We Are All Just Raw Sacks of Meat

On living with empathy in a world without it

This year has been one protracted meltdown. A few nights ago, I sent a message to an ex-boyfriend. It was just one word: “Boo.” In the morning, I was humiliated. Why had I done it? I didn’t really want to talk to him. I wasn’t interested in rehashing old business. But I was tired. Vulnerable. One whiskey into a two-whiskey night. It’s been such a long year.

I confessed it to my best friends, the ones I’ve known for 20 years now, the ones who have seen me in all iterations of myself. The ones who helped me steal plants from campus buildings. The ones who made me a cake when I divorced. The ones who pick up when I call them crying because I was fired from a job I loved so much.

They laughed and thought it was funny. But it didn’t help my deep sense of shame. I’m 37. When will I be less ridiculous?

That’s when my friend Anna pointed out, “We are all just raw sacks of meat right now.”

She just had her first baby and is crawling through the dark cave of those postpartum days. Another friend works in healthcare and has done so relentlessly throughout the pandemic. We are all in a state of unraveling. 

I used to date someone who would press on my bruises. It seemed like an unconscious tic. I was often getting bruises from working out or moving furniture at the time. And I’ve always been a little anemic anyway. So I bruise easily. Whenever we’d rest together, he’d just press on them, especially if they were on my arms. I would get so angry. And yet, it never stopped. We got married. We got divorced. And in some ways, it still hasn’t stopped.

That bruise pressing. That hitting on our softest point.

I keep crying in phone conversations when I try to explain how people are dying. Dying. And how no one seems to care. How even now, my governor says that there is science on “both sides” of mask wearing. How our doctors are screaming for help, and all she gave them in return was a PSA. I read the news about Tyson executives taking bets on the number of workers who would get COVID-19. The moral calculus of this is too dark to fathom.

I think of all the people who emailed me in the beginning of the pandemic to explain that a 2 percent death rate isn’t that bad. As if 2 percent of lives in America or in Iowa are worth nothing. As if older people mean nothing. I see now, that is the case.

How stupid I was to assume otherwise.

Sometime in July, I broke up with someone by screaming on the phone that he had his head stuck so far up his ass, he couldn’t see through the shit forest. It’s a thing you say that you cannot come back from. I didn’t want to come back from it. 

When I, once again, confessed this sin to a friend, she told me that it was a hopeful act. “This means you can see something new,” she said. “It means you are not living in fear.”

Everyone keeps talking about 2020 as if it was the worst year of all the years. It isn’t. And it won’t be the worst we have. January 1 doesn’t erase the pain and loss of this year. Neither does January 20. 

People keep talking about returning to normal. But what was normal? Was it us being more callous? Was it being more blind? When we say we want a president we can ignore, I think what we really mean is we want a president who keeps the deaths of Americans hidden just a little better.

We cannot imagine something new.

We waste so much time wondering why someone would vote to uphold the status quo. Earlier this year, in a Zoom lecture, in which I was the featured speaker, I got irritated by person after person asking why religious people would vote for Donald Trump. 

I answered politely that it was, of course, status quo. It was whiteness. It was all the things that hold the line. But the questioners kept pushing and pushing. And I finally said, that the interesting question is not why someone would vote to uphold a system that benefits them as white people, but why do we refuse to accept the answers as they are?

We look at cruelty and call it a misunderstanding.

We look at callous disregard for human life and call it a both-sides issue.

We look at misogyny and racism and call it not reaching out to blue-collar voters.

We call voting in the status quo hope and change for the future.

But of course, that question, too, isn’t complex. After all, it makes sense that raw sacks of meat would seek a thick skin. It makes sense that people forced to see a devastating reality about themselves would rather look away. 

I once told my friend Matthew how I was always bothered when my ex, the bruise poker, continued to press my weaknesses in other ways. How I thought it was a moral failing that I continued to cry and be upset.

He told me that I was upset because it was worth being upset about. That someone’s pointless cruelty should never feel normal to us.

That perhaps being a raw meat sack is the only way to live life. 

I’ve been thinking about this long winter of loneliness ahead. I’ve been thinking about how I will get through it. How I will steel myself for the loneliness and the cold. I have bought a lot of running gear for the winter. I have so many books. I have a big work project. But the thing I keep coming back to is, what’s next? I mean, so what? I survive the winter. Spring isn’t going to magically warm the hearts of Americans. It won’t bring back the people we lost. 

Perhaps this is less about survival and more about learning to live.

Here is another story I want to tell you. Two weeks ago, I got my stuff back. For three years, boxes of my books and photos have been sitting in my old attic. I’ve been unable to get them back for all the bruise-pressing reasons. And finally, I had to email a lawyer, who sent a letter, which set off a chain of emails, which finally resulted in eight boxes of mine being dumped into my living room.

I spent two days going through those boxes. In them, I found a picture of my mother holding my older sister as a baby. It’s a picture I had framed when my mom turned 50. I love that picture. It is a joyful moment of motherhood. It’s the way I want to remember my mother, silly, smiling. It’s the way I want to be remembered as a mother. Even though, I know, it isn’t the full truth of my life. That more often I am tired. More often I am yelling. More often I am at the dinner table exasperated, demanding they eat and sit in their chairs for god sakes.

When I found the picture, I cried. I cried because I hadn’t seen it in over three years. I cried because it meant so much to me, and it was withheld from me for no good reason. I cried because I had to fight to reclaim it. Because I had spent more in lawyer fees to get it back than it was worth, but it was worth something to me.

I cried because I am a raw sack of meat, trying not to ever, ever become calloused.