Our Third Favorite Secret

Next to death and sex, work is the world’s best-kept secret.

We don’t talk about our work, not in any deep and thorough way, at least. Yet work makes up the majority of our lives, 8 out of 16 waking hours, 5 out of 7 days.

What would happen if we changed that? If we let our friends and lovers geek out about the projects they’re working on: the relationship they saved, the database they just installed, the strategy they came up with?

What would happen if we opened that box, if we pried the dam?

I’ll tell you. We’d gush all over each other.

Perhaps we’d be sheepish or cynical at first, but in time, we’d get going and we’d learn to enjoy it. We’d learn something new about each other, something as bright and red as a ruby, as crucial to our existence as a heartbeat.

And, after we finish these conversations, no matter how silly they feel coming out and going down, we’d all be a little bit closer.

Take it from someone who has these talks daily. It’s our most unappreciated magic: sharing what we do, well past the complaining, the venting, and the elevator pitches, deep into tasks we can do in our sleep. These little bits of action define us more than our mantras. They are the threads in our clothes, the lines on our hands.

This is not about whether you like your job or not. It’s about the cumulative impact of repetition, how the tide, without permission, shapes the continents.

We cannot know each other or stand with each other, without knowing the forces that have created us.

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We Were There

When the ones after us come along and regard what we’ve created, it will be almost mythical, indeed legendary, the story we tell them.

We will say we were there. And they will know from the look in our eyes and the tiredness in our throats that we’re telling the truth.

When we started, we didn’t know the end. I guess that’s what made us courageous.

Us, walking up to doors and pounding them with fists,
Us, holding hands with strangers and digesting uncomfortable words.
Us, crossing the line and grabbing back the microphone.
Us, loving the ones on the other side enough to make a space for them, like a grieving mother who keeps an empty room.

And when they ask — the next ones, that is — when they ask, the answer will be obvious but we’ll tell them anyway.

When the Gods stepped in.

When the ground shook and the earth rumbled because we made it rumble. It was our feet and our hands and all that pounding that made the rock deep underneath turn to liquid, gurgle up, and spray out of a thousand century-old holes, a molten spray melting the buildings and the roadways, burning new paths straight through mountains.

And as the firey tidal wave arched over us — little Us — we watched half out of fear and half out of awe as this thing happened, as the curl came down and the layers spread and cooled, expanding the shore, connecting the continents, filling the holes, rewarding us with new places to walk, to live, and to love.

More space, finally, enough space.

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The House

maroon brick surface

A man looked out his window and saw a woman in her yard, pulling her house apart. He noticed her doing this every day, sometimes just a single brick took all afternoon. She was using a spoon.

He couldn’t stay away for very long.

“Why are you destroying your house?” he asked.

“My daughter is having nightmares.”

“Seems a little extreme, don’t you think?” He kicked at the pile of bricks, hands in his pockets.

“I’ve tried everything else.”

“Are you sure?” He meant well. He meant to be helpful. “What are you going to do once it’s gone? How are you going to rebuild it? What if it doesn’t stay together?”

The woman, still crouched, put down her spoon and brushed the mortar from the tops of her shoes. She stood up, wiping her brow with her forearm.

She was shorter than he but spoke with a confidence he’d never seen before.

“We’ve tried therapists, spiritualists, interior designers, new wallpaper, we rearranged the furniture, we’ve read books, tried hypnosis, changed our diet, fasted, knocked down walls and put them back up. I’ve brought in experts, stayed up with her, slept beside her, loved her with all the love I have, emptied myself to fill her up. There’s nothing left to do.”

She got back into her crouch, picked up her spoon, and spoke into the wall. “Sometimes you know what’s right because what you’ve seen your whole life is wrong.”

He looked up at the 3-story house. Thousands of bricks, beautiful craftsmanship, such great architecture. He felt bad for her.

“But you’re never going to finish,” he pointed out.

