Make room for it
A few days ago I walked past a central London office building I used to work in.
I indulged in that time-honored urban past-time: revisiting a life I used to live by re-enacting a daily routine that’s now long gone. With my muscle memory as my route map, I passed by the John Lewis window displays that once served as a reliable marker of the capitalist calendar on my walk to work — Halloween, Christmas, January sales, Valentine’s day, Easter, Mother’s day ad infinitum — and then those bizarre American candy stores that appear, improbably, to have survived lockdown.
As I did this I felt not just straightforward nostalgia, but also a keen sense of grief. Grief that this particular walk, headspace, life, is so radically different from the one I live now.
The weird and perhaps confusing thing is that I don’t actually want that life back. I remember often embarking on that same walk to Oxford Circus station, feeling so strung out on the internet and fluorescent lights that I scarcely felt human. But the person I was two years, one year, or even six months ago — the things I cared about and the ambitions and optimism and expectations of life that I had — feel so starkly different from now. I can’t help but miss it a little.
I think a lot of people are in this space right now: of ambiguous loss, of loosely-sketched grief, of knowing we can’t go back — or not even wanting to — but missing who we were and what we had then anyway.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this hasn’t lost a tremendous amount this year. Of course, for so many people who have lost loved ones, the grief is far from loosely sketched. It’s acute and overwhelming and debilitating. And it’s made so much worse by leaders (at least in the US and UK) who don’t even try to hide their active disdain for the lost lives of people who ostensibly elected them.
Beyond that immense trauma, the varying scales and permutations of our grief can feel overwhelming when you stop and think about it: The loss of jobs, dreams, optimism, bucket list trips, graduations, savings accounts, weddings, small and large businesses, worry-free retirements, Saturday morning yoga class routines, hugging, spontaneous plans, security, book parties, chance romantic encounters on a unexpectedly fun evening, secret rituals on the commute to work, graduations, favorite restaurants, working in coffee shops, childhood innocence, colleagues, spontaneity, crowded pubs as a good thing, funerals, birthdays, live music, dinner parties — all of it.
There’s also the tectonic losses of this year, the ones that undermine who we thought we were and where we were headed. Maybe it’s the loss of your belief that the future will fundamentally be okay; the belief that the United States is a functioning democracy and a developed country; the belief that as long as you aren’t actively racist, you are an okay person; the belief that humans will figure out climate change in time for your kids’ lives to be recognizable; the belief that even though you live on another continent, you are always a simple plane ride away from the people you love.
There is so. much. grief. Some days I can see it in people’s posture. And yet, I don’t see many people talking about it. It drives me nuts.
I too have lost a lot this year. But I feel divergent from this collective denial our society seems to be engaged in. As a contrast, I’m sort of obsessed with my grief. Holding space for everything I’ve lost is precisely what has allowed me to create something entirely new with my life this year. In some way, I didn’t have a choice — when you end a relationship and have to move amidst a pandemic, you gotta come up with a plan — but once I started examining what I’d lost, honoring it, and allowing it, I started to see all the other ways my life needed to change in order to adapt to what’s coming. It was one thing after the other.
I’m aware that not all cultures avoid grief in this way; indeed, some use loss and death as an organizing principle of life. However it makes sense to me that patriarchal capitalism would steer us away. I can think of two reasons why.
The first is that grief is neither linear nor productive. If you really want to spend time with it, you have to prepare for the unexpected. Sometimes you will not be able to work, or do what you said you’d do, or do anything other than lie in your bed and cry. One week you will be thriving, the next you will be non-functioning. You will deeply miss what you had, but also perhaps be glad it’s gone — on the same day. Grief defies all reason. Grief is a paradox. Grief is not good for the economy.
The second, is that when you make adequate time and space to honor your grief and feel it move through your body, things start to happen. Grief, if you cede to it, can serve as an embodied reminder that what we are all doing here is a one time limited time offer. The only certainty is that it’s going to end. It’s the ultimate memento mori. In that way, grief can clarify and transform things — sometimes terrifyingly and radically so — but only if you accept its scorched earth policy.
I like the way poet Maggie Smith put it on Twitter: “When something important in your life ends, it’s like a monument has burned. Stop sifting: there’s no reconstructing it from ash. Stand in the space and see it—burnt black as it may be—as a site for building. There's room for something else now—what? You decide. Keep moving.”
