Beneath the surface, I spit glittering vitriol in an acid arc around myself. These spattering thoughts blister words into the dirt: ‘Join me in lockdown… feel this grief for a past life… falter here with me, in this stuttering uncertainty.’
But there are those who continue to grow within four walls, plucking opportune plums from a laden bough and making life sweet. They barely stutter at all.
I, meanwhile, simmer in my acid bath, my skin growing thinner with every slow second. The liquid blooms rose-pink and rises.
At some point I should stand up and wade out, before too much of me is lost. But the burn is comforting and the return of full gravity is too much to bear.
I’m staying here. Hip deep in shed niceties, I pass the time by drowning well-meaning platitudes until they dissipate to nothing.
“Is she in love with you?!” They ask, young eyes wide at the impossible concept of love actually being a many splendored thing: one apparently shouldn’t write poems for one with whom you are not in love.
I didn’t get the memo.
And then there’s the careful note in the arms of someone who feels that love has now become something to be coloured within the lines. The innocence and ease has become increasingly self-conscious and cautious as childhood disappears into the distance.
Eyebrows rise if I share a room with my brother or father when travelling, and assumptions are made if I go to dinner with a male friend. Handholding over the age of ten seems to only signal romantic love, so I receive speculative eyeballs when I support my mother – lover? Daughter? Carer?
A spectrum of love exists to be expressed in a spectrum of ways. So I’ll take off my judgy-pants if you take off yours.
When I love I leave sticky fingerprints on every surface: remembering something forgotten, picking up something out of my way, gifting small joys like a cat dragging in half-battered birds.
My mother has always said that love is shown through actions, words are too easy. I took her belief and buried it in my heart, folding it again and again until rippled metal shone.
My mother and I, we love in absolute balance, action meets action in a constant clash of sparking steel hearts. But not everyone forged their hearts this way. I run the risk of bruising or crushing, or of suffocating others with a barrage of gestures that I watch unfold with impotent horror.
While it is easy to keep words under body arrest, it turns out I have only clumsy control of my actions.
This steel heart consistently runs the risk of stake raising. A gift for a friend that’s more extravagant than warranted, repeatedly putting yourself out until the other person feels a keen imbalance, giving when someone else feels unable to give back.
I’ve gathered ruddy rocks to smelt chains that can wrap this heart of mine tight and slow the pendulum swing. And maybe one day I’ll figure out how to wield it without wounding.
Being truly listened to is like standing on the edge of a sudden void, lit by thunderous sunlight and held in a silence so keen that moisture hesitates to evaporate.
I fall into that void, cold fingers fluttering behind me like wings.
And for the first time, I don’t curate my stories. I don’t shape tales to coax forth smiles, I don’t polish my thoughts to present their best side. And I don’t tuck the things that cut me out of sight.
I keep tumbling, tears creeping into the corners of my eyes to burn at skin.
And then there far below, I see light blossom in the darkness.
Strands dance on lightning feet, orbiting each other before flying outward in a new direction. They hum with pleasure at the feel of the listening: words suddenly caught by an ear and held in the brain with the touch of gentle but curious neurons.
Those strands weave as they go, forming a billowing net with edges that ever expand as words of understanding and tenderness wrap warm arms around my own.
The void becomes a safe place to fall, the silvered net a constant assurance.
Someone very wise (and unbridled) once suggested that I should send messages, letters, phone calls, and love out into the world without worrying about whether anything comes back in return. The act of sharing and giving is whole and complete in and of itself, it requires no reciprocity to be worthwhile. There may be joy when something is received in return, but there is no pain or shame when nothing comes back your way.
I tucked those words into my heart and gave up paying out my emotions by inches.
I started writing messages to people just because I wanted to say ‘thank you’ or let them know I’d been thinking of them. I drew my feelings up from my gut into my mouth and spoke them without being stifled by fear of silence. Sometimes something came back, sometimes nothing did, but my feelings were no longer exalted or diminished based on someone else’s actions.
And somewhere along the way, I remembered that someone has always got to go first. I think perhaps this was something I chose to forget, always waiting for a sound to hit me before enthusiastically echoing in return.
I am no longer the echo.
I’ve traded in pride to lose guilt and anxiety, and it seems like a pretty good deal to me.
I came here rootless, one of those here-one-day-gone-the-next millennials that weevils into your roots when you’re not looking. We’re generally a toxic bunch, hollowing out localities with our disinterest in history and community, turning homes into places to sleep and neighbours into parcel collectors.
So it meant something when you welcomed me with open warmth and a hefty handful of humour.
You let me piggy back your stories, rummage through the memories you’ve collected, and become part of something that began before I was born. You gave me rides, sent me emails and offered company when I had no one else nearby, weaving a net that would catch me without a second’s thought.
And you always keep a weather eye out for anyone sitting alone.
I find the ecosystem you’ve created utterly beautiful – you’re a bastion for my faith in humanity.
This is what kindness can build.
No longer a parasite, you’ve let me graft to your trunk, so I can begin to call your roots my own.
It’s around 30 feet across, covered in the springy grass that only grows atop really peaty soil. About two feet in from the edges are thick metal loops that have been hammered into the ground, each as thick as my wrist and veined with faint reddish streaks. They’re buried at one foot intervals around the circumference of the island, and while some lie empty, others hum and spark.
The one nearest me is barely visible beneath a mass of shining, seething threads, each stretching and intertwining with its sisters to form a single thronging rope that throws itself beyond the island and out into the mist. This is by far the busiest hive of threads.
It leads to my mother’s island.
Every thread is a message, a photo, a phonecall, a hug, a shared laugh, a rushed journey to comfort, a warm meal, an eye roll, a word to the wise. The threads dash from my end to hers and back, the rope between us now too thick to grasp in both hands and electric with activity.
A short walk away lies another loop. This one empty but for a single sparking thread that noses the air, then tentatively slips away into the mist.
Let us watch and wait.
After minutes-days-weeks, the thread begins to vibrate, and from beyond the island comes another line, intertwining with mine until it reaches the metal loop. As it does, the filaments grow brighter, stronger. This is the birth of a friendship, the tentative creation of a relationship that will grow stronger as the threads continue to weave between the islands.
On the other side of the island are the loops I avoid, letting my eyes slide away as I walk past and tend the others. They still have thick bundles of threads tied to them, but they are withered and grey. There is no spark, no movement, and if you stand and watch, you see only fraying and splintering. Some of those cords still stretch in vain out beyond the island’s edge, but others hang limply over the side, severed and flailing helplessly in the wind.
The threads of these relationships stopped flowing: one too many missed calls or failed replies, a long forgotten argument, a barrier of pride.
One too many cancellation.
Every time I cancel – a dinner, a birthday, a meeting, a concert, a rehearsal – I watch a nascent thread falter and fall still. For newborn relationships, it can be fatal; with established relationships, I can see a thickened scar of burnt out threads.
I tend to my island with love, haunted by the burnt out cords that flap failure in my wake.