Shivering on a Friday night alone under the rafters of a Georgian house somewhere in North Holland.
I look around and miss the reason I am here, the humans I came to stay with, the humans without whose wisdom and patience my life would be completely different today. They are people who challenge me on a daily basis and have help me coax my better self out of the grip of depression.
Because they accepted me fully, wonky brain, frequent distress, and all.
To date, only one other person had ever done that, my late friend Anthony who lost his life to cancer in September 2018. I so wish he could see how happy I am some days, how enthusiastic about all that life has to offer, just like I used to be when we met in the mid 90s.
I wish he could see that I came back to a place we both loved. I followed trails of words that have since blossomed into a garden of weeds, wildflowers, and saplings, a garden I have watered with my tears so many times even though it enjoys a gentle, temperate, and sunny microclimate all year round.
Rebirth is hard and painful and you get stuck again and again and again on the way, wondering if you’re ever going to get there. What if this new life you’ve been rebuilding word by word were nothing more than a mirage?
Air, I need air in the sweltering heat of the hottest day ever recorded in the history of the Netherlands.
If I don’t download the contents of my head onto the page I will keel over and disappear down the rabbit hole; I won’t be able to climb out of this time. I will keep falling until impact kills me; I don’t want witnesses. Too much darkness, there’s too much darkness emanating from my smartphone screen. It’s seeping into my every pore, blending in with the light fog that shrouds my daily reality, making everything appear ever so slightly askew.
This is the last time I give voice to the darkness until I return to this safe place, the last time I will immerse myself in it. It will be the last time I am its amanuensis; the last time it will dictate words always easier to wrangle in Amsterdam than in Paris.
Will the last time be, has it already arrived, or do I need to schedule it?
So much of life is about finding ways to stretch time and maximize efficiency before we die. Productivity and mindfulness fight it out daily in our harried hearts and meandering minds as we clutch the copyright to our own misery.
That moment when you feel life in your jaw, you feel it in your teeth, you feel it so deeply that the mere act of breathing knocks you out all the time.
The volume is on max, life looks so bright it’s blinding, tastes of love, feels like hugs, and smells like freshly crushed mint leaves and hope.
Slap bang in the middle of chaos and carnage, boom! Misery starts falling off you in great big layers of skin, a little flake here, the outline of a limb there; you shed maps of your former selves until raw. There is nothing to protect you from what’s coming at you from all sides and yet it doesn’t matter because there’s more light in your life than there’s ever been, like a spotlight.
That follows you.
Wherever you go.
As if happiness were on a manhunt; it won’t kill you but it will stun you senseless until darkness begins to levitate away. When death and love are locked into a staring contest, they create an odd sense of calm to which you’re absolutely not used to and therefore cannot process. On top of relief and gratitude, you’re also overcome with the kind of fear that turns you inside out for days and weeks and months.
But it’s been months since you last wondered what to keep living for. Sure, the bleeps still come and you’re all shook up but they’re the odd song that comes up on shuffle, not the one song stuck on a loop. Fear, meanwhile, is a habit lacking evidence on this side of the Atlantic.
“Vai dar confusão.” A song about things getting confusing becomes the soundtrack to one glorious week skipping down Lisbon cobblestones on the way to the convenience store for vital sustenance before holing up with words again and defying the clock as day turns into night and into day again. Don’t come up for air until you’ve purged everything in print. Smiling while the tears run down your cheeks. Smiling so hard the security guard’s face at the Mini Preço lights up every time he sees you. Or maybe it’s your accent when you greet him, the accent of someone who relishes the language of Pessoa so much that even when the intonation is all wrong it works.
Comprehension is variable but everybody gets the enthusiasm.
Discovering that Portuguese was still the language my heart spoke after all these years made me believe in love again. Love, the universal glue that holds life together and can also cause it to fall apart when it’s in too short supply, absent, denied. Love, that life forces that protects and preserves; it comes through when you least expect it, too. Write nothing for five years and it will still keep vocation alive; stay away from your family for six years and they’ll keep a place at the table for you.
