These days, risk is my middle name. I extend a friendly hand to those acquaintances with whom I wish I shared a stronger connection, knowing they may say no, I’m too busy for a new friend, or maybe I just don’t like you that much. I sign myself up for potentially risky activities like climbing and biking and travel.
Recently I allowed a complete stranger to decorate a large swath of my back with a needle and ink for hours, not knowing if his design would materialize the way I imagined it. Then I allowed a doctor to insert a long, hollow needle into my breast, not knowing if I really wanted to know the biopsy results.
Last weekend I bought a t-shirt, a white and flowy thing, with a silhouette of a tree printed in gold on the front. Since when do I buy anything in gold?
I have risked telling my mother how her choices really affect me.
I have risked visiting an old friend and his new wife who could have hated me. And then I invited another friend, more of an acquaintance, really, to join me on my surf adventure to another country, and he accepted for reasons only he knows.
The other morning, late morning, just as it was starting to get hot, I was hacking away at some persistent weeds when my cat, a long-haired black and white princess who loves to roll in the dirt, sat down in front of me and abruptly looked up at the sky. I followed her gaze just in time to see a precise triangle of three white herons drifting directly overhead, the thin lines of their legs and beaks preceding and then trailing behind. The sky here, in the foothill country of California’s Central Valley, is Montana-blue, and the golden-shouldered hillsides create a perfect contrast. The herons were likely headed for a nearby wetland where they can spear small frogs and fish with their pointy beaks.
I took a deep breath, grateful for the perfect sequence of events that allowed me to look up at just the right moment. These days, I know joy as well as I know risk, as well as I used to know resignation and doubt. It is a simple joy, exuberant wonder, contentedness. And it shows up all the time.
In the old days, like, say, 2010, I would find myself in the midst of a flash of joy without warning. It was startling, sort of frantic and urgent. It would rush up behind my lungs and push them out against my ribs, then make its way to the tunnel of my throat and squeeze itself into the backs of my eyes, finally bursting out into the world as tears, running down the round slope of my cheeks. Cheeks that are at risk of turning jowly with age.
These rare outbursts would usually happen while I sat in traffic. The tears would appear and then I would take a few more breaths and it would be gone, an emotional virga, the rain that falls but never touches the ground. It left me feeling desperate.
When you’re living in a drought the need for water is urgent. But how can you catch raindrops if they evaporate thousands of feet above the surface where you stand?
I felt desperate when the flashflood of joy receded because I was desperate. I was terrified that my life, which was not a terrible life, was as good as it was going to get. And it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t what I had imagined, or what I knew was possible.
Today I found a cutting of a jade plant in the middle of the driveway, the same place where I had been standing when I saw the herons. The jade’s leaves were yellow and paper-thin, not the fleshy thick pads of a healthy succulent. The plant was bleached from the intense sun, withered by the high temperatures, and being a cutting with no roots, stranded in the hard-pan of the driveway, completely unable to save itself.
I scooped it up and placed it in a tub of water overnight.
Brené Brown says the gifts of imperfection are compassion, courage and connection. Courage allows us to look our imperfections in the eye and keep going. Accepting our imperfections makes it possible for us to really feel compassion for others, and ourselves, which in turn gives us the ability to truly connect with the people around us.
In the old days I had no roots. I was stranded on the driveway of my own life. What saved me was my will to change things. What saved me was being able to ask for help from a complete stranger. What made it possible was the unwavering love of the people around me.
Today I risk everything I have in just about every moment; vulnerability has become a way of life. I allow myself to imagine a future without any idea how I will get there. I don’t avoid people/places/situations because I fear the outcome. I seek people/places/situations because I anticipate the joy they may bring. When you feel your own capacity for love like a deep, cool reservoir fed by a river that never slows, sharing that love, even when you don’t know if it will ever come back to you, doesn’t feel risky at all. You know that the true danger is in risking nothing.
Today I am brave, compassionate, flawed, a fleshed-out version of my former self, waiting for the roots to sprout, feeling around for a nice, shady place to put them down.
Today I am happy with my life. I have been waiting to say those words, to feel their weight and really let them sink into the soil of my soul, all of my 34 years and eight months.
The sinking feels good, really good.
“Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
- Brené Brown