She stopped, looked back over her shoulder. The sun blazed from behind the man making him almost invisible to her. She looked at his concerned face, then to his empty hands, his immaculate shoes.

“I don’t care if I finish,” she said. “The nightmares are already starting to go away.”

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When The Cops Aren’t There

An open door allowing light to shine into a dark room.

I had a dream where I got robbed.

It was a clever plan. I was the only one home and they lured me into the driveway, then one of them went into the house and took stuff. It seemed to happen so quickly.

They left with only my food – frozen bags of things, some fruit, one of them took the time to cut up an apple and eat it, which seemed strange, but then again, isn’t that always what thieves are stealing: something on the way to sustenance? They usually don’t take a TV so they can watch it.

Where was I… Oh yeah, they left.

I ran out of the house looking for cops but I couldn’t find any. Instead, there were these people, all wearing the same shirts. They looked official, but they looked like me too. I tapped one on the shoulder and they took me into an office.

What was weird was, as I told my story of being robbed, they seemed to have empathy for the thieves. They kept trying to tell me about their motivation, what was inside of them, why they would do such a thing. It made me angry (what about my pain!) but then I realized my fear was dissolving.

Robbed by a human, I thought. Not a monster. Somehow that was easier to take.

It was comforting to see people moving around in that office, looking at computers, carrying paper. I knew they were working to help me. I knew they wanted to find the people who robbed me, but not just for me, for the people who robbed me, too.

I started to get up and then the regular-looking person sitting across form me, unadorned, without a hero’s utility belt nor a kevlar vest, put up a gentle hand.

“Sit,” he said. “What about you? How are you doing?”

I told him about how I’d wished I’d done something different, that I was naive, stupid, careless, that I couldn’t protect my family, that I was thinking of getting a gun.

“I did everything wrong,” I said, staring at the ground.

“No,” he said. “You did everything right. You’re here now. You’re going back to your family. And they’re going back to theirs. We’ll find them.”

“I should have never believed them,” I said, looking at the ground.

He leaned in, put his hand on my hand, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized he had been listening to me this whole time.

“What I’m about to tell you might sound weird,” he said. “But it’s the truth: we’d be a lot worse off, all of us, everyone of us — you, me, them — if you didn’t believe them in the first place.”

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Dreams of Others

Crowd of protesters holding signs
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels

I see you:

Standing there with the sign
Walking for miles
Shouting ’til you’re hoarse
Reading books
Watching documentaries
Calling people out
Giving yourself up
Wondering, constantly wondering, what more can I do?

You’ve acquired a new anxiety.
You’re standing in someone else’s pain.
You’re up at night, up early in the morning, earlier than usual.
You need more hours now because the world needs you.

It’s not like you’re looking for recognition but every once in a while, you ask yourself why are you doing this? Or, can you keep doing this? Or, is this really what you think it is?

And you feel a bit guilty for asking, for not knowing, for having the need to know. You feel guilty for enjoying the softness of your bed at night because so many for so long went without softness, were only fed in order to be owned, were instructed to walk on broken glass and not bleed.

So, you think to yourself, my blisters don’t matter, my hoarse voice don’t matter. My tired shoulders don’t matter, my new anxiety….

Wait.

I have something for you.

Deep below the stillness, there is a great vibration. The plates are shifting, thunderous like a million beating hearts thumping at the exact same time. It is a rumbling approval from the earth, from the rocks and the bones that were here the whole time.

Believe it. This is your reward.

Heads of long ago are turning toward you. They are raising their eyebrows, sucking in their cheeks for the first time since they were lost — the great thinkers, the great workers, there in black and white, with bent backs carrying heavy loads, squinting tired eyes, and craning tired necks. “Really?” They’re nudging each other to look, restless bony elbows into bony rib cages. They can’t believe it but they’re letting themselves smile. They’re dropping shovels and pens, they’re pulling babies into their chests. They’re mouthing the words they’d always hoped to say. It’s happening…”

An unrest, an awakening, a clumsy, angry scribble on our timeline that is already being seen as a milestone.

