By Nikki Giovanni
I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her
I don’t think
To kill something
Because I am
When the news broke about the recent shootings in Dallas last Thursday, my heart froze. I found out when my friend Saul messaged me on Facebook.
“Turn on the news”, he wrote. “There have been attacks”.
In that moment around 11pm EST I was huddled over my phone almost two thousand miles east of Dallas on one of the final nights of a dance camp in the lush woods of Western Massachusetts.
But I live in Dallas. Three and a half miles away from the scene of the attacks. It’s a different kind of scary to be far away from danger rather than close when loved ones are at stake. I immediately read the coverage, checked in on Facebook, wrote my family. But that only slightly slowed the drama that was simultaneously unfolding in my personal life that evening.
Though I’m not proud to admit it, while Micah Xavier Johnson was firing from a rooftop on innocent police officers and civilians, I was firing personal attacks by text at a girlfriend I considered one of my closest bosom friends. It’s a sobering realization. And one I believe offers a vital lesson for this time.
In the wake of the violence, so many are asking what can I do? How can I slow the rageful reactivity racing across our communities, hurt activating hurt over and over again? I am answering that question in my own life by asking, what happens to me when I feel frightened or wounded?
The answer this week spoke loudly. I pick up my gun. It’s not a conscious act. Last Thursday, before news of the shootings broke and while I was reeling from a turn of events between me and this friend, I felt like a hot knife was gouging a seeping and pink wound. However unintended, she got me where it counts. And separate from her actual motivation or the specifics of our drama, my friend didn’t deserve to be fired upon. No one does. I know that in my lucidity.
But let me tell you, that’s not what I felt when I picked up my phone at the end of the dance workshops that day and started reading a long awaited communication from her. Bombs began to detonate in my body.
First it was shock. Wait, what?! I thought you were my trusted friend! Then anger. How could you?! Then fury. You have crossed a line and you will pay. I felt completely at the mercy of my emotions. I was sure that she deserved to suffer. There was no greater mission I had in those moments than to hurt her in the way I was hurting. I remember my heart was pounding, sounds around me had faded and my fingers were tapping the screen of my phone well beyond the pace of my capacity to take perspective.
As the moments passed and she didn’t return my call or texts, my raging mounted. If I could have put words to my racing thoughts in that moment it would have been, “Kill. Kill. Kill”. That’s the truth.
I have a Micah Xavier Johnson in me too.
It’s the great fortune of the circumstances of my life – socioeconomics, my gender, the support of my friends and family – that it was a phone in my hand and not a rifle. I have never been to war or physically harmed another human with the intent to kill. But the impulse has residence in my emotional body. And the simultaneous loss of life that happened in my home community alongside the wounds that I attempted to inflict on someone I care about have showed me that I have some deep inner work to do on this one.
Were it not for the immense spiritual badassery of one Jessica Ann Ball, I may not have been fully able to step into that work. Jessica is about as brave as the women in my life come. She was there in that basement with me on the night that my rage was engulfing me. In addition to being my travel companion and roommate for the week, Jessica is also my spiritual ally. At the peak of my screeching, the kind that rakes my throat and doesn’t come close to releasing the pain, she pried the phone out of my hands, sat all 100 pounds of her on my lap and said, “What’s happening. What is going on inside of you. Right now. Look at me”.
No one has ever come in that close with that much unflinching love when I have been that rageful. I will always be in awe of her power in that moment.
I began to breathe. In and out. I was shivering the way my body does when big energy overwhelms me. Teeth chattering. “I…feel…so…hurt”. I began to collapse. Heaving pain out of my gut like vomit. “Breathe lower,” she urged. “Your life is falling apart. Feel it”.
And that was it. THAT was what my killing urge was masking. The impulse to attack was the secondary response. Below that lives all the pain that up to that point in my life I have had neither the courage nor the capacity to feel. Until now. White hot radiating voracious grief and sadness began to erupt. Sadness over the loss of a relationship that had been both the deepest love I’d known and the source of so much strife. Sadness over the perception that someone I had entrusted with my vulnerability wasn’t trustworthy, however inaccurate that story may be. Even long buried sadness over the loss of my mother when I was 12 and the truth of the chaos and the unpredictability of this life that I cannot protect myself from.
Jessica could have coaxed me off of the ledge. She could have sided with my stories of victimhood. She could have hushed me and said it will all be okay. But that’s not what spiritual allies do. She went down into the darkness with me.
“It’s like being pushed out of a plane”, she said. “Can you stop fighting and let yourself fall”.
My body was trembling from head to toe. The way any muscle does when it is carrying more weight than it yet has the strength to bear. In that moment, in the wee hours of the night, in the middle of a cabin in the woods, as the world was reeling from the latest brutality in the racial tension consuming our country, my body was opening to pain I have never felt before in my forty years of life. I felt like I might die. My brain kept saying, I can’t handle this. I kept looking for escape hatches. But Jessica Ball kept sitting there in front of me, unblinking. And reflecting the truth of the moment. There was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. But feel it.
I invite all of us as to ponder these same questions. It can feel simple to organize the world into people who do bad things and us. But where there is pain, there is a universal experience.
Consider asking yourself, what happens to me when I feel the most hurt? What comes out? And what am I resisting?
Where there is pain, we have a choice. We can fire outward. Or we can turn inward, get honest with ourselves and do the necessary work of feeling our most painful emotions. So they don’t run the show of our lives anymore. Or convince us that anything or anyone around us needs to change for us to feel better.
We can also show up for our friends with courage. Instead of trying to brush the pain off of them, we can sit in the fire with them and encourage each other to be braver than we have ever been.
This is what I see are two acts the world is calling me to do. To face my own pain and to sit with equanimity in the face of my friends’ pain and say, “Keep going”. As Jessica said to me, “God is calling you to level up”. As much as every fiber in me still wants to resist, this week I am beginning to learn how to put down my gun. And break open. And respond to a greater call.