Today, as I am smashed between the sobering fear of COVID-19 and the sheer terror of living with 3 kids stashed inside a 1600 square foot treehouse for months, the best way for me to combat this discomfort is to write. With Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” (it’s in my top three) plugged into my head on repeat via the technology I am so grateful to be able to use, I am determined to write my truth. There is a mother’s circle to which I belong and one of the tenets they open meetings with is “we realize that what you speak is your truth, right now, and that even in the next moment, it may no longer exist as your truth. We honor and respect your process as we show up to be devoted witnesses to your self discovery.”
In March, when this lockdown began, I finished reading Glennon Doyle’s newest book “Untamed” and thank God for that. It has opened up a myriad of thoughts for me that have already existed just below the surface but lacked the courage needed to scream themselves onto paper. At first glance I thought, “Damn you, Glennon. You stole it all. My musings, my life experiences, my lessons. Now anything I say about motherhood, bulimia, addiction, marriage, life, will become simple white noise just rolling at the surface of the water, constantly watched, never coming to a boil.” That is my ego talking. It’s not Glennon’s fault. The fact that her life experience and her sharing of it has contributed to the reawakening of hundreds of thousands of women and the actual and real rescuing of hundreds of thousands more says to me that women, more than ever, need to hear all the fucking noise they can right now because they belong to the noise, the screaming audacious noise. And their awakening keeps it humming.
One thing she reminds us is that one cannot experience one’s becoming if one first does not wade through pain. We are not meant to exist on this earth to be happy and free and light and successful and pretty and nice and right all the time. We are meant to be messy, to make mistakes, to fuck up, to come back, again and again to our becoming until our becoming takes a hold of us and we can no longer justify any more of our NOT-becoming. We can no longer tolerate the pretense. We are forced to only be what we were put here to be. That is the basic gist of the book. But you should still buy it and read it. Don’t borrow it. Give her the money. She uses it to save women. She saves families. She pours it out. She gives it away, like all millionaires should. Every time I finish a chapter, I google her name again just to see if I’ve missed the letters behind it. I could care less about letters, but she is such a genius that I am often thinking, “surely she must have a couple masters degrees, a doctorate, an MFA residency, etc.” Nope. She has her bachelors from James Madison which she used to become a teacher. Bulimia. Alcoholism. Kids. Husband infidelity. Remarriage. Those are her degrees. These things don’t put letters behind your name, I’m (not!) afraid. But what they DO do? They make people listen. These things are true education. They show the world the real honest mess that the rest of us are quietly dealing with behind our shiny instagram scenes.
People are listening. I’ve been thinking for months about how to articulate what I really want to say in this post. I’ve mostly got it, I think. And this is why I write. Writing allows me to find the words that my thoughts can’t produce. With writing, I have to punctuate, metaphor, simile. With writing, I have to be finite, sensible, conversational. There needs to be a beginning and an end. I have to be saying something. Thoughts are helpful, yes, but they are circles. They are unpunctuated, self-led perceptions of things that bounce off of nothing but other subjective thoughts and self-led perceptions of things and therefore they give us no outside feedback. When we hide in our thoughts, we are safe from rejection, heartache, disagreement, disappointment. If we don’t speak, we don’t risk, we don’t worry. We’re not wrong. Life is perfect. When we are just thinking, we are comfortable. Everyone around us is comfortable. And the stale slant of humanity goes on without wrinkle or tension, without discussions or vulnerability, without growth. What a life. When we hide in our thoughts, we forget how to become. To write, to Write It Down is an (often painful) action step that must be taken if we are to find the pain through which we are to wade. If we are to become. To write means to invite others’ opinions for better or worse which, if we are careful, we can use to get closer to our True Self. For me, writing is my becoming. I simply MUST do it.
