Nine years ago, a few months after Bob died, I ran from our house in the country to a drafty old limestone on the fringe of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Some days, nearly ten years later, I still feel like Forrest Gump, like I’ve never stopped running, even when it looks like I’m standing still. When I signed the lease for this crooked old box, my landlord, a gruff, manly man of a man said, “This house has a good soul,” which I thought was a curious thing to say, but it sounded important and true, so I tucked his words into my cells for safe keeping. This home, he also told me, was built in 1858, the year Minnesota was declared a state, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is often included in history tours of St. Paul.
He wasn’t kidding. Shortly after I moved in, I was talking with my mom on the phone one day when I saw a trolly pull up with people hanging out the windows, snapping photos of the house. I remember telling her if this becomes a regular thing, I’m going to sit in a rocker on the porch in period costume, head-to-toe in black, veil shielding my face, wailing into a black handkerchief. Maybe then, the world would leave me in peace with my internal war of trauma and grief.
So often, I thought of my landlord’s words, “this house has a good soul.” From the day I moved in, I felt shimmers of this truth, though I never fully acquiesced to it. I often wondered about how much heartache this old house must have cradled within its walls, about how much generational tragedy occurred on the land on which this old house sits. This house knew sorrow far deeper than my own. It felt, to me, like its literal job was to absorb some of my sadness into its porous wall-arms, along with the others, a place of refuge when my life had been set to puree.
This house had a divine sanctuary of a back yard, a rustic brick patio umbrellaed by towering trees. And by rustic, I mean crazy-crooked—you had to be careful how the legs of your chair sat atop the bricks, the danger of toppling over was real. The bricks came from old cobbled streets of St. Paul. I’d sit on that patio with my morning coffee (or evening bottle of wine), and cry. Every day, in my chair by the window, usually alone with my writing, sometimes with my mom or one of the few people I trusted to share my fractured, sacred fortress with. Always crying, it seemed, everysecondofeveryminuteofeveryday, always wondering if this crawling-out-of-my-skin, this electrified exposed-nerve state would ever go away, it felt like a permanent affliction.
One morning, when I sat down with my coffee and tears, something on the window ledge caught my eye. A small stone with the word, “patience” carved into its surface was sitting there, as though patiently waiting for me to notice it. Of course, its appearance startled me. I’d sat in that same spot for weeks, and hadn’t seen it before. Of course, my brain began running through possible reasons for how it got there. Of course there had to be a logical explanation. Of course— My heart finally interrupted, “SHUT THE FUCK UP, Brain. Quit trying to control the narrative. Quit trying make sense of anything—just let. it. be.” Of course, I didn’t have the patience to sit with that novel idea for long—a traumatized brain has very little patience for anything new, it only knows “lather, rinse, repeat.” Still, the tiniest, barely-there flicker of something, like a single, solitary cell alighted in the trillions that are me, told me to start collecting moments like this rock. And the owl that preceded the move. And my landlord’s words. And the sandstone walls of this house. And letters from friends. And poetry pressed into sidewalks of my neighborhood. And the baby boy who babbled bobobobob whenever he was cradled by my arms in this this house. And the heart scars on trees. And the friends who showed up. And the ones who retreated. And the five more moves that would happen after this one. And the love that appeared. And the stories I tell, and the ones I might never get around to telling—because, in time, all of this will begin to entwine and grow, eventually displacing the raw, choking chaos that was taking up so much space in me.
I wish I could say I wholly embraced that message, “quit trying to control the narrative, quit trying to make sense of everything, just be.” I wish I could say I melted into the blissful acceptance of all the reasons for every thing happening, but as a lifetime member of the Control Freak Club, that tends to not be my natural state. I didn’t want this story of great loss to inhabit me or define me. I didn’t want it, period. Instead, I tried my damndest to outrun this heaviness that my life had become, the labels stuck to it, busying myself with distracting external things, ignoring that internal voice speaking to the contrary. Even though I kept collecting them, the tiny fragments of grace weren’t enough to pierce the thick sludge that was settling in and filling the spaces between my cells like mortar. Staying in place meant I had to accept this new reality, it meant putting down roots, it meant pinning me in place, it meant more people would become a part of my life again, which meant the chance of loss and pain would be greater. By not putting down roots, by narrowing the scope of who I allowed in, I could control the incidence of any more deep heartache that at the time, I didn’t know much more I could take.
