Straw House

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I draw a tree over my healing bruise in ballpoint pen, the kind that smears when you look at it funny. Inky branches unfurl over a palm-sized wash of golden currant and leaf green and muddled blackberry purple, all colors that are absent from Los Angeles autumn. The roots are shaky and slender, blue like veins, extending far beyond the edges of the healing skin on my thigh.

My dad died when I was 21, so I’m no stranger to the unmooring power of grief. I think about death even when I’m not thinking about death: it’s a knowing, simple as breathing, that we are all hurtling down the same road at different speeds. Sometimes I forget to breathe, and sometimes I forget the way death presses its weight into the day-to-day, the invisible trajectory of each fragment of my life: a relationship, an injury, a reprieve. Everything reaches an inevitable end, but the darker things always seem to stretch on longer.

I sign the lease for my apartment on November 7th, braced for the unique difficulties of moving, living alone with a disability. I don’t anticipate feeling, one day later, that I am moving into a Trump-era bomb shelter.

The world is grieving. The world is terrified. I am not alone in this, and yet.

My home is just boxes and a bed. I stumble through November and December the way I stumbled through the months after my dad’s death, this time with a better understanding of the choreography, but pain and fear are a dance that counts on you losing your footing even when you’re sure you know all the steps.

I tell my therapist that the threads I am painstakingly stitching back together blow apart at the tiniest breeze. She nods and says: straw house. I lie on the floor of my apartment and stare at the ceiling, at a peeling square of blue painter’s tape that I notice and then forget about until the next time I’m on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I unpack one box at a time, one a day because I don’t have the energy for more, until there’s a cardboard mountain on one side of the room and the weight on my chest shifts just a fraction. I organize my books by color, and my favorite shelf has dusky blues and deep reds and warm greys, my dad’s prayer beads nestled beside a wheat-gold deerskin pouch stuffed with Virginia cedar runes.

I have blood work done the first day of December. The night before, I scratch lonely lonely lonely lovely lovely lovely loved loved loved into my journal until they become nothing more than the rhythm of the same word written over and over and over. That morning, I am straw and thread: every street light is out, roads blocked off, the clinic garage closed. My body is taut with hunger and exhaustion and I want to release it in sobs, want someone to tug hard so I can unravel.

My nurse’s name is Tamiko, spelled neatly in kanji and Roman letters on a sticky note pressed to a beige cabinet door. I’m fifteen minutes late to my appointment, and have forgotten to fill out my paperwork beforehand; when I apologize, flustered, she gently tells me not to worry, and pulls out a pen to help. She then tells me my hair is beautiful, and when I hand her my driver’s license, she wishes me a happy birthday.

I am more likely to pass out during blood work than most, thanks to my disability. I feel ashamed of this, somehow, want to explain that it’s not just a fear of needles, though that would be equally valid. I shift on the hard plastic phlebotomy chair while Tamiko prepares the bed. There’s a calendar on the wall across from me: December is a Yorkie in a velvet Santa costume.

I don’t like Yorkies, but I tell her the calendar is cute, that I’m looking to adopt a dog after the holidays. We talk about apartments, doggy daycare as I settle onto the bed and she gets the needle and vials; she had a pit bull, fifteen years old when she died, and at the end of her life she hired in-house dog sitters for long trips instead of putting her through the physical stress of going elsewhere. Tamiko was anxious, at first, about letting a virtual stranger have access to her home. “Material things can be replaced, but your loved ones can’t,” she concludes after asking me to release my fist, the vein in my wrist twitching as blood pumps through the needle, nothing more than a pinch under soft skin.

When I’m home, I organize my kitchen. I don’t have any furniture, so this is the one room of the apartment that feels like it’s already mine: a basil plant on the counter, postcards on the fridge. I move a whiskey bottle behind the basil, try to peel the label off its wooden stopper and lodge a tiny splinter into my thumb. It’s been years since I last had a splinter, and it hurts more than I expect it to; I pour white vinegar into a Mickey Mouse shot glass, soak my thumb until it prunes as I rummage one-handed in my medicine cabinet for the hotel sewing kit I put there the day before. I pour alcohol into a paper cup to sterilize the needle and sit cross-legged on my bath mat, tenderly plucking at my skin with a calm I haven’t felt in months.

I feel the same calm when I shatter a cup days before my birthday. It’s one I’ve had since I was small, tiny and fragile and white with plump bruise-red cherries on the side, a child’s souvenir from one of my first international flights. I sweep up the pieces, see if I can glue them back together, but the bottom is practically dust, and it ends up in the trash.

Days after the New Year, I adopt a dog. I wonder if the liminal state of my home will be too stressful for him, still just boxes and bookshelves and a mattress on the floor, but I get to the rescue and see the swish of his curled tail and his soft sad eyes and I’m gone. The young girl working there calls him osito as she scratches behind his ears, and I name him Pan.

I mean to crate Pan that first night, but after an hour of whimpering and scrambling against the wire I let him out. As I settle onto my side he climbs onto the mattress, curls warm against the curve of my belly, and I feel expansive, suddenly—struck with wonder that the two of us are alive at the same time.

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the hanged man

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Back in October, when I came to Virginia to help my mom recover from surgery, I took a walk in the woods. It was the quintessential east coast autumn experience: damp earth, leaves still berry-red, pumpkin orange, and sunburst yellow, sleek foxes darting along the river bed and deer standing quiet between elm and oak. I brought a new tarot deck with me, intending to pull cards for the universe at large, whoever needed them most. I’d post them when it felt right. When I returned for the holidays to a strange, unseasonably warm winter, I realized that they might have been for me.

I wrote earlier in the year about the music my dad chose for his own funeral–about the strange ways it’s resurfaced in my life in the five years since his death, the ways in which it’s opened my brain and heart to the idea of maybe, possibly, being a part of something bigger. I was convinced I couldn’t hold a dialogue with whatever that Big Nebulous Something was, that I couldn’t pray to it or ask anything of it, but I could remain receptive to it. I could listen.

To my own immense surprise, I was wrong. The universe listens back, and it has so goddamn much to give.

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On that walk back in October, I pulled three cards: Justice, The Tower, The Hanged Man. Justice, for those uninitiated in the Ways of Woo-Woo, is all about the law of cause and effect, of karma. Of knowing that your decisions and actions–good and bad–will eventually boomerang back to you, probably in unexpected ways. The Tower is catastrophic, unexpected change: change you desperately need, and also desperately don’t want to go through.

The Hanged Man is, in simplest terms, a sacrifice. A surrender. It’s vulnerability, it’s discomfort, it’s letting the fuck go and learning not to push because something greater awaits. There’s no forward motion, no soaring accomplishments or crushing defeats–but once we’re still, with the world turned on its head, we find clarity. We grow. And only after we’ve found that clarity can we untie ourselves and carry on.

Last night, I calculated my “year card” for 2016: The Chariot. Which means, sequentially, that this year was The Lovers, and in retrospect–boy, it sure was. The Lovers is sort of like Death in that everyone makes immediate knee-jerk assumptions and associations, and while it is about romantic love, it’s also more than that: it’s coming to terms with our beliefs, our values, with intimacy in all shapes and forms, physical and emotional.

At the end of 2014, I started going to therapy regularly. I saw someone in Virginia after my dad passed away, but stopped when I moved to LA. Then, last November, a month after being quietly let go from my job doing practical effects for film, I was such a wound-up ball of anxiety and fatigue that I bit the bullet and found a new therapist. We worked through a lot of career stuff and dead dad stuff and friendship stuff and health stuff. I didn’t really talk about romantic or sexual relationships, because I didn’t think it was relevant.

Sometime around April or May I started exploring BDSM, and suddenly it was. Kink forced me to strip naked in front of a full-length mirror and look at myself–really look at myself–for maybe the first time ever. I had to relearn my body, and my wants and my needs and how they related to other people and their bodies and their wants and needs, and all of it was terrifying and uncomfortable and weirdly, blissfully freeing. When I was diagnosed with dysautonomia, BDSM became a way for me to reclaim pain, to learn what limits I wanted to push and which ones were set in stone. It helped me clearly define my physical boundaries and become comfortable laying them out for others in my day to day life .

I was dating on and off, sort of. Mostly stuff that petered out after two dates at most. I had kind of seen someone the summer before, and then I just wanted to be friends, and being alone felt good to me. It felt safe. I’m still learning the ways in and extent to which losing my dad has impacted my relationship with intimacy, but the short answer is: a lot.

