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Janet Thomas: No Human Is An Island

  • Written by Janet Thomas

This piece has wrestled with me for nearly two months. Thanks to the “Kneel In” for George Floyd at the Friday Harbor Courthouse last Monday evening and last Friday’s Black Lives Matter march through town, I am finally able to finish it.

Every day there has been an introductory sentence in my head. Every day it felt insufficient for these times. The complexity is all-encompassing. From COVID 19 to George Floyd, the humanity, and the inhumanity of it all are partnered in a perplexing and tragic state of co-dependence.

As human lives around the world are taken by COVID 19, animal life is coming back all over the planet. As the skies clear in India, Mount Everest is shining its peak for millions to see for the first time. Yet millions of migrant workers in that country are stranded in place or being beaten for trying to get home. The tragedy of George Floyd is arousing national and global demonstrations on behalf of facing racism and our continued responsibility for creating its reality.

Last week, on my morning sojourn to Jackson’s Beach, I was greeted by the words “Black Lives Matter” spray-painted on a big piece of driftwood. My heart soared at the sight. Just as my spirit soared at the “Kneel-In” for George Floyd at the Friday Harbor Courthouse on Monday. Taking a knee with several hundred other people from my community articulated all that cannot be articulated. It connected us in unspoken and universal humanity. In justice. In compassion. In community. Thank you, Susan Nichols and Jessie Carter McDonald, for bringing us together in such a way that each of us could feel comfort in our shared grief, even as it aroused us to individual reflection, realization, and action.

The Friday evening march, organize by Brandyn Lawrence-Pedersen, brought more than 500 of us together, including many young people, in a walk throughout town on behalf of Black lives everywhere. The signs, the chants, and the solidarity were profoundly inspiring.

A week earlier it was Memorial Day weekend. It was at Fort Dix, NJ during the Vietnam War, that Memorial Day became a lifelong personal memory as well as my first real lesson in Black Lives Matter. My husband was stationed there. I got pregnant there. Thomas literally delivered himself with a loud cry before he was fully emerged. At Walson Army Hospital it was a policy to keep newborn babies under observation for 24 hours before they were delivered to their mothers. I could hardly wait to hold my new son. The next morning two men entered my room and told me that Thomas had “expired.” They were followed by my doctor who said, “It’s okay. You can have another one.”

The grief I experienced plunged me into isolation and despair. It led to me volunteering at the hospital where grief was the norm. The young men returning from Vietnam with missing limbs and life-threatening injuries became my secret community. At twenty-two, I was often older than they were, but the presence of insufferable loss gave their countenance an age-old wisdom. Far too many of those gravely wounded soldiers were Black. The irony of the Civil Rights movement underway in the country as so many Black lives were being lost and destroyed on behalf of the country rang its own tragic bell--loud and clear. A dark truth is that Black soldiers experienced racism in the army too. Their lives were lost at a greater rate than the lives of white soldiers. They were assigned to dirtier and more dangerous duty than were white soldiers.


The loss of my son laid out the path for the rest of my life. Upon returning to the West Coast, I faced reality and got a divorce, marched against the war, marched for Civil Rights, went back to school, and began to claim my own life. Doing so was no simple matter. It involved reclaiming my past which I had effectively, for my own survival, forgotten. It also carried a disturbing realization that still breaks my heart. The soldiers returning from Vietnam felt unrecognized and betrayed by the streets full of protestors. Most of us were protesting the war not the soldiers but the differentiation was not made clear in those chaotic times.

Moving to San Juan Island almost 30 years ago was a critical choice in my healing curve. When, on my first visit, I set foot on the shores of South Beach, all I could feel was the wonder of it all. If I lived here, I could always come to the shore were the words that compelled me to this island

This Memorial Day, when I did my morning walk at Jacksons Beach, there was a small group of men hovered around a small fire under the shelter. I have seen them regularly at Jacksons for the past few weeks and assumed their coffee-house rendezvous was not possible because of COVID 19, so they meet up at the beach. This was their first fire. They all look eligible to be Vietnam Vets and it is this possibility that accompanied me as I walked through the drizzle with my pick-up-plastic bag in one hand and camera in the other. Perhaps the fire is their ceremonial honoring of Memorial Day.

Later in the day, I was back at Jacksons for a beach walk with my friend’s dog. I re-visited the place of the small fire and there, stretched out beside the log upon which the men were sitting, were three red roses.

As these times unfold, the past becomes the present and the future is once again quivering in the hearts and hands of us all. When will humanity rise to the miracle of its own creation? When will the sacredness of life rise out of the ashes of greed, injustice, and exploitation?

These days are bringing me closer to the traumas in my life as well as to my liberation from these traumas. My morning walks are a study in futility and transcendence. After that moment of waking when all is well, consciousness awakes and waking up becomes a monumental anguish about how unwell it all really is--everywhere.

Isolation. Self-isolation. Enforced isolation. “Isolation” is one of those words that inhabits a wide array of experiences--from incarceration to enlightenment. I have friends who completed three-year silent Buddhist retreat in isolation. I know of Tibetan monks who spend decades in silent solitary retreat praying for the well-being of all sentient beings. Then there is the part-of- every-day-isolation (aka solitude) that comes with the writing territory. Isolation is necessary to get away from the spin of it all and let the writing have its way. The comfort comes from the inspiring, invisible un-isolation that inhabits the real world “out there.”

As these challenging times unfold, isolation is taking on a whole new meaning. Sometimes it feels like it is wreaking havoc with every level of life. The required isolation for writing is tainted by this 24/7 enforced isolation. It is as though the symmetry of it all has been thrown into question, undermining the purpose of our lives as well as the purpose of life itself.

Where have all the lessons gone? What happened to everything I have learned, experienced, valued and relied upon for the meaning in life? I am more than 30 years into the therapy that saved my life from the impact of my childhood trauma. Throughout those 30 years, I was well-schooled in the ways that I could be so easily triggered in abnormal ways by normal life. Nothing, however, quite prepared me for these abnormal times. They are, in-fact, triggering all my friends into an immobilization both real and imagined. This is when it is even more critical to act upon what we have learned and experienced. Not to do so is an insult to all who have been, and are, so critically important in our life’s journey.

This crisis we are in is real. And so are the crises it is exposing--the inequity of it all within the nature of it all. As skies clear and the land rests, animals around the world are re-entering the quietness and becoming visible throughout the “civilized” world. Nature is having the last word and always will. When will we awaken to the reality of this ongoing miracle? Nature gave birth to us; why do we so easily forget this miraculous occurrence and our natural place in the natural world? When will human “nature” honor its sacred duty--to the earth and to one-another?

On today’s afternoon walk to the beach, I encountered an acquaintance, someone I have, in island-style, “known” for about 20 years but never really spoken to. We both had dogs with us. Words of greeting and condolence spilled out of our mouths immediately. We shared with one another the moment of wakening. How, literally each morning we awake to an instantaneous moment of “Ah! another day!” followed by the shocking awareness of our current reality. We bonded through the sharing and I felt, and feel, profoundly grateful. Waking and awakening--two realities in one breath.

On the way driving home down Argyle Avenue a yard-sign jumped out at me: “Black Lives Matter.” My gratitude increased. We are a community isolating because of COVID 19 and connecting through crisis. Thank you, San Juan County residents. May awareness and right action prevail.

“We may have all come on different ships. But we’re in the same boat now.” --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 29 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onThursday, 20 August 2020 13:00

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