Violence, like love, isn’t always felt in the moment. The intensity of those is usually more or less steady, on time-release. Only occasionally does passion jag up and off the charts, a tidal wave flashing solely over our intimate relationships, or engulfing entire communities. Like taking hold of the wrong end of a plugged-in, hot curling iron, it can take a minute to realize there is something there, asking to be felt. It presents an opportunity to change something in the routine.
Having the name ‘Naomi’ has been interesting, but it’s become, and usually stays, a steady experience, emotionally speaking. True, sometimes people don’t know how to pronounce it. When I got back to the states from Africa, one classmate called me, “Ni,” as in “Niomee.” In French my name is said like, “Nah-o-mee.” In Spanish, “No-eh-mee.” But my name is pronounced more like, “Nay.” Truth be told, I’ll answer to all those ways, and both nicknames, Ni and Nay, have been said with a spirit of love. It’s pretty obvious when there isn’t love there. For example (and I feel like I’ve written about this before, ad nauseam), in junior high there was a kid who called me “Ethiopia.” Inexplicable. A lot of things about junior high seem inexplicable. Actually, they’re perfectly explainable. Everyone’s bodies and voices are changing, and no one feels sure about anything, anymore. No one is sure they are loved. Especially, no one is sure they love themselves.
That, and when I told classmates I’d been living in Africa, I guess their main reference point, as mine might have been too, through no fault of our own, lay somewhere between National Geographic and “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” But having lived there, I brought new information; a bug, not a feature.
Finally, someone said, “Oh, Naomi, like Naomi Judd?” And that clicked. I was so grateful. From the moment I learned who the (very popular) Judds were, I introduced myself like this: “Naomi. [beat] You know, like the Judds?” I could kind of walk behind the Judds into any room, with less spotlight on me. Other celebrity Naomis have emerged, but I’ve stuck with the Judds. I always thought Naomi Judd was beautiful, yet there’s a southern country music humbleness to the duo. And saying, “you know, like Naomi the runway model” or “like that actress” (I can never remember what movies she’s been in) seemed less universal, or at least less “me,” though I’ve (briefly) both modeled & acted. Singing though, putting out my voice, to me feels harder, more vulnerable, more honest, more flawed, than putting my body out there enacting a persona I know I’m not, or modeling a body, without my voice heard at all. My mother, she can sing! But when she calls on the phone saying, “just wanted to hear your voice,” she’s valiantly breaking out into my favorite song of hers, one I don’t know if she knows how much I love hearing her sing. Because she’s my mother, offering her voice to me. For years though, it seemed like we were never going to sing quite like the Judds. I listened to them perform, curious, envious, at their flawless duets. Growing up, I never invited my mother to try singing Love Can Build a Bridge or Mama He’s Crazy with me. I don’t think it ever occurred to me. Maybe we both would’ve loved it. Maybe it’s not too late.
“My name’s Naomi. Like the Judds,” I went on saying over the years, as recently as this year, “the mother-daughter duo.” Gawd knows we need a lot of bridges. I sure do. To be heard; and, for someone who’s long loved you to want to still hear your voice; for them to tell you again & again until maybe you can believe them—that’s the chorus to a powerful love song. Some haven’t, and some have been sung to like that, by parents and friends and lovers, but that’s not enough. I don’t know if this is a universal block, or a block specific to me, but sometimes, when I want to sing it back to someone else, my voice feels too weak. Or I get a feeling they need to hear me sing it, but I make second guesses and end up just humming to myself.
Last April, Naomi Judd killed herself. She was the mother of the duo. It wasn’t till mid-May, the week after Mother’s Day, that my latent mourning of this woman, who I’d never met, yet for so long shared a name with, edged up my body from my stomach, where it’d been holding. It came to my throat and it caught me by surprise, how heartbroken I felt, to hear Naomi’s youngest daughter say, “She used a weapon. A firearm.” Why? Didn’t Naomi know how much she was loved? Starting, obviously, with her daughters? The violence of it is crushing. The finality of it.
Maybe that “holdfast,” that foundation of love for and with others—or others’ fundamental love for us—isn’t always so obvious in the thick of life, especially when faced with ourselves. Maybe what’s universal is, even without serious mental illness and other circumstances that amplify doubt, we’re all doing an underwater breaststroke through the nightly news and daily commute, forgetful how anchored in love we are, distracted and detached by suggestions that we aren’t. Who are these real selves, looking back at us in a mirror, different, evolved, changed from the way we want to be seen, or have been seen, or self-see. How do you say it to yourself? I love you. It’s hard to stop swimming for a minute, and believe the mirror: “I love you.”
Lacking self-compassion must have a lot to do with how successful we are at loving others. I began to weep, not just imagining the pain of the Judd family, their time with Naomi run out, but with gratitude that I do have time left with my family, with people I hope know just how much they’re loved. Some relationships seem harder, because they go deeper. They’re, hopefully, both hardy and safe places to heal and evolve, deal with and stop societal cycles of abuse, or hate, or racism. Like a spiritual contract, these special relationships are a trust, and a dare to love and be loved. In them we are dared to know and somehow remember to cultivate love as a foundation, as a holdfast, throughout our partnered spirals of self-becoming, exposed as we are to the currents of our world, sometimes circling together toward its lightness, sometimes tumbling, arms wrapped around each other, into its depths. Thinking of Naomi, I notice, more deeply, and more simply, my desire for my own mother to feel loved. I notice it with much more awareness than I did as a teenager, curling my hair, going off to school. Growing up, I didn’t ask her, or at least don’t remember asking her: “Hey Mom, how are you doing? Really doing?” Far from that. But I love her so, so much. Which is how I can mourn with Naomi’s daughters, without even knowing them. No further identification is needed beyond that of being an imperfect daughter. It’s not necessary to have shared a name, or said it so often.
Sometimes, an entire community is needed to help mourn such a loss. An international community, even, to offer meals, a bed for the night, the start of a plan. These things can be scaled down, as much as up.
While another family mourns, maybe it’s on the rest of us to ask what should come next, after the shock, then acknowledgement, of such violence. What needs changing up, in the routine? Maybe it’s not a hot curling iron needing new safeties. Could one new kindness habit be squeezed in daily, no matter how small? I love you. To the mirror.
If only shock’s crevices could open up into more capacity for patience, kindness, and choosing love. Offering kindness can feel like a risk. Maybe bravery is needed, too. Courage.
So maybe I don’t stop saying, “Like the Judds. Who sang, Love Can Build A Bridge.”
About two weeks before Naomi Judd’s sudden death, I randomly happened to watch a movie her daughter starred in, a film I hadn’t yet seen: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The timing of the movie feels divine, so I’ll leave off with this clip: