Hello and Happy Epiphany!
Last night I Zoomed with five high school friends who’re exactly my age, having graduated in the same year. Some of them I’ve known since I was ten. All had successful careers, now mostly behind them or replaced by community, church, and family service. All of us have been lucky, hard-working, and clever enough to be financially stable in retirement. Most, but not all, are well-traveled. Most, but not all, are doting Zoom grandparents. All, not most, are thankful each day for our lives and health.
The check-in began with our hit parade of insights and fears about the pandemic and politics, richly interwoven with memories of our shared youth. Then there was a noticeable pause. And it was Vicki who confessed first. I’m so content with this quiet life. I don’t want to go anywhere, change anything. I’m just peaceful. Then one by one each woman testified to the deep satisfaction of solitude and living in a kind of day-to-day flow: the creative surprises that have emerged from quarantine. We realized we’ve become “homebodies,” an identity that would have gagged us at a certain time in our lives.
Today I still see the face of each vibrant woman in her early seventies, combined with a clear memory of each face at different stages, all the way back to the girls we were at 16. There’s something transcendent in each face, something more at home with itself, something less stressed and more rested than ever before. Apparently cocooning is a powerful regenerative beauty remedy.
I’m so humbled and honored by the sacrifices being made to keep me and my generation safe. I remember the frenetic pace and the stress of trying to hold together career and family as it came at me from all directions during my householder years. I can only imagine how much harder it is for those of you whose lives have become infinitely more complex in the last year. I realize that you’ve borne the brunt of the pandemic, as you’ve shouldered the need to protect us from the ravages of this plague.
I want to say thank you, but those two words don’t describe the gratitude I feel in my heart. This may be the first time that many of us in the cocoon have ever been truly rested. We hope to do you proud when we emerge, and now, here we are. In deep appreciation of this world between worlds where you took good care of us.
And so I begin each morning with a prayer of gratitude and a poem. For you. For us all.
Bless the fuzzy dream world.
Try to remember it as body arises,
foot meeting the floor, slowly staggering to the toilet.
Praise the plumbing that still works.
Watch as body releases water.
Boils water. Makes tea (and thus more water)
Heart beats of its own accord.
Breathe out the sleep world
(in praise of fog rain sun snow).
Notice the flurry of to-do’s and no-don’ts,
the packages of maybes
piling up on the doorstep of waking,
helpers with the best of intentions.
Ignore them for now.
Light candles of gratitude for the warmth of being
Sip the tender morning light. Savor it.
Remember these things.
– Susan Grace. (2021)
Film Pick for January:
My Octopus Teacher
An interspecies love story…
We human creatures are moths drawn to the magic of light. We have always come together during these short days to celebrate light and to remind ourselves that the dark will not last. So the final insult of 2020 is not being able to share that comfort at a time when so many of us are facing loss, stress, and disconnection. And yet here we are. Groping our way through the unknown without the traditional comforts of celebration, song, laughter, and prayer within our larger human community.
From Christmas celebrations of nativity scenes and candlelight to Dewali’s Festival of Lights in India to neo-pagan solstice celebrations, we have always derived comfort from the light during the darkest time of year. (Even the anti-holiday Festivus, which began knee-deep in the irony of Seinfeld sarcasm has quickly become a holiday with its own rituals and an invitation to create new ones, which will probably involve twinkling lights.)
If there was ever a year for a light in the darkness, this is it. But while we may long for the nostalgic holidays of our real or imagined past, the reality is that, no matter how we struggle to make this season the same, it’s just not. The shared repetition of our little and big rituals is missing. And it’s tempting to just skip it altogether. But that’s even sadder. However, there is some good news, a little glimmer of light. Now that the mold is broken, we have a chance (and every excuse) to slow it all down, to simplify, and to create something more personally satisfying.
I don’t usually pay much attention to the liturgical calendar of traditional Christianity as I’m not a traditional Christian (whatever that is). But I have found deep meaning in two of the less familiar rituals of the season. One, Advent, anticipates the season, and the other, Epiphany, closes it. I first discovered Advent because it involved chocolate and ticking off things on a calendar, two of my favorite things. But while I was frequenting a monastery during this season a few years back I realized there was more to it.
During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a ritual time of patience, a time of waiting. Each week focuses on a theme: hope, peace, joy, and love. As the candles burn the light gets brighter by the week until Christmas itself, when the Light of the World is celebrated. I’ve heard it described as a deepening of the relationship with the divine, of that which passes way beyond human understanding.
I find myself returning to this practice with a new focus this year. The beauty of this ritual is that it doesn’t need crowds of people. I can meditate alone on these things or share with my pod or my family. And because Advent is ultimately about “Longing for Union with the Possible,” when has there been a better time to do that?
As I light my candle to peace this morning, I notice that it’s already here, and I say a prayer that each of you will find hope and patience in your lives each day while we wait for the light to return.
