Every Morning I Wake Up to a Different Earth:
A Lyrical Essay by Sarah Shourd
Sitting under an oak tree on a socially-distanced hike with my friend, we peer over poppy-sprinkled hills toward the Pacific Ocean. Halfway through my sandwich, three vultures begin to tighten their orbit above us, closer each round, until they’re uncomfortably close.
I’ve noticed other species inching closer too—a few bold hummingbirds and a hawk— and I’ve felt myself doing the same, flying lower, circling in, gravitating towards the people, things and ideas that I need the most, in real-time, even when we’re physically apart.
And I wake up every morning to a different earth.
Three weeks ago, the order to shelter in place felt like a heavy truck driving over my chest. I could feel myself physically harden, internally distancing from the situation. My home was a prison, my country a totalitarian state. The words “I don’t need anyone” flitted across the revolving thought ticker in my mind.
But this time I caught myself, early.
Reclaiming solitude has been a muscle I’ve been building for years—as a writer, a survivor of long-term solitary confinement, and as a person whose healing demands releasing my grip on the past and inching closer to living in the moment each day.
I have a corona buddy. She helps me soften.
This person came into my life just days before shelter in place and since then, we’ve been sharing this experience together, though mostly physically apart. It’s never a burden, never too much, to jump on the phone and talk through our choices again.
What I’ve learned is that emotional resilience is about being soft, not hard—flexible, not rigid. It’s about being vulnerable because hard things break, hard things crack—hard things don’t survive. I’ve cracked enough times to know.
This time I’m ready to do it differently.
Expanding empathy during a crisis requires being flexible enough to adapt to a reality that is changing daily. Making space to filter, discuss and breathe through intense information helps us make better choices. It will make it more likely more of us will survive.
I feel closest to people trying to save lives—which is everyone I know.
I’m waiting for the first death in my circle, and I’m not ready. I’m afraid of doing something wrong, a misstep that leads to someone I love getting sick. What gives me hope is that so many people I know are making choices that make us all safer.
I’m worried about the people who are locked up, even more than I’m usually worried about the people who are locked up.
I’ve lost two people in my life whom I loved and needed, my grandmother, Ruth, and my best friend in prison, Zahra Bahrami. Zahra has been visiting me the last few mornings in my meditation, sitting next to me and reminding me that the only way to prepare for loss is to find joy.
And that joy is rebellion.
It’s overwhelming, this feeling that everything’s changed. And that feeling is almost always followed by the fear that it hasn’t. That things will go back to normal after this crisis is over, that too many people will continue to be put in prison for all the wrong fucking reasons, that my heart will harden again.
But that might not be true.
Some of us have the luxury of slowing down and thinking about the transformative potential of this moment, others don’t. But whether this pandemic has you slowing down or speeding up—change is happening really fast.
The fact that more of us are on the same page—in a sustained way—more than at any other time I can remember, has undeniable potential.
Sometimes the distance between us is quiet. Sometimes it’s really loud.
And tomorrow this will all be different.
More About: In Real Time: Society Questioning Itself
What are the shifts taking place now in real time—ideologically, experientially, practically—that will continue to have ripples for years and generations to come? What narratives are competing in this moment? What “new forms” might parade as progressive but reproduce the same oppressive, dominant power structures that they purport to replace? What new ideas and habits might actually change material conditions? What stories will win?
This is my subscription newsletter, Sarah Shourd (@Sshourd), which will consist of reflections, analysis and reporting from a journalist, storyteller and survivor of solitary confinement about how society is questioning itself during the duration and aftermath of the corona pandemic.
A central focus of this blog is what I believe may prove to be one of the biggest carceral moments in history—how releasing thousands of prisoners across the country, or the tragic consequences of failing to do so, has laid bare the assumption that prisons make us safer and provoked a moment of reckoning by challenging the people who run them to take action to prevent mass death. You can read more in an op-ed I wrote last week. Some topics and themes I will explore are:
Resilience: How this moment requires us to do more than just survive.
Quality of Life: What new and old habits, beliefs and priorities are emerging or being reinforced that might actually stick?
The Nuclear Family: Why non-traditional care structures work better.
Safety Net: What would our society look like if we continued to put the most vulnerable at the center?
Climate: What can an invisible virus teach us about the climate crisis?
Incarceration: How guards, wardens, sheriffs and district attorneys across the U.S. are acknowledging our collective fate.
Policing and Decarceration: Ok, we’ve gotten some people out of prison, what needs to change in order to keep them out?
Health Care: How can we make sure nurses continue to run the show?
Our Divisions: The ways this moment is and isn’t polarizing and how inequities are exaggerated during a pandemic.
I am going to work hard on this newsletter. I will conduct interviews, synthesize readings and dig really deep. I will do my best to write from a place of vision, reflection and grounded hope. I will write several posts a month and facilitate a Zoom conversation on the posts that resonate the most.
In order to do that, I need enough people to subscribe to make this project sustainable.
In the spirit of both generating abundance and being real, I’m asking you for a $5 monthly subscription or $50 for one year. Please consider paying for your own plus an extra subscription or two that I will gift to a formerly incarcerated or low-income reader. If you are one of those people email me at email@example.com. All posts will eventually be made public.
Once you’ve subscribed, every new edition of In Real Time will go directly to your inbox, so you won’t have to worry about missing anything.
This is not a time to white-knuckle through this pandemic in hopes of returning to the status quo, this is a moment for transformation.
I investigate urgent stories and tell them in creative ways. Theater. Print Journalism. Podcasting. Graphic Novels. JSK Stanford Fellow 2019.