A Call To Embracing Arms

On being soft in hard times.

Image by Jörg Peter from Pixabay

My friend Tiny lives by a mantra: “Hard as Fuck.” When he sets up his gear to live on the land every summer — his several tents and shade structures, his full kitchen including a gas stove, his tables and chairs and clothesline — he quite literally flies a flag with that phrase. The night we met, he gave me a necklace inscribed with it.

Tiny is one of the most capable people I know. Whether he’s welding, building a fire, or cooking enough to feed a hundred people, he moves with an air of fierce confidence. When I think of him, I picture the sunny afternoon I watched him drive his big red pickup truck away from the farm to a Black Lives Matter protest. He came home that night, made funnel cakes for everyone on the land, and proudly told us how he’d protected a group of teenagers from cops armed with tear gas. He is a knight in shining work boots.

I am different from Tiny in most ways, but we have this in common: we’ve survived so much. When you’ve been through hell, building community gets complicated. You know that moment at the start of any deep friendship, when you go from being acquaintances to really knowing each other? The coffee date, or the phone call out of the blue, or the soup delivery when one of you has a cold. For people like us, that moment is dangerous. When I get to know someone, they inevitably start asking questions — perfectly appropriate, compassionate questions. If I decide to answer honestly, I brace myself for disappointment. More often than I’d like, I watch their faces collapse into something halfway between admiration and pity. Eventually, inevitably, they tell me how strong I am. It’s meant as a compliment. But that phrase sounds to me like a consolation prize.

They’re not wrong. We are so strong. And I can’t speak for Tiny here, but this is the dirty little secret of my resilience: I would give up all my strength tomorrow if I could just feel safe instead.

Tiny is one of the few people who makes me feel safe. His strength looks so much more like strength than mine. He walks into a room and the air changes. You can immediately expect a practical, tactical discussion of what needs done, as Michiganders say. Sometimes that means fixing a car; sometimes it means dismantling racism. In his presence, I am protected. Supported. I know I can rely on our community. Part of that means owning my unique place within it.

I am a lot of things: I am strong; I am resilient; I am loyal to a fault. I would not describe myself as hard. My home is filled with purple velvet curtains and throw pillows, house plants with trailing vines, and notebooks of my poetry. I go to protests, but I would never go alone. I am a massage therapist. I read tarot. I’m the person that friends call at 3 am to talk about their breakups. I hold space for my people every day, gladly doing the heavy lifting when it comes to emotional labor. My strength is soft and gentle.

I have never been a fan of binaries. Hard and soft might be at opposite ends of a spectrum, but they are not incompatible; even Tiny has a purple plush carpet in his home. Our culture inaccurately equates one with strength and the other with weakness. When I told another friend I was planning to write this article, he looked at me aghast. “I would never call you soft,” he said. It’s easy to see how gendered these terms are, so let me be queer about this: I have known and loved so many hard women and so many soft men. I am painfully aware that these phrases sound like insults. I do not mean them to be. In both cases, I am speaking of people with great courage.

As Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön has said, “through rage is fear; through fear is tenderness; through tenderness is the clear blue sky.” One could spend a lifetime considering this quote. I take it to mean that each of these emotions sits on top of the next, supported and explained by that which we hold most dear. We rage when we are afraid of losing something. We fear losing the things we care about most. By making space for that sense of care, we can move closer to inner peace.

It takes courage to fight for what we believe in. It takes courage to care about anything at all, with the knowledge that caring makes you vulnerable to grief. For those of us who have lost too much, over and over again — our families, our homes, parts of our bodies — it is impossible to ignore the danger of that care. Tiny and I would each have good reason to simply stop caring; to shut ourselves off from the risk of losing anyone again. We both choose not to, and we do that in very different ways.

For a long time, I struggled to make sense of this. How could such vastly different people work toward a common goal? But eventually I realized the question contains its own answer. We have such different kinds of strength, and both are necessary. Our shared community needs both working cars and people who will talk them down at 3 am. No one person can do everything.

Loss teaches you too much, too fast. You mourn the details; the way a dead mentor did the word jumble, or the way the light came in through the windows of that house you’ll never see again. You also learn to do without the pillars of your old life. Ironically, the big things can be easier to leave behind. The job, the city, the health insurance. You become a different person. And sometimes, if you’re very lucky, and if you’re very strong, you forge your grief into a kind of creativity. You use it to protect the people around you from ever feeling how you felt.

Right now, though, there are no people around us. We are all so far apart, and that distance is an act of generosity. We keep each other safe by staying away. I understand this intellectually, and I have given up hope of trying to feel it in my bones. I will not see Tiny again until the summer, when we both return to our friends’ campground. In his absence, and the absence of almost everyone I love, I think about our many different kinds of strength. I have learned to live entirely on my own, both practically and philosophically. I have proven to myself that it is possible, but it will never be enough.

We will get through this pandemic. We have no other choice. And when we do, everything will be different. I keep imagining myself at a big party late in 2021, hugging everyone I haven’t seen in over a year. Each one of us will have a story to tell. There will be people who lost and gained weight, who started drinking too much and who finally got clean. Some of us will have new careers or new babies. Some of us will just be gone. The ones who remain will be so much stronger than before, in ways I cannot possibly predict. We will have to relearn how to love each other in that new world. We will have to rely on each other to rebuild. We will have to be hard, and soft, as fuck.

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