I was eleven the first time I figured out I’d made a habit out of holding my breath.
It was a muggy June afternoon, smacked in the middle of a week at camp, and I was on a hike with about six other boys my age. We came to a river, and they all broke into motion, water parting and spilling against their reckless limbs. I watched them, frozen, and scanned the surface for rocks. Testing them first, I stepped slowly across, tiny ripples and silent steps.
I made it across, caught up to them once my feet found solid ground. Our entire hike followed this pattern. Later, as we sat around our bunks eating fruit snacks and granola bars, they poked fun at me. “If we didn’t take Michael with us, the hike would have been five minutes.”
“Well,” I shrugged it off, “I’m the only one here without soggy feet.” Laughter and shakes of our heads.
Even then, I think I knew I was keeping myself safe at the cost of some joy. Holding my breath, watching them barrel into the water, laughing and tumbling and spilling all together, I was somehow holding myself apart.
The habit carried me into my twenties. I didn’t drink a sip of alcohol before college, didn’t smoke cigarettes or break curfew. I watched people my age begin to come out, go on dates with the people their hearts were reaching for, watched them fall in love, and I held my breath.
Eventually, I forged my way across those waters, but my steps were calculated. Calendar dates tore loose from the wall and littered themselves at my feet, months and months of forgetting to exhale.
The first time I fell in love was, in some ways, a calculated effort. The man I fell in love with was studied, a known entity, a safe presence. It was only later, halfway across that river, that I realized there were no sure pathways across. I stumbled, fell, my flesh tore and I wailed, fists against the water, spilling and splashing and pulling itself back together.
In the weeks and months that followed, it fell over me: I’d survived the fall. There were options beyond the holding of my breath. No longer, I promised myself, would I devote so much energy to standing at the river’s edge and watching.
I would participate, reckless limbs, and trust my bones to repair themselves in any aftermath.
Writing, as it turns out, is a process not unlike picking at scar tissue. To record is to remember, to relive the peaks and chasms of a life so that somebody else might be able to know them, too.
My friends joke, sometimes, that I remember the past with too much precision. Where we were when we first met, what we talked about, the people we surrounded ourselves with then. It’s in my nature to collect these details, record them with nuance, so that I might summon them later. They shake their heads, shrug. “I don’t remember that,” they say sometimes, then remind me I forget my keys everywhere I wander.
In ages of healing, the days and weeks and months that follow the bends in the road that crumbled me, I have found myself scratching away scabs, reopening wounds and stepping back into their aching. I’ve sat down at a coffeeshop, cracked open my laptop, heart beckoning my hands to begin, and watched with a sigh as old wounds began to bleed into the chapters, again and again. A lover who left, a time I felt powerless, a series of words that cut me down to the knees, surfacing again and again in my remembering.
Here I am, I wrote once, wringing meaning from my being, and the water comes back stained with you, you, you.
It’s an act of devotion, remembering. Collecting all these memories, curating them with the utmost care, is the only way I know of making it through the world. But wounds cannot heal if we are always prying them open. At some point, I have to admit that I am poisoning all my todays by soaking in the ashes of hard yesterdays.
So I’ve been practicing my proper healing, learning to let wounds sit without my constant mining. What do I have to say, I’ve been asking myself, on the days my limbs aren’t bleeding?
“Well, I’ve been dating this guy,” she told me, “and he’s just really great. He’s open, and he’s expressive, and everything he’s telling me indicates that things are going well.”
“So, what’s the issue?” I asked.
She paused. “I don’t think I’m used to guys who open themselves up to me.”
And on we went, exchanging ideas and stories in the way twenty-somethings do. In her story, I recognized my own, and the stories of so many other people. Somebody in her past, by accident or malice, inflicted wounds on her, and, unknowingly, she tucked away the idea that this is what to expect from the men she dated.
Wounds become scars in the healing, and scars become stories. If we’re not careful, though, our scars can coach us out of our next chances, our believing again. My friend, in an effort to keep herself safe from the guys who’ve shattered her, might fail to see the guy who’s just stumbled into her story.
Every try before a flight is a fall. The falls might guide us to try in new directions, move forward with new eyes, but we’ve still got to risk another fall. It takes courage to run again after brushes with the pavement, but no flight begins with slow, measured steps.
I’ve learned to love my old wounds, but they are not my master. I have to let them go, drown out their warning cries, if I’m going to wrap my palms around the life my heart’s yearning for. Letting them loose is taking a book on a first date, hopeful note written beneath the front cover, wearing a goofy grin and happy headphones on my skipping commute home. Letting them go is forgiving him and him and me, too, letting all of us off the hook for our failed flights.
I’ve been training my hands not to reach, always, for my scars. To let stories belong to past chapters, pages and ages ago, so that I’m free, after all, to begin new ones.