I didn’t open the window and I didn’t jump off the 16th floor of my father’s condo building but I considered it for far longer than is advisable as yesterday and today blended into one. After spending a year living out of a suitcase in transit while working nonstop, chronic lack of rest is playing cat and mouse with my brain. To compensate for low pay or no pay, I rely extensively on compulsive productivity; writing is how I survive, how I stay alive.
Unlike people, writing is always accessible and since it is aimed at people, it is a way of getting the same result by coming up with a different equation. It forces you to get out of your head and take a step back. What’s more, keeping your head down, your eyes on the cursor, and your fingers on the keyboard can save you.
It does me, again, but it isn’t an essay this time, just another form of communication that demands I choose my words very carefully. It takes a very long time and when I’m done, there’s no time left for sleep so I try and figure out how to make myself presentable instead as today is going to be a very long day, traveling from Paris back home to the Netherlands. Whenever possible, I choose not to fly so it takes longer but there’s something deeply restful about train travel even though I work throughout, plus comfier seats and more leg room.
Tiptoeing to the kitchen in the middle of the night, I root around the cupboard for green tea, hoping it might help restore my face to normal. My eyes look like purple donuts with a squirt of strawberry jam in the hole, a vision that would put most special effects makeup artists to shame. The sobbing has subsided somewhat thanks to listening to music on a loop as I am wont to do whenever I either need to conjure up focus or there is no one to turn to. I brew some very strong green tea with two stringless bags and wait for them to cool down before plopping them on my ocular donuts for 45 minutes.
Alas, they don’t deflate and I still look like a boxer decked me so I go shower to prepare for the day. But before I catch the high speed train and embark on my journey, I must navigate local buses and a commuter train, all packed. Because I am lugging two large suitcases and my backpack office, I expect passengers’ wrath.
To quell tears, I stick earbuds in my ears and surrender to music, smiling benevolently at people even though it’s a Monday morning. My parents are going to the day oncology ward again so we travel part of the way together; Dad is looking after my lighter but nonetheless voluminous suitcase. I have the slightly bigger and much heavier one. Exiting the bus, I barely have time to disembark and turn around to help him that a lady has already grabbed the suitcase and put it on the sidewalk. At the station, it is another lady who helps him carry it up the steps and when we thank her profusely, she shrugs Frenchly to signal it is the most normal thing in the world.
My harried brain processes those random acts of kindness with gusto and disbelief; Dad is a strapping lad but he’s also elderly. Also, it is women and not men who volunteered help and this makes me so happy I can feel tears welling up again because I didn’t any of expect this. The train pulls into the station and we’re unsure whether we will be able to board it in time, even when heading for the first and closest carriage. As my stepmom takes my hand to steady herself because chemo side effects have made walking painful and slow, the driver pops his head out of the window.
We smile at each other and he nods at me to indicate he will make sure we board and board we do, squeezing into an already packed carriage. Immediately, someone gives up their seat for my stepmom, unbidden; my heart soars and I no longer trust myself to hold it together.
Under normal circumstances, kindness gets me every time but the worse I feel, the more magnified its effect and the longer it lasts. And that’s the moment when I know that despite exhaustion and emotional wobbliness, I will be OK; I soak up the good vibes and let them soothe me. I am beaming in my own colorful donut-eyed way and my world has stopped no falling apart as it was a few hours ago.
Getting to Paris Nord, the hostess at the lounge I never thought of using before is welcoming and gracious even though I can’t find my membership card. I enter a cocoon of calm and set up my mobile office on the communal table, feeling right at home among the motley crew of frequent travelers. Stress falls off me in paragraphs and although there are delays and cancelations today, they don’t matter as long as I get home, whenever that may be.
Little do I realize then that I’ve activated the switch again, the “can do” mindset that sets my person aside to focus on those around me. I acquired it when working as an international tour director a few years ago; I’d get through impossibly harrowing days on little to no sleep by totting up random acts of kindness. They seem to answer to the universe’s strangest law: The more you look, the more they abound and multiply, and the easier the day gets as a smile eventually rearranges even the saddest of faces.
Next time your inner dialogue begins to dwell on how horrible you feel, tell yourself you feel capable instead because it changes everything. This promotes greater ease that ripples out to all those around you, whoever they may be.
Most importantly, this helps postpone the collapse and, with a little luck, you stand a decent chance of circumventing it altogether thanks to human warmth.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.