If you had been in my backyard the other day, you would have laughed. I stood in my very small, almost not even real, garden, bent over with both hands on one mightily stubborn weed. With my legs bent over, I pulled. Being stubborn as it was, it didn’t budge, so I pulled harder…then harder…then, getting rather fed up, I yanked as hard as I could with all my might. Not only did the weed finally get cut from the ground, not only did the entire root come up in my hands, but I fell, unceremoniously, hard on my bottom. My hands were sore (I don’t wear gloves. I don’t wear shoes. I don’t wear coats or jackets. I’m rather surprised I like any piece of clothing at all, actually) and blistering. But I felt like shouting, I was so happy that the stubborn weed was out of my garden. There were still lots more. It wasn’t like the job was finished, it really had just begun. But that one stubborn weed was gone. And it wouldn’t be back. I could prove that because I had its root in my hand. I looked at it. The root of a plant is clumpy, did you know that? Pieces of it will fall off if you shake it. Dirt flies everywhere. I’m usually left with the impression that the entire root is going to break apart at any moment and shatter. Somehow, it never does. The roots, it’s like they’re tangled together, you see. Tangled so well that cutting them is just about the only way to separate them.
Tell you the truth, I’m not a gardener. I want to be one. But, lo and behold, I’m not one yet. I don’t know when to plant what and the soil in my backyard is …. well … let’s just say…. not conducive to plant-growing. We’ve managed to sprout one poor pumpkin, but I think that was because God grew weary of laughing at my efforts, and had mercy on me. To show you how much of a gardener I am not, the first year I planted anything, I planted pumpkins. Awhile later, pretty yellow flowers were in my garden. Well, I was confused: I thought I’d planted a pumpkin, not a flower, so I let Breathe “pick the flower” which, very effectively, killed our one pumpkin (I was horrified when my confusion led me to look it up and I realized that pumpkins ARE flowers before they are pumpkins. Who knew?). Go ahead, laugh. It’s okay. I’m sure God did, too. Anyway, obviously, I’m not a gardener. While I’d probably cry and jump and beat my chest like Tarzan from unadulterated joy if any of my seeds actually grew into what they’re supposed to, for me, it’s more about the journey than it is the end result. But I can pretend I’m a real gardener all season long. I like digging in the dirt. I like making rows, even if they are sometimes haphazard. I like planting the seeds, even if I don’t know what 1 inch into the ground looks like. I like watering them and checking on them every day. I even like pulling weeds out of my garden.
While I don’t know very much about gardening the right way, I do know that real gardeners hate weeds because they strangle the good plants. This, I know. You’re supposed to vigilantly protect your garden from the nasty things. And I do a very good job of this. I weed out the weeds all the time. It’s the one thing about gardening that I’m good at. I know what they are and I can use my sheer strength to yank them out. I’ll yank weeds out all day long, since I can do that right. But, here’s a confession: I actually like weeds.
I like them because they always make me think. I’ll pull out a loosely planted one and feel a momentary rush at having so easily conquered the evil thing and it’ll remind me of some obstacle I recently easily overcome in my life. I’ll yank and pull and threaten to cut apart the stubborn ones, like the one I pulled out the other day. Once it’s out, though, I’ll usually stare at it and think about my own life. The other day, the fact that they don’t just fall apart, that they are tangled tightly together, reminded me that, just like the plants, I have roots too. Roots that won’t be going anywhere or just break apart and disappear, but that are, instead, interwoven so tightly with my present life and self that they can’t be forgotten. Since I’ve repeated that message for years, it probably wouldn’t have sparked a journal entry like this.
Last night, I logged onto Facebook, and clicked to receive my “Message from God.” It read: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” Instinctively, I backed away from the message. But instead of deleting it, I posted it, which is my way of forcing myself to accept what it says and think about it. I have no trouble with the first part of the message, the whole idea that when we’re happy, we make others happy. If you smile at someone, chances are, they’ll smile back at you, even if they don’t know your name. Life is meant to be shared because we make each other happier and more peaceful. I totally am in harmony with that part. The second part, the shared sorrow is half a sorrow, part causes me discomfort.
Intellectually, of course, I know it’s true. Psychology teaches us that it is healthier for someone to talk out loud to themselves than not to talk at all. No one is stronger than all of the obstacles that will come her way. Even Samson wasn’t strong enough to overcome his greatest challenge alone. President Obama needs people to help him. The CEO of any company in the world needs help to run that business. The little girl who feels overwhelmed because math simply is another language to her needs comforting and reassuring help; the teenager whose friends want her to do irrational things needs help or she’s likely to give in to the pressure. Feeling as though someone understands you can jumpstart the heart, refresh the energy levels and provide the necessary motivation for success. I know all of this.
My roots don’t like it.
When I was a kid, if I ran out of paper to write on, I would write on restaurant napkins, I’d write on paper towels, I’d write on my skin if I had to. But I felt guilty whenever I had to ask Mama to buy another notebook, because I knew it was hard to do. When the kids at school chose me last to be on their team for the fifth time that day, I insisted it was logical: I wasn’t very good at sports and they needed someone who could win them points. When I found myself at a lunch table surrounded only by empty chairs, I told myself that was the way I wanted it. They were silly anyway, blowing bubbles with their straws and milk, laughing about stupid things. I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble because of me, so I never said anything to a teacher about anything that happened at school. Not even when a group of bullies lied and said I was the one who put catsup on a pad and stuck it to the classroom television. I didn’t want them to get in trouble, and I thought that telling would make things worse. So I decided to make isolation a sanctuary. If they didn’t want me, then, I told myself, I didn’t need them.
I did the same things with more important things, too.
Once, I remember my father coming into my room and sitting on the edge of the bed. He stroked my hair, told me I was “so pretty” and what a “good girl” I’d been. He rubbed a hand up and down my arm. And that’s all that he did that night. But I was heart-broken. I was a “good girl” because I didn’t tell. I was “so pretty” because I could cry without making a single sound. He’d say, “Just remember that there’s nothing I can’t do,” and I believed him. Not only could he hurt me, but he could also walk out. He did that numerous times to my mom—disappeared into thin air like magic—and I watched as she cried and worried about the money needed for our next meal. I didn’t understand it all. I didn’t know that she cried not just because it hurt to be abandoned but out of anger. I didn’t know all of that. All I knew was that she cried when he left, and I saw crying as a sign of being hurt. I knew that telling would make her cry, and would leave my sister without a father. I know there’s a lot of reasons why children don’t tell. At first, they don’t honestly think about it because they only have time to think about getting through what’s going on right then. Then, when they do have time to think about, some of them aren’t sure whether or not they’d be hurt by telling, some of them aren’t sure whether they are supposed to or not, most have feelings of dirtiness and shame that they can’t bear others knowing about, some of them think that by telling they’ll hurt others “just like you feel hurt sometimes” and others, like me, stay quiet for a combination of the above. Days keep passing, life keeps happening, and they start to think that they’ve got a handle on it all: they honestly believe that, since the world hasn’t stopped turning, since they’ve avoided unnamed catastrophes, they must be handling it okay: they think it means they don’t need help.
On a personal level, that line of thought has carried over into other areas of my life. I’ve lost precious relationships and friendships because I tried to “double the joy” but “silence the sorrow.” I thought I was supposed to be “happy” and “helpful” and full of smiles all the time. I didn’t want others to think I was a complainer, or that I was weak and always in need of help. Besides, I really didn’t know what they could do to make the pain go away, and, if they couldn’t make the hurt go away, why would they want to listen to it? It sounds like I’m being a masochist, but I really have a fear of making others feel badly, of being that link in the chain that makes others stumble. My grandfather once said of the eight or nine-year old me, “you just know what I want before I even ask you to do it” and it stuck. My role was caretaker and helper. I was good at it. And caretakers took care of people, they didn’t ask for help. So, I just walked on, smiled, offered assistance and, at night, fell apart in the midst of recurring nightmares I didn’t want to analyze in the sunlight.
