a smudge year

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In these final days of December—when dark begins to creep into each afternoon, stretching just a sliver longer than before, exhaustion settling onto our shoulders like a fine layer of dust—it seems natural to pause, to slow down, to reflect. We’re ready for the year to be done. We’re ready to start fresh, to slough our skins, to shed whatever’s grown heavy there, whatever fails to keep us warm.

When I wondered how I would cap off the year, I thought about how strange it is that we categorize our lives so neatly into “good” and “bad” years. “This was a tough year,” we say, and our friends nod in solemn agreement. Even when we acknowledge the good with the bad, it still doesn’t sit quite right. It feels a bit like being given a blank canvas and a fresh set of paints and, when asked to depict your year in review, you swipe broad strokes of black, return with the same muddied brush in cream over the center, and call it done. Twelve months of life experience summed up in a smudge of grey.

Objectively, I would categorize 2015 as a smudge year. My mom and a friend I love dearly both found lumps in their breasts. My mom’s was benign; my friend’s was not. My own health was an unsolved mystery until halfway through the year I was officially diagnosed with chronic illness. Said diagnosis forced me to cut my losses in a physically demanding career. I landed in the ER more times than I would like to remember, with doctors squinting at the word “dysautonomia” on my flimsy medical card and saying, dumbly, “your heart rate’s pretty high,” as if I were unaware of the way it battered against my ribs like a spooked bird, fingers tingling as my blood pressure dropped. I scraped by a number of weeks with to do lists that were only as extensive as “get out of bed” and “go to therapy,” and didn’t always manage those two simple things.

My world at the end of last year was steadily eroding underfoot, and this year was the step that sent me plunging into the unknown. I’m still not quite sure where I landed.

If you’d asked me, with the clock ticking down to midnight on January 1st of 2015, whether I would like to deal with illness (my own and others’) and surgery (my mother’s) and quit a job I’d sunk thousands of dollars and hours of just-barely-paid work into and have fallings-out with friends because of said illness, I would have said fuck no—once I got through the frightened-rabbit panic at the thought of all of the above. I would have made a very urgent plea to any god that would listen to keep me firmly planted in the safe and comfortable cocoon of whoever and whatever I was in December 2014.

I’m glad I didn’t know. I’m glad I didn’t make that plea. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want to relive a lot of this year, but I also wouldn’t go back.

The weird thing is, I’ve got the fortune teller’s cards laid out in front of me, going into 2016—quite literally. I’ve started using tarot to make the most of each day, each month, to ask the question: “what do I need to know?” Sometimes, what I need to know makes me smile in relief. Sometimes it makes my chest squeeze tight, and I want to slide the card back into the deck, to unsee it. Without fail, what I need to know is something I already know: I’ve just been looking at it through the warped reflection of a spoon, finding the color but never quite working out the shape.

I haven’t yet looked at the year ahead of me, because I’m a little afraid of what it will hold, but I also know it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve seen all the colors before, even if the form is different. Which doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

I think in general we want to grow, but we don’t want to go through the process of growth. Growth is messy. It’s plunging off the cliff and knowing that, even if you survive the fall, you might not make it to shore. It’s heaving yourself out from the boot-sucking mud of the briar patch and emerging sticky with sweat and blood. You might be a butterfly, triumphant and radiant once you rinse off the muck, but you also might not. The muck might not come off in one wash, or you might wade thoughtlessly into it again. You might not want to come out. Growth starts in the dirt and the dark; once our knuckles are raw and our nails caked brown, once we spit soil from our teeth and blink it from our lashes, we know we’re finally stretching towards the sun, towards renewal and warmth.

This year began in the dirt. It was messy in all the areas of life where it counts, that we reflect on as December draws to a close—health, relationships, career. It asked a lot of me, and I often wanted to say no. No would have felt easier, even when I didn’t have a choice.

But this year wasn’t just a smudge on canvas, wasn’t dark ink blooming slow in a glass of milk. It wasn’t really that dark at all, when I lay out the album of moments. It was jewel-throated hummingbirds and pastel-dotted hospital gowns—my mother’s blood drained into tiny plastic cups, mine sucked from needles, a fledgling’s smashed berry-wet into concrete. It was fog and sea-foam and bone, earthy leather and bright shame and shivering catharsis. It was fire-kissed hair and sunbursts of freckles on elbows and cheeks and one on soft lips; it was learning that love can’t be sliced neat and clean into little compartments, that it strains with you through the earth to burst into the light. It was learning that when you have the choice, you should always, always open instead of close.

Our instinct is to leave each year behind. Blank canvas, blank slate. Shed the skin to heal. But letting go isn’t always that simple; sometimes, weeks or months later, we find stingers and splinters lodged beneath our skin, still visible through the fresh layers. Fractures that knit themselves back together often ache in the rain.

We don’t have to look at these reminders as failures. There are still things to carry forward, things that nourish us, that we can tuck into our pockets and close our fingers around, smooth over and grasp like a bead or a button or a stone: I am a survivor; I deserve better; the universe is sometimes horribly cruel, but I am still here.

I went to Big Sur this summer, on the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death. I talk about the trip a lot, but I also haven’t really talked about it, not the whole truth of it: the weight of it and the weight it lifted. It felt like a pilgrimage before I even left, and one afternoon when I had medics struggling to thread an IV into my veins I looked up into overwhelming brightness and thought: I still have to go to Big Sur. I still have to write. These were fundamental truths that I understood the importance of without really knowing why.

My dad’s death was the dark. 2010 was a bad year—a terrible, cruel, gut-wrenching year. The tiniest drops of cream in devastating, devouring pitch. Five years feels like forever and also nothing at all. But I can’t picture who I would be without that tragedy; it’s a blurred reflection in a fogged mirror, one that smudges more the harder you try to clear it. In March, when my mom called to tell me she had a tumor, I remember thinking: if I lost them both, I would die. I could not go on.

But you do, because you have to. Because dirt breaks down the dark into the pieces we need to nourish us, to grow us, even when the weight feels unbearable, like it will crush you. It hasn’t. It won’t.

Remember this as the days reach their darkest, the nights their coldest: you are still here with us, stretching towards the light.

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