Yoga

That ‘Ol Black Cocktail | Learning not to Sweat the Small Stuff

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“It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.” ~ Haruki Murakami

The other day, my very dear friend Sara told me that she liked the last couple things I’ve written, but that as my friend they make her sad: “They read like you’re struggling. Are you ok?”

This essay is an answer to Sara, and a piece of writing for anyone else who wears their emotions close to the skin. There are a lot of sweet things in life, honeyed afternoons and flow into purpley evenings of laughter, golden mornings where I can’t write because the urge to sing is stronger. No one speaks in meditation or in the midst of an orgasm – words are there when it is dark, tools for unraveling the emotional snarls of depression, rejection, and broken hearts.

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It comes out of nowhere. It’s a regular start to a regular day, standing in a crowded subway car. I’m reading a book, in which the main character is talking to the man she’s met about her former best friend. I start to think about my friend Georgette, who I have plans with later. Georgette is consistently either late or canceling. She always apologizes profusely, but regardless my shoulders start to hunch just thinking about it. I can feel the weight of my phone in my pocket. It’s going to vibrate sometime during the day, I know, with a message from Georgette. Would she be a half an hour late? An hour? Would she cancel altogether?

And I’m in it: the dark funky murk of rage. My body is pulsating with energy, primed like a caveman for fight or flight.

But, because I am not a caveman, I don’t actually have either of these options. I exit the train, grimacing at the other people trying to push their way through the morning commuter clog. We all appear to have caught the rage as we elbow each other – it is endemic amongst New Yorkers. A middle-aged woman kicks my foot purposefully as I pass her. I look at her, astonished – usually subway aggression is much more passive than that.

“You kicked me first,” she mumbles, glaring up at me. I hadn’t even realized.

Maestra, the grandmother in Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, has the most sensible explanation that I’ve read for the automatic routing of thoughts into darkness. She says that it starts when we’re adolescents, just becoming aware of the Self and the relationship between Self and Other. At the same time that I realized that I was a person separate from others, I also realized that other people don’t really give a shit about my specialness – it’s heartbreaking.

I remember that feeling actually. I didn’t define it as such, but I remember standing in the kitchen one autumn night in my middle school years, the hum and swish of the dishwasher a backbeat to the words I tried to form for my mom: “I feel like everything is changing, and it’s too fast, and I can’t get it back.”

Naturally, I thought that I was the only person that had ever felt that way – I was inventing my emotions as they came up, being new to them in a way that only an adolescent can be, with no frame of reference from my past.

Of course I was wrong. Everyone was feeling that way. We just none of us knew how to voice it, or if voicing this feeling was even appropriate. Being alone with these emotions was too much, and I learned self-pity. I was stuck in this crazy warped worldview of being at once too important (to myself) and insignificant (to the cosmos). To see what this does to adults who never escape the cycle (yo samsara), just open any issue of US Weekly.

Anyway, back to Maestra. She explains that at this age, if someone does not knock us off the self-pity path, we build these pathways in our brain, little neural trails through the muck that we get used to taking. They become so well trod that we go down them as a matter of course. “Oh, my friend is late, again? It must mean she doesn’t respect my time, and by extension, me. Which probably means I’m worthless…” From there it’s pretty much like a waterslide at a theme park, straight down into that dark and suffocating pool of rage, self-pity, and depression.

“Gradually,” explains Maestra, “our brain chemistry becomes conditioned to react to negative stimuli in a particular, predictable way. One thing’ll go wrong and it’ll automatically switch on its blender and mix us that black cocktail, the ol’ doomsday daiquiri, and before we know it, we’re soused to the gills from the inside out.”

And that’s how I ended up in a kick-fight on the train with a middle-aged black woman from Canarsie.

So, I’m trying to re-route this inter-cranial superhighway to the blues to a sunnier, more scenic route. The universe, natch, is “helping” me in the same way that toddlers help people learn patience – by being a huge pain in the ass.

Case in point: two years ago I had an epic bad-luck streak. I broke up with my long-term, live-in boyfriend, which needed to happen but which left me in a serious cash bind. I was not only no longer getting laid on the regular, but I was broke and without a vehicle in San Diego.

Unable to afford a car, I bought a scooter, which proceeded to break down in a disarmingly regular biweekly pattern. My wallet and phone were stolen. One of my best friends got mad at me. When I wore boots, it was 80 degrees; when I wore a tank top it rained.

Towards the end of this streak I met a friend at a bar that happened to be hosting a raffle. I entered my name, and I won. I never win raffles. Elated, feeling like my streak had broken; I walked up to collect my prize.

It was a free kayak rental. I was a kayak guide at the time, leading daily tours in La Jolla Cove.

I laughed, for the first time in a while, until tears came into my eyes. Then I gave the coupon for the kayak rental to the couple at the next table.

Once I stopped taking all these small tragedies so seriously, everything calmed down for the most part. I found a good mechanic for my scooter, got an internship at a magazine I liked, and had a good sit-down and vent session with my friend.

The roller coaster of emotions didn’t stop there, obviously, it continues to dip and weave, but at least I’m finding the scenery amusing.