Loss training & befriending viruses

Hi from Seattle, the Coronavirus Capitol!

Paying subscribers can listen to the audio version of this essay by clicking here.

The messages have been coming all week:

“Is everyone freaking out in Seattle?”

“How are things in Seattle right now?”

“Are you scared, being so close to the first coronavirus deaths? People are calling Seattle The Coronavirus Capitol!”

My answer? Haven’t we all been preparing for this for years? Haven’t the past four years in America been a slow, creeping curriculum on managing anxiety and fear? Between legitimate concerns about climate change and political unrest, and the chronic stress of smartphone addition and push notifications, we’ve all been learning about how to manage ambient anxiety. We've all been training to deal with fear about bad things about to happen and doom on the horizon, catastrophe approaching. In our own ways, we've all preparing for years.

…And now here we are! A global pandemic. Quarantines. People are dying a few miles away from my home.

And I look at the foot-tall letters on my wall that read WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE and think to myself, “I’ve definitely been preparing for this.”

"WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE" quilt by Northwest artist Joey Veltkamp, who typically works in the larger fabric formats like the ones through-out this essay.

I'm not being glib here.

This isn’t me laughing at death, like ha ha ha you’ll never get me! (Spoilers: you will!)

This isn’t me saying this pandemic isn’t going to come with pains. (Spoilers: it will!)

This isn’t me saying I might not lose people. (Spoilers: my asthmatic 77-year-old father is deeply aware of the target on his ribcage!)

This isn’t me rolling my eyes and saying, “Calm down people, we’re not gonna die.”

This is me saying we’re ALL gonna die. Whether it’s this month or next month or next year or in 50 years, it’s happening.

For me, the most tolerable way I can cope with that intolerable reality is to contemplate it every single day. The only way to feel like I can fully live my life is by being fully awake to the fact that it’s ending. I’m that kind of prepper -- not a “move into a bunker” kind of prepper, but a “dance on the idea of your own grave” kind of prepper.

If you feel like you’re drowning in fear this week, I invite you to join me here in my preparations. It’s always the right time to practice tolerating the intolerable. There are endless opportunities to look loss right in the face.

Take care of yourself 💜
March 3, 2020

The backstory on loss training

Maybe it’s helpful to explain some backstory here, about how I got to a place where I’m comforted by considering death and loss every day. Here’s a passage from Shitshow, about a conversation I had with a friend in 2015:

“This incredibly painful situation is part of an ongoing crash course on loss,” I said, between sips of my ginger beer. “Not to get too midlife horrors on you, but the simple reality is this. If the first 40 years of my life were about building things up, the next 40 years will be about slowly letting them go. This year has been a pretty intense crash course: my left ovary, a sense of youth, my marriage.”

I took a breath. Ashlee nodded, and took a bite of her kale Caesar. Her father died last year, so she understands more about grief and loss than I do.

“But coming years will include things like the loss of friends as our lives change and we lose touch, the loss of my son as he becomes an adult, the loss of my parents as they get older and eventually die, the loss of more friends as they get older and die, the loss of my own physical abilities, and eventually the one loss I’m 100% guaranteed: my own life!

I waved my drink at Ashlee for emphasis. I was on an unstoppable manic ramble, panting a little. I had this figured out! Let me tell you my strategy!

“If I can practice grace and gratitude in the face of what feels like unfathomable loss and pain, then maybe I can practice for all the inevitable future losses without a sense of fear, but a sense of acceptance for what is and gratitude for what has been. I don’t want to protect myself from the pain -- I want to lean into it and get better at dealing with it! I want to turn this into loss training!”

My shitshow was my first practice at loss training. There have been others since then — hospital stays, my dog dying, failing businesses, losing friends. The stuff of life.

This year, this virus, it’s larger-scale loss training.

Loss training means doing everything I can, and then when there’s nothing left to do, making friends with what is. It means staying with the moment, this moment with all its FUD and panic, and seeing if I can still find gratitude and grace even in the tangle of it.

What can I do right now? Wash my hands, help my neighbors, comfort those who are suffering. All I can do is take another breath (…into healthy lungs! What a miracle to appreciate uncongested lungs!) and take a second to appreciate Seattle’s springtime cherry blossoms.

I sit with the fear, not of just this virus, but the more significant underlying human condition: we’re all gonna die. This virus this month. A car accident next month. Breast cancer next year. A massive overdue earthquake in a decade.

Or maybe, even worse, I live 50 more years! Perhaps I make it through the neural lace opioid apocalypse and outlive everyone and everything I knew and loved. Maybe then I think to myself, “Fuck, I wish I’d died back in the 20s, so I didn’t have to watch this shit happen.”

Like my mom, the facilitator of grief retreats likes to say: “You don’t want to be the first to go… but you don’t want to be the last to go, either.”

