One Small Piece of Hope

I was talking to my mom the other day, and I told her about one of the things I use to get through the hard times. A couple days later she told me she had relayed it to my dad, and it really touched him. It’s a pretty deep emotional dig but I wanted to share with you what I shared with my mom, and provide the piece of writing that it came from.

For lack of creativity, I call it my one-small-piece-of-hope theory. It’s a survival tactic I developed through some pretty heavy mediation and it goes like this: Somewhere in the hidden recesses of my existence there’s a part of me, or a version of me whose sole purpose for existing is to hold sentry duty over this almost imperceptibly small fragment of hope that he found. So, when things go from desperate to way worse (as they seem to have again lately) one of the things I do is rally around that little guy who’s standing guard over this itty-bitty little whisper of light. I always envision him as a child hood me. He’s dirty, cold, and scared as hell. But he found and thus possesses the one thing no other version of me has ever had or been able to find: source of hope, however small.  

February of 2019 was an incredibly difficult time for me. It wasn’t dark, it was pitch black. Looking for work and living off of student loans, I was staying with a friend of mine. Three major things were in play:

1. It was the one-year marker of my divorce and I was still recovering from the massive heart break that came along with the end of a 14-year marriage.

2. The summer before I got into a relationship with a girl that, for several very good and very obvious reasons (all of which I quite gleefully ignored) I most defiantly should not have. Perhaps chiefly among them: the fact still healing from the divorce and in no way emotionally ready for a serious relationship.

3. I had just returned from a short-lived attempt at reestablishing my life in Portland. In what I still refer to as a massive mistake I’m glad I made, I half followed forementioned girl / half tried to make a longtime dream come true. I quit my job in public education (not a wise decision) and with the couple grand I had been able to save up took off with reckless abandon headed west. I’ve written at length about Portland, mostly in weepy drunk poetry. It lasted two weeks and was a complete and utter failure. Twenty-two days after I left I returned humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed, flat broke, emotionally and spiritually broken and at least a bit (lower case t) traumatized.   

What made Portland so devastating was that I had only just begun getting myself put back to together when I tried to move. I had just barely gotten back onto emotionally stable footing, and was in no way prepared for the damage that resulted from what in hindsight looks like almost guaranteed failure. And here’s where I make a subtle and likely confusing shift in narrative, continuing on with the piece I had written back on some cold snowy day in February of 2019…

I had only just barely started feeling good, and on my feet again. Being torn from that small height, well, it has really taken a lot out of me. I feel like there’s just not much of me to give. Not in any kind of romantic way, not much in any other way. To say it’s hard for me to have much hope for the future, regardless of all the things I have going for me right now (and I’m truly grateful for my blessings, of which there are many, no doubt.) is a fucking understatement. (capital f, capital u) I’m not saying there is no hope for me. In theory, I know there is. In that “life has a way of working out” and “just keep getting back on the horse” and “can’t keep a good man down”, I get it. I don’ have to end up 50 and homeless, drinking myself to death just so I have an excuse to bounce from one VA rehab facility to the next, for want of anything productive to do with my life. I get that I can be a success, in some measurable level, and live a life of relative fulfillment and satisfaction.

But sometimes I just really don’t believe that. And really, that part of my thinking is hard to engage these days. It’s hard to engage in general, but these days… mental illness is a mother fucker. It makes the “normal” things seem extraordinary. “Jesus. You mean you’ve worked for 6 months straight, 40 hours a week, without an unscheduled day off? And you’re not going crazy? Wait… what? You said 6 years?! Um… Clearly, have gone crazy!” Me, I can’t last more than 2 months tops without needing a day to decompress. From any job. From anything. Sometimes I need two days. Anyway…

It’s hard to engage that hopeful part. It’s hard to source up that silver lining mentality. It’s really, really hard to think that it’s not always going to be like this. Because it’s kind of always been like this.

