I’ve always had this thing where I feel like if I’m going to show up, I have to put the show into it. Like it’s not enough to arrive and be present. No, I need to enter accompanied by a full orchestra, covered in sequins, with treat bags for everyone, ginormous pitchers of The Milk of Human Kindness warmed up and ready to serve from both hands.
In the past, even without the restrictions I have now, it still sometimes took me four million years to respond to emails, texts, or phone calls. If I couldn’t respond with everything I had, carve out multiple hours and mine my energy reserves for a thoughtful reply, I couldn’t respond. Maybe you can relate?
I’ve unlearned some of this, but current circumstances call for a new level of unlearning.
Now, my hands don’t work like they used to. In the fall of 2019, a month after my mom died, my body erupted into an agonizing year of mysterious and painful symptoms. In September of this year, I was finally diagnosed with systemic sclerosis, an autoimmune disease. Among other manifestations, this includes chronic inflammation in my hands and arms and a restrictive hardening of connective tissue. I can no longer make a fist, let alone heft two jugs of human kindness.
This September, in one of my favorite meditation spaces, the shower, I thought about how I’d been much less vocal, on social media and everywhere else, since my corner of the world turned upside down. How I’d needed so much space and rest and have felt so broken. How I hadn’t felt like I had much to offer or share, especially given the calamity out beyond me. So much devastation and loss, worldwide. Heartbreak and horrors people I know and don’t know are enduring. Bottomless grief. Under the stream from the showerhead, I was praying. Grieving. Discerning what I could do to help.
I mean, desperate times call for dramatic gestures, heroic efforts, and abundant outpourings, don’t they?
I didn’t want to disappear, to ignore the world’s broken heart and body, but I also didn’t have it in me to show up and stage a full-blown miraculous apparition.
I speculated that I could show up more, in all the places, with whatever I have, however I appear. What I knew I had to offer: curiosity, compassion, playfulness, and resurrection skills/know how—that is, how endings hold seeds of beginnings and what I’ve learned about coaxing those seeds to sprout. What I had to offer was the insight I get under running water, which did not require mammoth effort or strategizing.
Post shower, I texted with one of my best beloveds. I wrote to her that so many things that were refuge are no longer refuge. She asked, “How do we find refuge in the chaos?”
As I sat with that question, my first instinct stood right up and declared: “Well, we’ve got to dig deep. We have to reach all the way down into our inner well, even if we fall in or get scraped up and break our necks trying. We need elaborate rituals to summon some big old magic.”
After only crickets chirped in response, my first instinct slouched and scanned the room. “Don’t we?” she asked.
Another part of me leaned back into the couch cushions. She blew out a big puff of air, shook her head, and said, softly, “Please don’t.” Her lack of urgency was what caught my attention.
“Go on,” I said.
“Please don’t dig deep,” she said, leaning in, just a little. “Please don’t reach into your last reserves. You’re already tapped out, and it’s not that complicated. Reach over, and pick up what’s right next to you. The lightest, simplest, most mundane thing.
Notice and appreciate your partner’s pleasure in a guitar riff. Fill up your water glass. Text a love note to your friend. Call your senator to advocate for environmental policy that will prevent things like the wildfires happening now. Take a nap. Share a resource. Help someone else carry something heavy.
We don’t need another hero. We need people who know how to pick up the thing right next to them, to take the next best step, who don’t fall under the paralyzing spell of This is too big to make a dent in, or This calls for the heavyweights, the powerhouses, the star performers!
There’s a widely circulating lie that small is irrelevant, ineffective, and paltry, that ‘what’s going to happen will happen, no matter what little old me does.’
The truth is, each person picking up the thing right next to them, addressing the pressing need right within them, taking the hand closest to them or the action right before them is significant, meaningful, substantial.”
This suddenly chatty part of me took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “You know what I mean?”
I did. I do. Because I know it in my bones.
What’s kept me alive and functioning for the last thirteen months, in my personal devastation and despair, has been a conglomeration of small actions, expressions, and gestures. Mike tying my shoelaces and zipping my zippers, tucking me into bed at night when my hands are too spent for pulling up covers. Brenda checking in with text after text, not caring if or how I respond, understanding that often I can’t. Rebecca sending me virtual otters. Arin texting me delicious descriptions of what she’ll cook for me when I can visit. Kate cursing the suffering with me, giving me space to hate everything and then to laugh. Melissa saying, can I bring you a weekly meal for a while? Then doing it. Leah dropping off slipper socks because she was getting some for her daughter and thought I’d like some too.
Writing this, I confess I hesitated to mention anything specific. So many people have been kind to me, and I don’t want to leave anyone out. I want to have an awards show where EVERYONE who has supported me wins. But I’m trying to listen to that part of myself who’s urging me instead to pick up the closest thought and put it down on paper. And what feels most important and immediate to share with you is that the people who are helping me, most often, simply reach right next to them. When Melissa offered to bring meals, she said, “It’s not hard. I’ll just make extra for what I’m making my family.” Or, Brenda still does something for me that we now call the chop and drop. I give her a list of vegetables, she goes to the grocery store for me, then preps and delivers the goods so I can cook, something I love and miss. “I’m so happy to do it,” she says. “It’s so easy for me.”
Are these things less valuable or impactful because they’re easy for the people offering them? No. For me, they’re life-saving. What’s easy for one person may be grueling for another, and that’s the magic here: when we each offer what’s easy, our collective resources are cornucopia, legion.
If I close my eyes and call each action, expression, and gesture to mind, of all of the people, named and unnamed, who have supported me this last year, they expand into a galaxy of glimmers before which I am staggered in awe, before which I can only whisper thank you.
The dominant culture in the United States urges me, you, us to dig deep. It glorifies working your ass off, burning the midnight oil, and getting so exhausted that you deserve a big, fancy break to make all the backbreaking worthwhile.
We’re set up for exhaustion. Among others, The Nap Bishop on Instagram offers such brilliance on this subject. We’re set up to stay on the treadmill. Judgment, external and internalized, keeps us there.
The way our country has only doubled down on exhaustion during this pandemic is not shocking, but sobering. The fact that those most in need of support receive the least of it is just one of the gargantuan elephants in America’s living room.
What if instead of getting exhausted, we had systems in place that encouraged and allowed us to take care of ourselves and each other in gentle loving ways, moment by moment?
About eight years ago, after a hula hooping injury (really), I went to physical therapy and learned about functional integration. That is, incorporating stretches or exercises that would help heal my knee into something I already did, like brushing my teeth, making coffee, or walking to the bank. Not digging deep is a means of functional integration—identifying how in my previously scheduled programming I might integrate care for self and others. Knowing that’s where healing can happen
Look, if you have massive reserves and resources at your disposal, if you’re in a position to bless, broker, or brandish big, by all means, do your thing, share your energy or wealth, and spread that abundance around. I mean, imagine if the elite collective of people and businesses who’ve made the most profit and gotten the biggest bailouts during this pandemic shared those resources. The funny or maybe not funny thing is, what would be a grand gesture for many of us, could be such an easy thing for a few of us to do.
As for me, praying, listening, making connections, and writing about all of it are second nature for me. After months of not being able to type much at all, I can do more of that now, too.
So here I am, giving what I can give and happy to share it. If it helps for you to be privy to my weird conversations with myself in the shower and otherwise, I offer this to you: Please don’t dig deep. Please don’t exhaust your reserves. In the face of the enormity, please pick up whatever, or whoever, is closest to you to. Please just meet the need you can meet, right here, right now. It ripples. It multiplies. It matters. I love you.