It's possible I was held for too long.
The last date I went on: a man and I walked along Newport, Kentucky's flood wall, where he attempted to hold my hand. I flinched and shrugged out of it. We did not go out again.
I don't date well. There is a lack of motivation and enthusiasm on my end. These deficits seem to expand (versus shrink) as I spend more and more time alone.
I'm not invulnerable to loneliness, nor do I strive to be.
Besides, you can date someone, or more than one someone—you can even be in love—and still be lonely.
It's a story I first heard in my mother's womb, probably—one hammered into my brain for the first eighteen years of my life: a man, "the Son of God," was crucified, hung on a wooden cross until the life slipped from his body. He did this for us—all of humanity—to pay for our sins because He loved us.
I can still hear the voices of the Church muttering around me: For us men and for our salvation... He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day, He rose again...
I can still see the twelve-foot-tall crucifix suspended high above the altar at Saint Mary Church, all muted and beige-toned. The sculpted man is not nailed to the cross, more affixed, as though a giant wad of sticky tac in the center of his back holds him to the wooden beam. He's fully dressed in clean robes. Arms wide open, but not for a hug. His hands reach more toward the ceiling, like a performer readying his bow. Head upright. Tawny, manicured waves of hair framing his clearly Caucasian face—quite the Zen expression for someone crucified.
It's just one of many symbols for one of many gods. But that depiction—it's not the kind of death that paid for anything. No, love is much messier.
I used to lie on my bedroom floor and listen to the saddest love songs from the collection of CDs I owned (they weren't that sad—it was 90s pop music). I was a pre-teen, small-town Catholic schoolgirl with heart still fully intact. I couldn't identify with the pain blaring through my boombox speakers, but Christ, did I want to.
So the story goes: this man, the Son of God, was betrayed and sentenced by the very people he sought to save. He was spit on, whipped and beaten, humiliated. A crown of thorns was forced onto his skull. Uphill and through crowds of people he was made to carry the crossbar he would soon hang from on his bloodied, tattered back. He was offered wine mixed with myrrh to ease the pain. He refused it.
Upon reaching the dreaded destination, he lay horizontally while two sturdy, iron nails were driven through his flesh and into the wood. The nails were strategically hammered in between the bones of his forearms, near the wrists, missing any major blood lines while still in a position to hold the full weight of his body without ripping through the skin.
Once the beam was raised and affixed to its post, the man's feet were stacked for a third nail to be plunged through and secure him to the cross. The soldiers then stripped him of his clothes.
Imagine this man truly was the Son of God. Imagine he had the power to skip out on this particularly brutal fate.
Falling in love for the first time was delicious, blissful, weightlessness. Gravity lost its grip. I existed in a way I hadn't before—it was a high, not really like falling at all.
Irrepressible smiles. Kisses that turned into more. Sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet in the woods and hold onto one another. Nothing else mattered, just that feeling in the center of my chest when we were together, wound so tight it took my breath away. Happiness so surreal it hurt.
The Roman method of crucifixion served to kill by way of asphyxiation. The weight of the body pulling on the arms caused the ribcage to lift in a perpetual state of inhalation. Along with blood loss and organ failure, the inability to exhale eventually led to death.
According to the Bible, Jesus hung on the cross for six hours until he lost consciousness. That's 21,600 seconds of torture. 21,600 moments in which he chose to sacrifice himself for love. His followers begged him to come down, to save himself.
Pain to hold on, pain to let go. Man can only take so much, even if he is the Son of God.
One soldier shoved a spear through Christ's side at the end, just to make sure he was dead.
That's first heartbreak for you.
My only relationship of significance was like a Catholic Mass. I sought the familiar, the ritualistic, hoping to find truth and love and peace. I was met with rules. And repetition. Sit, stand, kneel. Sit, stand, kneel.
I fell for the same man over and over, though he was just a boy when we began. Find the high, rest in it, until it's a wound in your chest that brings you down. Get back up. Again and again.
Sing your praise. Profess your faith. Confess your sins. Repent.
Catholic weddings. I've attended plenty; I've been a part of plenty (always a bridesmaid). Sit, stand, kneel. Sing. Profess. Keep your eyes open. Suppressing joy is tiring. Or was that the booze we had in the limo?
"I ____ take you ____ for my lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part."
The rings go on with smiles and kisses. They're happy. We're happy.
Is that my only alternative to being alone? Being "had" and "held" by a man until I die?
Catholic couples can now choose from a variety of vows allowed by the Novus Ordo of the Holy Sacrament of Marriage.
"I ____ take you ____ to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."
It's a positive spin, I think. No having, no holding, no death. Leave the money out of it.
I imagine I'll marry outdoors, should the opportunity present itself. Plenty of wiggle room.
"Love is patient, love is kind... it is not self-seeking." But put your own desires on hold for too long and being alone starts to look like spiked wine after a long day of human torture.
Holding is illegal in the American game of football if it's unfair play or if it increases the risk for injury. Both offense and defense can be penalized for illegal holding.
There are too many rules in football. And in church. In life, really.
Fail to adhere to them, and you're held in contempt.
My ex will tell you—sports never held my attention. Too much emphasis on winning and possession. Rules didn't either.
Always holding me. Back. Down. Too tightly.
How much blame can I award my opponent, though, when it was I who couldn't let go of the loss?
It's possible I held on for too long.
Q: Why do we hold on to that which causes us pain?
A: It's a familiar grip.
Alone. Empty hands, empty arms, and empty beds. Or together, clawing each other apart. Which is better? Which is worse?
Pain to hold on, pain to let go—the heart can only take so much. I let mine go numb, numb, numb. And then I slipped away from him. Or he from me. We slipped from each other. It was a relief to break up, to hit something solid—the steely sense of alone. It was a relief to shatter.
I picked up the pieces of myself, held them in my hands, and began to examine them.
When studying your broken heart:
Build a fortress, a stronghold to protect the pieces.
Relish the solitude. Soak up the space that is yours. All yours. Bask in it.
Be your own security guard. Make your own rules.
Herd your wounded love inward. Gently.
Ask: what is it you desire? Then be quiet and wait for your answer.
I was nanny to the sweetest baby boy for the first part of his life. All he wanted was to be fed and held. My favorite time was rocking him to sleep. He'd coo in the dark and grab at my face with his chubby hand. His warm body would snuggle into me as he drifted off to dream. Even after he learned to crawl, he would stop in the middle of the floor and reach for a hug.
But learning to walk is a rite of passage, a marker of independence. And before I knew it, James didn't want to be held anymore. I missed the weight of him in my arms. He seemed to view it as a means of control, though. Even at naptime for a while, he didn't want to be rocked—didn't want to be soothed or lulled to sleep. It had to be his decision. He wouldn't be tricked into going anywhere or doing anything.
One summer day we visited the zoo. James didn't want to walk, and he didn't want to ride in his stroller.
"Carry me, Na-na," he kept saying. "Hold me."
It was nasty hot, and the air smelled like fly-covered animals and saggy diapers. The SPF 50 had melted off both of us, and I found myself getting irritable.
"Of course I'll carry you, baby," I sighed and reached for him, then kissed his sweaty cheek.
My brother likes to climb rock walls, man-made and natural. He has special shoes and harnesses and a club at his university filled with friends who also like to climb rock walls. He took me to a gym last year for my first climb.
Forty-five feet looks higher when you're standing at the base of it. Foot and handholds, painted like candy sprinkles, look decidedly less fun when you're about to scale them.
At RockQuest, you can auto-belay or human-belay, if your human has been certified by RockQuest, which my brother has. Auto-belay is when you attach your harness and line to a machine that will catch you when you fall, or are ready to come down. Human-belay is when you trust your younger brother to tie the right knots, pay enough attention, and have the appropriate strength to catch you when you fall. Or are ready to come down.
Brandon wanted to belay me for my first climb.
"Why?" I asked, fully trusting the machine over my brother.
"Because it's a little easier. I can hold your weight if you want a break. Or I can give you a boost if you need it—some tension in the rope to help lift you."
"I can't take breaks on the auto-belay?"