You may have been following me for a minute or two now, or this could be the first post of mine you’ve read. Regardless, welcome. I am here so that you’ll see me and, perhaps, see a little of you. I am not a walrus or an ant. I am a human who is being here, with you, a human who is being there. Here and there are irrelevant. Our biologies are the same. We’ve all lived inside a woman, we were born, we stay alive, we’ll die. Til death do we all part. It really is that simple. But what happens in between? The juice happens in between. That stuff that oozes from us when we are scared or tired or brazen or bold. I have a theory that all our juice oozes out, invisibly, and collects with the juice of all the others to create a vast energetic network of ooze from which we all human, from which we all become. This quarantine has amazed me, really. In my young 39-year-old lifetime, this is the first real human leveling I’ve ever experienced. The entire world is engulfed in the same fear. It’s the new word on the street. Whenever I am out somewhere, usually hiking, I cross paths with others and there is this collective ‘whoa, better not get too close. Have to live within the new normal.’ It feels understood, but also awkward. It feels friendly and unfriendly at the same time. But the glances are all the same. “Stay safe,” we say with squints and winks as our half-faces plead with other half-faces to be miraculously understood. Everyone is listening, wondering if they’ll be next. Suddenly none of our opinions or stances on things really matter. And if they do, they won’t for long. We are leveled to just the human frame, no more no less. We are animals who happen to be able to speak words. And the words, ironically, mean nothing anyway.
We are getting punched squarely in the face by something smaller than a particle of dust. We are learning that death does not ever discriminate. It doesn’t care how much money we have, if we are good mothers, what color our skin is, if we are starving ourselves, if we are republican or democrat, if we are dictators, nazis, nuns, kids, babies, elders. We are relying on each other for the greater good of the species. Finally. Hopefully. Terrifyingly.
The scientific definition of altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others; behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.”
I’ve been enamored with this definition since my college days. My educational stint was mostly occupied by my utter fascination with animal behavior and biological psychology. In short, I love the brain. I had a professor, Dr. Pollak, who was just as fascinated as I and who planted the seed in me with regard to this subject. Dr. Pollak was about mid-50s, white hair, round mostly stern face, square platinum-rimmed glasses, a large circular belly that shook when he laughed, which he did a lot. His personal uniform consisted of the same v-neck maroon scrub shirt and stone washed jeans, old sneakers. He was brazen and real like steak when you cook it right. He was also smart as hell. Incredible to listen to. Difficult in the 400 student classrooms of the 101 levels, but once I had roundtable discussion seminars with him when I was a senior, I learned even more that he was indeed brilliant.
It was in Dr. Pollak’s class where I learned that an airplane crashed into the world trade center, where I had my first taste of collective humanity scared and suffering together whether sitting in that classroom or running from the crumbling city or bracing on the plane. He stood there, trembling and pale, his incumbent yet scrambled search for words failing him, and cancelled class. His brother was there, where everything that we didn’t yet know was happening was, in New York. He could hardly speak. He had to go. We had to go. I’ll never forget that day. It was the first real world experience I had seen of human altruism. Suddenly, we were all operating from the same plane. We were leveled. We were all terrified and yet, helping each other through the terror. The altruism bled through and we came together in ways I have never seen before. The richest were just as scared as the poor, the sickest were just as scared as the healthy, the most accomplished were just as scared as the least. We leaned on each other in a posture that we hadn’t yet experienced. We transcended boundaries. We dedicated ourselves to help.
