How a homeless person reminded me to follow my dreams

If you’re familiar with the MBTA at all, you know that riding the subway is not typically an inspiring experience, and I didn’t ask it to be; I was just riding around because I was feeling too weird and anxious to sit still in my apartment any longer.

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[Photo credit: Eric Kilby]

Truth be told, I was supposed to be writing this article, but every time I looked at my computer screen, I felt the anxious vacuum start to form behind my eyebrows and in my gut, and I had to put it away. This had been going on for two days. I hadn’t written a thing, creative or otherwise – and yes, my job is to write, and no, I hadn’t written anything for the paper, either.

I used to write like breathing. Sometimes I wonder if I still can. Sometimes I think I’ve lost the spark.

Sitting next to a homeless man on the train changed all that.

To be fair, I don’t know for sure that the man was homeless. When I boarded, he was sitting in that recumbent way that people who don’t own a bed tend to have when they ride the T late at night. It’s a particular posture of rest, which says, “I’ve been riding this train since Alewife and I won’t be going anywhere until we reach the end of the line. Maybe longer, if nobody kicks me out.” He wasn’t asleep, but he seemed to be headed that way.

He was swaddled in layers to the point that I actually wasn’t sure whether he was a man, since I couldn’t make out the shape of his body or the contours of his face. I’m too progressive to declare he was a man based on his choice of footwear (heavy boots, and large), or that she was a woman based on her medium-length white hair and lack of beard. In the end, I needed a pronoun and went with “he” based on his broad, flat fingernails, which is as arbitrary as anything else, I suppose, and I’m sorry.

So I didn’t know if he was a “he,” and I didn’t know if he was homeless. But I knew one thing without a doubt: he smelled. It wasn’t a “hasn’t showered in weeks” kind of smell. It was pee. And it was absolutely overwhelming.

I realized it just an instant too late as I was already lowering myself into the next seat. All right, the next-next seat – in Boston, we sit every-other-seat on trains because we hate everyone, so there was, in fact, some space between me and the presumably-homeless presumably-man. But it was still too close.

As I sat there, breathing as little as possible, a barrage of emotions hit me one after the other – not unlike train cars, I imagine, if you’ve ever been run over by a train.

First, I felt torn: I really wanted to get up and sit somewhere else. But I thought about how I would feel if, every time someone sat down near me, they immediately got up and left. Repulsive. Worthless. Not human. I couldn’t do that to this person. So I stayed.

Then, sadness: how sad that we live in a world where people can’t afford to be clean – to shower, to use a proper toilet, to wash or replace their clothing. What is this world, where a subway car looks like a nice place to catch a few Zs? Sure, it’s air-conditioned in summer, heated in winter, and dry in the rain, but those seats are hard. And in less than an hour, you’ll be at the end of the line and your nap will be over.

Then the guilt hit. Who was I to complain? If I thought it was bad sitting next to this person, how must it feel to be in his shoes? Instead, I should have been doing something to help. But what? It’s not like I’d brought any spare clothing with me. I’ve been known to give food to people on the street when I’m walking home with leftovers, or even to treat them at the nearest McDonald’s – but since I, like he, was just riding the train, I didn’t have leftovers, either. I didn’t even have cash.

So, simply, I sat. I told the judge in my head to shut up: you don’t know what his story is or how he got here. Maybe he has no family. Maybe he’s mentally ill. Maybe he’s a veteran. Or maybe, against all logic that I could understand, maybe he chose to live like this; crazier things have happened.

I had no money, but I gave him all I could give, what little respect I could show, and stayed beside him. And then he gave me something so much more.

He took out a notebook. One of those spiral-bound things you can get at Walgreens for 99 cents. And he took out a pen. It had purple ink. I know this because he started writing furiously – chicken scratch, cross-outs, line upon line. He filled a whole page, his hand never resting. I couldn’t read a word of it and found myself suddenly fighting a very different urge: to lean closer, not further away, to see what a person such as this had to say.

Would he write of his own life, his daily trials and victories? Observations of the people and things around him? Philosophical thoughts? The train, as I was busily proving myself, is a good place for philosophical introspection.

Or, perhaps, he was writing fiction. Maybe he was building another world where things were better, where people like him could overcome a place like this. Or maybe it wasn’t escapism. Maybe he just loved the telling. Maybe he gave up everything and everyone to do this, to chase this incredible passion and to have this incredible freedom.

