After You Break the Ceiling

by | Feb 7, 2022 | CNF, Issue Twenty Five

After You Break the Ceiling

for Elizabeth

For a while, you fall upward. Gravity is weird and different, unpredictable without the constant weight of competition and comparison holding you in check. Your body feels light then heavy then light again. You wonder if you will float forever, maybe all the way to the moon.

Maybe that is what you’ve been working for this whole time—not the chance to do what you were put on earth to do, but the chance to just be. To not have to constantly think about clinging to every inch that got you within striking distance of that glass. It feels good. You feel good.

You lean into the weightlessness. You let parts of yourself relax that you had no idea could: muscles that have been taut for decades, inner fists clenched years ago that now unfurl. You tell yourself it is not your fault that safety feels foreign. You tell yourself it takes time to unlearn fear. You believe, for the first time, that there is enough time for this.

You rest. The energy you spent to get here is extraordinary. Some of it came from you. You exhausted every resource within you—grit, talent, privilege. But another energy source carried you, too. A great wave. Generations before you who built scaffolds of hope, who gave you leg-ups and hoists, even though they never tasted this air. They breathe it with you now. You belong to yourself for the first time. And belonging to yourself means you also belong to them.

The air is different here. It smells of nothing. It gets you a little high. You wonder if there’s more oxygen. You suck in inspiration like it will run out. You realize you fully expect it to run out. You cry for a while.

You begin to look around. It looks different than you thought it would. Brighter than even your imagination could conjure. You want to take a picture and send it back to someone. Wish you were here. You do not have a camera. You have only your two hands. And they are bleeding. Shards from the breaking embedded in your palms. You pull them out. You do this quickly, without feeling the pain because you still expect to have to fight something up here. You have been fighting for so long.

Then someone comes alongside. They are gentle, they are quiet. They approach you in the way someone with no ill intent might approach an animal stuck in a trap. In their eyes you see wisdom gained from pain, you see the sorrow they hold for your own pain. You look at their hands extended toward yours and you see scars that match those of your new wounds.

As they remove the glass from where it has lodged in your skin and hair and clothes, a wordless reckoning passes between you. You feel their apology for the pain, not for the fact of it, but for their not having mentioned it earlier. Like the apology a mother makes to her child after birth—sorry for the fact that we all awaken to life through pain.

You mourn your broken hand along with the broken world. You do this together. You watch them heal you, knowing you must learn how to do this for others. You learn the sorrow song of mending wounds that never should have been. You learn the sweet sadness of welcoming others into a life you know has cost so many so much, that is a cost so many cannot afford.

When you are wiped and bandaged, your guide takes you to the place where the others wait. You are surprised in both ways—at how many there are, at how few there are. You think of the faces that you passed along the way. You consider organizing a search and rescue team until your guide reminds you that to breaking the glass can kill you.

They show you the portraits of those who arrived here and then went mad, whose lungs could not tolerate the air, whose eyes, so accustomed to the dimness, failed them in the brilliance of here. Of those who pioneered this place, who understood that one must acclimate to such freedom. That freedom is a thing to be acclimated to causes a pain in your head. They explain that this pain is called rage.

You know that you were not a rock hurled blindly. What if?

You are a calculated arrow. You were formed and shaped and honed for this. Sometimes by loving hands like those which hold you now. Other times by those turned into instruments of violence. You developed a hunger for this place, a bodily need for it that lived in your gut and which drove you toward it despite shaming and violence, despite losses and fear. You learned how to survive so that you might someday live.

So much of what you learned in order to get here must be unlearned now. All the dodges and feints, all the defenses and offenses. You didn’t remember putting on all this armor, but there it is.

You take off one piece at a time when you believe the vulnerability will not kill you. There is no rush. There are no distractions.

You feel life expanding inside you, as if there is more room for your organs, your feet, your mind. You begin to take up more space, starting from the inside out.

You feel like a strange new species, capable of holding tenderness and ferocity together now that you are not forced to choose between them. You hope, without certainty, that if you parented a child, that the child could be born here and learn this before anything else.

You stay for as long as you need. You take your turn as the guide, the healer, the teacher. You learn a new way of being—of being with. Every person you welcome helps you to release all that is not necessary. You become healed. You become strong. The place seeps into your bones and heart. It changes your gait, your smile, your accent.

You will never be able to hide that you are marked by this place. You will never want to hide that you are marked by the place.

One day, you wake up fearless. It is like threat has walked out of the room and you know it is gone forever. (How long this takes cannot be predicted. No guide or healer can tell you. There is no rushing it.) And then, it is time to go back.

You carry with you everything you need—your vision, your heart, your strength, a sense of the way the air tastes, a certainty that only freedom can give you. You will never seen this place again. It lives inside you. You leave to help others on their ascent. This is all you have to help lift them: Your body. Your story. Your remembering. You are ready when you realize this is enough.

You balance yourself on the shards you exploded through and then you fall. People watch you. Some of them expect you to fall to your destruction and so that is what they see. But a few others watch you and recognize the way that you land on your feet, look around, get to work.

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