Hell or High Water

In a murderous time
The heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
(Stanley Kunitz, The Testing-Tree)

“So part of it is the humility of realizing this is my piece, and I want to tend to this piece the best that I can, but I’m not in charge of the whole garden.” (Vicky Sifter, former Executive Director of NWIRP)

Several times this summer I believed, truly, that I was in hell.

I’m from the Midwest. We love our lakes, but we’re landlocked. You don’t think about the ocean until you’re standing on someone else’s coast. The enormity, the hunger of the waves: I’ll be the first to admit that it’s foreign to us. How powerful the tide is. How unforgiving. Each cubic foot of a tsunami can weigh up to one thousand seven hundred pounds. Can you imagine that? Nearly a ton of water dragging you under. Crushing all the air right out of your lungs. I grew up a swimmer, but deep water scares me more than nearly anything.

If you could measure the desperation and grief and suffering of the immigration crisis, each unit would be consituted by one cubic foot of tsunami. Working in immigration relief is like watching thousands of people drown, and having to make the conscious choice to say: Right now, here’s who I can throw a life preserver. Because I don’t have enough for everyone.

In her book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Laura van Dermoot Lipsky provides an anecdote from overworked immigration relief center NWIRP, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “There’s a feeling of futility when you’re up against as much as we had been. There’s this constant clamor in your head, which is filled with the desire to help others and the painful knowledge of what you can’t do, and it never goes away,” writes domestic violence unit coordinator Donna Lewen. We must have humility. We must tend to our piece of the garden. But even so: it hurts.

We live by breaking.

It is a murderous time, and there is no other option. To live without breaking is a blissful ignorance, but it is also a deficit in empathy. Faith is not the power to answer the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Faith is the power to withstand it. It takes some kind of faith to embrace humility, to live with humility, to walk in humility. To come home to yourself and accept your own breaking and still have the wherewithal to tend to your garden. Faith is the same as any brand of courage.

I’ll keep counting my life preservers. Keep counting on having more, one day. But in this relentless tide of pain it’s simply not enough. This summer I believed, truly, that I was in hell. I believed I was in hell and I learned how to grow gardens anyway, say quick prayers in a courtroom, admit my own humanity. One eye on the ocean. One eye on the sky.

One Comment

neda posted on May 29, 2023 at 2:20 am

Faith has always been the solution to problems. Not just to create a state of resistance against problems.

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