At the risk of sounding blind and arrogant towards my own good fortune, I’m fed up. This new height of frustration ballooned last week when I broke my toe. Corinne who broke her toe at the beginning of isolation sent me articles about a “pandemic of broken toes”. Podiatrists are seeing three to four times as many broken toes. Many of us are at home now – often shoeless – and we are distracted leaving us prone to accident.
The last acting class I led in person before the world shut down was March 9, 2020 in our little studio in West Hollywood. I started the class by asking the actors if they have any “acting injuries” like a yoga teacher does. It was an unplanned tack, an instinct in response to the rising anxiety and paranoia around us. Hours before class, it was reported Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had Corona virus. Though abroad, America’s sweethearts falling sick familiarized the threat and shook us. It was kind of a haunted class; the imaginary worlds of the play and plight of the real world felt frighteningly alive. I remember asking the actors to “work from their wound”. In hindsight, I’m not sure what that means or how to do what I asked of them but will try to write to you from the purple instability of my broken toe.
Fed up. Disquiet. Doubt so physical that were the toe not splinted to two others it’d be at a loss for how to be a toe. A break will do that; not just two halves but a reconstitution of everything, especially how to live. The sense of loss over the last year suddenly feels inescapable. I can’t move easily so I can’t reposition myself out of discomfort. Without realizing, I’ve played hot potato for months – juggling, adjusting, bright-siding, redistributing, adapting, compensating, shifting – thanks to my optimism and ableness. I’ve sheltered others’ hopes in my fortitude, turning away despair again and again when it comes to my door. However in this achey moment, I can’t insist everything be okay. It’s simply not.
As Lesley says, it’s not about the toe. I’m not even sure it’s about the pandemic a year later. I suspect if the way I feel is about anything besides a tantrum, it’s about burning down an old way of being. A year of horrors imparts one fundamental true about life: it will end. That’s our guarantee. Ocean Vuong writes about his uncle’s suicide in an essay called The Weight of Our living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation in the Rumpus. Read it if you can and join me in asking, how do I make my desperation visible? Instead of judging it, how can I carry it as a right of being alive? As a way of connecting to others? Because pretending to be without desperation is the old way and it doesn’t work anymore. I can’t always be sunny and weightless – I’ve never truly been that – even if the world prefers a mask to pain.
In Vuong’s essay, the fire-escape imagery arrests me. When I moved to NY in 2004 it was my romantic criteria for a place to live. I grew up in suburbia so a window box of flowers on a fire escape was the height of my big city imagination. I conceived of my time on future fire-escape more vividly than any other detail of my survival in New York. I didn’t know how I would pay rent or get an agent or start an acting career or make friends, but I knew I would have a fire escape and it wasn’t until reading this essay that I realized the dark juxtaposition to all that youthful hope. Vuong writes that the existence of the fire-escape speaks “with the most visible human honesty: We are capable of disaster. And we are scared.”
As for flower boxes on fire-escapes, Vuong ponders that “maybe we live easier decorating danger until it becomes an extension of our homes.” Maybe we deny our contract with death because its more than we can take? Further, Vuong asks why it is almost impossible for us to say to one another, “I am hurt. I am scared. What happens now?” Broken toe or indescribably worse, we’ve been charged with an ancient and unresolved human question in this isolate year - in every year really. How do we learn, as Vuong asks, to offer “an invitation to a more private, necessary dialogue”?
In the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris this January, a certain phrase in the preamble of the Constitution was invoked repeatedly and resounded in me for weeks following it. “A more perfect union” became shorthand for imminent change. Those four words in the nation’s founding document acknowledge imperfection, vulnerability and division. The hope for unity is different from actual unity and making a refrain of a more perfect union recognizes that democracy is vulnerable to virus; our vote the fire-escape on a structure fear built. And though in this moment, I feel demoralized spiritually and physically, I have in my wiser moments smiled ironically at the language of more perfect as if there could be a more perfect ocean or sky, a moreperfect springtime, earth or sun. We humans could be more everything, especially more honest about the weight of our lives. Making our desperation visible to each other, Vuong believes and so do I (though I need practice), is the “beginning of visible hope.”