It’s ten p.m. on New Year’s Eve. I am alone in my house, and having ingested my night’s indulgence (a vegan spelt cupcake), I’m listening to the radiator ticking and the occasional firework going off somewhere in the city, and aside from these bursts of noise, waiting in the otherwise strange stillness of the night. This afternoon, I ran in snow. Two patches of skin on my inner thighs are chapped from where my leggings had ripped, which I hadn’t noticed until the temperatures dropped to freezing. It’s cold, and not just because I was in California for a week and so got spoiled. It’s really winter now. Everyone is saying so. The sky is clear, the moon an egg-shaped waning gibbous, and Orion can be seen in all his starry glory. I feel the need to stay awake until midnight. I’m not sure why, but I’m going to obey.

Today, as I ran laps with snowflakes hitting my face and melting almost instantly, I thought of how much and in how many ways we humans need each other. We need each other because, when times get hard, it is so much easier for others to find the clarity in our situations, precisely because they are not living them. We need each other for perspective. We also need each other because we derive hope and endurance from hearing one another’s stories of trials, and look! You’ve come out on the other side and are wiser, humbler, and more compassionate for it, so chances are the same may happen to me. We need each other because life is as arduous as a trans-Atlantic journey in a boat that’s taking on water, and if we don’t help one another bail out the ocean, we all will surely drown.

But as much as we need each other, and as much as it can be helpful to hear one another’s stories, there comes a point when you realize that few or none of those stories may apply to your own. It’s like workshopping a short story. After a few times, you learn to sift out which critiques are helpful, which are not, and which may be helpful in some other context but are simply not relevant to the story you’re writing. This is different from not taking advice you just don’t want to hear because it’s difficult or challenging or uncomfortable. This is knowing intuitively that it does not apply to your story. It is being thankful for the opinion, then being okay with not taking it and moving on.

Because the other thing that occurred to me today, running in the snow, near-freezing temperatures singeing my skin, was this–when it comes down to it, we can only save ourselves. Yes, we need friends, and yes, we need to be willing to hold each other’s hands and have ours held as well. But human existence is so complex. Often, I scarcely understand my journey myself, so how can another person even begin to parcel out what I’m going through? In the end, only I know what I feel, what I know, what my heart and gut and spirit are telling me is true, and if that truth seems crazy, if it makes no sense to anyone else let alone myself, but I still can’t shake it–so be it. That is my truth.

Living your truth is difficult for a lot of reasons. Saving yourself is also difficult, also for a lot of reasons. I have a book burning inside of me that’s been burning inside of me for weeks, and yet, I haven’t been able to get myself to write it. Because to write it, I will have to peel back layers upon layers of truth and go to depths inside myself that I do not want to dive into. For the first time in my life, I don’t want to give my writing everything I have–I want to keep this pain as my own. No, I keep catching myself saying to the story, You can’t have this. This is mine. I can see my character, sitting on the floor of her house in the dark, and I know what she’s feeling. I know what she’s going through, and I know what I will have to go through to write her out of there. And I am terrified that, if I go into that room and sit down on that floor with her, I may never get back up.

But sometimes–no, all the time, the only way out is through. Sometimes, the only way to discover the truth is to tell the story. Sometimes, you can hold out a hand to someone for weeks and still have him refuse to take it, and then you have to recognize that is his choice. Sometimes, your dearest friends can help you bail the ocean out of your boat, and while you are grateful beyond measure for their camaraderie, there comes a point when you know their bailing will no longer keep you from drowning. There comes a point when–though you are loathe to admit it and petrified to look upon it–you know what action is going to save you, and you know that you will have to do this alone.

I keep thinking of “The Journey” by Mary Oliver. It may not be the most upbeat mantra with which to begin a new year, but maybe it is. Maybe the most courageous, bravest, boldest thing we can do is look life in the face and say, “You know what? I’m stronger than you. You will not break me.” Life sends its shouting voices into your heart and head, and only you can decide whether or not to listen. Only you can decide whether or not you will save your own life or let yourself drown. In the end, it’s just as C.S. Lewis said: “What can you ever really know of other people’s souls–of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands.” Your fate is in your hands. Perhaps that is a good new year’s mantra after all.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations–
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.