An invitation to slow down and connect
I don’t know about you, but for me the last week has felt like a barrage of tidal waves were crashing over my world and arranging and re-arranging everything I had grown to depend on. Whereas a few weeks ago it felt like we were all having a common experience, suddenly it feels like communities across the globe are all moving into very different versions of loosening their social distancing measures. Here on Prince Edward Island, on June 1st restaurants and playgrounds are going to be allowed to open, and non-contact team sports will be able to recommence. I have not sat down in a restaurant in twelve weeks. Until yesterday I had not ordered a takeout drink from a café since things shut down in March. It took me weeks to adjust to being alone most of the time, and now suddenly the world around me if shifting again, and to be honest I’m not sure I am ready. As much as I miss people, I haven’t shared a physical space with large groups of people in three months. When I talk to my friends in various parts of the world, some are now going to the beach and beginning to re-book trips while others have yet to see anyone other than immediate family. Then, amidst the shifts of loosening restrictions, George Floyd became yet another symbol of ongoing racial injustice, photographs of police brutality, examples of kindness and compassion, as well as thousands of people lowering to one knee in a gesture of solidarity with our black brothers and sisters began flooding my social media feeds, and demonstrations and riots broke out all over the United States.
Today is Sunday. This morning I woke to a cool breeze on my bare arms, birdcall and the hushed whisper of trees that have recently leafed out. I lay in bed for a while, giving myself a chance to remember where I am and what is happening. This year has been such a storm of change on every level that I find taking a moment in the morning to recalibrate is the only way I can embrace a new day with hope and conviction. Almost every morning I wake wondering why I am lying in my mother’s bed, and what she is sleeping in if I am in her bed. I look at the side of the bed she used to sleep on and which I cannot bring myself to roll onto, and tell the empty space how much I miss her. Images of days and weeks lying by her side holding her hand, reading to her and talking while she suffered incredible pain and her body quickly wasted away flash by, sometimes accompanied by tears. I feel a wave of gratitude for the gift of this comfortable bed in which to rest my body and simultaneously incredible anger and frustration at God for taking her before she had a chance to retire and enjoy the fruits of all her years of hard work and sacrifice. I feel unworthy every single day of all the bounty that her death has bestowed on me. I feel guilty. I wonder if I could have fought harder for her. I wonder if I had moved to California to be with her a few years ago if she would still be here today. I close my eyes and breathe. I return to listening to the birds. I wonder if I close my eyes again and fall back asleep if when I wake up this bad dream that has become my permanent new reality will be gone—if my family will be back again. I face the truth each day afresh that they are not coming back. I wonder what it will be like to sit in a restaurant with up to fifty other people again. What it will feel like to be able to hug people other than the few I have chosen to be my extended family—when we reach that phase in the process. I think about George Floyd, who will never get to sit in a restaurant again, and whose last human touch was someone’s knee compressing his airway. His inability to inhale feels like a metaphor for our collective inability to breathe easy right now in a system founded upon profound inequality that deprives so many of the right to exist freely. I think about my friend in Germany whose grandmother passed away in April of the Corona Virus all alone, because her family was not allowed to be there with her to hold her hand. I think about all the thousands of souls who have been fighting for breath in hospitals and clinics around the world this spring. I take a deep breath and fill my lungs, grateful as I do for the ability I have to take in oxygen. And then I swing myself out of bed, because I owe it to George Floyd. I owe it to all my brothers and sisters experiencing injustice of any kind. I owe it to all those souls who lost their battles to the virus this year, and to my sweet mother, a white woman who fought tirelessly her entire life to turn up for her brown and black brothers and sisters in the fight for the elimination of racial injustice.
I am learning to navigate every day in new ways as the landscape of my life and relationships cracks, shatters, and shifts around like pieces in a game of Tetris. Learning to live in a world that feels like an active seismic hotspot where I question everything: Why am I here? Why was I born white, into a middle-class family and all the privileges that this carries with it? What purpose is my life serving? Who am I now that the words I used to use to define myself: daughter, lover, wife, teacher and farmer —no longer represent my reality, but in which new words and roles are slow to emerge? Even words that always felt unshakeable and defined how my most essential connections and identity are changing: friend, Baha’i, faith, love. Losing my only immediate support system has made me realize that “friend” now needs to mean more than people with whom I have a good time—people who turn up when they feel like it. Friend now needs to mean people who can listen and turn up in the way that family used to, and I am learning to do the same for those I care about too, which means stepping out of my comfort zone and learning that love has less to do with me and more to do with what those I love need in the moment, and that this can change in the blink of an eye. I am learning how to adapt to the changing needs of those I love, and, sadly, to let go of friends who are not able or willing to be there as I embrace this new reality—my circle of friends shrinks and expands accordingly. What it means to be Baha’i has also changed, and continues to shift on a daily basis. Community served a different purpose when family was at the centre of it. What it means to be a white woman is also changing. My intentions have always been good, but if I am being honest, I have not been as vocal an advocate for my brown and black sisters and brothers as I could and should have been. I have believed in justice and equality in theory, but have not actively put those beliefs into action. As I become more aware I know that I need to start actively participating in making changes.
