I’m afraid of losing my voice. I’m afraid it will vanish in the rush of the world turned back on.
I’m afraid of entering society’s maze again. Maybe I’ll shrink back into a titmouse, when for a time I felt as explosive as a volcano, as wild as a dragon, solid as a pyramid, serene as a falcon.
I’m afraid we will return to chit-chat and patter talk, and it will be hard to know anyone’s soul when the expected response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Fine.’ It’s so hard to get a foothold, I feel like I’m just clinging on.
When I was growing up, before I started thinking my body wasn’t skinny enough, I would spend all summer at the pool.
I remember how quiet it was under the water. When you are completely surrounded by blue, everything is connected. The water presses into you — heavy and complete — bending the sun into rippling diamonds, making waves every time someone would jump in, scattering crystalline bubbles everywhere.
We graduate to the world of air. It’s easier to get things accomplished here. Easier to move around, so light and transparent, but hard to feel the waves that connect me and you.
I’ve been so cradled in our shelter that I am not afraid of the virus anymore, I’m afraid of people. I’d like to add in one friend at a time. I’d like to vet people for trustworthiness and sensitivity.
I get overwhelmed by all the messages: the facial expressions, the look in the eyes, the tones of voice, and sleights of phrase. My mind gets noisier and noisier until its motor overheats with the task of interpreting it all, running over and over that it’s all my fault.
I’ve had emotional breakdowns over how I handled children’s party invitations. I’ve based my self-esteem on whether a handful of people I don’t know likes me. I’ve emptied myself trying to smooth out the rough parts until I was hollow.
Outside the bedroom that Mark, Luke, and Diana cuddle up in every night, I sing lullabies into the hallway. The floorboards of heart pine shimmer from the light of the neighbor’s window across the way.
I see the squared doorframes, the slanted lines of light, and each room looks separate. One door is closed, one room is open, one space holds clothing and one holds a bath, one room is suffused with lamplight and one is dark.
They seem separate, but they’re all attached. To the same hall, the same story. They’re part of the same house, built by the same man for his one family.
The notes of Edelweiss — E-G-C-B-G — travel through the air whether someone is listening or not. And even if that musical alphabet means nothing, I am still connected to my children, whether they are awake or asleep, in the house or on the street, pleasing me or making me angry.
When everyone seems scattered, I want to be the glue. Melting into the cracks, filling in the empty spaces, supplying the missing notes.
I need to remember how to be the swimmer, instead of the water. To dive in and play, no matter what my body looks like, where the lanes markings are, or what anyone else is doing. Plunging and swirling and flipping upside down, until I’m tired and it’s time to ride my bike back home.
For me, the coronavirus outbreak was both a horrendous tragedy and a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It was a calamity that threatened everyone on earth and melted away the hierarchies that separate us. We were just human beings for a while.
In the blackness of quarantine, I became invisible. Free from the constant daily interactions that always seemed to lead me to think I somehow wasn’t doing things right. From the self-consciousness that plagued me: how I was perceived, how I was judged, how I measured up according to the rules of the arena I found myself in.
The quiet darkness hid it all. I was simply a soul. A human being in a family of human beings.
This is why I am not eager to go back to the way things were.
I don’t want to try to fight my way into society’s detailed ranking, its tight grid. I don’t want to be aware of how I do or don’t fit in, where I stand in the graph — high or low, left or right.
I don’t want to look at everything I do through the lens of the groupthink to decide whether I am good or bad, worthy or worthless.
“I am a man.” I love this declaration that I see on t-shirts in Black Lives Matters marches. It helps me rewrite the limiting scripts in my mind. When I see a Black person I don’t know, I feel the assumptions my mind is making, and then I say over it, “Man.” Or “Woman.” Or “Child.”
This is the way I want to be seen. I want to see others this way too. Greeting each person as a human being makes me feel part of a One, not a fragment among many. When I see someone and “human” is all I need to know about them, my heart speaks, not my mind, and compassion flows out.
Every country, every society has a unique hierarchy. People not born with the qualities that are valued at the top will most likely struggle to feel loved and accepted, always feeling they are on the verge of being kicked out.
I love people. I need people. I crave connection and soul-to-soul communion. People cooperate, lift each other up, make each other feel less alone, become the safety net. We help each other survive and thrive.
But there is something about large groups that leads us to categorize and place value on people based on what they do, what they look like, how much they earn, or how assertive, outgoing, or fashionable they are.
Perhaps this is why I am not heartbroken that our world will stay small and that our house will become a school this fall. School — even as a parent who only is involved with fundraisers and drop-offs, field days, plays, and graduations — brings back the same feelings I had as a child: I’m different and I’m afraid of what I have to do to belong.
I feel sad for my children, missing all the happy nurturing things about school and playing with friends in the sunshine. I feel sad for my daughter who will start her senior year on a computer. The suffering inflicted because schools are not opening is devastating. It’s a sign of massive dysfunction, and I feel a sense of dread as I witness the institutions and economies that support the livelihoods of so many people continue to deteriorate.
This is why it is so hard to reckon with the fact that I am okay with keeping the social, busy, public part of my life in the dark for a while longer, and clinging to the peculiar warm light I have found in the wreckage. Because as much as I grieve our losses, there was something unhealthy about the way we were, and something healing about what is now.
When you are so busy throwing stuff into the shell of your body, you don’t realize that to feel fulfilled, you must simply stop.
The sound trickling in is not water rising to drown you, but the sound of your own self coming into its rightful space.
Nothing can replace this ‘being one’s self.’ That is why you keep running, seeking, rushing, doing — desperate to fill the emptiness you fear.
Your longing is the longing for your own self: your own love, your own trust, your own intuition.
Sometimes you feel that you are an empty riverbed. A ditch that can never be brimmed, never satisfied.
Don’t be afraid of this blackness. It is what connects you to everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. It is what everything springs from and dissolves into. This is the power you are afraid of. The unknown, the endless, the incomprehensible.
Don’t fill the emptiness with small tasks and petty demands and a million directives from your in-box, your to-do list, and your self-help books — they will never be done, and you will never be full.
Don’t fill it with someone bigger, more powerful, more charismatic and brilliant than you — this person will leave and you will be alone again.
Don’t fill it with what you want to buy, become, create — if these things come, you will still feel something is missing. Even when your arms are full, even when you have everything you asked for.
These glimmering, brightly-colored, squeezable things — they are always morphing, growing, disappearing. You can never hold them and be done.
Only water can satisfy a riverbed. Only the part of you that is connected to all the streams, all the oceans, the lakes, the waterfalls, the floods and fjords that circle the world. The river of life that never ends and never begins.
Let all other things be washed away, all that has blocked you, obstructed you, made it impossible to hear the sound of your river rippling, to taste the flavor of your own soul.
In the stillness, your breath is a wave, coming in and going out. The knowing will eventually come, flowing through you from somewhere deep inside, filling the space you thought was vacant.
My daughters are bingeing on ‘Game of Thrones’ on the screened-in porch, trying to finish the entire 8 seasons before Sofia goes off to college. Mark, Luke, and Diana are playing badminton in the dwindling August twilight.
After dinner we rode bikes down to the convenience store on Route 50 to buy a gallon of milk. I strapped the last gallon they had to the back of my bike and rode home with Juicy Drop Pops and Reeses cups in a Par Mar Stores bag hanging from the handlebars.
The kids bat at the birdie with rackets too long for them on a span of grass a thousand times larger than the patch of weeds behind our house in D.C., and I want them to play as long as they can, to soak up this freedom until they’re full, because in a few days, they’ll be back to a city playground, and school will start on a computer screen, and for a minute I worry that they don’t have enough.
Somewhere beyond the pasture, a conch-shell sun lights up a mass of clouds that plods across the sky like an ocean liner. When I stay right here where I am, in this moment, in this Ohio countryside, there is no problem. I am not in pain. No one is mad at me, I am not late, I am not wrong. There is nothing I am supposed to do, nowhere I need to go.
How long can I stay here, encapsulated in this moment, like an unbroken bubble, a piece of taffy that stretches and stretches, a smooth highway that never ends, before my mind breaks off and goes somewhere else? The explosion in Beirut, the upcoming election, the email with no response, the virus spiking in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia —
If I begin spinning intricate adult coloring books in my mind, who is inhabiting the life that is already colored in right here?
From my armchair inside the cottage, I hear crickets making long dashes in chirring morse code. The children are now meowing in the basement pretending to be adopted kittens who don’t know how to brush their teeth. The clouds have made a blue surfboard and a shaving cream spume against a sky of cotton candy and butter. The trees are navy green silhouettes and the black fences are disappearing into the fuzzy green pasture.
This stillness I feel when I pay attention to my life right now — this awareness, this in-ness — is where answers will come from. I look elsewhere, but if I would just be, the wisdom, the knowing, the right thing would come to me.
‘Chock, chock’ goes the clock on the wall. The shadow under my 12-year-old’s chin, the freckle there, the way my 10-year-old looks into my eyes when I really see him. The 6-year-old sucking her thumb, wet hair on the pillow, saying she is grateful for ping-pong.
When I am inserted into this life, I am connected with everything that is here and the knowing that pervades it all. The cicadas who know what year to crawl out of the ground and how to call a mate, the grass that knows when to start growing — the moon how to orbit the earth, the dog where to give birth, the tomato seed how to make another tomato, the horse how to die.
There’s a place on every staircase where the notes of the lullaby amplify and round and deepen. I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with ‘du-du-du’s instead of words as I stand on the stairs up from the children’s darkened room, and I wonder what they look like in their beds. Are they sad, are they disappointed, have I done enough?
If I could live my life one full-bodied moment to the next, I wouldn’t need to worry about what’s going to happen, to practice what to say, fuss over what I’ve messed up. If I weren’t interrupting life all the time, trying to rearrange it, I would take each challenge as it came.
If there were more escapes like this one in the country, more eddies in the river of life, where I could sleep when I feel tired, be alone when I need space, let sadness rest in me when it comes. If I could shut off the wind turbine so all my thoughts would flutter to the ground and I could see for a while.
Because in this clearness, I know that I wouldn’t need to worry so much. I wouldn’t need to try so hard. In this stillness, I would know when to cut, when to mend, when to run, when to embrace, when to apologize, when to be silent, when to act, and when to let it be.
I went down to the river today. It felt like touching the feet of God.
I hadn’t driven a car in a month. Weeds were growing around the tires. My phone was dead so I drove there without a GPS. I felt grappled to the earth. I got lost.
Cars were parked all over the shoulder by the trail heads like beetles to nectar.
Sometimes you can be too safe. Like a plant in a pot, your roots go round and round and nowhere. The walks we take around our neighborhood. Nature is not tame like this. Landscaped bushes, tulip beds, Dogwoods placed like armchairs in the corners of yards.
In the woods, trees are dangerously high. Others lie dying at their feet. Black Vultures circle high at the edges.
Table manners, Office 365, social media headshots, calorie counts, rankings: what does all this matter?
Violent beautiful nature. I feel calmed, sobered.
I came back to the river at sunset with my family. I want to give them more than errands for shampoo and canola oil, or bike rides to parks where security guards shoo us away.
We take foot bridges over the punching water of the Potomac. It rips over black bedrock. Diana is scared. She knows the river can kill you.
I want to know that it is possible to die. This fear stops me from tinkering with dials and buttons, and makes me look up at the sky, and feel the clay under my feet.
Almost every day since the coronavirus outbreak, I have felt sick in some way. My throat has been itchy and warm, or the inside of my nose fiery and blue. Sometimes my brain pulsates, my sinuses explode with a fluorescent sneeze, or my stomach twists like a rag being wrung.
When I was sick last December, I would wake up from a nap and feel my lungs aching. Normally my organs work without my thinking about them, freeing my mind to wander here and there, dream of this, worry about that. My body was telling me, “Pay attention to me. Remember me.”
We think of sickness as a sub-optimal state, but when we are attending to our bodies, we are no longer taking long strange journeys with our minds. When we are quiet in bed, all the pretenses fall away, leaving something simple and precious.
When world leaders and movie stars and princes get infected by this virus, I feel a tenderness toward humanity. These once intimidating highflyers suddenly seem like people who could be in my backyard for a grill-out, chatting with me about the kids and this crazy world and what happens when you die.
When we are healthy, the subtle sensations in the body mostly go unnoticed. The relative stillness and self-sufficiency of the body seem to tell us to go – do – strive.
Sickness can be an opening to the soul. When I am ill, I am no longer the person I want people to see, but the person I was before I knew my name. Being sick temporarily breaks down the constructions that separate me from everyone and everything.