Is it possible to hold this much grief without shattering?
How much more can we take? As much as the world has to give.
A warning for sensitive souls: The following contains references to violence and grief.
Listen to me reading this post here.
“There is really only one way to restore a world that is dying and in disrepair: to make beauty where ugliness has set in. By beauty, I don’t mean a superficial attractiveness, though the word is commonly used in this way. Beauty is a loveliness admired in its entirety, not just at face value. The beauty I’m referring to is metabolized grief. It includes brokenness and fallibility, and in so doing, conveys for us something deliciously real. Like kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold, what is normally seen as a fatal flaw is distinguished with value. When we come into contact with this kind of beauty, it serves as a medicine for the brokenness in ourselves, which then gives us the courage to live in greater intimacy with the world’s wounds.”
― Toko-pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home
How do we talk about this? How do we even approach it? How do we get close enough to this terrible thing to even name it? I will name it: a plague of gun violence is killing our children. (It’s also killing our co-congregants, our neighbors, our fellow grocery shoppers - and our young black people in astonishing numbers.)
In the morning, when I woke to the news that 19 more children and two more teachers were gone from the world, it hit my body like a slam, like a gut punch, like the car door I once slammed on one of my children’s fingers. No, it didn’t. It hit my mind like that. My body is still here. My children’s bodies are still here. In fact, the bodies of the children and teachers who died this week are also still here — it’s their lives that are gone. Their breath. Their smiles. Their future. That’s what’s missing.
There’s a hole in the world - a crater in the earth where 19 green things and their gardeners (their teachers). There’s a wound - a bloody missing tooth, an oozing open sore.
How do we show up for work the next day? How do we purchase groceries? How do we live while facing the impossible grief of senseless death?
If I pull focus, like all the way out - as if I was God looking down on the world, this loss isn’t much - just a few ants crunching under a giant boot. Just a few flies swatted splat on a kitchen counter somewhere. It happens everyday. People die.
But I don’t have that perspective and today, I don’t want to - I want these 19 children and two teachers to still be alive in the world with me and my life, which remains here - breathing my body and pumping my heart.
This isn’t a post about me - and it’s not about gun reform, although, of course, it is because every post about these children is a post about gun reform. But you won’t hear me lamenting our broken politics, our insane love of firearms or debating the so-called ‘complexity’ around freedom and the second amendment. This is not complex. Another 21 human beings are not alive because a gun was available when an 18-year-old got upset enough to use it to kill them. That’s my position on guns. No one should have them. Even the police. Even the armies. They’re stupid killing machines and every single life they take — whether through murder, suicide, crime prevention, gang violence, stupidfuckingwar, or bloody household accident— was a person with a future that no longer exists.
No one needs a gun… except maybe someone who is defending herself against someone else who has a gun. So, if we take that first gun away then… oh, how my mind circles round and round this impossible puzzle. It’s a maze of greed and fear and sublimated rage with the potential to destroy us all.
So, I was writing about what happened when I heard the news. Because what else do I have but my own experience - my life, my breath, my response to this. All I can offer are my thoughts, my feelings, my grief joining the blue lake of grief that is slowly flooding the boundaries of the collective heart.
When I heard the news the first thing I did was I closed my eyes. No, wait. The first thing I did was I gasped. At the jolt of it - the ache of it. These mass shootings always hit me in the same way. As a sucker punch to the part of me that will always be a mother — so, every part of me.
I sat by the window in my morning corner. Overlooking the farm across the road. And then, after the sucker punch gasp, that’s when I closed my eyes.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to discover that my own child had died today, in this way, when I were not there to throw my body in the path of the bullet. A moment later, I tried not to imagine it. I couldn’t stop imagining it. It was brutal. It was too much. And that’s when I understood the first thing.
The first thing: This is too much.
Then, while I was feelingthinkingjournalling all of this onto the page and onto Instagram (because it feels, in a hollow and hopeless way like that is my community now) this emergence happened right beside me.
