My world ended last August when I gave birth to my son. While nothing could have prepared me for this life-altering change, I had no idea how drastic the throes of matresence(1) would shift and shut down my bodily existence in the world.
I figured something was up when the milestones shared by parenting friends didn’t give me respite from immense postpartum pain. Four weeks, 12 weeks, four months, six months. I’d reach each marker with exhausted gratitude for surviving and hope it would mark a turning point toward healing — quickly followed by deep despair and tears of agony when the pain continued, even exacerbated, for unknown reasons.
My ongoing pain is nursing-related. It flares up as plugged ducts and mastitis(2) — common breastfeeding issues, but rare in the frequency and severity of how I experience them. My condition has been undiagnosable; I’ve met only one other person (online) who presents similar symptoms. I’ve had more days of pain than not. I’m in constant treatment mode, bedridden, shut in, stuck. Tiredness, anxiety, and vigilance compound into paranoia and helplessness when the possibility of relief — weaning — seems impossible, as steps to do so trigger more flare-ups. My body and spirit get drained of all energy and ability to engage beyond that of simple existence.
I am depressed and confused. Filled with wonderment for this new person in my life who manifests the sacredness of body and nurture. Filled with misery that the very body that nourishes my son is a source of torment and mystery to myself.
The world I once inhabited has ended as I try to sustain a new life and way of living. This new world requires me to rely heavily on a community of care, tests my pain tolerance threshold to unprecedented levels, and attests to the sober paradox that new life requires death.
The personal and the public converged in early March when California implemented a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19. Suddenly, my homebound reality became a public health action. Physical distancing became the “new norm” for those who are able to work from home, have resources to sustain themselves for an indeterminate time, and can tailor their daily lives to reduce contagion.
The pandemic has caused a pause to the world induced by ableist racist neoliberal capitalism; people’s participation and enactment of productivity and profits are being stretched and reconfigured. As people are told to focus on the essentials, the sickening truth that what is fundamental for life is not, and has not been, accessible to all can no longer be ignored or denied, as demonstrated by those who cannot afford to not go to work. Yet, the neoliberal capitalist world order has not come to an end, as big industries get bailouts and the president prioritizes profits over people’s lives. Why do some worlds end and others don’t?
I don’t have answers, I can only probe the emotions and stirrings that the end of the world provokes in me.
The end of the world incites in me overwhelming anger. I’m infuriated by this country’s absurd and cruel healthcare system. Millions of people are losing their jobs and health care, the national unemployment rate reaching almost Great Depression levels. Meanwhile, the most progressive candidate advocating for Medicare for All suspended his campaign, and the remaining Democratic candidate is opposed to Medicare for All, is accused of sexual assault, and recently released a xenophobic, anti-Asian ad, particularly vile during this time of heightened anti-Asian racism and hysteria.
I’m angry at a culture and medical system that devalues a womxn or birth-giving person’s well-being. Where “breast is best” is a repeated mantra — erasing non-womxn-identifying parents, inducing guilt to parents who are unable or decide not to nurse — all the while lacking adequate treatments for lactation-related conditions. I’m disheartened that health caregivers failed to heed genuine attention to my litany of ductal system-related ailments during postpartum visits. While I sat in front of them crying from pain and desperation, they’d say they could do nothing for me, and ultimately, since my baby is gaining weight, shouldn’t I just be happy with that?
The end of the world fills me with overwhelming grief. Not knowing the cause or healing for my condition, I spiral into detachment and depression. The pain has extracted any sense of normalcy from my prior functioning in daily life. I feel stripped of agency of my body and role as a caretaker. I don’t know if a given day will offer me relief from pain. Sometimes the pain is so unbearable I find myself echoing Elijah, Enough of this, God! Take my life.(3) Like Elijah, I try to sleep, eat, and rest. And hope God will meet me in the stillness.
There are many moments when I can’t help but to weep at the effects of the pandemic, as so much collective grief and trauma accumulate. From the quotidian (cancellation of birthdays and graduations) to the tragic (mass graves), the present reality of contagion and dis-ease is one where people die alone or mourn at a distance, with the loss of cultural and religious rituals to honor the dead an added layer of trauma. I try to mourn mass death — the “marking the loss of someone whose name you do not know, whose language you may not speak, who lives at an unbridgeable distance from where you live. One does not have to know the person lost to affirm that this was a life” — as Judith Butler says. It’s an impossible and inescapable task.
