“What’s on your mind this morning?” Facebook asked me cheerily last week. As it does daily, to any user who opens it before noon.
That morning happened to be September 10th, 2017. What was on my mind? Quite a bit.
It was the day before the 16th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.
It was the day before Hurricane Irma was scheduled for landfall in Florida, two days after decimating several Caribbean islands. Irma was anticipated with particular dread since not only was it the most intense hurricane ever recorded when still out in the Atlantic, it was also coming only two weeks after Hurricane Harvey. Surreal and terrifying, Harvey had left us with the images of America’s fourth largest city awash, its highways rivers, its residents displaced, some of its elders trapped in nursing homes, up to their necks in filthy water.
DACA was also on my mind that morning: it was only five days since 800,000 demonstrably law-abiding young people suddenly found their lives, also, made as deeply uncertain as those whose homes had been flooded. But their displacement was caused not by an impersonal natural force, but a human one: they, having obeyed the law and registered, were suddenly facing deportation thanks to a rescinded law.
(Although many say the ever-more-extreme weather we’re having is not impersonal but also human-caused.)
So, Facebook, all this was on my mind and heart.
All of those people, all that disorientation, all that unknowing.
How much we long for home!
How hard it is to find and have a home!
And even when we do, how temporary it turns out to be!
I am speaking not only of home as one’s literally house, but also of being at home in one’s body, and life. From both of which we will all, eventually, be deported.
So underlying what was on my mind was this: how we are all in a sense exiles.
And that this ought to give us common cause and compassion for each other. And that sometimes it does, and sometimes it does not.
And, also this:
“Hey, all you people who bought into the spiritual materialism of ‘just visualize what you want and you will get the life you pictured right down to the make and model of car and rehabbed kitchen worthy of Real Simple — ‘ so how are y’all putting a hurricane into that paradigm? Do you think those people in Houston just visualized Harvey into existence?”
I’m harsh on the latter in part because I used to be one of those who carried this belief system. It is a system which now appears to me to be, to put it bluntly, delusional. Yet for years I did my best to believe it, and to believe that everything happens for a reason (though the Holocaust, among many other things, always gave me pause).
But after Ned’s bicycle and that Chevy pick-up collided on Highway 62 West, on an unseasonably bright November day in 2000, “everything happens for a reason” went through the windshield just as clearly as did that beautiful, beloved 6 foot 4 body of his. Both him and that belief broken irretrievably.
Something neither of us had visualized.
Nine months and eleven days after Ned unexpectedly met his death in Arkansas, 2,996 other people unexpectedly met theirs — most in New York, some in Virginia and Pennsylvania — in the largest terrorist attack ever to occur in America.
For all of them, their final chapters were as unexpected and unpredictable to them, and to those who loved them, as Ned’s was to him and to me. Those people just got up and went to work! It was an ordinary day! And, too, each of their last days also took place in bright, perfect weather.
On that day as, like millions of other Americans, I tried to take in the impossible events, what that black pouring up of toxic smoke against the bright blue cloudless sky meant. Transfixed with disbelief, anxiety, and horror, among all I else kept thinking, one thought recurred, a drumbeat of deepest sorrow: “Oh, now everyone else is going to get how it is, too.”
By “it” , I did not mean the “it” of the day’s horrific events. The number of terrorists, the number of dead, the method.
I meant this: that life is fundamentally unpredictable, insecure, unsafe, and uncertain.
That anything can happen to anyone at any time.
This is a truth widowhood teaches you.
This fact, and it is a fact, is almost unbearable to look at head-on, let alone accept. It is too difficult, too anxiety-provoking, an outrage and an insult to every plan we have ever made, every event we have ever written on a calendar.
Yet widows must look. In the beginning, in mourning’s first iterations, it is practically all we can look at.
Yet, this is the dawning, horrific as it is, of what I am reluctantly calling widowhood wisdom, and which I will talk about more next week.
Look, I understand why we all want a way around so terrifying a reality. If only there was one!
Since there is not, we come up with various means of protection: illusory, it turns out, though of course we don’t let ourselves know that.
