I used to love that old R.E.M. tune “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” You know the one:
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine
Some weeks ago, I started singing those lines in my head. Apart from the chorus, the rest of the song is a rapid rattling off of what seems – at times – to be nonsense and at other moments, profound political commentary. That’s what life has felt like these past three months: crazy, intense things happening too quickly to even fathom ‘keeping up’ with them. Flying around the world from one continent to the next with fleeting days at home between trips.
There have been many things to write about and I have composed the first lines of more than one post in my mind. But, the beginning of the year seems to be the time that “In the Name of Rafa” hibernates. And that’s okay (at least that’s what I keep trying to make myself believe).
It also seems to be the time of the miscarriages. And maybe that’s why I just can’t find a well of clarity or the inner will to write and share. I’m always in the process of celebrating and then, shortly after, grieving. We “lost” another baby in late January. We were in India. I don’t care to go much into the details but I’ll say that it happened very early in the pregnancy, probably not even a month along. I bled this time and that felt good. Well, at the time it was horrible and inconvenient, but at least I didn’t find out that the fetus wasn’t “viable” or that the baby had died while lying on my back in a doctor’s office.
And now… it would seem that the world as we knew it has actually come to an end. As a species, we have been plunged into a time of deeply disconcerting uncertainty as a result of a global pandemic. I guess somewhere in my subconscious I knew that the world was ending (thus the broken record of the R.E.M. song in my head). But my worlds and the futures that I imagined these worlds contained have ended time and again over the last years… as they have for many beings on this planet. In reality, we have always been living in uncertainty but that fact makes most modern, Western folk very uncomfortable. We love control and certainty.
I know that many people are suffering all around the planet right now. I know that people have been suffering and will continue to suffer (likely with increased intensity and frequency). Of course, there’s no way to predict the future. Perhaps I will experience many more terrible things in this lifetime of mine. However, I honestly believe that the death of Rafael in my womb on the day he was due prepared me for the worst. I remember a friend of mine whose baby died during labor once asked rhetorically, “What else could I possibly lose?” The experience has also revealed to me the silver lining of such intense grief, which is immense gratitude for the gift of life. In this time of global quarantine, I received a message from Rafa the other day. He told me: “We were made for these times.” I believe that is true. I was made for this time and my experience with stillbirth and miscarriage has prepared me well to face suffering and be fully present in it.
There used to be this enormous vine that covered the vast brick and cement block wall behind our house. It was truly magnificent, vibrantly green. It brought birds, lizards, bees and other critters to visit us every day. I tried to take care of it as best as I could but it was mostly a sovereign and self-reliant being. Six days after Rafa’s birth, we hosted a circle and ceremonial fire at our home to honor our baby’s death and life. The wood for the fire was chopped on the trunk of the massive vine. And while the creature was quite old, I’m convinced that there was still life coursing through that thick woody trunk. I believe the axe that chopped the wood for Rafa’s fire, severed the vine from its source of nourishment and shortly after our child left this plane we also lost this great plant companion.
The vine took some time to die – probably about nine months. When we returned home at the end of the dry season last year, it was clear to me that it could not be saved. It just hung, dead and brown outside our windows for some weeks. Then I decided I would bring this massive corpse down, piece by piece and burn the remnants in a series of sacred-profane fire ceremonies over the summer. It was a serious undertaking. I got filthy, scratched, angry, frustrated, sad and elated through the process. I drank whisky, ate ice cream and sat on a plastic chair next to my quick-burn fires, feeding them massive piles of twigs that they devoured at an impressive rate. It was the end of the world as we knew it at the Segunda Privada de Crespo.
The absence of the vine from my daily life still saddens me. The massive and ugly brick wall left by her departure is depressing and often makes me want to crawl under the bedcovers in the morning. Yet there was a little part of her that was still left at the end of the summer. She wasn’t thriving, but she was still alive. A few weeks back, I noticed that despite a serious hit from the cutter ants, the plant seemed to be sprouting healthy new bunches of leaves. Regeneration, I thought, and I felt hopeful. Then, in one night, the ants struck hard and now there’s just a pathetic spiderwebbing of bare tendrils reaching out over a fraction of the sprawling ugliness. The cutter ants left approximately 25 tiny leaves, in three small clusters strewn pathetically about, as if practicing social distancing from the few other still-living neighborhoods.
