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June 2020

Our Collective Breath

by Susan Henderson on June 22, 2020

How are you doing? I feel like I need to check in with you. What are you actively doing to keep safe and emotionally well? What are you actively doing to keep others safe and emotionally well?

I thought I’d spend much of 2020 on my novel-in-progress. I have 33 wobbly chapters pinned to my bulletin board, waiting for my attention, but life had other plans. In March, my father got terribly ill. I went back to my childhood home in Virginia to spend time with my folks. Then a pandemic swept across the world, and I decided I’d better get to New York before it locks down. After only a few days back home, I broke my hand—naturally, the one I use for writing. Then, one night while my husband attended a Zoom meeting in one room of our house, I took a call in another room and learned my father had died. 

If I sound emotionally distant writing all of this, it’s the only way I can tell the story right now.

I went back to Virginia (this time in a mask) to stay with my mom for a month. When I returned to New York, exhausted and unmoored, I flipped on the news and watched another black man murdered as he called out, “I can’t breathe.” I can’t get the image out of my mind of that cop looking so nonchalant, one hand in his pocket, as he killed a human being. 

My heart feels called in too many directions.  

Let me first speak about my father, whose death still doesn’t feel real to me. Here is a clipping from The Washington Post—I wrote this one. Supposedly, there will be a formal obituary written by one of their reporters, but it’s in a backlog since there are so many deaths these days.

This newspaper clipping doesn’t speak to my grief. I put that into an essay I was asked to contribute for the anthology, ALONE TOGETHER: Love, Grief, and Comfort During the Time of COVID-19. The book comes out September first, and I hope you’ll read it. 

If there’s anything I can clearly take away from the past many weeks of heartache, pandemic and protest marches, it’s how we’re all connected. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our actions, our very breath, can either harm or strengthen the lives around us. That is both terrifying and empowering. 

The sign above helps me re-examine the way I thought I was battling racism in the past. Like COVID-19, we must assume we have the racism virus, and we must take active steps to flatten the curve and, if we work and work at it, to bend that curve. Simply being kind people won’t do. Posting statements of love and equality won’t do. One time gestures won’t do. Policy changes that nibble around the edges or focus solely on law enforcement won’t do. 

Cries of “I can’t breathe” call out in compelling shorthand America’s enduring racial chasm in every measure of well-being: health care and infant mortality, wages and wealth, unemployment, education, housing, policing and criminal justice, water quality and environmental safety.

These are words from the recent NYTimes op-ed entitled What the Courage to Change History Looks Like, and the entire piece is well worth reading.

Let’s talk in the comments section about how to engage in, rather than shrink from, this moment. Let’s talk about the uncomfortable work of holding ourselves, our friends and colleagues accountable. How can we use whatever power and platforms we have to change the systems we’re a part of? What are some ways to get (and stay) active in local elections, school boards, city council? Share your thoughts. And let’s give each other the space to be clumsy and make mistakes because that’s the only way to break old habits and build better ones. 

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Some thank you’s are in order… I was honored to be a part of the judging committee for the 2019 John Leonard Prize. Congratulations to all the brilliant finalists and to the winner, Sarah M. Broom, for her memoir, The Yellow House. I’m grateful, as well, to Jack Smith, who elicited my thoughts about character change for his article “Change of Heart” in the June issue of The Writer magazine. More thank you’s: Greg Olear’s Sunday Pages, National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Notes, Robert Gray’s Shelf Awareness (where he featured books that discuss mortality), FSG’s Work In Progress, the Big Sky Journal, TTC Books, Harper Academic, Changing Hands Bookstore, Bookhounds, Wishful Endings, and Jean Book Nerd

As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post: 

Wayétu Moore, The Dragons, the Giant, the Women
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch
Virgil (translated by Seamus Heaney), Aeneid Book VI
T Kira Madden, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir
Ann Napolitano, Dear Edward
Anna Burns, Milkman
Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House: A Memoir
Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth
Victor Hugo (translated by Julie Rose), Les Misérables
Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Alice Hoffman, Faithful
Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing
Cameron McGill, Meridians
Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche
Sarah McBride, Tomorrow Will Be Different
Bryan Washington, Lot: Stories
Harriet Shenkman, The Present Abandoned
Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Hannah Tinti, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble
Ellen Meister, Love Sold Separately
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World
Marie Mutsuki Mockett, American Harvest
Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
David Koehn, Twine
Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

And a few re-reads: 
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals

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Last thoughts: As we learn to engage more in the urgent issues of our time, how do we also take care of ourselves and make time for our own dreams? And where is that line between self-care and simply exercising the privilege to disengage? Would love to hear from you in the comments section. I’ve missed you.



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