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Blog

A Red Onion

Rebecca Spears

spencer-peeling-onions I didn’t know exactly what would come of it: I was washing lettuce under the cold-water tap, separating crisp fans of it from a few shapeless leaves. The fans would soon line a new green bowl. Into that, I would throw cuts of onion, tomato, more lettuce, avocado, and jicama. And all those pieces would make something that had not existed until that moment.

The outer skin of a red onion peeled away easily enough. I cored one end of the onion with a sturdy black-handled knife and cut half into slices. The other half rested on the scarred cutting board like an overturned bowl. From the radio in the next room, a deep voice I strained to hear was calmly announcing the death of a comedian, followed by a recording of some his famous jokes. Then with hardly a break, that same voice turned to some new horrors in the Middle East — missle strikes, a beheading, the slaughter of innocents. An onion slice fell into rings when I poked my finger into its center. My eyes filled with the sting of onion and the images forming in my head of death and carnage, torture and execution, what unimaginable thing might come next.

At that moment, when my daughter arrived home from work, I was grateful for the onion, and for not having to speak of those images in my head. To speak about those, I would also reveal the grief in my voice, the edge of my own powerlessness. Right then, I would need strength I didn’t have. I would appear vulnerable to my daughter.

It takes a leap of faith to feel deeply and then to show one’s powerlessness. Vulnerability can be mistaken for weakness and sentimentality. As a writer, I’ve learned to take that risk on the page. But how do I make sure my voice is heard? It’s more difficult for some of us to speak aloud with worry or sadness, to voice our concerns, especially about events that are out of our hands. A friend once told me that she’d turned to writing because she felt things so deeply — from darkness to joy — and she needed to do something creative with those emotions. She had already accepted her strong feelings. Calmly. The acceptance had made her more certain of how to go on after a recent loss. She made me think about my own deep feelings and about owning those feelings. But as I said, owning up is sometimes easier on the page.

To speak aloud would take heart. Author and professor Brené Brown has written extensively on subjects that seem hard to pin down—whole-heartedness, shame, courage, and vulnerability. In Daring Greatly, she writes of vulnerability that it is “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and creativity. . . . If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” That’s a startling statement, especially because it is hard to be vulnerable among people who generally prefer us to present ourselves in a can-do, positive way.

A line from Rilke’s “Lament (Whom will you cry to, heart?)” comes to mind at the moment when I want to cry out, when I know who I should cry out to. But can I, when my daughter asks me how my day has gone? If I want to be authentic, if I want to tell her exactly what’s happening, if I want to tell her my urgent sadness about the larger world, that there is little I can do about it, then I need to find the words. I need to peel away the layers of my reticence, form an utterance that hasn’t existed until this moment, and tell her.