It’s the Saturday night of Halloweekend, and outside, partygoers whoop and laugh so loudly I can hear them even with my earbuds in. I’m alone at my desk watching a video of a Japanese woman making meals for her family.
It cuts to a clip of her, her husband, and her daughter gathered at the dinner table. The daughter places a stuffed toy in her dad’s shirt pocket, and the tenderness and simplicity of the gesture triggers something in me. I start sobbing so uncontrollably that I have to pause the video.
I want to be like that again, I want to be the daughter, I want to be taken care of, to have such a simple conception of the world that all that matters is my home, my parents, the food right before me, what I’ll play with next, I word-vomit into my notes app. I don’t want to think about taking care of myself or getting through the days. I want life to be simple. I want to be cared for.
Until recently, the gravitational pull that the past exerts on me has been one rooted in warmth. I still have my cringey middle school writing in journals and on my laptop. I love flipping through photos — everything backed up on my laptop since high school freshman year, my infancy and toddlerhood documented in photo albums at home.
But this year, I’ve found that my relationship with the past has gradually changed; that its pull, while still tender, has become primarily sharp and painful. I’ve found myself not just indulging in these trips down memory lane, but wishing I could stay in them forever.
I’ve spent this past year vacillating between blazing through work and curling up on my couch crying, two extremes whose combination has been so jarring that my mind has opted to simply dissociate more days than I’d like to admit. The summer left me raw; upheavals in my relationships, coupled with the stress of balancing an internship and a research position, left me questioning everything about myself, my values, and my world. When I entered the fall semester, still processing it all, I felt decidedly not ready to take on extracurriculars and courses.
But the world stops for no one. Work became what it always had been: a stressor, but also an escape mechanism, something I could throw myself into as I staggered away from myself, this girl who felt so lost and was hurting so badly, this girl I could not stand to be. Work was an anesthetic, a cushion between my pain and myself — because what was the point in being mired in sadness when there were papers to be written, pieces to be edited, emails to be sent?
Inevitably, I would crash and burn. And crash I did, into a full-blown depressive episode. Years-old wounds I thought I had stitched up burst open again, oozing into everything I was already struggling to process. Again and again, I had tried to run away from myself, but running only works for so long before your legs give way — before you have to stop, and look back at what you’re running from.
It’s Thanksgiving, and my morning starts with an art project: assembling pages and pages of photos alongside various trinkets in a pine green gift box I’d folded the previous night. I want to open it and go through its contents when I can’t remember how loved I am, how happy I’ve been, how happy I could be.
They litter my desk now, all these paraphernalia of love. Receipts from outings with my boyfriend. Printouts of emails and texts from friends, family members, and mentors. A good-luck pendant my mother gifted me before I came to college.
Most of all, there are the photos: wild fungi, intricate leaves, the Pacific Ocean; my favorite flower booth at the farmer’s market back home; my boyfriend smiling at me while I grin at the camera; the FM exec cinnamon roll-hug at our last meeting; baby me in my dad’s arms, pouting at a bird at the zoo.
Cutting out the photos one by one, I fight the urge to cry. A blur of feelings swells in my chest — the bittersweetness of these representations of a simpler life and a happier self; the sharp pain of the juxtaposition between them and myself now, sitting alone at my desk, hurting and hurting and hurting. But more than anything, I feel overwhelmed by love, by how lucky I am to have and have had such an abundance of care in my life, so many reasons to smile, so many people and places to love and thank.
As tears escape down my cheeks, it hits me, a thought as liberating as it is terrifying: This is what I need. To not just remember and long, but to create, to be; to seek out and put myself in situations and places where I feel like my younger self again: loved, carefree, happy. To stop denying myself what is simple and pure, to set aside everything once in a while, to do some things for the hell of it, to let myself live, for once.
The sun extends its rays through bare branches and evergreen foliage, dappling my body and the earth with speckles of luminescent warmth. I draw in a deep breath, imagining the cold, piney air traveling through every vessel in my body. It’s winter in California — post-storm, at that. The creek roars and rushes down the rocks, slicing through the earthy slopes. Behind me, I can hear my dad’s steady breaths as he treads uphill.
Pausing at the top of a small slope, I admire the backlit leaves above me. Why would anyone want heaven if we already have this on earth? The thought is so foreign in its wonderfulness that a giddy laugh bubbles in me. As I trot down the slope, I let myself break into a run, the same way I would when I was younger. My eyes water from the cold. My cheeks hurt from my smile.