Reflections on a Year in My Life- A Holiday Offering

The great celestial “conjunction” of Saturn and Jupiter was unviewable from my location on Earth but it still happened. I have seen photographic and telegraphic proof but I, myself, didn’t see it directly so, in a way it didn’t happen for me. I think this is an apt metaphor for considering how many events of 2020 were experienced and reacted to in such radically different ways by individual members of our human family.

This post is intended to communicate my thoughts for a broad audience, though I am keenly aware that most won’t see it. Of those who do read it, some may find my perspective uncomfortable to consider or even think it’s offensive. I may, at some point in the near or distant future, experience new events or have new insights that make what I say today seem contradictory to my current thinking. Should I, then, just keep my thoughts to myself? This is the paradox of offering any ideas to others, I think. It is a key element of so-called “imposter syndrome” and the unseen motivation for the reluctance of most of us to “put ourselves out there.”

It is my intention and my hope that this post, this blog, this website, and all of my direct work in the “world” liberates individual and collective creativity in creating relationships that lead to healing and substantive social change. This year, perhaps more than any other in recent history, has brought our human vulnerability to light in unexpected, often frightening, ways and led to both profound connections and disconnections between and among us. Our daily lives and experiences are indelibly marked by the impacts of COVID-19, also known as SARS-coV-2, n-cov2019, or World Coronavirus- and, of course, other versions that seek to demonize and blame particular groups of people for its origination and spread that I will not repeat here. Misinformation, disinformation, and data-supported information are being disseminated all day, every day, through traditional and social media sources and people are, legitimately, confused by the contradictions and political rhetoric surrounding this public health crisis.

I believe that fear and confusion can, at the same time, be useful and destructive forces in our lives. Their usefulness lies in the ways that they may catalyze meaningful change- transformation- by shaking us loose from comfort and certainty, leading to new thinking and inspiring intentional action that serves humanity. Their destructiveness lies in the ways they may cause us to cling to biases and judgments, perpetuate harmful behaviors, and deepen unfounded certitude in myths/stories that divide and isolate us, both within and without.

I think it’s helpful to ask myself, “what am I afraid of?” Is it my own death? Is it the suffering of my loved ones? Is it the looming specter of the next/concurrent crisis? All of the above? Each of these has numerous additional questions embedded and enfolded within them. Why do I/we fear death? Am I not living my life in the ways I want? Are there things I want to accomplish that I haven’t yet done? Am I worried about my own suffering and/or the pain my death would cause to those who love me? Is the impact I’ve had been more positive than negative? How will I be remembered? Has my life mattered?

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about the ways I’ve attempted to make use of my life and to transform the trauma I’ve experienced into healing and well-being for myself and others. In the past year, I’ve committed myself to documenting and amplifying my story and the stories of others in a variety of ways- through poetry, podcasts, narrative retelling, philosophical musings, and resource links. I’ve engaged in book studies, courses, events, creativity forums, protests, demonstrations, conversations, and arguments- most mediated through electronic devices and some in person.

I’ve made profound, life-changing connections with people I would never have met if it weren’t for the pandemic, and I’ve deepened relationships with people I’ve known for years. I’ve felt extremely isolated at times and completely attuned to my interconnectedness with all beings at others. I’ve supported others through personal crises and have found myself strengthened and empowered by their resilience and willingness to envision new realities on the other side of pain. I’ve written, and read, and baked, and gardened, and cooked, and sung, and danced, and meditated, and wondered, and listened, and talked, and worried, and cared, and dreamed, and lost, and wept, and laughed, and remembered… and lived.

As I write this, I realize that the constant reminder that human lives are fragile and finite has been the catalyst for my actively and intentionally choosing to commit my time and energy to life-affirming and relational activities- not just this year but ever since I recognized that certainty and comfort are, for me, not what I need to be at peace within myself. That realization came when I physically brought life into the world and felt an intensity of love I had never known possible. A fierce, protective love that has extended beyond my own child to envelop all children, all beings, all that contributes to life. This is, as Valarie Kaur has coined, “revolutionary love.”

