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Subversive Power of the Smile

Happy Summer!
 
Gathering in community is challenging right now, for oh so many reasons. We’re already reeling from culture wars fed by deeply-held beliefs and trumped-up divisions and differences. Then there’s the confusion and chaos of rapid change. To make it worse, recovering from the isolation or trauma of the pandemic sometimes makes it awkward to simply be around other people. At long last our mouths are mostly disrobed. But I notice even this can be awkward, even for me, a naturally friendly person in a small, relatively safe town. For those who are just beginning to emerge from grief, anger, or fear from the troubles of the last couple of years, it can feel frighteningly vulnerable.
 
As human beings, it is our nature to thrive when we gather with others. So how do we go about life now, in our first “normal” summer in three years? Some of us start with church or go to farmer’s markets. Others brave the unpredictability of airline travel flights to reunite with family and friends. Or we find ways to naturally embrace real live community, in public spaces with children playing and babies toddling, perhaps accompanied by actual live music.
 
Lately I’ve been thinking often of a long-ago trip to Thailand, “Land of Smiles.” Even though the airline lost our bags, even through jet lag in a country radically different than my own, I experienced a curious feeling of well-being after a couple of days. I had already noticed that all the locals smiled as we passed. All of them. It was infectious and also faintly familiar, like going to the Oregon Country Fair or another festive gathering. But it took me a while to figure out that so much smiling had some powerful juju.
 
What I now know is that in Thailand there are 13 or more distinct smiles. The most common, reserved for strangers, is a smile to say hello, a polite courtesy. But even this smile, which I might usually find insincere, had worked on me. Since that trip I’ve discovered research on the increase in dopamine and endorphins and all manner of good chemicals humans experience when smiling. And yes, studies show it’s infectious to give and receive smiles.
 
I recently thought about the Thai tradition of smiling when I read these words by Richard Rohrer: “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of being. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” I suddenly knew just how to go about recovering from my awkwardness. I could live myself into a new way of thinking by the simple, conscious practice of smiling at folks whenever or wherever I could, regardless of what team they seemed to be playing on.
 
My radically subversive act began. Almost immediately what might have seemed false before felt like my true nature. I was living myself into a new way of thinking by simply smiling.
 
It’s been a remarkable experiment. Infectious. Fun. And real.
Join me? 😄
 
True Nature
 
Yesterday down the oak outside my window
A masked raccoon slowly crept, face first, 
Striped tail straight up, prehensile claws holding fast. 
Tiny nuthatches do this too
And somehow the earth doesn’t rise up 
To claim their bodies, break their necks,
Or punish them for their arrogance.
Must be their true nature, I think.
 
Meanwhile, this body of mine, 
held upright by bumpy ankles of many breaks,
Plops and slides down the slippery clay riverbank 
butt first rather than risking a crooked footfall. 
Sometimes, I think, true nature 
also requires getting low on the earth,
having a seat, and then trusting gravity with the rest.
 
 
—SgB 6/2022

Mother, Simon, and Me

 
 
Nearly every recess in second grade, I raced to the playground to play one of my favorite games, either Mother May I or Simon Says. I didn’t care which. I don’t remember loving the power of telling the other kids how many baby or giant steps they could take. I just liked the way the rules were so easy, as long as you paid attention. If you weren’t listening or you didn’t mind Simon or moved without Mother’s permission, you were O-U-T. 
 
So very simple and clear. 
 
Ever since 2020 I’ve been longing for that old certainty. At first I studied daily updates and followed the leads, somewhat obsessively focused on decoding pandemic rules. Mostly I obeyed them, which wasn’t too hard since I’m of the certain age that makes caution advisable. But lately Simon has been MIA and I haven’t been able to get a clear answer from Mother. So, like everyone else, I’ve been following my best educated guess about re-entering the world of people. 
 
At least that’s my excuse for my questionable decision to fly to Las Vegas last month for an extended family errand. Somehow the first night, looking for a restaurant, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of several crowd events, mostly outdoors, but still. I was not prepared for the overstimulation that is Las Vegas, a place I hadn’t visited in years. And having been (mostly) sheltered, it was a lot. 
 
