Icarus and a Tiger's Eyes
For the better part of 2020, even before the pandemic hit and well after, I was obsessed with the myth of Icarus. You know the one: the story of the arrogant young man who, despite warnings, put on wings made of wax, flew so close to the Sun that the wax melted, fell in the sea, and died.
“What if Icarus survived his fall?” I asked myself – and others around me. “What if a large wave threw him on a sandy shore? And then, coughing up water, what if he healed and learned to become soft?” I had no idea why I couldn’t let go of this thought. I just knew I needed to keep exploring it.
Now, looking back on my year, I see something that surprises me: that is exactly how 2020 went for me. I put on my best pair of wings and flew straight towards the Sun, and just as I thought I was going to touch it, just as I started feeling the heat radiating on my skin, my wings gave out, and I fell straight into the sea.
I used to think the myth of Icarus existed to point out the dangers of arrogance. “Hey kids, beware of hubris.” This year, I learned that arrogance has many different faces. When I flew towards the Sun, back in February, I didn’t think I was flying to my doom. I was convinced I was flying towards the one thing I’d always wanted the most, and it took nosediving in the ocean to show me that maybe I didn’t want that thing at all.
The Sun, in my case, was moss-coloured and smelled like Earl Grey. It was plans of buying a house and sharing it with a friend and her cat. It was reading up on homesteads and looking at real estate listings near the coast. It was revelling in the feeling of being wanted so much that I forgot to realize I wasn’t being seen.
And the Fall – the Fall was a saturated blue and tasted like oranges. It was a pandemic. It was losing my job and moving back in with my parents. It was holding on as the world seemed to crumble, as too many of my relationships seemed to crumble.
But some people stayed. One dear friend swam beside me in the stormy sea, and another gave me her hand when I reached the shore. Gently, they reminded me that love still exists. As I walked the path of healing, the path of softening, the path of becoming myself, they kept me company.
So, I flew towards the Sun. I fell in the sea. I almost drowned. I was thrown on the shore. I healed. I softened. I let myself in. And now, I’m at the strange point in the story where the realization that I’ve yet again outgrown my life has broken me open. I ache and I’m so grateful and I ache some more.
2020 Highlights and Lessons
In February, I went to see Jojo Rabbit at the cinema, and it really struck me when one of the characters said (and I paraphrase) that to grow up is to look the tiger in the eyes and trust fearlessly. I asked myself how I could do that. How I could look the tiger in the eyes. How I could trust more wholeheartedly.
In April, Florence + the Machine released Light of Love, and I listened to it hundreds of times. It turned out to be my most listened-to song of 2020, according to Spotify. There’s a lot of relatable lyrics in that song – like “I tried to get it right so badly that I always got it wrong,” which is only the story of my entire life – but another part I liked is this one:
And now we are awake and it seems too much to take
Looking back on my year 2020, I realize that’s exactly what I did. I looked at everything that felt like too much to take, and I didn’t look away. I kept asking myself: “Can I look the tiger in the eyes?” I tried over and over to be able to answer “yes” honestly. It astonishes me how hard I tried this year, how I kept showing up and showing up, how I continued to care. What enabled me to do this is also beautifully expressed in the song:
Don’t go blindly into the dark
This year really saw me deepen my dedication to cultivate acts of love, tenderness of being, and fearless trust, vulnerability, and intimacy in relationships.
I tried every day to connect with and nurture my truest self and deepest longings. I ached over losses, over loneliness, and I took care of myself through it all. I boiled with rage, and I accepted that feeling. This year was terrifying and so challenging, and now I see that I did look the tiger in the eyes. I kept trying to soften.
I was listening to my top 100 songs from 2020 and it struck me how soft they were… I wrote the entire tracklist in my journal (yes, I am Extra), and I just felt a wave of gratitude for these lovely creations that saw me through 2020, and for myself for choosing to listen to them so much.
It astounds me how I managed to go through 2020 and still care. But then again, I realized that that’s who I am: I’m a person who cares relentlessly. It hurts me a lot of the time, but it also means that I’m a person who always shows up. I learned to show up for myself first. I learned to improve my ability to self-nurture to the point where this practice makes me feel strong and hopeful – not hopeful that life will be nice, but hopeful that I will be able to face it.
And Everything Else
Have I zoomed out too much? This post was so honest. At the same time, it’s my year seen from far away, the lens unfocussed just a little, just enough to make it all blend together, to make it cohesive and meaningful.
I would have liked to be able to zoom in and dig, too. But words fail me.
I discovered things about myself I don’t know how to label. I don’t even know how to explain them to anyone but me. Trying to put words to them, I would only be trying to describe “something incommunicable,” “something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones.” (to quote Franz Kafka because, well, why not)
But I’ll try, ok? Here it goes.
