A Gift

I walked in my chunky Mary Janes and my worn jeans and my favorite sweater through the outdoor market on a sidestreet next to a chocolate shop. It was only a glorified garage sale, with tables cobbled together and stacks of clothes and books, but it was in Paris, so it was charming. Chipped pottery. Rusty keys. Books stacked haphazardly to the overcast sky, daring us to brush by carelessly and topple ancient texts to the pavement.
 
I felt old like the books that day. Barely standing upright. In danger of falling to the earth. Brittle and fragile and more beautiful and wise than I could see.
 
I was dirty and rattled and deep in the throes of mental illness, although I hadn’t discovered it yet. I mean, I was on the brink of discovering it, filled to the brim with anxiety and rage and the teeniest bit of self-loathing which is like saying there’s the teeniest bit of cholera in the water; it doesn’t matter how much is there to start — it will pollute the whole damn thing and kill you regardless. 
 
Yes, I was on the brink of discovering my depression in disguise, but I wasn’t there yet, and so I was still dying and not yet reborn but trying bravely to soldier on as though I wasn’t emotionally and spiritually bleeding out. 
 
We were on vacation – the vacation of a lifetime – and the pressure to enjoy myself was fierce, though mostly from within. 
 
How often do you visit Paris, Beth? PARIS. Geez. Seize the Day! Breathe it all in. Practice gratitude, for God’s sake. JUST BE MORE GRATEFUL already.
 
But, of course, I couldn’t give myself credit for being merely mindful of gratitude. For trying. No; I had to TRIUMPH at gratitude. WIN at gratitude. Beat myself with the gratitude stick until I was bruised and battered and had the joy in my heart to prove it. Like making a child both apologize and mean it, which is, of course, impossible, and yet we insist upon it. You will apologize to your sister for licking her doll again AND YOU WILL MEAN IT, except the Adult Gratitude Version is you will recognize not everyone gets to do this/have this/experience this, and you will be HAPPY YOU DO because we lie and tell ourselves that acts of contrition and mindful gratitude are nothing unless we can conjure the right feelings to accompany them, which is, of course, bullshit.
 
I wandered through the market that day and lost my companions to the tables that beckoned them. Old records. New scarves. And me to the middle-aged woman in the frumpy coat on the low-slung chair selling jewelry. Nothing vintage. Nothing from old Parisian estates. Just a few earrings carved from wood, some found agates strung into necklaces, and a polished rock or two.
 
My daughter came over and we haggled for earrings – the woman without English and me without French – over a small piece of paper with a pencil, writing small numbers back and forth until we agreed. The money changed hands, and I found myself with a little package in my hands, and then, because I was weary to my soul, I muttered something uncharitable to my kid about how we probably could’ve worn her down even more on price. It was a small and petty thing to say, and also probably untrue, but I consoled myself with the fact that I’d said it quietly and I’d smiled at the woman and she’d smiled back, and I turned to go which is when the woman stood and reached across the table and grabbed my smooth hand with her wrinkled one.
 
She grabbed my hand and held it in hers and looked at my eyes and gestured to the table between us, saying something earnestly in French.
 
I didn’t understand, so she said it again, but no luck or Babel Fish or translator appeared so she held my hand tighter in one of hers while she lifted a small, blue, stone pendant off the table with the other, and she held it out to me to see. I agreed it was pretty, but shook my head to tell her no; I was done purchasing for the day. Still, she wouldn’t let me leave until she pressed the stone into the hand she held and closed my fist over it. Then she shooed me away. 
 
A gift. 
 
I finally got it. 
 
A gift, she was saying. 
 
I said no, no with my mouth and my gestures; I couldn’t accept. I’d spent what? $5? $6? on the earrings. A “gift with purchase” made no sense. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. 
 
A gift, she insisted while she held my eyes, the pendant inside my fist.
 
I said, Merci and Thank You, and I left, wiping away sudden tears that confused me. 
 
In the years since I took her gift and walked away, I’ve wondered why she did it. Whether she heard my unkindness and chose to repay me with love anyway, which is the best kind of miracle I know. Whether she simply recognized I was lost and offered what she had to light my way home. Whether any part of her knew how much I’d come to treasure that stone and use it to remind myself to see people, too, the way she saw me that day at the market. To choose kindness to the stranger. To treat strangers like friends. And to believe, always, that the small lights we shine help each other find our way home. 
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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
23 comments
  1. Love this. So precious.

  2. The gift the women gave you is called lagniappe.

    Quite customery in New Orleans. It means doing something kind for someone that is neither expected nor required.

    Lagniappe

    Enjoyed your post.
    Thank you

    Ed

  3. You’re really good writer. I check in periodically to your adventures and always feel like, “wow…today, she just nailed it” of course, it’s b/c you’re pretty much nailing it every day. Good writing, amazing truth! thanks!

  4. Thank you Beth – your blog has really been a shining light for me.

    From when you first talked about how depression can be insidious and creeping, and manifest in anxieties and withdrawal, I recognised in myself what you so eloquently shared. To the present, where I am on medication and sharing and loving again – you are a beautiful, flawed, fabulous being (if I were religious I’m sure I’d see some kind of divine intervention in the day I unwittingly stumbled upon your site).

    So from sunny Australia, once again, thank you Mumma, for being and doing and living and sharing and showing us the way.

  5. This is beautiful.

  6. Beth, Thank you. Again.

  7. Amazing, Beth. Thank you for powerful writing!

  8. I can vividly picture this day in Paris, my heart is with you.

  9. Beth, YOU are such a gift. You really are. Your words, your willingness to share so much–it is such a gift. And PS, I can’t stop thinking about that beautiful photo of your son and his dog.

