I went stand-up paddleboarding for the first time. Like all good games, it was just hard enough: lugging the flat fiberglass whale into the water without scratching it (too much), the scuttling leap to a rigid crouch on its gritty surface, the timorous standing upright. Bend your knees, just flow. In remarkably short time I was paddling down toward the Ballard Locks, water dark and yawning beneath the strange craft that was neither steady nor unsteady. Big boats came by: battered cruise-around-the-sights tour boats and the shining glass pyramids of the one-percent of the one-percent. Both threw up big waves. Point into them and just ride them. The waves slapped far harder than their size would suggest: hard strikes, scary-loud. The water’s plane became the thoughtless drowning world eager to claim everything. If falling was in the cards, it seemed certain then. But the wake passed, leaving only the distant shouts of happy boaters, and wind.
The past few months of mornings have crested hollow waves of wide-open silence. April’s sheer sleepless panic decayed to numbness mid-May, then a few hopeless, depressed weeks. I have been waking in the dark to pencil outlines of not-dreams, sleep broken by waves I can’t see or feel bumping the bed. Hard, vacuum bumps.
I am not sure where the last two months have gone. Now, almost three.
You sound better, people say on the phone. More days are better than not, the evenings best of all. Neurotic reading of online message boards has paid off: I know the slow, stuttering rise of mood over the day with an upbeat evening finish is common while adjusting to meds. But we have to get through the morning first, an odyssey when the morning is bad.
Monday mornings are a common stressor. (Consult Google on “Monday morning heart attack statistics”.) This Monday burned with the cold pit knowing I’d inadvertently hurt a friend, one who has shown only kindness the past two years, most so these past few difficult months. Waves passed through the walls to bump my interior, making me hypervigilant to the clock and a doctor’s appointment, swimming upstream with traffic to get home and work there for a full eight. Evening has come but the rise has not. Shadows are glassy and cool, drawing themselves out of everything, eating time. There is not enough day left, never enough day left, or energy, or clear thought.
Tuesday broke better: a little cloudy, but that’s welcome now after weeks of sun and warm. Wednesday better still. The therapist challenges: why do you keep hitting yourself with that guilt hammer? You must be getting something out of it, or you’d stop. Why do you need to poll everyone to find out what’s right? Why not just trust yourself?
Somewhere in my teens I lost the trust. Maybe it was algebra, the minefields of social divisions, a sense the huge yawning world was not all magic and wondrous exploring. Gatekeepers appeared and said no. Classes went in a certain order, requirements had to be met, the word discipline became a mantra, then gibberish. Something about the SAT–its domineering omnipresence, the palpable anxiety it engendered as the future’s unsympathetic arbiter–merged with the era’s wide-eyed, don’t-spare-the-rod religiosity to create a myth: This is hard. There are rules, not alternatives. Follow them, and be rewarded.
Why did I think this? A sense of duty, trust that this was the way out of this dumb little town, a desire for safety, to please the adults. I don’t know. Other kids were staying out late, drinking flavored vodka, driving too fast, having blowouts with their parents. That seemed harder and more frightening than all the schoolwork, which had gotten harder and lost all joy. Five or six years previous, Cosmos was all wonder, and the universe was a secret to be revealed. Now it was years and years of math to get right first.
I would feel sick before school, but never vomited. Sunday nights I would walk with my father along our country block and feel the night closing in. College was about the same, though there the sense of wasted time was deeper. It should be harder. I should be achieving more.
Late in college, junior year maybe, the revelation happened. It was Sunday night, and I realized everything was fine. There was no fear. School was all right. I remember being in my room, the TV flickering with the timeworn British comedies the PBS station reeled out on Sundays. It was winter, dark and late, my study lamp casting its yellow cone light. I can remember still how clear it felt, how unusual and new, the deep summer ocean okay.
Judging by any bookstore’s prodigious self-help section, I’m not alone in realizing my abiding sense of okay has gone, and there was a time I had one. With the shock of the divorce passed, I realized it was coming back–not hard to scare off, but here. And then some things went wrong last fall and it went away again. I only realized in March.
Sunday last, upset at my lapse with my friend, I had a long phone call with another. About my friend she offered no advice. Sundays are bad because you’ve trained yourself to expect a bad Monday, which never happens. You’ve built a story around it, around all these things. Bad things happened. Let go of them. Feel the feelings and let go of the story. Nobody benefits from wishing it was different, not even you.
I don’t know what to do about wasted years other than accept that they weren’t wasted. What I’m supposed to be doing with my life, where I’m supposed to be going, where I was supposed to be–all are stories I can let go of. Right now I can go to work, write a little bit of my book every day, take a tiny bite from the elephant knowing eventually I will eat him. I can apologize and patch things up with my friend. When the okay comes, I will let it in.
The week got better, is better. I turn better into the morning waves, steady on the board, steady on the water, free to look out at the mountains, up at the sky.