It’s March--or maybe April--and I am sitting on a riverbank alone.
Tomorrow, I will see a lawyer about filing bankruptcy. And right now, it’s bitter cold. Actually, the cold itself is not so bitter--on its own it should not bring me to my knees. It’s the context that gives the bitterness to today. This is the kind of late-winter freeze that kicks you when you’re down. It should be spring, but winter is still here, strutting around our springtime, running up the score.
The snow is gone, though, so I decided to go for a run on the trails down by the river, swollen from the melt. I wore my gloves and layers; I covered up my head. But the air still attacked my nostrils like I trespassed on its nest, punishing my eyes and nose with stingers and blasting fire into my lungs.
I had to run. I was feeling too panicked to sit at home alone. My winter body is more used to reclining with books and movies than dashing in the cold, so even fueled by my frustration, my legs and lungs convinced me quickly that I should do as I was told and sit down beside the water instead of pounding my feet against the frozen earth.
I was warmed up a bit from jogging, so I found a sandy spot and I sat down and looked around, hearing not the wind or water, but the sounds piped through my headphones, Jerree Small and her guitar.
I feel stoned on misery, dazed by all the failures in my life. I feel like I was stuck in a martini shaker and someone drank me over ice. I am pretty sure that things will never get better, that I have been running up a hill that has no peak and no plateau. I am a fool who will always be alone and lonely, broke and tired, paying rent instead of walking the lines of my own property each spring, praying to God and then ignoring all the answers.
I will never be a wife, an author, a mother. I will never be someone who swims instead of drowning on the land. I am sitting, pondering these things, feeling woeful--full of woe--when into my pathetic narration a feathered thought arrives and perches in the sagging branches of my soul. Maybe it’s the music or maybe there is something in the air, but this thought, it chirps, maybe this is it.
is the long-awaited time of joy—this. Right here. Right now. A walk by the river, a seat in the grass, young lovers wrestling barefoot in the sand across the way, a bleached and knotted rope swing swaying above the slow-running icy water on a colorless March or April day, everything sepia-toned, except the misplaced sky, blue and white above me, out of place, like colorized eyes in a movie born black and white and altered to suit us later.
Maybe the women in pairs and the children with dogs and the couples jogging by—maybe they are all a part of my time of joy, if I decide to see it that way. Maybe joy is not about waiting for a mysterious package to arrive. Maybe joy is about just showing up—whether the package comes or not. Maybe joy is not in the hope of an arrival, but in my existence as a destination. Maybe this sand and that girl in the blue kerchief and the ache I felt as I passed that dancing family--maybe that is joy.
Maybe the tears I shed as I ran, maybe my healthy heart pounding into my ribs--maybe this is my joy. Maybe joy is something I can choose. Maybe that pink plastic trash bag dangling tragically from that branch, the only color here pollution--this--is joy?
It feels true for a second, that a girl can seize joy in anything, even trash hanging down from branches; that this is the gift we were given along with opposable thumbs and the ability to make fire. There is poetry in the notion that the secret to joy is in your freedom to choose it, like that caged bird who sings.
But then that second passes. And I am knee deep again in the icy confusion of my life, panning for gold against the current while the water rises, because what I’ve just found is not gold enough to get me through. Birds in cages are tragic, like road kill and animals caught in zoos. They are trapped, outmatched, outnumbered unfairly. Their worlds are shrunken and controlled, their wings clipped. Their singing is a prayer, I’m told, flung up to heaven. So--feeling trapped, outmatched, outnumbered--I fling one up there, too.
I pray for love and prosperity, for new beginnings and a happy heart.
A few days later, I will meet a man in a magical way, and he will fill me with so much joy, I will glow. This is not find-the-beauty-in-a-plastic-bag-stuck-in-a-tree-by-the-river-joy, this is actual, quantifiable, visible, incredible joy. Even strangers will notice it, comment on it every public place I go: sidewalks, restaurants, and bars. I will be loved, and nothing else will matter quite so much as this. After two and a half years of loneliness and isolation, a handsome man will come into my life and heal me like an elixir. He will bring adoration and affection, deliver passion like fruit from the harvest overflowing in my baskets. He will shower me with devotion as thick and as satisfying as monsoon rains in a dust bowl. He will awaken in me a sleeping giant of sexuality, a beautiful beast that I thought I had lost forever.
After the heartbreak I endured in 2001, and after the physical trauma of rape in 2003, I thought that my body and my sexual soul had been brought down like twin towers. But with the arrival of this man and his immediate, fearless, and boundless love, I will find myself feeling for the first time ever a sense of completeness and joy—unmitigated, untainted, undeniable joy. He will release in me the woman who had been held prisoner, who--I will rejoice to discover--had not been destroyed in the attacks. She had only been injured and buried all this time beneath the rubble. With him, my love will spring forth like flowers from the pavement, irrepressible, miraculous, and full of life.I love you
, he will say and I will protest at first, unwilling to trust his eager heart. But he will insist. He will string his declarations together into shimmering necklaces of grace. I love you, I love you, I love you
. Everywhere I go I will hear him say, I love you
. Even in his sleep he will reach for me half-conscious and say, I love you.