  10. I don’t know how you were able to put into perfect words how it feels before you hit bottom with depression. This piece touches my soul. I am celebrating one year of asking for help, starting therapy and taking meds. It has made a WORLD of difference in my life as a wife, mother, and friend. I don’t know where I would be right now if I had not asked for help. I remember being on similar trips to Sea Island with my family in the summer, Positano and Ravello in the fall… and I couldn’t feel ANYTHING…. except for the anxiety and the rage and the self-loathing. I went through the motions, did what was expected while I “emotionally and spiritually bled out.” You are a treasure and your words are full of healing and light. God bless you and your sweet family. Please know that what you do, what you write, what you expose (even your bottom!)… all are appreciated!

    1. I agree. I literally had flashbacks and physical sensations of weight and depression just connecting with this piece. Beth you have so masterfully put into words what “the brink” feels like. A piece that will help us depression sufferers and conquerers to connect and express ourselves to our families and friends who are at a loss to understand what we’re going through. Thank you!

  11. Thank you Beth. You always manage to post something like this when I need it most!

  12. Beth, this is why I read your blog. I haven’t read anything lately that resonates as much as this post did. Thank you.

    Maira, I am keeping you in my prayers. Please talk to someone about how you are feeling. It does get better with help. It’s not easy, but so worth it to get help.

  13. This is maybe one of the most beautiful and powerful things I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for sharing. I know it’s hard to be this vulnerable. You have a beautiful heart, Beth.

  14. OK, so reaching out here for some guidance… I’ve been feeling like this for far too long. Since August of last year when I first googled, “How to commit suicide and make sure it works” and “Will God forgive me if I kill myself?” I cry when I’m alone – which is a lot. Sometimes I feel sad when I cry and sometimes I just cry and feel nothing. But all of this is not without cause. My sister has disowned my children and myself. My son came home to live about a year ago – the son who has emotional disorders and is never happy and always complains and always yells at the slightest provocation. Finances are bad. Or worse. So there are reasons to feel sad. And sometimes I feel like if I were gone, my daughter would move in with her boyfriend and never see my family again. My son would go back to Seattle which he says is so much better than Florida. My family (parents and sister) would be healed by my absence. But still I have to see my daughter through high school graduation – 17 more months. In my head, I know this is not normal. I know I need help. But then, I don’t know where to go to get it. And if I went somewhere and said, “I need help”, they are going to say, “You’re over dramatic. Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. The fact that you know you are says you’re not.” So, I guess I could use a little guidance…

    1. Maira…I feel your despair, have been there myself on this journey. There is help, reach out. Please say “NO” say it out loud if you need to and repeat as often as necessary when those thoughts come that your children would be better if you were gone. It’s a lie. I will be thinking of you and sending good thoughts your way, you are not alone, we are pulling for you to find the help you need to see the sunshine again!

    2. Maira, honey, please please PLEASE tell someone you need help! Google where to go in your town, go to your general practitioner, go to your local instacare but GO! TODAY! Right NOW!!! You’re not crazy, you’re depressed and there’s help. Life can be, should be SO much better than just surviving another 17 months before you can end it. So much love, hugs & prayers for you from me- someone who’s been in those shoes and is so glad her attempt failed & she finally got some help. Life isn’t perfect, but it IS worth living! It gets better, I promise! PLEASE don’t give up!!!

    3. Maria you’re breaking my heart! You are so beautiful and vulnerable. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for putting your heart out there. Please reach out until somebody reaches back. In fact, I am reaching back. But you need someone who can look you in the eye and reach out. I trust that you will find it. I have to trust. And I will trust in the gap for you when you struggle to believe anything wonderful or even good could feel wonderful or good again. Until the hope returns…we are here.

      And now I pray that all of heaven would bend an ear to your heart right at this moment. That doors of relief and support would open up to you and wash over you. That you would begin to see a flicker of light at the end of this tunnel and that you would be bold enough and have just enough faith to press toward it instead of imploding. Reach out. Reach for light. Wherever the light is that you know of, that you would find yourself compulsively seeking it. That it would find itself drawn to you. I pray angels of light to guard your every thought and breath. I pray angels of darkness rendered helpless in their attack against you. I pray the power of the Holy Spirit to settle once and for all how loved and precious you are within your heart. I pray your brain chemistry would find the resources it needs to shift. I pray that when opportunities for healing make themselves known to you, you will step forward and claim them. I thank the Lord now for already working these things in your favor. That His hand would be unleashed to do mighty work in your life. I beg restoration for places long devastated in your life and your family. May it be Lord! Amen

    4. Please talk to someone. Even the suicide hotline would be more helpful than keeping all this bottled up. It is not true that no mentally ill people know something is wrong. I’ve walked that path, and there is hope and healing. I’m praying that you get the help you need.

    5. Maira, go to the doctor. Your insurance is required to cover mental health care now. It’s called parity, it’s one of the least used portions of the ACA, but you can get help.

      Yes, you have real reasons to be sad. I’m sure most people who are depressed have real problems. But if you had a fever that prevented you from managing those problems, you’d get antibiotics, right? Depression may be caused by an infectious agent; it’s associated with physical markers of inflammation, and it can be treated with medication.

      You’ve got a teeny bit, just a few molecules really, of cholera. Get help, please!

  15. Thank you.

  16. I’ve had my bouts with the black dog at times and frequently beat myself with the gratitude sick so this whole post really resonated with me. Thank you for writing it, it should be compulsory reading for anyone connected to someone dealing with depression to give them a real, human insight.

  17. This was beautiful. Both expertly poetic and the Beth we love, who writes of mess and magic and humor and “the teeniest bit of cholera in the water.”

    Thank you for this message, it spoke deeply to me tonight.

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