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Janet Thomas: Love, Loss, and Longing--The Signs of These Times

  • Written by Janet Thomas

Now what? These two words have taken over my daily life. They hover inside and out waiting for a clear and honest answer. Neither of which I feel capable of. The current complexity of personal and public life-at-large is an existential merry-go-round that does not stop--and is anything but merry. These opinion pieces are normally stimulated by a specific event, or circumstance, or controversy, or discovery, or realization. None of which are coming through with any clarity in this COVID catastrophe. What is coming through are the ways in which COVID is both a reality and a metaphor. The end of another decade. And perhaps the beginning of the end of life-as-we-know-it-on-earth.

It all weaves together: I am trying to complete a book that was started pre-COVID and now needs a whole new view of it all. I’m trying to save the Southern Resident orcas, a highly advanced species that was facing extinction pre-COVID and still is--in spite of the mirror being held up to human exploitation. I am trying to keep the equilibrium I had--as well as a sense of humor and hope for the future--despite not being able to connect in-person to the dearly beloved humans whom, I’m discovering, mean everything to me.

There is nothing simple about any of it. And I know I am not alone. The “Hi, how are you question” has a couple of different answers. When it is asked of me in-person, masked and from a distance, I get quiet and look carefully into the mask-wearer’s eyes. “Not great,” I say. “Hangin’ in.” Inevitably, there is a response that encompasses a long pause and a “me too” answer. Then we graduate into connection and commiseration and an abbreviated show of “oh well” optimism. I am grateful for every moment of every encounter. It grounds me in a precious shared reality and oh how I am needing it.

The simple process of sharing reality without really thinking about it is what has been yanked out from under us. The spontaneity of encountering a friend, a hug, a naked face complete with emotion and wordless connection followed by words that are, or are not, full of meaning is no longer possible. We have lost the spontaneity of mutual existence to this COVID emergency.

The irony of giving up our human connections to save our human connections is a heartbreaking reality. I had no idea how critical it was to share smiles at the grocery store, the post office, the gas pump, the bank, and all over the sidewalks. And then there is the profound gift of living here on the island. The beauty of it all around every corner and along every shore.

My morning shoreline walks make the rest of the day possible. Blissing out at the exquisite beauty of nature’s rhythms and everlasting creation and re-creation makes picking up plastic along the shore easy and sad. No morning is the same. The tideline, the light, the landscape is in continual change, all of it in a partnership with life. Even the bits of plastic are rarely the same--except for the plastic casings from fired bullets.

It is sacred partnership with the nature of it all that gave us life and sustains us in life. Now, the ways in which we live and consume and discard and do battle are contributing to the end of life. We are all so complicit in exploiting life that our origins in life are being trashed along with all the plastic and disposable trash in our lives. Even the trees know better: A film-maker friend of mine is working on a film about democracy and nature. It all comes down to interdependence. We do not see what goes on underground in the forests of the world, but it is rooted in communication, not only literally but also evolutionary. The communication between the roots of trees is what protects and nurtures the forest.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html?fbclid=IwAR1PtgWjLVpBCxK6crwSGeGW4mkt9c4v_ye-OwTe9bflEV8z7MurV6HtdOg https://www.treehugger.com/trees-talk-each-other-and-recognize-their-offspring-4858710?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=mobilesharebutton2&fbclid=IwAR0OX9k4YKyldtaJFDb9oPiNFvIpdBdmwkXdNPapsqtu5oJNCnLQdQbCe_Y  (Please note this is behind a paywall)

First Peoples around the world were fully aware of this inter-connection. They celebrated it and preserved it. Then they were invaded, exploited, and annihilated by invaders whose disconnection from the foundational miracle-of-it-all is now the pathway to planetary destruction.

What do we hold sacred? The first answer that comes to my mind is “our children.” So, if we hold our children sacred in our hearts and minds, why are we not doing everything possible to preserve their future on this planet? One possible answer is the whitewashing of it all--literally and figuratively.


When I go to India, I experience an inspiring and reassuring reality. On my first trip, this was utterly mystifying to me. On my next trip, I was able to take a breath and think about it. Nothing is hidden in India. Whether walking the streets of small villages or immersed in the traffic of big cities, everything and everyone is visible. And so is the eye-contact. It is a constant connection to humanity in all its various appearances, complexities, and sensitivities. I felt at home with humanity--from the poverty-stricken to the wealthy. In some way, All Were One. And over the next ten years of going there, it was an annual re-setting of reality for me as well as a profoundly rewarding time with writers from all over the world. I wonder how it is now--at a time when our connection to one another is so deeply needed and yet so forbidden. Is eye-contact prevailing in India? I don’t know. What I do know is that it would be of immense comfort to share eye-contact on the paths, trails, and sidewalks of our community. As we all cooperate to protect one another from the COVID virus, eye-contact, and a wink and/or a wave could connect us all in-spite-of it all.

We all walk together in the beauty of this place. We all suffer together in these COVID times. We all know and don’t know one-another. We are islanders bound by our vulnerabilities, our shorelines, our loved ones, our fears, our hopes, and our food sources.

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne in 1624. Neither is a woman, a child, a dog, a tree. Interdependence is us. Knowing this, appreciating it, honoring it, and sharing it is our destiny through life. This is knowledge that was kept from me throughout the abusive years of my childhood. I was alone, on my own, there was no person, place, possibility to rely upon. My healing was a journey of re-connection.

Now, all the states of isolation are being triggered by these isolating times. And they are for many of my survivor friends too. We learned to survive through an independence that denies vulnerability in all its manifestly human forms. Our healing has depended upon opening up to our dependence upon others.

As I mourn the loss of freedom with my friends, I am overwhelmed by the importance of friendship and the ways in which friends, close and casual, near and far are part of the web of my healing existence. I love you all. The gratitude I feel for you being in my life is shed in tears, and in prayers of grief and appreciation.

This too shall pass.


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."