A Life Built On Caution

In yoga class, our teachers speak of being calm and centered. We’re told to close our eyes, breathe deeply, empty our minds of stray thoughts, focus on the now. For awhile there, I could fool myself into thinking that I was doing it properly. Surely no one could really shed all of the layers, sink so far into themselves that they could fall through and out the other side. Giving way to that is like coming to terms with allowing space to reach down and pluck you up into the sky. To fall up into that vast airlessness with joy? Insane. Impossible. Why think on it?

So I took those breaths, felt my diaphragm expand, explored the thrumming of my heart in my rib cage, tried to quiet the moths-in-a-jar brain, sought to expel the never-ending question: “What do you want out of life? What do you want out of life? What do you want out of life? What do you want…?” In the end, though, I always lost the battle. The questions, the worry, the sadness – everything fell back into place the moment I opened my eyes. The moths threatened to fly me where I wouldn’t let myself float – but being dragged is not the same as volunteering. At times I felt like I was watching myself go mad by the inch.

I had a good idea of my biggest problem, the thing I’d need to change to open a path to every other thing that needed fixing. I’d known for years. But my life was nothing if not built on caution. So many missed chances, all to avoid confrontation.

Back during my undergrad days, I went to a music festival with a big group of friends. Someone suggested that we scale a fence to sneak in – a move that meant a fortune in savings for broke college students. One by one, each friend shimmied over, then stood on the other side, waiting for me, the last man across. With one hand clutching the chain link and both feet safely planted on the grass, I realized I just couldn’t do it. What if someone caught us? What if I got my dress caught in the fence and had to be cut down by firemen? What if a cop came up just as I was climbing, and took me to jail? What if I fell to my death and then my friends got arrested for trespassing and my mom had to come identify my body, but while my friends were in Orleans Parish Prison one of them got shanked and…you get the picture. In the end, the friends got tired of waiting and pooled together to buy my ticket.

Years went by. The festival was just one tiny swell in a sea of avoidance. No confrontation for me, please. I’ll do almost anything to get out of getting a stern talking to, or having to give one. Still, I knew that this would lead to my downfall. Words must be said. Left to their own devices, they become moths. They create their own dank wind, and push you around in it. They must be freed. I knew that parts of my life needed to be adjusted – conversations must be had. I was only sipping at life, while I yearned to breathe it in freely. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. The moths became frantic.

Then something happened. Someone happened. It wasn’t all at once – there were years of glimpses, hours of overheard conversations, not just a few minutes of idle daydreams. He was just a person that I admired, innocently, from afar. He was a creator, a man of brooding intensity. He had a way with words that intimidated me. I stood outside, looking at him through the fence, hoping (with little faith) that maybe he’d notice me and climb over to my side. It took awhile, but one day I caught him gazing back at me through the wire mesh. Grinning, he held up a pair of wire cutters.

In most stories, this moment of recognition would be the death knell. After all, real life is never as good as fantasy. Men held high in estimation soon crumble beneath the stark lens of reality. But not here. Not in my story. Because once he entered my realm, once my mind finally had permission to encounter him from all dimensions, not as a symbol, but a flesh and blood man, things fell into place. He was even better from up close. Next to him, I found I could breathe again.

We were friends, and nothing more. But still, I felt the moths start to straggle away, one by one. I gingerly explored this new feeling of empty fullness. From the first true conversation, there was never another day where my brain got snagged in a loop of “What do you want out of life?” I was becoming free. I was terrified. I was ecstatic. Only one (large) puzzle piece remained. How would I find the courage to finally take a chance?

Here I’ll be honest, though it pains me to say it. For awhile, I thought I’d have to give up on this new hope. I was so scared to make a move that I almost didn’t make one. After almost eight years in a relationship, especially one where your significant other professes to adore you, heart and soul, not being able to return the feeling is still just a small problem. There are other things to consider – so many. Shared movie collections, bank accounts, bill payments, furniture…I had grown accustomed to being taken care of, and I didn’t have faith that I knew how to take care of myself anymore. I had been made to feel small, less, and my once wild nature had long since stopped raging, laying limp at the bottom of its cage. A life without passion was draining my soul dry, but I was almost willing to let it happen, just to avoid confrontation.

Before, I was resigned to living a lie to save myself from having to make my partner upset. It seemed messy. Why not put it off? I kept telling myself that maybe I’d change my mind, that maybe I just didn’t understand what “love” meant. Maybe this was all there was, and my dreamer’s heart was just inventing new ways to cause itself grief. Then there were the other issues – my credit is shot, my debt is insurmountable, my career aspirations are not panning out, apartments are expensive, the city is dangerous, what will my parents say, I’m getting old – what about children, and so on, and so on. And now we’re years down the path, and I’m fading away, and he hasn’t seen me or talked to me or laughed at my jokes or heard me cry at night after he falls asleep for years on end.

Without intending it, my new friendship blossomed into more. For awhile I endeavored to avoid him, especially when I knew in my heart that I was too weak and broken for change, that I’d never make a move, and I’d end up breaking myself and my friend in one fell swoop. Nothing untoward occurred. There were no whispered secrets, no stolen kisses, nothing at all that would lead anyone – especially me – to realize that we were becoming our own new entity. Then one night, there was a concert. Conversation. Laughter. Not-so-secret tears. A smile that made his eyes glow like tidal pools, bathed in the light of a full moon. He became my beacon, calling me home. Later, he called me beautiful. How could I explain that it was because I was reflecting him? I told him to wait. I was on my way.

To my surprise, breaking up was quite easy. I’d expected some form of heartache, but it turns out that when you’ve spent the last five plus years alone inside of a faulty relationship, the pain has already come and gone. The Man took it badly, and it did hurt to see him in pain and know that I’d caused it. He was still dear to me, in a way, despite the issues plaguing our relationship. For me, though, once the words were out, the hard part was over. However, for a few days, he questioned my decision, promised change, asked me to reconsider, and I was frightened I’d give in. I struggled to hold my ground. I mulled over the thought that I should stop fighting the current and just go back to the bleak existence I knew, rather than taking a gamble and crossing the fence for good.

Had I not had a prize to keep my eye on, this promise of love as it actually exists, not just as I’d mistakenly come to define it, I might have sunk back into old habits. Throughout it all, my friend – my lover – stood resolutely by, took it all in, gave me courage without saying a word to influence my decision. And somewhere in there, as I packed up my boxes and emptied my bank account and prepared to move into my new life, I realized that I was breathing deeply. I was focusing on the now. And what now was telling me was that I was not small, after all. I was not less. I was much, much more.

There is not much so satisfying as the sound of chain link as it snaps under the pressure of two sharp blades.

 

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