A part of me was excited. At the same time another part (my whole nervous system?) began to scream for shelter. After a couple of days of entertainment laced with terror, my husband and I drove a few hours to pick up an RV. We drove it nearly a thousand miles back home to Oregon. This involved learning how to manage all the systems along the way and included a short Siri-directed diversion through San Francisco’s winding streets. Did I mention we were in an unfamiliar vehicle? In an RV? I’m still unpacking from the adventure of the trip. 
 
In the end I didn’t get Covid, something I’ve resigned myself to experiencing as it becomes endemic. As it turns out, several of my friends, both traveling and stationary, did contract the virus. What to do? I’m hearing from lots of other folks about how awkward it is to make plans to reconnect, even though we know itwill probably be worth it in the end. Yesterday, a friend pointed out a people-friendly website: https://covidactnow.org. Having this resource has opened the door to more clarity in summer planning, began with a BIG stretch: indoor singing (with mask). ALMOST like the good old days. But I’ve mostly returned to my old cautious ways.
 
I don’t want to forget the quieter pleasures of the life lived at a slower pace. Walking my elderly dog. Quiet time in solitude by the sea. Following the rise and fall of the ocean, the graceful arc of seagulls and raptors. Life lived on my own terms.
 
I think Mother would approve.
 
Be well,
Remembering Las Vegas 
(or How Not to Emerge from Pandemic Isolation)
Brilliant collage of magenta
Cosmic calliope of punk
Decibels killing to the human ear
Street zipping over the projected sky
“Nuns” with pasties, fishnets and thongs twerking,
Moonwalking the tricky world between sacred and profane.
 
Mother May I?
Take one small step into morning 
this moment of arising 
of drifting in and out without effort
into not being a me and then being one,
becoming and unbecoming 
again and again.
in the dark margin. 
May I taste this tiny slice of life
and savor this small knowledge of death?
 
—SgB 5/2022

Is Spring enough to match the war of hell?

Words have been eluding me this month, mostly because news of war is always lurking, even in the early rays of morning light. I recently recovered from the bad habit of doom scrolling over Covid or presidential politics, and I was finally settling into the soothing early-morning habit of meditating and reading or writing poetry. Then along came Russian invasion of Ukraine, and tragic scenes from Kiev and Karkov (and other places I can’t even pronounce) flooded my mind.
 
I became acutely aware my own helplessness in the face of such enormous tragedy. Then I thought of our sister city Uzhrogod in the Ukraine. And so Geo and I went down to the courthouse and held a sign in solidarity. We donated money for supplies. Then we gave some more to support a local couple who were traveling to the warfront with medical supplies. This helped, but it didn’t feel like enough to match the hell of that war. 
 
Then I thought of the painful losses within my own family from suicide and addiction, another hell in another time of life. And I remembered William Carlos Williams’ words: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The last few days I’ve managed to pick up a pen or remember a few words from trusted source Mary Oliver, determined to save the only life I can, my own. When I do that, the day dawns with a new dimension. If I’m lucky, I can be absorbed by a different world, the one that has been right beside me, all around me, all along.
 
To my amazement, Spring has come. Yesterday I sat in the sunshine on my deck in the woods on the meadow with a poet friend. The plum blossoms blushed pink and, and one of them floated like a tiny lotus in the bird bath, accompanied by the bubbling fountain over my shoulder. I knew right then what it is to be in heaven. Sometimes it feels as if there’s no place big enough to contain all the contradictions of life. Guilt came up, along with one image of starving people in Mariupol. Suddenly, the plum tree, along with the song of the yellow-rumped warblers, all of it was gone. This is how it is for me nowadays. My heart breaks from the hell of war. I try to do something to useful. But all the while there’s the heaven of spring, right outside my door. 
 
Meditation helps. Walking and biking and yoga help. But what helps most of all is simply stopping, breathing, and looking around to take in the wonders of the world where I’m embedded right here and now.
 
