Bare feet on sun-warmed bricks. Enormous ceramic mugs of cinnamon tea. Rock hopping on the river, anchored strong by the hands of friends.
Life never looks good on the bathroom floor. The combination of icy tile, cramped space, and sterile chemical smell must create a particular kind of despair. On one April afternoon, I found myself there for the third time that week, staring up at the pock-marked ceiling as I choked on deep, gulping sobs. My friends call it “the ugly cry,” as far from Hollywood’s delicate, single-sparkling-teardrop scenes as you can get. No one who’s hurting cries like that. Crying is ugly. Gurgling, splotchy, snot-mixed-with-tears ugly. Crying on the bathroom floor is uglier.
The smell of baking bread. Meandering phone conversations, full and rich. Every note of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel.
I hadn’t meant to be there. The first time I’d cried in the bathroom at work, I’d thought it was a fluke. We all have our bathroom-crying days, when a cleansing sob session is exactly what you need to make it through the afternoon. I worked in a legal services non-profit, where I met daily with people experiencing crushing poverty and, often, severe physical and mental disabilities. On the days when the stories became too much, when clients’ anger got the best of them, I would flee to that bathroom. I’d cry quietly for a couple minutes, then neatly wash my face, reapply mascara, and emerge a new woman.
Handwritten letters from dear friends. Yoga shoulder stands. Bright-colored silk scarves.
Over time, I became familiar with those tile walls. I was living in a terrifyingly expensive city on an even more terrifyingly small salary. I was fresh out of college, utterly lost about my future and heartsick over moving away from my People (you know the People. Your lifeboats in the storm, the ones who fill in your missing pieces, the ones without whom the world makes no sense). My family was falling apart around me. My job was exhausting and left me feeling like I’d been run over by a truck.
The occasional cleansing cry slowly became a regular ritual of defeated sobs. I woke up one morning after another fitful night of sleep, feeling so heavy that I was sure I had the flu. After a thorough examination at the Urgent Care, a kind-eyed doctor looked at me over my chart. “There is nothing physically wrong with you,” he said with exquisite care. “But if you would like, I could help you find a counselor.” I took his scribbled suggestions, stuffed them in the bottom of my purse, and went back to work.
Pencil sketches of birds. The smell of coffee beans. Watching a rainstorm inside, wrapped up in a blanket.
When I was young, I had a recurring nightmare that I had fallen down a well. I’m sure this was inspired by some movie, and I can’t promise it wasn’t a Lassie rerun. But I remember vividly the feeling of looking up from the well’s bottom. The walls were cold and slick and so, so high. A sliver of sunshine was barely visible, but it seemed impossibly far away. My feeble cries for help echoed back on themselves, not even close to reaching the top. I would wake up gasping, trapped in my twisted covers.
Outdoor festivals. Playing piano. Opening the windows to let in early morning light.
On that April afternoon, looking up from the bathroom floor, that memory hit me with force. I am at the bottom of the well, I thought with sudden clarity. This is what life looks like from the bottom of the well. How did I get here?
I remembered then how, when I had woken up from those nightmares, my mind would churn wildly before I realized I was awake. Panic had consumed me: There is no way out. How could anyone get out of here? I felt that familiar panic, there on the cold tile. If I am at the bottom of the well, how can I get out? The walls were insurmountable. The stones were cold and slippery. I was so tired that I couldn’t have grasped a rope, even if I could find one.
Reading in bed. Early morning walks. That magical flying whale scene from Fantasia.
I slowly hauled myself to standing, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I did. My face was covered with splotches, snot, and mascara. I started the familiar ritual of washing off the tell-tale streaks, running paper towels under warm water to dab my face. I breathed in, then out.
You have to fill it.
The words appeared as simply and matter-of-factly as the water that poured out of the faucet. You have to fill the well. That’s how you get out. You remind yourself that there are wellsprings of joy in you, hidden beneath the dry sand of despair. You do the hard work of digging for them. You ask for help with the digging. You create moments every day to get to those wellsprings. And you take that water you find there and pour it into your well, drop by drop, until the water level rises and brings you a little closer to the sunshine.
Sing-along driving mixes. Leaf-shaped earrings. Simple vocal harmony.
Filling the well from rock-bottom is not easy or glamorous . That afternoon, I took a deep breath, walked out of the bathroom, and went straight to CVS, where I bought a box of Puffs Plus to keep in my desk. There would be more crying ahead, and I was tired of wiping my nose with industrial toilet paper. Some days, that’s all you can do.
Clean sheets. Picnics. Paying for a stranger’s coffee. Taking a different route to work. Peacock blue. Celebrating unexpected holidays. The Wailin’ Jennys. Fresh fruit. The slow swirling of milk in coffee. Warm washcloths on my eyes. Ice cream.
Each of these is a wellspring. Each of these has filled my well. I am no longer lying on that bathroom floor, but I am still filling. Filling the well is the work of our lives. And my hope is that this space will help me – and all of us – keep filling.
For the next month, I will be writing about my daily intentions to fill the well. My joys, of course, might often be unique to me. But the practice of intentionally creating spaces of joy? I hope that can be universal.
Welcome to the well. Fill it up.
Joy begins in words and music. Each day, I’ll share some of each.
Light, put to music:
Light, put to words: