Our neighborhood is on the peninsula in the old part of town on land that used to be part of a plantation farm. The original house, its white paint dingy and peeling in places, still stands off the main road and is hidden behind overgrown trees and shrubbery which outline the permitter of the property. The back yard is haunting with its remnants of crestfallen gardens, and if it wasn’t for the road paved in between, we would share a small corner of our back yards.
Oftentimes, I sit on our back patio looking across the horizon toward that mysterious house hidden behind a high wall of shrubbery. I calculate the distance from its back door to the magnificent old preexisting tree that our house was built around that sits about a hundred feet from the concrete steps off our back doorway.
Springtime is coming alive again, awakening my senses, but only if I’m patient and quiet enough to let it. The variations of green bleed from the dark hues of the shrubbery off of the patio to the grass kissed with sunlight out on the horizon; it takes my breath away.
In the treetops the birds are plentiful and singing their familiar gospels to one another in friendly greetings. There is a magnificent celebration of color and sound amongst the soft scent of the honeysuckle and hydrangeas. New birth creeps in and offers up the cold and stillness of wintertime in favor of fresh blooms gently peeking out of gardens and window boxes, letting me know that life is still moving around me, as always and without fail, year after year.
For me, there is something special about this back patio and these surroundings. There is comfort found in seeing the lilies I planted last year blooming again with giant leaves fanning out in every direction and casting shadows in the sunlight. This time last year, when I had dug through the dirt to plant the roots of those lilies in their large ceramic pots, life had gotten still and quiet. I thought I was dying.
I had been an avid runner for sixteen years until an injury swept in unannounced that limited my movement and my lifestyle drastically. It brought my hurried life to a sudden halt. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Eventually, I had to wake up to begin my own rebirth—my own change.
For years I had been walking around in a fog so heavy and thick that I didn’t notice it filling up space all around me. I can’t tell you exactly the moment it crept in, but I know that I let it, little by little, mistaking it for a good thing. Because within the haze I was only able to focus on what I could see directly in front of me. For a while at least, that served me well. There were babies who had to be cared for, toddlers who might fall off of furniture, and a husband coming home with his baggage from the office. All of the things that needed to get done were set upon countertops, in sinks and laundry baskets, and they rested in boxes that blockaded doorways. The only way to get from one thing to the next was the numbing that comes with setting oneself aside in favor of another cup of coffee; somehow, toys had to make it to their respective places and the toilets cleaned.
I homeschooled the kids; I made Jackson feel good again; I cleaned the house and made wonderful meals; I played at the park and laughed with the girls. We read wonderful stories while I breastfed and juggled sippy cups. We enjoyed hot chocolate, freshly baked cookies, and sledding with friends on snow days. From the outside, I tidied things up well, but still, somehow, I missed the mark internally every single time. I never felt good enough, despite the constant moving of everything around me.
The woman I wanted to be was impossible with all of her required beauty and happiness. She was unattainable in all of her glory. Still, I believed that the right thing to do was to always be reaching for her: this picturesque best version of myself that did little to harmonize the external and the internal essences of my being. On the outside, things were perfectly in order, but inside there was the oppression of my womanhood by my own external self telling me that I needed to be thinner and smarter and better. I was never enough, but to everyone else, I projected very well the image that I had it all together. My personal contradictions were well-hidden.
I will never forget the day I walked out of the YMCA across the parking lot to my van. My girls were all in school at the time, and I noticed a friend of mine walking toward me with one baby riding on her hip and another one being pushed in his stroller. She held her preschooler’s hand as he fought against her to return to the car. Her bag was slipping from her shoulder. I took off jogging in her direction.
“Hey!” I called out. “Let me help you.”
“Thank you so much,” she replied. “You just have it all together. I’m just a big old mess.” Her big blue eyes looked at me from behind her mess of gorgeous flowing locks. I thought she was going to cry.
“No! Oh my goodness, no! Not at all!” Her comment caught me off guard.
I wanted to tell her that I was just like her. I wanted to let her know that we are all just trying to figure this thing out while desperately hanging onto ourselves. I wanted to tell her that I know it’s hard and exhausting and sometimes we feel like gigantic failures, but that it will all be okay. But…I didn’t say anything. Probably because I was unsure if any of that was actually true. I didn’t know what I believed.