The Christmas season and approach of the New Year has traditionally been a time of gathering and reflection. Of celebration and resolution. Of gratitude and joy. The songs and stories of this time communicate the human desire for hope and peace- of light in the darkness, regardless of individual religious beliefs. Despite the consumerist aspects of our culture that have been attached to the season, I have always loved and looked forward to the winter holidays because they meant being with loved ones in preparation for and celebration of our interconnectedness. Each year, my mother, sisters, and I would bake way too many cookies while listening to Handel’s Messiah and classic Christmas carols. Since her death in 2018 after a three year journey through cancer treatment and eventual decision not to treat it, the season has been melancholy and more than a little bit tinged with grief. In a way, I am happy that my mother hasn’t had to endure the stresses of the last two years and I also miss her terribly. Her absence is palpable and inescapable and yet, I also feel her presence viscerally. She haunts me in indescribable and not wholly unpleasant ways.

My personal grief is compounded by the grief of humanity in the face of incomprehensible loss of life and indelibly painful disruptions to our collective comfort and certainty throughout this pandemic. How can I possibly process all of this pain and still function? Self-care seems to be the buzzword on social media but opinions abound on what that looks like. For me, being in relationship with others through their personal experience of stress, trauma, and loss is not depletive but energizing. Does that mean I somehow sadistically enjoy their suffering? No. That’s not what it means but I realize that for some reading this the temptation may be to apply the cynical interpretation that those who choose a life of relationship and service are doing so to feed their own egos. This knowledge can make me self-conscious and force me to question my own motives- in that way it is helpful to think about it- as long as I don’t let the possibility that some will judge me as a “virtue-signaler” or insist my actions are performative keep me from continuing to act in alignment with my integrity.

I am energized in my interactions with others because of the “symbiotic real,” a term I recently encountered in the book Human Kind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, by philosopher Timothy Morton. If I were adherent to the idea that we have a limited amount of love, empathy, care, or whatever term you use to describe the capacity to be in meaningful relationship with others, I would likely be drained and exhausted all the time- suffering from “compassion fatigue.” The commodification of care compelled by capitalist frameworks is inconsistent with my lived experience and with the scientifically and spiritually supported concept of interconnectivity or interbeing. I am often frustrated- not by the “neediness” of others but by the structures and systems we’ve created that define relationships as hard work, generally unrewarding, and requiring exact reciprocation in order to be worthwhile. I’m frustrated by the emphasis on data collection over meaningful connection for those of us who are employed in care-oriented fields and the normalization in our culture of outsourcing care to industries and institutions. That will be a blog topic for another day, though.

I can’t count the number of social media posts I see each day that are expressing some iteration of the idea that the author believes they are doing all of the “emotional labor” in their relationships and not receiving anything in return. That they are cutting people out of their lives and protecting their energy as a form of self-preservation. This is a tangential effect, I think, of the more widely recognized “cancel culture” phenomenon that has increasingly defined online relationships over the last few years. I linked adrienne maree brown’s blog post on the subject because she articulates my position on this better than I ever could. My main point is that our cultural norm for caring about and for one another has been polluted by social and political ideologies that center disconnection, discord, division, destruction. We cannot reconcile these ideologies with our true desires for love, connection, and belonging- they are literally irreconcilable. I’ve found this conclusion liberating because it’s freed me from the torment of trying to make sense of other people’s thinking and behavior. I can be present with people in pain without triggering my own trauma because I’ve intentionally transformed my own thinking and behavior. I choose to see beyond, look beneath, and hear what is unsaid when people behave in ways I don’t like. This is the essence of empathy, I think.

I have agency to imagine, define, and create alternative possibilities for myself and others not because I am independent but because I am interdependent. Who I am and what I do only matters if I am cognizant of the impact of my choices on my relationships and the impact of my relationships on my choices. It may seem counterintuitive and potentially paralyzing to consider all of my decisions in this way but, for me, it is actually quite empowering. Rather than trying to control others’ perceptions of me or how they treat me, I can focus instead on my own motivations and commit myself to curiosity and wonder about myself, which naturally leads to curiosity and wonder about those with whom I am in relationship and the web of inclusion I’m constructing continues to expand exponentially.

To return to the metaphor I started with, this post represents a conjunction of ideas that, together, may illuminate some portion of my perspective for the reader. Like the visual alignment of two of our solar system’s largest planets, perceptions of their radiance and interpretations of their meaning will vary. I offer these thoughts as a gift of my presence- to be with you in your grief, confusion, and hope for liberation and transformation as we set our individual and collective intentions for the coming year.

As ever, I invite you to comment, share, repost, as you like.

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