those things that make us feel good about being a person in this world.
Most of us want to understand and be understood, regardless of our perspectives as writers, artists, lovers, family members, friends. But I think it goes a bit deeper than this longing. In endeavoring to connect with one another, we seek to reveal not just what we think, but how our brains operate, not just that we love but how our hearts function. It is in the intricacies of these processes of thinking and loving that we truly engage with one another, and understanding them in ourselves and in others offers us pathways to the sought-after connection.
We want roadmaps as we wander through the mazes of each other’s heartscapes, and each of us in our own way wants to offer the same guidance to those we welcome into our worlds. It is not just why some people make art, it is why we all read it, see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.
Being vulnerable, or, opening our hearts to each other, is an act of trust. It is an act of relinquishing (perceived) control of outcomes. But when we extend and open ourselves in this way, we are often filled with self-doubt. Will isolation instead of connection be the result of our exposure? We can’t know. But we trust. In many ways, in all of the emotional interactions we seek out, we place our trust in the other party – whether it be a partner, a family member, a friend, or those who consume our art. We place our trust in them, hoping that what we offer will be accepted, that the roadmap will be decipherable, that the other person or people will willingly journey with us. We hope that in return, we may receive the reciprocal invitation to understand and connect. It is a seemingly simple conversation, an exchange, but beneath it exists a complex system of highways and byways, along which race countless thoughts and emotions as we try and gauge the success or failure of a particular act of vulnerability.
I think though what we often fail to realize is how unfair all that is, and the burden it places on those we care about. We delude ourselves into thinking we are entering into a pact and in doing so we are obligating others to behave in a certain way.
How freeing it would be to look at it another way, to consider that when we decide to be vulnerable, we are only making an agreement with ourselves, trusting that in opening ourselves in this way, we are welcoming whatever good may come of it. And if there is pain, or sorrow, or rejection, we welcome that too, not for the hurt itself, but for the growth that comes from it.
How kind it would be to those with whom we seek connection to let them off the hook, to not have any expectations of reciprocity.
How loving it would be to invite them into our worlds, offer them that roadmap, and then, simply be. Be there when they get there. Be understanding if they got lost along the way. Be joyful if they are delighted for the opportunity for connection and welcome us with open arms into their headspace and heartspace.
Maybe trust should not be about what we hope for from one another. Maybe it should be about what we are offering, and why.
We are never in control of outcomes that are tied to the emotional responses of others, and that is a beautiful thing. Maybe it is about trusting ourselves to know what is best for us, trusting ourselves to offer our world to those we love, to those we seek connection with. Our vulnerability lies in our willingness to do that, regardless of how we will be responded to.
Our lives are so full of uncertainty, in so many areas, professionally and personally. It is understandable that we want to control an outcome here or there, understandable to think that we actually can. At the novel retreat, participants were invited to read from their work to the other writers present, participants and faculty members alike. As a group, we discussed this as an act of vulnerability, this offering of our art in a public way, when we know all the ways it could be misunderstood, deemed unworthy, when we know that our physical performance too is under scrutiny. At the time, I looked at this endeavor under the dual lens of vulnerability and trust, and I told myself that it was my ability to trust this room of writers to be open to me that allowed me to be up at the podium reading my work. They did not let me down. They were kind and generous in their response to me and to my work. Yet, I could have entered into the reading in another way, trusting my desire to share my work, trusting that regardless of how it was received, this was what I wanted for myself. Audiences will receive us how they will.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that this way of looking at trust is anything but experimental. It feels sort of revolutionary to me to consider that trust perhaps has, or should have, little to do with the other party. But what right do we have to obligate others, however obliquely, to respond to us in a certain way? If I expose thoughts and emotions, my true self, to others in a vulnerable way, and I do so because I trust both my instinct and my willingness to accept the outcome of this particular exposure, it is a gift to bear witness to how this act of exposure is received. Consider too how miraculous are the gifts offered to us by others, when those we love are expressing themselves in a space free of demand, obligation, or expectation. Perhaps being vulnerable and being truly trusting work quite differently than we thought.