The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in. […] Let it come in. We think we don’t deserve love, we think if we let it in, we’ll become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, “Love is the only rational act.” – From Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, which has become very dear to me.
There was a time in my life when my luggage weighed as much as I did. Kind strangers would ask me if I had stuffed a human in there – it turns out that one rolled-up cardigan too many renders a suitcase into a body-bag. These kind people would then offer to help me with my baggage. Then I would typically smile and say I had it under control. I did not. There were multiple times when I nearly rolled backwards down an escalator, courtesy of my bags and my stubbornness.
“No man is an island”, but I sure as hell have tried. If self-reliance were a competitive sport, I would have seen some more tangible rewards of my insistence to go it alone. ‘It’, in this instance, is broadly defined: Luggage schlepping, grief, applications to jobs or schools, anxiety, insomnia. I was determined to carry my baggage, literal and metaphorical, alone. I was hard-wired to not ask for help.
In The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich ventured a subtle but powerful critique of enclosing oneself within oneself:
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning.
I began to learn this lesson slowly outside her writing as well. I cried during an entire walk by the Charles river on a grief-filled November morning, as a very dear friend walked beside me with clouds of frozen breath trailing us both. I have been fed Kinder chocolate until the last malarial parasite left my body. Loved ones have stayed up with me, on Gchat or on park benches or by sharing a bed with me and a stuffed panda, on the eve of major decisions or the day after major transitions. Anais Nin claims that “life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”; I have found that one’s courage shrinks or expands in proportion to the strength of one’s friendships. Life may have chosen to test my courage amply in the past years, but I have been blessed with the kinds of wonderful, loving people who can hold one’s hand from across the world.
You would, therefore, think that by now, I would have learned to ask for help. I would have come up with some type of smoke signals to communicate the need for this kind of international hand-holding. It took my getting hit by a truck and, consequently, being prescribed 6 weeks of bed-rest to realize that in some ways, my emotional development is no greater than that of a coffee table.
I cannot wash my own hair. I cannot extend my arms to reach the toaster oven on top of the fridge (for the quick-witted among you, I would be able to reach if I stood on my tippy-toes and did not have a broken ribcage, thankyouverymuch). I cannot refill my own water bottle because the Brita filter is too heavy for a dislocated shoulder to maneuver. The list of cannot’s and must not’s is oppressively long. The hardest restriction to overcome, however, is not doctor-prescribed; rather, it is the product of my own shortcomings: I cannot ask for or accept help.
A dear friend has been the witness of the following dialogue between me and my loved one, who is currently fulfilling the roles of caretaker/cook/cleaner/nurse in addition to managing his own life:
R: *sneaks out of bed, locates broom, sweeps living room.
Voice from the kitchen: How did you get out of bed!
R: There are some floating hairs on the living room floor. It will only take me two seconds to clean it up.
Voice from the kitchen: Please go back to bed. Let me clean up the hair.
Now replace “hair on the living room floor” with “I just wanted to get my computer” or “I was craving another Kinder chocolate” (they are magical, I tell you) and you will understand why my friends’ emails are not primarily laden with recovery wishes for me, but with vibes of strength, support and solidarity for the Voice from the kitchen.
I have several broken bones and one broken spirit. The former are easier to care for than the latter. Do not sleep on your stomach. Keep your calcium intake up. The broken spirit presents a more complex problem. I miss working. I miss being so tired when I go to bed at night that I can feel my spine decompress as it hits the mattress. I miss making contact with the world outside a computer. I miss people, communities, impact. I miss the sun. I miss taking more than ten steps within four walls each day – running, hiking, stretching, bending to shave my own legs. A Voice from the kitchen astutely remarked two days ago: “You are having trouble loving yourself, aren’t you?” Indeed.
Most of all, I resent the fact that when that same voice asks what he can do for me, I tell him that there is little that he — or I, for that matter — can do to heal faster and put me back in the world that I miss. The inability to articulate how I can be helped is perpetuating the feeling of helplessness.
This period is a lesson in coming to terms with my own fragility and vulnerability. I am beginning to see the unwashed bits of the hair, the uncomfortable tears, the unflattering positions in which I sleep at night so I can shelter my ribcage. I am beginning to understand how my own self-sheltering hurts me more, and hurts my loved ones with it. I am beginning to see why Louise Erdrich continued the passage in The Tin Drum as follows:
You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.
There are so many more apples to taste in the world and I cannot wait to be back out there and harvest them. Until then, I will taste the apples closer to my bedside with patience, resilience and some much-needed sunniness. The sweetest apple of them all is the knowledge that there is a lot of support and love in the world – as long as you can bring yourself to ask for help and open your heart to it.