on the past as witness

Brent and baby TalWho knows us? Who bears witness when all alongside—even ourselves—sometimes falter at the job of paying attention and remembering and retelling? I’ve long wondered about this, but only in a sidelong manner: there is so much else that needs doing. And then today, from several angles at once, the questions rose with some answers close in tow.

Twenty-four years and two days ago today, I got a phone call from the lead investigator on the county’s Child Abduction Unit. My children’s father had abducted them six days earlier, during a court-ordered unsupervised nine-hour visit, and disappeared. The phone call was to tell me that police in another state had located and arrested him, but your children were not there. There are no words sufficient to describe the moment or what came next. In such times, it seems to me, you just breathe as soon as you can. And then you carry on, in whatever way possible.

I went still inside that day in a way uncommon to one who has always trusted actions way more than hope or faith or even plans and intentions. For the first time ever, I couldn’t see to the next bend in our tunnel, couldn’t find a spark of light on which to rely. I could only wait.

The 27th of January rolls by every year, and I usually do not mark it, for it landed in the middle of my son and daughter being gone that time, and has no significance beyond that. My body, however, marks it and all others, for it is my closest friend and honors me in small ways, sometimes no more than a whisper or gut ache: I, too, was there. You each are more resilient than you know: look at what you survived! Hold on, it gets better, remember? You get to decide what it counts for now. Make it count for what matters, make it count for healing, for hope, for forgiveness, for love. Most years I’ve been full out in Do the Best I Can Do and Let The Rough End Drag mode—trying to make myself handle the ‘make it count’ end of the teachings—and I haven’t listened well (if at all) to the rest, so my body has found other tactics to bring me back—illnesses, cravings, losses, mistakes—until I fully internalize the lessons of then to now. I am grateful for its wise teachings, yes, but I’m focused more on trying to use my life to help others who may be in similar tunnels than on healing and rejoicing in my own personal journey. That’s a mistake, of course, and periodically I even remember that it is and try to fix it, but then I forget again and go back to just working hard to make it all count for something good.

This morning I noticed that two men whose work has helped to make this society more livable for people like my children and me, Howard Zinn and Pete Seeger, both died on this day: Seeger in 2014 and Zinn in 2010. I listened to some Seeger songs, read some Zinn essays, and smiled, so grateful that they lived by their own lights, that they met their callings even when assailed for doing so, and that they offered great tools and examples for how we can work together to make more welcoming, more honest, and more livable communities. What a treat, to have had them here as our teachers!

While mulling how happy I am to have had the opportunity to learn from their lives—despite their recent deaths—I felt a great wind arise and knew something deeper about not just them but me and us, every last one. It was as if all our PastPresentFutures are interweaving, fusing themselves seamlessly into one wide open space in which All is of great value. The enormity of that human tapestry leaves me in silence akin to that day 24 years ago, but tips my perception so that the connections become visible and seem to attest to the fundamental moral principles that I have chosen for myself that All things work together for good if we make it so by how we contribute while here, and Everything is either love or a call for love: no exceptions. 

My personal past, I have believed for a long time, is but one tiny strand in the human story, connected in so many ways but set loose in others. Today I sense something deeper: my past has borne witness to my soul and will continue to do so, and that in itself is a gift. Today I marvel at how lucky we are to live in nows deeply marked by our pasts and our futures. When past and present and future are allowed to commingle in our daily lives—and be fully honored—we gain a much deeper sense of ourselves as not just human beings, but beings.

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