2020: I Can’t Breathe

The other day I was watching Doctor Who, getting caught up on Series 12 of “New Who” and I heard the Doctor say something along the lines of “You’ll be safe, I’ll drop you off in 2020.” And I basically yelled at my iPad: “GOD, NO DON’T DO IT DOCTOR!!”

None of us will forget this year any time soon. This isn’t one of these years that you look back on and try to remember: “hmm… did that horrible pandemic happen in 2021 or 2020?” “Were the riots 2019 or 2020?” 🤔. This year has become a cliche of awful. As I’m writing this post, the air quality in my area is Very Unhealthy. After months of largely staying at home because of COVID, I’m now staying inside to avoid the smoke in the air.

Photo by my friend: dmurph04

If I could summarize this year with one sentence that captures the overall feeling of 2020 it would be this: “I can’t breathe.

We have a respiratory illness causing a global pandemic and so we’re all wearing masks. George Floyd died under the knee of a cop, begging for a breath, sparking unrest and riots in my country. Now the very air in my area is unhealthy to breathe. The year itself, 2020, feels stifling and suffocating.

In difficult times, I turn to the timeless: the wisdom of the ancestors, those who have walked before us. Yes, times are hard now but they have been hard before and somehow, some way, people found a way to endure. I remind myself that I am the daughter of survivors. While I may not be able to trace it exactly, my line stretches back through people who survived the Middle Passage. You can see it in my eyes and on my skin, survival is in my blood. This year may feel suffocating but I will not let it defeat me.

My ancestors did not have easy lives. They struggled, they made mistakes with no safety nets, and the world was often cruel and unforgiving to them. I don’t come from a line of prestige and privilege so I’m thankful for all the good fortune I do have. Every day I wake up alive and feeling fairly well is a blessing, an opportunity I don’t intend to squander.

These are dark days – literally in my area – but they are not the first nor the last. What can we learn from those who have endured hard times before us?

In hard times like this, I turn to the north and ask: how did my ancestors get through the hard times of the past? The truth is, some didn’t. Some gave in to despair and lost themselves. The stories of their addictions and neglect and abuse travel down the generations as their legacy of cautionary tales. Others got through it all with a kind of stubborn resolve. Growing up, I remember the old folks saying to each other: “How you been?” “Me? I’m doing the best I can for the shape I’m in.” That shape might be broken, sick or beaten down but they kept on, living each day in the best way that they could. They found joy in the little things: a favorite TV show, a favorite recipe, some candy that tasted awful to my young tongue. They found joy in music and in laughter… in card games and off-color jokes.

To me, there’s a lesson there that my elders taught me by simply living their life: even during hard times, you can find moments of happiness if you choose to look for them. To quote Uncle Iroh: “If you look for the light, you can often find it. But, if you look for the dark, that is all you’ll ever see.”

What I didn’t realize was just how hard this can be at times. It may be easy to say: “always look on the bright side of life” but much harder to do. My elders made it look easy to me as a youngster. My mother would often warn me that I focused “too much on the negative” but I honestly didn’t know how to stop. At times, the negative looms so large that it feels impossible to focus on anything else. Everything seems awful, how can you focus on the positive when the negative is all you can seem to see? I’ve come to realize that is where the real work begins.

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.

Epictetus

I take each day – as it comes – as an opportunity to practice. Each day, challenge may arise. The challenge may be internal or external. The cause may be near or far. I cannot control the virus or stop racism or quench the fires but I can choose how I respond to those challenges. I can focus on the little things that bring me joy each day: dark chocolate M&Ms, catching up on Doctor Who and playing D&D virtually with friends around the world. This is the example I want to set for my kids: a mom who takes all of this in her stride and does the best she can for the shape she’s in.

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