you learn to survive, then you learn to come back alive

mississippi river

I started my adolescence with all this fire and verve. All these goals and plans and dreams, and oh my god, I laughed at adults who told me “I hope you make it.”

Hope? I would.

I memorized New York City street maps, because someday, I’d leave Minnesota. I told adults who asked me if I wanted to be a mother that I only wanted to “after I was old and done living,” because I was too greedy for the world to imagine tethering myself. I installed a computer with only one working program (a word processor) and typed 250 pages about a girl who wanted to lead. I carried notebooks with me, and asked for books on writing for my thirteenth birthday. I registered for classes that I was technically too young for, and just didn’t tell anyone my age (until my classmates asked me join them for a post-class drink, and I had to say catch you in five years). I was going to be a writer someday. I knew this is how I’d get there.

I’ve written so much about the something that happened. Depression and anxiety caught up with me, and carved me from the inside out. Even after I got the help you get (meds, talk therapy, coping mechanisms, etc.), I wasn’t quite unstuck. Like silt in a river, I drifted and settled beneath the current. I stayed like this for years.

Movies and memoirs tell us there’s one big moment for us to change ourselves, but I have a theory that we’ll all do this many times over the course of our lives. Rise from a waking sleep, and realize that this life is partially, if not wholly, our own.

I spoke with a woman who is reaching the end of her career, and still preparing for her next act. She told me that she’s never regretted her choice to pursue what she was passionate about, not even when the money didn’t follow, not even when the dream jobs became untenable. When I told her I was still trying to figure out how I will pursue, she said, “If I could give you two pieces of advice, you need enough drive to understand your passion and how to follow it. And don’t ever, ever, ever delay your goals for a man.”

Elsewhere, I read an essay by a brilliant writer I admire, “I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder.” I read that, and remembered the younger version of myself who assumed, at twenty five, that that’s who I’d be by now.

This isn’t about regret (although, to sing Sinatra, I’ve had a few) or some misplaced “I thought I’d have done x, y, and z by twenty-five” (we’re not expected to deliver in our first act), but rather about what happens when you start to feel the weight of time slowly building.

When I was a teenager, my favorite song was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” A beautiful, and terrifying song. I rolled one lyric over and over, trying to make sense of it. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.” He’s said that this album was his first attempt to hold both life and death in the palm of one hand. When you listened to this album at fourteen, you can’t understand all that pain. I held that line so close to me, because even though I knew (they way you only can when you’re fourteen, sixteen, eighteen) I’d never lose sight of my dreams, it haunted me.

About eighteen months ago, I laughed out loud when someone asked me what my dreams were. We’re really still asking those questions like they matter? We haven’t all given up and given in to the grind? Then someone else asked me the same question, a guy in a bar who I’ll never see again, and I felt the way you feel when you drink champagne on an empty stomach — all fizz and light and warmth in your fingers and your cheeks. Now, my boyfriend and I talk about dreams like they’re worth holding on to. He talks about mine like they’re worth fight for, and what’s even crazier to me, is I’m starting to believe it again.

I’ve been coming out of the fog for well over a year now. Survival is only one part of recovery. Reclaiming hope, reclaiming possibility, reclaiming not just the ability to, but the courage to dream, reclaiming my right to want something out of my life. That’s what comes after learning how to survive.

It’s like driving through the night. The earth starts to roll towards the sun again, and there, where there was only black, is the horizon. All clean and endless and there again.

how you get through the hard days

Urban Bean, Minneapolis

“As though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light where they seemed so misshapen and helpless. Oh, isn’t that why shadows get longer and longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal wave of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfill for a few hours the shadows’ innermost longings.” Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood

I’m exhausted. Do you ever have weeks like that? Where each day feels, for no good reason, like a desert to cross?

We’re short on daylight, but really long on daytime.

February’s always been a hard month. Seven years ago, I was two weeks into the spring semester, and I begged my date to drive me to my parent’s house. I couldn’t return. A week later, I’d misread a bus schedule, and be deposited into a then-unfamiliar downtown. I’d cry on the transit station’s teal carpet, and call my mom, my dad and a doctor. I’d cry for three days straight.

I’ve had dark days, but none as dark as those. What I remember from my seasons of depression are that the days feel impossible, and there is no reason other than they are. Maybe my body is remember what my mind tries not to. Maybe a week of for-no-good-reason long days is my body’s way of reminding me that it’s okay to have days that aren’t okay.