Up to my calves in saltwater, waves crashing on my shins, Aphrodite can you hear me? I found my way back to the Moon. I carry seashells in my coat pockets. I wake up early, and sometimes when the sky is clear I brave the cold and go look at the night sky. I’ve perfected my carrot cake, my cinnamon bun, my brownie, my almond croissant. I light candles and I put on opera just to feel something different, cumin and onions sizzling in the pan. When I go for walks in the forest, I feel like the fairy godmother of birds and squirrels and trees. I paint to keep my inner child happy.
But sometimes when I paint it’s not for my inner child. I put Bedroom Hymns on repeat and I smash red on the canvas and still I can’t capture it: the realization that now, every one of my cells is ablaze with a power I truly believed I would never get to touch.
Because it was 11:11am and I didn’t know what to wish for, I knew it was time: I had to unblock it once and for all. The primal unison of all the fibres of my being screaming that they ache to impact and be impacted, to conquer and be conquered, to claim and be claimed. Suddenly I knew exactly what I wanted, and it didn’t make anything easier.
I have so much to be grateful for and I do feel it, a tremendous gratitude, when I stop to consider it. A lot is imperfect but all of it is so precious. For all the ways I’ve been supported, for everything that enabled me to write this overly long post, I’m thankful.
Let’s make 2021 better.
originally this was part of a series of essays during The Sealey Challenge, all scrapped. really, this post is representative of 2020 as a whole, for m, thus--
These days I am so anchored to the house that I begin to float away, ungrounded. It has been two hundred and eight-seven days since I left the house, face uncovered, so confidently. At first, I dragged my feet forward, hoping to cling to these forced days at home like a productive staycation. My naivety kept me calm, for a moment, until the anxiety and dread settled unshaken. I don't know if one day has passed since March, or if most of the year has sifted away barely touched. I want to say I have looked at these walls so long that I have allowed them to morph into canvas, into possibility, into a forced strict sabbatical of creativity and comfort. No, instead, depression is a dust I cannot quite keep wiped away, and anxiety is a breeze blowing just hard enough not to let any pages settle without a struggle.
I've tried what has worked and what will never. In August, I began The Sealey Challenge, all starry eyed and lying on my back on my great grandmother's quilt in the sun. No, I did not successfully complete it, but I did accomplish enough. I tried, I read, I learned, I found.
I tried, and I failed by reading a grand sixteen poetry books, of which I am vaguely proud enough. I learned (again) that I approach poetry like I do people I love: I do not really like many poetry books, but when I do, I am breathtaken and dizzy and committed. I found that what loops me into the pages and sets me free is when poetry is not particularly heady, but instead grounded and raw and emotional and real, yet surprising. Environmental. A journal made more intimate by surprise. I love the moment I am shocked I did not think of the words myself, and I am so in love that I am nearly angry about it. I love the humanity of poetry. I love to recognize myself and crawl away from my reality and into my body, tucked into the earth, no matter how it trembles or burns.
Space Struck by Paige Lewis was a delight, caught double taken in a panic and laughter. Olivia Gatwood and Megan Fernandes are painters of girls, and it scares me in a way so familiar I will not look away. Kate Tempest unspools gender with Hold Your Own, and Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris takes me almost as long to read as a new leaf unfurls on the vines I bought during my first outting after spring's lockdown.
Again and again, I learn that despite the deep set exhaustion of growing from caterpillar to a butterfly trapped under the glass of a pandemic, I do not want to leave myself and my body when I read. Yes, it is true, I spend most of my time attempting to outrun myself. It's true, I wake up and decipher how I might make the time fray into nighttime again, so I can rest unconscious, smothered in dreams. I said I wouldn't download TikTok- "no matter how bad it gets"- but I scroll it for too long nowadays, and nap in sunlight, and binge every series I've ever held close. Escapism is a survival skill, until poetry.
Here I want someone to be brave enough to force the sharp edges of being alive into something I can see and hold and accept and see as beautiful, despite despite despite. It's not that I need to recognize what I read, but that I am desperate to acknowledge the pain and say that living is worth acknowledging anyway.
I want poetry that leaves me rooted, breathing, nodding, and saying yes, regardless and because of. I want poetry to remind me where I am, shaking me from where I feel I remain.
I want poetry to unravel reality into secretly named exhibitions.
"I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit," said Kurt Vonnegut.
I did not finish The Sealey Challenge, because ultimately I wanted to slow. It is a disorienting thing to be so exhausted of the oozing stagnancy of life, to hunger so deeply for speed and change and energy, to choose to slow and consider and soften into a failure of a challenge to savor each word offered to me.
I'm honored to be allowed into the hallows and corners of other lives, to be reminded that there is a world and a future and a past beyond the walls of my isolation, which such a full range of experience. To know it existed is to see proof that it will happen again.
2020 may be a holding cell shaking the shoulders of our priorities and civil rights (many shout outs to the government for forcing me to grovel in thanks for my life being slightly better than 90% of people in 1847, but that's another rant, isn't it?), but it is also a window into what we want, what we dream, and what we remember, scavengers for proof of a future.
just doin their thing
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