America's no-bullshit moment

(Remember how I asked you all to consider donating to a fund that would allow my kid’s school to keep its wonderful librarian? Well, many of you did. And one reader, in particular, pledged to fill any gap that existed when the fund was closed, guaranteeing that 300 kids she’s never met, in a town she doesn’t live in, would get to experience the magic of books. She’s a perfect stranger to me. Except now she’s a perfect inspiration to me. Thank you, Asha Virani, for honoring me, us, this motley crew at Emerson Elementary, and your son so beautifully. We will read voraciously to honor you right back.)

I’ve been starting to think of this as America’s no-bullshit moment. 

As Ocean Vuong points out in this gorgeous interview, we used to say “How are you?” everytime we called or met up somewhere, and we pretended like it was a light and breezy question--like each one of us wasn’t carrying around a ten-pound sack of grief over a dead dog or a broken friendship. Which is, of course, why we never mention the sack when that question is asked and instead say, “Fine. And you?” 

I’ve noticed that my friends and I don’t ask that anymore, or, if we do, it’s with some sarcasm. How are you...in a pandemic that is killing our grandfathers and filling us with anxiety is finally exposed for its silliness. The thing is that it was always sort of silly. We just can’t pretend otherwise now.

My own bullshit, I’m realizing, was pretty effectively propped up by my busyness. As my life has come to a screeching halt, confined within these 1,200 square feet, as my work hours have dwindled, and my social calendar withered down to a few reluctant Zoom calls each week--what is left is a lot of neglected feelings. Inefficient feelings. Feelings with no visible borders or cathartic aim. 

I’m mad as hell at this country for being so broken and unequal and I’m mad at myself for noticing that, but mostly tolerating it up until this point in a million daily ways. Sure, I was part of the “resistance,” but I also just went about my day, biding my time until fall of 2020 for dignified leadership, mostly tuning out when people would say a word like “pandemic.” 

People say if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention. I wasn’t. Not really. I didn’t want to give this President space in my brain, to the point that I tried to not even mention his name. But without his name in my mouth I think I may have endangered others, grown too complacent about our healthcare system (so many systems)--all waiting for another chance to see my values reflected in our leadership. My reflection? Oh, that makes me so mad, too; why must our politics be so narcissistic? 

I’m sad, damn am I sad, that my parents are isolated hours away from me and struggling to feel the joy they deserve in their 70s. I imagined something different for them, for us. My mom says it’s aging, that all her friends are talking about the losses. Then I’m mad as hell at aging, I guess? And then I feel adolescent and unwise. I want the fairytale. I want them full of vim and vigor for 90 years, shaping my kids in a million ways, slurping up the last decades of their lives and then going out with hot chocolate mustaches.  

I’m having “forethought of grief,” as Wendell Berry puts it, for my girls. In the short run, it’s been sweet for them--pajamas all day and so many shows and haircuts at home. Yesterday we saved wild animals from the top of Mount Everest and Maya proved very adept at covering herself in a forcefield that meant the dangerous yetis couldn’t get her. But when Stella, just three years old, and I play “family,” all of her relatives are dying. Yesterday she said, “My baby brother died. I’m so disappointed.”

I meant to tell her that disappointed is probably too light a word for death, but I didn’t. I’m disappointed, too, and, like her, tentatively meeting all of these feelings that apparently lived incognito in my body, waiting for a break in the social calendar to introduce themselves. 

I remember only one other time when my neglected feelings came up like this--when I was on a writing residency. I landed on an island in Washington state and saw a giant pile of firewood cut just for the women writers there and I wept. I couldn’t believe someone would cut the wood like that for me, for my words on a page. I woke and ate and slept inside this little cabin and befriended a very tiny lizard that liked to sun on the chair on my porch, and I cried a lot and wrote a little. Only a little. 

Author Janet Kay Jensen took this picture of the actual woodpile.

Would the woodcutter have cut all that wood for me if she’d known it wasn’t for me to write the Great American Novel, but to cry about the uncontrollable narrative of my own life? I hoped so, but I couldn’t help it either way. That’s the thing about these no-bullshit moments; they resist rationalizing. 

Dear reader, I would cut a giant pile of firewood for you if it afforded you the space and time, if it convinced you of your own worthiness, if it just made it somehow impossible not to feel things. Trust me, if I could lard up my Google Calendar and be done with the feelings, I would be tempted, but I hear there is relief on the other side of anger and grief. Maybe if you can move it through your body, your sack gets lighter. Or maybe you’re just finally conscious of the weight you are bearing in a way that allows you to live more honestly. 

I would like to be more honest, outraged, and grateful on the other side of this. 

I would like to hug my friends. 

And I would like to never ask them how they are.