The skies are quiet in my neighborhood these days. The incessant throbbing of helicopters have disappeared, the sirens have scaled back to everyday ignorable background crises, the stunning graffiti-art-political-statement plywood is coming down from storefronts. Phase 3 of reopening MN is here (I think, I might have lost count somewhere along the way), which apparently means the pandemic has been called off because of good weather and bad hair, based on the absence of masks, shoulder-to-shoulder gatherings and all the snazzy new ‘dos. People are anxious and antsy, I get that. This is the most unnatural, uncomfortable, abnormal state most of us have ever known, every variation of sheltering at home comes with its own unique set of challenges. People are defiant or suspicious of Fauci, Walz, BLM, et al—I’ll never get that, but some battles are worth more energy than others. Maybe it really was all a hoax, or a bad dream. Maybe everyone’s finally succumbing to the fact that we’re all gonna die anyway, so we may as well take our chances with corona. Where other people’s lives are concerned, I’m always going to err on the side of caution and care.
I’m sad more than inspired, tinged with suspicion, about the plywood removal, the quiet skies, the absence of masks. The virus is still very present, and it’s only been three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, followed by marches and fires and looting and choppers and sirens tearing open the collective unconsciousness of the Twin Cities that quickly tore across the globe…our cities burned as a fury of bodies raged along Lake Street, Longfellow, Midway, Broadway, so many neighborhoods bear fresh, gaping wounds on top of centuries-deep scars that no one except the ones who live there, along with the scars, notice or really care about. How quickly we, without generational scars, can forget, so desperate we are to resume our lives that were so rudely, inconveniently interrupted first by a bullshit virus that’s been dragging on far too long for our comfort or patience, then a murder that has nothing to do with us in spite of the truth that everything leading up to the murder has everything to do with every one of us. And by us, I should be clear, I’m really only talking about myself here; any resemblance to anyone else is purely coincidental.
I was jarred awake in the middle of one of those nights of the past three weeks, when a helicopter’s throbbing broke into my dreams, so thunderous I though it was landing in my backyard. As I sat upright in bed, my heart rattling against the cage of my chest, my first impulse was to run—where would I go? Then, the words “sit with this” shimmered into my abruptly-awakened cells. I got out of bed, still rattled by the too-close-for-my-comfort helicopter, found a pen and paper and wrote those words:
again and again, until my heartbeat smoothed out and my breathing slowed, until I could write without trembling, until the essence of the words: sit with this grew into something more familiar and clear, something strong and meditative, like a mantra, something I have known before, but not in this form.
Sit. With. This.
I’ve been sitting with the memory of this rattling, for the past few weeks, wondering what it would be like to be on high-alert like this, every day of my life: reading, listening, watching, talking, aching, thinking, breathing, seeing, connecting, examining, crying, feeling, marching, observing, asking, protesting, learning, loving (the collective consciousness broken wide open), gasping, working, cleaning, writing, digging, sitting, sitting, sitting…
I’ve been sitting with this, the impact of a pandemic, for even longer, wondering how comical and easy the universe can be with her prophetic metaphors, like she’s literally giving us the answers to the universal SAT, yet here we are, still smack dab in the middle of the metaphor and everyone’s giving up already: listening, masking, worrying, isolating, loving (from a distance), Skyping, thinking, dreaming, calling, working, hand-washing, reading, learning, texting, breathing, observing, questioning, connecting, longing, reframing, crying, hugging (trees), redefining, sitting, sitting, sitting…
I’ve been sitting with this, what it means to be sober for nearly six months, while eyeballs deep in a global shitshow smothered in WTF sauce, astonished at how different (and ultimately, harder but for all the right reasons) it is to be clear-minded and connected to all my senses, rather than numbed and cut off while in crisis mode: learning, reading, aching, confronting, challenging, replacing, listening, crying, reflecting, feeling, sleeping, watching, breathing, moving, unearthing, planting, recognizing, dismantling, reframing, replanting, nourishing, hydrating, walking, observing, sitting, sitting, sitting…
I’ve been sitting with this for far too long, as I continue the hard work to bring love and connections, compassion and grace, forgiveness and understanding back into my life after the senseless loss of my husband: grieving, hurting, crying, hurtling, reaching, moving, thrashing, grieving, reading, raging, running, gasping, crying, writing, walking, talking, learning, questioning, shifting, running, raging, moving, stopping, starting, falling, grieving, reading, rebuilding, learning, stumbling, fumbling, trying, raging, denying, grieving, bartering, raging, redoing, destroying, uprooting, reinventing, writing, reading, growing, sitting/collapsing, sitting/collapsing, sitting/collapsing…
It’s only been by sitting with all of this, that I am able to see the connections from my personal experiences to the larger picture…this might be why I’ve always had such a visceral aversion to “everything happens for a reason” platitude; because it’s used more like an excuse to not do anything different, rather than a call for real growth (which requires real, hard work).
