A Year of Stillness

Nobody really teaches you how to be still. They teach you how to crawl, how to walk, run, ride a bike, drive a car, but nobody really teaches you how to be still.

I graduated from college and nothing happened. The stillness felt like failure. They teach you how to run, and then you run. That’s what you do–you’re not supposed to stop. But then I stopped.

Stillness makes people uncomfortable; sometimes, it upsets them. The ant must carry the leaf; the bee must pass the pollen. It was a spring day in May I walked across the stage set up at my university’s football field, the fresh electric scent of bloom tickling my nose. Hundreds of folding chairs were set up in rows upon the bright green field, occupied by graduates-to-be in black robes. “Kind of cult-like,” the girl behind me whispered, as our row lined up to walk across the stage; her perfume was strong and sweet like a flower, and I could feel it turning the inside of my nose sore. “Alana McIntosh,” the speaker announced, and I took the steps up to the stage. As the president of the university shook my hand, I sneezed into the fold of my cloaked arm; my mom’s camera flashed as my face grimaced and my tassel swung in front of my nose. She didn’t frame that one.

My mom and her brother Dennis were the only two people who came to graduation for me; my family is small, and there are gaps in almost every relationship, both physically and emotionally. I was fine with just the two of them; the likelihood of an argument was much smaller without any of my aunts or grandparents. In the parking lot after the ceremony, where graduates and families lingered about, hugging each other and cheering, posing for photos and excitedly sharing plans for dinner, for travel, for their future careers, my mom smothered me in an embrace, my cheek pressed into her shoulder blade, her sappy voice repeating, “Oh sweetie, I’m so proud of you!” My uncle stood by, hands in his slack pockets, looking about the swarms of people, then turned to me as my mom released me and began fumbling with her camera.

“So what are you going to do now?” His big round nose was red and his thinning combed-over hair flapped a little in the breeze, the breeze which swirled about my bare ankles and then danced up my gown.

“I don’t know,” I said.

My uncle grunted, and his coarse mustache twitched.

My degree in Art History felt wholly useless already. People had told me how impractical my collegiate study was for years, but I had always thought some amazing job would happen to cross my path and I’d prove them all wrong. I was upset at graduation. I was graduating a year later than I should have, and all my college friends were already dispersed across the country, following their dreams. But for myself, I had nothing planned, my carpenter uncle was judging me, and now I was supposed to awe the world. I couldn’t even decide where I wanted to eat dinner.

“Smile!” my mom interjected, and we fell into the natural pose; my uncle put his hard arm around my shoulder, my green and white tassel swaying in front of his face as my mom snapped a photo. I felt like I just couldn’t get it right.

I spent the summer working at the same job I’d worked through college, Gretchen’s Thrift Finds, a corner shop in my college town. I loved the musty mystique of the dark, cluttered store, and the quirky, sometimes outlandish characters that so often found their way in there. When I started working there, I was only nineteen, and at first I found it all intimidating—-the old men whose humor I had to learn, the haphazard layout of the inventory, the hipsters who were so self-righteous—-but as I became more confident over the years, I grew to find the whole community surrounding the shop quite charming, and the summer after I graduated, it was a source of purpose for me. Perhaps, my only source of purpose. I was still holding out hope that the perfect gig would just blow into my lap. I was still crossing my fingers for the fantasy of momentum to pick me up and carry me off, and then I’d be back on the racetrack, proving myself by advancing in status, and making my mother proud again.

Uncle Dennis began calling me more frequently that summer, once every other week or so. He had a knack for calling me while I was at work, and in the back storeroom of the thrift shop, I’d answer my cell phone, “Hey there, Dennis. I’m at work right now.”

“You found something? Congrats!”

“No, actually it’s still the thrift store,” I’d say, balancing my phone on my shoulder bone and pressing my moist cheek to the cool screen, bending to pick up a box from the bottom shelf of a rack. “Can I call you back later?”