The end of the world compels me to lament. I lament the situation we are in, for the sobering and gutting mortality COVID-19 is inflicting on a global scale. For the fact that the inequities and systemic failures we are witnessing are not new realities, but existing realities amplified by a global emergency.
I lament the insularity of my limited perspective and ableist living prior to my pain condition. How I took for granted the ways my body could function, how unaware I was of the toll of parenting, how my critiques against capitalism were insufficient in considering the myriad ways disabled, chronically ill, or immunocompromised people are shut out of systems and sustainable supports.
Apocalypse is often associated with the end of the world. However, in its Greek origin, apokalypsis means an unveiling, a revelation, and apocalypse is a powerful narrative framework in many religions for meaning-making in moments of crisis. An apocalypse allows the hidden to be unveiled, for revelation of how things really are. It does not necessarily shed new truth, but it exposes conditions that can no longer be ignored or denied.
The pandemic is an apocalypse for the ways in which it reveals the crises we have been in due to the cruelty of neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy. While COVID-19 may be indiscriminate in who can get infected, the virus is no “great equalizer” due to the unjust systems and racial caste in America. Vulnerability to infection, in/access to treatment, rates of survival/death, economic liabilities, and racism impact Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, and immigrant communities; disabled and/or immunocompromised folks; the elderly; the working poor; frontline workers; the incarcerated; and the homeless; among others, disproportionately. An apocalypse shows that the end of the world looks and hits differently based on race, class, ability, and one’s proximity to power.
Last year in May, my friend and mentor Dr. Su Yon Pak commissioned me as I graduated from seminary. She imparted to me the legacy of 약손 (medicine/healing hand) that is received from mothers and ancestors, and she commissioned my hands to “the fierce work of love, justice and mercy”. Amidst the current context of suffering in which the personal and the public/political are inextricable, I wonder, what does 약손 look like during an apocalypse where touch is risk?
When I am tempted to wallow in despair, I return to Su’s call. While I don’t feel the power of healing in my hands or anywhere else at the moment, I find myself turning to the resilience and hope for a world anew that artists like Octavia Butler imagined. I seek Earthseed — God is Change — from her “Parable of the Sower”; in the thick of grief and uncertainty, there is possibility in change. In this moment of history, Arundhati Roy articulates Earthseed as: “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
I am reminded that a world anew, already in motion, is not a one-time transformation, but rather, enacted by living into an ethics that, to echo Anthony Pinn’s words, “is comfortable with vulnerability and proposes no final resolution ... an ethics committed to relationship ... an ethical posture committed to struggling with uncertainty, recognizing the layered nature of this problem, and sensitive to the impact on the most vulnerable.” Given the temptation to spiritually bypass the immensity of what the pandemic has unveiled, I take to heart that this kind of ethics is part of an ongoing struggle for liberation, healing, and right relationship across ecosystems and injustices.
This brings me to resurrection, often associated with an apocalypse. Rather than anticipating an arrival and event of sorts, I take solace in the notion of daily resurrection through breath, which in and of itself is a miracle and gift according to Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches that in breathing “we practice resurrection, and this is an everyday practice”. This feels particularly resonant while navigating chronic pain, when breath alone grounds me to the earth’s vibrations. As Audre Lorde journaled, “the only answer to death is the heat and confusion of living; the only dependable warmth is the warmth of the blood. I can feel my own beating even now.” How necessary it is to practice daily resurrection during an apocalypse.
I also hold onto the poet and political dissident Kim Chi Ha’s vision of revolution as “the apocalyptic vision of the mass resurrection of the people ... a lasting collective struggle”,(4) which integrates living into a new ethic with a peoples’ resurrection. The struggle for a new reality that is more just and demonstrative of our interconnectedness is happening during COVID-19 through mutual aid groups and collective actions. It shows up in my household as the network of care that sustains my baby and me. We enact daily resurrection as a continuing commitment to right relationships in our shared struggles for the becoming of new worlds.
I return to my son, whose arrival marked the end of my world while begetting the arrival and possibilities for new worlds. I hope to pass along the fierce work of love, justice, and mercy to him during these times with 약손, which is not my own but sustained by elders, ancestors, and kin. For in the words of James Baldwin, “nothing is fixed forever ... Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have ... The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”