My biggest fear of this time is that we fail to make room for our grief. If “the after” is to be any better or different, it will be because we honored our grief, not powered through it. If we are to change our societies in order to adapt to (not stop, because we can’t) the climate emergency, we first have to grieve the society we’re losing. But for now, this task has been left up to us. Our leaders are sad, broken, deeply traumatized men clinging to the patriarchal structures that are still just narrowly serving them. They are deeply invested in making things much, much worse.
So as you stand on the building site of your life in the after, here’s my advice: Before you start building, pause and make room for your grief. If you can, encourage others to do the same. There are many cultural and spiritual traditions which can provide guidance here, but if you have no idea where to start, just begin by being still and quiet.
Set aside 20 minutes a day to sit in a quiet room and notice how you feel. Allow the feelings you usually avoid to arise. Don’t judge them when they do. Welcome tears when they come. Be patient. Keep honoring the practice, and make it a ritual. Talk about it with people that give you space to not have a point or conclusion or positive takeaway. Don’t question whether this practice makes any sense. For once, have no expectation of progress. Be unfailingly kind to yourself throughout. And then, with time, watch the transformation follow.
Things I enjoyed reading
Read this and ask yourself: How many failings of the state lead to a situation like this? And can a country where this happens be considered anything other than a failed state? [Washington Post]
I finally watched I May Destroy You. If there is one reason to persist in our broken world, I think it’s because humans are still capable of making art like this. It’s just astounding. I really enjoyed this excellent profile of Michaela Coel’s process, and her conversation with Terry Gross in which they discuss, among other things, racism in the US versus the UK.
How going to therapy helps you fight fascism. [Carlos Maza]
“Whenever there’s a crisis—be it a war, or the aftermath of war, or a natural disaster—we see this phenomenon of urgent biophilia.” Reading this made me feel calm. [New Yorker]
If you haven’t, you should definitely read model Emily Ratajkowski’s lucid essay about the ways her image — and by extension her selfhood — have been exploited in her career. But then you should also read this sharp yet generous critique of it.
I am not married but I would like a divorce after reading this. [Glamour]
“It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” RIP David Graeber, whose essay on bullshit jobs feels more relevant than ever. [STRIKE Magazine]
On wearing old clothes as a comfort. [NYT]
“There’s often been this arrogant assumption that wealth provides protection.” The last month in California has shown the climate emergency is here — and just beginning. [NYT]
Things I Enjoyed Listening To
This conversation between Ezra Klein and epidemiologist Julia Marcus sketches out how I wish the government was communicating risk as we enter long haul life-with-Covid. Listening to it made me feel a little better about how I’m navigating my own life. [The Ezra Klein Show]
A conversation between Pete Buttigieg and Glennon Doyle. It was refreshing to hear a man interview Doyle for once, and Doyle smartly unpacks how white women’s acceptance of their “proximity to power, but not absolute power” is a key perpetuator of white supremacy. [The Deciding Decade podcast]
The How to Save a Planet podcast is a smart approach to covering climate change. This episode on how the state is not coming to save you in a natural disaster is sobering. [How To Save a Planet]
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg in a great conversation with poet Yung Pueblo. They talk practically about how cultivating self compassion is the path to “structural compassion” in wider society — something we definitely need right now. [Metta Hour podcast]
As I wrote in the last edition of this newsletter, I recently completed a yoga teacher training. I’ve decided, after some hesitation, to teach a twice monthly class on Zoom every other Sunday. It’s at 6pm UK time, but all time zones are welcome. It’s less an exercise class, and more an opportunity to go on an embodied investigation into how you’re feeling that day — so all abilities are welcome. The cost is $/£5 , but if you’re unable to pay but would like to practice, let me know. All the details and booking is here. The next class is tomorrow evening.
A friend of this newsletter, Ali, who joined some of my classes during my training, had this to say: “Sometimes between the theme, the narration, and the quote at the end I have this odd feeling that I am experiencing a live version of your newsletter, if that makes sense.” What generous feedback!
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I wanted to give that world to someone else.” —Georgia O’Keeffe
“The people we call great writers are in the end merely people who’ve known how to manipulate the butterfly nets required to catch their own flightiest, airiest, shyest thoughts.” —Alain de Botton.
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