Grief: A Sacred Space

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“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.

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High Wire Lifestyle

Like a lemming nearing a cliff’s edge, I’m racing toward graduation.

Or maybe the lemming simile doesn’t hold up—maybe I’m more like a performer on a high wire, desperately stepping toward the other platform while juggling five plates and seven flaming torches.

My life feels like a loosely-organised collection of objects, all of which must be kept from crashing into the ground or each other, and none of which is ever at rest. My laptop always has half a dozen windows, tabs, and sticky notes open to half-finished projects, and my mind is a scramble of approaching deadlines, to-be-read titles, and chemistry terms I still don’t quite understand and probably will guess on when the exam comes around.

And at the end of all that, at some point after the nightmare chem exam and the squeaked-under deadlines and the last pages of books that consume my soul for hours at a time—graduation looms.

Yes, let’s call all of this a high wire act.

Graduation looms like the platform at the other end of the wire, solid and safe, but also small. There will be room for me to turn around, to abandon my torches and my plates, to smile, to bow, to feel something stable beneath my feet—but it will last only a moment. The platform of graduation is just big enough to make me feel safe for a few breaths, but I cannot live there. Somehow I will have to make my way from graduation to solid ground.

And somehow, I feel certain that when I climb down that ladder, I won’t find a wide expanse of ground to rest on, but yet another platform and yet another wire.

Perhaps I’ll be juggling differently on that next tightrope—instead of plates and torches, maybe bowls and batons. Instead of papers, exams, and packing lists, maybe lesson plans, foreign noun cases, and new street names will swirl through my mind. But I’ll still be on a high wire, still moving to keep from falling, still with my eye on that next platform and the momentary solid safety beneath me before the next ladder and the next wire.

See, the thing about a high wire is that you can’t sit still. You can’t relax. You can’t decide that balancing no longer matters or that you’re going to spend the rest of your life hovering on the wire between one platform and the next—and yet, in the end, that’s where we live, I think. We like to think we spend our time on the platforms, where we can let down our guard, set aside the props, and rest. But if we land on those solid boards, it’s only once in a while, only long enough to catch our breath.

Life, I think, is lived on the wires between platforms. It’s lived in the struggle to stay upright and the wild flailing to keep all the balls and plates and what-have-you in the air. It’s lived in the gasps when we think we’ll fall and the ecstasy when we think we’re flying. It’s lived in that first moment when we leave the platform and feel the empty air beneath us, and it’s lived in those last moments when we wonder whether we’ll tip to our deaths before we reach respite.

Life, I think, is lived in motion.

So here I am, running toward the graduation platform, eager for the brief rest, ready to let the plates and torches drop, ready to relax on solid ground even for a moment. But also, here I am, running toward the next wire—and I’m eager for that, too.

Photo cred: Flickr user Christian

Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

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That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko

On Adulting

“I’m an adult, but more like an adult cat,” explains the meme. “Someone should probably take care of me, but I can sorta make it on my own.”

“I cannot adult today,” another declares.

I chime in most mornings with, “Do I have to be a human?”

There’s a whole generation of us hitting this stage—too old to pretend not to be anymore, but not really sure how to successfully adult. We navigate the dark alleys of taxes, leases, and school loans on sheer survival instinct, but we’d rather be napping in a sunny spot with some more adult-like adult preparing dinner for us. We still binge-watch Nicktoons, but now we do it in between jobs, and we feel kinda stressed about it.

Where is that magical adulthood threshold? we wonder. When will I stop feeling like a kid playing dress-up?

Photo credit Paul Inkles

And yet, whether we see it or not, slowly, step by step, we wander (mostly on accident) from the playground to the workplace, from ninth grade homeroom to college graduation.

I’ve started noticing those steps.

One happened yesterday when I went to the doctor’s office all by myself. One happened two years ago when I signed my own lease and paid rent on a house all summer. One happened three years ago when I did my taxes myself for the first time; four years ago when I bought an iron; five years ago when I dealt with a fender-bender alone.

And I realise at last that there is no threshold.

There will not be the morning when I wake up and think, Ah, yes, now I’m an adult. I will not magically feel prepared or suddenly know how to navigate the world.

I will become a functional adult the way I became a functional kindergartener or a functional teenager—one tiny step at a time, so gradually I don’t notice, and mostly on accident.

Adult life, it turns out, isn’t so much different from the sixth-grade playground or the tenth-grade hallway.

I’ll make mistakes, probably walk into the wrong bathroom a time or two, lose my pencil sharpener, take notes on the wrong chapter, and recover. There will be drama and misunderstandings, laughter and in-jokes, and I will probably never stop watching cartoons or reading YA fiction.

Adulthood, I begin to understand, is not about the things you lose along the way; it isn’t about stopping eating ice-cream by the pint, giving up dumb bus games, or ending late-night giggles with friends. It’s about the things you gain along the way; it’s about taking responsibility, learning to walk alone, balancing real life and make-believe.

There is no adulthood threshold. And, really, as long as I go to work in the morning and do my taxes on time and make my own doctor’s appointments, why should I quit playing dress-up?

Photo credit Lauren A W