How we emerge

May 01, 2020

Apology and a warning. If you are having a difficult time, this blog may not be the best choice of reading in this moment. I’m also struggling. Through writing I process my thoughts, my fears – but I understand that those thoughts may trigger something in others. And so if you are worried about the uncertainty of this entire situation, COVID et al, please don’t continue to read. When you are ready to step into a difficult conversation, this message will be waiting here for you.

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Written a few days ago…

Today we woke to a cloudy sky, rain- a blah kind of day. I imagine that some of us greeted the morning with optimism, hope, and a sense of purpose, while others felt the opposite. I met the grey sky with profound sadness in my heart. In part, it is because I had believed that by the end of April much of this would have passed. I was holding onto hope that May would bring about a return to a life more familiar. But what swept over me as I looked at this ominous horizon was the realization that today, tomorrow, the end of this week will not bring about what I so dearly desire- because what was, is forever gone. It’s not to say that we won’t be happy again, or reconnect, rebuild, and renew our lives. But like all things eventually come to an end, the life, the one before COVID, which was abruptly stolen out from under us, is gone. And we weren’t given a chance to properly say goodbye.

 I couldn’t bike to work because of the rain, so I drove. As I often do, I began silently narrating a story. I always hope to share them (my stories) with someone at some point – today, I wasn’t sure with whom or how. Most days, I am entirely alone in my office, with the door closed. I listen for the doorbell only to communicate with visitors through the glass. Day by day, fewer arrive, so the hours alone pass.

Driving, as though by autopilot, my mind went about articulating the thoughts I wanted to release. Story telling is how, in many ways, I’ve been able to make sense of world. It’s how I’ve been able to work at IRCOM for over a dozen years without losing hope. I am often the listener, the keeper, the carrier. Stories others have trusted me with have become chapters, books, and collections that are safely stored in the library I’ve built inside myself. Because, mine, is a vessel of stories: a mind that has taken in horrors, loss, and sadness, if only for others to know they needn’t carry them alone. I’ve given those stories a home, but to protect myself, I’ve learned to close the door and walk away from it. I’ve not been soured, angered, or become disillusioned by what I’ve learned. Their stories have fueled my compassion, humbled me, and taught me to live – to live fully, beautifully, unapologetically. But it hasn’t been easy; I’ve also had to learn to disassociate from what I’ve heard. I’ve learned to narrate the story from the third person. She, he, they. I’ve learned that words take on images, and those images must be painted over often, with laughter and love. And I’ve learned to honour the stories, never hurry them along, never assume the ending – I’m thankful that all, thus far, have ended with forgiveness.  

Today’s story, in my mind, brought me to imagine the day to day lives of people within our community. I reflected on the truth that all of us are waking under this gloomy sky, yet none of us will experience today in the same way. Many of the families we serve at IRCOM have survived hardships, unimaginable atrocities. If you look closely, that kind of pain is rarely far below the surface. It is visible in their faces; so many stories untold. Those stories are those of trauma, something that takes up home inside, and as has been my experience, accompanies us always.

I carry trauma from innumerable moments throughout my life– migration, being, in many ways, the least of them. But I also find comfort in knowing that my trauma has been, and will likely remain, my most loyal, constant companion. Anyone who lives with profound pain knows that it is something that takes on a life of its own, something we grow to have a relationship with. We have a strange relationship, my trauma and I. We take turns leading my life. Sometimes my strength and courage come from it; it charts the course to a bolder, braver life. At other times, though, it holds me captive, chips away at my sense of certainty. It is always speaking to me. Today, it took up space at the breakfast table, over coffee, and asked that I pay attention to this moment, right now. Because what we are experiencing right now, as a community and as a society, as a world, is collective trauma. And as someone who lives in the midst of it- both my own and my community’s- I have some experience navigating this complicated landscape.

Although we are not in an active conflict zone- there are no bombs, gunfire, and combat in the street- there are some threads of commonality, one being, a life lived in chaos. Much like in times of war, during these times of COVID, there is loss of life– merciless and arbitrary. There is also displacement– spending our days outside of the rhythm we know– away from the places that formed part of our daily lives. There is uncertainty– no one really has an answer to when this will end, how many of us will fall ill, how many will die. There is grief, anger, frustration. Our fight or flight responses are activated– for a long time– longer than the response is meant to be active. We are being traumatized. And just to be clear, I am not comparing or making light of conflict – these two events are irreconcilable, but the human impacts, when we’re harmed, can be deep, lasting, and often invisible. Trauma is invisible.

Invisible yes, but trauma surfaces under the guise of fear, anxiety, despair–any and all emotions. In recent days I’ve seen something new in the faces of my children – an angst and separation anxiety unlike them. Once keen to explore the outdoors and roam freely, social butterflies excited to be with others, now they don’t want to leave the house out of fear that they might get sick. They are listening; they’ve been listening all along, to the radio, the adult conversations. They’ve come to understand that the world out there, people, including their friends, teachers, and neighbours could make them sick and that they could die. They ask nervously as I leave to go to work if I’ll have contact with anyone, if the doorknobs are being cleaned, if everyone wears masks. I bend down to look my youngest, at eye level. I hug her and her older sister, and promise I will come back just fine.

You might say I can’t promise that, but from where I stand, I can and I will keep my promise. Because I can’t shelter them from life, I can’t protect them from all illness, from pain, heartbreak, loneliness. But what I can do is teach them how to walk towards it, how to keep an open heart even as the world breaks it, how to love when love feels out of reach, how to keep dreaming when one by one some of their dreams don’t come true. I can teach them that being fine is more than being physically healthy, that it is as much about the spirit we bring into the world, the gifts we share with others, and the ways in which we shape life by our presence. That living is expressed more through quality of life than longevity. That living into one’s purpose means standing with and walking beside our community– taking every precaution and following public health orders– but not hiding away when others need us.

You see what matters today, tomorrow, at the end of this week, whenever this damn thing ends, is how we emerge. Some of us may be traumatized. Many of our children will have experienced something they have limited means to understand or the cognitive ability to make sense of. But they will also have witnessed our community fighting for one another. And hopefully, as we heal, as we name our trauma and express it through our stories, we will teach them that they too are listeners, keepers, and carriers of humanity’s tale. They needn’t be held captive– they can author books about how we, through acts of colossal kindness, won back a life that honours every journey.

*** About the picture – Facing east from IRCOM Isabel, these are MB Housing townhouses, where many families have lived for decades. I lived in a similar community as a child, Lord Selkirk Park in the North End, when we first arrived in Canada. Looking at these homes takes me back; they remind me how very complicated poverty is – so often misjudged, too often disregarded.  

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