A few years ago, I got caught in a spiral of sadness and anxiety like I’d never experienced before. I cried every day — outbursts of tears so intense my ribs ached afterwards. Panic attacks laid me out on the floor of the bathroom, gasping for air.
And then, one day, the sadness left. The crying fits stopped, cleared like a summer thunderstorm, and exposed something worse: emptiness. My inner world, usually rich and wild and electric, went dark.
The writer Andrew Solomon once described depression as “losing the sense of the inevitability of your own being alive.” I remember looking into my own eyes in the mirror during this time, trying to find a spark, a glimmer, some proof of life, and there was nothing. The scary part was that I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anything. I was gone.
One afternoon, my friend Jessica called me and asked how I was doing. Jessica is one of the bravest, most honest people I’ve ever met. She has written openly about her mental health struggles, and made so many people feel normal, and seen, and less alone. I am so lucky to be her friend.
I told Jessica I wasn’t doing well. That day-to-day life felt like an obstacle course I kept failing.
She said, “Sometimes all you can do is fold one piece of laundry. Or wash one dish. If you can’t go for a walk, maybe you can put your shoes on, and go outside, and look at the leaves. Just look at the leaves. Sometimes that has to be enough.”
I took her advice. And while it didn’t cure my depression, it nudged me forward and through it. I went outside every day, sometimes for two minutes, sometimes for 20, and I looked at the leaves.
Things eventually got better. I got better. But I still think about Jessica’s advice a lot, especially when the world feels heavy and scary and dark: Just look at the leaves. And I’ve come to think of “leaves” as anything we can turn our attention to that makes life feel more inevitable. Any ordinary miracle.
I find leaves everywhere.
There’s the way one of my dog’s ears flops over when he’s tired.
There’s a cherry tomato, grown in a friend’s garden, so sweet and bright it causes a momentary bout of synesthesia: it tastes like sunshine.
There’s singing a song with a friend in the car — is there anything more wonderful and joyful and miraculous than this? What are the chances, I think to myself while playing air guitar in the passenger seat, that we’re both here now, on the same road, in the same car, in the same lifetime, and that we know the same song, and we’re harmonizing (or not) with wild abandon?
There’s my neighbor, Lynn, volunteering at our local polling place (a church basement) on election day, telling me about her recipe for homemade bread while I pick up my “I voted!” sticker.
There’s the sound of a home run coming off the bat, the reckoning of a ball destined for greatness from the moment it left the pitcher’s hand.
There are outlaw poets like Dean Young writing truths like this:
“The thing about squeezing lemons
is you find out how cut-up you are.”
There’s a honky tonk down the road from my house where every minute of every day, there are phenomenal musicians playing banjos and steel guitars and passing around a mayo jar for tips.
There’s a late-night text conversation.
There’s a stupid joke from said text conversation that flashes through my head while I’m sitting in traffic and makes me laugh until there are tears streaming down my cheeks.
There’s the perfectly flaky croissant it takes Nick two days to make, folding the butter and the dough again and again and again.
There’s a firefly hovering in front of me on my evening walk, blinking like a lighthouse as the sun goes down.
There’s Dolly Parton.
There’s bourbon. And ice.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: things are really tough right now. There is so much to be afraid of, so many reasons to disconnect and numb out and hide. But no matter how dark or scared or empty we feel, we can choose to pay attention. We can choose, as Cheryl Strayed says, to put ourselves in the way of beauty. We can find a small, gentle reason to be a little bit in awe.
We can look at the leaves.