Yesterday I saw a photo of a subway car in Karkhiv where many families shelter. A mother had placed a tin can with tulips in the window where she and her two sons were sheltering. (Check it out here.) May this be an image we all remember, a moment of spring poetry. A piece of heaven to honor the soul in us all.
 
There is a quick moment
somewhere between dark and light.
Neither this or that.
Mystery sits there.
Nightmares become dreams and dreams nightmares.
Dome of sky offers a day uncut by sorrow
and morning is born again
with news of war waiting
unbidden in the shadows 
 
—SgB 3/2022
 

How to Get Rich on Love

Morning meanders take me out my door and into the meadow outside for a loop to the top of a little hill. When I get there, I catch my breath and take in the expansive pastoral view of a green gully with a large barn across the way. This has been my habit most every morning for many years. In my mind it was my little secret before the pandemic made it a wider walking path. A couple of weeks ago, a classic park bench appeared at my usual breathing spot. A plaque on the back declared the more you love, the richer you are. No Parks Department insignia. No dedication to someone’s father, mother, sister. Just those eight words. 
A mystery. 
 
My imagination went on a walkabout. This wasn’t an amateur installation. Someone rich had been here, someone who had loved and been loved enough to memorialize it with an anonymous public installation. I live in a small city of overlapping relationships. So it wasn’t long before I began to hear speculation and nearly first-hand origin stories about the bench. The first, of course, was a secret romance of star-crossed lovers whose ashes were spread right there. 
 
But my favorite (the one I made up, sort of) was about two people who fell in love and decided that they wouldn’t keep it to themselves. In my story, their expanded hearts multiplied and multiplied, spreading their love to this generation and the next through their generosity. And when one of them died, they died wealthy by every measure. In my heart I knew these people. I loved them both. 
 
An old storyteller once told me: if it weren’t true it shoulda been, And so I’m choosing my version. This is a Love Bench, available to all, a place for love to grow. And now it’s a new addition to my morning walks. A place to steep in the power of the heart, every day of the year. A sure way to get rich.
 
May you feel the wealth grow around you and let it grow your heart. Every day of the year.
 
 
PS. Special thanks to my Valentine of more than 50 years, Geo, aka George Beekman, for photos and help putting this together. I’ll sit on that bench with you any day.
Invitation to a Wandering Queen
 
This is just to say the welcome mat is out.
The table is set.
And also this:
I never forgot you.
There’s a soft seat here, tucked inside
this rib cage
as small and as big as the known universe
offering everything and nothing 
but a throne fit for a sovereign
queen of hearts, a place to sit and be
or maybe not be 
anything at all, 
protected by
a foggy moat. 
Ready embers still await you.
Won’t you come to stay?
—SgB 1/2022

Seeking Space for Solitude

Dear Friends,
 
As we enter a post-lockdown world, many folks are ready to make up for lost time in the social whirl. But if you’re finding it difficult to reconnect with the demands of the interactive human world, you’re not alone. Literally. A lack of personal space or forced togetherness has been tough on everyone, but the reality is that for some it has been harder than for others because (newsflash) we’re all different. Just as most humans crave connection, others long for a permeable membrane so that they won’t lose touch with that quiet inner voice they hear best in solitude. Hello Neurodiversity. If you’re in the last group, I suggest you read The Divergent Mind (see below) to help you understand youOSU Pillows Lightsr introverted or sensitive self. Then start where you are. Claim a space (or a time) wherever you are to ground and center. Even a small corner of your apartment or bedroom works to start. Check out ideas and links here to create a virtualMindSpa:” (with thanks to Oregon State University’s CAPS program). Later, as you move into new or bigger spaces, you may find the idea has expanded, as it did for me.
 
