This photograph is of 12th Avenue, not far from my home. This is the route I would commonly use to go down to the River Hudson which I’ve grown to love, and to Fairway Supermarket where I regularly shopped and which has now closed. A couple of months ago I posted this photograph on Instagram with the message that this is also the NYC I love.
All the writing and talking about grief over the last months – in the close circle of my personal life and also in wider circles of the published world – led me a couple of days ago to write, in two columns, all the things that have weighed heavy on me in recent times and then all the people who, during these same times, have received love and given love to me in interactions that range from the ordinary and funny to the profound and otherworldly. Over the last week I’ve fluctuated between lows and highs especially noticeably, to the degree I mentioned it in a work meeting as my check-in, noting that I was at that time on an upswing, perhaps even cresting, but knew from experience it wasn’t going to last so I was just taking it as it comes, enjoying it while I could.
Then Simone Weil’s Waiting for God fell into my hands via a recommendation from Susan Sontag from 1963 and an order from my neighborhood bookstore, Sister’s Uptown Bookstore in the borderlands – actually all one world! – between West Harlem and Washington Heights. I already had Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, which came via a recommendation from thandiwe Watts-Jones a few months ago and from Sister’s Uptown also. It quickly became obvious that I had to read these books in tandem, which I am still doing. A few passages stood out early on. Deeply striking passages have become a regular flow now. If I wrote them all I’d basically be telling you to read the books. I’ll just mention a couple of passages from early on that – along with conversations with dear friends, music, and just living in NYC through day and night with intense attention to every phenomenon in these COVID times – stimulated new clarity about what I am calling grief in a general way.
If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘my God why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.
There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am sure my love is no illusion. I am quite sure there is no God, in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word.
-- Simone Weil
To embody the truth is to live beyond the limits of self-reinforcing habits, which take the narrative of the past, projected into the future, and obscure the present, leaving us to sleep-walk in the dreamscape of other people’s desires and determinations. It is to transcend the borders directed by pain, fear, and apathy, to discover new territory unbound by the privileges and preferences that trade freedom for familiarity and comfort but pretend they’re one and the same.
-- Rev. angel Kyodo williams
With all this gathering like water in a wave, though I no longer really know what’s up or down in the making of such a wave, I woke up at three in the morning a couple of nights ago and didn’t fall back asleep for hours. I don’t often have insomnia but I’ve learned that, when I do, it’s best to “play possum,” which is to stay awake, lying still and physically resting, while thoughts and feelings move in and out. The first hour was the usual lying quietly with my thoughts and feelings. Over the next couple of hours I wrote some thoughts, not in one go; I jumped up every ten minutes or so to write an additional thought. I wrote in the dark because I didn’t want my eyes to get dazzled by the page. I did not want my resting body and sort-of floating mind to get dazzled into full awakeness. Awakeness is usually invoked as a very positive metaphor but dazzled awakeness is also restrictive.
Here is what I wrote in the dark, really in the dark, only streetlight on the page of my notebook.
There’s been grief all my life. Most of my life I lived in the midst of it, not always conscious of it, but in the midst of it. Sometime in the last two decades, while living a suburban working-parent life in San Diego, I separated from grief. My divorce and now our COVID times reconnected me with it. At first it felt like grief spouted singularly from the breaking of my marriage and family, but COVID has pushed me into awareness of all the grief, or at least has put me back into the midst of grief.
My separation from grief in San Diego was not because of any special badness in San Diego or myself, but came from a convergence of personal, historical, and cultural time within me. What I needed in my last years in San Diego was not more aware and active efforts to find happiness and experience contentment, as I felt pressured to do by the wider culture, but to feel again the grief that was always there.
Yesterday (catalyzed by the writings of Simone Weil, Rev. angel, Lama Rod, and Jasmine S, along with interactions with a couple of dear, dear friends, and my witness of increasing homelessness in the streets of New York), I reintegrated grief as a regular – mutable but constant – part of my life. In a funny way, that reintegration makes joy more possible. My hurt, loss, and grief from the ending of my marriage are real and still present, but the reintegrated grief is something much longer and larger, with many, many sources, ineffable. The grief of my immediate family and childhood friends, the grief in the streets when I was growing up in India, my failures, the grief that surrounds me now, the grief of real people in real pain across the US and world, not just those tragedies out there while I live in my bubble of clutched and privilege-guilt wellbeing here, the grief of family and friends in this latter stage of my life.*
(Now back to my writing in the present of this day.)
I don’t own the griefs of other people, but I’m in the midst of them along with my own personal griefs. Grief is not separate from me at any time, not even when I feel really happy being irritated with one of my children (or my mother!) or laughing with a friend. I want you to know this. This is not being sorry for myself, or for others. This grief is not instrumental, it is not a problem to be solved, though some of the conditions that give rise to some of the specific sources of grief are problems to be solved. My awareness of the world – joy and suffering – and my commitment to social justice never went away, but I unwittingly separated from grief as part of my life. It became an emotion to get over or a problem to solve rather than an intrinsic part of being. No longer. I can’t ignore it but I can’t control it either. I’m more attuned to, and gentle with, my own and others’ grief, rather than making joy a treasure around which I have to build barriers and defensive strategies, or which I have to pursue blindly. I’d like to stay this way. If you know me, you know that I can be rather joyful, and seek joy for myself and others. That will continue. So will grief.
This piece is very personal, but it’s part of work and writing for what I value in life – beauty, equity, justice, complexity, love, life itself.
* Some of you may read this as referring to specific grand griefs of specific people. Sometimes grief is terribly grand; often enough, in my understanding, it is not. For many people, let’s even say all, there is pain, sometimes inherited over generations, that’s muted, not even called grief. We all have affliction, grief.