Last night I had a good long talk with a dear friend over a glass of wine and Google Hangouts. I am still savoring the warm feeling of connection, and gratitude for our friendship. Among other things, we talked about the rollercoaster of emotion we are all riding, and grappling with the challenge of feeling all of it.
She shared something writer and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg talks about in reference to another emotional rollercoaster, one that my friend and I know much better than the current virus-powered one: writing. The act of creating something can also open our hearts and bodies to the full range of human emotion. We can feel excitement, curiosity, and desire to make tangible the thing we can see in our mind’s eye. We can also feel anxiety, self-doubt, and even fear. Don’t get swept away, Goldberg says.
It’s a practical bit of advice, as well as a deeply profound, lifelong practice. It is perhaps the practice, for Buddhists and for people who practice mindfulness meditation. For writers, when our purpose is to create something, the practice is to hear the unhelpful voices of fear, anxiety, and doubt, and then gently dismiss them to focus on setting down the next word. Word by word, we make sentences and then paragraphs.
This is hard work. This is often unpleasant work. Most of the time, for me anyway, it doesn’t feel the way I think “meditative” should feel. It feels like digging away in the dark, tunneling into places I didn’t expect to find, and letting go of the places where I thought my writing was leading. For me this is the work of the creative Spirit alive in me, and I write because it is thrilling to participate with it, even though it mostly feels terrible at the time. When a piece of writing is gestating in me, I can get broody as a hen, grumpy and distracted if I don’t have or make the time to write, whether because I am afraid or just busy with the daily tasks of mothering, running a household, studying, and working on freelance projects.
Right now I am brooding over an essay that has been with me for years– as the seed of an idea, grit turned over in my thoughts over the course of weeks and months, and then smoothed into a sudden rush of words that now sit in a Word document on my computer. It is something about empathy, and fear, and not getting swept away, and how strange and difficult that becomes during certain tides of life.
This writing project and its questions have resurfaced with the pandemic. I find myself reflecting, during the day, on the shape and edges of empathy and compassion. I’m wondering how to witness my own and others’ emotions as we adjust each day to a new layer of information and questioning over all that remains unknown. How can I do this without getting swept away? Maybe the practice is to notice when I am getting swept away, and then clamber back to shore again.
There’s a lot of writing out there right now about grief, and how we are each allowed to be in this time in our own way, and how grief is a nonlinear and cyclical experience. I am no stranger to grief, and one thing I know about it is that it can become all-consuming. It can become difficult to recognize yourself within its grasp. It can start to feel as if grief is all there is, and all there ever will be.
What I know of grief is how it moves in me, and that is necessarily different from the way it moves in others. There is no “right way” to do it. I am trying to remember how I wanted to be spoken to when lost in grief. I think the words I needed were very few. Maybe no more than, I hear you, I am with you, I love you, You are strong even in your fear and your pain. I am not sure I even needed to hear I am sorry for your pain, or This too shall pass.
My friend and I went on to discuss what it was about the phrase silver linings that so grates on the senses, and we decided it was more than just its overuse. It’s the subtle forcefulness of the image, the way it requires focus on only the beauty of the possibility of light. The language itself asks us to entirely ignore the big dark cloud between us and the light.
Right now it feels like many of us are asking if it is okay to see and feel both, particularly those of us who hold more privilege, live in wealthier countries, and find ourselves spending a lot of time at home managing anxiety and fear, our own and that of the people we love. Can we appreciate the moments of light that shift through this oppressive dark cloud, without denying the cloud’s existence– the reality of the virus, all the lives it has taken, and all we still don’t know? Can we accept that in some ways light and darkness require each other, give each other shape– without suggesting that the darkness is good? How can we hold all of these contradictory emotions in our hearts and bodies?
In the wake of the sudden shift, in my state, from monitoring the virus elsewhere to the sweeping changes of a stay-at-home order, I’ve struggled to find the capacity to witness others’ grief and fear, for fear of getting swept into it. Perhaps because the virus’s arrival stateside came on the heels of a major mental health emergency in the life of one of my loved ones, I found myself with almost nothing in reserve. To heap more worry over things I could not control, onto the already mountainous pile in my life, threatened to break me, and I could not risk breaking, because I have children to care for. As a result, I feel I am failing some of my friends in their time of need for compassionate witness, because I often feel I don’t have the strength.
I’m working to find that strength, in a way that feels healthy. Maybe it’s finding a deeper, wider strength that doesn’t live in my body– the strength of faith, for lack of a more precise word. I will admit to fear about feeling fear, that Depression-era relic, which is somewhat new to me. While ordinarily I don’t shy away from heavier emotions, these days I find myself clinging more tightly to the light. Where I once felt shame for finding joy during hard times (and it’s always hard times, for someone, somewhere,) right now I am treasuring those moments, even seeking them– whether that’s in the mundane beauty of daily life with small children, or while taking in news from the global community, looking for stories that detail the unexpected and the resiliently human.
My son recently discovered dandelions, and his big sister has been teaching him how to blow the tiny seeds, attached to their parachutes of fluff, into the air. His whole face lights up when he spots one in the grass, during our walks to the park when there’s a break in the rain. (While playgrounds are closed, public parks are still open, for now, in Oregon.) His joy over the flowers makes me smile, and his sister’s tenderness with him. Meanwhile, the empty streets remind me that this is no ordinary day, and the dandelion seeds make me think of how the virus spreads, carried on breath and air.
Both are real, the light and the dark. When we get swept away again, I want to practice saying to you and to myself:
I hear you.
I am with you.
I love you.
You are strong even in your fear and your pain.
A few stories:
The 50-year-old hermit who knows a thing or two about social distancing
How the U.S. fought tuberculosis using community-based public health strategies
Rebecca Solnit on how disaster shakes loose old power structures