Prior to Bob’s death, I didn’t sit with much of anything for very long. I’m 100% certain I believed and vehemently proclaimed, “everything happens for a reason” back then. I’m also certain that I’ve said things like, “I don’t even see color/I don’t care what you sexual orientation is!” or “I’m not racist/homophobic,” or “I don’t understand why blocking a highway is going to change anyone’s mind—they’re only pissing people off.” If it was too uncomfortable, too complex, too overwhelming, too humbling to reveal how little I knew, too embarrassing to admit when I was wrong—where/how/why do I even begin to confront the beliefs? My answer to conflict has often been the opposite of sitting—any variation on the verb run (it’s stunning and sometimes sneaky, the various forms that running can take. It can look like silence, or obstinance about opinions, or staying blissfully, willfully ignorant to things that don’t directly affect you; it might be overworking or over drinking, or eating or medicating, or dismissing or going to church or any other possible incarnation). I learned my running/turning away skill at an early age, a coping mechanism to a turbulent upbringing that included not just my own immediate family but the community in which I was raised. While it did well to protect me as a young child, this well-honed skill became more of a liability as I got older. It took the death of my husband to initiate a rite of stillness, the ability to stay with something instead of bolting at the first sign of discomfort. But it didn’t come easily. It still doesn’t. I have far more experience running than I do with staying. I will forever be a dilemma of motion and stillness, but I’m also coming to recognize that staying is essential if I really wish to be a part of the change that is desperately presenting itself to us/me right here, right now. In spite of all that, I’d still bitch-slap anyone into next week (metaphorically, of course) if they told me my husband’s gruesome death was the reason I came to this stage of enlightenment.
It was crawling-out-of-my-skin excruciating to sit with Bob’s death; I would have done anything to escape the rage and sorrow that engulfed me. God knows I tried. I’d never known such a great and gruesome loss, I was a one-woman riot, full of anger (never at God, for the record—you have to believe in God to be mad at such an entity; at that point in my life the only thing I believed in was my righteous, if at times, misdirected fury at the U of MN medical center, and basically everything else in the world, and my God is 100% okay with that), fueled by grisly images of what I watched my husband endure—that I was a willing participant of—that dirty little secret of “fight cancer” hat no one talks about. I wanted to destroy everything, including myself, it felt like the only way to purge myself of the experience. I’d go out to my back yard in the middle of the night and scream until I was hoarse, I’d barrel down I-94 at 90 mph, wishing the 18-wheeler in the opposite direction would sway into my path. I’d down bottles of wine to blur the sharp ragged edges, collapse night after night in a pile of tears and nightmares, lash out at my family, cut friends from my life. I’ve moved six times in the past nine years, always on the run. I wished and cursed the worst kind of loss on everyone I knew and didn’t know, I wanted the world to know, intimately, what it was like to experience such a loss. Maybe then, they would stop saying and doing the stupid shit everyone says and does when they’re not even trying to understand what this was like. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
But, they were just grateful it didn’t happen to them, I could hear it in their words. I was furious that everyone else got to keep moving on, when I was stunted by the thick sludgy shitpile of my loss. But I did other things, too. I went back to school, I began writing, for real. Even though my experience was so myopic, Â when I started talking and writing about it, it plugged me back in with the larger world; my experience nurtured a new form of empathy and compassion, a “same but different” perspective that I hadn’t been aware of before. Even though it’s been nine years (and this is an almost insultingly condensed version of the long, ugly, mistake-riddled process), it’s easy to invoke the memory of those intense, early feelings, if I sit with it long enough; I hope I never forget those raging emotions; while I didn’t know it at the time, they are still the catalyst and connection for immense changes of perspective, and ultimately action, in my life.
I am not comparing my loss to the collective loss of whole generations of people who have been grieving and raging, trying to play by mysterious rules that forever change without warning, begging us to listen for generations (clearly we haven’t done any of that, given the events of the past few weeks). Or maybe I am. What else do I have to go by, other than my own experiences, that inform and guide (or prohibit growth by reinforcing old ways—they have the capacity to do that, too). Our personal experiences have the capacity to transcend and connect with others who have a very different life experience than our own, if we finally stop running and learn to sit with what they have to teach.
I think my sadness and fear about the plywood and masks coming off is encapsulate by the succinct yet profound words of a physical therapist I follow on social media, Dr. Jpop, who just this morning wrote, “when the mania dies down, the work will still be there and our voices will still be needed.” I fear the new phase of reopening, the silence in the air, the removal of the plywood and masks might give us (remember, I’m talking me here) permission to slink back to the safety and security of our old lives and ways. I know too well, the immediate relief of running. But I now also know the profound, sustainable, life-changing power of staying. The issues never go away, no matter how far or fast we run. They will keep reappearing in new forms, offering endless opportunities for growth. Running is way easier than staying, but for all the effort, it never yields much. The rewards are far greater in the staying.
After all these words, I still don’t really know what I’m saying or what it means or looks like to stay, or what it’ll inspire me to do, but curiosity and interrogation is also part of dirty work. Today, I’m going to sit with it, and see where it takes me.