Most days are cloudy and yet there’s so much light in that little urban hideaway with the orange tree in the backyard and the sweet smell of gravity jolting me out of my reverie, one orange splat at a time.
The melting snow at Orly when you landed, your bleeding hands on the way home as you ran to catch the last Métro then the last bus back to a place where few trees grow. And yet, the darkness had already started to lift when heart and mind aligned; you hope you’ll never leave yourself behind again.
The Amor Electro song from winter followed me to Amsterdam in the summer like the prediction from an oracle.
When I learned the band’s bass player had died earlier this week and I couldn’t remember his name, it shocked me. How can you not know the name of the human who made the art that kept you alive?
Gratitude is naming everything and everyone who breathes life into us; even if we were once left holding our own hand, we were never alone. Even when I disconnected from music for five years I was never alone, memories of melodies and lyrics forever the flotsam and jetsam of a mind spellbound by sound from an early age. And now music is a wave I can ride with agility most days, disappearing inside the barrel for hours in slow motion.
Gratitude is typing this on a makeshift desk made of three storage boxes atop the world’s most popular Swedish side table less than 24 hours before heading back to France. Out of the safe place and into the fray; out of the safe place where I have the unthinkable luxury of falling apart one last time if I need to and into the fray where I can neither bend nor break. Gratitude is listening to a song that used to break me — another one, there were so many of those silence became the only possible soundtrack — and hearing the most glorious celebration of happenstance, language, and curiosity instead.
We feel stuck but we never are; fresh possibilities are everywhere if only we’re curious enough. Fresh possibilities are everywhere even when there’s a parasite in your brain causing it to malfunction. Fresh possibilities are everywhere even when you’re not always able to see them.
Some you choose, some happen, some you avoid, deflect, or embrace.
That was the official report from my father in Paris after arriving at the hospital for his wife’s weekly chemo and finding an Easter egg in her schedule, an oncology appointment that wasn’t planned with a doctor my parents didn’t know. When you speak fluent Stage IV, this happening a week before the long-standing appointment with the oncologist is not good. And we don’t have the strength to pretend this is another glitch, we don’t have the strength to pretend this “thing” is still responding to treatment. It isn’t; not this one, not the one before it either but in three days we’ll know how many more options we’ve run out of this time around.
Serenity is an optimist’s spin on resignation, the last gift from life to those who have already accepted the inevitability of death. And yet, they refuse to turn life into a funeral wake. Serenity is that last dance, the one we wish would never end, the one that makes us hold life that little bit closer to better protect and preserve it.
Be alive now and cram every inch of this life with love and nuggets of joy, please!
Rui Rechena. The bass player’s name was Rui Rechena.
You are scrappy and you will not lose.
Even if you won’t acknowledge it, you are, and so am I. Survival is in our nature, us humans. We cling on to life in the strangest way even when we profess being fed up with it, even when we have reservations about our ability to keep going.
Just this afternoon, I was telling my friends exactly that after I realized I first wrote about impending burnout back in July. Now it’s already November, I still haven’t had a much overdue rest, I still haven’t got fixed geographical coordinates but I’m also still standing.
Most days, I have no clue what happens next even though my family finally received some good oncology news last week, for the first time in almost a year. It took a fourth protocol for things to shift. Even though there’s no talk of remission or surgery yet, my stepmom’s cancer is no longer progressing and her markers are down.
After much soul searching and some intense heartache, I recently decided to move back to Europe permanently. Some days, there’s a glimmer of hope it may still be to Portugal, most days the Netherlands already feel like home as I spend most of the time I’m not in Paris here.
Progress happened, against all odds, because every day I remind myself to hang on a little while longer. And yet, I nearly ran away from the new life I’ve been building word by word for a year innumerable times because exhaustion and pressure got the better of me.
Tonight, I’m wondering whether I can finally allow myself to trust in this new life, to trust it will work out fine regardless of how many more hoops I have to jump through to make it happen.
It feels so close I can almost touch it so I raise my arm, stretch out my fingers and so I try, only to realize I’m not there yet.
I ask my heart if there’s any chance I’m going to make it.
And it says yes.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.