New England lucked out with an easy winter this year. Not only did we have very little snowfall, but we escaped long cold spells where the air is so cold it makes your eyes ache and your throat burn. I’m not complaining. I did not enjoy the previous winter where banks of snow topped out at six feet and lingered around glacier-like well into April. But whenever we do come through a relatively mild season it feels like we cheated something, like we Ponzi-schemed nature and are somehow less deserving of the high, sweet sunshine and the stonewashed blue sky. The green reward is more satisfying when it comes after withstanding Nature’s challenge.
Challenge, struggle, hardship—many days I feel like this is all I know how to choose.
If there’s a way to make things more difficult for myself, I will find it. If there is an opportunity to be hard on myself, I will take it. This is not honor, it’s armor. It’s a second skin I’ve grafted to keep myself safe from the hurt, disappointment, or let down that might be the chasers to that swig of happiness and freedom. When you’re always chasing challenge you don’t have the time or energy to be vulnerable. That second suit is keeping things snug and tight, which is perversely comforting even as it adds another ten pounds to the load, even as it turns every step, every thought into a tiring slog like a polar bear swimming in molasses.
Even mild winters leave their marks. Branches dangling from fractures brought on by the weather need clipping, returning tulips and daffodils need untangling from last fall’s overgrowth and neglect, and all the beds want freeing from the thick, carpet of leaves that have banked themselves around roots and stems and the tiniest of buds just starting to wake up.
I hauled piles of damp, wet leaves out from under a scrubby pine tree that anchors the part of our garden that juts out at the corner of our yard. A low stone wall rims two sides of the property to join at this point. In the course of raking, I noticed a small chunk of the top of the wall was missing. As I scooped up a batch of leaves to put in the barrel, I saw the piece drop out onto the sidewalk, landing on its underside.
I picked it up and noticed the cement meant to hold the piece in place resembled a heart.
Encased in something supposed to be nearly impenetrable, unable to be breached or at least easily broken was the thing we associate with love and connection and compassion and the difficult choice to be soft, to be open, to let ourselves be seen.
The truth is that no matter how hard we try to stop it from happening, our hearts are always falling out of the stupid, fortresses we build around them. They’re always busting out and going on the lamb because they know that life is not meant to be struggle and challenge and hardships strung together in miles of barbed wire. We are not here to hide ourselves away, to brick up ourselves in the hopes that somehow that will insulate ourselves from pain. Apparently we’re really bad at it and slow to get the memo.No matter how badly I want the struggle to distract me from what I am able to give, from what I deserve to receive, I’m only sandbagging against an unstoppable watershed.
I hold the hunk of rock in my hand and feel grateful for the reminder. I’m hesitant to put it back. Selfishly, I want to pocket it, pretend it was lost to the elements, and hope it wasn’t the lynch pin holding the entire wall together. But I know that it doesn’t belong to me. It’s a piece of something bigger and I’m grateful for that reminder too.