A year ago this week I was in Komiža, a tiny town on the tiny island of Vis, in Croatia. I’d gone there with the women of my family–my mother, my daughter, my god-mother, and four cousins. We all share the DNA of my great-grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Komiža when she was a teenager, just a little more than 100 years ago.
It took three planes, one shuttle, one ferry, one bus, and 24 hours to get to there. Eight of us from three generations came from four different points of origin; I met my daughter in Munich, and we joined the others at the airport in Split. It was dark when we stepped off the bus and met the woman who owned the rooms we’d rented. We followed her into the center of town, a sandstone-paved plaza bordered on one side by a row of old buildings and on the other by water.
As I followed along, suitcase wheels bumping over the stones, my chest tightened, my stomach fluttered, and tears formed. It will sound corny and cliche, and maybe I was just exhausted, but it felt as if something in my core recognized the place, and had been longing for it. It felt like home.
That week, with so many of the women who have been central to my life, is one I haven’t written about here. I wrote some words then, but it all felt too big to capture, and I never published the post I started. To be in the town my great-grandmother grew up in, to see a small cemetery filled with the names that filled our childhoods, to spy across the plaza a man who was a doppelgänger for a cousin, to hear all around us the language that our elders used when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying–it gave me a new understanding of my great-grandmother because I knew in a different, visceral way all that she had given up when she left that place for a new life in a foreign country.
When we were in Komiža, we were able to meet with a cousin who still lives there. We asked him why so many of the town’s residents had left in the early 1900’s. Was it war? we wondered. “No,” he said, he didn’t think so. “Just, more opportunity. Some left early and sent back pictures from California, with cars and nice clothes.”
I have written before about the types of pain that have bound the women in my family as surely as our genetics have. Last fall, I met one of my cousins for dinner, just the two of us, and we talked about my daughter and her impending graduation from college. “Until now, I’ve been the only woman in our family to do that,” I said, hesitantly. It’s a fact I’ve had such conflicted feelings about, mostly guilt (of the survivor type). I’d never said it out loud to anyone else in the family.
“I know,” said my cousin, who had had to drop out of high school when pregnant with her first child. “It’s a big deal.” I felt such relief, to be able to talk about this fact of our family and what it meant.
Not long after that conversation, it was decided that my mother and I would attend my daughter’s commencement ceremony together, just the two of us. We would travel to Washington, DC as we did this week three years ago, when my daughter was a freshman.
She’d gone there all on her own, knowing no one, having never even stepped foot on campus. Of the options she’d had to choose from, it felt like the one with the most opportunity. It was a gutsy thing to do, in some ways not unlike leaving the only country she’d ever known. Of course, she wasn’t giving up anything like the things my great-grandmother and millions of other immigrants have given up, but she was going far away to live in new cultures, with none of her friends and family, embarking on an experience unlike any of ours who’d come before her, which meant she had no one close to guide her through it.
Although my own college experience was fundamentally different, it was enough alike that I knew she wouldn’t come back to us the same girl she’d been when she left, and that it would create more than one kind of distance between us. That’s proven to be true, and so her graduation ceremony was one I wanted to attend with just my mother, another one of the bright women in my family who didn’t get to to go to college, and the only person I know who might know all of what my daughter’s graduation means to me.
All graduations are important to the families of those who have supported the graduating child, but my daughter’s graduation means even more to me now that I have been to Komiža, now that I understand more deeply all that my great-grandmother gave up to provide everything that has made the coming moment possible: history, language, family, friends, place. She left as a teen-ager, and she only returned once, when she was in her 70s. I wonder now what role the trauma that she and all those she knew must have endured played in creating the traumas that have marked everyone in the generations that followed. Have all the things we all lost been worth the things we gained? How do you balance such an equation?
Of course, that trip and that ceremony are canceled now. My daughter is in Sweden, finishing her studies remotely in the country she hopes to make her home after she graduates. I don’t know when I’ll see her again. I knew, when she left my home four years ago, that she would never really return–but I had no idea how far she was going to travel, in every way that one might. In this week of so many kinds of loss for so many people, all over the world, it feels wrong or self-indulgent to mourn the loss of this experience that my mother, daughter, and I were going to share. We are all healthy, and safe, and well, and that same survivor’s guilt makes me feel as if I shouldn’t express sadness about anything.
But I know that the grief is deeper than the loss of a ceremony or a trip. It is about the tangle of all the things that ceremony and trip represented: opportunity, achievement, sacrifice, and hope that spans generations. It is about all the things we lose and gain as we try to make better lives for ourselves and those we love. It is about the questions we are facing and will face in the context of our pandemic, as politicians this week float the idea that our elderly should sacrifice themselves to maintain “our way of life.”
