Where will I go?
The sun was barely peaking above the trees when I pulled away from Snaggy Mountain, an artist retreat in North Carolina that I had been visiting for about a week. Morning dew blanketed the windshield, so I clicked the wipers into action: tha THUD, tha THUD, tha THUD. The sound thrashed like tiny earthquakes in my head.
Breathe, Corey. Breathe.
* * *
I fell in love one autumn night on a beach at 2 o’clock in the morning. It’s one of my best memories: me trying to climb a pier and busting open my lip, us lying on the cold shore next to rushing waves, him asking me to sing a song while we slow-danced beneath the moon. Our love was never short on imagination.
The years that followed were marked by hard work and compromise, break-ups and reconciliation. It seemed that even our time apart made us better for each other, even when it hurt like hell.
When I first moved into his house in Gulf Shores, I remember how we would sit in the backyard to read, talk, and enjoy the bonfire. One unusual day, a stream of dragonflies filled the sky above us for hours. What a coincidence, I thought.
Earlier that year, I had bought wind chimes made out of bronze dragonflies. I found them in Asheville, North Carolina, a city that we had fallen in love with two years prior. Asheville is where we learned how to travel together, wandering around the River Arts District, striking up conversations in breweries, exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. It became our favorite escape.
* * *
Where will I go?
I drove several hours in complete silence. Catatonia had set in. Even the hands on the wheel were foreign to me; I was merely a passenger in the driver’s seat. But a passenger to where?
* * *
Two days earlier, our almost-five year relationship had come to an abrupt, unexpected end. My boyfriend and I hadn’t spoken since I made it to the retreat. When we finally connected on Skype, the conversation turned out to be a bombshell. We were over. I shut down my laptop and pulled out my phone. I wanted to call a close friend or my parents or anyone who could help get me through that moment. But there was no cell reception on the mountain.
I put one hand on the bed and held the other against my chest.
I couldn’t cry. The pain was excruciating, and I couldn’t even release it. I began to feel disoriented.
If you exist, please, please help.
* * *
“You can crash above the ice cream shop until you find somewhere to go.” I had called my friend Matt, owner of Matt’s Homemade Ice Cream in Gulf Shores. “It’s my office space,” he said. “There’s a couch up there and a small room you can use if you clean it out.” The ice cream shop was located about ten minutes from the restaurant where I waited tables. “Thanks, Matt. I’ll let you know something soon.”
I was an hour from the Gulf Coast when all feeling returned. It started in the pit of my stomach and climbed upward. I began to realize what I was about to bid farewell: my garden, that enormous Chagall reproduction I bought for him, the bookshelves he built for me, my favorite traveling companion, my secret keeper, my best friend.
I pulled off to the side of the road, got out of the car, and kneeling by the passenger door, I finally wept.
A Still Small Voice
The small, windowless room above Matt’s Ice Cream was the size of a large closet. After a week of crashing on Matt’s couch, I cleared out the adjacent room and filled two-thirds of it with a twin-sized blow-up mattress and a lamp. To anyone else, it would have been a meager living arrangement. To me, it was perfect. I wanted those imposing walls to suffocate the grief out of me. It felt right.
The first two months I lived there, I woke up a few minutes before 5:00 every morning with a knot in my stomach. The knot wouldn’t go away until I started moving, so I’d sit up, put on my running shoes, and go for a jog on the beach. It became a kind of gift, an uncomfortable urgency to resist inertia. Sometimes, when I finished jogging, I sat on the shore for a while and listened to the waves.
Any time I slowed down, I felt numb. Eventually, the numbness was replaced by bitterness. Some new, unfamiliar filter colored my view. Everything was a shade uglier. This is the real world, said a voice in my head. You have been duped by your own naiveté. Your love counts for nothing. I despised my reflection: I don’t accept you. I don’t accept you. I don’t accept you. You are not enough. I couldn’t have felt more worthless.
But I kept waking up early every morning. I kept going to the beach with that awful knot in my stomach. And even though the same spiteful voice kept turning around in my head—I don’t accept you—there was something else inside of me, something firmer and quieter saying simply: “Corey. Corey, get up. Get out of bed, Corey. Go.” And it was this voice that led me to the beach. And when I sat and listened to the waves, I think it was this voice with which those waves were speaking.
Grief Doesn’t Change You, It Reveals You
What now? This was the question that kept invading my thoughts. Everything had changed. What used to seem clear about my future was now upended. I needed a new dream. Fortunately, through the dizzying chaos of my mind, I could still feel that simple, steady inclination prompting me forward: Keep going, Corey. It wasn’t a blueprint, but it was something.
I had already downsized to a closet space for a bedroom. What else could I downsize? I started with my clothes. I got rid of everything but a few work uniforms, five t-shirts, and a couple pair of shorts (and undergarments, of course).
Then I lost my iPhone. Instead of hurrying off to replace it, I took the misfortune for a sign. Maybe I could downsize my screen time too? I replaced the smart phone with a flip phone. The guy at the AT&T store seemed a bit confused. “You having a quarter-life crisis or something?” he asked, handing me my brand new, twenty dollar flip phone. I chuckled. “More like a quarter-life experiment.” “Well,” he said with a smirk, “I’ll see you in a week.”
It wasn’t a seamless transition, but with time, I began to feel more clear-headed and even a bit liberated. I focused less on my body image because I had given away investments I had made into my body image (clothes). I thought less about my social persona because I had less access to the king of all persona-wielding devices (a smart phone). Eliminating the excess head-clutter made room for me to explore more meaningful desires. Like gardening.
Since I didn’t have a yard to till, I hung tomato plants behind the shop. I wanted a lettuce garden too, so I asked my father to help me build a 3x6ft box. I started the seeds in windowsills and transplanted them along with a few starters as soon as the temperature was right.
I started exercising with a fitness trainer who turned out to be one of my closest friends that year. He helped me learn how to use equipment properly and approach the gym with a healthy mindset.
I wrote new poetry and music. And even though I had always dreamed of playing music for a living, I suddenly knew that it was possible—not just possible, but essential. I knew in the fibers of my being that it was the only option that would make me feel alive. So I started making phone calls and landing gigs.
And then I thought about my wanderlust, about how long I had fantasized about traveling—eating foreign foods, standing barefoot in sacred places, seeing the world over. It was a desire that had lain fallow in my heart since my first year of college. After a few weeks of planning, I sketched out a first draft for a roadtrip up the east coast and marked two weeks on my calendar.
A year has passed since then. I live in Mobile, Alabama (a little closer to family). I’m making a living playing music now. I’m still growing vegetables. I took that roadtrip up the east coast, and it gave me the courage to book a ticket to Thailand where I spent the last month of my life.
The moral of the story: if you’re grieving, move into a closet.
Okay, that’s not it.
It’s more like this: Grief is a powerful force. You can bury your grief beneath Netflix and retail therapy, and it’ll still be there. You can bury it beneath sweat and alcohol, and it’ll still be there. Some people are so good at burying their grief that they have whole gardens of it growing inside them. You’ll know it when you see it. It yields fruits like distrust, anger, pride, jealousy, possessiveness, fickleness, addiction. It’ll keep you entangled in the thick of thin things.
Or you can face it. You can find your own windowless closet (whatever that is for you) and sit down with it. Cry, curse, shake your fists at the sky—give it a voice. Take it with you on your morning jog, let it join you in the car. Use it to muster the strength you don’t normally have to do the things you never thought you could do. And when you make amends with it, when its haze begins to clear away and its sting disappears, it might just show you, for the first time in your life, who you really are.
This is the preface of a series that documents my journey up the East Coast. To watch the adventure unfold, continue to Hitchhiker Meets Comatose Amygdala.
Art: Moonlight Dragonflies by Rebecca M Ronesi-Gutierrez
Section titles were taken directly from the following books: Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), 1 Kings (Bible), and The Fault in Our Stars (John Green).
“the thick of thin things” belongs to Steven Covey.