As college kids in 2001, we didn’t have smart phones then. No social media. News traveled like wildfire through real mouths and shaking tongues and wet tears and confused kids I encountered on my stuttering walk home to my apartment. I passed my roommate, Becky, whose class was not cancelled. “It’s true,” She said. “A plane crashed. And then another.” She kept walking, Marlboro medium nestled between her long sleepy fingers as though a cigarette was her only tangible semblance of reality that begged to make sense. It really didn’t make sense. I kept walking. Down Matlack street, crossing Church street, Walnut street, my own Marlboro now lit and burning, a quiet secret torch. I arrived, 20 minutes later, to my quaint two bedroom apartment which I shared with two girls and a guy. I turned the knob with a simple prayer that none of this would be true, that it was all some kind of sick campus joke. Inside was my roommate, Kyle, watching the tv in a sort of crooked statuesque horror. He had situated the brown corduroy rocking chair (my grandmother’s) right in the center of the room, his still shoulders poised in front of the moving picture that seemed to have many more scrolling word ribbons than normal. Death tolls. Manifests. Theories. Terrorism. Flags. Armies. Planes. Firefighters. Paramedics. Blood. The reporters were trapped in the swirl between their mental digestion of it all and their emotional processing. You could see the human in their faces just spilling out. There was no professional game face. Everyone was terrified. It was too early to interview anyone so they had to fill the space with noises of their own. God bless those reporters, holding the tarp of the world up over our heads with their words, like Atlas, so we could take it in. Kyle sat there, stroking his blonde goatee, his stale cigarette sleeping next to him, a cylinder of ash because you can’t really inhale when your jaw is on the floor. Friends came over. Big man boys who were afraid to cry were now stationed on my living room floor like boulders, silent, stoic, tears tumbling into their calloused hands. We all held the space for each other. More came. Roommates, other friends. We stared at the tv and begged, silently, to make it all go away. We were uncomfortable. We were leveled. The fear was unbearable. This was Philly. That was New York. What if whoever did this was headed here? This is the birthplace of the whole damn country. Our phones started ringing, whining like toddlers who refused to nap until we picked them up. “Yes, Mom. I’m ok. Are you? Yes, Dad. I’m good. Can you stay on the phone? Can you help me to believe this?”
Later, we’d learn about the Pentagon, the crash in PA. It was surreal. Nothing was the same after that. I wish I could report that business returned to usual at some point but, to this day, it never has. Removing shoes at airports has become commonplace, Arabic prejudice still occurs, cockpit doors are bulletproof and computer locked, airline personnel have more guns, TSA has less patience, cities have action plans, “the war on terror” now a household catch phrase. I don’t live in other countries so I can’t speak for them, but I do know that American culture has completely changed. There is an underpinning fear that resides in all of us which begs questions like, “what’s next? my town? my kids? that town? that government body?” Heart disease, obesity, cancer, addiction rates are all rising and it’s not just the food and work stress. Humans have become accustomed to new levels of general cortisol which is not getting used up by running from the tiger. It sticks to our insides like punishing sap and congeals all the innerworkings of our natural biology. If there is a system that needs to work smoothly, cortisol trips it up. If we have to think clearly or focus in any capacity, cortisol trips it up. When we are traumatized, cortisol builds crevasses in our brains so that we REMEMBER the trauma and PREPARE for its recurrence so that we are PROTECTED from death again next time. It is a type of defense mechanism. ‘Here is where the tiger lives,’ it says. ‘Don’t come back here.’ But, in case you haven’t checked under your desk, there are no longer tigers outside the cave. And more, we can no longer in any sort of sensible way avoid them. Instead we are faced with many other forms of wild, the slow bleed of constant stress and fear each day, the incessant news reel via every single digital outlet that exists, the theories, the arguments with those we once loved, the underpinning cries for help as we attempt to complete task filled lives that are set up for failure from the outset. We can’t take it anymore. Our thresholds have been reached. We are running on empty. And yet sadly we behave as though it’s normal, respected even, this cocktail of fight or flight hormones that seduces our synapses to reproduce the patterns that have been created. In returning to the same journey of these patterns over and over, we are safe. We can expect. Our assertions can be correct here, no matter the harm they do to us. We can avoid new stress by sticking to what we know. But this slowly kills us. It is addiction in its finest, most subtle form. Personally, I’d rather be eaten by the tiger.
We purport that we must “stress relieve” by doing yoga and drinking celery juice and trying to fit those things into our 16 hour work days, rather than reduce our 16 hour work days because work is lifeblood and to not work means you are a lazy cow. And to be a lazy cow means that the supplement industry can’t make a buck. So you remain, on the capitalistic hamster wheel that rotates a slow churn toward the Saturdays and Sundays of the week where you are then assaulted by different stressors in the form of socialization, family, activities, more work. The human condition has changed. Our brains can’t keep up. Evolution doesn’t work that quickly. And that has always been our problem. Our ideas have made our minds up more quickly than our bones can adapt. It is quite a conundrum.
