I have a print hanging in my bathroom that's held an outsized significance in my life for awhile.
It's a quote from a Louise Erdrich book that I love.
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will break you with its yearning. You have to love. you have to feel. It is the reason you are here on Earth. You are here to be swallowed up.
Mostly it just sits there on the wall, placed inconveniently for anyone to really notice while they're peeing or washing their hands, but I know it's there. And occasionally I stop and read it and think of when I bought it and how my life has changed. Or I'll read it mindlessly while I brush my teeth.
Sometimes, though, I read it and my heart breaks open.
* * *
David and I have started going to church.
I can't remember how it happened. I know that we were both yearning for something. Community was a part of it. A lot of my friendships have changed dramatically during COVID and before COVID. But it was more than just looking for a beloved community for me. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" says Mary in one of my favorite bible passages. "My spirit rejoices in God, my savior."
God and I have not been on speaking terms since 2012, but my soul has been proclaiming something recently.
So David and I have started going to church. We attend a Universalist Church not far from where we live.
In graduate school, Unitarians were easy targets for derision because "They don't believe in anything." I made this argument as much as any of my peers, and what an arrogant, judgmental little shit I was. I didn't realize how badly people who didn't have my confidence in the One True Church still needed a place for spirituality, hope, and love. Now I find myself regularly attending Unitarian services.
Who says the universe doesn't have a sense of humor?
Yesterday we had a Service of Remembrance. It was the first in-person one this community has had in over two years (everyone is asked to be vaccinated and masked for the entirety of the service, and we were in N95s, so don't get sassy). The service had some aspects that felt odd to a recovering Catholic (speaking your losses to a stone and dropping it in a bowl of water, profligately having conversations with your neighbors about loss mid-service) but weren't any odder than almost any Catholic ritual I could name. Near the end of the service there was a litany of the people we have lost in the past year, and the congregation lit a candle in remembrance of every person.
I have never grieved communally. My beloved grandmother died in May of 2020 and I was stone faced throughout her entire service. When I came back to Minnesota I screamed with grief. I cried and retreated from David and held on to my grief like a weight. The worst of it passed.
It always does.
So when I found myself in the midst of a bunch of very earnest people speaking about loss so openly, I was terribly intimidated. Afterall, the only thing I'd lost was a beloved pet. Listening to people speak the names of their loved ones who had died made anything I've experienced in the past two year seem mild.
At the end of the service, a little embarrassed, I went up the altar and lit a candle for my beloved kitty. And in the act of lighting and thinking her name, something odd happened.
My heart broke open.
* * *
We've lost so much in the past two years.
Families and friendships. Pets. A civic society. Live theater and music. Jobs we loved. Time. Illusions. That teacher we really wanted our kid to experience. A sense of normalcy. Hugs and shared laughter and warmth. Maybe our conceptions of ourselves.
I've lost a a grandmother I adored, a pet who got me through difficult times, getting to watch my adopted nieces and nephews grow, the choice about whether or not I'll be a parent, my sense of smell and taste, months to long COVID, a little bit of my sanity, the joy I used to take in my work, more things than I can name.
And in the act of lighting that small taper candle for a cat who died in November, my heart breaks.
It breaks and it breaks and it breaks.
And then it's all there. All the complicated, overwhelming, messy feelings that I've been carrying with me for two long years now.
Probably for longer than that, if I'm being honest.
Somehow, it's easier in this place. Perhaps it's the message of the day. That the kindness we hold for one another is the only thing that is left after grief. It might be that quote from my bathroom, rattling around in my head and reminding me that these complicated feelings are the reason I'm here. It could just be that it was a cathartic experience and my brain is hit with a wave of feel-good chemicals.
What I think it is--no, what I believe it is--is that doing this together has somehow made things easier. That speaking our losses, whether to a stone or a neighbor, and lighting our candles for a person or a pet has made this act of grieving lighter. Grieving communally has created a place of compassion, empathy, and love that is so necessary and so lacking right now.
As we leave I take David's hand and smile. "I'm glad we did that."
"Yeah, me too."
And my heart begins to mend.