We Americans are losing so much right now: loved ones to death, other relationships to political violence and conspiracy theories. Americans are losing touch with reality, losing beliefs, losing real freedom and trust and patience and hope. Some of that loss comes with searing pain, but every loss can also give us a new lightness, if we know how to sense it--the unburdening of worry, shame, failure, obligation, terror, naivety, delusion. Even when we lose what we desperately wanted to keep, we find our hands and eyes and hearts left open to new sources of light.
I am reminded of the first time I traveled abroad without family or personal friends--when I went to study abroad in Rome, and upon landing was robbed of my baggage. (What a funny metaphor, right? But it wasn't funny to me at the time--it was terrifying.) I was, to put it nicely, not one of the rich kids on that trip. Not only could I not afford to replace the belongings I needed, I was already running up a deficit in the personal care department. I showed up in worn clothing, cheap sandals, and a weed-whacker accidental fashion mullet that I had received from a student because that was all I could afford going in, and there wasn't time to go back to the educational salon and have it fixed. I did manage to acquire a toothbrush and toothpaste, though I did not often have access to a shop where I could buy underwear that wasn't a bedazzled thong, or contact lens solution, or even hair ties that didn't have those gnarly metal clamps that ripped my hair out every time I used them. After a long struggle, the airport compensated me with 40 euro, not even half the value of my empty suitcase.
I felt panic and grief for the items of sentimental value I'd brought along and lost, such as my diary, along with the items of practical need. I felt fear and vulnerability and shame over how pitifully poor I was. I felt outraged horror over being sneered at by the adults in charge of the program, who lumped me in with all the trust funders and reminded me to be grateful I even had access to this elite experience. At least my roommate understood, which was small comfort. My roommate was one of us few non-rich students who had gotten there on scholarship. Unfortunately that meant we were both up a creek with few resources. When we arrived in Rome, the two of us were dumped in a terrifying, foul slum far away from the accommodations of the rest of our group. We both assessed the situation quickly and, as kids who have seen hardship before, we both snapped into survival mode.
I don't know what survival instinct or brain chemistry kicked in for me that day, but as soon as my roommate and I were left completely alone, my spirit went quiet, and my senses sharpened. The light shone brighter. The colors of the sunrise took on indescribable hues I'd never been aware of witnessing before in my life. My lungs filled up with the momentarily clean breeze of Rome in August (almost entirely deserted due to the unbearable heat), and I felt light as a balloon.
My roommate and I decided that we would not keep still for a moment to let our demons catch up to us--we would march. We would walk and walk and walk until we couldn't walk anymore. In our crappy sandals, until they fell apart. We had our youth, if nothing else, and we would use it or lose it.
We left our grim apartment building on foot and ran down like little beads of sweat, down the steep hillsides of Monteverde, down down down toward the valley of the Tiber. We wandered and explored, letting awe and curiosity lead us, grateful that almost no one was around to watch us raggedy travelers drifting around with our eyes glazed and our jaws hanging. I paused at the top of a set of crumbling, concrete stairs overhung on both sides with a jungle of Mediterranean ferns, looking out over the empty marketplace near Porta Portese, feeling the hot wind blow through my sweaty, worn-out clothes and wretched hair, and my shock and despair shifted like the weather into a surging ecstasy.
I had lost my baggage. I was free.
After that, I had many unexpected and scrappy adventures that were far more meaningful than anything likely experienced by my classmates with unlimited grappa and Gucci money. By the end of it, I couldn't even feel jealous of the "privileges" that left my rich classmates mushy and dull as cooked potatoes, while I developed powerful skills and strengths.
More than 15 years later, I can relive a taste of that thrill I felt at the top of those concrete stairs, but playfully and in a context of social and emotional safety, when I go sledding with my family.
My husband, my daughter, my brother, and even some older relatives of ours like to share the enjoyment of a wicked jump and the slow-motion second of weightlessness it brings. There is an element of real, physical danger in the way we like to sled, but it's also good training for navigating the ups and downs of life with skill, courage, and resilience.
