She quickens her inhales, breathing hard and heavy.
Labored exhales lead to an ache in her lungs, and just before she begins to feel faint and light-headed, her mouth breaks into a huge smile, and she giggles. She finds the soft, unassuming laugh she always gives on winter days such as today. She loves seeing her breath cast out ahead of her before quickly disappearing.
Ever since she was a child, she found comfort and joy in seeing her exhalations in the cold winter air—pausing in the sky, holding on for dear life, and then, dissipating before her eyes. She always liked the journey her breath made. It paralleled life itself, didn’t it? It thrust into the world full of potential before expiring far too fast and slipping away.
Seeing her breath made her feel real. It made her feel connected to something larger than herself and larger than her small place in this world. And she longed for a deeper connection and meaning for her life, more than she’d ever longed for anything.
She continues walking along, attempting to make larger and larger puffs of air when a thought hits her hard and deep. It really is a rather silly thing, isn’t it? To find such pleasure in a mindless act? But it has always been one of her favorite parts about winter.
She closes her eyes and tries to remember how many winters have borne witness to her doing this very same thing. It’s been her entire life. “How simple. How trivial,” she mutters to herself. But when her mind finally lands on the realization that she never really had a childhood, her fascination with pure simplicity becomes obvious and devastating.
She furrows her brow, rolls her eyes, and frowns. She doesn’t like thinking about when she was a little girl. Of course, she had a childhood, in the most basic sense of the word. But what her young days lacked was innocence. They lacked safety. They lacked security. She sees everywhere depictions of children who are so carefree. In their innocence, they see the world as a magical place full of wonder and awe and infinite potential. She never saw the world that way, and she feels a pang of jealousy and despair as this understanding sets in. Instead, she saw fear; she saw danger. She felt pain, loneliness, and immense confusion. She felt abandoned, unimportant, and worthless.
When she was too young to know the words by name, she knew them deep down where they had made a home inside her heart.
But there was love—oh was there so much love. Her home didn’t lack that. If love was enough to carry a child through the world, she would have arrived at adulthood utterly unscathed—shiny, new, and perfect. But most times—and devastatingly so—love is simply not enough to lessen the burdens that weighed heavily on her heart when she was a child.
Growing up, she always had her head buried in a book. She needed something to escape the drudgery of her existence, and she found it word by word and page by page. She taught herself how to read at a young age, and she taught herself well. She devoured novels, poetry, biographies, anthologies, and anything she could get her hands on. Looking back now, she sees that the moments in her life that held the most pain and uncertainty paralleled the times that she couldn’t detach a book from her trembling fingers.
She grew up far too fast, exposed to circumstances most adults can’t even stomach—nor should they have to. But she was somehow able to take it all in stride. She knew that one day, she would control her life—her fate and trajectory. But until then, comfort was just a book away. It was just one more cold breath of air on a winter’s day further.
She feels a deep heartache for the little girl she was and immense grief for the little girl that she never got to be. Some days, she is so angry that she never knew pure unadulterated bliss. On other days, she quotes C.S. Lewis to herself, “Experience, the most brutal of all teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
She feels empowered by her resilience and strength. And some days, especially on those with an extra nip in the air when the flakes are swirling through the sky, she feels a whimsical sense of wonder, as she puffs clouds of her breath into the air and truly embraces an innocence that was never really hers to begin with.