Of course, I also had to consider the possibility that it was the ramblings of a madman.

Whatever he’d written, there was something burning inside of this character in the next-next seat that I hadn’t seen from afar, when I’d taken him for just a sleeping homeless guy. And I hadn’t seen it close-up, either, too busy pitying him to really look at who was underneath the bulky layers and the stink.

Not every light burns at the same time or in the same way. Sometimes all that’s left is an ember. And sometimes that ember gutters and fades under the harsh blue glare of a computer screen. But it is still there, and if you feed it, it will grow. What was this man feeding to his ember, when he had so little? And what will I feed to mine – I, who have so much?


This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.

Inside Pandora’s Box

I didn’t used to have anxiety, so talking about it now, just six months after my first panic attack ever, makes me feel like a bit of a poseur. Who am I to talk about something I have only known for six months when others have dealt with it for a lifetime – when others need a pill just to get out of bed in the morning – when others suffer daily the racing heart, tremors, and nausea that strike me only in waves?

Anxiety snuck up on me. Until this year, I would have said I was “intense,” “high-strung,” or “stressed out,” never “anxious.” I would have chalked it up to being an empath and a perfectionist; I take everything too seriously and feel everything too deeply.

But maybe that was the kernel of it. Maybe anxiety was always there, masquerading as righteous doubts and frustrations. Maybe I was drowning it out at concerts, smothering it with romantic affection, or speeding just out of its reach on a snowboard. Maybe I was giving it chase between the lines of my favorite books. Maybe I was dressing it up in new clothes, new glasses, pink hair and purple Chucks to make myself look – and feel – brighter.

Because I needed that brightness, however superficial. Because I was always afraid of the dark, and I could not accept that the dark was inside me. I would not allow it to be inside me.

But, maybe, it was.

In those days I had the leverage to pack it down, to shut the box and sit on the lid, fingers clutching at latches to lock it all away. What changed? Was it simply the combination of too many pressures, peeling Pandora’s fingers from the box one by one? Life is a lot, after all, and I only have ten fingers.

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[Photo credit: F.S. Church]

Whatever the cause, anxiety is here now. I’ve grown familiar with the vacuum that forms behind my brow before a panic attack. I recognize the way my shoulders curl in as if to shield my heart from what’s coming, the way my fingers grasp and clench – like if I hold rationality tight enough, it won’t get away from me this time. I have learned to remind myself not to hold my breath. But when tears burn hot on my eyes and demand to be let out, I don’t know how to stop it.

Do I “have anxiety,” or am I still just “stressed?” Can I count myself “one of them” when I am still (usually) getting out of bed and still (usually) eating okay and still (always, somehow) producing a newspaper at work every single week? I don’t look like “one of them,” so maybe my experience is less valid than theirs.

I have to shake that mentality. If it feels valid, then it is valid.

I never could do anything the way other people did it. I didn’t get acne as a teenager; I got it in my twenties. At twenty, I was the last of my friends to experiment with alcohol. When I graduated college, I still thought sex was “icky.” And at twenty-six, while some of my peers are popping out second and third children, I am still not even engaged.

It doesn’t negate the experience that it happened to me later or differently from how it happened to them. My acne is my acne, my sex is my sex, and my anxiety is my anxiety… complete with the appearance that I am confident and thriving in a life that actually feels like quicksand.

Here’s the funny thing about quicksand, which the movies never tell you: humans can float on it, if they lie on their back instead of standing. And people do this all the time with life. Everyone has stressors – expensive rent, healthcare, or car repairs; conflict with spouses, roommates, or friends; jobs or families that take too much, paychecks or partners that give too little. It’s not that floating people aren’t bothered by those things, but they don’t get sucked under by them, either.

People who “have anxiety” get sucked under. And I am, at least for now, “one of them.” This experience is valid.

The good news is, even though I’m not floating now, I still can. Quicksand will never suck you all the way under – that’s not how buoyancy works. Quicksand cannot, will not kill you.

So how do you get out?

For starters, don’t do things that make you more stuck. They say you shouldn’t flail around; it will only make you sink faster. I have burnt myself out trying frantically to act like everything is fine.

Last fall, I started a side career shortly after getting hired for my first full-time job; I dove into National Novel Writing Month; I could not stand a Saturday without social plans. And then I crashed. I thought I was coping by keeping busy, but I was just getting myself more stuck.