But for now, the dust and the heat. The voices and the hands up. The walking and the screaming. And you, beautiful you, fighting, dreaming, wondering, tired…

You can see it now: the dreams of others coming up through the ground, inhaled by a new set of warriors, by your beautiful mouth, taking in the new language and the new pain, harsh in the throat, jagged going down into the lungs and stomach.

It’s hard to see all the way through. It’s hard to keep walking.

We know, the voices whisper, so pained, so patient, they’ve been allowed to reach across time and space, to send their dreams through the layers of the earth.

We know.

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Acting Out

grayscale photo of police riot team on pedestrian lane

Riots are not the problem.

In Family Therapy, the person who acts out — the cheating husband, the depressed wife, the son who threw a brick through the neighbor’s car window — this person is not to be vilified, not to be punished. Quite the opposite, actually.

If there is a real commitment to fixing the problem, to closing the wound, the one who acts out is to be celebrated, indeed appreciated for bringing the deep-seated problems of the family to the surface, where they can finally be addressed.

It is the entire family that is sick. A therapist knows this, which is why they can sit with their hands folded in their laps and not show a look of disgust at the mention of a broken window. They don’t have what they need yet. Not even close.

Instead of launching into lecturing, they keep looking.

Are they wrong? Are they being soft?

Imagine watching a movie where the husband beats the wife for being depressed. You wouldn’t root for that guy.

Yet, when the police come in with batons and tear gas, there is applause. When the president unleashes the dogs, he is commended, for being strong, for standing up to the “children” in the streets.

Children. Ironic.

Because the ones at the podiums, the ones with the batons, they’ve stopped searching for answers. They’re not interested in, or capable of, repair.

So they, themselves, become children, gathering up their toys and pulling them in close, pointing to their rules and hitting back harder, claiming with bellowing voices and fists raised that they’re ending the violence when, in fact, they’re giving birth to it.

And to stop the children from acting out (it doesn’t matter which children you think I’m referring to), to stop the cycle of violence, you have to keep looking, you have to rewind past the raised batons, past the broken windows, way back before the streets filled, back before the breath was lost.

If you want to solve the problem, you have to believe that you don’t have the answer yet, and you have to get down on one knee, at eye level, with humility, with the belief that you’re both hurting from the same thing, and you have to speak only to show that you’re listening.

And then you have to listen.

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Why Our Cities Are Burning

[Certain Voices Aren’t Being Heard. Here’s one of them. Please listen.]

I hear on the news that a cop station went up in flames and I’m like yeah. Then I feel bad about cheering for that shit, but if you’re cheering at all right now, no matter what side you’re on, you’re cheering for that kind of shit. Seems like we can’t get away from it, this loop we’re in.

Stop, no, stop no, leave me alone, you’re resisting, stop, no, STOP, please, no, kill, silence, oops, tears, rage, but he said oops, NO, violence, rage, violence, disgust, look, look, kill, he was one of ours, kill, kill, reframe, circulate, sigh, back inside, nothing to see here, back away, no, stop, no, no, NO…

Riots seem like the worst thing from the safe side of the TV but they’re not such a bad deal when you’re in the streets, when your life is nearly lost every day, when you’re expecting murder to happen around you, from the good guys, from the bad guys.

It wears you out, getting asked to be softly and gently murdered every time you go outside.

Besides, there is always a riot on the inside. Time people knew. Time to turn the inside out and let the fire burn down something else for a change.

And, no, I don’t fucking care what I burn because no one cares that I’ve been burning my whole life so why should I care what my hands are doing, that I’m throwing a stone, that I’m breaking a window, that I’m dropping a match.

Every day I’m told this city ain’t mine. This glass, this road, this sidewalk. It always seems to be someone else’s. So why should I think anything different now.