“I’m just calling to let you know–one of my buddies, he’s got a contact up in Ann Arbor, and this guy works for a museum. I don’t remember what he said the name was, something-‘r-the-other, but he said their guy’s retiring and so now they’re hiring a new director…”

As I stood up with the dusty box of bookends, my sweaty, bare arms feeling gritty up against the cardboard, I had to keep myself from laughing in my uncle’s face. I wanted to say any of the snarky comments that came to mind–“Right, Uncle Dennis, because a museum would hire a freshly-graduated art history major with no substantial experience in the field to be the director of their whole museum.” People who had no knowledge of my area of study were always trying to tell me what to do next. Granted, he was trying for me, and I appreciated that. But Uncle Dennis was not the expert consultant I needed, nor did he have any idea what I actually wanted to do. To be fair, I don’t think I had any idea what I actually wanted to do, either.

“Thanks, I’ll have to look into that. I’ll call you back some other time,” I said.

While I was stressed out about not having a career lined up right away, it was a blessing to enjoy the summer, the realm of essays, reading assignments, and class presentations now ghosts laid to rest. I didn’t have to take up space in my brain for forcing 5,000-word papers on a single sculpture, or studying the most minuscule of brushstroke details to be able to identify a piece of art, or remembering the specific date for an ancient cave painting. It felt like summer break.

There was one day in late June, while taking out the trash at the shop, I noticed on the back steps a rose growing around the wooden railing on the stairs. It was tall, and mature like crimson, and I stopped on my way back from the dumpster to pet the soft, velvet petals, rubbing the pad of my thumb along its smooth surface. I followed the stem with my eyes, spiraling down to the bed of dirt and weeds below the back porch, the beams from the sunlight coating my back with a heavy warmth that made my shirt cling to me with perspiration.

“When did that rose get there?” I asked Sage when I got back inside. She was one of my co-workers, an auburn-haired woman in her fifties who wore long skirts and crystals around her neck every day. “Sage” was both the most typical yet most fitting name a woman like her could have had. She had started at Gretchen’s about the same I had, so she was one of the first people I had bonded with, and her happy-go-lucky attitude earned my quick friendship.

Sage was in the front room of the shop photographing an octagonal end table for the Facebook page, squatting and squinting at the camera image on her smart phone. “The rose on the back porch? It’s been growing all summer!” She stood up and brushed her skirt with one hand, smiling at me with her wide, thin smile. “Never notice it before?”

“I guess not,” I said, sitting down on a green, tweed arm chair next to the end table. The two ceiling fans in the front room steadily spun, creating a flow of warm air, the draft brushing hotly across my arms.

Sage chuckled and pulled her glasses off the top of her head, setting them on her nose to take a look at the photos she had just taken. The front room had large shop windows which allowed the sunshine to saturate the room, and which made Sage’s light blue eyes shimmer.

After that, I started looking around me more with more careful eyes, trying to notice ordinary, nondescript elements about my surroundings that I frequently saw but overlooked. The traces of fingers running along dusty, dark cherry-stained dressers; the cobwebs catching the silver sunlight in geometric streams from book spine to shelf; the tiger stripes of dark grain in the hardwood floors.

Summer was good, but I felt restless. There was an ever-present haze of guilt that coated my days like a suffocating humidity, and each day I fell prey to discomfort with my stagnation. At the same time I wanted to be doing something More, I could never initiate myself to a search. My friends would post pictures of their endeavors in new cities, and tweet about how much they loved their jobs. Hannah was a park ranger at a national park in Colorado. Tanya was a fashion consultant for a magazine in New York. DeVante was in Georgia, working as a copywriting editor for a law firm. And I was a bump on a log back in our college town, and had nothing new or exciting to post in return. “What’s new with you?” they would ask, after I commented on their pictures. “Same old,” I would sheepishly report, as though I were letting them down. I stopped reaching out because I didn’t want to have to keep telling them that nothing had changed for me.