Sure, I loved my children and Jackson dearly. I enjoyed making meals for friends and signing the kids up for extracurricular activities. I reminded Jackson of birthdays for extended family and reminded him to call them regularly. I read the books and the articles and the Facebook posts I would come across that had been shared over and over a million times, even though they did little to cure my anxieties; more often than not, they contradicted one another, leaving me with a fresh new organism swimming in my cesspool of insecurities.
What no one could see from the outside looking in, and what I was really good at hiding even from myself, was how empty I was becoming trying to make life look appealing and pleasing to everyone else. I would push myself to run marathon distances, even if I never found my heart in it. Not good enough was the love I found in the measly, slow-paced three mile jogs I would take solitude in alone. Regardless, I squelched my inner voice and pushed myself through injury after injury to run with and compete against everyone else and follow their desires for me. Years of this built up and my body became taxed. My hormones eventually were so grossly off balance that it took coffee to keep me going, and yet still, my legs seemed to get heavier and heavier as I pushed them up hillsides, through trails, and past finish lines. My body became sore in places that never seemed to fully heal. My lungs seemed to stop taking in enough oxygen. My endurance should have been going up, but instead it was tanking. Bypassing my heart and my soul in favor of physical gains and motherhood rewards was cutting of my air little by little, making it continuously harder and harder to breathe. I was losing my steam.
The last race I ever ran ended in a broken ankle. At the time, I was devastated. Looking back, that injury was the best thing that ever happened to me. I would end up running a few more times over the course of that following year, but my body was still giving up on me. Eventually, I would push myself enough that I ended up with a cyst in my abdominal wall, and the pain was intense and horrifying. It took three weeks of invasive testing, but somehow that cyst was missed and mistaken for an ovarian cyst. By the time a sports medicine doctor found it and aspirated it, relieving the radiating pain it caused, panic attacks and chronic depression had already settled in. My organs hurt; my brain seethed. Every muscle in my body was tense, and I couldn’t sleep. All I could manage to do was to sit perfectly still as long as I possibly could because simply moving and eating became exhausting. The nausea alone would frighten me to the extent that I had convinced myself I was dying.
For three months I was quiet, but I had accepted where I was. “I don’t know what to do,” I would tell Jackson. “I think I’m broken.” He wouldn’t say much, but he would sit beside me, and he spent days working from the coffee table while I slept on the couch beside him. I would pray through every waking hour: ten Hail Mary’s, an Our Father, and the Glory Be; eventually the entire rosary.
Little by little I regained hope in small parcels that seemed to fall from the sky and settle within me. I moved from the couch to the front porch, and onto the back patio where I planted those lilies in their large ceramic pots. After a few weeks, I managed to start walking to the edge of the lake every morning, breathing in the stillness and experiencing, for the first time in a long time, the fullness of my surroundings.
The long hours and days of cleaning my internal house began to take shape. I cleared the fog by dragging out into the open the things that had found clever hiding spaces within me. All of the self-doubt and the negative thinking had to go. Toxic relationships that filled me more full of self-doubt than love had to leave. I had to rip out the foundation and start clean.
The air around me became easier to breathe and I could see clearly all of the blessings not just in front of me, but in the entirety of my periphery. I made new friends who believed in me, and whose stories we could exchange with openness, respect, love, and honesty.
I took up space on my yoga mat day after day where I was able to open more fully. I began releasing physical and mental weight that had anchored me to self-criticism, fear, and self-doubt. I reached beyond to places I had never thought possible where I experienced the natural resources inside of me going to work as I was healing. It was empowering and transformational. Finally, I was learning how to let it all go; I was learning how to be me. Instead of living for others, I started living for me, and in doing so I discovered that I had light to give, love to share, and beneath all of the layers I had been wearing, I didn’t have to prove anything.
As I emptied my life of things that no longer served me well, I was able to plant new seeds in the empty spaces where so much darkness had been. From those seeds bloomed the essence of my very soul that had been there all along begging to be set free. Through every physical pain, through every second guessing, with every ounce of doubt and the truth of me being suffocated inside, my soul had just needed space and time to breathe. I had needed for so long to grow like the branches of that old tree; to fan outward like the leaves of those lilies in their large ceramic pots as they offer up the cool shade to the earth beneath them.
Life looks so much differently now when I look across our yard coming alive as I sit out back drinking my coffee. The gratitude I have for these magnificent, sturdy grounds—this living Earth—revitalizes me with a new sense of spirit and awakening. After the dark season of a long and cold winter has passed it subtly and gracefully invites in the gospels of springtime.
Follow Caroline on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.