A Room of One’s Own. When I was a mother of young children with a marriage in tatters, the title of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 manifesto began to haunt me. My little corner of the bedroom no longer offered the precious personal space I needed. I claimed one of the tiny bedrooms in our ranch house as my own space, with an actual door. I remember painting it white against all advice. It looked more like a padded cell than a retreat space, which is just what I needed at the time. While the children grew, I began imagining a third life stage, when I’d vanish into a cave in India or commit to a simple life inside a Carmelite monastery cell. While other mothers fantasized about dealing blackjack in Vegas, I saw myself as an Anchorite, like those nuns in the middle ages who stayed in place, praying for divine wisdom, advising pilgrims who came to them with a word or a verse. I continued to long for solitude even as I was (mostly) enjoying a sweet life with family and community.
 
A Room of One’s Own. Twenty years later I headed over to a monastery to check it out. Eventually I trained as an ecumenical “spiritual director,” which involved little directing and a lot of listening. I claimed our little garden room as my Oasis, and I began to invite a few people, one at a time, to listen to the fountain and to smell the jasmine, to engage in inquiry and conversation. I created an online landing place. And presto. I was an anchorite without leaving home. This oasis is still the perfect setting for early morning meditation, but there’s enough clanging and banging in everyday life that my very distractible inner monkey has been having a field day. Listening to that still small voice took more and more uninterrupted time.
 
A Room of One’s Own. Then along came the many-tentacled pandemic. As we sheltered in place, the refrain returned, this time like a desperate shriek during the togetherness time of the lockdown. I was in luck. A couple of years ago, we cleared out our bike shed and turned it into a tiny “she shed’ where my nomadic daughter could land between musical tours. Covid brought her home and moved her into her own place of her own. And the space became vacant. You can see where this is going. I now have a separate space of my own, a place to retreat and write and listen to the precious uninterrupted voice of solitude. A Housie of My own.
 
IMG 3060

IMG 3061

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In the middle of current real estate craziness, this may not be on your immediate horizon. But you can start where you are. A corner can become a room can become an oasis can become a housie.
 
It all starts with listening and tiny little steps.
 
Love from the Housie, 
 
Susan Grace
 
Divergent MindThe Divergent Mind:
A game changer. You may have missed the memo since this ground-breaking book was released on the exact day of the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. This well-researched book has given me a deeper understanding of my own nature and the ways of many of my clients. It’s also helpful in explaining to friends and family the neurological differences those of us who are highly sensitive or introverted often struggle to find the words to communicate for ourselves. 
 

Mothers Dreaming Daughters and a Future

Dear friends,
 
It’s complicated here in this Bardo, this world between worlds that we call 2021. Like any animal emerging from a cocoon or hibernation, many of us are tender and tentative. As we take each step toward “normal,” we ask ourselves, Now where was I?  (in the Before World). But in all the excitement, we can easily forget to ask Who am I Now? No longer in the old safe world of traditional etiquette, we’re on our own to find some graciousness as the world keeps changing. Daily. Mask on or off? How to come up with safety agreements with people we love who nonetheless disagree with us on the red-hot subject of vaccinations?
 
Decision fatigue alone is enough to make you want to crawl back into lockdown. There’s no One Size Fits All, and we’re on our own to fashion something that works each time we engage with our families and friends. Even if we figure something out, there’s no guarantee that things won’t all change again. Quite the opposite. This requires a flexibility and equanimity I’m only beginning to feel in this life. If we were butterflies emerging from the cocoon, we’d flap our new wings before flying into this new world. The human equivalent is to take that second question about who I am now more seriously. To take time to adjust to this new reality before taking a giant leap back OR forward in this Simon Says world of the pandemic.
 
Sometimes when I need perspective I look to my ancestors for inspiration. I found some by going all the way back to the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1870. My great great grandmother Maria Raum, a new immigrant, lost her husband and an unborn baby to the Yellow Fever plague in Memphis after his beer wagon was commandeered to remove bodies. Maria was left penniless and unable to feed herself and her 3 and 5 year old daughters. Unable to go back home to Germany, unable to speak the language of the new world, she did what she had to do so that they would survive. She sent them off to a Lutheran orphanage while she worked as domestic help and saved enough money to be able to support them. After three years she emerged from the world of pandemic domestic service to find they had been packed up and loaded onto an Orphan Train headed west. Hundreds of miles and inquiries later she found them living with their new farm families.
 