The thing is, I like the deep shit. My best, most meaningful friendships are with people I can talk to about love and loss and the universe and the fucked up shit we’ve been through and want to do and want to know. Friendships aren’t easy, but they’re a little easier than romance. They don’t come with a contract. They don’t feel like they have to be all or nothing. They can wax and wane at their own pace and that’s perfectly normal and okay.

Romance probably doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either, but I felt like it did. And that scared me. And so I withdrew.

When I first started doing tarot readings for myself, at the end of the summer, I pulled The Lovers as a card that was coming into my life. I didn’t give it a ton of thought; I was casually seeing someone at the time, but she had a primary partner, and so I thought it might just represent growing closer to the two of them. They were rad. I was cool with the idea of that.

And then, for fun, I did a “coming romance” spread. It was supposed to show you the next person you were going to date. I figured it would be some mysterious, exciting unknown, but that was all I expected from it. I wasn’t ready to seriously date anyone.

But the outcome was weird. I railed against it, because all the cards said, very plainly, down to her appearance: remember that girl you dated last summer who you’re friends with now who you don’t have any romantic feelings for? Yeah, it’s her. And it’s gonna be tough. So goddamn tough. But it’s also gonna be important.

This was sometime around late August, early September. I wanted to yell at my cards: I’m having so much fun with this couple! It’s casual and easy! It’s fine! You’re not the boss of me! And then by October, the girl I was kind of seeing in that pair didn’t text me much anymore. And I came home, and I took that walk, and I started thinking more about that one friend.

The friend I was kind of an asshole to when we dated, because I freaked out without really knowing I was freaking out and told her I needed to focus on career stuff–which was a half-truth–when in actuality I didn’t feel, after maybe a month of casually dating/hanging out, that we should be more than friends. She was great, though. She was funny and talented and brave and a wonderful tiny little spitfire and I had so much fun with her, and I wanted to grow that friendship–just not with the romance attached. Romance was sticky. Romance was scary. Romance was not what I was ready for. Instead of telling her that, I kind of quietly detached, and then she asked me on another date and I texted her to say that I really wanted to be friends.

It was shitty of me. But it was also really, really good for the both of us that we didn’t date back then.

We both had growing to do, although neither of us would have known it. We did grow together and on our own, slow and steady, as friends. And while I was alone at home in October, with my tea and my cards and the changing seasons, I considered the shape of our friendship. How easy it was to be alone with her. How, after more beers than we could count while marathoning some show when we were just friends, I held her hand, and then felt guilty about it the next day. There were still some things I was keeping from her, then, and I hated that. I’ve never liked secrets. Not when they could hurt someone.

A friend who knew us both did another “coming romance” spread for me, again pointing in one unmistakable direction, and she said–look at this. Look at how good it is. Just do it.

I still pushed back until I came home to LA, and we were drunk and we sat under the stars and we talked about storytelling and loss and love and how we would have crashed and burned if we’d dated a year ago. I could feel the weight of my growth, and I felt hers, too.

I wasn’t head over heels for her, but there was something there. It was small, and I was still scared, but I also felt drawn to it the way I felt drawn to all the sacred unknowns in my life: it felt right, and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t give it a second chance to bloom.

My therapist asked me, in the midst of all of my confusion over her and the couple and the secret, what my first relationship was like. I realized, with surprise, that I couldn’t easily conjure an image of my first relationship, but I could remember the first person I fell in real, soul-crushing love with. We were 16, and we were friends, and she was tall and gorgeous and lived in Mississippi, and I wanted so desperately for her to be my first girlfriend, distance be damned. I didn’t tell her that until a year later, because I was scared, and she was seeing other people intermittently during that time. She ended up becoming one of my closest friends, and we lived together when I was in college after my dad died, during one of the hardest years of my life–and even though we don’t talk as often now, she’s still hugely important to me. But I was always relieved we never dated, because I was certain I would have lost her.

I’ve dated a lot in the ten years since, and I’ve broken hearts and had my heart broken in turn, but that was kind of the foundation on which my romantic experience was built. Friendship was always more important. Friendship could last–romance was fleeting. And then I learned how easy it was to be a third, to be casual, to not get attached: to hook up with friends who were in open relationships. I “lost my virginity,” if we’re still calling it that, in a threesome with an older couple when I was 20. I wasn’t in love, and I liked it that way. I could slip out into the quiet dark on my own while they did their post-coital thing and avoid real vulnerability.