The way I feel when I look out my window at the remnants of the vine mirrors a bit how I’m feeling when I think about the world and reflect on the events of the past 3 months. That is to say: it really depends on the day. Some days I wake up feeling full of possibility, thinking, “Wow, we, living beings are capable of regeneration.” On other occasions, I just feel like we are totally fucked and there’s really no reason to hold onto any hope for the future. Sometimes, I’m full of sorrow and rage; and sometimes I feel incredible gratitude and joy.
Five years ago, I went back to therapy. I went for many reasons, but a big one was that I wished to feel more fully. I am incredibly grateful for this deep work because, in this time, I have been able to really access and embrace (nearly) all of my emotions. I believe that this is one of the key practices that can serve us in these times of complexity, fear and uncertainty. While it’s certainly undeniable that the dominant systems we’ve all participated in over the last century are proving to be fragile, unsustainable and destructive to other forms of life on this planet, another terrible debility that I observe in these times is that we have anesthetized ourselves. We’ve forgotten how to feel. We’ve forgotten how to grieve and we’ve even forgotten how to celebrate. We avoid dealing with situations that might cause us to spiral ‘out of control’ emotionally, especially death. As a species, we’re harboring deep insidious sadnesses. And generally speaking, we’ve not learned how to feel, express or metabolize these feelings.
The emotions associated with the lungs in Chinese medicine are sadness and grief. Lately, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are dealing with breathing issues, chest infections and lung surgery. And these are folks who are not suffering from COVID-19. It seems to me that there’s something we’re missing as a society when it comes to facing and feeling our sadness. Many of us are completely engulfed in fear and worry, and most of us have never been taught that it’s okay to experience and express grief. Maybe we’re missing one of the principle lessons this pandemic is bringing to light. There is incredible pain and suffering right now, but it seems like we’re still trying to keep it together, continuing to hold up the masks of resilience, perseverance and control.* It’s time to step into the center of our sadnesses and feel them fully.
The good news is that if we flip the coin of sadness over, we find the face of joy. So the more we are able to feel our grief, the more capable we are of feeling happiness and pleasure as well. This is accompanied by incredible gratitude.
I’ll never forget a certain message from the first chapter of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise. It came out of a story told by Martin Prechtel where he said, “Well, it seems to me that where you come from, everybody wakes up every day expecting to live.” Jenkinson goes on to unpack this observation in some detail:
This culture believes in expecting to live. It is our right, a positive, life-affirming way of life, unassailable, proper, natural. But the coincidence of expecting to live and depression as two enduring parts of our life here is something to be noticed. There is every possibility that waking up each day expecting to live and the widespread depression we know is here are connected, that one has some role in causing or contributing to the other. And it could just as likely be that expecting to live is not the life-affirming proposition that I have repeatedly been told that it is. Expecting to live is life affirming only if your belief about life is that it is generally self-initiated and self-directed, that we all have a more or less equal opportunity to make something of our lives, that limitation and boundary are the unnecessary but lamentable consequences of our unwillingness to go big or go home, and that dying is just one of the many lifestyle options available. Waking up every day expecting to live is how people who hold life at arm’s length do so. It is our ten-foot pole. It affirms, no matter any evidence otherwise, what we believe our lives should be if life is good, if there is a God worthy of the name superintending the story.
But if your idea of life includes wearing out early or late and dying and death, if it includes your own personal, inevitable and omnipresent dying, no matter how many good thoughts you think or how much broccoli you eat or how good a person you are, as it should, then waking up every day expecting to live is something you would do In spite of what life is like, in spite of what you know of it, not because of it.
In our “civilized” society it appears that we have invented and then become very attached to the idea that we are entitled to our lives. We walk around feeling like we deserve to wake up each day, to take each breath. This life is not a given. It can end at any time. At ANY time. In the midst of all this suffering and sadness is it possible that we might wake up each day grateful (regardless of whether we’re sick or sad or angry) for the gift of our beating heart, our senses and the living world around us?
Even though the end of the world as I knew it came with the death of each of my three babies, I keep on living. I am not living in a present that “fits” with the futures I saw in my mind’s eye two years ago… a year and three months ago… three months ago… but I’m doing my damn best to just keep accompanying the feelings in my heart and remembering that we’ve never had control, we’ve always faced incredible uncertainty. We just don’t like to admit it. Now, the exquisiteness of our lives may become more apparent to us than it ever was before. What will we do with this precious day we’ve been gifted by the Great Mystery of this place called Earth? How will we be?
*Update (4.20.20): after listening to this podcast yesterday and really viscerally experiencing the sadness that people in the U.S.A. are experiencing, I might reconsider this statement: some of us are leaning into the sadness.