Enter Coronavirus. Covid-19, to be exact, is the blanket worldwide government acronym for this illness which makes it sound more like some sort of GATTACA AI configuration than a little virus. And here we are. The general collective. The face of the human. It’s been months now. The initial novelty of terror has worn off some, but the fear lingers like that nutty obligatory uncle who just won’t leave the Thanksgiving table before his plate has been dressed with thirds. Now, depending on where you live and what political party you support, a simple accessory such as a mask begins to tamper with the human condition. You’re disgusted that place of business doesn’t require them. You’re disgusted your town Mayor is mandating them. You can’t believe that someone would actually go out into the world WITHOUT one. You can’t believe just how infringed upon you feel about your rights. The great divide is not new. It has always been there. But isn’t it something how a worldwide crisis so easily becomes the flashbulb that assaults the current fabric of humanity right into view. Altrusim still exists, of course. But we are tribal. Our species is family owned and operated. To protect our family is to protect our own. The trouble is that there are disagreements about just exactly WHAT we are providing protection from. And there are disagreements about just exactly WHOM we are providing protection to. Some think we need protection from a virus. Some think it is socialism. Some think it is anarchy. Some think only government officials need protection. Some think the term ‘frontline worker’ somehow equates to ‘the infantry,’ the people who signed up to be the first ones to ‘die for their country’ as if patriotism even needs to exist in this conversation. The camps are many and vast. Like snowflakes. So much so, that many of our species just can’t decide one way or the other. And we are simply dying while we are waiting to make up our minds. Our thoughts and musings are, once again, more evolved than our bones. The herd has been thinning. The fear is so tangible, you can smell it. Like a stale overroasted coffee that must be dressed with the finest cream and sugar known to woman in order to be rendered even slightly palatable. The fear remains the one thing that we can count on to be real. So we hold onto it tightly, stroking the heads of our babies as they dream about butterflies. We pretend the fear animals don’t seep into their night movies through our tired fingers. We pray that those damn dreamcatchers work.
But dreamcatchers will only work if we believe they will.
Welcome to the leveling. I could vote for you or him or her and still die today. Or you or he could win and die tomorrow. Last night, I walked into my house after work. The sky was turned off so the stars could reach me. And there they were, intrusive but not, like patient parents just watching. Watching us as we make the mistakes we are meant to make and as we savor the victories we are supposed to master. They are there scooping us up when the fear gets too much and the breathing slows. They are there to tuck us in, ever quiet, as our beds embroil us in still slumber. And they are there, the next day, brighter even, as they compete with the skylight of daytime, the audacious sun, in order to be remembered. It is up to us to remember them. They’re up there, waiting for us. It doesn’t really matter what moves we make down here. When we become stars at the end of these days, the nitrogen will burn just as brightly. Our thoughts, ether. Our bones, just light.
I’ve come to the conclusion that to continue the slow burn of cortisol-induced worry will cause me to die a far worse death than any virus. The worst way to die is to die while still living, and I’ve already done that. To live dead, well, that’s a travesty. That’s not to say that I don’t have a duty to my fellow humans. I do. And you do, too. I look for the helpers, and when I don’t see any I become one. I do my due diligence as a citizen who would like to continue to use the services provided to her by a productive civilized, surviving society. I continue to take measures for the survival of the greater good because, someday my dust might mix with her dust or his dust and create the same star that looks down on the tired mother of three who stumbles through the darkness home from work and into her warm family-filled home. I continue to force myself to zoom the lens out.
The leveling will continue. If not a virus today, an earthquake tomorrow, a tsunami next week. During the next course, take out your devices and measure. Make sure that bubble stays in the middle of the neon yellow juice inside that neat little see through block. Observe and watch and figure out which things our collective does to make it move. Stop doing those things. Keep it in the middle. Level. Live from there. This will take lifetimes. Generations, really. It has been happening full throttle since the beginning of time. I imagine it’s the stars just playing ball with us. Until we get it. Until we look up and remember that we, too, will become the slow burn when the earth’s breath stops. Patience. Grace. Remembrance of who we really are. We are not a virus. We are not Democrats. We are not Republicans. We are mothers and fathers stroking our babies’ hair. We are stumblers. And aristocrats. We are inventors. And hopers. We are imaginers. We are creators. We are stars.
Go out and do good. Be right with the world. Become the helper. And live alive.