I think of the first US deaths across Lake Washington in Kirkland. Did they look outside the windows and see the cherry blossoms?

I think of the precious breaths in my son’s little pink lungs, and remind myself that it’s fine that he broke a kitchen cabinet by sitting on it, that it’s fine that he spilled rice all over the floor last night.

Also, I think of the other viruses.

Sexually transmitted liberation

A few months back, I got a call from a friend in New York.

“I need your advice,” she said. “I just met this hot guy, but he told me he has herpes. Should I sleep with him anyway?”

My friend knows me. As a sex-positive nerd who used to obsessively get tested for STIs every 12 weeks when I was single, I’m a safe person to talk to about this kind of stuff.

“Aww!” I said. “Good on that guy for being so clear with his disclosure! He sounds like a stand-up human. Not knowing anything else about him or the situation, I’d say this: your task would be to see if you could make your peace with contracting herpes before you sleep with him. If you can’t feel ok with that possibility, then don’t sleep with him.”

“But what if we use condoms?” she said. “What if he’s taking his medication? What if we’re really, really careful?”

“Meh.” I said. “Even with condoms and medication, you could still catch it. It’s called safer sex for a reason.”

“So, you’re saying I shouldn’t sleep with him?”

“No, I think it’d be fine if you slept with him — but only if you could get to a place where you can feel deep in your bones that you would be ok if you contracted the virus from him. I mean, I know you would be fine. The stigma might sting, but ultimately it’s a manageable skin condition, and you would be fine. You would not die or lose friends. You would still be a worthy, wonderful human.”

“I guess so,” she said.

“I know so,” I said. “The question is whether YOU know so. If you can get to a place where you do, then you could feel free to sleep with him.”

“Huh,” she said.

“…Using condoms, of course,” I added, ever diligent.

“Right,” she said.

My advice was to invest her labor into seeing if she could befriend the worst-case scenario. If she could do that, then she was liberated from the fear. She should still use a condom, and he should still take his meds, but if she could get to the place of knowing she would still be a worthy, lovable, beautiful person regardless? That’s true sexual liberation.

Coronavirus is different, of course. It can kill you, especially if you’re in an at-risk population — like someone with a preexisting health condition (my friends dealing with chronic diseases!), over 60 (Tavi’s ten grandparent figures!), or have asthma (my beloved father).

But here’s the shit of it: you’re dying regardless. Death is literally the ONLY thing you know 100% for sure is going to happen in your life.

If you can make your peace with that inevitability, it loosens up some of the fear around the details.

Once you make your peace with the reality of your own death, you open up some room to make friends with the idea of illness. Then you can reduce the fear.

…And you know what we need less of right now? Fucking fear.

Compassion for the fear, but not the toilet paper hoarding

We know this: People are very, very afraid.

I have so much compassion for all the ways our egos try to fortify against the discomfort of fear: Blame someone! Fix something! Crack jokes! Get righteous! Go for a hit of superiority! Fear-monger! Buy something, anything! Surgical masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper!

…Wait, toilet paper?!

That’s the one response I’m having a little trouble finding compassion for… How is toilet paper going to help, people?!

I imagine a post-apocalyptic hell-scape, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome style. Most of the population has been wiped out by pandemic. The only people left are people who hoarded toilet paper. Somehow, they knew what we did not: that the only way to survive this respiratory infection was a clean butt. We call them… The Tribe Of Tidy Assholes.

In this post-apocalyptic economy, bidets are the new bitcoin.

I’m down with the reality of death, but I find the rush on toilet paper to be a sad, panic-induced misuse of energy. Maybe if this pandemic was dysentery, I could cultivate more compassion? Shit, there I go, trying to feel better about my fear by making fun of others. My comedic superiority trip is not helping anyone.

Ok, nice existential explorations, but what can you DO?!

Other than confronting the reality of my inevitable death, here are the tangible actions I'm taking this week to ride out this pandemic:

  • Paying extra attention to supporting the immune systems of myself and my beloveds. Last night, this meant cooking an extra-healthy dinner for my father and my son with extra love and intent, making sure their bodies were well-nourished with fish, greens, buttered beans. This means making sure my son and I get to bed a little early and sleep a little late.

  • Paying extra attention to my neighbors. If things get really bad, these are the people who are most immediately going to need my help or be able to help my son and me. I’m not the only one to be thinking this way: “life in Seattle will go on, quieter and more local than before,” noted Seattle writer Margaret O’Mara in The New York Times yesterday.

  • Paying extra attention to celebrating the health I have. My daily movement practice has always been about observing and honoring my body’s abilities on that particular day. There’s nothing like a pandemic to make that daily practice a little bit more precious. Every day with this body is a blessing! What can it do today?

  • Down-regulating my nervous system, following some of the lovely guidance covered by this caption.

How are you managing your fear? What are you learning about yourself through witnessing how you cope with pandemic panic?

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