Yes, summer was good, because while I felt that guilt, I was also distracted by the hot summer brilliance: the long bike rides on the bike trail with Sage, who is a remarkably fit woman; the evenings on the porch swing of my apartment patio with my chatty neighbor Henry, who loved to tell me stories about his dog, Raphael the mutt; the walks I took along the river, with its loud but shushed stereo churning of water. Early that summer I had found the Forrest Gump soundtrack among the used CD’s we were selling at work, and the folk and classic rock music of disc 2 played almost every day at the shop, filling my summer with vibes of San Francisco longing, sentiments of loving one another, and not letting the blues sent to meet me defeat me. The sunshine and warmth did me good.

When the leaves had dropped and the temperature turned low, I began loathing the things I had worked so hard to enjoy over the summer. There’s something romantic and easy-going about summer, and something hard and sour about winter, and my perspective was so easily influenced by the sunlight. Whereas over the summer, I had accepted that I would work at Gretchen’s for a couple years and save money before making any rash plans to move, in the winter, I looked in the bathroom mirror after splashing water in my face and told myself that was the failure in me talking. I called myself unkind words, like “lazy,” and scoffed that I was “settling.” Then I would look deep into my shaking reflection, my wanting, brown eyes staring back at me. This wasn’t like me, to be so cruel to myself. I thought back to college, when Tanya and I would find the most ridiculous outfits at Goodwill and wear them around campus, giggling to ourselves about the questioning glances we’d receive from strangers, waving happily at people who laughed at our mismatched prints, or head-to-toe faux fur ensemble. We didn’t care how anyone judged the way we were living our lives. How had I felt more secure then than I did now?

Uncle Dennis called less frequently, but I still heard often from my mom. Although she was an admirable entrepreneur herself, who had started her own auto insurance office, she never pressured me into finding a career. She was my hero–both motivated and independent, and also caring and compassionate. She never asked if I had a career lined up yet, or even hinted at the question, “So… What are you doing in life?” Often I would bring up my anxieties surrounding my life plan, and emotionally admit that I was afraid and unsure of what I even wanted to do in life. Mom would talk me through it, and as I wiped the mascara-streaked tears from my cheeks in my dark room, the sun having set without me realizing to turn on a lamp, her voice would soothe me, “It’s okay, sweetie. You’re just figuring things out. Don’t rush yourself.” Her patience and understanding often added to my guilt. I wanted to prove myself to her, more than anyone.

At the thrift shop, our suppliers slowed down in the winter, and fewer customers wandered into our shop; consequently, most people’s hours were cut by a day or two a week. With the additional free time, I began sinking into a sort of depression. I had time I didn’t know how to fill, except with my self-defeating internal rhetoric. It seemed like everybody else in town was back in school, studying for midterms and writing papers, but I had nothing to anchor me to anything meaningful—-no educational pursuits, no volunteer endeavors, no career prospects. I spent most of my time watching television shows in bed or scrolling on Facebook, avoiding the sharp winds of winter, and the loathing the snowfall.

One day in gray December, I was shopping at Marc’s. I was standing in the produce aisle holding two different packages of strawberries in my hands, looking back and forth between them. It was a Tuesday morning, and Smash Mouth played over the store radio, and the only other customers in the building were a handful of senior citizens, slowly guiding their squeaky carts up and down the aisles. How long did I stand there, deliberating between the strawberries? They were both fine–over-sized strawberries with giant, leafy green stems, bright red and polka-dotted with embedded seeds. I tilted the packages at different angles, trying to get a peek at the quality of strawberries in the middle, attempting to spot any of those gunky ones with patches of dark wrinkles. It was taking me too long; I just couldn’t decide. An older woman with short, gray hair approached the strawberry stand, hunched over her cart, so I put them both back and got out of her way.

I collected only a few groceries in my basket, that visit to Marc’s, but as I was headed to the register to pay, the plants display caught my attention, the forest-like layers of green textured leaves bursting from the planters. It satisfied something barren in me. I had never had much luck with growing plants, but next to the beer aisle in Marc’s, I impulsively decided that having a plant would make me happy. Even one plant, one new pop of life and color in my apartment, would give me all the healing I needed. Or so I hoped. I picked one out that seemed easy to take care of, that was short and full-bodied, with tangerine-colored flowers.

The flowers on the plant withered quickly in the week following its induction to my apartment. I worried that I wasn’t watering it enough, so I began saturating the soil with water every morning, until the leaves began to wilt sadly, and then I felt wholly at a loss. In an act of desperate refuge, I set my weakening plant right next to the window, hoping the sunlight would help evaporate some of the soggy dirt and give it a new explosion of vigor. But every day, the sky was gray and stuffed with clouds. My hope began to fizzle.

I had long forgotten my summer self-promise to pay attention to the small things. Those days, I paid attention to my thoughts, my surroundings often feeling far away from me, as though I were underwater, seeing through a muffled, warped barrier. I was out of touch with reality. Sometimes when people spoke to me, it surprised me.

“Sure is beautiful, even if it’s damn cold, huh?”

Henry’s voice came to me one day while I was standing at the group of mailboxes at the end of our apartment driveway. The mailboxes were all stacked upon each other like a grid of slots, and I had mine open, as I peered inside the dark cavern. I had been expecting a package that day, a new brand of face wash that I was persuaded would clear my skin, but all that was inside were flyers and coupons for fast food chains. Henry’s comment jolted my nerves and it took me a moment to process that he was speaking to me.

I looked over finally, and saw him approaching me, also out to check his mail. “I don’t know if I’d be bold enough to call this beautiful,” I said, pulling the junk mail out of my box and swinging the door shut. I stepped to the side, out of his way, and tugged the key out of my closed mail box. Snowflakes gingerly fell from the sky, tumbling lackadaisically. It wasn’t so much a snowfall as a snow-sprinkle. I guess it was beautiful, but I was too stubborn to admit it. The wind cut suddenly and I pulled my coat tighter around my middle, where the wind had found an opening to my goosebump-covered skin.

Henry, who was wearing a black Carhartt jacket and a multi-colored knit hat, twisted his key into his mailbox and glanced over at me with a smile. “Harsh,” he laughed, looking back at his mailbox. He needed to shave–dark stubble poked out from his chin and cheeks. I shrugged off his remark.

“Raphael used to try to eat the snow as it was falling. It was hilarious,” he said, grabbing a handful of envelopes from his mailbox. A car drove by on the road behind us and swept up a breeze, which rolled crisply our way. I shivered.

Henry was always talking about his dog, but I had never seen him with Raphael before. I had never asked him because I felt shy about prying, but he always referred to Raphael in the past tense. I wondered if his parents or a friend kept it now, for some reason. “Do you not have Raphael anymore?” I decided to ask. “I never see you with him even though you have so many stories.”

Closing his box, Henry shook his head. “No, I had to put him down a couple years ago. He had prostate cancer. But we were best friends. I know I’ve told you before, he saved my life on more than one occasion. Best dog I’ve ever had.” We started walking back up the driveway together, both of our hands in our pockets, mail tucked between our arm and coat, as snowflakes accumulated on the faded yellow lawn.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I had never been a big “animal” person, but I tried to respect that many people I knew had strong bonds with their pets. Getting to know Sage was an experience that really opened my eyes to the human-animal relationship; she had over five pets, of three different species, and she loved and spoke of them all as though they were real people. “It seems like you’re really hung up on Raphael,” I added. After I said it, it sounded rude to me, but it was too late to say something different.

“Yeah, I am, probably,” Henry said. “Maybe I’m stuck on the past. But everybody’s stuck on something. For a lot of people, they’re stuck on the future. Which is worse?” He posed the question to the apartment complex, then turned to me. We stopped walking, because we were in front of our shared front porch. “You,” he said, pointing a finger at me while grinning, “are stuck on the future. I can tell.”

