A dear friend of mine recently used me as an example to her New Yorker pals who were complaining about being quarantined in their tiny two-by-four living spaces. “At least you’re not pregnant,” she said, and then went into detail about my life and its complex constellation of worries. That her friends were horrified made me chuckle: my struggles really are rough. They have the power to shake a nitty-gritty New Yorker.
I’m seven months pregnant and my husband is in a war zone — I couldn’t tell you which one, because I don’t know. He’s a trauma surgeon in the British Army on a mission with special forces. I have no way of contacting him other than by encrypted email. He can Skype me, but that’s if he can get his hands on a computer, if there’s no bad weather scrambling the signal, and if they’re not on a communication lockdown due to a security threat.
When he left in January, we were only vaguely aware of what was happening in China; coronavirus had not yet entered the lexicon of our Western environs. No one would have believed that two months later, the world would be on lockdown, either in isolation or quarantine, and that the “safest” place might actually be on a self-contained base in a war zone.
Quarantined alone, I rattle and piddle around our house, looking for comfort. Usually writing provides that, but not right now. Right now, I turn to ice cream most nights. Because I know that if I write, I risk exposing the parts of myself I don’t want to show, the parts I’m afraid to see. And right now, I’m afraid of hearing the sound of my own whining. God knows we’ve all heard enough of the worries — our own and others’. The last thing I want is to add to the cacophony of COVID-19 complaints.
An acquaintance of mine who is like me, thirty weeks along in her pregnancy, posts on Instagram how sad she is to cancel her baby shower. And just like that, someone else — not me, a fierce alter-ego — rises without warning, ready to breathe fire. I see her sadness, both its source and her voicing of it, as a petty luxury. We all have our regular lives to contend with on top of the pandemic, what gives her the right to grieve so small a thing? Envy builds, bitterness grows.
I am indignant for an hour, maybe a day. Then I remember something about “comparative suffering” — the title of a Brené Brown podcast I bookmarked, but have yet to listen to. Suffering is suffering is suffering. Mine isn’t worse, or more worthy, than anyone else’s. Still, I would give anything to exchange my grief for hers. I bet my friends and loved ones with cancer or COVID-19 would, too.
It’s a fascinating, bizarre, dreadful notion to know I will be giving birth to my first child during an unprecedented pandemic. But that’s not really what worries me right now. What worries me is that when my husband returns, he will go from one front line to another. I don’t know how any human can cope with that kind of pressure and stress. Furthermore, because pregnant women are deemed “vulnerable,” once he goes back to work at Brighton’s county hospital, he might have to be quarantined in a hotel until further notice. What worries me is that, like a large percentage of health workers in the UK, he’ll likely get COVID-19. What worries me is that I’ll have to give birth to this baby boy without him, that I’ll have to enter motherhood alone, that he won’t get to hold his newborn son. And those are the best of my worries.
My deepest, darkest worries are that he won’t return at all. That something will happen to his base like it did his fellow military colleagues in Iraq just a few weeks ago. COVID-19 is a threat to my family. So is a rocket attack.
I don’t like having to admit that I currently carry a snarky sense of entitlement in the suffering department. Because no matter how bad you have it, somebody’s got it worse, right? But that’s dismissive and minimizing, and that’s not helpful either. So, how to cope? How to turn down the volume on my own anger and irritability? How do I let myself, and others, grieve openly for what’s been lost and what’s at stake here?
As I was asking myself these questions, I picked up my copy of When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, a book I’ve been taking in one page at a time for the past year or so. She talks about the practice of “tonglen.”
Chodron writes, “Tonglen practice, also known as ‘taking and sending,’ reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age-old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.”
Compassion as a remedy for selfishness. I was trying — but I certainly wasn’t going to find my way there by selfishly comparing, then rejecting, other people’s suffering because it sounded “easier” than mine. What I needed to do, and still need to do, is practice accepting others’ suffering as well as my own. Acknowledge it, feel it, and know that it’s all true, all valid.
“Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality,” says Chodron. “It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness of shunyata (emptiness). By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being.”
Emptiness. Ultimately, isn’t that what we are all afraid of? And what else are we doing when voicing our woes than naming the various ways emptiness presents itself in our lives? A cancelled wedding, a cancelled baby shower, a cramped apartment that’s too small to accommodate the vastness of our fears and loneliness, the lack of distractions we so eagerly lap up when regular life is in session. But according to Chodron, emptiness is not something to be avoided. It’s something to discover, a place we might want to familiarize ourselves with as, apparently, it leads to “the open dimension of our being.”
Gosh, wouldn’t that be a nice thing to come across right about now while we’re all in lockdown? That we might close our eyes and find an alternative open, inner doorway — the antidote to quarantine — leading us to a place where we can be free from suffering, from ourselves, each other, and even this life-threatening virus sounds refreshing. Sign me up.
In the park across the street, there is a sapling all adorned in white blossoms. Its branches, aglow in the morning light, dance in the wind. Yesterday morning I watched a woman walk by, raise her phone to take a photo, then quickly walk away like she’d stolen something. Did she feel ashamed to have come across something bright and promising in these so-called dark times? Dark or not, now is the time, if there’s ever been one, to notice and allow for beauty. No need to feel guilty when it graces you.
That sweet sapling, an emblematic reminder of spring and everything that comes with it, like hope. Attached to the end of each branch; a bud, a message. Life, and suffering, go on. Pandemics have the power to stop baby showers and who knows, maybe even slow raging wars.
Whether I obsess about my worries makes no difference to Mother Nature; she is indifferent and unstoppable. At seven months pregnant, my body knows this better than my brain and heart. My baby, warm in my swollen belly, kicks, innocent and oblivious. I take a deep breath in. Tomorrow is on its way, no matter what. I take comfort in that. My hope, my out-breath, is that maybe you will too.