What she did next is my favorite page of family history. Instead of fighting to reclaim her girls, she and her new husband built a house down the road to watch them grow and have children of their own. She’s buried in a small German cemetery near her daughters and their adoptive families. Now that’s a radical form of resilience, an example of true Motherlove. 
 
I call on this grace and resilience as I dream of what this next world might become. I’m beginning right here, where I am today, dreaming this new future, knowing even if it all changes love will find a way. Always does in the end.
 
 
Poetry reading posterPS. I’ve been writing more poetry during our current pandemic. I’ll be reading this new poem about my mother’s mother’s mother, this week, along with my Open Handed Writers’ group and friends. It’s a free Zoom call (with the support of our local bookstore)
 
If you’re reading this May 5th, come listen tonight at 7 PT and join us as we celebrate Mothering as a Verb. Just visit this page for the link.
 
 
 
Dreaming Daughters
 
The women in my family dream their daughters,
And so I dreamed you up, a strong Baby Woman. 
Just as my mother dreamed herself a sister instead of a baby
And her mother dreamed a prodigy, Shirley Temple of Saline County.
And her mother before her dreamed up a milliner.
But the mother before that, a new immigrant turned into a widow by Yellow Fever,
That mother just dreamed of getting her daughters’ bellies fed
 
And so she let them go by boat to an orphanage, 
signs hanging from necks in the only language she knew,
saying keep them safe and I will come.
And when she didn’t, couldn’t, an orphan train took them 
To new farm families with mothers who at least spoke the old tongue,
who adopted them and who fed them
and put them to work cooking for farm hands until
they began to have dreams in this strange, new language
and when their German mother traveled hundreds of miles to find them happy, 
she built a little house the size of her new dream 
down the road from their full-bellied lives. 
But she just kept on dreaming and watching in that new place
because that’s what mothers do sometimes.

Hope is a Thing with Feathers

Aloha, Dear Friends!
 
Looking out the window at the flowering cherry outside this morning, my mind goes back to this exact scene a year ago. The view is the same, but the feeling is so different. Today spring’s birdsong reminds me of a memory tucked away in the folds of this old but durable brain. I hear the words of Marcus Borg, a mentor and religious scholar who helped me to rediscover my Christian roots. One Sunday he was speaking of the Holy Spirit, which I’d never had much use for before, although I often thought of myself as a Spiritual Person. 
 
His words resonate even more today: As you watch for the face of the Holy Spirit, be quiet. Patient. Like a bird watcher longing to see a rare and shy bird. I was immediately taken with the image, and it has visited me often since then. I’ve found it immensely comforting to allow that bird into my heart when I’ve felt overwhelmed by my own dark nights or by the newest examples of human ignorance or evil. (It probably goes without saying that this past year it’s become an almost constant companion.)
 
But I’ve learned again and again that the shy bird of soulful comfort will not show up at my command. This is one of the biggest takeaways from my year: love, faith, and hope cannot be stalked. They reveal themselves in their own ways, peeking out of the brush of everyday life, usually accompanied by acts of mercy or kindness. I’ve learned to be a little more still and to patiently watch, with an eye out for tenderness. 
 
Hope is a Thing with Feathers. Emily Dickinson’s poem has been with me this spring. And her words keep coming back to warm me in this chilliest of lands. And today while hiking, what showed up? A Thing with Feathers. A beautiful soft bird’s nest woven of grass and softened with white and speckled feathers. Enough already, I thought. And so I share this photo and Dickinson’s poem with you today, in recognition of the beauty of synchronicity, my favorite poet, and National Poetry Month.
 
May that bird with feathers perch more and more often just outside your window. May your heart be filled with the power of hope. May you be blessed and healed as we find our ways back to each other…one bird at time.
 
