The other night, tears flowed down my face. I hadn’t cried that hard since my father died 15 years ago. As three more members of my immediate family died in the decade following my dad’s death, I cried less for each one until, eventually, I had no more tears to shed whenever anything sad happened in my life.
But the other night, I cried so hard and for so long that I began to wonder if the skin might dissolve away from all the salt running over it. This was triggered by a dear friend moving far away. As I’ve written before, living without parents, partner or dependents has led to me highly appreciate friendship. And though a wondrous thing about living in New York City these past 23 years has been that so many great people pass through this town, they are often doing just that: temporarily passing through. My heart aches each time a kindred soul leaves.
Bidding my friend adieu cracked the dam long holding back a rising reservoir of tears. As a columnist, my impetus has been to inspire readers towards action and away from despair in moments of overwhelming sadness. But as I cried in the dark, I gave in to my frustration and despair for a change – and sat with my deep sadness about the state of the world on scales large and small.
It was cathartic, and I was reminded that mourning isn’t a sign of weakness, but just of being human.
And there is much to mourn right now. I began writing this column during an exciting moment in American history, when LGBT rights were being won in state after state weekly or even daily. I was a bit optimistic about the United States right then. Liberty was on the march, and despite the depressing reasons for its necessity, the ascending spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement gave me a sense of hope.
Then, much as I feared and predicted, the backlash roared mightily. From Brexit to Trump, white supremacist empire struck back at modest gains in racial, gender and sexual justice. In my scholarly life, I increasingly learned that such revanchism is not a deviation from US and British hegemony, but rather a repeating condition of their continued dominance.
And with good reason, I have felt despondent about much of the news of the past couple of years.
I feel sad about how the Anglo-American war machine grows and kills regardless of who’s living on Downing Street (May, Brown or Blair) or in the White House (Trump, Obama, Bush II, Clinton or Bush I). I feel sad about the relentless consolidation, manipulation, and whiteness of US and British media. And about the attacks on science , art, language and medicine.
And I am disheartened about the unceasing, ableist and racist police killings. And about Ice raids and lethal transphobia. And about how often Americans call the police on black people for playing with toys, walking with a plumbing fixture, or using a plastic fork in a Waffle House or sitting in Starbucks. And about how black women are underpaid and rushed towards death. And about why “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants – a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel,” as Linda Villarosa recently wrote. And the increasing curtailing of sexual freedom through the merger of the state and tech. And about the shaming of the hungry – and the racist lack of power in Puerto Rico and safe water in Flint.
Furthermore, the recent golden anniversaries of civil rights dates have been particularly dejecting. Despite a half century passing since the Kerner Commission Report and the assassination of Martin Luther King, there has been “no progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years” as a Washington Post headline surmised.
What am I – what are any of us – to do with all this information?
For a long time, I wrote and raged about such matters in a call to corrective action. But when that wall of tears flowed forth from my eyes, it occurred to me that perhaps it’s OK to not just be sad, but to sit with being sad.
This is tough for me, for I come from a family of activists. My parents were racial justice activists. My sister Jinger and brother James were active in Occupy Los Angeles, and Jinger’s family is active in the “wwoofer” organic farming movement. My sister Catherine is also a committed racial justice activist, as are her inspirational and newsmaking daughters, April and Maddi.
Through documenting America in journalism, I have strived to be like my kin in forcing change.
But also in our family was my late sister Sharron, who often showed me how it is OK to slow down. As I wrote in 2016, “One of the last and most frightening lessons I learned with my sister in her final days was the importance of being with another when there is nothing to say or do. It is terrifying, to just be with a loved one and to admit you’re powerless to stop their death. But it can be the most powerful, quiet and loving gift you can give each other.”
Right now, I am sitting with the importance of being with myself in life when I am unsure of what to do when there is nothing to say or do. It is indeed terrifying to just be with myself in grief or unknowing, and to admit I am powerless to stop every bad thing in the world which concerns me.
But I am also considering that it might just be the most powerful, quiet and loving gift I can give myself – a gift which may empower me with time. As a psychologist, my sister Sharron would employ a metaphor about engaging grief which has stayed with me. For someone in mourning, approaching grief can be like moving towards an enormous, dark, cold lake. Not knowing how deep or cold it may be, the griever tries to go around the lake without getting in it. But the lake turns out not to be a lake at all, but rather an endless river. Trying to circumvent this body of water, the griever gets lost in weeds and bramble, straying ever farther from their path. Eventually, they have to get in the lake of grief and swim in its depths, unless they want to remain lost.
To that end, this will be my final regular column for the Guardian. While I still believe writing is a valuable force for social change, I also believe it is important for writers to take time let our wells refill without publishing. And now it is time for me to not just sit with some sadness about the world, but to prepare for some positive developments in my journey. It is also time, after four years of conducting PhD research, to spend the next year writing my doctoral thesis in American studies at NYU. Then, in in the summer of 2019, I will join the faculty of Northwestern University as the inaugural Daniel H Renberg chair in media coverage of sexual and gender minorities – the first journalism professorship at a major university to focus on LGBTQ subjects and scholarship.
Taking this time to be with my feelings and also to get a little smarter will allow me – I hope – to become a professor and empower me in new ways as a writer.
I do hope to visit these pages again someday. But before I go, I want to say thank you to my fellow Guardian journalists and to you, our readers, for the experience of a lifetime. It has been a great hono(u)r of my professional life to explore the US in these historic times in conversation with all of you. I cannot thank you enough for traveling with me to Ferguson, Baltimore, Black Rock City, Orlando, Staten Island, Salt Lake City, Little Rock, Ventura County, fairyland, and to the Afrofuture. Thank you for letting me talk to you about people living with HIV and the first lesbians to get married in Alabama and black people at Burning Man and James Baldwin and my hoarder landlady and Barack Obama and Mike Brown’s peers and Arlene Gottfried and my sister and my dad.
Listening to you – and being listened to by you – has meant the world to me, and I will always carry the conversations and stories we’ve shared these past few years with me. You can always reach me on Twitter or by email, dear readers. My DMs, my inbox, and my heart, will always be open to you.