In 2013, Toni Morrison wrote a piece in The Nation about her feelings of anguish following grim political and social news. She felt depressed and unable to work until a friend reminded her that times of calamity are the very times when artists must work. She agreed, and the essay urges us to do the same. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity,” she writes. “No need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
In this last week when we lost Morrison’s voice—the very same week when we faced the agony of three mass shootings—moving forward does not seem like an easy thing to do. And yet we do. One foot in front of the other, we reach out to each other, at first tentatively, not sure what to say or what to write. Even in our small, personal lives, this is the power of being a human. No matter what happens, no matter how bad we feel, we continue to love and connect.
I thought about the resilience of humans and the power we have when we are moved to make things better for each other.
More than thirty years ago, on the day my mother died—very unexpectedly—I stood in a hot, dark hallway of the hospital, talking on a pay phone to the funeral home. I remember hearing my faint voice and feeling the cool plastic of the black handset against my hot cheek. Surprisingly, I said something that made sense to the voice on the other end, and then I helped my old, devastated father out to the parking lot. I wasn’t sure either of us would make it to the car. That night, I stayed with him in their apartment, sleeping in her twin bed across the room from him. I could smell her “Intimate” perfume on the pillow when I lay down and I could not imagine ever recovering from the pain of losing her.
But I did. The next morning, when I remembered where I was and why I was there, I was barely able to get myself up and move forward. With time, losing her got easier. But in those weeks and months, the thing that helped was talking about it, writing about it, and connecting with other people who had lost their mothers, or were afraid they would. I let myself feel it and live in it and, much to my surprise, something in me was able to continue.
I’ve grieved about lots of other things since then—and before. Relationships, jobs, lost dreams, money, politics, and human brutality. But every time, in the midst of deep depression, anger, and total confusion about what to do next, I have eventually been able to continue walking. I hardly ever even saw it happening at the time, but a month or so later it would become clear. I had made it through—like a walk on hot coals—and I would feel better, finally, than I did before.
It turns out, all of that counts for something. It isn’t just surviving one difficult event after another. It is living our lives with our full hearts. We struggle, we cry, we fight, we fall to our knees in heartache, and we rail against injustices. Every time, we learn something, we talk to each other about it, we make art, we write letters, and we eventually grow more alive. When my mother died, part of my torture was realizing my own mortality and thinking about the meaning of my own life. In a weird way, losing her helped me find myself.
Last week, amid the horrific behavior of politicians and the craziness of young men armed with assault rifles, our tiny new puppy ate something poisonous and had to be put down. I cried like I hadn’t cried in years. I wanted to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head—which I let myself do for a while. Then, I thought of that little dog, and the joy he’d brought us in the few months we'd had him. I thought about the resilience of humans and the power we have when we are moved to make things better for each other.
Occasionally I am strong enough to be grateful for the opportunity to feel all there is to feel. I know the growth that comes from that and the magical ways in which that growth can manifest itself. On those days I feel very lucky to be present in the world, and to know the power that comes with stepping forward.