‘Healing By Degrees’ by Mary Oishi

What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
Othello, Shakespeare

No matter the outcome of the election in the United States of America, it is going to take a while to heal from the trauma of the last four years.  

Those who survived sexual assault had their PTSD triggered with the release of the Access Hollywood tape (“grab them by the pussy…”), but once he lost the election by three million votes and still ascended to the presidency because of the Electoral College, (an undemocratic relic of the slavery-era), a majority of the nation was traumatized.

We were shocked by the paralyzing reality that an egotistical bully—a person who repeatedly failed at business and had never filled any elected office, not even dog catcher—would now be at the helm of the world’s largest economy and the ultimate international superpower with the most massive military in human history. It was surreal. We just could not accept that a man with mediocre intellect, shameless bigotry, and zero empathy was suddenly the head of our government, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of over 300 million people—with the very real potential to launch the apocalypse. We weren’t sleeping well. It was hard to concentrate at work. We were running to our therapists. Yes, we were traumatized.

Americans of color have known centuries of trauma. For them it was not new to feel unsafe, devalued, distrustful, or to have little actual control over their own lives. But for the white middle class, this was completely new—and almost unbearably stressful. Everything got worse for most—with police ordered to become more brutal, extremist vigilantes and unbalanced loners incited to violence, an epidemic of deportations, children torn from their asylum-seeking parents and warehoused in constantly lit cages, white supremacist mobs praised as “fine people,” war criminals and convicted felons pardoned while those peacefully exercising their constitutional rights were tear-gassed and kidnapped, with “suspects” executed on the street—no trial to determine their guilt or innocence.

These were everyday headlines. This was not the America the majority of Americans thought they lived in, nor did they want to.  They were horrified by the torch-carrying mob and vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the Walmart massacre in El Paso, the tape of a terrified child crying “Papi! Papi!” and George Floyd with a knee on his neck, crying for his mother.

The final sustained trauma came with the terror of a denied and grossly mishandled pandemic, and the isolation that followed. We watched in horror as they parked refrigerated trucks outside of hospitals to serve as additional morgues, as they buried unclaimed bodies in mass graves. Meanwhile the Trump Administration pulled us out of the World Health Organization and the president’s real estate investor son-in-law given a big role in the public health response bragged that they were “taking the country back from the doctors.”

As of this writing, over 9 million of our fellow citizens have contracted the virus and more than 230,000 of them have died. It’s an unthinkable outcome for the nation that, under the swift and well-planned actions of the prior administration, contained the ebola outbreak and limited American deaths to two. Two!!!

At the end of March, when the iconic folk lyricist John Prine was fighting for his life in ICU, a great sadness came over me. It was the first time the horror and grief of it all really started to hit me. I wrote in my journal:

      John Prine in ICU

not one familiar voice
not one familiar touch, only
masked strangers, the
   shum-shum-BAH
   shum-shum-BAH
of the ventilator
trying to breathe when
you can’t
this is no way
for a poet to die

A week later, still in the ICU, he died.  I felt like I knew him through his songs, but it took a few more months for the virus to infect someone in the close circle of my life. Cases are spiking rapidly again, so perhaps by now nearly everyone in the United States personally knows someone.  

Putting my sorrow into words is important. Kept inside, it becomes a destructive knot, almost like a “trauma tumor.” Continuously expressing trauma in words is important for coping and ultimately for healing. Everywhere from the Harvard Mental Health Letter, to trauma counselors’ reference books, to popular self-help tips for journaling, advise that writing is an invaluable tool for restoring health following trauma.  

We writers need to write more than ever. We need to listen to each other read. We need to encourage others to write, especially in the doubly traumatized USA. Not only will it help us to heal, but it provides a crucial bond during our isolation—especially poetry. Poetry connects us where we’re all related. These many months I have found Zoom poetry readings to be like attending a great feast with my beloved extended family, even if I’ve never met the other poets before. Try it. Connect. Read your work. Listen to other poets read theirs. We too are essential workers, healing ourselves and each other by degrees, one heartfelt line at a time.

About the contributor

Mary Oishi
Mary Oishi, Albuquerque Poet Laureate, is author of Spirit Birds They Told Me (West End Press, 2011) and co-author of Rock Paper Scissors (Swimming With Elephants Publications, 2018), finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award, and is published in translation in 12 Poetas: Antologia De Nuevos Poetas Estadounidense (La Herrata Feliz and MarEsCierto, 2017), a project of the Mexican Ministry of Culture. She writes “Poetify,” a monthly column in The Paper, and hosts a public radio show, Wang Dang Doodle.

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