First, I heard a strange sound. I turned to find an enormous male turkey standing two feet away from me. Only the wall of the house separated us. I was inside looking out. He was outside, spinning in a circle and chortle-giggle-singing. Maybe, I don’t know, he was aware of me watching. Maybe, I don’t know, this was a message for me.
The only thing I did know was: this was a visitation. I know this because Turkey is one of the animal guides who’ve accompanied me for years. Turkey gave me his feathers when my father died. The week before Dad passed, every day I found two, three, four of the enormous and beautiful plumes. I collected them all in a vase. I still have them - more than twenty. After Dad passed, I was driving to the funeral with my sister when a line of seven turkeys solemnly walked across the road - stopping traffic - right in front of my car. There have been other Turkey encounters. All equally meaningful.
So I knew this wasn’t just a coincidence. I don’t believe in those any more.
A sacred animal to the Lenni-Lenape people who once walked the land where I live, Turkey carries a powerful medicine. Stop. Listen. Gather the seeds and get to higher ground. This morning, on one of those ‘what does this animal symbolize?’ websites, I read that Turkey’s message is: Follow your instincts and your heart. You have an important part to play in saving the world.
I laughed when I read that.
But I also thought, Yes. I know I do.
Turkey spun beside my window for a while. I watched. It was mesmerizing. I took a video. Finally, turkey walked away, crossing the lawn until he came to spot where he sometimes leads his little family across the road and into the forest. Just then, as he was about to step into the road, a school bus appeared. As they passed each other, the sheer perfection of this ‘coincidence’ broke me.
A Turkey. A school bus. I couldn’t metabolize it all at once. So, I did what I do when the world or my mind overwhelms me. I took a walk.
I decided to follow the turkey’s path through the farm and up the hill toward the forest. A path where, on other days, I have received something like wisdom, and a few times, something like grace. I walked purposefully, eyes open, listening for whatever thread of meaning might help me tie all this up into a neat package - a message that I might use as a portal to escape from the pain. Maybe, I was thinking: if I understand this, it will let me go.
That’s when I understood the second thing: this won’t let me go.
The news is not going to stop coming - and short of moving to a mountaintop retreat without WiFi, I’m not going to be able to outrun it.
A hundred years ago, the news of a tragedy in Texas on a Tuesday wouldn’t reach me in New York until the weekend, if at all. It would come in a letter or a personal conversation. Maybe over drinks, months later. It would be a shock to be placed reasonably, intellectually into the context of a changing world - a story. Its unlikely that I’d hear another story like that for years. Whereas now, we might absorb a dozen such stories in a single week - a single day.
The first radio broadcast was in 1906; the first TV program in 1927; the internet was first opened to the public in 1993. Our nervous systems simply haven’t had the chance to evolve to contain all the information about everythingeveryoneeverywhere all at once yet.
Yet this is where we are - and we are all holding it now.
This was the third thing I understood: I am going to have to get wider.
On my walk, I found a label that read: Two pockets. I stared at it listening for meaning. Was this a cryptic suggestion about duality? Something about bringing intractable opposites together?
I kept walking. I found a single strand of grain beside a recently mowed field. Was this a message about beauty, even in loss? Was the flicker of purple fluff that I found in its seed head a reminder of the crown chakra? Purple is Archangel Michael’s color, I realized. Was this a reminder that I do not walk alone?
I don’t invent these meanings. I hold them lightly when they come. I let them float to me - intuitive glimpses of a message that’s already forming inside of me. The things that I find serve more as reminders than miraculous communications from invisible friends.
I kept walking. The last thing I found was a piece of crumbling blue masonry. A piece of sky? A falling apart something made by human hands? When I inspected the shard more closely, I found that it was broken in half, the two sides held together by a fragile bit of webbing. Was this about the split in our politics? The collapse of our blue-sky dreams of a better world? I don’t know.
Normally, when I hold my found things together on a walk like this, they entangle and a meaningful message comes to me. But what did a spinning turkey, a passing school bus, two pockets, a strand of wheat, and a broken piece of sky have to do with one another?