With love,
Susan Grace Beekman
 
 
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
 
And sweetest in the gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
 
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
 
~Emily Dickinson

The Grandmother Stands

For the last couple of decades my family has owned a cabin in the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, less than two hours from our home. Whenever the speed of life was too much it was always there for us. Our refuge. When the weather was right, in the early mornings, I’d wrap up, sit outside the many-paned windows, and take in the forest. In the center rose an ancient red cedar snag, undisturbed by the hemlock, cedar and fir upstarts, all less than a hundred years old, who all seemed to gather around her. I named her Grandmother Snag. Every time I sat, there she was. I began to think of her as my own private Natural Wonder. And then, a few months ago, our cabin and the surrounding forest were wiped out by a fire that sped through the valley at speeds over 60 miles per hour. 

As the news rolled in, confirmed by drone reports, we knew that all the family mementos and irreplaceable instruments had succumbed to flames. Somehow this mattered less when I imagined the Grandmother Snag there, holding fast to the hillside, surviving even this devastation. I wrote a poem about her. I poured over the drone footage and asked witnesses if they’d seen her, joking but slightly hopeful still. As the small community tallied and mourned our losses, the reality of destruction was too enormous for me to bring up my fanciful image of one snag.  

Then last week, five months after the fire, my husband Geo was finally able to enter the hazardous area to see what remained. We were told to expect little, which turned out to be a falsely optimistic prediction. The entire old forest was gone, along with more than 70 cabins in the valley. Damaged and dangerous trees had been felled and stacked and now lined the rutted and muddy road, sometimes twenty feet high. Only ribbons of twisted metal and a lone fireplace remained, along with two stove boxes.  Two perfect bicycles were melted to sprockets. A fire-blistered propane tank somehow hadn’t exploded, and a once-green metal outdoor table with four chairs sat rusting, waiting for some human company.

George brought home one box of melted remains: a Kokopele metal plaque, a dragonfly door knocker, the remainders of vintage Mary Poppins lunchbox, melted like a Dali clock. Then a couple of weeks ago he surprised me with a Valentine’s gift: a family photo of sorts, one he had taken at my meditation site. In the middle of the blackened forest hillside only one landmark remained. And there she was. Tilted to a 45 degree angle, but firmly and deeply rooted in the forest floor. Charred and bent but not broken. Grandmother Snag. 

Grandmother Snag 2021

 

 

 

 

Up in Smoke: An Inventory

1 outdoor pit toilet with peeling door
1 sixty-year old gingerbread cabin 
2 decks, shaky floors, 
5 beds, and games and drums for a crew
1 hand-hewn ladder to a skylit loft,
1 retirement clock
1 white and robin-blue wedding quilt 
signed by your grandmother.
1 bluejeans and corduroy quilt 
hand tied by your mother, 
that one that covered us that first time we slept together.
All remnants of all fifty years gone with the spiraling and swooping
cleansing fire of our last anniversary,

 And also: 2 bay windows opening to 
18 species of tree,
Uncountable rampant lichen and fern. 
An entire ground floor of deep moss
Greenest quiet of ancient forest mornings 
The pale sun lighting Grandmother Snag,
Red orange indigo scrubbing the emerald floor. 
Long walks on rivers in the fullness of forest
Infinitely star rich nights with music and friends, 
Beyond fire and smoke.
Beyond time.

The Other Side of Through

The tight pink buds on the tree outside my window and the daffodils everywhere are broadcast spring here in the early warning channel that is the Northwest. Diminishing Covid numbers bring hope, and it feels like an enormous cloud is about to lift. It’s not lifted yet, but patches of blue are now visible. In related news, on Friday I’ll get my vaccine booster shot. 

Words from my gospel choir days come to mind: There’s another side of through/ the whole world waits for you. You got to hold on, hold, on, till you’re on the Other Side of Through.

I loved swaying back and forth, belting out these lines when I was in the midst of wave after wave of turmoil in my life.  There was a long time there when I just needed the reminder that there WAS another side.  I clung to the thin refrain and did just what it said.  I kept on.

Then one day, one week, one season, I began to notice it was true.  I was no longer in the eye of the storm.  I was on the other side.  I was through.

