I have spoken three times at my town’s International Overdose Day. I live in Cohasset (which is Algonquian for “long rocky place”) and the town perches on the Atlantic Ocean just south of Boston. The center of our town has a historic common, or shared green lawn, that is ringed by stately 18th century homes of white clapboard. The wooden doors of these homes are accented by multi-paned transoms that wink in the light; the sort of confident wink that is completely appropriate in an upper crust sailing town. Standing in the center of the common, not far from the granite flag pole, one can gaze upon our town hall. It is an aging behemoth with peeling columns and double doors that fling wide open on voting days. Also opening on to the common are three separate houses of faith. It’s not an overly religious town; but it does revere its history – and freedom of faith was paramount to the early settlers.
History aside, the common continues to serve as a gathering place. Thursdays there is a farmer’s market with fresh corn, local tomatoes, handmade bread and live music. Most mornings the common is graced by dog walkers, joggers and people sipping coffees by the koi pond. Afternoons are reserved for nannies pushing tandem strollers and pre-teens on bikes. Sometimes I squeeze my eyes shut; because really, it’s so perfect it’s almost offensive.
When I first moved to this town I took my mother on a spin around the back shore. We passed manicured mansions, crashing waves, private beaches. “You need to get out” was what my mother said. I remember laughing. She explained the town would “make me soft.” I still remember my eye roll. What is wrong with being soft? Isn’t softness the end goal?
No, it turns out softness is not a worthy end goal. The first time I publicly spoke at International Overdose Day I made a plea for transparency. A plea for our “rough edges” to be acknowledged. It is easier to hide the disease of addiction, and its consequences, in a beautiful town. But this delay prevents change. And change is what will move many of our community members forward.
The second time I took a gentler approach. One of acceptance.
I read Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
But the last time I spoke I was angry. As I stood there in my white pressed shirt near the white clapboard churches a video feed rolled through the faces of local people who had died. People that would never enjoy our idyllic common again.
“I have had enough” is what I said.
A year later I am still reflecting on my words. I have spent a decade trying to change so many things. And when I wasn’t trying I was obsessing. Lately I just feel discouraged. Yesterday I took my son to an orthopedist and on the wall opposite us was the infamous “smiley face” chart. The pain chart created by Purdue Pharma to facilitate a nation’s addiction to opiates. There it was grinning, and grimacing, back at us. I wish I could say it was the first time I had seen this chart still being used. But it is not. And then there is my own behavior: three months ago I came upon a few men hunkered down on the edge of a dirty sidewalk. They were visibly impaired and it was really cold out. Massachusetts in the winter is no place for glove-less, hat-less, hopeless souls. What did I do? I crossed the street, started up my warm car, and drove myself home. I could confess to even more inaction – but I will leave it at that.
I still want change. But impatience has led to fatigue. This battle requires an army of Gandhis, Mandelas and Kings with endless patience and bottomless hope. Tireless. Selfless. Relentless. We do have heroic soldiers: Joanne Peterson, Maura Healey and Rick Mountcastle all come to mind. But after another record year of overdoses, it is clear we need many, many more. And I am not made of that kind of stuff: I am soft. Or getting soft. And it’s so easy to lay down your weaponry.