Oh, I realized. Oh.
Normally, when I do a collecting walk, I am asking for guidance about my life. This time, I’d been asking a wider, bigger question. I’d been asking about the world - specifically, What can we do? What should I do? Because ever since I heard the news, the thought that was rising with the most intensity and urgency was: I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do. And that’s a normal response. When tragedy strikes, we are all called to DO something. It’s just that I know that if we DO act out of the urgency of outrage we may miss the opportunity to metabolize the grief, as Tokopa Turner was talking about. Grief metabolized is one of the most powerful forces on this planet.
And that is what’s actually needed now as everything around us is speeding up. What’s needed is a moment to slow it all down. Back to human speed, human scale. It’s not possible to hold everything everywhere, all at once inside of our small self consciousness. It is out of this alchemy - when we metabolize our own personal response, our own grief, individually and collectively - that real change can happen, when we honor AND FEEL our feelings.
This is no different - though it’s much more tragic - than the work we do to metabolize the deep grief, the deep trauma that we carry about a childhood trauma, a broken marriage, the loss of our own own people. We need to metabolize all of our grief if we’re going to live as whole human beings at this depth and this width.
I felt a lot of things about that. A hot mess of things. Powerlessness. Guilt. Shame. I sat with all of it.
I don’t know what to do, I thought, tears in my eyes. Which is when the fourth understanding found me: There’s nothing I can do. I can’t save the world - not alone. Not today. But I can save the world inside my own heart.
And that’s when I felt the gentle hand of guidance at the back of my heart, and I heard her voice in my ear. You do know what to do, she said. You know exactly how to save the world. And I felt my heart un-clench as the grief puzzle assembled itself inside my heart.
When tragedy brings a grief that overwhelms the heart, we have two options: go numb or go deeper. Go cold (stiff upper lip, tough outer shell) or go warmer, softer, wider.
If we want the world to continue to get colder, we can turn away. Close off and hide. If we want the world to change, we are going to have to open to it. We’re going to have to include all of it. To let it all in - cuz here it is. It’s all here now. In order to save the world, we are going to have to get wider. We are going to have to open our hearts.
This has always been true.
This is the real complexity and the gift of being alive in our time. We are all vessels now, metabolizing (daily) the grief of living in a torrent of catastrophe and bounteous beauty, which is moving so fast that it’s hard, sometimes, to tell one from the other.
And all of us are witnesses to suffering. This used to be the provenance of the doctors and nurses, the front line workers, the EMTs, the police officers who arrive first at the scene of an accident. The soldiers who go to war and who metabolize so much for all of us through their actions. It used to be the work of the clergy, of the psychotherapist. But now, all of us are witnesses to suffering.
And as it fills our consciousness and filters into every cell of our bodies, we have only one choice - to turn and we face it and then, to embrace it. To let it in.
In this way, all of us are called to the window where a turkey is spinning and singing his song. The only song: Save the world.
My prayer, this week for all of us is this:
May this open us. May it expand our ability to ‘feel with’ those who have lost a precious someone. May we offer them the comfort of fellowship and the time it takes to heal. May we not hurry them along. May we hold them in blessing. May our hearts expand until we are capable of holding all of it and all of them.
May we stay awake and stay present - even though it hurts. May we not bypass this. May we become ever more compassionate, ever more loving, ever more capable of kindness, especially toward ourselves.
May we become a blessing and a vessel of blessing, capable of holding seeming opposites inside the cauldron of our own hearts. There, may pain encounter beauty, may loss entangle with forgiveness, may grief and joy rest side by side, in the same field of love. The wide heart of blessing.
Read a version of the Native American story behind turkey’s message of saving the world.
Read Tokopa Turner’s entire post, Beauty-Making as Medicine.
If you feel called to hold all of this (any of this) in a circle with me, I invite you to join me for Gather. Beginning in June. Saturdays at noon. Details here: https://lu.ma/ll8aq1f5
If you’d like to join my Facebook group, I welcome you.
Listen to me read this post: