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Until We Carry Each Other
On the inner and outer work of respect and imagination.
Nabil Anani, “After the Harvest” (2023)
Washington was the city of my formation. It’s where I arrived as an undergrad with a box of scribbled journals and a smoking habit. Also, where I smoked my last cigarette. It’s where I met my husband and landed my first job, among many other firsts.
Now that I’ve resided among the juniper and chamisa of the Southwest as long as I resided among the cherry blossoms, even a quick visit to the District is a swirl of tactile reconnection. I teach a philosophy workshop in the studio where I spent a decade studying the craft. I check in on my people. They check in on me. We scan each other’s faces for how life’s really been going. We grieve for the world together. I feel a private sense of relief when the owner of the teahouse still remembers me.
Walking down the alphabetized streets of my old neighborhood feels meaningful in a way that’s difficult to explain. I walk slowly, searchingly, in solitude. Things have changed in the years since I left. The brownstone’s been painted. The streets seem weathered, which I attribute to a profusion of political protests of late. But there’s muscle memory here. I find small signs of a previous life inside the life that’s here. Here, a familiar maple tree; here, how shadow falls across the park at a certain time of day.
Perhaps you have places you carry, too — places that invite your senses to return. Interestingly, the word “nostalgia” is from the Greek compound nostos (meaning ‘return home’) and algos (meaning ‘pain’). To come home is to feel our way back. Somewhere in my body, a spool of memory begins to loosen. I sense the girl who lived here — who, for safe-keeping, tucked parts of herself away in apartments once shared with lovers and friends.
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“There is a common superstition that ‘self-respect’ is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”
- Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
The Latin root of respect means “to look again.” Joan Didion’s treatment of self-respect eschews appearances and, instead, points to a quiet fortress of self-regard and forgiveness: “a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”
David Keplinger, beloved poet and friend, describes Is and Was as “the first sparring gods.” A return to the country of Was is a sacred invitation to reckon with the parts we may have left behind. As we retrace our path, our practice is to notice, step by step — and, thereby, to integrate the emergence of what Was (or what wasn’t or what could have been) in the light of what Is.
We are speaking of the practice of inner reconciliation. Gandhi is often misquoted as encouraging us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” His actual teaching — the one from which the misquote derived — reads as follows:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
Reconciliation, simply, is the restoration of relations. It can refer to past and present, private and public, or to the parts of a thing as they relate to the whole. In the absence of agreement, it’s a commitment to the possibility of peaceful co-existence.
We may feel powerless against the abject failures of humanity pouring out through our screens all day every day, but we are not. We but mirror the world, Gandhi says. This is not to say that centuries of collective trauma can be bypassed. They cannot. It’s only to share a reminder that our own healing work does matter in service to the world in which we live together. We need not wait to see what others do, Gandhi advises. Even a pixel of change matters.
Love remains our private mandate if we are to remember the just and necessary arch of our mutual fate. When we make room for our own human experience, we bring ourselves into the circle. When we pay attention with vital presence (which will also let us know when we need to shore up our own nervous systems against empathic overload), we train our humanity in thought, word, and action. Only then, rather than fear or de-humanization, love can fuel our advocacy, diplomacy, and service. Love can put all the posters up, rather than tear any of them down.
In closing, a poem that paves a path for the imagination by Puerto Rican Jewish poet and activist Aurora Levins Morales:
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.
- Aurora Levins Morales, “The Red Sea”