By Jason Garner
“Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet it found the stone.”
– Zen koan
The scent of the jasmine over my front door goes to my head like the evening I spent watching Metallica accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony—it’s intoxicating, it’s got something to share, and it’s loud. I close my eyes.
I linger in the fragrance like the bees in the floral canopy. Something, perhaps a lizard, scurries across the dry oak leaves left over from winter. All that remains is the perfume and the tingle in my spine. It’s springtime in the Santa Cruz Mountains and it almost seems as if all is well.
My brother-in-law died from the Coronavirus last week. The illness started as a cough and a fever and the decision to self-isolate. When it got worse my sister took him to the hospital. Nurses met her at the curb in HAZMAT suits. She never saw her husband alive again.
Hillary is the daughter of my mom’s second husband, Alex, who’d been our family’s pediatrician. As a little boy, the story goes, I once took his rubber mallet reflex-checker and tried to check the reflexes of his groin. Years later he married my mom and we moved into his home. He was black and interracial marriage was uncommon in the 70s. The odd looks and cruel remarks stung my heart.
I hid Alex from my classmates, telling him he didn’t have to come to conferences and assemblies. The marriage wasn’t any easier for Hillary who was made to share her father and former home with her new white siblings. During her weekend visits we performed impromptu talent shows, rode bikes and watched Sunday morning TV shows. My first kiss was with Hillary as we acted out a scene from I Dream of Jeannie.
I remember debating the naughtiness of kissing a girl, before settling on 1) we were siblings and 2) we were actors. A few years later our parents divorced and our family dissolved.
I was 40 when I heard from Hillary again. Alex had died. She called to tell me she planned to list my sister and me amongst his surviving children. That gesture touched me. I texted her a few years later at the holidays. She was nearby, visiting her mom. We spent New Year’s Eve together, laughing and reminiscing. On this visit I met Hillary’s husband Lloyd and my niece MacLemore. Lloyd, an actor who’d starred in two Super Bowl ads, bridged the awkward silences with jokes and stories. He didn’t let you get out of a conversation without saying something deep and profound.
In Brooklyn, they ran a bakery that was part restaurant and part neighborhood sanctuary. People came to Bread Love for Hillary’s baking and Lloyd’s advice and guidance. Like most performers he was also hiding pain. We talked about the death of our mothers and the gateways their deaths had been in our lives. We did New Year’s Eve again the following year, then a visit in New York.
We patched our family back together.
Sitting in a dark corner of my room at 4:30 am, I watched the mosh pit in my mind—there was Lloyd alone on a respirator struggling to breathe; next were the cancelled concert tours, a year of work had disintegrated in a matter of days. Then the stock market crash, then it rebounded, and then it crashed again. My friend Rigo, uninsured, was injured at work; his employer refused to help. My oldest kids were locked down with their mom, who is bedridden with MS.
My chest tightened; my pulse began to race. I felt a sudden flash of heat and sheets of sweat puddled under my hoodie which had the words “Namaste – 6 Feet Away” written across the chest. I wanted to get out, to be anywhere but here. It was a panic attack, like the ones I’d suffered on planes after 9/11, when I’d lie in the galley, pleading with the flight attendants to leave me alone until my mind settled down. In those days I’d worried I might die. Now I just rode out the panic, reminding myself that this too is the spiritual life.
COVID had turned the world upside down, and it kept turning. Every day I’d get up in the morning and spend the entire day stumbling around looking for the floor which, by bedtime, I’d believe I’d found, only to awaken the next morning to find my world flipped on its head all over again.
In the early days of the pandemic, I’d tried to comfort a client whose global tour was up in the air. “It’s going to be fine,” I’d said attempting to convince us both. I felt the staleness in the gap between what was actually happening and what I was saying. So I offered something true: “I don’t know,” I said, which was hard because I felt I was supposed to know. I’m the guru now, the industry vet, but I didn’t know, I don’t know. It’s hard to admit when I’m lost, but I can also feel how vulnerability is the beginning of being found.
“Not knowing is most intimate,” an old Zen story says.
The dark thread of global trauma has connected us, pulling us near. Not in the usual ways—a basketball game with a friend, my wife’s surprise birthday party, seats by the stage at a Coldplay concert. We’ve been united by anxiety, fear, and the fragility of this life we all share. We’re sharing both a virus and our human response to it. There’s a sweetness in that connection too. People are staying home to save one another. We’re posting videos to say, “Hey I’m alive,” songs and dances, news clips, and funny reminders about how to wash our hands. We’re all afraid of the same thing and that’s reminded us that inside we’re the same too.
