That’s what we’re all waiting to hear from those we rarely speak to, isn’t it? That acquaintance we’ve shared a few transcendent or dull as hell moments with, enough that at some point during this hard hard hard year we thought of them and wondered: are they still here? Have they survived the storm? Have the people they care about survived? Have they been irreparably changed?
Shouldn’t the question be this: how have we been irreparably changed?
That’s part of the venture back into what once was and never will be again. Who are we now? It is not possible to wander untouched through a country in which over half a million people have died of a single communicable disease in a single year. Imagine that for a moment, if imagination is needed because death has passed your personal world by. Imagine those losses you have experienced in life: parent, friend, lover, spouse, coworker, sibling, auntie, cousin, child. Hold that pain for a moment. Just yours, just for a moment. Now spread it to ten people. Ten losses. Ten stories suddenly without a teller, ten jokes without a laugh, ten meals with an empty space that cannot be filled no matter how much food there is.
Now one hundred.
Now ten thousand.
Clothes boxed to give away; rooms emptied, or houses; lifetimes of I love yous folded up onto ipad screens in front of ventilators; grief cornered and spitting, kept indoors and alone with so much nourishment and so little outlet.
Ten thousand. Can you stretch that far? Often, almost always, we can’t. At some point we trip the breaker and shut down the empathy. We are, by and large, not equipped to handle our own grief, let alone that of others.
To design permaculture, we must sit with a site long enough to understand it: the shape of the land, the sweep of the sun, the pulse of water, the lives already there. It’s not about imposing a predetermined form and function on an inert surface, but about learning to love and honor and work with the structure already there. To design a life one must love and honor and work with its materials. Even grief. Even when it insists on running through the tidy structures you’ve built on the places you insist they should be.
One hundred thousand. Empty chairs. Unwatered gardens. Unaddressable regrets. Fear that cannot be unseen. Air that can no longer be breathed.
Reach further. Open your imaginative heart, share mine if you need. Feel outstretched fingertips of hands reaching to you. Reach back. Squeeze once, like a child sending the signal along a chain of hands in the interstice between campfire and darkness. Feel it return to you, amplified by the grips of one hundred thousand grieving hands. Open open open.
Situations do exist where anxiety is a superpower. A global pandemic is one such event. By the end of February of 2020, I’d already quietly, unobtrusively stockpiled a closet full of necessities. The overactive immune system of my brain honed in on this actual foe with relief. I’ve always lived here, I wanted to say to everyone entering the metropolis of true anxiety for the first time. I can tell you where everything is.
Sometime in March I made my last supermarket trip. The bagger kept his face tilted away from me the whole time, whispering his questions over his shoulder. He was afraid of me, I was afraid for him.
We were all sick late February into mid March. One at a time, our symptoms varied. Big Kid in a flu-like haze. A trip to the ER with Small One when she passed out in the bathroom at midnight. Severe fatigue and a hacking cough that same on suddenly and clung tight for my dear biologist. Dizziness and coughing for me. Every day Massachusetts told us we were all completely safe as long as we hadn’t been to China recently, while in truth COVID was already circulating. Maybe we had it, maybe we had flu–we will never know. Maybe we spread it further, during that time when we were told not to wear masks and to wash our hands and groceries and when testing was unobtainable. Maybe not. We will never know
Two hundred thousand. Take a piece of lined paper. Write the numbers out by hand in pen. No pencil, no erasing. See the math problem: if a train leaves Chicago full of essential workers, and another leaves L.A. carrying medical personal, how many are gone by the time the locomotives pass one another on neighboring tracks? How many empty cars reach their destinations? Show your work. No calculators. Write in someone else’s blood.
But it was not just COVID, was it? It was the swelling abscess beneath the skin of the country, pus weeping at the entry point while we fevered and screamed and wept. The fire that burned away everything around us until only bones remained. A spine fused since birth, incapable of motion in life or death. Ribs fashioned to keep the enlarged heart of supremacy safe and beating. A skull, its mouth opened to howl the truth of hunger and fear and living in cars and tents and benches and militarized hate patrolling streets that belong to the people in order to beat them down every time they rise like a wave again and again and again and despair and despair and despair, but instead its voice is stoppered by its own hands around its own throat.
How? How? How? How do you get up every morning? How do you not drown? How do you not long to drown? How do you watch Black men and women and children murdered in video after video and still believe in the possibility of justice? How do you watch the Capitol stormed and the political ringleaders unpunished and unrepentant and still believe in the possibility of democracy? How do you see your fellow citizens spit and beat and shoot and choose hate again and again and again and still believe in the possibility of humanity?
