She looks at me, takes a swig of the wine, and says, “No, I’m fine. Really.”
We share a look, she sighs, “Why wouldn’t I be?”
I bite back the answer. Could it be the pandemic-work-school-kids collision or other things that we’re both going through—that the world seems to be going through? But in a move smarter than I usually am, I keep those helpful comments to myself.
“No, really, why wouldn’t I be happy?” The tenor of her answer becomes defensive, contrasting the word “fine.” I watch as she downs the remaining wine in her glass like she’s trying to swallow back a handful of bitter pills.
My curious side takes over, as much as I try to fight it.
“Well, what are you looking forward to about it, about getting a pool?” I ask, both wanting to press the issue as well as test my intuition that she isn’t really fine at all.
Am I right about this elephant in the room?
I have my answer because she doesn’t have an immediate one. Nor, I notice, a smile. Remembering the rules of decorum, I leave it alone. The question hangs in the air, undone like a dangling participle, a balloon, an untied shoe.
Are you sure?
Later that evening, more mixed up communication ensues with my family as we sit around the table. I wonder if it’s me or that day or what as my husband—a logical, straightforward sort of guy—talks about work. I hear his words but all I can really read is his body language. It says exhaustion, grief, and sadness. He is undoubtedly overwhelmed, but the day was, “fine, really.” Fine.
I ask again—not for the first time and certainly not the last, as marriage is long—if there is anything else he wants to share. It must be a delight to be married to me—an emotions archaeologist, searching for the bones of true feelings and asking, “What lurks beneath?” I know there’s more; I see it written all over his face.
No, he says, he does not have more to share. He also questions whether I am listening or not. Which, fair point. I am, to my credit. It’s just that I cannot process his actual words without also hearing the grief and sadness and plain old exhaustion of dealing with similar things day after day.
Should we bring back the sackcloth and ashes?
My friend and my husband are all of us. Even though we’re all going through a collective grief process amidst this pandemic and there is so much vulnerability along the way. We struggle to find a common language for our collective grief. Why is it so hard to communicate our mother language of feelings? Feelings are the language we know by heart but for some reason, do not know how to verbalize to each other.
Everything is not fine. We know that instinctively. But we still say, “Fine.” Even on days the world is on literal fire.
At times like these, I wish we followed some of the traditions from the days of the Bible.
I could live without all the dust and non-supportive sandals, sure, but sackcloth wearing? I could get behind that. While they were waiting on bug spray to be invented, at least there was a common expression of shame, sadness, and grief when they felt it. A way to address the clear reality without having to actually talk about it.
I’ve thought about wearing feelings a lot in the past six months. In the sackcloth days, grief was known and present, embedded in the conversations whether you wanted to address it or not, laid bare. And visible grief was most likely hairy and made from goat skin, so even if you forgot to notice the sackcloth, I bet you couldn’t forget the smell.
We’re in collective grief, but we all keep forgetting that. We keep forgetting that, essentially, we’re just trying to speak the same language back to each other, unable to see the sackcloth over others and our own hearts.
Maybe one day in the future it will not be so. “Fine,” may even turn out to be the true meaning of “fine.” But now more than ever, as we navigate our various nuances of collective grief, we need to imagine hearts in sackcloth. “I’m fine,” needs to be translated.