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Lisa M. O'Neill


Wells In Need of Filling 

How are you? is a question I avoid these days. Because I know that in the liminal space between that question and the answer hangs grief, fear, uncertainty, and other emotions without names. I assume that whoever I'm talking to is at base level surviving and from there is carrying weights of all kinds. A friend of mine who volunteered with the Peace Corps in Guatamala once told me that in the Kʼicheʼ language there is no how are you? The best translation is Are you happy in your heart? Often, new American volunteers would, upon entering Mayan people’s homes for the first time, ask this question and unknowingly breach rules of intimacy. Whether we are happy in our heart is a hard question to answer even on our best day, even to those we love as family.

I don't know anyone who is happy in their heart right now, except maybe in seconds-long intervals. 

I'm writing from a suburb of my hometown New Orleans, where the wind rattles the windows as a hurricane approaches. I've spent the last few days watching the weather for long periods, witnessing those large circles of color—green on the outskirts, red at the centerspin counter-clockwise on the screen. This morning at a press conference, someone from the Governor's office used the word "unsurvivable" in relation to storm surges on the Gulf Coast. We are approaching the fifteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29 and those of us impacted feel the impending arrival of that date in our sinew and bones. 

The latest trajectory has Hurricane Laura headed west of New Orleans, hitting hard in southeast Texas and also in southwest Louisiana, the epicenter of Cajun culture and where the majority of my mom's side of the family lives. The urgency is real, the potential impact terrifying. Meanwhile, fires rage on the west coast. Meanwhile, the insistent train of capitalism pushes us to produce. Meanwhile, we try to keep our lives together in the face of uncertainty. Meanwhile, police officers are shooting and killing Black Americans in the streets and in their own homes without being charged with their deaths. Meanwhile, speakers at the Republication National Convention say that racism doesn't exist in America and that Trump is doing a great job. Meanwhile, post office boxes are removed and sorting machines are unplugged. Meanwhile, people we love die from COVID or cancer or because they could not deal with the pain of life one moment longer. Meanwhile, we cannot hold one another. 

These last five months have been relentless: the perpetual unknowing, the rapid pace of pain. We carry the knowledge that bad things will keep happening and that we won't have any time or space to recover between them. Author and artist Chanel Miller published a cartoon yesterday saying she is out of steam: she doesn't have enough steam to fog up a pair of glasses, less steam than a ladybug's sigh. She said we are all living with an "ever-present ache."

My dad is a therapist. Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of losing his home, my childhood home, to floodwaters, he continued to practice, holding space for other Katrina survivors. He told me back then that we all have a reserve available at any time. I pictured this as a well inside each of our chests. We have a certain amount of energy and mental resources we can draw upon for our daily work and trials. We have some left over for when crises arise. But when we're living in continued trauma and uncertainty, we just don't have the reserves to draw upon. For some, this reserve had dwindled long before the pandemic began. 

What I mean to say is that I am not okay. We are not okay. And the only way we endure this time is to admit to ourselves and one another that this is true. 

As a culture, we are so uncomfortable with not being okay. We want to fix ourselves and, most especially, we want to fix others. Long before this pandemic, I've spent years trying to unlearn the impetus to meet every single problem a friend brings to me with advice for a solution. I’ve had to retrain myself to meet others in their grief, to stay silent and to stay. While many people are being vulnerable online, others are still presenting the best, shiniest version of themselves. I think we have to drop the illusion of fine and let go of the idea that personal achievement will get us out of this mess and our real, hard feelings. 

One resource for me before and especially during this quarantine has been the work of Tricia Hersey, The Nap Bishop of The Nap Ministry. She claims rest as resistance and revolution and, while reminding that everyone needs it, ties it as particularly necessary for Black liberation. This week, she wrote, "...Pushing and grinding during a pandemic feels inappropriate and traumatic." 

I haven't been napping much. In the evenings, I mostly half-watch TV until I feel tired enough to fall asleep. The other day though I lay down "for twenty minutes" and woke up two hours later. I'm finding the longer this time endures, the less possible it is to deny the needs of my body. Sometimes rest is the only option. 

I recently moved back to New Orleans after fifteen years. In ways, I have been homesick since I left. And although I created a home out West, I have always felt the pull back here, to the place that shaped me. This pull became stronger as my parents have aged and with Coronavirus placing them square in one of the most vulnerable populations, the decision to be here was clear. 

Luckily, I have the sort of relationship with my parents where we are allowed to show up as our messy selves, where it is okay to admit that we are lonely or frightened. In other words, with them and many other dear ones in my life, I can show up as my not-okay self and be met with compassion and empathy. I feel so grateful for this. 

Most evenings, I go over and spend time with them. They sit in their recliners and I lay on the couch. Sometimes we talk about the state of the world. Sometimes we share details from our days. Other times, we watch episodes of The Great British Bakeoff and see what can be done with basic tools: flour and butter, hands and imagination. In the stillness between moments, I feel the love underneath all the difficulty. It doesn’t mean our well is full but that there is room for filling. 

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