I frowned at him, squinting my eyes. “Oh yeah?”

“Yup,” he said, grinning, eyes glinting. “By the time you get to where you want to be, you’ll be thinking about the next place you want to be, and have realized you wasted all this time just worrying.” He took a step towards his white paint-chipped door and rested a hand on its antique knob.

Now he was annoying me. We made small talk whenever we ran into each other outside our apartments, but he wasn’t who I’d seek for personal help. “Who told you you could give people life advice?” I asked, with a little attitude. He was probably ten years my senior, but it still felt patronizing to have him analyze me like that.

“Just pretend I was telling that to myself, if it makes you feel better,” he said, waving absently in my direction with one hand, and pushing open his front door with another, before vanishing into his living room, the door swinging shut behind him. I stood on the porch for another moment, eyeing his door through squinted slits.

I thought about Henry’s evaluation for the rest of the day, even though I didn’t want to. I sat on the floor in front of my drooping plant, staring at it intently as my mind wandered off, hopping from tangent to tangent, as though it were trying to get somewhere, ascend to some platform in the sky, my eyes staring but not processing…

How much control did I really have over my thoughts? I told myself I didn’t want to think about Henry’s comment, but I spent an hour floating back to his words—-I was stuck on the future. Why would I keep thinking about it, then?

I stared at my plant, the light from outside illuminating the leaves in a brilliant green, so that every molecule of chloroplast seemed to shine through. Even on a cloudy day, the sky was lit up from somewhere. My focus shifted, and from my angle on the floor, I noticed outside my window the branches of a bare tree, tall and reaching in a hundred divisions, like hair charged with static electricity. The large, leafless tree outside contrasted my stout little green plant so absolutely, in a way I hadn’t noticed until then. I started thinking about my plant. It would never look like that tree outside, even though my plant and the tree were both flora of nature, players in the same system of roots and soil and sunlight.

We always grow plants in hopes of what they will become. But perhaps we should nurture what is there.

Maybe I had more control over my thoughts than I realized.

Like the earth thawing into spring, my recovery from my winter mindset was gradual.

I finally started reading some of the books Sage had been suggesting to me for months. She would see the way I would slump into work, eyes down and mouth unsmiling, and say, “What’s eating at you?” I would tell her I didn’t want to talk about it, and she’d change the music from her folksy acoustic melodies to something she knew I liked to sing to, like The Beatles.

“I know you said you don’t want to talk about it, but I think you might benefit from reading some of these books,” Sage said to me once, handing me a torn-off corner of yellow legal pad paper with three titles jotted down in her looping cursive. I was sitting on a stool at the cash register behind the shop’s wood counter, scrolling through buy/sell/trade Facebook pages for potential items we could resell. I took my chin out of my hand and grabbed the paper from her.

“What are they?” I mumbled, glancing over the names and setting my phone down.

Sage stood on the other side of the counter from me, in a fuzzy green sweater, a dust wand in her hand. She had been dusting the front room when she came over to me, and a waft of unsettled dust particles danced up to meet my nose, making me sneeze into my shoulder. “They’re books about Buddhist teachings, but you don’t necessarily have to be a Buddhist to benefit from them. Just think about it, okay?”

Sage had given me the list at the beginning of the winter, and had periodically referenced them, politely urging me to look into them. I had tacked up the list on my cluttered cork board at home, but always forgot about it except for when she mentioned her suggestions again at work.

“It’s like that one book I recommended to you talks about—-you have to find joy in the small things. Be grateful for what you have, instead of sad about what you don’t,” Sage said once. She always had some wise remark to toss into the air, and for the most part I appreciated her advice, but didn’t feel like anything could help me, and certainly not some obscure philosophic books. Until one day, she said to me, “You gotta help yourself, hon. Nobody’s gonna do that for you. Someone can lead you to water, but you gotta choose for yourself to drink it. And then do it.”

