My studio feels cozy with the late afternoon sun streaming in to leave shifting patterns across the carpet, perfect for settling into my big armchair to write a long overdue letter, while the soft whir of the fan keeps me company and the room cool. The Sweet Man naps in the next room and I just left the cats in the kitchen munching on their early dinner. Goodness abounds. And yet, just a while later, I hear the news of Michael Brown’s shooting death. I feel my heart add a new fissure to the map of heartbreak written across it. With every new bit of information, I swallow hard to keep the tears from rising up, I take in deep breaths not meant to come out in an easy release. They’re the kind that squeeze through my constricted throat and come out in raspy spurts because letting go means feeling it all- anger, sadness, outrage, grief. I struggle.
Two days later, with that struggle wrapped tight in my belly, I curl up in the corner of the couch and try to read. My husband calls to me from across the room and I feel a disconcerting rush of brain chemicals – his voice has that tone that warns me he’s about to tell me something he wishes were not true – “Robin Williams committed suicide.” A sob lodges in my throat, and before I can swallow hard, tears flush into my eyes. But I take that constricted breath, find that hard swallow, and put myself in that bewildering state we call “keep it together.”
Over the next couple of days, I tell my husband and others I’m struggling with the sadness and anger. Then, in a Facebook exchange with a friend who tells me she’s also struggling, I remember that it’s not a struggle with tears or venting anger – the struggle is in how we avoid them. I tell her we’ve tried to dump a load of asphalt over our feelings, but they keep struggling to the surface like hearty weeds that we keep pulling up as if we could yank out the roots of everything that hurts. The whole ritual leaves us worn down and that friction between asphalt and weeds causes knots of pain in our stomachs, shoulders, throats. I suggest we let ourselves cry and vent because a sweet and funny man took his life, because a young man lost his life to unbridled power and racism. Yes, it would be o.k.
Like I’d done a few days before, I sit in my studio chair, this time hugging my knees to my chest while I watch the afternoon light through the leaves of our Sycamore tree. I take a deep breath, let my throat open to let it out in one big sigh. My face softens, with each subsequent breath the tangle in my stomach begins to unravel, and the sunlight diffuses into a blur as the tears come. I let that sob that had lodged in my throat, and all the ones lined up behind it, have their voice. It doesn’t make everything o.k., but it does break up the asphalt – extra layer of pain caused by resistance.
Although I don’t recommend attending to all the suffering we can learn about on any given day, it’s important for us to let our hearts crack open to the painful realities in our own lives and in the lives of others, not just because of the cliché that tells us we can’t experience joy without the pain. As true as that may be, there’s so much more to it. Without allowing ourselves to feel sorrow and injustice, our compassion is stunted and we can’t offer it with sincerity. When we allow our hearts to break open, all that energy we’ve put into squashing our feelings can route in the direction of serving the causes of love, kindness and justice. Otherwise, we get further and further away from our truest self, get lost in a maze of hiding places and run the risk of forgetting the way out.
I know finding the rhythm of when to turn off the sources of news, even news from family and friends, and when to let it in is difficult and sometimes confusing. I’ve felt overwhelmed, other times found a balance. No matter where I find myself on that continuum, I try to remember to take exquisite care of me. I hope you will too – we need to find the ground beneath our feet.
I hope, too, that from that grounded place, you’ll offer what only you can to the causes of love, kindness and justice. It doesn’t matter what form that takes, it all counts.