Next another image comes to mind from up the hill in the ancient forest where my family had a cabin for years. There’s a trail sign that reads Here 2, marking a trailone that ends at a There sign at the bottom of the hill. Funky hand-lettered signs marked the start and the end. All of this went up in smoke last September, including the forest and all human habitats. What was left behind is scorched earth, memories, and at least one good insight: It was not possible to be either “here” or “there” at once. And there was a whole wooded hillside to navigate between those two points. 

That’s how it feels this early spring. Not yet There, to the end of this pandemic and all the cautions it entails, but not Here 2 either, focused every day about each detail of quarantined life. We’re somewhere on the trail to There, and we are still moving to the Other Side of Through.

I’m keeping in mind another memory: The trail of soft forest duff wound gently down a hill, one careful step at a time. 

Be well. 

 

New Beginning or Groundhogs’ Day?

Friends,

It’s been weeks since the official inauguration, where we all learned about the power of poetry from Amanda Gorman, a gift from the next generation. (Just for a couple of feel-good moments, check it out here). Ever since that day only two weeks ago the word “inauguration” has been tumbling around in my mind. Technically, an inauguration is simply the acknowledgment of a new beginning, and this is a time of year and a time in human history when the whole world is longing for a shot at that. And yet most of us are still waking up each day on Groundhog’s Day, only worse because, along with the isolation caused by weather, there’s another little wrinkle called the pandemic. Our coping skills are limited and the usual go-to’s aren’t open anyway. What we once may have faced as a test of discipline or creativity has started to get on our collective nerves. Folks who do well with January resolutions may be sailing off into some unknown socially isolated sunset to live happily ever after. But for many of us, it’s still Groundhog’s Day.

As I was contemplating these deep thoughts, I realized what I needed was not a resolution, but an inauguration of my very own. I started thinking about a pledge of allegiance and I wrote the poem I’m sharing this month. This year I’m determined to no longer be a self-improvement project in my own mind. As long as it’s my own personal inauguration of this new season, I pledge to myself to bring along all of me as I create each new day, beginning again, practicing kindness in a world torn by suspicion and doubt. Now all that I need is a bumper sticker, I thought. Then just yesterday I stumbled on the perfect words from Raymond Carver, suitable for slapping on the best of bumpers:

It is the tenderness that I care about. That’s the gift this morning that moves and holds me.

May we celebrate tenderness and the soft pink pearls of morning light. And may this be what moves and holds us through the coming year. My inaugural prayer for us all.

With love,

Susan Grace

Poem: “Inaugural Pledge”

I believe in Life in Breath in Love,
in the United States of Mind.
But I pledge allegiance
to the scattered states, too.
The confusion sloth and torpor.
the many everyday sins.
All have a place at this table
as long as they lay down their weapons
and show up with big appetites.
We’ll break bread, drink wine,
surrender to the slaughter
of what we thought we knew
about ourselves, about each other.

And then we’d arise and go forth
day after day,
step by creaky step,
restoring the peace,
marching to the promised land.
welcoming the forgotten and scorned,
uniting against the common enemy,
the masters of lies and deceit,
but most of all
delighted by the soft pink pearls
of morning light
– Susan Grace, 2021

Gratitude from the Cocoon

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 Cocoon 39353 1920been 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.

SgB

Morning Prayer

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.

Open curtains.
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.
Go forth.
Remember these things.

Susan Grace. (2021)

My Octopus Teacher


Film Pick for January: 

My Octopus Teacher
An interspecies love story…

Featured image by GLady from Pixabay

Awaiting the Light Together, Yet Apart

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,

Susan Grace

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Remembering the Inner Sanctum

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:

Altar to Breitenbush cabin
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. 

Join me?

SgB

 

Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary

Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary from Trip Advisor/HappyMunching

Poem: “Sanctuary”
(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.    

Crappy 2020 Holiday Letter

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,

SgBDivider

 

 

Poem: Grandmother Snag
Redwood 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
leaving only
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

Susan Grace
Autumn, 2020