They also say that you shouldn’t have your friends try to pull you out of quicksand. Pull too hard, and they’ll sooner tear you in half than save you. That’s kind of how it feels when a friend who doesn’t have anxiety tells me to “just breathe” or rattles off my achievements to stop me from feeling like a failure.

Those friends mean well, but here’s they don’t understand: anxiety doesn’t answer to rationale. Rationale can actually make it worse. Rationale suggests that I have no right to feel the way I do, and I should be able to fight it. Then the guilt kicks in. Why can’t I fight it?

The fact that I “shouldn’t” feel this way doesn’t change the reality that I do. If you want to help, please, don’t try to talk me out of a panic attack.

Instead, feel free to say vaguely comforting things like “it’ll be okay” or “you can get through this.” Take me into another room, or outside. Bring me some water if it’s hot out, or herbal tea if it’s cold. Definitely find some tissues because I will feel awful if I get snot all over my clothes or yours. Bad jokes can help – the worse the pun, the better I’ll feel. But finally, understand that your company may be the best thing you can give me. I know you want to, but you cannot pull me out of the quicksand.

No, to escape quicksand, a person must save herself. She must make slow, calculated moves. Start with the legs. Wriggle around to loosen the sand. It will take time and work, but eventually she’ll be free.

That’s why I’m writing this. This is me, wriggling my legs first, trying to take one small step in the right direction. I had to commit to writing something that wasn’t for the newspaper. Maybe, soon, I’ll be able to look at my novel again without feeling the vacuum form behind my brow. I can already feel the sand starting to loosen, and I will continue to fight.

Take that, quicksand. You suck.

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This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.

A cure for board-om

March 2, 2016. It was still winter, but the mountains were already talking about shutting down for the season due to lack of snow. I tried to go to Killington twice: once in December, when it rained, and once in March, when it got real cold real fast and the few trails that were open turned to ice.

So what’s a girl to do? I used to suffer from traditional SAD (seasonal affective disorder), which made winters long, dark and brutal. Now I get reverse SAD when I can’t snowboard. March 2, and already I was counting the months until I could feel sane again.

What would it be – eight, if I got lucky and the cold weather started by Thanksgiving? Ten, if we got another winter like the last two, which didn’t kick in until late January? I considered moving to Scandinavia. The potential for a Donald Trump presidency made an easy excuse for leaving the country.

March 2, 2016. That was the first time I was aware of the OneWheel: a motorized, self-balancing skateboard created to mimic the feeling of carving fresh powder on a snowboard. I must’ve found their video “The World is Your Playground” on Instagram or something.

That day, I shared it to Facebook with a plea (joking-except-seriously-though) for $1500. What did I expect – that some rich uncle I forgot about would come out of the woodwork and decide that a good way to spend his extra cash would be to buy me 2016’s best impression of the hoverboard from Uglies?

Well, the rich uncle never materialized, but I kept thinking about the OneWheel. Everywhere I looked, I could see myself riding one. Grassy knolls, smooth sidewalks, trails, beaches, fields: the world, indeed, began to look like my playground.

I wished I could rent one, just to see if it really felt the same as snowboarding. To see if it was enough to keep me sane through summer. But nobody in Boston rents out OneWheels, and I couldn’t connect with any local riders to see about borrowing one. So I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do:

I drove to Vermont.

It was a little under four hours to WND N WVS, Burlington: my nearest OneWheel retailer. I was simultaneously overjoyed to finally take a test ride, and terrified that I would hate it and have to start counting the months to snowboarding season again.

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Was it everything I dreamed? As natural as breathing? Did it “feel right from the moment I put my feet on the board?” Actually… not quite. The learning curve I’d been warned about had not been exaggerated; this is a difficult sport. But then, so was snowboarding, at first.

I’m naturally uncoordinated, the sort of person whose friends think they’re drunk after one beer but really I just can’t stand up properly. People will point in alarm at a bruise on my elbow or shin and ask what I did to myself. The answer is usually “walked into a door frame.”

But I knew I wanted to snowboard, so I stuck with it and eventually (after most of a season) graduated from the bunny slope. And this…

I know I want to do this.

I’ve got a OneWheel on the way, kindly sold to me for a good chunk less than $1500 by one of the excellent folks on the OneWheel forums. When it gets here…

Well, I hope the playground is ready.

Follow my OneWheel adventure on Instagram!