Shortly after the presidential election, a sign appeared by the side of the road on the way out of Bolinas. In big letters painted on a piece of plywood tacked to a fence, it read: “WE STILL HAVE EACH OTHER.” When I first saw it, the knot in my belly softened and tears blurred my vision. Then, a couple of days later, a second sign appeared: “AUN TENEMOS UNO A OTRO.” We still have each other.
On election night, I’d gone to bed before the results were in. Waking early, I leapt up, went straight to the computer and learned who would be the new president of the United States. I sat there, not wanting to read more. It was still dark outside. Now what?
A cup of tea. I sat on the couch holding my favorite glass mug with the crack. One of Leonard Cohen’s finest lines came to mind: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I felt grateful for the company of my dog, who jumped onto the couch and snuggled against my thigh.
Across the country, people were waking up to the news that we’d just elected to the highest office in the land a reality television star who boasts of sexually violating women, blatantly lies, ferments hatred and fear and is supported by dictators and Klansmen. Was the dawn going to break this morning? Would the light get in?
Twenty-five years ago, our house burned down in the Oakland fire. A day after the fire was finally out, police offered to take evacuees to see if our homes were still there. Michael and I got into a van with three other couples. The women were teary, the men stoic.
Past the barricades, only a few burnt and gnarled trees remained of much of the wooded areas. Almost all of the houses were gone; an occasional brick chimney stood alone. As filmmakers specializing in documentaries about nuclear arms, Michael and I had spent many hours watching footage of the devastation caused by bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now we saw the same lone crippled trees. A few brick chimneys. The ruined landscape. The feeling of utter desolation.
And then our home, or what was left of it. A brick pathway from the road meandering down the slope, leading to a concrete pad. A few tiles from the shower still standing. The two great cypress trees that had stood on either side of the pathway, guardians of our home, were dead, the life scorched out of them.
Michael took my hand. Our work was to prevent nuclear war, and here was our home, and the whole area, looking as though a nuclear bomb had been dropped on it.
But, right there, in the suddenly opened-up space, was a concrete statue I’d found in a yard sale. Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, was unscathed, completely intact. And tucked under her arm was something white—the only thing as far as the eye could see that wasn’t blackened. It was a note from Ray, a dear friend who was an Oakland
It said, “I’m so sorry. Love Ray.”
It was not the sight of my destroyed home that brought me to tears, but the compassion of our friend.
Twenty-five people and hundreds of pets had died. We realized how lucky we were to survive, along with our beloved dog, Oskar.
Michael, 55 at the time, was a photographer. He’d lost his life’s work: thousands of negatives. The night before the fire, he’d completed a documentary. The only copy had burnt up.
But that night we looked at each other and I knew we thought the same thing: we were lucky. We still had each other.
It’s been nearly three years since Michael died. I’ve discovered that our hearts do not experience death as an end to love. Those we love live on in our hearts. True joy comes from expressing this infinite love, and every day there are opportunities.
With this last election, our collective shadow—the things we would rather not see in ourselves and others—has been exposed. The light will get in if we acknowledge our own part in creating that shadow and refuse to allow fear and anger to close our hearts to each other. Instead, we can actively look for ways to reach out and offer our love. I remember Ray’s note and the sign, “WE STILL HAVE EACH OTHER.” Sometimes it is the small gesture that has a big impact.
Vivienne Verdon-Roe, a Bolinas resident and winner of an Academy Award for a documentary about women and peace, teaches a form of qigong that creates peace at the most fundamental level.