Hello, fellow rookies! I hope you’ve voted today, and if you haven’t, get to the polls! This will be here when you get back.
This isn’t the piece I’d planned on writing this week, but because since life seems to giggle behind its hand at me like, “Haha, look at you, getting comfortable,” this is what came out instead.
Remember how we were learning about Windows of Tolerance, the comfortable, Goldilocks emotional zone of not too much feeling and not too little? Well, my window frames busted over Halloween weekend.
Part of it was because I was in Las Vegas – there’s so much happening there, so much stimulation, and the Britney Spears show I saw almost made my head and heart explode. Everything in Vegas is designed to catch your attention.
But instead of feeling overwhelmed and burrowing away inside myself, I decided to roll with it, to accept that this chaos is camouflage for everyone here to live out their fantasies or remove their everyday facades and exist really loudly. People do things in Vegas they wouldn’t elsewhere: I can now say I’ve been to a three-story strip club, but can’t divulge much more than that (per the stays-in-Vegas rule).
It was all doable, even enjoyable – I let myself get excited to see Britney, and let the sheer joy of it flow through me, a victory in its own right because I didn’t miss out on a great experience just because I thought it might be too much.
Then came Sunday morning.
I woke on our last day there to my wife’s phone buzzing on the table. My younger sister was calling for the second time after she’d tried my phone four times. Once she connected with us, she handed the phone to my mom, who told me in a flat, stunned voice that our friends, a husband and wife, were killed by a drunk driver.
Neither of my parents are from Montana, so when they moved here just before I was born, they set out to intentionally build a community of their own, composed of young couples with kids. These people helped raise me; I have no memories in which they were not a part of my life. I loved them like an aunt and uncle, and I grew up with their kids.
It’s one thing when my Window of Tolerance is shattered by a good emotion, like when B. Spears jumped off a giant tree before singing “Toxic.” I can recover from that with only a bit of the follow-up doldrums.
But this, this was too big, too heavy, too much. Grief is one of the hardest feelings for me in a lot of ways – I know this doesn’t make me special, and that a lot of people struggle with the grieving process, but the feeling isn’t any easier to pin down.
Anger is so defined to me, crimson and flashy and hot. Sadness seems a bit more liquid than anger, and a muted sort of cold. But grief is somehow both slippery and sharp, rolling over you with sadness then sneakily attacking your soft underbelly with its claws.
Grief is throwing razor blades into a mud puddle and blindly feeling your way through the shin-deep muck with your feet. Grief is feeling love so big and bright and forever that you’re blinded by its loss, dazzling as the stars left dancing in front of your eyes after a blow to your head.
It evolves; it shifts. It prowls and stalks; it cries to be let in at your back door. It’s a wild force, unpredictable and volatile, the kind I have to shelter in place to withstand. Because that’s all you can do with grief unless you completely shut down – let it roll over you, through you, feeling every bit of it until it leaves you breathless and tired and red-eyed.
This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve accepted feeling the grief, instead of building a thicker wall and hiding my head until it passes, compartmentalizing and rationalizing that someone has to keep their head on straight. In the past, I’ve specifically and successfully stopped by grieving processes by trying to appear tough, gritting my teeth, shaking my head, and holding those who weren’t as “tough” as I was.
Now, after beginning to understand the importance of feeling my emotions, there’s no way I can go back to that. It’s kind of like learning about the pink slime that makes up most of our fast-food chicken products, then trying to not think about that in the drive thru.
After hearing the news, I stood outside the Mandalay Bay hotel, headphones in, staring as people lined up and filed into taxis, orderly as a second-grade lunch line.
Sunglasses and a flat-bill hat made me feel invisible, and for the first time in recent memory, I didn’t fight the tears slipping out from under my shades, salting my face. I worried for a bit that people might stare at me or – heaven forbid – pity me and try to help.
But I also wanted to be able to shout to everyone that yes, I might look distressed, but it’s because my aunt and uncle were just stolen from me – from every single one of us – and everyone is standing around hailing taxis like it hasn’t happened.
The cognitive dissonance of wanting to be left alone but comforted at the same time made me jealous for religion or a spirituality that could tell me it was all right, that this was the plan, that my pain would be worth it in the end.
In a loud place like Vegas, where the entire city seems designed to reinforce our society’s inability to talk about or consider death, my quiet, intense grief felt small and pathetic. I wanted to tear at my clothes, to explain to the people waiting for their taxis that my heart was broken in a place reserved only for the sweetest, most unconditional types of love. It’s a place where I keep the memories of camping trips on the Bitterroot River with my Montana family, the people with whom I don’t share blood but I do share everything else that matters, like my past, my present, and my future.
I’ll always see them with huge smiles as they worked in their aprons to make the food served at my wedding, the redness in their cheeks as they laughed at another memory or joke during the annual Christmas gathering. There will always be that split second of hearing the door open at my parents’ home and wondering if it will be one of them walking through it.
This canyon in my heart is huge and deep because I was able to love that way, to love these people that way. Once the water and wind of our emotions wear away the walls of a canyon like this, it can’t be undone; we can only fill it with ourselves. Initially, acute grief can make a canyon full of love seem like a pit of acid for its depth and burn; if I hadn’t loved them so, it wouldn’t pierce this keenly. It can also make the canyon seem empty, like all of that feeling and emoting was only a trick to make me hurt like this.
But that’s a lie.
Feeling a feeling makes it real – sadness is sadness, there’s nothing false about that. But sometimes I can’t pin down where the pain is rooted. Sadness and pain can feel like, “This hurts too much, I can’t risk loving like this again,” but that’s a lie about the truth of love, and of the canyon it dug in me.
Here’s how I view the truth.
It’s like my insides are lined with fishing hooks pointed inwards, and sadness and anger are merely the loose rubber bands floating around, catching on hooks that might have nothing to do with them, but pulling at a certain place.
Maybe the rubber band of sadness catches on sharp hook of self-doubt or of deserving. It’ll pull at that spot, and I’ll feel as though I caused this pain because I deserve it, or because I stopped doubting love, stopped worrying about the second shoe dropping. I’m often convinced I deserve the pain I’m in because I let my guard down, that I should’ve known better, that I’ve been burned by love before.
The truth is, sadness and anger just are. In this case, they’re attached to a very specific hook of grief, but there’s a very good chance they’ll wriggle loose and snag on another one and make it seem like I have more reasons to be sad or angry than I really do. It’s important, then, to remember where these bands belong.
While I’m fighting the push and pull of those hooks and whatever snags them, the canyon is still burning. It’s on fire right now, a whole lake of flame, but soon it will drain and empty, feeling lonely and desolate without them. But my hope is, one day, I’ll be able to explore the canyon again, bit by bit, without it tearing at my legs or blinding me.
One day, the flood of flames will recede, and the canyon walls will be scarred but visible again. It will be a high-walled path scarring the Earth like so many in Montana, winding its own way through the various landscapes of my heart, the lazy breeze ruffling the pine needles, the crackle of a campfire nearby, voices floating on the evening air warm as summer alpenglow, and a deep, clear river of love at the bottom, always flowing, always there.