Maybe it is the time of year. Or it could be the time of day, with the light so dim that we are enveloped in evening by four thirty in the afternoon. Maybe it is the lingering question of red maples getting lonelier with the passing days, extending their promise of a last dance before winter. Either way, any way, this time of year brings grief with it. It’s not the kind of grief that knocks the wind out of me but the kind that lingers and that, like the maples, remains unanswered.
Today, I saw a list of people who have been killed in Palestine in the last four days. And I begin, inside, to make a list of my own. Self-indulgent or not, the list goes something like this:
Dying babies in Palestine and the rage at my own nation’s refusal to stop their dying.
Abigail, my friend, taking her own precious, perfect, earthly life and ending it without warning, without reason, gone out of my reach.
The absence of a man I came to love accidentally. His exit without a goodbye, feels like a shattering betrayal in scale model size.
The stolid, damaged look in the eyes of a new man when I say I want to love, bigger. The surprise of the comfort I find in his arms.
My mother’s best friend, my auntie, telling me on the phone that she’s got cancer again. Fuck.
My students’ inability to feel things because they are medicated beyond feeling, coaxed into it by being told they couldn’t succeed if they didn’t take their Ritalin-Aderol-Prozac-Zoloft. And of course, success is everything.
A list of sorrows. It seems silly to even write it. But I have to because it’s all been echoing inside me now for weeks. I need an armistice. And then I remember that Armistice Day has just passed—and its synonym, Veteran’s Day—and Diwali and an exhausting election and a difficult semester.
Armistice day is profound, actually. Embarrassingly, I never knew much about it before living in New England where we have the day off from school. It commemorates the day at the terminus of World War I where the French decided to celebrate the ending of the fighting. They weren’t exalting a battle, but instead recognizing the return to peace. And Diwali is the Indian festival of lights, which celebrates the return of the beloveds, Ram and Sita to their home after a decade or more in exile, after an eternity with only the certainty of their love, coming home. And both holidays celebrate the triumph of good over evil. And they both coincide in my life in the early weeks of November and on my yoga mat and in my breath and my body.
Don’t get me wrong; armistice does not come easily. Sometimes it takes years of war and weeks of sorrow. Sometimes you just have to live with it for a while. To better carry the sadness I’ve been harboring, I started taking long walks in the park by the highway with Nia. I put in my headphones and walked beside the water and under the trees, tracking the last of the red maples that might be on fire with red, the birches and lonely conifers that will hold their color through the grey winter.
But this is not enough.
I see my thoughts become so circular that they are haunting. And the only conclusion I can come to is that I am somehow ill-equipped for the task of solving all the problems of the world, all the problems of my own mind. I am simply churning. My breath comes in short gasps as I imagine, over and over again, things like my lover’s skin, warmed by the sun, the light fractured by crashing waves as I melted into the afternoon with him. Why do I seem to love him more in his absence? How can I think I want him to come back, imperfect and not belonging to me and sweet nonetheless? How come I can’t bring myself to call because I’m so afraid my words will come out all angry, or worse, sickly sweet, beckoning for a return that is undeserved?
Then I turn my thoughts to Abbi, and how she’s gone now, how much I loved her. I think of her perfect, thick mane of hair that used to move like a second body, around her. How she was good, and grounded and true in all things. She was so unusual in that integrity. I just can’t quite wrap my mind around her death. Then I turn to the emptiness I feel with my students this semester without an explanation. I try again, to slow down and catch my breath and I just can’t seem to.
I won’t go on.
I know I have a particularly fastidious mind for this kind of crap but what I also know is that we’ve all been in positions that are uncomfortable, places where we feel there is something about our very make up that won’t let us free of our obsession and pain. My mother would say that it’s the human condition, this suffering, seemingly without end. My mother would say that this is where our real compassion comes from, from knowing just what it feels like to be in dire straights, uncomfortable positions, at a total loss.
That way, when we turn to the suffering of the world, which is immeasurable, we have a heart made pliable and tender by our own sorrows, and not hardened by arrogance, resistance or fear. The pain is actually a gift, perhaps one of the deepest gifts in fact. We need these tender, fierce hearts to acknowledge things like war, famine, injustice, tragedy. Otherwise, we start to believe false things: that the death of innocent children is acceptable as a casualty of political conflict, that the rape and degradation of the planet is OK because we have lives too busy to do anything about it.
So, it is with the gifts of suffering that the armistice is made. It comes inside of a gratitude and trust that soothes my aching, harried mind eventually. It happens in quiet moments between my Ferris wheel thoughts. It happens on the yoga mat when my teacher says, why would you ever want to check out of your true essence, just because it all seems like too much? That’s where the good stuff is. That’s where the beauty is. And just like that, I come back. It feels good to come home.
And, the other thing about armistice is this, when it comes, there is not only celebration but floods of unshed tears, somehow held in by fear and uncertainty. So I find myself, on a weekday morning, late on my way somewhere, just sitting on my couch, weeping. And it feels good to do so. After all, outside of these walls a hurricane has blown down parts of a city and flooded it with water. War rages with injustice all over the world. My problems are very, very small in comparison. It is good to know the size of things. It’s even better to know the size of my own heart. And for that, I am truly grateful.