There’s no exemption from loss or heartache if you have a human body, unless you steel yourself to such a degree as to not feel—or choose to live like an astronaut out in spiritual space, disconnected from the earth of you.
The Buddhists say the First Noble Truth is that “Life is suffering.” I think that’s more of a partial truth, with a distinct negativity bias. Life is also wonder, awe, co-creation, joy, laughter. But, yes, okay, suffering is always here, a pervasive undercurrent for humanity. It comes as diseases that strike the dreaming, disasters that strike the waking, overhead drones that take the children of “the other” at random while, on the other side of the world, someone is frying chicken or buying a new car, indifferent or unknowing.
Don’t be surprised at the next shock, sister: there is no safety. Death comes walking down the street with a sly smile and leaves your body in a cornfield. It comes at blown traffic stops, and from disturbed husbands with a handgun who murder-suicide. It comes while taking selfies at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or when there’s a 7.8 quake and you’re in a shaky building, or trapped in a wildfire in a dream home in the California hills. And if not that, who knows, maybe it’s a solar flare. It’s been this way for all of time.
As far as pandemics go, our epigenetic inheritance already knows this story. Half of the Earth’s humans were killed off in 541CE, during the reign of Justinian, by a germ on a flea on a rat feasting on grain being delivered as tribute, the spoils of conquest. Another 200M in Europe in the 1600s. And London, poor London, for three centuries straight she lost 20% of its population every 20 years from the Black Death (imagine the transgenerational steeling for loss brought on by that). One hundred million in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Ten million natives in the Americas—93% of the population—from smallpox. Thirty-five million from that slower killer, AIDS. All of these souls, as human as each of us. Were their loved ones not also bereft?
It is understandable that, in trying to make sense of randomized loss, entire cosmologies of blame and deserving have emerged- a kind of magical thinking that if we just did everything right, if we were that good, we would survive. It’s none of that, though, only the way things are: Sometimes the bacteria and viruses win a round, it’s not personal.
We are bound as such to the faceless and nameless over all of time space
We are with the woman in Constantinople holding her dying baby
We hover near a sailor waiting for release and not knowing whether he will again touch land
We float by a girl in London, frozen from loss and loss again, to the point of not caring
We exist with the freshly wounded soldier as mucous fills his lungs
We are there when the Menominee chief accepts the warm blankets in trade, and also when he holds the wet cloth to the fevered forehead as his son exhales his last breath
These ghosts and energetic pulses, and the survivors whom chance favored so well
The helpless but well intended healers, the hapless and humbled leaders
These, all of these, live in us today
Right now our mother waits it out in a senior citizens’ home in Massachusetts, quarantined in her room, meals dropped at the door, no visitors allowed, five deaths already in the facility, leaving everyone wondering if they are next.
At the very same time, here on the farm, the Earth is alive in polychromatic radiance. We are gentle with each other when our hands graze while doing the dishes. A new resident is singing while he works. Kitty NoName stretches out on the floor, content despite a broken paw. There is an eight pound papaya the size of a child’s head on the counter for cutting in the morning.
Angel from Montgomery—a song by John Prine, who was just recently taken by COVID-19— rings in my head, inviting a sway. I come home to my own grief and let it sink into me, pass through me, wash off me and puddle onto the floor. After the impotence, the sadness, the fury at our leadership: a gentleness. A willingness to not know, to just be in the mystic soup, and to remember. I relinquish the need to figure it out. An odd peace comes over me then. It’s all happening at the same time. Constantinople, Old London, New York, right now. The soul can’t be harmed, but the bodymind forgets that.
I have a burning desire to reach the world and pass on a message that the plant medicine gave me: If you’re not doing something to relieve suffering or bring joy, you’re in the wrong line of business.
We are nature, and we are all each other. We love this precious life. We stretch life out to the edges of what is given us, we keep living until the party’s over, we keep our hearts open, no matter what loss comes to us. We forgive early and often. We love the ones we’re with. And we love the ones we will never know.