During my last session with my therapist, I still didn’t know what I was going to do. This girl was younger; I wasn’t sure if I was attracted to her; I didn’t want to risk our friendship with all of those uncertainties hanging over me. My therapist always came from a place of empathy, but she also always told the truth, and helped me find the truth in myself–and she told me that day that she felt like romance would be coming into my life soon.

I went to an event with Cheryl Strayed about a week later, during her tour for Brave Enough. Her work spoke to all the truths in me that were sleeping under the surface until this year. I flipped through the book on the ride home, and knew I needed to be brave enough to break my own heart, and I texted my friend from the back of an Uber that smelled like stale Chinese food and told her I liked her.

And we dated. And it was good, but I was also low-key scared the whole fucking time that it wouldn’t work out. I wanted to be brave enough to break my own heart, but I wasn’t really. We wanted to build a strong foundation with each other, and we worked at it, but it was hard. I had a lot of issues I hadn’t looked dead in the eye in a long time, if ever, that I needed to work through, and I think she did, too. The problem with being a pretty intuitive person is that I can almost always tell when something is off, and then I catastrophize when the other person doesn’t talk to me, and once we do talk it’s always open and honest and good, but the waiting game leaves my stomach in knots.

As helpful and clarifying as tarot had been for me, I kept pulling the same cards for the end of the year: The Tower, Three of Swords, and Ten of Swords. The catastrophe card–that I’d pulled back in the Virginia woods–followed by the heartbreak card and the rock bottom card.

They weren’t exactly comforting.

But with her, specifically, I’d never pulled those. Cards that came up on days with those difficult conversations or niggling uncertainties were the Nine of Wands–perseverance despite setbacks–and The Star. The Star is a gorgeous card. It’s a card about hope, and inspiration, and generosity of spirit.

I’d kind of forgotten, until she called after a week of mostly radio silence to apologize and to break up with me, that The Star comes after The Tower in the major arcana. It’s finding peace as the dust settles; it’s looking forward, and knowing that things will be okay. You’ve survived. You’re still here.

“I haven’t been fair to you,” she said, which was true. But I hadn’t been fair to her when we first dated and I broke things off with half-truths about why. I wasn’t fair to her when I kept that secret from her, even if it was because I didn’t want to hurt her.

So there, then, was Justice: the scales tipping back into balance. The Tower was that phone call, destroying an unstable structure. Three of Swords and Ten of Swords were my hour of crying in the bathtub afterward, wondering why I’d set myself up for heartache again.

And then, when the dust settled, as it always does, I thought: that’s what I was afraid of that whole time. I let that fear get in the way of letting myself enjoy the relationship for what it was. Here I am, and she still wants to be friends, and I still want to be friends, and I’m okay. I’ll be okay.

I still have sort of a nebulous relationship with believing things happen for a reason, although tarot has certainly tilted my world view in that respect. It’s been dead-on too many times for me to think it’s just coincidence. I believe in magic and I believe in the power of intent and all sorts of strange and beautiful and weird shit that I thought was mostly bull before this year, and I believe there are people we’re meant to meet in this life and we’re meant to help each other grow. Even when it’s messy. Maybe especially when it’s messy.

And boy, has this year been a messy growth year. But I’ve also healed in so many deep, important, soul-shifting ways. I was on the phone with her during one of those difficult messy conversations that nobody wants to have, and I said: “I love you. Not in a scary way, because it doesn’t have to be this world-shaking thing. I loved you as a friend and the shape of it is just different, now.”

Although it was world-shaking, in a way, because until then I thought that romantic love itself did have to be world-shaking. After my dad died, I dated and fell in love with one girl, and it certainly felt that way. And then I closed myself off without really thinking about it or meaning to. I never learned to say “I love you” when it mattered most with my dad, when he was sick and when I still had the chance to. I said it over his death bed, when I was so afraid he wouldn’t hear me. And then I lost him. And I said it to my last serious girlfriend, and it didn’t last.

When I realized that love could change shape, though–that it wasn’t some finite resource we had to clutch tight, that it didn’t come in these limited specific varieties I grew up believing in, that it could expand beyond them and bleed between them–that was important. It was maybe the most important thing I learned this year.

