When the World Stands Still

When John died and my entire world came to an abrupt halt in February of 2017, it felt like everyone I loved paused with me for a moment. Friends ditched work to be by my side at the hospital, the funeral, the cemetery, and lots of blurry days in between and afterwards. A few weeks passed in which I had no real grasp of time, other than counting the days since John’s death. But then one spring day, I poked my head out of the grief cloud and realized that while my world was still standing in place, everyone else’s was turning again. I remember feeling like I wanted to scream at seemingly content strangers in the grocery store. DON’T YOU KNOW THAT JOHN IS DEAD? DON’T YOU FEEL THE DEVASTATION? HOW CAN YOU CHOOSE BETWEEN MILK ALTERNATIVES SO CASUALLY AT A TIME LIKE THIS? It felt absolutely cruel that every day the sun still rose and set, people still worked 9-5, and kids still got picked up and dropped off by the school bus. Everything around my world looked fine and normal, but nothing in my world felt fine and normal. The clash of the two was difficult to reconcile.

I experienced this feeling again the other day. The West Coast is more or less aflame, the first “wildfire season” I’ve ever personally experienced. I’ve watched it happen on the news over the years, the horror hitting a little closer to home when Eli’s hometown of Paradise was wiped out by the Camp Fire in 2018. But even then I didn’t understand the physical and psychological effects of living in an area with wildfires.

Last week, Eli and I watched a dark cloud roll into Portland from our apartment balcony, a rather apocalyptic moment. Portland had the worst air quality of any major city in the world for a few days and I could feel it. Normally we keep our windows open because we don’t have AC, but we shut everything up when the smoke started drifting in. It was relatively effective, but after a couple days, inside was hot and stuffy and full of old air, so I insisted we open the windows just for a couple minutes. How bad could it be?! Bad. It was bad. After ~5 minutes my head, throat, lungs, everything hurt. We shut the windows and Eli enjoyed his I-told-you-so moment. We ordered a small AC/humidifier/air filter thing and agreed not to open the windows until it was safe to. Quarantine on steroids.

Photo by Eli Stillman.

It’s worth pointing out that we were never in the direct path of a fire or any real harm. Eli, an avid runner, and I, the opposite of an avid runner but a big fan of fresh air, were confined to our small apartment, absorbing the stories of loss around us and trying not to damage our lungs. While all of this was happening, I checked my social media accounts as usual and saw my friends everywhere else in the world enjoying what life has become these days – park picnics, outdoor dining, backyard hangs – and I had that same strange sensation of watching the world spin while mine stood still. HOW CAN YOU BE ENJOYING A PEACEFUL HIKE WITH YOUR DOG RIGHT NOW? HAVEN’T YOU HEARD THAT PEOPLE’S LIVES ARE BEING DESTROYED? DON’T YOU KNOW THAT THE WORLD IS BURNING? But then I realized something.

I thought back to when a friend called me a few days after John died as I was walking out the door to get food with a few friends, and she told me that I didn’t seem like a person in the throes of grief. I loved that comment because that was just what I wanted. I didn’t want to seem like a sad, broken person. I was sad and I was broken, and the people closest to me knew my rawest emotions, but I didn’t want strangers on the sidewalk to know anything was wrong. I wanted my devastation with a side of normalcy, and that’s exactly what I got.

When a photo of two of my dearest friends getting dinner on a rooftop somewhere together on the East Coast flashed across my phone screen, I started feeling that feeling, but something stopped me. I knew what was going on in both of their lives. One had just spent a few weeks by her sister’s side as she underwent an intense and life-altering medical procedure. World, stopped. The other is high-risk in terms of COVID (and other things) and has been forced to take quarantine much more seriously than the rest of us, living with a very real fear that I can only try to understand. World, stopped. Yet there they were, in their masks, enjoying a lovely evening out together. Devastation with a side of normalcy.

Standing in the Aldi aisle watching strangers nonchalantly compare their shopping lists to the shelves before them three and a half years ago, I grew hot with anger. But for all I knew, all of their worlds were also standing still. It’s likely that they were not paying attention to me at all, but maybe they were growing hot with anger looking at me, a 25 year old buying wine and cheese and popcorn. “This cheery bitch must be having a party,” the cashier struggling to make ends meet might’ve thought. Party for one shattered adult woman living in her old childhood bedroom at her parents’ house? Yes, absolutely. Party of the month? Nah, party of the year. (Points if you sung that in your head like I did.)

I realized this week that all of our worlds will stand still for one reason or another off and on for forever, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t want to meet up with our friends for a good meal and a few cocktails. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. In fact, I think it means that we should. Resilience is not standing up and pretending that everything is okay; resilience is standing up despite everything not being okay. The moment we see strangers in the grocery store and friends on our social feeds through that same empathetic lens in which we see ourselves, we begin to soften towards each other. Because collectively, the world stands still and we’re all a little sad and we’re all a little broken, yet we buy a new jug of oat milk and meet our friends for dinner anyway. Cheers to that.

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