I realize that my past several posts have contained some pretty serious warm and fuzzy undertones. Or they have at least ended with some like-a-Phoenix-from-the-ashes life lesson. I don’t mean to be nauseating. After my post about road rage, I figured I owed it to the universe to cool my jets a little bit. And honestly things have been strange lately, and I have found myself in a melancholic place, due in part to some work stress culminating in a shameful explosion and also because the fall just does that to me. When the weather starts to turn a little colder, it cuts me off at the knees and I want to withdraw and I have to find some sliver of light in every day or I fear I’ll give up. A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend on a hiking trip up north by Lake Michigan at the Warren Dunes State Park. It was my first time in Michigan and the first time I had really been to the lake. I was at the lakefront on the Chicago side once a few years ago for an early morning race in which I was not running since I don’t run in races or at all if we’re being honest. I was in awe of its vastness, but I did not have any real time to take it in. We were spectating the race, and we had to move along with the runners somewhat, and so all I knew of Lake Michigan until a couple of weeks ago was from a cold morning in October when I had gotten a brief glimpse of it up close. I have driven by it maybe half a dozen times, but only as I was trying to navigate Lakeshore Drive, and we all know from that aforementioned post about road rage how well I handle myself in situations like that. Suffice it to say I was more concerned with avoiding vehicular manslaughter than taking in the majesty of the water.
We got a later start than we wanted, and when we first arrived the sky was overcast and I was a little disappointed. My friend Terrence had been to the park and the lake countless times, so arriving to find that the sun had slipped behind the clouds and the air had grown a little chilly was not the great travesty for him that it was for me. Probably even if he didn’t have that history it would not have been such a travesty because he is about as easygoing as I am dramatic and uptight. The water was breathtaking, yes – stretching all the way to the barely-visible Chicago skyline on the opposite shore. But the dreary sky cast a silvery light on everything. The water appeared choppy and dark, and the sand looked somber. What was worse was that it was just barely overcast, like the sun could have poked out at any time and been like, Hey, guys! I was just joshing you! Ha! Pretty clever, huh?
The above is the view of the lake from outside the Women’s room, which is often the view I take in at places all throughout the country! Naturally, I hit the john as soon as we arrived, barely stumbling out of the car in time to not pee my pants, despite having stopped to pee just over an hour before. Gotta stay hydrated! The bathroom is a standard beach bathroom with sand all over the floor and chipping paint, half the stall doors and flushing mechanisms only working a fraction of the time, if at all. I often love having a travel buddy to do fun things with, but it can also pose interesting challenges. In this case I did not want my disappointment to be evident so I was glad for a few minutes to myself in the ladies room to gather my composure. The combination of grief, a mood disorder, hormones, lack of sleep, and any other number of issues – or perhaps just the raw fact of being a human being – has rendered me especially delicate in the face of disappointment. I like to believe that this is a new phenomenon, but it is not, if I am being truthful. Despite a self-deprecating exterior and a penchant for using humor to deflect my true feelings, I am a fragile little flower whose heart can be broken over silly things like the sun failing to cooperate when I feel that I desperately need a bright day at the beach in the early autumn with a good friend to bolster my desire to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
So I sat down on the toilet and sucked in a deep breath and promised myself that I would make the best of this situation, that I would not alienate Terrence with a suddenly darkened mood when he had agreed to come on a three hour road trip with me on a whim. This is me managing like an adult the issues that have clanged around inside me my whole life. This is maturity for me, the ability to gather myself around whatever I can and pull myself together in the bathroom and manage to stay put together for a sustained period of time so that I can enjoy myself, or at least not rob others of their joy in the moment. For parents with children who struggle with sensory issues and rigidity, perhaps this sheds some faint light on the distinct way our brittle brains process abrupt changes in plans and surroundings. What is a simple setback to the average person is a truly colossal tragedy to us, something we need a little extra time and patience to process.
As I sat on the toilet, I looked up and saw a perfect metaphor for life staring right at me from the cracked paint of a bathroom stall door in a Michigan state park. The sun was shining. I could see it through the crack in the door, and I could feel it in the recesses of my heart and soul that were fighting with everything they had to keep my brain from sending me into a spiral that would culminate in me sobbing in a dingy bathroom stall. That is another fundamental point of demarcation that tells me I have managed to emerge as a real adult in this life of mine: that I no longer throw fits the way I did all the way into my twenties when my coping skills just can’t keep up with the world that is spinning out of control around me. Instead, I retreat and cry if I need to so that I can pull it together and spend time with people and do normal activities.
The shining sun was only one part of the metaphor. Scrawled in sharpie on the door were the words, Smile because you’re just the way you are. And I smiled. Immediately. Then I noticed that someone had scribbled in ink pen next to the already-uplifting phrase the word “beautiful”, and though this gave me pause for a second, it also made me smile. We are women. We cannot exist without qualifiers like beautiful. Probably the woman or girl who added this gender-normative qualifier thought nothing of the deep implications that might be picked apart by a feminist with her pants around her ankles, trying not to sob while her friend waited outside to start a hike that we’d driven three hours to take. Though the word beautiful is a great descriptor and adds to the phrase in a certain way, I prefer it the way it was originally intended. Smile. You are just the way you are. And the way you are may not always be beautiful. Maybe you are ugly sometimes. Smile anyway. Maybe you are pensive sometimes. Smile. Perhaps you are bitchy or needy or thoughtless or selfish or hateful. Smile. Probably you are beautiful at times to the fullest extent of that word’s meaning. It is likely that sometimes you are giving, that you are kind, that you are sweet, that you are lovely, that you are gentle. It is also certain that at times you are smart, assertive, strong, talented, tough. And perhaps this is the very meaning of the word beautiful: an all-encompassing declaration of the innumerable facets that make us who we are.