Nothing’s mine, not even this goddamn match, not even this hate. These things were given to me as gifts, gifts I didn’t ask for, passed down like a heavy cabinet I never wanted, carted from house to house from city to city.

So now I’m giving it back. I’m sick of crowding my own fucking house with this stuff. I’m giving it back and I don’t care what you do with it. I hope it’s a burden. I hope I’m a burden. That’s all I can hope for now: that you feel my weight, that you hate the fire as much as I do, that maybe it gets inside you too and you can’t get away from it, and you have to live with it and we can finally be the same.

Cuz maybe then you’ll do something, or just burn, like me.

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Going Out for a Smoke in Uncertain Times

One of my most vivid young adult memories is with my high school girlfriend. We were 17, on the verge of graduating, each of our colleges already determined.

My mom was home and we wanted to get away but it was raining outside. With some arm-tugging, my girlfriend convinced me we could find a dry spot to have a cigarette.

So out we went, into the April rain, getting completely soaked by the time the storm door bounced shut. In reaching the curb, we were so immediately wet that the falling rain didn’t matter anymore.

We jumped in puddles, we looked straight up at the droplets coming down and let them fall on our cheeks and into our mouths. We stood under overflowing gutters and let the water pound our heads like hammers, our shirts heavy, stretching to our knees and sticking to our ribs.

We walked a mile. We were more interested in being alive than hooking up.

Without talking about it, we ended up at my old elementary school. With its giant covered walkway out front, it was the perfect place for a smoke.

But our cigarettes were soggy.

We huddled together in a dry spot, not cold, but trembling. We kissed a little but that wasn’t the best part.

The rain hitting the pavement, a million little white splashes exploding and disappearing, the drum roll on the roof, our synchronized breaths, and knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that no one was going to walk by. That’s what made it magical.

We sat in the last chapter of our own story, a silent contract between us, a sad joy in our stomachs, our thoughts already traveling in very different directions, down different highways to different exits, different orientations, different roommates, different cafeterias…

Both of us exactly the same in that moment, unsure of everything, crushed by the complexity of fear and love, hating the real world, hands on each other in cold clench, as if squeezing hard enough would keep it raining, would fill the roads, flood the highways, erase the walk home.

The past, present, and future all happening at the same time, while the gutters filled and the puddles rose.

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I Miss My Gurus

One of the things that make self-isolation hard is that I can’t visit my gurus.

My gurus don’t have websites. They don’t tweet excerpts from their books. They don’t have a thousand likes. They’re usually not available anywhere else but in the world.

And they don’t think of themselves as gurus.

My gurus are hidden in plain sight: the Lyft driver who’s read more books than my English professor, the scuba store owner who has a smile so big on his face it almost does fit on it, the electrician who seems more interested in connecting with me on a human-to-human level than fixing my light, the clergywoman seemingly fine with no recognition at all.

They don’t preach. They live.

They’ve unlocked the room we all want to get into. They have the sun inside them. The things they do are not the person they are. The outer world is like a game; it’s less important where they land or what cards they draw. They’re more interested in the action itself and the action that follows.

Impact and empathy – the ability to truly know someone and go deeper into themselves – is the reward.

I love how I can’t seek out my gurus. I just have to live, trust the world, and let them find me.

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How to Slay Negative Comments

When you’re feeling positive, it can seem like the world is more negative. You notice all the negative things people say, about themselves and about each other.

People don’t mean to be mean; it’s usually just a habit, conditioned by the generally accepted grievances that go with having a job, a partner, a family, a house, etc. It’s totally understandable.

But, you know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to kill these comments right there on the spot, not as the sayer but as the hearer. And you can do just that. You can zap them with your positivity ray and watch them whither.

Ready for the trick? Here it comes.

Smile and don’t say anything.

Without oxygen, a fire can’t rage. Your positivity stays intact, the negative comment dwindles, your counterpart gets to make a decision, and your sacred breaths are reserved to fuel more important things.

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