Skip to main content

The Incredible Lightness of Loss

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 the other people who co-opted hashtags about saving children so they could necromance the Nazis

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.



Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be: You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")    35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't

Budget Bride V: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Potlucks are a classic loaves-and-fishes trick to feeding lots of people on a budget, though buffet-style meals are, for sad reasons, quickly going out of fashion in the 2020s. Cue the food trucks! Food trucks can be a great alternative to a buffet because they're mobile, they can serve personally customized meals on-demand, and they come at a variety of price points. "Healthy" food doesn't just mean fiber and vegetables or avoiding fat and sugar. (What fun is that at a wedding anyway?) "Healthy" can also refer to safety from contamination. Plagues and food poisoning can really poop on a party, so I'd err on the side of hot, made-fresh, even fried foods. It's a special occasion, after all!  Heavily spiced foods also lend safety in feeding large numbers of people due to the antimicrobial properties of many herbs and spices. Complex, bold dishes can offer a balance of special-night flair, comfort, safety, nutrition, and price. Check out your local Lati

Diversity, Get In My Belly!

Diversity is good! That’s common sense, right? Human physical and cultural diversity is good for developing kids' social skills and self-esteem, good for the workplace, and important in media representation. Diversification is desirable in financial investment portfolios and income streams. Diverse perspectives are good for education, arts, and entertainment. Diverse experiences in life are cool. Expanding the diversity of one's own life skills is useful. Natural diversity of flora and fauna is good for healthy ecosystems.  Inside the human body, diversity is good for the microbiome of our guts.  Diversity!  It's great in the world, in the wild, and inside of our own minds and bodies. So why do so many people think that exclusionary food diets are beneficial? And who am I to judge them? Hello, I'm a lifelong slim person who has never had a chronic condition related to body weight or an eating disorder. I don't think that there is anything magical or genetically frea

It's BEAN a Long Time

The days are lengthening, and hope is returning to humankind! I feel like starting something new--something that will complement the slow, gradual fade-out of the pandemic rather than put me and my family at premature risk. Instead of making travel plans or even party plans beyond distant daydreams, I'm confidently moving ahead on plans to grow a new and improved vegetable garden this spring. I'll use compost and wisdom that I've collected over the past 15 years on the ol' homestead, and I'll re-start my veggie garden using a mix of tried-and-true and new techniques. Over the years, I've learned which edible plants grow best on my suburban Michigan property: beans, peas, corn, cabbage, onions, garlic, sunflowers, potatoes, tomatoes. This year, I'll continue tending to my fruit and nut trees and only plant a few seasonal veggies that I can trust to thrive--unless a fun opportunity comes along, like when someone gives me a plant as a gift or my daughter brings

Budget Bride VI: Party Like an Immigrant

One thing I'm loving about the 2020s is that all of a sudden, Black Lives Matter has gone mainstream, our government representation suddenly has become more diverse, and there has been a seismic cultural shift toward celebrating racial and cultural diversity rather than suppressing it. We are a proud, colorful people! Look around you at those you plan to invite to your wedding. What family traditions would you like to uphold, revive, or remix to celebrate the union of you and your beloved and all the people who made each of you who you are? For a wedding that is rich in tradition yet affordable, both meaningful and joyful, look for the immigrants ! Party Like an Immigrant Budget bride s, now is the time to look deep into your cultural heritage for wedding inspiration and soul. America is a great big progressive potluck, and so are most of our families. Search through your own ingredients to find spice and flavor for your ceremony and reception. Got any Jews in the family? Big Fa

International and Time "Traveling" on the Silver Screen

As the pandemic marches on, one of my favorite ways to escape the feeling of cabin fever safely (and without spending any money!) is to "travel" to different countries and time periods through the magic of historical and international films. I use my library card to access the Hoopla streaming service, which is similar to the Kanopy service offered by some other library branches. Check with your local library about free film streaming services you can access, and then sign in on your laptop, smart TV, Roku, Fire stick, or outdoor projector if you live someplace warm!  If you find that your appetite for international films surpasses what these free services can satiate, here is a list of the 10 best streaming services for international content .  I live in Michigan, which is currently in a beautiful polar vortex, so I fit my movie watching time into the early morning hours before dawn (seriously, one of my favorite ways to wake up, with a hot cup of coffee) and after dusk. Ado

Budget Bride VII: The Magic Words

The words of a marriage ceremony describe what is happening ("Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...") and how it's going to work (the vows). My husband and I, like most Europeans and an increasing number of Americans, had two marriage ceremonies, a legal process at the county courthouse and then a spiritual/social wedding celebration. We got the contractual issues buttoned up at our legal ceremony, so we felt free to be more creative on our big wedding day. Instead of repeating our courthouse vows or writing additional vows, we decided to express why we had already committed the rest of our lives to each other. We used English-translated passages by Spanish poet Pablo Neruda to illustrate the story of our relationship leading up to the joyous celebration of our union in the springtime of the year and of our life together. The Magic Words Love is free. So is expressing it in words. All brides, regardless of budget , can bring beauty, uniqueness, and meaning to

Own Your Sads and Your Glads

All human beings have complex emotions, especially in complicated times. At this moment, we all have things we are sad about and things we are glad about. Every emotion tells us something true--but not everything that is true. There is healing and wisdom to be found in embracing our emotional complexity exactly as it is, not dramatizing, romanticizing, or wallowing in our mood swings and also not repressing ourselves. We don't have to feel guilty about our positive feelings when bad things happen, and we don't have to feel guilty about our negative feelings just because somebody else in the world has it worse.  Instead, we can practice gratitude for all the lessons our feelings teach us about what we need to do and how to make it happen. This peak pandemic winter (with the spring just weeks away), I am learning how to pay better attention to the full spectrum of my emotional responses to life so that I can accept the truths they bring me and the tools they provide me to care fo

Budget Bride VIII: Let the Good Times All Roll Out

My favorite kind of wedding is a joyful wedding. Who cares how pretty the pictures are if the day wasn't any fun? Perfectionism is a big old party pooper. Don't invite it. Instead, minimize fuss and maximize fun. Design your day so that the tasks requiring order and focus (such as formal portraits) come first and aren't too complicated, and build lots of flex time into the schedule so that the unexpected can be handled gracefully and everyone has time to actually enjoy being there, in each other's company. Put some laughs and silly surprises into the reception to signal to your guests when it's time to loosen belts and ties, kick off high heels, and hike up those bustles. You want to create a mood transition between the reverent ceremony and the raging celebration. My wedding day began with elegant, well-rehearsed precision accompanied by live cello and ended with unexpected combinations of people making out in an elevator to gay dance music. That's #goals! If y

Budget Bride III: Location, Location, Location

Today's Budget Bride post affirms that a wedding isn't just about providing a cool photo backdrop for the star couple. The location and venue create the environment that shapes the whole experience. Location determines who can attend, how much and what kinds of fun everyone can have, and how everyone feels throughout the ceremony and reception. In addition to accessibility, aesthetics, and amenities offered at the site, there's also the general aura the place gives off. Is the site associated with historic events? Legendary romance? Is there anything ugly associated with it, like bigoted owners who refuse to support unions between people who are not of their preferred race or gender combinations? If your guests can possibly know the answers to those questions, your choice of venue will send a message that includes the values associated with it. A blank slate is just fine, but take care to avoid obvious stinkers like gay-hating orchards and slavery-stained plantations (that