"No. Once it senses your weight it takes you down."
I chose the easiest wall to start. Tilted slightly to my advantage and only thirtyish feet high. Nerves squealing and adrenaline pumping, time seemed to stop as I began climbing. My mind understood it was "safe," but my body knew it was scaling a rock. I was hyperaware of my muscles, big and small, working together to grip, steady, stretch, and climb. My brain was oddly quiet, except for the register of my brother's cheers.
I was ecstatic when I reached the top. And then I was afraid.
"How do I get back down?" I yelled stupidly. My arms began to shake.
"Just kick off from the wall," he said. "I've got you."
But I couldn't. I held my breath, frozen.
"Natalie, just let go," my brother demanded in his patient manner.
My body laughed meanly at the thought of trying to climb back down using the tiny, scattered holds. I would surely slip and fall and die. Or at least injure myself.
"Make sure you kick off the wall," Brandon repeated.
I sucked in some air and pushed off with arms and legs, falling back into nothing. The harness immediately tightened against my weight as my brother lowered me safely to the ground, and I found my breath again.
I tried the next few walls with auto-belay, so Brandon could get some climbing in, too. He was right. It was different doing it alone. There was no one adjusting the slack on the line, giving me a boost when I needed it. When I got tired, I just gave up and fell backwards without making it to the top.
My brother belayed me on a more difficult wall toward the end of our day. My muscles were spent, but he reminded me that it was easier with a partner. I could feel the difference now, could feel him pull me up when the next hold was just a centimeter out of my reach. I was about three-fourths of the way up when I yelled down that I was done.
"No, you're not," he said.
I hadn't made it to the top of any walls in the last hour. Not even the easy ones.
"I'm too tired," I whined.
"You're almost there. You got this."
I felt him tug on the rope so that I moved upward ever so slightly. I knew he was tired, too. I had watched him climb all afternoon. He was holding me up, though, and he thought I could do it.
So I did.
Then my foot cramped up, and I slipped, but my human-belayer caught me.
A fortress keeps people out, but doesn't it also keep me in? Lately I wonder if my loneliness is a holding cell in a prison I built.
Maybe I want to have and to hold someone. Maybe I want someone to have and hold me.
Where to start, though? Surely not at the beginning, with a hammer and nail through the flesh.
I take a hot yoga class once or twice a week. At the studio I attend, the practice is sixty minutes long, and the room hovers around 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
Perspiration begins before the mats hit the floor.
You hold the poses for three breaths, five breaths, ten breaths—I don't know. It depends on the instructor, the sequence, and your own mood. Because sometimes three breaths feel as long as twenty, when you're slipping and sliding in a pool of your own sweat, legs shaking, lungs gasping for hot air.
"Your body is your boss," the teachers say. "I'm just here to guide you. You are always free to return to Corpse Pose, or Savasana, if the heat gets to be overwhelming."
I never lie down in Savasana. I've been taking the class since the studio opened. I like pushing myself to what feels like the brink of hell. It's a cleansing of the mind and body, soothing—not during, necessarily, but after—an especially delicious relief that awaits.
One morning, I had an errand to run and ended up at the studio thirty minutes before the start of class.
"I'm just going to go in and contemplate life," I smiled to Nikki, the owner.
She laughed and waved me in.
The room was just beginning to warm up as I unrolled my mat. I stretched out on my back, palms up, settling in all cozy and happy it was Friday. I never have the room all to myself. It was so peaceful. The music hadn't even started.
I allowed my eyes to close.
I gasped and sat up, sweat pouring from my face. The yogis had snuck in and were all positioned around me. Music was playing in the background. Nikki caught my eye and laughed.
"I fell asleep," I whispered.
"I know," she mouthed back, giggling. "Good morning, everyone," she said aloud, beginning class.
When we hit our first downward dog, just a few minutes in, I knew I was in trouble. My breathing was louder than usual. The sweat was already pooling on my mat. I mopped it frantically with my drenched towel.
Nikki led us into Warrior II, a pose that relies heavily on leg strength. "Breathe through the discomfort," she said, but I couldn't. My thigh muscles were on fire, quaking when they should have been steady. What was wrong with me?