This isn’t to say our lives are the same. People of color are dying at much higher rates than people who look like me. COVID is tearing through prisons and retirement homes. Mexican immigrants have been deemed essential workers, which simply means they get to risk their health working the fields while I shelter in place eating organic strawberries.
It’s too soon to tie a bow around this moment and declare the coming of an age of oneness.
In fact that misses the point. Which is of course to be here, in this moment, as we are, and to be aware of what it’s like to be alive. What’s it like to be you? What’s it like to be me? What’s it like to be an immigrant suddenly deemed essential in a country that calls her a criminal? What’s it like to be alone in the ICU struggling to breathe? Or to be a nurse watching many, many die, while fearing she might die too?
We’re here together, witnessing this moment in the dark, united by pain and fear––as real as it gets. There’s something vulnerable and true when we just feel life without rushing to an artificial end.
After my brother-in-law’s passing, the neighbors came together for a candlelight vigil. Hundreds gathered in the streets of Bed-Stuy. They shared memories and tears while maintaining social distancing in respect for the virus that had claimed his life. “He Helped Everyone,” a local paper’s headline read. Another compared him to Mr. Hooper, the friendly neighbor from Sesame Street. His friends and family filled their Facebook pages with pictures and testimonials of the man who counseled strangers and “saw the possibility in all things and people.” And 500 people donated to a GoFundMe campaign in under 48 hours.
“It’s all so wonderfully sad,” my sister wrote me in a late night text.
Lying in bed I gaze at the moon. I text with my sister as I run my fingers through my wife’s hair, coaxing her to sleep. Fledgling barn owls pierce the silence asking for a midnight snack. It may be dark, but we’re not alone. Step by step, we discover this life and ourselves together.
Field notes for walking in the dark:
Life is unfolding without regard for our directions and plans. Allowing doesn’t mean inviting. Instead we’re opening ourselves to the natural rhythm and flow of life. The invitation is to actually show up for the lives we have.
Many of us have never stopped before now. We haven’t known how. The pandemic has removed our masks of busyness and our vulnerability has been exposed. This is a step toward intimacy with our inner lives.
Our inner voice can be harsh. We know this because our exterior voice is harsh too. This shows up as violent thoughts of the way we ought to be and criticisms of how we are today. Meditation is a move away from that violence and toward the experience of okay-ness that pervades all life.
Spiritual practice doesn’t mean we always feel great. It’s okay to feel shitty. What we’re practicing is authenticity and acceptance, not arguing with our lives.
We need space to grieve what’s been taken from us, to mourn what we leave behind as we grow, to accept the way life sometimes breaks our hearts. Grieving is an acknowledgment of the importance of our lives. It’s an act of love.
Being at peace doesn’t mean my life has no problems. It’s more like I don’t go to war with my problems. Which, of course, is another way of saying I don’t go to war with my life, or with myself.
In this moment, without adding or taking anything away, what’s it like to be you?
It’s just me now and my famous aching heart
under the stars—my heart that keeps moving like a searchlight
in its longing for the hearts of other people,
who in a sense, already live there, in my heart,
and keep it turning.
– Tony Hoagland
I wrote this piece in May, what feels like a lifetime ago. It felt too raw to share at the time.
This article was previously published on author’s blog.
Jason Garner is a husband, father, former Fortune 500 company executive, and spiritual student who spent the first 37 years of his life working his way up from flea market parking attendant to CEO of Global Music at Live Nation (the world’s largest concert promoter) – never taking a breath in the belief that to be loved he had to be the best. He has worked with rock stars and sports legends and was twice named to Fortune magazine’s list of the top 20 highest-paid executives under 40. His second divorce and the sudden death of his mother from stomach cancer caused Jason to re-evaluate what mattered in life and to finally breathe. He has spent thousands of hours sitting cross-legged at the feet of timeless Masters of mind, body and spirit including learning from the monks at the Shaolin Temple in China. From an open heart and a sense of confident vulnerability, he now shares the lessons learned on this journey and what he continues to discover through the daily adventure of life at JasonGarner.com. To see more of Jason’s writings visit his website, or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter and be sure to check out his book: And I Breathed.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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