Vulnerability is so goddamn hard, but this year taught me how important it is, too. How when we’re vulnerable, when we open ourselves to others instead of shutting down, we hit upon that place of authenticity we’re always striving to reach. In stumbling through kink and dating and illness and relearning my body in relation to all of the above, I managed to hit marrow. I remember my therapist telling me, one afternoon as I was working through some of this: “I’m 99%–fuck it, 100% certain that real strength comes from vulnerability.”

So here I am, strung up by my ankle as the year comes to a close, uncomfortable and vulnerable, the world turned on its head. And I’m weirdly okay with that.

I went for another walk today, my last one of the year. It’s been unseasonably warm and rainy in Virginia, but most of the trees were bare, paw prints and hoof prints and boot prints squished into the muck of the trails. When I went on my walk in October, I came across three turkey vultures perched on an old, gnarled tree. One had its wings spread, and as I stepped closer, it dropped a feather on the ground right in front of me. I picked it up. I kept it. It felt like a gift the universe had given me.

Today, when I pulled my daily cards, my outcomes were Six of Pentacles and The Fool. Six of Pentacles is about giving and receiving, being generous when you have enough and knowing when to ask for something in return. I put my backpack together, with my tarot cards and my journal and my mom’s copy of Brave Enough, and on the way out the door, I grabbed the feather. I held it up in the wind and let it choose which way I would turn at each fork in the road. I went down that same trail, but took a different path. My family has lived in this area for ten years, and I walked further than I ever have before.

Much as I love the great outdoors, I wanted to find a place to sit that wasn’t going to ruin my pants with mud and/or dog shit, so I walked until I found myself at a little bridge with some rocks leading down to a stream. As I settled in, I noticed a huge, waxy-bright hunk of calcite in the dirt, and placed it where I planned to do my readings.

I’ve already done a handful of 2016 spreads for myself. I kind of know the trajectory of my year, as the energy stands right now. But I don’t know the specifics. I have the road map, but I’ve never been to this neck of the woods before. I’m looking at my itinerary and know what I want out of it and what I’m dreading and what I’m looking forward to, but my journal and photo album are full of blank pages. I won’t get to fill them in until I get there. And that’s both terrifying and exhilarating.

I drew a couple more cards for myself while sitting by that stream. I let Brave Enough fall open wherever it wanted to and soaked up those words, resonating so clearly with the cards I’d drawn. I thought about my intentions for the year ahead, and how far I’ve come, and how far I still have to go. The staircase of branches in the Nine of Wands looks like it wants you to fall back down it before you’re even halfway up, to make sure you’re bruised and bleeding and stuck with splinters by the time you reach the moon. But I want to get there. I want to see what secrets it has to share with me.

As I packed up my things to leave, a woman was waiting by the trailhead for her husband, and we chatted a bit. I was prepared to move on, but then I asked her if she’d like me to draw a card for her. It was the first one I’d ever drawn for a complete stranger, out of the blue. When her husband arrived, I wished them a happy 2016.

I took the same route back home, but stopped once more, just off the trail. It wasn’t exactly where I found my feather before, but I felt it was the right spot to pause and say thank you. Because I’d learned to ask the universe for help, for protection, for clarity, and it had delivered. It didn’t come in the form of a mountain of wealth or an immediate book deal or a steady relationship, but that’s not really how it works. When you come at it from a place of openness and a willingness to learn, it gives you opportunities, and you have to be willing to take them. You have to be willing to work your ass off, so you can look back some day and say: that was so fucking worth it. You’ll know what they are. You’ll know what you’re meant to do, and if you’re not quite sure–you can always ask.

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I left the feather there, the piece of calcite heavy in my palm, earth still clinging to its ridges, fingers smeared red with it.

I pulled a card for all of you, too, and let Brave Enough fall open to whatever it wanted to tell you. It’s already 2016 in other parts of the world as I write this. It won’t be too long before it’s 2016 here on the east coast of the US. I won’t tell you how to interpret this–I’ll let it speak for itself.

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The first cards that I laid out on the rocks for myself were Beginnings and Judgement. Rebirth, renewal, and transformation. I know it won’t be easy, because nothing worthwhile ever is. And then there was The Fool, my final outcome card for tonight. I can’t imagine a better way to close the chapter on a strange and awful and wonderful year.

So here I am, at an ending and a beginning, preparing to step out into the unknown.

I think I’m ready. And I hope you’ll come with me.

 

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.