The padding did nothing to keep my shoulders from aching under the weight of everything I had crammed inside. I was late. If I didn’t hustle, I would miss the bus, which meant I would need to haul these textbooks and notebooks and leftover sand all the way to downtown Honolulu on foot.
I picked up the pace, wiping the beads of sweat from my neck and readjusting the straps to let the ruts in my skin breathe. As I rounded the corner, I could see bus taillights. If I ran, I would make it. But before I could even reach the glass accordion doors, I remembered my essay. The one that was due for the afternoon’s English class, sitting in the printer on my bedroom floor. The one thing I actually needed, I had forgotten.
Shoot, shoot, shoot.
I turned away from the bus and began sprinting in the direction of the duplex I shared with two newish friends. I got about a block before the truth hit that no matter how fast I ran, I would never have enough time to get home and back to campus before my morning class started.
I slowed to a walk as I climbed the hill overlooking Waikiki and found my key. When I was back inside the house, I dropped my backpack on the floor and started to cry, a homesick kind of wail that has more to do with screwing up than loneliness, so certain that perfection was within reach if I tried hard enough.
Now, unless you’re Joan of Arc or St. Francis, I know it is dangerous to claim you’ve heard directly from God. But in that silent room with its bare futon mattress on the floor in the shadow of the surfboard I bought when I moved here, I felt a voice in my gut ask, “Why are you carrying so much?”
Even then, I knew it had nothing to do with the Hemingway short stories hidden inside the front pocket, or the art book, or the bathing suit and board shorts (to cover the thighs I was constantly attempting to camouflage), or the notebook filled with bad attempts at poetry, or the packs of gum in case I drank coffee and couldn’t brush my teeth.
I stretched out next to my enormous pack, letting those cool tiles press against my burnt shoulders until my breathing slowed and my eyelids fell heavy. It’s funny, I don’t remember waking up or what I unpacked before heading back out in the afternoon sun, but I can still feel the weightlessness of that pack bouncing as I walked down Kapahulu Ave.
A lot has changed since my Hawai’i years. Most of my wandering now takes place inside my brain. I read news articles about far away places and worry about the future. I scan Facebook for something interesting to pass the time. I search my memory for a name, for where I put my keys after that trip to the grocery store. Did I turn off the coffeemaker before hauling my squirming toddler to the car? What was the name of that book I really wanted to read? An endless loop of thoughts, without a clear beginning or end.
There’s hardly any travel. I almost never sleep on a friend-of-a-friend’s couch or meet an interesting stranger on a bus. I am not nearly as tan or toned. But that tendency towards schlepping around things I don’t actually need is just as real at 35 as it was at 19.
This week I sat in church nearly despondent, feeling like I had disappointed someone, embarrassed because I said something stupid to someone else, and worried that that literary agent, the one I had such high hopes for, will pass on my book. So many what-ifs swirling inside my brain, playing havoc with my peace. I haven’t seen it for more than a decade, but that scuffed up backpack might as well have been glued to my shoulders.
And, then in the quiet of that moment with the pastor speaking and my son squirming in his daddy’s lap, and the sound of a chair squeaking, something miraculous happened: I snapped out of myself long enough to see clearly what I was toting around in my head. The weight of trying to be exactly what people want, the version that they most want to know or hire or befriend.
An exhausted chameleon.
For a second I tried to push the truth down, but what is church, if not a place to come clean? So, I let all the ugliness hang out there in the open. Then, I prayed, that mysterious exchange where you get ready to duck and cover only to discover there’s love on the other end.
When we got home, I told my husband all about my people-pleasing epiphany, and he smiled like, yeah I know, and then gave me a huge hug even though it was close to 80 degrees inside our house and he hates being hot as much as I despise being cold.
Good marriage is a lot like prayer.
Later that night, I grabbed my wallet—purposely leaving my tote on the dining table—and met a teacher friend who I’ve known for years. We drank diet cokes and ate greasy enchiladas, and I told her all about the people-pleasing epiphany. She gave me the same yeah I know smile my husband had, and then we talked until we were the only people in the restaurant and the server changed into his street clothes.
Friendship might be like prayer, too.
Even with all that food in my belly, I went home weightless.
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life. She’s not too fond of makeup (much to her mother’s chagrin) or clutter, but can’t get enough of sentences that cut to the heart and people that others overlook.