A letter to heartbreak – Maya Angelou, the light and the dark

maya-angelou

I miss all my boyfriends. You’re not supposed to say that. But it’s true.

Despite all my best efforts to have as few as possible, I’ve had three serious ones in my life – ones who I could have seen myself marrying, if the time had been right.

For someone with such a terrible memory, I remember quite a bloody lot about all of them – almost as much as the one from seven years ago as the one from this year. And I miss a lot, too.

How warm I felt when driving around that one’s uncle’s New Zealand dairy farm, and the soaring elation of standing on top of one of the huge hills, with a view in all directions. How the other one’s neck smelled when you leaned in to kiss it. The bone-crushing panic of realising you weren’t going to see that one again for six months (New Zealand again). The overwhelming joy when that one told you they loved you, too.

How his just-opened eyes collected with sleep after a long, warm night next to you. How the skin on his knuckles felt when you brushed your thumb across them, or how that one used to like to hold hands with one little finger tucked inside your palm.

How you admired their ambition, how their hips looked when they walked, how the texture of his cardigan felt on your back, how the weave of that one’s jumper lay across his chest just so.

The weird phrases they used to say, the slang they used that no-one else did. The way he moved his hand when trying to make a point; the incredible, moving-mountains-type smile he used to crack at you when you made a joke.

The nicknames they gave you, the way they encouraged you in your plans, the way they used to breathe, how they used to listen. The things they liked you to do when no-one else was there, the slightly embarrassed look they gave you when you touched their face in public.

The feel of their hips against yours when they gave you a hug; the shy look they gave you as you walked down the train platform to meet them, the way they could really get into a debate without getting angry. The passion you shared for that song; the pain you felt for them when they were tired, or frustrated, or sad. How they took their coffee, the amazing things they could cook with eggs.

The ridiculous beauty of their stupid guitar playing, and the way their hair felt in your hand, and fell over their face. The way they drove the car, their reliability in texting you back, how they humoured your indecision over what to order in restaurants, how their eyes used to roll when you faffed around getting ready.

How full of hope and joy and yes, sometimes fear (because you knew it could all end without warning), you felt when looking at them. How lucky you felt.

The poisonous, metallic feeling at the bottom of your chest when you realise they’re gone and not coming back. Different every time. Startlingly familiar nonetheless.

And while the pain lessens, it never goes away. You never quite forget. The injuries simply multiply, softly, and without warning. Even telling yourself not to get too attached doesn’t quite work. They seep into your psyche like water into cracks in the road.

It’s like that incredible Maya Angelou phrase: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Even if I’ve forgotten more than I realise – the feelings, I will never forget.

You’re not supposed to say that. You’re supposed to move on each time; nuke the memories of the last one with excitement from the next. You’re supposed to get stronger – although why getting your heart smashed in over and over would make you stronger, I’m not entirely sure.

And yet. You can’t just carry on getting hurt over and over. You can’t just keep on letting the injuries of years past build and build until there are only holes where the fabric of your heart used to be.

Instead, it might help to try and collect the tatters and the patches, seeing them with compassion, for what they are, what they represent. All those different people. Those experiences. That love, that trust, that hope. The silence – literal and not ‒ after they leave.

The key is to not become cynical, and close your heart to everything, forever and ever. (I might do that temporarily, though. This isn’t a sodding self-harm manual.)

Because, well, I hate cynics. They suck the joy out of what is already difficult enough. The temptation is to be cynical. But the truly strong thing is to carry on sitting, walking, standing up, breathing, moving, laughing – and the hardest thing, trusting ‒ when all you want to do is give up; end it all.

The hardest thing about heartbreak or grief isn’t to get up after it just happened. It’s to keep on getting up, the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that. And the bloody year.

A wise friend of mine recently said, heartache and grief feel like you’re carrying a heavy jar where your chest used to be. That jar was full of all the things you loved about that person (those people?) – but heartache makes it empty. No matter what you do, where you are, who you see, that jar feels empty. A hidden vessel, just beneath your ribs.

But slowly, surely, the jar starts to be refilled. I like to think of it like sand – coloured, beautiful, light-reflecting sand. With time, patience, compassion, and maybe a bit more time, random experiences tip a little more bright, silky sand into that previously-empty space.

Before you realise it, the jar isn’t quite so empty, and the sand and shells and glitter that used to make you you, start to come back. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.

And I know for sure that you need light to make things shine.

Yes, the memories of past boyfriends are always there, dark shadows threatening to cloud your worst days and most difficult moments. Without warning, a memory will come back, threatening to cut off your breathing, a thousand times a day. On terrible days, the thoughts will cycle, over and over. But you keep breathing. You have to.

Because maybe, if the heart is a sheet slowly ripped through with holes, it makes sense to remember that without the holes, no light gets in.

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