We think (not always consciously) that if we are good, moral, kind people, or if we pray or visualize or think positively, or if we invest prudently all our lives, or if we work out regularly and eat broccoli and tofu, we will be safe. Exempt. Life’s cruel, unfair, unpredictable, random tragedies will not strike us. They may happen, we assume (not always consciously), especially to people who do not share our faith (whether in church, gym, stock market, or “personal power”). They may happen, but not to us.
But sometimes they do happen to us. Non-smoking kale-eaters who work out sometimes get cancer. People who are careful with money sometimes get scammed by Bernie Madoffs, laid low by general economic conditions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to the gym or invest wisely; just that slanting the odds in your favor is not a guarantee.
WIDOWS ARE PROOF THAT LIFE IS UNCONTROLLABLE
Widows embody the “no guarantees” part of life. “If it could happen to her, it could happen to me.”
For many who build their lives on the notion that existence can be secure and safe, seeing a friend widowed is an unbearable insult to that belief: thus, most widows will tell you about friends who dropped them after their spouses died. (They may also tell you about how other friends, often unlikely ones, proved astonishingly loyal).
A variant: many widows find themselves socially isolated, especially by all their “couple friends,” after an initial outflowing of support immediately following the death. For the widow is a reminder of what might happen, the terrible randomness that is possible. In some communities and parts of the world, those who still have living spouses do not want even the presence of widows; not only are they a reminder, there is the belief, a rarely articulated magical thinking , that the widow’s bad luck will rub off. (It’s the reverse of visualizing what you want: the hubris that says if you look at your deepest fears, you may cause them to happen.)
It’s perfectly understandable that we all try to duck the reminders of uncertain, insecure life.
But all the ducking in the world does not make this truth, which widows know, any less true.
How, then, do we — widowed or not —- live with the basic insecurity on which existence is founded?
In which grief, loss, and the unexpected are inherent?
Is it possible to live happily, lovingly and compassionately in the face of all life asks of us, all life gives and then takes away?
Though not at first, when we are first in shock and then in grief’s seemingly endless desolation-cycles, widowhood is a state that forces us ask these questions.
But these questions belong not just to widows. They are the world’s own deepest questions. They inhere in being human, conscious and mortal.
When, on 9-11, I kept thinking “Oh, now everyone else is going to get how it is,” it was not with satisfaction but despair. My breaking heart went out, that morning, to all those who, on that day, discovered what I had learned when Ned spun out of this world. What I’d learned so very much against my own will: that waves and unpredictable, unfair tsunamis and aftershocks of that loss rend and shape families forever.
And with 9-11, so many added griefs: that this was a deliberate, ideologically driven act, not an accident but an intentional cruelty; an act of war. One which would alter our world forever, edging it even closer to permanent, absolute destruction.
And my heart also went out, on the day I took note of Facebook chirpily asking, “What’s on your mind? ” to the millions who are learning this terrible lesson in our present day. In Houston. In Florida, the Caribbean. In Mexico. In Syria, Iraq, Myanmar. Through war, chance, natural disaster, financial reversal, the reversal of DACA.
And my heart also goes out, every day, and certainly every time I sit down to write one of these Widowhood Wednesday posts, to widows everywhere.
Whatever security any of us have in this life, it was never guaranteed. A change that can take place in an instant can alter life as you had experienced it forever.
Is there anything harder than realizing this?
“What’s on my mind” is always how, in the face of this, do I, or any of us, live a life of compassion and equipoise and joy wherever it can be found or created, but with eyes and heart wide open? How do we use what wisdom has been vouchsafed to us by widowhood, and experience in general? (Again, this is something I will explore in next week’s post).
These are questions that can never be answered once and for all. So I try, as Rilke wrote, to “Be patient towards all that is unanswered in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves.”
“What’s on my mind” each morning, when I hear the day’s bad news?
There but for Fortune go I, I always think. And sometimes, “Is there any way I can help?” And even when I am okay, even as I feel deeply grateful for my own temporary safety, the news of hurricanes and wars and shootings, as well as my own history of loss, remind me that the veil between any of us and possible disaster, while opaque, is very thin.
Even as we feel for those who are suffering, we know our turn may well come, or come again.
Photograph by Louise Terzia: Ned and me, 1977. We could not know what lay ahead for us; no one can.