About seven years ago, right after my marriage fell apart and while I adjusted to life alone in a new city, my friend Chrys wrote this to me.
While cradling a heavy heart this week, as I discern what I can do to add my voice and self in support of those persecuted, violated, and marginalized, those words came back to me.
During a time when I mostly wept, Chrys’s comment made me laugh and offered consolation.
Of course, that comfort didn’t really have anything to do with technology. It had more to do with the we and the rebuild parts. I was not alone, nor was I decimated. I had hope and life within me yet, and as I’ve discovered since, I really was rebuildable. Which isn’t to say I was rebuilt in an afternoon. That took years and love and care.
Although it didn’t much matter to me then, Chrys was playfully referencing The Six Million Dollar Man, a 1970s TV series, in which astronaut Steve Austin suffers a near-fatal crash and, through an amazing operation, becomes a bionic man. In the opening sequence of the show, we hear a voiceover: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better… stronger… faster.”
Today I watched that opening sequence, and my metaphor radar went off. A person somehow almost destroyed. The support and confidence of others that contribute to the recovery of that person. The amazing outcome that the person not only recovers but comes back stronger than before.
So has it been true in my life—true every time my heart has broken from loss, from the death of my father, to lupus and bone cancer in 1988, to the present.
The heartbreak I experienced in 2009 coincided with a cross-country move to Portland, where I ended up living as one in an apartment meant for two. That first year, I’d wake up often in the middle of the night. Each time, the truth knocked the wind out of me. My once-beloved wasn’t there and I was by myself, in a new city. Sometimes, by luck or grace, I awoke late enough on the West Coast that one of my East Coast friends was just getting up for the day and available to talk. I’d huddle under the covers, my old red flip-phone pressed to one ear, my pillow pressed to the other.
Most often, though, I’d wake up in that in-between time when it felt like nobody was up but me.
That year, I met a new friend, Mary, and she gently offered a story from her own challenging time, when she couldn’t sleep. She’d reclaimed those middle of the night times for herself. Instead of just lying there, she’d get up, make some warm milk and read, using the insomnia as an opportunity to tend to herself.
I thought her idea worthy of a try, and I ended up using it regularly. I’d walk down the dark hallway to the kitchen, flip the light on over the stove, and get out a small saucepan. I’d heat up milk and add vanilla and cinnamon. I’d reread parts of Women Who Run with the Wolves. Sometimes I wrote. Sometimes I stepped out onto my patio, practicing being brave in the dark.
Now I see a deeper gift in those moments, one beyond biding time or surviving. Those middle of the night moments when I was so wracked with grief and anxiety that I couldn’t sleep, as well as those middle of the day moments when I was so wracked with grief that I couldn’t do the regular thing—be it work or eat or clean—those were, in fact, my best opportunities for rebuilding.
I had the “technology” to rebuild me. In this case, by technology, I mean the internal and external resources. My body knew what I needed and derailed me from regular activity to go about the essential work of healing.
I believe in the middle of the night I needed to learn how to walk softly in the dark, to remember my capacity to be kind to myself, to reground in my truest, best self.
During the day, when I hurt so much I couldn’t focus, I needed to take a walk, let someone be kind to me, go to a yoga class, see a therapist, plant things in pots on my patio.
So I suspect is the same for us who grieve right now. By us, I mean those of us who live, those of us who grieve those others whose lives were ripped from them, who don’t have the choice to rebuild.
We don’t need to just get back to “normal” or jump back into business as usual. Doing that buries the hurt and lets it fester. We have a country full of aching, grieving people going about business as usual when we need to rebuild ourselves.
The problem is that as a country we’re on fire with rage and injustice, and we’re not stopping, dropping, and rolling.
We take brief pauses for vigils and mindfulness, and for all of that, I’m grateful. But too soon we leap back into business as usual when no one could possibly have healed.
In these broken, grieving moments, we who live have the opportunity to do something different than our regularly scheduled lives would suggest, and those alternative actions, those sacred interruptions, are the things we most need to do to heal, to shift, to transform, as individuals and a culture.
What if you have the technology to rebuild you?
What if we have the technology to rebuild us?
Some of it is actual technology—the amazing ways we can communicate with, educate, and support each other online, etc—but in this case, mostly, I mean things other than technology. We have the ability to change our minds and our habits. We have the power to redirect our actions. Just as much as we have the capacity to be violent, racist, sexist, and act out of hate, we have the capacity to be gentle, inclusive, and act out of compassion and understanding.
For this week’s FHP activity, I invite you to join me in interrupting your regularly scheduled life to take one healing action.
Maybe it’s a long overdue peace offering to someone you wronged. Writing a love note or a thank-you note. Setting your phone down and away from you during a meal alone or with others. Letting yourself cry or stretch. Giving a compliment. Pausing before whipping out your usual defensive reply.
At first, it doesn’t feel easy to rebuild. Old habits and routines fit more comfortably. For instance, when I’m immersed in sadness or anger, I often tune out. I know just how to do that and I find temporary solace in the familiarity.
A few nights ago, I wanted to eat dinner with Mike while we tuned out to an old Family Ties episode—a DVD set that actually happened to be a gift from a friend to help me through the divorce.
Mike said, “Let’s not,” and suggested we eat at the table and talk to each other.
I was annoyed. Since I’ve also been practicing paying attention to my responses, I stopped and watched myself. I felt shocked at the fear and discomfort that stood up behind my frustration—the real culprits, red-faced with sheepish grins. I felt lame that a big part of me resisted things I valued and wanted to cling to the stupid TV like a security blanket. I knew this was a moment of opportunity, and I said, “Yes.”
Dinner and conversation were good. In fact and of course, they helped me more than checking out in front of the TV ever would have. I felt closer to Mike. I remembered how grateful I am to share space with a new partner in the same apartment where I was so achingly lonely seven years ago. I paid attention to my food. I expressed some of my sadness instead of swallowing it and taking it to bed with me, again. I was present. In those moments, I believe we were rebuilding.
Talking over roasted potatoes may seem like a small-potatoes action when compared with the horrors we’re all facing, but it’s something. And we need all our somethings, big and small, if we, as individuals and a collective, are going to heal and grow and generate new ways of being, new systems, new relationships.
When I mentor and coach writers, I like to give something called generative feedback, especially to new pieces of writing. Generative feedback basically involves affirming and being curious about what’s there as a launching pad to what’s next. The word generative basically means, “capable of creating.”
While I also love my work as a developmental editor, that is, offering nitty-gritty constructive criticism to a manuscript that’s already been worked over, I see my most foundational sacred duty as simply reminding people that they are capable of creating, even and especially when it feels scarier than more familiar routines.
And that, most of all, is what I want to share with you right now. You—you beautiful brokenhearted being—are capable of creating. Building. Rebuilding. We all are. It can heal us and make us stronger and better than we were.
We have the technology to rebuild us. Let’s use it.