Other people enjoy a little danger in their recreation too, but I've noticed that some people like to play with the stirring up of social evils such as bigotry and hate, rather than risking a few bumps and bruises. I don't think that is as healthy a way of processing control issues.
It is interesting to witness the different responses around me to the political violence and unrest happening in the United States now, from our Capitol all the way down to our family conversations.
It is fascinating to see who has had enough of racism, misogyny, conspiracy theories, and narcissistic rage--to the point of refusing to enable it anywhere, anymore, to the point of bravely standing up to it in their own personal lives--and who is still not ready to let those things go or confront them in others. Some people are still clinging to sinking ships. Some people have not yet learned that loss and grief are flotation devices we cannot live without. Denial isn't healing.
Some people have been taught that down is up and wrong is right, so they don't even realize they are drowning--and threatening to pull their whole country down with them.
I know what it feels like for your whole perception of reality to shudder and pitch under your feet. I remember the heart-crushing realization that my religious fundamentalist childhood authority figures had lied to me, willingly and in cold blood, abetted by innocent good-cops who had been groomed to groom other innocents on their behalf. You know, the kind of people you may have seen in the news who preached stranger-danger as a distraction from the child abuse rings perpetrated and protected within their own ranks.
You know, like all those people who continue to use fake or misleading victimized-children stories to cover up their own brutal victimization of real innocents. It's an old trick and a common one. It often succeeds.
And it hurts like a sucker punch when you realize it worked on you, that your inner desires to be useful and good and to help the vulnerable have been weaponized against your own mind. Afterward comes the fraught terror of disentangling yourself from the delusions of your family and friends who still believe--and whose beliefs may be more important to them than you are.
It is a necessary but perilous journey, escaping a cult or a sick ideology or an abusive household.
Family is a tricky thing. So is any supportive community with an authoritarian structure.
We all need to belong. We cannot and do not survive without communities, even if we are wild Western cowboys in our wildest imaginations. We all need our tribes. They multiply our joys and dissipate our sorrows. They help us to weather storms and to connect with meaning and purpose and to process grief and loss.
They can also be hijacked. They can also turn on us or trick us into turning on others.
And once you know it, you can't un-know, even if you pretend with all your might. You must choose between willing complicity and revolt.
Throughout my life, I have chosen to rebel against, cut off, and leave behind several communities, movements, and individuals that have betrayed me or others without justification nor a willingness to make amends, and though that can be extremely painful, I have never lived to regret those choices. Every break has let in light, and every loss has taught me invaluable lessons. Into my empty hands--not immediately, but always eventually--have come new strengths and emotional tools. And every time I busted down a door to save myself, other people have followed and met me later, in a better place.
I rejoice when the buck stops with me, when a cycle of abuse ends, when I can unshackle myself from resentment, when I can free myself from confusion and inner conflict, when I can crawl out from under a crushing repression. And especially, when I can find or create and nurture new, healthy relationships that give and receive love and strength both ways. Every ending is a beginning too.
I am proud that my own daughter has lived a decade without ever experiencing child abuse. My husband and I know of no ancestor of hers, in either of our family lines, who could make that claim.
So I say, to the old ways that no longer serve us, to bad habits and lies and misconceptions and manipulations and to the people who cling to those things with more zealous passion than they can spare for the mercy of their supposed loved ones:
Goodbye! Addio! Non vai piano!
At the start of each New Year, it is traditional to cast out bad habits, past disappointments, dead ends, and dusty clutter. We clear the air, clean our living spaces, and open our windows to the growing light of a newborn year. We separate ourselves even from what we love, as we must.
Labor is agony. Childbirth is a bloody separation. And it is also light. It is necessary for life itself to continue. When pain serves the purpose of moving us into a better future and granting us new life, it is not to be feared or avoided. My people, the people that I now claim as mine and who claim me as theirs, accept the responsibility and the inevitable suffering and conflict and the loss that will make possible a better life for my daughter and everyone's (real) children.