The gift of unmediated witness

  
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We sat in a circle of chairs, spaced a few feet apart, as the light faded and the air grew crisp in the backyard. White lights were strewn artfully around the fecund apple tree. In the big beautiful window of my friend’s cozy house beyond, I could see her husband getting the last snacks of the day for her two wild haired kids, who crept up to the window and peered out every once in awhile. I wondered what they were wondering.

In some ways, I probably know. I’ve been those kids—a circle of women somewhere just out of ear shot. I used to sit at the top of the stairs in my childhood home and chart the rise and fall of the volume in the living room below where my mom’s friends were talking about books and drinking vodka and holding the world together with their friendship. I couldn’t imagine, at the time, what could be so compelling and so inexhaustible a subject as to get them coming back month after month, year after year.

Now I am 41-years-old and I don’t need to imagine. I know with exquisite precision what it is that women get from one another around these circles—unvarnished truth, edifying solidarity, and always, always, so much laughter.

When covid hit, my women’s group migrated online. We did zoom calls—first every other week to steady ourselves in the most acute phase of transition, then monthly once the “new normal” set in. And we were so grateful for it—a way to stay safe and together, even if “together” felt nothing like our monthly in-person potlucks. It was different, we told one another, but kind of cool, too. We liked the breakout rooms, the accessibility, a new and altered intimacy.

We returned to this backyard for our first in-person gathering last week, not because we are delusional about the pandemic being over, but because we felt ready to openly discuss the risks and expectations (vaccinated, masked, outside). I think many of us felt trepidation, not just because of the delta variant, but also socially. It had been so long since we’d been in the same physical space, expected to navigate each others bodies and differential experiences of such a harrowing year. Would it be like meeting for the first time, again?

It wasn’t. At least not for me. I felt nervous, for sure, but I felt nervous among sisters. Our bodies still knew one another. We mingled a bit, then sat down in our circle and did what we always do—talked about our real lives.

But more importantly, we listened about our real lives.

I had forgotten how nourishing it is to listen. In person. Undistracted. The energy buzzing between bodies. It made me human again in a way I didn’t know I hadn’t been.

In this era of pandemic pattern-keeping, we have talked so much about what is lost on zoom, and certainly made a valiant effort to talk about what has been gained. But mostly I feel we have centered the experience of the talker. Do we feel connected to others when we speak through a screen? Do we feel heard?

I realized that what I have missed the most is not being heard, but hearing.

When I sit in that circle, I am witness to the pain and beauty of ordinary, extraordinary lives. I am reminded that people are dealing with so much shit that we would never guess when we’re scrolling through Instagram or walking by them on the street…that these same people are stronger than we ever could have known. The depth of the strength is only visible next to the pain. I am reminded that people are funny as hell, that they are wicked even, in the best way. I am reminded that people do things for their aging parents, for their growing children, for themselves, that are superhuman. That they keep growing and apologizing and falling apart and coming back together. I am reminded that we are all part of generational stories, unfolding days at a time, but in the context of centuries.

There is a quality to the translation that happens when bodies are there—crying and laughing and nursing babies and petting dogs and drinking beers—that I haven’t experienced online. To be a witness again—a flesh-and-blood witness—was such a gift. I went home in the dark feeling like my bones had been re-set. I looked up at the stars, silently thanking them for making me so lucky as to have even one night with women I love, testifying about the lives that we endure and shape.

And I realized the stars are witnesses, the wild haired children are witnesses, we are all layers of witnesses on witnesses on witnesses. We crave to see, not scroll, as we live these lives in this liminal time; we crave to hear, not overhear. We crave to give one another our undivided attention—a realization of the love we know we are capable of if given the epidemiological conditions, the autumn evening, that very human chance.