As I remember the village I was in a year ago today, and all that those who came before me sacrificed and endured so that I can live the life I have, I am thinking a lot about ways of life and what we should fight to preserve and what we might let go. What struck me most about Komiža was a way of life I recognized from my childhood, a tightly woven, easy, intergenerational one. Old men sat in chairs on the plaza and children zoomed around them on bikes and rollerblades, and in the early evenings multiple generations of families would gather in a tavern before dinner, children, parents, and grandparents drinking and talking and laughing together. There was no helicopter parenting, perhaps because everyone seemed to know everyone else, and it reminded me of childhood visits to Bellingham, Washington, where so many who came from Komiža settled. My great-grandmother lived with my grandparents on the south side of town, where all the Slavs lived, and every visit to the grocery store or walk through the neighborhood seemed to include a conversation with someone whose last name matched one of those on the headstones in the Komiža cemetery. When we’d meet and my grandmother would introduce me, I wasn’t just her grand-daughter Rita; I was “Marianne’s girl,” and everyone knew who my mother, Marianne, was. I felt known in a way that I never did in my own suburban home town.
I suppose, to many of us living in cities in the US, the way of life in Komiža might feel small or lesser-than, but it reminded me of the best parts of my childhood, and in its harbor and coffee shop and market I felt a grief that seemed as unreasonable as any I am feeling now. Seeing all that my great-grandparents had left behind, I felt cheated of a different kind of life I might have had, which made no sense because it never could have been mine; if they had never left the village, I would never have been born. But grief isn’t always logical, is it?
For a long time now, our way of life hasn’t been working so well for me and for many of those I know. In a devastating essay about caring for a husband with COVID-19, a mother tells her daughter that they are living in a dystopian story now, and the daughter answers: “Lots of people already did.” As I have been living a slower, smaller life these past two weeks, despite all the fear and uncertainty, I have felt other things I’ve been longing for: connection, purpose, a focus on things that truly matter. I have felt, paradoxically in this moment of great unease, an easiness that comes from having enough sleep, from eating in a healthy way, from the release of pressures to do and look and be in ways that are irrelevant right now.
In the days and weeks to come, we’ll all be making choices about how to best preserve ways of life and what we’re willing to sacrifice and for whom. I hope we’ll all think long and hard about the multiple ways in which opportunity can present itself, and that the cost of cars and nice clothes and all manner of things is far more than the numbers on their price tags.
This week’s dots:
What I learned when my husband got sick with coronavirus: “On one of the worst nights, I stay next to the bed, rubbing his body through the piled-on blankets, trying to comfort him. I hear myself start to hum, low, the only song I would: the song both my mother and my grandmother used to sing to me.”
Grieving the losses of coronavirus: “As a therapist, I always say that there’s no hierarchy of pain — pain is pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest. I believe, too, that there’s no hierarchy of grief. When we rank our losses, when we validate some and minimize others, many people are left alone to grieve what then become their silent losses.”
That discomfort you’re feeling is grief: “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. …I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.”
Burnout isn’t just in your head. It’s in your circumstances: “The heart of burnout is emotional exhaustion — feeling so depleted and drained by your job that you have nothing left to give. In the U.S., over half of employees feel burned out at least some of the time. It doesn’t just hurt our productivity — it can harm our mental and physical health, too. There’s evidence linking burnout to weakened immune systems and even cardiovascular disease. It’s no wonder that burnout has been declared an occupational syndrome by the World Health Organization.”
The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the failings of capitalism: “Trump’s right about one thing: It is definitely the story of capitalism. And while we are still reeling from the shock to our everyday lives, we should look at some of these huge changes to our routines as a possible — even hopeful — new normal.”
Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker shuts down completely and sounds an alarm: “In Portland, the virus is here. Believe me, it is everywhere. I might have it, you might have it, we don’t know. We have got to stay home to minimize the damage and sickness and death. We’ve all got to do this thing that modern society is not used to. We’ve never had to make this kind of massive sacrifice, ever. We have to stop fucking around making TikToks and get serious.“
Bay area is flattening the curve: “The latest such experiment is Shelter-in-Place, which the Bay Area was the first to institute in the entire country, without any federal support or mandate. So, I decided to take a look at how this experiment has played out. And so far, the numbers seem to indicate that this was not only a wise decision, but will help us come out of this far quicker than anyone else (provided we can limit people travelling into or outside of the bay area and continue to maintain social distancing).”