As we stretched our spines backward into Reverse Warrior, my vision went spotty. I collapsed into Child's Pose until the dizziness wore off. My ego was annoyed. I had been looking forward to this class all week.
I dragged myself off the ground a few more times to re-join the class's movements, determined to hold the poses my body was fervently rejecting. When I neared the point of passing out, I gave up, returning to my back the same way I'd started. We weren't even halfway through.
Nikki walked over and nudged my shoulder.
"Hey, are you okay?" she whispered.
"I'm fine. Don't let me take any more thirty-minute hot naps before class."
She laughed and returned to teaching.
I rested in Savasana for the remainder of the hour. My breath slowed. So did my mind. Despite my failure to hold challenging poses in hundred-degree heat, I found the peace I had come for. Or maybe it found me.
Sometimes it takes more strength to surrender.
Who holds the cards in the game of life? Rather, who do I want to hold my cards?
If I hold them, I'm in charge. But there are so many people at the table. I make my plays, in part, based off theirs. It's all a guessing game of paranoia and fear, one I'll probably end up losing, one I wasn't even enjoying in the first place.
If I give my cards to someone else, someone I perceive to be an excellent card player, I can pretend to have fun while secretly worrying that he can't be trusted and will ruin my life.
If I rip up my cards and throw them into the air like confetti, maybe God will find it amusing and help me out.
I joined my brother and his friends one weekend to go rock climbing in Tennessee, a park called Obed Wild and Scenic River. It was my first experience outdoor bouldering—climbing smaller rock formations (less than twenty feet high) without a harness or rope.
If there is no harness and no rope, you have to depend solely on yourself, the rock, and the people spotting you from the ground with giant crash pads. (So mostly yourself and the rock.)
Boulders are ranked or graded by how difficult their "problems" are to solve. V0 is the easiest, V16 the hardest. Problems are the sequence of moves a climber needs to make in order to successfully master the boulder route. One rock in the boulder field might have a V0 route, but it might also have a V4 and a V8, for example.
I watched Brandon, who has been climbing for two years, work on a V4 for an hour, falling to the ground over and over, for the thrill of making it one or two moves closer to the finish.
"Solving the problems becomes addicting," Brandon said, "but since it's your first time, you should just get comfortable on the rock. Don't worry about the sequence."
They took me to a V0; it was high. A twenty-footer. But I could see how it was "easier" than what the others had been working on. There were no overhangs, no tricky formations that would require me to hang horizontally like a sloth or "cut feet" (a move that requires both feet leave the rock, as in you're temporarily holding on with hands only). It was just a vertical slab, slightly angled, with visible ledges and crevices for my hands and feet to maneuver.
I went halfway up, quickly, before my adrenaline gave way to panic.
"I think I'll come down now," I said.
They walked me through the down-climb, moving the crash pads so they were always directly below me.
"There's a ledge for your right foot about six inches down."
"You got it. We got you."
When I touched the ground, they all smiled and high-fived me. I laughed, feeling safe again.
"Take your time," Brandon said. "You don't have to be in any rush. When you find a comfortable place to rest, take a few deep breaths before moving on."
I went for round two—more slowly, focused, attentive, careful. I remembered to breathe, and my body remembered the moves that had carried me halfway up just minutes before.
I climbed higher and higher, addicted, no longer worried about how to get down. They would help me. And I could do this. I could feel it. I was strong and capable. I just had to trust myself.
"Feel around for the best holds," someone shouted up to me.
I made it to the top. I made it back down. I climbed all day until my body was exhausted, and my mind was buzzing from the fear and excitement. I took some falls, but my spotters always caught me.
I discovered the power of a good hold in the rock. Sometimes, it's just an inch or two further than your current position. Sometimes, it's a foot in the opposite direction you were heading. But by allowing yourself a patient curiosity, by exploring the rock with fingertips and toes, you can find the right hold to take you further.
It's not always perfect. But it's the connection you need, to rest, to feel secure and safe, to remind yourself that you can solve the next problem.
Title image "Dangler" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.