Moving through grief was hard before the pandemic. Since it began the isolation and overwhelm at the state of the world has been magnified. I have had to find and draw on new sources of support and inspiration. I have been learning that I cannot turn up for anyone else if I don’t first turn up for myself. I’ve started practising more self-compassion since I no longer have a parent or partner who is able to say all the things that loved ones often say to us when we are going through tough times. It’s not uncommon these days for me to sit, put my hand of my own chest, and say “I am right here. I am not going anywhere. And I will sit here with you as long as you need me to.” Whereas in the past I did not need the reassurance of others, the words “we will get through this together,” and “you are not alone in this” have come to mean more than I could have ever imagined. Friends who knew my parents are wells from which I draw frequently because they are also grieving the loss in their lives. Unlike those who did not know my parents, they also have memories of times shared, and hearing them share these is a balm. Those who have experienced similar losses help to lessen the isolation of the experience. Yesterday I called a family friend who lost her husband. I shared how on mother’ day I made a meal and sat down at our family table in my kitchen, lit a candle and set it opposite me where mom would have been sitting had she been alive, and then ate, and how much of a comfort it was to do this. She shared with me how she had avoided eating on her patio since her husband had passed because it brought up too many memories, but how she has finally started doing it again, and that she sometimes will put a photo of him on her phone and set it opposite her while she sits there. I shared that it was really hard to go through the piles of family photos that I shipped here from my mom’s house because when I look through them, many if not all of the people in them other than me are dead, which means there is nobody left to share all the happy memories with. She shared how hard it has been to have so little support as we move through the isolation imposed by covid. I have realized how essential deep human relationships are, and that to build them I need to be able to share my truths (joyful and uncomfortable) and be there to hold space for others to do the same. It has become necessary to know that there is space in my relationships to share without feeling like I am burdening someone, and to be willing and happy to hold space for those I love to be vulnerable too. As I learn how it feels to try to connect and have friends tell me they are too busy; as I experience how life-changing having someone reach out without my having to ask is, and how important even the smallest gestures of love are when you are lacking the immediate support of family, my understanding of what it means to truly be a Baha’i is expanding. I am learning to live my beliefs in new ways. It is a humbling and clarifying experience…one of the many gifts that have emerged out of loss for which I am grateful.
Yesterday one of my former students came over for tea. Far away from her family, and living in a basement apartment with an elderly woman while she takes courses online, she was sharing what a hard few months it has been. We talked about our current reality, our purpose on this planet and relationship with God, what we love, and how to pursue work that is of service and brings us joy. We also talked about using the creative process as a way to make sense of it all. She shared that she wanted to explore her drawing more, and I encouraged her to do so. After our visit she went home and started drawing. Later that night she sent me a lovely sketch she had made of the two of us sitting in my living room chatting, along with a note articulating how meaningful the exchange had been for her. This morning when I woke up I felt a strong need to sit down and write. I carried my computer to the kitchen table, made myself a cup of tea, and sat down in my PJs to write. I had made plans this afternoon to head out of town for a walk with a friend. At 2pm I got a text from her letting me know that she was on her way to pick me up. I had sat down to write at 9am and was still sitting at my computer in my PJs five hours later, completely oblivious to the passage of time. This afternoon and evening I spent time out in the country getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in the company of two inspiring women who have both lost parents and a very impressive and engaging nine-year-old boy, who made sure we were keeping it real. We talked. We walked. We talked some more. On the drive back to town we discussed how thankful we were to be re-defining what friendship can be in our 40s.
Back in town, I decide to start making a new list of words that I am testing out for this new and as-of-yet very unknown chapter. I may not be actively teaching anymore, but my interaction with my former student made me realize that I will always be ‘teacher’ and ‘mentor.’ I add ‘writer’ to my list, beside ‘friend.’ I decide to add ‘advocate,’ because it is time I stepped up and actively engaged in the fight for racial justice. The new list is pretty short, but it’s a start. Of what, I don’t really know, but even putting these words down on paper gives me something concrete to strive for and on which to find my balance while I continue to ride the waves.
How about you? What glimmers of hope or sparks of new understanding have emerged from these last few months of isolation for you? Is what is currently happening in the United States generating new reflections and action in solidarity with the fight against racial injustice for you? Are the words you use to describe yourself and your roles in relationship to the people and environment around you changing? What have you let go of? Who are you becoming?