Friday, January 13, 2017

Be Water, My Friend

New Year's Eve has always seemed to me to fall during the wrong part of the year.

Sure, I usually feel a deep need to repent and renew at the end of the calendar year, but I never quite feel ready to resolve to do better. I always feel a bit frozen, like I'm still making amends with the year before. If there is anything true of me, it is that I require time to process.

In fact, for my first three years in Chicago, I spent the evening in the bathtub.

Auld Lang Syne has been used as the equivalent for "once upon on time" in Scottish fairytales. 
 Perhaps I'm not so alone in my slowness to move on to the next.

I turned down invitations, turned off my phone, turned up the music, and sat, stewing in my feelings. Later, in the spring, when things were greener, I inevitably defrosted and felt that uptick of inspiration and renewal. In college, my girlfriends and I called this 'the spring thaw,' a celebration involving a fifth of vodka at the first sign of sunshine. In yoga, we call this 'flow'.

This year is not much different. Thirteen days in, and I'm still somewhat frozen in my tracks. 2016 was an uphill year. I am weary after 12 months climbing the steps, like I was digging myself out of a hole but not ever completely sure how deep it was. I guess while others suffer their traditional hangovers, I require a recovery of the emotional kind.


For the past four winters, I have taken a bus to work that lets me off along the Chicago River. Sometimes it smells like chocolate, sometimes it smells like garbage.

Each morning, I glance over the railing at the river and over time I have noticed that I can, with impressive accuracy, take an emotional inventory based on the physical state of the river. The colder and harsher the weather, the more janky the ice, the more ragged my heart. During the worst of it, the polar vortex of 2014, I felt near paralyzed. This is when the infamous #ormyfuckingsoul was born. It's become an inside joke with myself.

Throughout the season, the river freezes and refreezes, and it took me a few years to realize that the result is actually quite beautiful.


Some time during the expanse of time between Christmas and New Year's, I was doing some research on meditation, and came across, of all things, a Bruce Lee quote that has stuck with me.
“Empty your mind! Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend!
I aspire to be that nimble, that flexible, that accepting. But the truth is, water is also at the mercy of its environment. Sorry, Mr. Lee. You put it in heat, it boils and steams. You leave it out in the cold, it freezes and cracks.


One of the greatest lessons about writing is that good communication has context. What I've learned in 2016 is that good living has context too. You can need other people. A good life requires vulnerability and the best people help you grow in unexpected ways. And, to depart for a second from the water metaphor and into more familiar territory, the struggle out of the cocoon strengthens the butterfly's wings.

Context: (n) the environment or setting in which something (whether words or events) exists.
Synonyms: background, situation, connection
You know how they say you ask for patience and what you get is a line at the bank? I have been looking for proof this year that the vulnerability will pay off, and I've received the same lesson over and over again: you never have a guarantee, at least not externally. The only thing you can control is that you are right within yourself. The panic of that realization was sobering. It burnt a little going down and felt uncomfortably warm in my belly.

That's the thing about context. You can consider it; it helps tell the story. But you must be able to distill down to the heart of the matter. Or there is no story at all.


I've been thinking a lot about distillation lately. Scientifically, it's the process by which you purify a liquid by applying heat and cold. Essentially, you find out what the liquid is made of--it results either in a complete separation of the parts or a partial separation that increases the concentration of the individual parts of the mixture.

When making alcohol, for instance, you distill out the impurities and what's left is your proof, which is how we measure strength. A 100 proof spirit is 50% alcohol. Two parts of a whole, each in its purest form, each doing its part.

Hello, 2017. I'm ready for you. It wasn't a perfect transition, but then none of the important ones are. I resolve to hang in there until I feel the flow. Until the spring thaw, striving to be water in whatever form I take.

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