Silly though it may have been I was deeply moved by the desire of some visitor to this Women’s bathroom, whether it was a teenage girl or a middle-aged woman, to lift up other visitors. I was touched by her taking a moment to write a quick phrase of encouragement on the door of a bathroom stall. And I was equally moved by the desire of the editor who came along and took it upon herself to up the ante by adding the most substantial English adjective she could think of to describe a woman. Beautiful is the ultimate achievement for a woman, at least until we successfully smash the patriarchy and claim words like fierce and confident as tantamount to beautiful.
Affected as I was, it would not have been so compelling were it not for the sun shining brilliantly into the stall and the bathing suit lining that someone had slapped on the door right next to the uplifting phrase. Some girl or woman had changed into a brand new swimsuit in this bathroom stall, and in doing so she had ripped out the hygienic lining that comes standard in brand new bathing suits. It is in place so that women can try on swimwear without contracting any potential vaginal ailments of other women – even though we are strongly encouraged to keep our own underpants on as a barrier when trying on bathing suits. Naturally you don’t want to swim with what essentially amounts to a piece of masking tape between your legs, especially when you consider that this masking tape has possibly been smashed against the labia of a stranger, so you take this part out. For me, this part comes out at home when I also remove the tags and wash the new article of clothing before I wear it, especially if it is going to be up against my crotch and in a body of water, but, hey, to-may-toe/to-mah-toe.Sadly, the word “beautiful” is impossible to see in this photograph and I didn’t realize that before I removed the extra large original from my phone to free up memory. It was there when I snapped the picture. It was faintly scribbled in that lighter paint spot off to the right and I only noticed it upon reading the phrase a second time. This whole mix is a truly poignant commentary on life – the brightness of the sun, the words of encouragement, the memento of someone’s hurried attempt to get to the beach and swim and probably enjoy her time with friends or family or both. The combination was enough to snap me back to reality, that I was at a beautiful park with a friend and that I had as many hours as I wanted on this Saturday afternoon to explore something I had never seen before. I had never been to Lake Michigan and I love water. I had never seen sand dunes up close, much less had the opportunity to climb on them. We were planning to hit up a store on the way back where I could acquire some Michigan wine, which I had never tasted. We were also going to hit up a brewery for food and locally brewed beer. I quickly snapped a photo, laughed a little to myself, and went back outside where the sun was glistening on the surface of the lake.
When I emerged from the bathroom, we headed to the water and split up so we could each do what was meaningful to us. He skipped rocks and I stood in the ice cold water and let it rush over my feet and shins. Sensory input and emotional cleansing in the form of frigid lake water on naked toes. I collected stones and shoved them into the pockets of my cargo pants, wet and sandy and weighing me down on one side. There were hundreds of stones, HUNDREDS! They were smooth and bumpy and slick and porous and brown and black and gray and striped. Had I not run out of pocket space, I would have spent all of our time there scouring the shore for stones that were truly perfect in their imperfection. I had no immediate plans for them, just knew that I wanted them, that I needed to collect them and take them home with me where I would have them as a reminder of what I knew was going to ultimately be a beautiful day and a fantastic trip. As a reminder that I am just the way I am. And then I saw it: a piece of driftwood thwacking into the shore with the lake tide. This sort of natural movement is a sedative of sorts for me, and I can become quickly hypnotized just standing there watching a piece of driftwood being pulled away from the shore and then shoved back into it again. This is why I am so drawn to water, especially oceans. The sound input and the perpetual motion is an unction to the constant unrest of my mind.
I have no idea how long I stood like that before deciding I needed to take this piece of driftwood home as much as I needed to take home the dozens of stones that were soaking through my pants pocket. Frequently it does not occur to me to ask for help with things. Except for when it comes to my sisters. With them, I often just silently hand them things that I don’t want or know how to deal with, and because they are beautiful just the way they are, they handle whatever it might be, no explanation necessary. So I wandered into the cold water and began wrestling this giant piece of driftwood that I was determined to take home with me. I have no idea how long I fought with this water-logged, heavy log before Terrence witnessed my feeble attempts and came to my aid. I also have no idea how long he watched my pitiful efforts and laughed to himself before offering assistance. In the end, he dragged it out of the water with minimal effort and we let it dry on the beach while he skipped rocks and I hoarded stones and the sun shone brightly on both of us.
Sometime in the future I will post the gorgeous pictures of the day, the early-autumn-late-afternoon sun illuminating the greens and browns and tans and blues and grays of the dunes and the trees and the water just perfectly. But for this post, I wanted to point out that no matter how frequently I search for the meaning in life even in tiny seemingly meaningless experiences, and no matter how cheesy I may seem, that ability is a hard-fought battle that I lose on many days. My striving to see the positive, even just a glimmer of it, in the brokenness of this life is a conscious choice that I make sometimes on an hourly basis. Not infrequently, it’s minute to minute. Make no mistake that this positivity is unceasingly tempered by the looming reality that life is hard, surviving it is even harder, and sometimes enjoying it seems out of the question. This reality is not lost on me. But I choose to press on in my campaign of finding meaning and joy in whatever little shard I can, even on days when every semblance of peace and happiness seem to be smashed into bits on the floor at my feet. Because at the end of the day, life is a lot like a dank bathroom stall where the sun struggles to shine brightly in, and where you are trying to gain your composure to face the world when things didn’t go exactly the way you planned. It is a place where even when someone thoughtlessly shoves their trash in our face it is incumbent upon us to recognize that we are just the way we are, and that fact is in and of itself a reason to smile.