Three hundred thousand. Imagine the lives saved by fabric and filters and separation. Imagine the lives not saved. Imagine a network of small towns, Americana, one thousand people each. Maybe a general store, hopefully a post office, a postal carrier arriving Monday to dip from mailbox to mailbox like a bumblebee to flowers. On Tuesday they find mail left uncollected in a smattering of boxes. On Wednesday still more. On Friday, all mailboxes left untouched. The entire town gone.
Now imagine three hundred towns, three hundred thousand unemptied mailboxes. Letters, cards, birthday gifts, Etsy splurges, essential prescriptions–every single one suddenly without a recipient.
My in-laws are in their nineties. My dad has stage four cancer. We built a moat between ourselves and the world last spring so we could protect ourselves, so we could protect the fragile people we love. It meant suffering friends left unhugged. Holidays spent alone. Birthdays uncelebrated. The sheer rage I’ve felt, the struggle I’ve had to find compassion for those enraptured by the cult of the individual…these things haunt my sense of who I am.
Four hundred thousand. If you listen closely, you can hear the river of voices moving past your window at night, in the breeze, in the falling snow, in the flowing river. Do you remember, do you, do… Snippets of recipes and the intake of breath at a bit of gossip; it will be okay; and then I said; hush it’s time to sleep; you have your father’s eyes; when you were six; I never thought I could do it; the proudest day of my life; the worst day of my life; don’t leave me alone; I love you I love you I love you always. It will take the rest of your life to hear them all. They are there whether you plug your ears or not.
This is also a truth: this past year has included some of the most beautiful times in my life. Sitting in the garden and watching the bees in the flowers. Examining every plant twice a day, stroking their leaves and measuring their growth between my fingers. Walking the trail across the road, round and round, praying to a rosary of trees and stone. Being drunk on the presence of my children in an unexpected gift of time before they head out into the world. How much I’ve finally wanted to be here–awake and aware for every single minute of this life.
One night: sleeping bags to keep the mosquitoes away, laying together and watching the meteored sky. Fireflies join us, bats as well. Life gives us times–a day, an afternoon, an hour, a minute or two–that will not fade, that, when we reach the place we all must step into eventually, will be waiting to step with us. This, they will say, is what you were here for. This night is one of them. This motherhood is so much of it. This gratitude that I’ve gained for being here, with these people, in this time–even in this time, even in this raw and festering country.
Five hundred thousand. Five hundred and sixty thousand. Reach into the world. Two million nine hundred ninety two thousand one hundred ninety three. Triaging a mass casualty event night after night after night. Witness. This is your job now, for the remainder of your life, whether you chose it or not. Witness the faces in a yearbook so vast that you cannot lift it.
Faces of those who ran into the fire of COVID over and over to save who they could and were finally lost in the flames;
of those who could not run anywhere, in group homes, nursing homes, prisons, every person walking into an unprotected job so they could feed and house their families while knowing no one would come to their rescue because no one ever had;
those who lived life trapped between the rails of racism and classism, homophobia and xenophobia, who survived and survived and survived and then didn’t;
those who died furious and insistent that this illness was a myth even as it rose in their lungs and clotted their blood;
those who weren’t supposed to get sick because children don’t, weren’t supposed to end up in the hospital because children don’t, weren’t supposed to fall still as the machines were turned off because children don’t;
those dreamed as passionately as you, sang in the shower as loudly as you (louder even), enjoyed the sound of laughter as much as you; hoped for something truer and better as much as you, walked through the kaleidoscopic landscape of life with as much fear and need and wonder and love as you, and now you are here and they are not.
Who do we become now? This is the place, this is the moment, this is the painful hover between known and unknown. Justice or not? Compassion or not? Community or not? Connection or not? Here we sit, on this piece of land that we love or can learn to love, and it is up to us to understand it. Here is where the trees bring shelter in the midst of summer. There is where ledge breaks through the ground like a whale surfacing for air. This thicket isn’t for clearing, it is where joy takes shelter when the weather turns to storm and birds raise their fledglings to fly.
And this place? This is where the grass parts and the water rises from the spring of our grief. This is the aquifer we all share. We must touch our hands to it, feel the damp, touch our soiled fingers to our face, and say yes, I understand. You are part of this land, you are part of me, you will run through all of us, always. Let me remember that this is consecrated land.
I found this song last year. In a time of distance and stories of constant loss, its eight minutes of intimacy between lovers across the planet was a balm, a reminder of the joy and potential of love.
(Don’t watch if you disapprove of kissing.
Really. It’s lots of people kissing.)
From my heart to yours, dear ones.