Back and Forth… and Back Again

It started off with just a simple errand.

I bought a couple of things at a new store last week, only to discover that I already had one of them when I got home.

Easy fix. We’ve all done it. So I kept my receipt, called the first chance I got, and drove to return it on my lunch break today.

The store was out of my way, but not far out. Just enough that I navigated to it, to be sure I would not get lost. Having been there once before, the way was mildly recognizable to me. I still used a navigation app; it wasn’t EASY yet, just a bit familiar!

Back in the car, it seemed wise to let my A.I. copilot guide me once more. But I quickly realized that I knew almost exactly where I was now. And suddenly, instead of carefully focusing on the street signs, I began to notice the scenery. And the people.

Here a car door opened into traffic. As I leaned toward the left side of the lane to make room, I glanced over at a young girl, barely of driving age, it seemed. The expression she wore suggested trepidation, concentration, or maybe just a difficult day. I felt bad for this child and hoped she was okay, perhaps only facing a new experience for which she would be stronger tomorrow.

There a woman marched out boldly in front of me. I saw her in time and braked, but she was focused on her destination, purposeful. Her determined expression a fierce contrast with the other girl, who might be a third her age. This woman knew the measure of all around her, whether she acknowledged it or not, and it showed.

Then the back of a head bobbing parallel on the sidewalk, no expression at all to read thoughts or attitudes. Just someone walking along on lunch, or on an errand of their own.

Buildings climbing on either side as I stopped at a light, blocking out the sun on a single street corner. Trees in lines at level heights, something far too cultured to be seen in nature. They decorate our cityscape, only hinting at what was here before. Or not, since I drive through a desert tempered by narrow lines of green, and well-kept streets. Mostly.

I have a friend across the country, who has lived a handful of decades about the city where I last spent but two; I on the outskirts, he in its heart. Gratefully I read a weekly newsletter he publishes, visualizing what he describes in such human detail: the faces, voices, rumbling cars and quiet cafés, books and trees and curiosities that abound downtown. It feels distant, a nostalgia for a place I left willingly, but still can feel a part of, if only for a few minutes each week.

Today I discovered it in my own backyard, or close enough. The cities are thousands of miles apart, say the maps, but I could have warped across space… or time, to compare the views. I still sleep on the outskirts, but I’m in the heart of it now. A closeness washes through me, to see the same vistas I knew then, here again.

Did I really move anywhere at all? Or did I just forget where I was for a while? By the pace of the familiar old city around me, I almost cannot tell.

Remember to Cry

Amid the pandemic, some of us may not have as many close, personal interactions with other people as we did in years past. For extroverts, it may be easy to empathize with people when you can look into their eyes and see their emotions so plainly.

I wouldn’t know about that part; I’m an ambivert, and I’ve always related best to introverts.

A few days ago, I received a beautiful card from a dear friend. Their words moved me to tears, and I could feel in those words the ache of being so far apart from so many that we love, and for so long now. It’s easy for me to read emotions on paper, and my friend’s pain and hope and love and fear all came through clearly.

But the bad news plays non-stop these days, and it’s all too easy to grow numb. To survive, sometimes we must harden our hearts just enough that we don’t bleed our emotions all over everything we touch. It seems that most people only have so much to give before we are exhausted. Without some good things happening around us, the one-sided cycle can build up enough momentum to crush the fragile hearts of all but the strongest among us.

Of course there is still beauty to be found — or made — in these sometimes endless days. Even with a pandemic raging across the burning planet of struggling people, there is still some good news. But you must dig for it, or for the peace to create some of it yourself. And how do you do that when your heart is growing numb?

Luckily, the answer to that is easier to find than it may seem: CRY. Yes, I can explain.

Cry. Not with helpless rage. Not in rolling fear. Help yourself to cry again. Find a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, a portrait of someone you love (and perhaps lost), a poem, or some prose. Anything that can soften the frozen barrier around your heart can save you from apathy and the terrifying disconnect that can creep over even the greatest empathizers when the world becomes too much.

For me, I keep close a small collection of poems and cards, some long messages with friends, and a short, specific playlist of songs. Any one of these might help if I’m just starting to slip, but sometimes I have to run a gauntlet through them to crack the shell I didn’t realize had grown so thick.

I consider myself pretty self-aware, and I can usually tell when I’m getting overwhelmed. Detecting when I’m growing disconnected is harder, but I can pick up the signs for that as well. Once I recognize the disconnect, I have to carve out at least a few minutes to immerse myself in these memories and works of art. Not just the most painful memories I have, but those specific mementos I keep to evoke a nostalgia of someone I love who is too far away, or a poem or song by an artist I love that expresses their pain. Really swimming in that, I can usually let myself get carried completely away into the art or the memory. With some of these experiences in succession, eventually I start to cry again.

Have you heard the advice that the best way to forget your own problems is to get involved in someone else’s? The reason that works is that it invokes your empathy. It opens your heart to someone else’s struggle. When their trouble is not the same kind as yours (or at least not currently), it can stir a rush of selfless love that refreshes those cold, drained channels inside of you. And that compassion can give you the courage to face their pain with calm dignity and the strength to lend your aid in whatever way you are able.

When you find a way to draw out your own empathy, whether the subject of your unconditional love is at hand or not, you gain a perspective that is just outside of your own struggles. Even that small distance can make yours seem more manageable, and that can mean the difference between wandering listlessly through your day, cold and detached, or engaging fully with everything you do, bringing even a little bit of hope and light to all you touch (distantly or not).

That difference is as tangible as life and death, or daylight and the darkest night. And it can save you from yourself when you question how you can continue to work effectively, connect with the people in your life, or maybe even get out of bed on the most difficult days.

For most of us, the highs can outweigh the lows, whether you love to mix with people, or whether your plants and your pets are the only ones you want to see most days.

Open your heart as much and as often as you can, and I promise you, life will be more rewarding because of it. More difficult? Certainly. But far more worthwhile.

Just remember to cry, and you will know you are truly alive.