I was having some meditative self-centering time, sort of focusing in on myself and my feelings. Maybe it’s because I really have gone over the guard rail, but I have these inner monologues, where I encourage and talk to myself. I take a very objective perspective on myself, and have these talks with myself, and I say a lot of the things I say to my loved ones when they go through similar things.

It’s difficult to find that quiet place in my head, sometimes. Where it’s easy to breathe and I feel completely safe and able to sit fully in the depths of my awareness. It’s not always an easy place to get to. But I find important things there, and the one I found not too long ago was protecting one small piece of hope.

Sitting there, really digging deep and feeling all the crushing weight of depression, embarrassment, failure, longing, need, heart break and regret, somewhere deep inside I asked myself, all the versions of me, if I could find one small piece of hope. Not a lot, not this massive unflappable belief that everything was going to work out and be fine. All I asked was:

“Can you find just one remaining piece of hope? Among all those broken pieces of everything, is there anything in there that you could call hope?”

I looked. It took some real lifting and moving things around, but somewhere in there, I found something. It was delicate, frail. A dried-up butterfly wing, so faint in structural integrity that it would turn to dust if pressed between two fingers. But it was there. Among the ship wreck of my life, somewhere on those battered and rocky shores I heard a voice:

“Yes. I found something.”

“Good. Then this is what I want you to do with it. And this, this is your job right now. This is all you need to focus on doing. Don’t think about doing anything else. You’re going to take that small piece of hope, and you’re going to put it some place safe. Put it some corner of that dark place of wreckage, some place on that stormy shore where it’s safe from the wind and the waves and the shifting falling boulders, sharp broken pieces and wreckage. Put it there and put your back to it, and keep it safe. You’re on sentry duty. Stand there, sit there, curl up and sleep there, march in circles and sing songs and do whatever you need to do to make that your spot, where that little fragile piece of hope is safe. That’s all you’re going to do from now on, ok? Can you do that?”

I said I could. So, I did. And I am. That scared, timid, exhausted, broken version of me, who can barely stand, who is ashamed to see his own reflection, who doesn’t trust his own shadow and who is so on edge and anxious that he jumps if he breathes too loudly, that’s his job. That’s what he’s doing. He’s laying there, being afraid because he needs to be, letting all the hurt happen because he knows it has to, and knowing one day he’ll start healing, that some day he’ll feel better, and probably one day he’ll feel ok. But today isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.

He’s just going to stay there, on that stormy shore he washed up onto, amongst the wreckage of his wasted vessel. And he’s going to protect that small piece of hope, as fragile as a piece of butterfly wing, so that no matter what happens over the next few weeks (months and years, hell, the rest of my life), no matter how dark and brutal and painful it becomes (and it’s getting to be all those things again with a breath-taking speed) I can close my eyes and focus on that one piece of hope. It may not be enough so set sail on, it may not be enough to get me through a hurricane, but it’s enough to get me through a moment. It’s enough to get me back on both feet when I get the breath knocked out of me and I stumble and go to a knee. It’s enough to get me up and crawling again when I get knocked down entirely (which happens… sometimes a lot. Sometimes for days on end.) Because if I could find that one little, tiny, whisper thin piece of hope, I figure I can find more.

And that’s what my job is now: to find more.

And there it is. I didn’t leave myself much to go with as far as the ending. I guess maybe because it’s a point I keep coming back to. Over and over again, the thing that has gotten me through is rallying around the little guy with that one small piece of hope. We just sit there with him and wait out the storm and start looking for more when the waves calm down and it looks safe again.

Hold fast my friends,


Adam Ondra addiction Adventure Backpacking beyond the pale camping climbing coming out community crying employment Friendship healing healing trauma Hiking hiking wisconsin hope IAT IATA Ice Age Trail lgbtq+ love mental health mental health awareness new Outdoors outside Poetry polyamory Purpose queer recovery Red River Gorge road trip rock climbing self care self esteem Self help Self love sport climbing trad climbing Trauma travel travelogue understanding

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