Yusuf Idris is a modern writer in the Arab world, who has written a brilliant short story entitled The Chair Carrier. I came across it several years ago and it has never wandered far from my mind since. The narrator of the story sees an old, frail man who’s carrying a huge, heavy chair, and has been carrying it for a very long time. No one seems to notice the man is tired, and the load is heavy. No one offers to help. The narrator wants him to put the chair down, but even he doesn’t offer to carry it for him. The other people in the town seemed to think it was natural that the old man was carrying his own load, was suffering from his own battles. The narrator was the only one who thought to whom it wasn’t natural: he felt the man’s pain, he wanted to help the man. But, in the end, he didn’t. The man wouldn’t allow him to help, and walked off, still carrying his heavy burden. Sometimes it feels like I’m the old frail man carrying the heavy burden. Sometimes it feels like no one else even sees me, or the chair I’m carrying, or cares. And sometimes, even when others stop me and ask me to let them in, I retreat like the man in the story, too afraid to let someone else close enough to touch my burden.
I’m afraid that if they see the magnitude of the load, they’ll feel overwhelmed, wonder if I’m worth the effort, and walk away. Why risk that, when I’m used to the weight, used to the burden? I’ve always been afraid that, by talking about the pain, I’d be doubling the sorrow, not halving it, as the “message from God” suggests. Once you share your heartache, someone else not only knows about it, after all, but is burdened with helping you relieve it. Since every person has his own load, how is it fair, I wondered, to put more upon him?
Truthfully, I still don’t know all these answers.
I’m better at it than I used to be. I learned the hard way that sometimes trying to spare others pain can backfire in really heart-breaking ways. It’s still nearly impossible for me to verbalize pain, but I do write about it now, and I write it for others to read. It’s my way of sharing.
Pain is a very private and powerful force. Sometimes it squeezes the heart until you must do something. They say the heart breaks, but I think it explodes. When it reaches its fill of stress and heartache, it bursts wide open and, when it does that, it forces a reaction: sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive, depending on what coping mechanism you’ve learned to trust. Pain doesn’t strike as suddenly as, say, a terrorist attack would; instead, it accumulates, builds, until it reaches a breaking point. We usually know when we’ve about reached the breaking point, we can feel ourselves withdrawing or striking out more often than usual; we know when our rope has about run out. But fear of adding pain to pain keeps us from doing anything about it, so we just keep waiting for it to magically take care of itself. We think that if we can hold on for another twelve hours, until the sun breaks, we’ll be fine. And maybe we will.
The roots of a plant are the roots because they’re tangled together. They don’t fall apart because they’re holding on to each other. They are clamped together. We find safety in the behaviors, in the defense mechanisms, in the ways of the past. It’s not as scary to handle pain alone if we’ve always handled it alone. But being “okay” isn’t the same as being healthy. And “holding on” isn’t the same as flourishing. The world outside is brimming with color and exuberance, yet we somehow only see that when the pain level is low in our hearts. I’ve always been afraid of overwhelming those I love with pain, but what if I didn’t wait until the color outside was grey and dark to share the load? What if, instead, I shared it when I first noted that the prospect of tomorrow didn’t excite me, or I first realized that the colors outside were growing dimmer? Maybe things aren’t as bad as they could be, but I’m not God so who am I to say that it won’t get worse—isn’t it a bigger risk to wait until the heart reaches its breaking point before reaching out to someone than to say, “hey, I know this is something little, but it’s bothering me….can I tell you about it?” weekly, monthly, daily? Isn’t that why God gave us each other?
When you pull up the root of a plant, you change the dynamic of the entire garden, that much I know. When you plant something, and roots grow, the dynamic of the entire garden changes, too. I’m not a fan of change. It’s scary, and it’s risky, and I prefer to stay close to the sidewalk. Sometimes I’m afraid that change means forgetting, and since my roots shaped me into the person I am today, I don’t want to forget. But the roots are tangled, or held, together. They don’t break apart. They don’t disappear.
They just grow.