Moving is a form of running, running is just one of endless forms of numbing. Yet, for all the moving and running and numbing I’ve done in the past ten years, the narrative stayed the same. Even though the external landscapes changed repeatedly, the raw, stagnant aching interior settled into my like sludge. That’s not to say you can’t do amazing and wondrous and breathtaking and loving things in such a wounded state. You can and you will, and people, including yourself, will be astounded at what you accomplish and who you present to the world, but the external and internal will never match up, not when your head is running the show. The inconsistencies with which the moments of grace appear will become infuriating—like my bowling game, where I can get three strikes a row, then throw gutter balls the rest of the night—and you’ll wonder why can’t they happen more often? Why don’t they stay? Why can’t grace be my natural state? The incongruence will fester until you falter, until you come to a standstill, until the brick wall that you constructed yourself appears, that you cannot scale. Then, that too-familiar crawling-out-of-your-skin feeling will creep in, compelling you to run, again, but your condition—this ravenous, 100% subconscious-run state—will become so debilitating, there is nothing left to nourish you…you will finally collapse, maybe with a whimper, maybe with a howl—fine goddammit, you win, I’ll try something new—only because you have no more energy left to run, and this will feel so much like defeat, but maybe with the palest tinge of salvation, because you are desperate to rid yourself of this metaphorical cliche of an albatross of your own doing. Your only choice is to begin dismantling the walls of your own making.
It’s taken a good ten years, and a pandemic wrapped in a revolution and a wondrous, awful, inexplicable alchemy of things, to come to know that no matter how what my head (subconscious) thinks, it doesn’t control anything. It’s a primal, reptilian thing, its intensions are well-meaning—to analyze threats and protect us from danger, but left unchecked, it can become a dysfunctional coping system. While it protects us from every threat—real and perceived—it’s an exhausting state to be in, on high alert all the damned time. And worst of all, it prevents us from taking risks. At least the ones that matter, the ones that help us grow, not stunt.
The irony of running (or moving, or rearranging furniture or overusing substances, or food, or technology or behavior or any infinite form that numbing can take) is that when the anesthesia wears off, the shit’s still there. But so is your heart. And, it’s astonishing, how ridiculously, graciously patient the heart is. Like a-stone-sitting-on-a-window-ledge-for-God-only-knows-how-long patient. It’s astonishing, how malleable the sludge between your cells actually is, when you give your brain a much-needed rest and allow the softening action of your heart take over, like a canyon of wax melting in the warmth of a small flame.
All of this is to say, I’m moving (yes, AGAIN.) at the end of the month. This time, not just across the city, or over the river, but to Mankato, to ease the financial burden that the pandemic has laid down, a bit, to be closer to loved ones as this pandemic shitshow-without-end continues to drag on. The Twin Cities has been my home for 25 years, so of course, as soon as I decided to move, I panicked. What the effffffff am I doing?! I screamed in my cells. My natural impulse to bolt from the immediate crawling-out-of-my-skin response kicked in. But this time, instead of running, I am staying with the discomfort, allowing my cells to metabolize the scream, this most uncomfortable place, where growth happens (or so those who are wiser than I tell me; I’m still in the “fake it till you make it” phase). Curiously, as I stay with it, the decision to move, for the first time, feels more like moving toward, rather than running from, something, or running in place (though of course, my primal ways being as they are, I always seem to need an escape hatch—it’s a short-term, 6 month lease, a “try before you buy” kind of deal…old habits die hard)…xo