From my hearth to yours,
6 am. November 10th. Silence. Solitude.
I creep around my room in the worshipful dark, lighting beeswax candles and placing the last of the season’s peach dahlias on the windowsill altar. The first real fog of the season has newly landed on the hills outside the window.
For this moment, before the fog lifts, I embrace this inner sanctum.
There’s a big breath and a sigh as I surrender to a deeper peace than I have felt for months.
I create a little altar for the family cabin which burned to the ground on Labor Day:
And then I remember what I’ve forgotten during the tumult and strife of recent life. Something ancient and deep and comforting. A peace that has been here all along, beneath the screaming headlines and the pandemic fear. And like a spell has been broken, here I am, with all my parts. I am Re-membered.
The Remembering Thing is big enough to be the basis of ritual in nearly every world religion. It’s the prime directive that enables the words of sages to resonate through the ages.
I understand this now in a whole new way. So much is forgotten when I’m in reactivity, no matter what spiritual tools I use to maintain peace of mind. And so, today, this morning, I’m welcoming myself back home with an act of remembrance, perhaps as simple as lighting a candle. Or creating a little altar to remember something I loved and lost.
Because fall is the time for remembering what we have, what we’ve lost, and what is never truly gone.
(for Breitenbush, 2020 )
They say the firestorm took the Sanctuary.
The vaulted wooden arches, the soft carpet
built to receive the deep bows of a child,
windows opening to the sound of
roaring river in the gully below.
The setting small enough for quiet whispers
Or the sound of voices meeting voices in song
Yet big enough for rampant drumming,
under tall tall trees and blue bowl sky.
Here this winter morning,
within this home sanctuary,
the big beyond exposes herself,
draped not in smoke but only a mauve whisp of cloud.
Here the slow dawn reveals
glimpses of the great beauty.
Here candles greet morning light,
gently waking up the far hillside.
And love of what was shines bright,
Tucked close in this heart
and in little altars Everywhere.
About a month ago a friend sent me this meme. It was right after my husband and I escaped the firestorm in the ancient forest that melted our two-story cabin AND outhouse into a pool of scrap metal. Some might have thought it insensitive or in “poor taste,” whatever that is. I laughed a full belly laugh, for the first time in weeks. It fully captured everything words couldn’t.
I haven’t yet experienced the death of a loved one to COVID or fire, so perhaps it’s easier for me to tap into a sense of the absurd. Lately, I’ve been thinking of writing a holiday letter for the first time in years. Instead of the cringe-worthy shiny happy facts of the classic letter, I envisioned a month-by-month list of unpleasant surprises, with various non-lethal outcomes.
For instance, this past month, after the fire, we planned on a do-over of the night of our actual anniversary, the day we were evacuated from our summer home. We chose my husband Geo’s birthday, and a friend offered us a couple of overnights at their cabin on the Oregon coast. A few days before the trip Geo began having severe nerve pain in a tooth. We thought we’d leave right on his birthday right after his visit to the endodontist to relieve the pain. Which couldn’t happen yet, apparently, although he was given something to relieve the symptoms. We went on our getaway to the coast anyway, and when we arrived we decided we could just peek at the first presidential debate that first night without spoiling the mood. Bad plan. We came home a day early, with tooth and heart pain active.
This was a week ago and so much has already transpired on the world scene that I’ve lost count. When I’m too tuned in to all the crazy bad news, fear just seems to follow and I quickly lose my sense of humor. I figure these experiences are a tiny sampling of what people around the world are experiencing during this longest year in recent human history. Our situation is different (and luckier) than most. I’m no longer responsible for the education of my children, grandchildren, or teenage students. Not caring for an elder with precarious health. We are healthy and virus free. We haven’t lived in lockdown for months, and we have tons of green space and good air, now that the smoke has cleared. For all these things I am truly grateful.
A new tally begins as I savor the lingering beauty of Indian summer. There’s a slant of light on the garden. A colorful green, gold, and orange backdrop as we circumnavigate the hills and town on our bikes. Gradually I let go of the Crappy 2020 Tally and the fear of the Dark Days Ahead. Tonight I’ll sit down to write a few letters encouraging my fellow citizens in Georgia to vote. I’ll call a friend whose father was just moved to hospice care. And maybe I’ll tune into a soothing escape show (Looking at you, Great British Baking Show.) Without the tally, it’s all just life, following the directions, one step at a time.
May you relish the absurd and the beautiful, of this entire messy world in this stressful but crucial season.
Be the love,
Poem: Grandmother Snag
You were there in your place last Monday
before the fire winds spiraled in.
Half of you, anyway,
the top part ripped away long ago
your red cedar shell,
small protection for your ancient heart.
Held fast to the hillside
by spruce, yew, fir cousins.
I showed you to my human mother
while she still had legs and heart
and she loved you too.
And now you are both with me,
still and rugged as ages
untouched by time or by fire