Fine, I decided, and one Thursday morning, when the sky was light blue but wide, white clouds kept rolling through in large patches, spring foreshadowing, I went to the public library and checked out the first title on her list of suggestions. It was a relatively new book, a paperback the library gave a plastic cover, designed with gold and maroon stripes. It was a little worn, and I liked how it flopped open in my hands, relaxing its weight into my cupped palms. It was the first time I’d picked up a book since college.

It took me a few weeks to get into it, as I’d read the introduction before bed, yawning every other sentence and tears pooling in my sleepy eyes, but then one day, it was suddenly as though I wanted to do nothing but read it. In my car in the Gretchen’s parking lot, I’d pull out the book to squeeze in a few more paragraphs in the five minutes before my shift started. It felt so good to read again, like the first time you open your windows to the fresh spring air and songbirds’ twitters after a long, stuffy winter.

Sage was right about the books. I had never studied much about Eastern philosophy, so the teachings of Buddha were all new to me. What was interesting to me was how it presented a perspective I had not known to consider—-the author wrote about refraining from extreme opinions, and fostering empathy for all people, and rooting oneself in the present moment, rather than suffering over the past or worrying over the future. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of what I read, but I started realizing how I was perpetuating my own suffering and found myself looking very deeply into my own habits.

“Seems like those books are working out for you,” Sage commented to me at work, sometime in April, after catching me reading at the register, and I quickly closed the book and slipped it onto my lap. “Just don’t let Nate see you; he’ll narc for sure. Ooooh,” she laughed. I laughed, too. It wasn’t that we weren’t allowed to read at work, it’s just that we were supposed to find things to do, like dusting, rearranging, sale-hunting, pricing, and so on, which related to bettering the shop. In my mind, I justified it by viewing my reading as a way to improve the shop by improving myself.

“I’m sure Gretchen would take my word over his,” I replied to Sage, who was carrying some books to set up on a new sale display up front. Nate was a new hire, a freshman in college who was clearly desperate to get on Gretchen’s good side; his tactic, however, was to report other employees’ mistakes, no matter how small, to Gretchen directly. I had known Gretchen for years at that point, even though she breezed in and out of the shop randomly, sometimes not visiting for weeks, and she was not a woman who had time for adult tattletales. Nate didn’t threaten me in the least. “Need some help?” I asked Sage, and she told me to grab the rest of the books from the plastic crate in the back.

At home, my plant, while still not flowering, began to grow new chutes of leaves. In the eye of its growth, small green-tipped white leaves began to stretch up, reaching like fingers to connect with the sun’s rays. They became greener as they grew, and with the fresh weight, spread open and leaned to allow new leaves to grow through. I fell in love with my plant, and the miracle of growing.

It was during this rejuvenating, charged springtime of my life that I began to fully realize what being still meant. I was coming up on a year since my college graduation, and while I had given myself many goals I wanted to accomplish by this one-year anniversary—-all of which I had let slip by, incomplete—-I didn’t feel as guilty about where I was. My whole life I had spent thinking that success meant I should never stop, that if I wanted to live a full life, I had to constantly be creating, producing, and achieving. At first I thought I had wasted my year since graduation because I didn’t “do” anything. But then I realized I had wasted my year since graduation by worrying over my uncertain future and feeling sorry for myself, when all the while, I could have been living whatever life I wanted to—-even a life where I worked at Gretchen’s Thrift Finds, enjoying every moment.

April showers flowed freely that season, and I spent one Sunday afternoon in a cafe called Bizzman’s down the road from my work. I had thirty pages left in the last book from Sage’s list, and as the cool rain drizzled in the gray 3 PM streets, I sat tucked in the corner of the coffee shop, knees to my chest on a cushioned reading chair. I rested my chin on my denim-covered knee and easily flipped through the pages of my book to the soft, smooth keys of classic piano which played through the stereo in the corner, by the coffee counter. Many others were there independently, or in small study groups, as students worked over laptops at the small tables lined against the walls, or sunk into the couch in the center, textbooks and notebooks laid out on the coffee table.

