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My chest tightens.

There’s a dull hum in my ears.

I am feeling crushed.

I can’t breathe.

It may be a bit dramatic to say that this is how I felt when I read the assignment for the Messy, Beautiful project at Momastery, but it’s at least partially true. I wasn’t literally buried in the rubble of an earthquake, but thinking about writing this story brought on a fast-heartbeat and tightness in my chest. It’s a messy story. Usually I prefer to write about things that used to be messy, but that I have since tidied up into shiny little life lessons.

Last summer, my husband and I went through what some may call “a rough spot.” We underplay these things when we talk about them, don’t we? I am fairly certain that every couple goes through “rough spots,” and I am also pretty sure that these periods of our lives feel more like natural disasters than little bumps in the road: scary, disorienting, filled with extreme emotions high and low that make time draw out on a wire. Last summer, every unaddressed issue that has ever bubbled under the surface of my eighteen-year marriage erupted somewhat unexpectedly. I woke up on many summer days feeling raw, vulnerable and scared; not knowing how it was all going to resolve itself. Other times, I knew in my heart that we would all be OK – regardless of what OK looked like. However, the unknown terrain between “anxious discomfort and ugly, loud arguments” and “everything’s mostly OK” was like surviving an earthquake. Dust would start to settle, and we would begin to navigate the new landscape of our relationship, only to experience aftershocks that altered our surroundings further and left us both more exhausted, frustrated, and sad.

On one particular day, I found myself crying in the bathroom. (Why do we relegate ourselves to the bathroom to cry? I think it has something to do with being in a small closed space, like a womb. No one can come in looking for a missing baseball glove/sock/TV remote, and you don’t have to come out until you’re ready). As I sat on the cold tile in a pool of my own tears and snot, I tried to practice some of the things I am learning about living in the present. I reminded myself that crying is my body’s way of telling me a few things: that I am sad, that I have something to let go of, and (the good news) that I am alive and breathing and feeling something. Being alive and feeling something is far better than the alternative.

I told myself, “Self – you have a choice right now. You can sit here and cry, or you can try to find the bright side of this situation. You can look for the ways to create order from the chaos, the way you like to do; you can move these circumstances forward to a more peaceful, shiny outcome and then glean some wisdom from the experience.”

I surprised myself when I replied that I would like to just sit and cry a while longer, thank-you-very-much. I remember consciously deciding that I would get back up on the proverbial horse tomorrow instead of today. “Self,” I replied, “I need to cry and wallow a bit right now, but I promise I will try to love the world again later.”

Funny thing about choosing to wallow: my choice was followed by a wave of relief. It was suddenly incredibly obvious to me that the suffering I was experiencing was temporary. To say I “enjoyed” the rest of the cry would be a poor choice of words, but it is a cry I will remember with a perverted twist of fondness – almost an out-of-body experience – because it crystallized how temporary everything is; that the good, the bad and the ugly will all pass. I can only do what I can do on a given day. On that particular day, I wasn’t strong enough to climb back up on the horse. On that day, I needed to lie in the muck underneath it and take a nap. But that day passed. Since then, there have been days when I have climbed back up, appreciating the view and forward motion a little more acutely. There have also been days when I have had to just rest.

Post-summer-storms, we’re both tender, but a few weeks ago, we took a trip without the kids. We re-discovered that without the mess of everyday life, we mostly really enjoy each other. If we could magically quit our jobs and have the kids in bed by 6:30 p.m. each night, life would be easier, perhaps. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Probably there would be other things changing the landscape. Regardless, right now we’re holding hands while we navigate. I still trip over rocks sometimes, and I hold no illusions that I am forever done with earthquakes or storms in the future. I am hoping that as we continue the journey, I will be less shocked by sudden changes in the weather, better able to focus on the step in front of me, and better equipped to know when it is time to rest, when it is time to climb, and when I am able to gallop freely with the wind in my hair.

I fear I may be doing it again: turning something messy into something that used to be messy, but now makes sense. But I won’t apologize for it – it’s one of the reasons I write. Writing is the cleanup crew and relief volunteers that show up after an earthquake changes my landscape. My life is made up of long lists and short days, jagged pieces and round holes. It will never be completely orderly and predictable, but I relish the process of organizing and reflecting nonetheless. Engaging in that process reminds me how precious it is to live this messy, beautiful life.