Oh, friends. Each day seems to bring a wave of destructive news and I am finding myself – and those around me – teetering between fight, flight and freeze, our personal and collective nervous systems spun right out. For those of us looking for a way forward, there are beautiful words to help us digest and gear up and go.
But then you find a lump in your body that shouldn’t be there and everything goes both quiet and loud. And you discover something about activism that you really needed to learn.
I had one of those doctors appointments no one wants to have. We find something, we don’t know what it is, we’re scared. My mind became a rolodex of maladies, history and genetics, previous medicines and pre-existing conditions collapsing into only terrible possibilities.
Outside the snow was falling thick and fast, washing everything to grey white. So many layers to remove for my arrival – winter boots and coat, hat, gloves, sweaters, long underwear. Waiting there in the room with the thin gown felt like an added injury; this isn’t the season for naked vulnerability.
Between my body and spinning mind, I was well worked up by the time the nurse walked in. “So,” she said, “You’re having some pain.” And then came a tumble from me: “Yes, it started last week, it hurts so much, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m kind of freaking out.”
And here she did something radical. She paused, put down her clipboard, and turned her full attention to me. “Why don’t you tell me,” she said, “what you’re afraid of. Maybe then I can help and reassure you.”
That was all I needed. Permission to be human, and to be seen. Her gaze didn’t break through my sobbing. And her kind listening got me to the truth of my own predicament, less terrifying when it was named: When you’ve been chronically ill, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when you’re better.
A few days later (and thanks to the ACA), all the tests are fine. My health fears have been allayed, but my global fears have not. Still I can’t stop thinking about that moment when a stranger paused to listen, and offered a kind of intimacy that was deeply humanizing.
So much political violence is predicated on our distance. It asks that we stay far away, put humans in categories, categories in boxes, fear those boxes, check them off, move on.
When we are willing to get in close, we align ourselves with each other’s humanity. We say: we’re in this together, you and me. The truth is, we’re not actually separate. Buddhists could tell you this, but so can microbiologists. This is no Kumbaya metaphor, but a description of how we’re constituted.
Ed Yong’s fascinating book, I Contain Multitudes, lays this out beautifully; even the idea of the individual is untenable at the level of cell and microbe. We are interlocking, same but different ecosystems, vast venn diagrams of bacteria, overlapping. It isn’t just that we’re dirty – we’re dirt. Teeming multitudes. We need to rethink the whole paradigm.
This is intimacy writ small: We aren’t so different. And if I can extrapolate a bit here, there is radical activism in taking this truth into our interactions, in getting close with those we don’t know and acknowledging that their struggle is also ours. The nurse did that for me, and now I move into the world looking for how I’ll do that too.
Here’s my start: I’ll be offering Embodied Writing workshops at the Cancer Community Center, Bomb Diggity Arts and for immigrant and refugee organizations in and around Portland. I’ll be dedicating one day a month to donate all proceeds to social, immigrant and environmental justice organizations (write me if you’d like to recommend one).
But let’s back up a bit. Why don’t you tell me what you’re afraid of. And then let’s see what we can do together.