It didn’t take me long to finish my book. Within an hour, I had set it down and was staring out the window beside my chair, watching the cars pass by, rainwater kicking up from their spinning tires in a spitting mist. I got up and asked the barista to refill my cup of coffee, and returned to my chair, looking around at the college students so focused on their assignments, and engaging in mindless habits like twisting their hair, twirling their pens, or biting their nails, absent-mindedly, anxiously preparing for impending final exams.

I reflected on myself, and on what I had been reading about being still, and being mindful of the here and now. So often I never realized I was totally detached from my own life, by occupying my mind with where I would be in three steps, never realizing that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was stepping now, or what I was missing. Of course, the pressure I felt from everyone else only reinforced this mentality of always-worrying-forward. Everyone wanted to know what I was going to do next. I just wanted a minute to breathe.

I watched the other people in the coffee shop come and go that evening, as the sun emerged from behind the clouds for a brief sunset, and then the rain returned, drizzling on. The bright, neon glow emanating from Bizzman’s signs became visible as the light faded outside and sunk into a deep black sky, and the windows began to collect condensation, a moisture coating and framing the panes from the collective warm breaths of the cafe’s occupants. Orbs of light glowed from the bright OPEN sign, reflected in the foggy window.

Shifting my position so I sat cross-legged on the reading chair, I thought about how being still used to make me uncomfortable. I had spent so much of my life in constant action, that in my free time, I felt I needed to fill it with a stimulus, an event, or a distraction. But now, sitting in that coffee shop for hours, I realized how far I had come; I enjoyed doing “nothing,” merely looking around me and feeling the full impact of my present moment in my heart. I took a deep breath in, letting my chest swell, and released it slowly, the beauteous expulsion of air, letting go. Of course, I knew I wasn’t totally transformed forever; there would be stressful days again, and days where I had to be busy, but I was happy to have unlocked some treasure of wisdom, some sliver of miracle I could keep in my head and heart. I smiled to myself, and watched the last student at a coffee table slide her binder into her backpack, and head out into the night’s rain.

Imagining myself as a plant, I felt happy just being alive and connected. While there were still things I wanted to achieve in life, like curate an art exhibition, or visit Le Louvre—-lost dreams that began to come back to me as I regained my sense of self—-I was happy being where I was, for now, while I figured things out. I began to understand that while we are not guaranteed to live another day, if we enjoy ourselves thoroughly each day, then it is a good life. There would be time to do the things I wanted—-or maybe not—-but I was content doing the most with what I had, for now.

The barista looked at me from behind the counter, the only one still there, and who had been sitting in that chair for the entire evening. I didn’t want to look at the time and shatter my happy obliviousness, but I was sure they were closing soon.

“I guess it’s time to leave now, huh?” I asked, my voice echoing slightly inside the open shop.

“We close in ten minutes,” the barista replied, pulling out the coffee brewer baskets and submerging them in a sink full of water.

“Sure thing,” I said, stretching out my legs as I stood up. I collected my book, and dropped off my empty mug, a ring of dried coffee stained to the bottom, at the counter on my way out, wishing the barista a nice evening. She nodded at me as she grabbed the mug and plopped it in the sink water with a little splash, and I wandered out of Bizzman’s and into the drizzly evening, feeling somewhat aimless, and very much okay.

Nobody teaches you how to be still—-they don’t even tell you it’s okay to be still. But when I finally taught myself, the stillness felt like refuge, like that immediate feeling of release after exhaling a mighty breath, or that inherent catharsis of unclenching your white-knuckled fist and letting your fingers uncurl slowly open, as your palm blossoms forth. Yes, if you choose it, the stillness feels like deliverance.

Writing and photography by Brittany Cole

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