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Love, Loss and Hope in Dark Times: A Valentine’s Day Essay

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Like most people we know and have met, 2016 was just all around difficult to bear. John Oliver’s Fuck you, 2016, was a gut-punch-true, thematic video for the year. There are many reasons to feel despair in this world, and so many folks I know suffered personal tragedies in 2016.

Manchester-by-the-Sea, an Oscar-nominated film of late 2016, left me in stitches last night as it unfolded the complexity of dealing with tragedy. Sometimes, it just can’t be overcome. It’s not a comedy at all, but it’s authenticity tapped my sense of family, responsibility, and the mundane and comedic day-to-day-ness of taking care of teenagers, yourself, finding a path through grief, and figuring out what the hell to do when people die. It’s funny because it’s true, in a New England kind of way that you know well if you have grown up or lived here.

The film is a series of awkward moments and we know these spaces well, so I laughed and cried throughout the film. Originally from western Maine, I related to the stoic-yet-directness, the paradox of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and the vulnerability of living in relationship with family and in small communities. It’s heartbreaking, quietly narrating how isolating grief is and the curious relationships between men who have few tools for communicating their losses and deep love for one another. It’s quite beautifully-told, and strikingly-acted.

Last October, we suffered another incident in the long line of personal tragedies of 2016. The loss of a best friend of over 20 years, and a web of concerns for the futures of those left behind. The loss of a parent. Another parent had fallen and was in a nursing home. Two difficult-to-diagnose family member illnesses to cause worry. Skin cancer narrowly averted. A gallbladder surgery. Hives.  It just kept coming.

We made our plans to escape to Italy while these heartbreaks and worry took their toll.  We kept working, not taking time off to process; we kept on keeping on, as our families have done for generations. When we settled into a seventeen-day vacation circling Rome, Tuscany, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Cinque Terre and Saturnia, and there, the mineral hot springs moved some rigidly lodged emotional bubbles to the surfaces and asked them to be acknowledged.

My then-boyfriend (now fiance), Al, asked me to marry him on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on a hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. I said yes.

We sat in the springs where Romans had bathed, ate and drank like nobility in Florence, walked miles every day through ancient ruins and museums in Rome, and shopped for presents to take home. We shot 360 footage of the site, made new friends, and dreamed of our next trip back.

It is hard to celebrate your love when the world is falling apart. But we did. We do. Every single day. I’ve learned about the small ways to love, to forgive, to let go, to run errands, to make dinner and wash dishes, and to let someone you love grieve, for as long as it takes. It’s hardest to watch that process unfold, and one of the best ways I’ve learned to love is by letting them be.

I am so grateful to be in love, to be loved, and to be alive. It is hard to keep your head afloat when the new year comes and among personal tragedies, a new president comes along and threatens your deepest values and American security. But we are fighting for our democracy, and we shall overcome.

In my professional life, we decided to create a Free Speech series in 2017 and cover the inauguration and historic Women’s MArch in Washington, D.C. (I manage a community media center in the Boston area, Brookline Interactive Group) called Hopes & Dreams 2017 where we asked our community what they dreamed about and hoped for in the new year.

Here is a summary reel of their beautiful responses, and you can watch their individual full interviews here.

February’s theme is “Do you believe in Love?” We asked the community to share about how/who/why they love out in the world! Next month: “Your Immigration Story: How did you/your family become Americans?” If you’re in the Boston area, come share your stories with us!

It is a new dawn. For us. For our families. For this country.

I’m not sure how it will all unfold, and I am afraid at times for our nation. After interviewing 50+ people across the political spectrum at the inauguration and at women’s march in Washington D.C, I felt a new hope rise inside of me, and popping up all around me. It is the emergence of the largest people’s movement of activism and civic engagement I have ever seen in a full career of social justice work as community organizer, educator, and media maker.

It’s a mixed reality of sorts, where the world can be crazy, unsettling, disruptive, scary, unkind, and unsupportive. Surreal. And then….I see new voices being heard and new hope being organized into positive, persistent action. I can see love manifesting as conversations, as investments in our political system by people who used to not care, and as my fellow citizens rallying to go to airports and taking to the streets to express collectively themselves across our great nation.

I just keep breathing and working towards the change I want to see, in myself and in the world. One day at a time. One breath at a time.

There has been greater darkness than this, I know it and I can feel the power of this new dawn. It is authentic, on the side of the vulnerable, and sourced from the heart.

It is love. It is god. It is just.

Just for today, I watch the sun to rise up and flood the day with light, darkness, warmth, cold, joy, love, and hope, loss and grief.

Its beauty lies in its complexity, and I welcome them all as guests. Today on Valentine’s Day, we mourn the loss of our friend, James Bickford, a warrior of light, love, humor and passionate advocate of staying involved in your community. I hope that the love he demonstrated for his community will inspire and guide us through these dark times, though knowing him, he would have enjoyed the chaos descending as a way through all of the BS he saw in politics and in the world. Still, he invited it all in.

The love, the anger, the pain, and the humor. I am grateful I got to witness his vulnerability, his love for his family, and his patriotism. He spoke truth to power at every possible chance and he wasn’t afraid to speak out even though I sometimes thought he should be.

Here’s my favorite Rumi poem about inviting it all in, the good, the bad, scary, sad and beautiful. I hope you’ll let in both the light and the darkness, the grief and the laughter, and find your hope in the sun coming up another day. May the love of Valentine’s day shine brightly in all the dark spaces of this world, and give us courage to open the gates of love in all ways applicable.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks