Radical gestures & small moments
The changing of seasons is always hard for me, but this year I was more aware of my resistance. As eager as I was to get back to warm weather, the first few humid days of May took me back to the previous summer—one of the hottest on record, during which I didn’t have air conditioning or go swimming even once. I wasn’t so sure about shedding my sweaters, and then, like most things, the heat wasn't nearly as bad as I was anticipating and the summer was my favorite yet. I went swimming every week and I wore dresses every day and ate lots of ice cream. I always feel the most like myself in the summertime. As soon as the leaves threaten to fall, my chest tightens a bit and I feel the fear of losing those long, carefree days rising up in me. I vividly remember a day in mid-September when a breeze suddenly reminded me that fall was coming and then, winter. It should have been obvious after years of living through the same old cycle, but it still threw me into a tizzy. I wasn’t ready to let go of summer and to face another whole season of cold.
At the end of this year, it occurs to me that I have not always been graceful about letting go. Sometimes I hold on too tight to things that aren’t mine. Just like with the seasons, even when I know that there is nothing I can do to make them stay. I wonder if maybe this is the surest way to break your own heart, to fall into a spiral of self-doubt and to wind up empty and lost. Realizing that you are not in control is a special kind of gift, a relief that you don’t have to do much to earn. The default setting of my mind has always been to categorize, to process, to figure out where things fit, to make clear cut plans and carry them out, but this was the year that forced me to acknowledge that so few things are ever black and white. I am finally learning to be okay with the in-betweens, to work through the discomfort and accept the unknowns, even if I am still not the kind of person who is excited by them. This year I changed my mind more than once. I learned to be wrong, to not take things so personally, to go easy. I allowed myself to love what I love without apology, to set boundaries, to make room for new ideas and ways of being. I am still working on patience, but I am grateful for the ways in which I feel myself learning to trust more and more, even when it feels like the whole world is screaming not to.
This was a hard year to write and it certainly didn’t help that I learned the meaning of “navel-gazing” pretty early on, which left me overthinking nearly every single “I” statement I made for the rest of the year. Social media used to be something that I gave minimal thought to, occasionally tweeting when something happened that made me laugh or posting a picture of a day that I wanted to remember. As my timeline became dark, oversaturated, and somehow even more addictive, the idea of social media grew into a hole of overly self-conscious analyzing that I found myself tiptoeing around until I grew exhausted. I worried silently about writing and not writing, about saying the wrong thing, about not saying anything at all, about whether or not my voice fit into the landscape of this year and if so, where?
The silver lining came in realizing that this was my favorite year in reading. I have always known that words are magic, but this year proved it to me over and over again. While I spent more time than ever before staring at the blank page, I also spend more time than ever before lost in the words of books and poems and essays and random bits of street art and subway ads and text messages from people that I love. The best part about it all was that I didn’t feel myself seeking or trying so hard to find the words that I needed—the right ones never failed to find me exactly where I was and when I needed them most. The fact that I often felt unable to pin words to the page that would make something coherent and meaningful ended up being a gift because it shifted my focus outward, toward saying less and listening more. If I couldn’t find the words, I wanted to read something by someone else who had, to find comfort and understanding in them. I wanted to be challenged by another human being doing the damn thing.
The end of the year in particular has been so full of seemingly ordinary moments that have had me whispering “thank you” before I even realize the words are leaving my mouth. My friends piling into a hug outside the subway station, one of us shouting, “it’s all going to be so good!” and a day or so later, standing on a small sliver of concrete looking up in disbelief because, against all odds, we have spotted a star. Being in the sky at the same time as the super moon, pretending that I am on my way to make a home there. My roommate coming home to tell me that she found a bookshelf on the street, the two of us retrieving it and then spending the rest of the night sitting on the couch and admiring at it. Later that night when she asks, “do you ever think about how there are some people who are never going to understand how much you love them?” and I fall asleep thinking about how I know that feeling and how it feels like some sort of wonderful secret. The old man who waves at me on my walk to the train each morning telling me that he’s glad I’m back after I spent a week in Ohio. Learning that my favorite neighborhood bar will play my favorite song on request at any hour. The fact that every time I’m about to lose a sock at the laundromat (which is every time I go to the laundromat), someone taps me on the shoulder to make sure I don’t leave without it.
It’s hard for me to believe that none of these things matter, and yet one of the many strange things about this year was that it often made gratitude and happiness feel self-indulgent. I’ve always been naturally inclined toward optimism and positivity, but this year, as headlines piled up and the news never stopped breaking, I wondered there was still room for joy. I’ve spent a lot of this “limbo week” between Christmas and the new year thinking about just that. Are these things worth noting? If things aren’t black and white, where does it all fit? How do we balance hope with heartache or desire with contentment?
A couple of days ago I heard a poet that I admire talking about something that a poet he admires said and all of my thoughts about what it means to be a human being in a time when the world feels like it’s spinning out of control fell into place: “[There is still value in] the radical gesture of asking people what they love even while the world burns. It’s not oppositional to one’s empathetic resources to be able to focus and zoom in on what there is to be grateful for. These things aren’t mutually exclusive and you can hold the two thoughts concurrently.”
I am sitting quietly on the line between this year and next year, wishing for a kinder, brighter world, and also full of grateful for all of the love and persistence and warmth that I’ve found here already. I’m going to keep asking people what they love, keep zooming in on those small moments that fill me with so much gratitude that I can hardly stand it. The world is a big place, and the universe is even bigger. There is room for all of it.