In the Winter Storm

“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries.” – Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

This afternoon it’s raining as I am driving home from the dealership where my car was under repair. I leave the music off, listen for the ticking and whirring of the motor to tell me that the heart of my vehicle is running smoothly. This is the second time I have picked it up in a month.

My left eyebrow is still twitching. It has been since Friday, four days ago. I press things to it — my fingertips, the back of a spoon, the rounded bottom of a cold water bottle — to make it stop. It does not stop.

My left eyebrow is twitching as I walk through the front door of my friend’s house around lunchtime.

“This is the ghost house,” he says, gesturing to the left half of the home. It looks like a model home someone forgot about: a round wooden dining table laden with purposefully stacked plates; empty mugs atop wooden coasters carved from segments of tree branch; two sofas on either side of a silent fireplace; no appliances in the kitchen. “No one goes over here,” he says. The only bedroom I see other than his is empty, a mattress on a bedframe with no sheets.

Something about this small moment haunts me, the way things have the past few days. He calls for the cat that lives outside but it does not come. I stand in the doorway. His mattress is on the floor.

I am haunted by other images, too. The headlights of cars blurred into softness by the haze of fog and snow, casting round beams through the barrier on the northbound highway. It’s Sunday night and my brother is driving me south, back to normal life. It’s so dark, all I can see is the snow in the headlights and a small stretch of road, and the fuzzy glow of lights on the opposite side of the freeway.

On his drive to pick me up on Friday evening, rolling along the same stretch of road, he detoured around a traffic jam causing a half-hour delay in southbound traffic. The collision blocking the road, we learned later, was fatal, killing one of the drivers. I found these clinical, broad details from reading the news report. My brother knew, from driving past, that one of the cars was blue. In some way, he said, knowing that detail felt wrong — too intimate — like carrying a piece of someone’s trauma without ever having earned a place in it.

So there is the theme of vehicles, road noise, softness, damage. Also things seen in passing, emptiness, and ghosts. I keep hearing the song in my head: “Heartbreak, you know, drives a big black car. I was in the backseat, just minding my own.”

On Thursday night we left the concert and walked to a diner two blocks away. The air was frigid. As soon as we sat down, I ordered hot tea and forgot to brew it, leaving the mug to grow cold before I remembered to put the tea bag in.

On Friday morning I sat backstage in our school auditorium and cried every time the lights went down, knowing that was when my students, seated on risers onstage, would not see or hear me. It felt like the end of the world then.

Now it feels like a dull ache, like a deep vase full of black ink inserted neatly into my ribcage. I think I’m all right, but my eyebrow won’t stop twitching.

On Thursday night we walked back to the parking garage in almost silence. We hugged in the doorway to the elevator and said goodbye. I regret that now — saying goodbye. As if anyone has a right to leave someone else for good. To get away without a scratch.

On Sunday, I walk with him around the memorials in the park in front of the capitol building in Phoenix. I hold his hand and I look at all the scars. The air is chilly, cuts past my sweater. My flight back to Denver is in three hours. I can feel the twitch in my left eyebrow. I look for it in the mirror when we get back to his house.

On Sunday night I pull the poster down off my wall. I’m not sure what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to hide. I ask a friend to get my records back.

There is nowhere to go, nothing to do but feel it living inside me, radiating out of me, like an insidious parasite — a black mantis shrimp buried behind my collarbone. The dark is so absolute, all that is left are headlights and the lines of bright snow against the windshield. I imagine I will not spin out from this collision, but I am not too sure. I am not sure at all.


The Deep Hurt

It is hard not to think, in any crowded place, how easy it could be for someone to hurt people there en masse if they wanted to.

It is painful to realize that the compulsion to think these things comes from a recent history in the United States of mass shootings and attacks that are so innumerable that they cannot be counted on one hand or even two. It is painful to realize these thoughts are spurred by a drive toward self-preservation, the desire to have an escape plan.

I read the news and find myself thinking, half or more of the time, that as a whole, it might be okay that humanity self-sabotages at every turn. Not for individuals, who I very actively and vehemently seek the best and the least pain for — but for us as a species.

