spikes&soft places


“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. 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.” –Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum LP

Tenderness is a wound. I think I’ve heard that before. A poem somewhere, probably, something consumed that lingers and that I’ve since lost the name for but the taste lives on, the words bubble up, because the things that live inside of you always find a way out. Always.

There was a point in time in which I was convinced that apathy would save me. If I cared less, things would be better. If tenderness was my wound, then I needed to be plated in silver, dripping with mercury, spikes in all the right places. It felt like if I were tougher, less affected by the sight of wildflowers, than I could come out on top.

But there is no winning. We all die and you don’t get any more points for withholding love, for being less hurt. You don’t win anything if you get out of life unscathed.

The poet Rilke wrote: With their whole being, with all their forces gathered close around their lonely timid, upward-beating heart, [young people] must learn to love. Loving is a process, a continual unfolding of self into the unapologetic world. I am still learning. My heart beats upward, awayawayaway into the fading pink sky, and I resist the urge to pluck it from the air, wings and all, and stuff it back under my sleeve. What is it like to release love into the world and ask for nothing back? That is what I’m trying to learn.

It is the wanting that undoes me. The fallow-fielded yearning. That is the second emotion I remember most from my phase of careless apathy—wanting. Not my own, but its sordid, mirrored counterpart. I didn’t allow myself to want—cold, hard spikes, remember?—but I was starving for the world to want me in a narrow, specific way. Wanting to be wanted. And it’s always like that, isn’t it? That’s why people play hard to get. Because there’s something about seeming unattainable, aloof, that makes people want you. Softness is unseemly up close; stare at it too hard and it unravels beneath a sharpened gaze, all daisies and puddles and wafts of lavender. Softness shreds too easily in a knifeblade world. Tenderness is a wound.

My friend texted me a love letter the other day. I’m crying on my kitchen floor right now, she wrote. That was it.  It was beautiful. It is a gift to be soft with a person, to trust them with your tenderness. Alternatively, she could’ve written, I am in pain; share it with me. And I would have. Because that’s love.

I am practicing the art of tenderness these days. I walk in the park and say hello to my favorite sweetgum tree and listen to the sound of mud as it squelches beneath my sandal. I watch the herons wade into the river and the ducks that sunbathe near a copse of cattails. I am honest about my feelings when asked, even if they are unsightly. I embroider t-shirts for people and send them out into the world because I think it’s nice to be thought of and the act of gift giving feels meaningful right now. I put myself out there, I givegivegive until I’ve reached the precipice of wanting, and then I stop. I pull myself back.

How much love can you put in the world before you want something back?

There is so much to learn.


(If you want to read a post about spikes, click here.)

(The title of this post is taken from one of Helena Fitzgerald’s Griefbacon essays. Cannot remember which one, but honestly, you should do yourself a favor and just read them all.)

To Chingachgook


Once upon a time, I worked at a camp called Chingachgook. It was a sprawling camp nestled in the southern Adirondacks with a 32.6 mile lake at one end and a 2,631-foot mountain at the other. It was home to squirrels and owls and eastern newts. It was home to dozens of staff members, their numbers fluctuating with the constellations. For four seasons, it was home to me.

I remember when I first arrived at Chingachgook. It was early evening and the world around me was tinged an atmospheric blue. I was given a golf cart tour around the campus and then moved temporarily into a yurt, which lingering summer camp staff tried to use as a hookup spot that night. It was the last week of camp, and it was strange to be welcomed to a place that was winding down, to be eager and new amidst a tired, sun-drained staff. I felt out of place and overwhelmed.

Flash forward a year and I was sterning a canoe full of college freshmen back to camp after a three-day trip down the lake. We bumped onto the shore and I began the process of de-boating the participants, holding the canoe even and steady as they clambered out. It was my last trip for the summer and already the fall staff had begun to arrive. I was sorry to see summer go. I felt like something had changed within me that summer—on the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw, in the swatches of Canadian wilderness, 100 feet below the lake—and I was scared that I would lose it with the shortening autumn days.

It is strange what you remember once an era is over. It is interesting which totems you take with you.

COVID has been a slow suffocation for a lot of camps and outdoor places, Chingachgook among them. The doors are closed. The people are gone. The woods grow wild with the absence of campers.

I’ve written a lot about the loss of places, and it’s tempting to do that again—to dissect my favorite Chingachgook spots and hold them close in memory—but that’s not the loss I’m feeling most acutely this time around. Because the wetlands will be there when I visit next. The billion-year-old rock will be perched by the brook. Red Fox Hollow will be shaded by its perpetual canopy of pine.

But the people? They are gone. Maybe for good. And certain places are only special because of the people who inhabit them, the memories forged in their presence. It’s like the hollowness I feel whenever I visit Pittsburgh: It’s not the dingy streets I miss, but sipping shandy on sagging front porches, or eating egg noodles at 1AM and forcing my few still-awake friends to watch Wild China with me. The city feels empty in their absence.

I thought I’d gotten good at impermanence; it was something I’d honed and practiced through seasonal work. I was always leaving, always moving on. But there was a self-centeredness to it all, a sense of agency. I was the one leaving. I was the one who chose to say goodbye.

And now I am the one who is left.

See, Chingachgook was a place I took for granted because I always assumed it would be there. I could go back whenever I wanted. Things would have changed, yes, but not very much. My bosses, my friends, they had full-time jobs and employee housing. The seasonal staff would change, but the bedrock people would still be there, of that I was certain.

When you go into the wardrobe, when you burst through the brick wall at Platform 9 and 3/4, you expect the world you left to keep existing in your absence. You are off on your own grand adventure, but the world will wait for you to come back. You can go off and vanquish the darkness and marry the prince and slay the dragon, and the world will be ready to welcome you back when the time comes. You don’t expect the world to leave you. You don’t expect the people you left behind to vanish.

What breaks my heart the most is that the community I existed on the periphery of is crumbling. I can only watch from a distance as this seemingly stable structure of people is forever altered. There is no going back. From my vantage point, they’d made it. They had those few coveted full-year positions in the outdoor world and a sense of community that held steadfast through the changing seasons. They were proof to me that you could have it all, that a life like that was possible.

Bereft. Such a formal, tight-laced word. To lose something you didn’t know you could lose and what to do with that sudden emptiness. That is something I’ve been learning throughout this pandemic—how to deal with the world when tectonic plates shift and certainty crumbles and you are left alone.

I’ve been fighting the urge to end this post with a happy, nostalgic memory—something wistful, something pleasant—but it feels disingenuous to the moment. This post is rather messy in construction, the metaphors are lopsided, and the flow is shaky. But that in itself feels authentic, true to the unspooled chaos of the moment and my own ragged thoughts. Not every wound can be turned into poetry. Sometimes things are just sad and it’s OK to let them be sad.