Have faith in nights
We either heal communally, or we don't.
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother's body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?
And he'd say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I'd say, What?
And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.
- The Gate by Marie Howe
Early in my survival process, particularly when I first talking and writing about grief, it was hard to convince anyone that I wanted to know and hear their stories of personal loss. Let alone that it was ok for them to show it, that I could witness it without diverting my gaze or hold it without breaking my hands. But, over the years, I think those systems of denial and fear have begun to crack. The façades of what capitalism and vulnerable narcissism can provide are collapsing. And I think, at least for older millennials (and our mass exodus from Twitter and Facebook), this has never been more apparent.
I have faith that, whenever we attentively hold and recognize someone else's grief for the first time - be it in a parking lot or on a walk on the greenway (not some TED talk) - invariably, the other will say at the end of it, "I've never done anything like this, but it felt oddly familiar." That recognition is a profound blood inheritance; it's how we always did it. I have faith in that memory, in the ancestral knowledge in our bones. We're not trying to reinvent something. We're trying to remember something, and when we're in states that the whole world is in right now, that's what we must call upon.
Every day, more people realize that the secondary satisfactions of attention, wealth, power, and prestige are bankrupt. Everyone climbs those ladders only to find that they're leaning against the wrong building. There's nothing up there. It's an empty promise.
When we're in ritual spaces together, singing together, sharing art and poetry, grieving, growing, and laughing together, we're not wondering how our 401k is performing or when the next iPhone is coming out. Instead, we're engaging with the primary satisfactions of life. The soul will never be content until it's confronted with miracles of understanding and belonging,
Can we get there? I believe we have to. The only things that have ever been sustainable anthropologically are small-scale, localized cultures. I think that's one of the reasons 12-step programs have survived for nearly 100 years. Half of my friends are in recovery, and it's not just about having shared experiences. It's about knowing others who can speak the language of the heart.
Just looking at the news this week, with the West Coast literally on fire again, it's evident that we are entering a long dark. It's terrible, overwhelming, and frightening. But I also have to remind myself that alchemically certain things can only happen in darkness. We are in a time of decay, collapse, endings, and sheddings. Every gardener will tell you these things are necessary.
It's not difficult to see this last gasp effort to try to uphold the old structures. Keep the stock market inflated. Keep trading bitcoin futures even though it's just a pollution machine. They're all going to collapse. Capitalists act like the economy is a force of nature, but it's not; we made it up! And the way it's going is unsustainable. Not only in terms of finite resources but just in terms of the human capacity to endure that kind of emptiness.
The collapse is already happening. So I think what we have to do right now is ask ourselves and each other how do we become skillful in navigating this walk in the dark? How do we cultivate imagination? How do we facilitate collaboration? How do we develop fields of reciprocity with the Earth, within our communities, so we're replenishing more than we're taking? How do we tend to the spiritual values of restraint and mutuality?
We always think our times are unprecedented and unique. Indeed, today has a quality of uniqueness now due to the scale of potential collapses, not just economically or socially, but planetary destruction. The scale might be more horrific than what we're familiar with, but human beings have gone through these stories before. History and myths alike tell us something significant: that we can find our way through. We have to surrender the ideas of personal salvation and individual healing. That's all fantasy. We either heal communally, or we don't. Our work right now is to become immense. We have to get our arms around vast things: violence, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, greed, classism, and racism. And also around love and compassion and devotion and a certain fidelity to protect what is alive.
I think one of the first steps towards becoming immense is that we have tell the truth about our lives, whatever that means. Everyone who experiences grief needs to tell their truth in such a way that they become transformed by the telling, which is what poetry does. Bitching and complaining doesn’t do it, having someone witness it helps, but something has to occur in the telling that’s transformative to the speaker. Art transforms both the poet and the reader, it belongs to all of us. It's better because it's shared, and everything that is shared is better.