This is not a perspective shaped by my sadness alone. I carry it in my heart on even my best days. It did begin with pain, a small global hurt that crept in the moment I shut the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Humans are odd. We are creative and brilliant, telling stories and inventing wild gadgets that allow us to do so much more than any other creature on this planet. And we destroy everything we touch.

I was sitting on the couch, watching television and scrolling through Twitter, luxuriating in a day off school thanks to last night’s heavy snow, when I saw the single mention — offhanded, almost, compared to everything else filling my feed — of the shooting today at Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. Five dead.

My reaction in light of these events is complex. Often the first reaction is to scroll past it. It is easy to deny terrible news on the face of it, or to actively choose not to engage with it. It is okay to choose not to engage with it when there is nothing you can do. But to disengage with these stories, or to feel that there is nothing we can do, in the long term — we say, over and over, that mass violence cannot be normalized. But for each time it happens, we cannot help but turn away and say to ourselves, “Here we go again.”

If we engage fully with each tragedy, we waste away. The pain runs so hard and so deep that we are incapable of living our every day.

There is no thesis statement here, no argument to be made. I do not know how to walk the line between disengaging so much I become useless and engaging so much I become useless. Burnout is real, yet above almost all else I value not giving up.

I Googled some more about the shooting. Found out what I could. I thought back to waking up that July morning in Denver to the news that twelve had been killed at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” a few miles away. I thought about how many times I’ve stood in airport security lines and felt like a sitting duck, waiting with so many others to get to the other side where I could feel safe. Then I put it down, and went back to watching television.

The story of humanity is one big messy saga of violence and pain and art and architecture and invention and love and joy and choosing to hurt each other because the hurt inside us is so intense we cannot help but enact it on someone else. I am watching television. I am watching the show “Community,” which I enjoy because I can put myself into the lives of these characters instead of my own. I savor every small piece of drama, every confused kiss between characters. Through them, I am allowed to feel safely. I am allowed to exist in a world where the real hurt of this one doesn’t penetrate. And at the times when it does, the hurt is deep, because these characters have somehow accessed the real-world hurt, the kind that comes from your best friend moving away and disappearing from your life, when it feels like it’s for good.

I have a boyfriend now and he lives in another state. He hasn’t texted me for several hours because he is at work, driving an ambulance. Almost every day he picks up patients who have attempted suicide. My roommate is leaving soon for most of the weekend and I will be alone in this house, alone in this small town I moved to so that I could try and make a difference to humanity as a whole which, as far as any of this goes, seems to just hover around a baseline amount of pain anyway that no one can really do anything on a large scale to change. It will always be hurting, this part of us that hurts. We will carry it no matter what the world looks like.

So it goes: the whole tapestry of the thing — the life lived and unlived — begins to tie itself in small knots and ravel up in ways that make sense and remain messy. It’s all cyclical, and the themes overlap and correlate, but not quite perfectly. Each moment of pain is a pinpoint of light that both lives by itself and exists as one point in a much larger plane.

I am a middle school teacher. I teach special education. I love my students so fiercely I would go to war for them if I had to. I carry these small pains every day when I watch one student get yelled at by a teacher who assumes that he is trying to be a troublemaker, or when another tells me he is terrified of getting kicked out of our school because he is struggling to maintain the 3.0 GPA the school requires to retain students. I know I cannot hold it all inside me, but I am not quite sure how not to. I scroll through Twitter and watch “Community” and try to let out the pain slowly, like releasing the air from a blood-pressure monitor.

In this whole strange interconnected web of pain, which runs thick and constant with the occasional point of good and lightness, I also think about the student who surprised me with a hug on the last day before winter break, or the student who turned to another and told her, “You can’t give up. Ms. Bilker won’t let you.” I do not know how to balance or measure these moments against the hard ones. I just carry them both and hope that in the long run, the good wins out.

Who are those who were killed today? What were their names? Were they young or old? Were they just getting ready to see their long-distance significant other, who they’d flown all that way to see? What about those who survived? Will they be terrified of airports? How many of them will consider themselves lucky? How many of them got to see the partner they’d flown across the country to visit?

It is like the Leonard Cohen song says: “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard — the holy or the broken hallelujah.”

Music is a good note to end on. It carries our hurt and heartache in ways words alone will never quite be able to reach.