The Habit of Hope

I am a creature of bad habits. When my last relationship ended I fell back into them joyfully, like an elephant falls into cool mud. Dishes piled in the sink, candy wrappers littered my desk, mounds of unopened business envelopes grew into mountains. I smoked. I drank alone. I ate junk food. TV shows blared constantly as I drowned myself in their mindless waves. Two years passed quickly.

Then I met her.

Since this is not a story about kindness or joy, about the weight of beauty or the impact of love, I won’t go into all that. Just say I fell for her, the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. She moved me, and I knew I had to win her heart. It wasn’t going to be easy. She was out of my league, too beautiful, too talented. She lived in another town. But looking at her I felt like Rilke in front of his archaic statue. Hope, bright as her smile, rose up like the sun and began to do its beautiful work on me. I had to change my life, break my bad habits, improve myself to prove myself to her and become someone she could love.

Hope works. It really does. My bad habits melted away like pond ice in springtime, and good habits grew like flowers. I started writing poems again. I jogged for my health and for the joy of it. Smoked less, drank less, worked harder, gave more to friends and to strangers. Cleaned my dishes. Flossed my teeth so often my dentist noticed. I replaced my binge TV watching with studies I called ‘binge learning.’ New songs flowed from my guitar.

Hope became my super-power. I could do anything with that hope driving me, guiding me, pulling me like gravity. Poetry? I hadn’t written poems for years, but I wrote her a new poem every day for a month. Running? I’d just started running when I met her, but I felt like I could run a marathon, if it got her to notice me. And within a year I did, and it did. I was held up through every mile by my hope and by her words of encouragement.

The habit of hope worked on my whole life like a magic spell. Out of nowhere I was asked to present at a conference, asked to give a poetry reading. Good things began to grow in my life with that hope shining bright. My circle of friends expanded. My son and his wife moved back to town. I played shows with my band, sang with a confidence I had never felt before. People mentioned how happy I seemed, how well I was doing.

And slowly, as months passed, it seemed to be working with her. We became better friends, began exchanging email notes, and Facebook likes. We found we had a lot in common: poetry, and fly-fishing, a love of birds and dogs and good beer. We met for coffee, then lunch, then drinks. I gave her small tokens: books, stones, a pair of earrings. We planned to meet more often. My hope shone brighter, and I felt a kind of high filling me with energy, confidence, and joy.

And like the high that comes from drugs, that hope grew into a powerful addiction. I strove to keep it in my mind, to use it like pruning shears to cut the weeds of bad habits out of my life. Though I didn’t see her often, the thought of her stayed with me, a constant angel on my shoulder, a guiding star for all my choices, a comfort and an inspiration when things were hard. Hope helps everything, and like an addict I always kept my hope close at hand.

Even when the first small rebuffs began— an email not replied to, a planned dinner changed to a quick drink — I held onto the habit of hope. I needed it. Even as I felt her pulling back, I still hoped some word or some moment we shared might open her heart to me. I worked harder on my character: doing benefits for charities, helping old ladies carry packages to their car, practicing kindness. I wrote to her more often, more openly. She was always sweet in reply, sharing a little of herself with me, still holding a careful distance. But with the bright sunshine of hope dazzling my eyes I went on blindly.

Of course, the ending is obvious. In her graceful way, the most amazing woman I’ve ever met has now made it clear she isn’t interested in me, good habits or bad. She’s a casual friend, nothing more. No change I can make, no habit I can break, no words I can say, will sway her towards loving me.

But even now, weeks later — knowing she is seeing someone, not knowing if I’ll ever hear from her again— even now this early morning sunshine through fir trees wet and sparkling with last night’s rain lights up a little flame of that same hope in my chest. I clean my breakfast dishes, sweep up the floor, thinking, maybe, if only she could see this place, maybe if she knew me better, if I wrote something worthwhile, maybe someday… Yes, I still have the habit of hope, even now that hope is gone.

In two years I have changed my life, broken so many bad habits, run a thousand miles, written poems and songs, worked to give more of myself to those around me, all of it inspired by the hope she lit in me. I’ve done things I would never have done otherwise. And my life is richer for it all, even though I’ve failed to move her heart.

Now I have one more bad habit to break.

Hope has become my own worst habit, my drug of choice. My super-power has turned into kryptonite. These flashes of false hope prop me up like a temporary crutch. But they also hold me back, stop me from running on my own. If hope helps, it can also hurt. I don’t know how painful the withdrawal will be.

But if it’s hope that helped me shed so many other bad habits, then what will help me now to find the strength, the will power, to break this one more? And what will happen to me once I finally let go of the habit of hope?

Ken Zimmerman 2017

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