As I sit in the cold sand along the river, I don’t know this yet. Nor do I know that as quickly as he gave it, he will take it away. After just two months. After choosing names for children and making wedding plans, after a thousand promises of love, he will leave me without warning, one day in early June. He will tell me lies, choose not to mention the other woman. He will take from me not only money I couldn’t afford to lose, and time I should have spent on other things, he will take from me my joy, my long-awaited time of joy. And that will be the hardest thing of all.But, you love me…,
I will say that day, not recognizing the new, empty face he has brought to say goodbye with.It was all a fantasy
, he will say. And later, in a letter he will simply write, I lied.
My loneliness will go into remission while he is here, and a return to that illness will seem more than my heart can bear. In the past, always in the past, what would come to fill the gaping hole left by such a departure would be sadness, self-hatred, a suicidal grief. But this time, things will be different. At first, I will feel those old familiar feelings of dismay, dejection, and despair. I will blame myself. But this time, with some coaching from a friend, I will decide to take a new approach. I will decide that I can get mad.
Not since I was a girl have I unleashed a rage upon anyone. I have always swallowed it down, taken the blame, been polite, allowed my anger to poison my own good self instead of whomever had done me wrong. I have a friend who says that all depression is anger turned inward, and I think perhaps she’s right.
A few weeks after Rob leaves me, when I finally discover the truth of what he’s done, I will decide that it is time to try my anger on for size. I will tell myself that it can be ugly, that there doesn’t need to be poetry or grace in anything I do. I will give myself permission to rage.
It will be early summer then, and I will drive down to the fields that flank a much larger river than the one I visited today. The wheels of my red truck will kick up clouds of dust as I rumble to a stop at the end of the small airfield that is tucked away amidst the farmer’s fields. I will cut off my engine and step out into the heat. I will look around, make sure that I am alone, and then--I will scream.
I will kneel down, press my bare shins and ankles into the cool summer grass, and I will shout my anger into the earth, cupping my hands around my howling mouth so that my screams will not be diluted by the giant cauldron of air that surrounds me. I will scream over and over, for every lying I love you
for every moment that he stole, No!
Over and over, I will scream, No!
I will holler until my rage has been emptied out into that earth.
And then I will stand and I will scream it to the sky.
I will shout it to the corn, thousands of young witnesses growing one foot high, waving gently for acres in neat green rows, and I will scream it to them all. I will scream it at the dry, unsympathetic dirt between them, and I will scream into the sweet air up above.
Eventually, I will worry that the world will hear my screams—-farmers, pilots, strangers--they will want to know who it is that’s standing out here, screaming No!
into the corn.
I will climb into my truck, then. Shut all my doors and scream it even more: No!
into the windows, No!
into the doors, No!
into the silence, No!
I want to roar.
Eventually, it will break, this tidal wave of rage. And something will wash over me, some other emotion will erupt and spill itself out, some truth held in secret will move through me and I will tell him what I’m worth. Tears will come to cleanse me and I will say to him out loud, What you did to me was wrong. What you did to me was wrong.
Over and over I will say it, What you did to me was wrong.
And I will be talking to this man, but also to every other person who has used me, hurt me, left me, robbed me blind. Every bitter pill I’ve ever swallowed will come back up and be spit out of me that day. Every bully, every friend, every boss, every stranger, every institution who has ever insulted, hurt, or trampled me--I will fling their poison back at them. Spit, vomit, and volume--nothing pretty, nothing nice--I will stand and I throw it back up out of me, my rage.
What I do not know as I sit here by the river, cold and lonely, overwhelmed, is that the secret to my joy is not in picking little bits of beauty out of the trash heap of my life. The joy is not in swallowing down whatever disappointments or failures come my way and then pretending they taste good.
The joy is found in spitting out the rank and bitter judgments that my friends, my family, or my lovers serve up on gilded platters or slip into my drink. The joy is in knowing that I matter--and in punching out the lights of any man, woman, or law that says I don’t.
As I sit here, I do not yet know that I can never reach my joyfulness without surrendering the myth of my helplessness, or without saddling up my rage and riding it frothy-mouthed and fearless across the forts and beds and pathways claimed by the liars, fools, and charlatans who think that they can do me wrong.
I will believe, when he arrives, that this man has brought me joy—but when he leaves and nearly breaks me, I will finally come to understand that my long-awaited time of joy does not include him. And that it has only just begun.
[Draft; Chapter 18, The Long-Awaited Time of Joy