“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.)