The funny thing about being happy after being unhappy for so long is that you start to become afraid of the joy. Like it might run out. Like maybe you’ve only been given a short period of bright before you return to darkness. When the days stretch, and I get grumpy, and I want anesthesia for the waking hours, I get scared that maybe this has all just been a grace period. Maybe I’ll go back to being lonely and weak and tired and sad and scared. Maybe that’s who I actually am.

I know this isn’t true, but how often does fear care about truth?

I know I’m not returning to that black country. I sometimes wonder if I ever will. Right now, that depression feels like a house for which I’ve lost the keys. I can’t get in anymore.

Even on hard days, the joy of my life, the gratitude for it outstrips the undertow. My feet, as my grandpa always said, point towards the sunny side of street. A few hard days don’t make a depression, or even a dip, but they do remind me that joy is deeper than happiness. That happiness is good, but always fickle. That it’s okay to not always be megawatt.

Guys. We’re human. We’re not designed to live only in the light.

We live in an age where happiness is hocked. It’s a commodity we can buy, a challenge we can accept, a level we can unlock, a hack we can perform. I don’t want to hack my way into eternal sunshine. I don’t want to close-circuit myself to the range, to the all of it all. I like the symphony, the range of notes, the swell and the fade. Some days are hard because they are. Some days aren’t, and that is okay too.

How do you get through the hard days? You just do.

Light comes as steady as the dark.

rome + sardinia in photographs

This past summer, I went to Italy. My mother, whose long loved the country, took me, the gift of experience.

I went to Italy with my dad’s family when I was eight. We spent a full month touring the country — Sicily, where my grandmother’s family is from, Rome, Florence, Venice, Sirmione and Sorrento. My memories of that trip are children’s memories: Playing games with my cousins in Rome, pulling away from the sick dogs in train stations and on the streets of Naples, begging for gelato, lemon and strawberry, everyday, multiple times a day, watching my brother fly across a hotel room on a bed that hadn’t been secured to the floor.

I tossed a coin, still lira in 2001, into the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and refused to tell my family that I wished for my writing to be publishedMount Etna experienced a “flank eruption” in July 2001, and I watched BBC news reports of rolling lava and crying women: We’d been there a month earlier, heard the mountain rumbling, and even though the sky was clear, I remember my cousins and I deciding we were hearing thunder from a storm we couldn’t see. When we visited Sorrento, we swam in the ocean, the water a jewel tone that even the beaches of Sicily couldn’t rival. My memory is that the beach was rocky, but the ocean floor was covered in shattered pottery. We sliced our feet on ceramic edges, and dove to the bottom to retrieve the bright, broken pieces. This can’t possibly be right, but, like I said, they’re all the memories of a child. I saw at my eye level, filtered what I saw through eight, short years, and so much of that trip has either fallen away or has taken on a kind of magic-glaze.

This past summer’s trip to Italy was as much a reprisal of the 2001 trip as it was its own, new experience. My mom has visited Italy several times, and is familiar with Rome, in particular. As we prepared for the trip, she told me over and over again that she just wanted me to see the country that she had fallen in love with.

I’ve been wanting to, and trying to, write about this trip for several months, but I can’t quite unlock my experiences. For a myriad of reasons, the trip was as emotional and difficult as it was awe-inspiring. I found myself reckoning with a fragility within myself. I cried in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere over decisions that now feel like mistakes. I flew home with hives covering my hands and feet.

It took several months for the trip to mellow into what it is for me now: a new door opening inside of me. It was an invigorating two weeks, a thoughtful and, at times, painful two weeks, and while I was ready to come home at the end of it, I think I was so ready to come home, in part, because I was so excited about the life I had back here. Back home, I felt both new and old all at once. The girl I’d once been dusted off, and returned to where she belonged. I’m not sure I was ready to travel quite yet. Not sure I was ready to learn who I was in a foreign country while I was still so thrilled to be where I was at home.

For all it was, this trip was, above all, beautiful and breathtaking. Italy is. My mother’s kindness and generosity and excitement to show me the country she loves so much was (is) beautiful and breathtaking. Photos don’t do any of it justice, and while I’m not sure my words will either, I do hope to write more about this trip, once I’ve had even more time to let it settle.