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.
PS. 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.
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
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.
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.
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 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 trail, one 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.
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.
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
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.
Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary from Trip Advisor/HappyMunching
(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.
Love is Letting Go of Fear. I read this book over and over while nursing my daughter Johanna in 1982. Home on maternity leave, I made it a focus by asking myself every so often throughout the day when I was operating from love or from fear. (I’ve often thought this may have been my worst parenting advice ever for reasons involving safety. She was the kid who went down the slide face first while I stood by, no doubt meditating on fear and love.)
Today, adult Johanna continues to throw herself into everything she does. She has been deeply drawn to the yoga of Bhakti, the path of devotional love. How wild is that? I’m getting my comeuppance, shall we say.
I’m wearing my Nolo Timeri (Be Not Afraid) button for many reasons these days, and she’s one of them. Johanna has made her living for the last five years singing and teaching yoga at studios and churches and festivals throughout the country. I’m guessing you know what this means in COVID times. I’m still coaching myself about love and fear and reciting Nolo Timeri.
What does my “fearless” offspring do during quarantine? She finds a mantra online from some teacher in India, chants it daily, and adds her own twists. She asks all of her friends and colleagues to join her in a global mantra for healing. (Did I mention that she thinks very big?) She spends the summer, with the help of my bonus daughter Lyris, setting up an online studio and editing the videos sent in from dozens of Bhakti musicians. She’s hosting a new channel, One Heart TV, to unveil the new music video. And all profits will go to a foundation I love focused on helping children in Nepal, like my other bonus daughter Priti, who is still under lockdown there.
And Johanna is doing all this and going through with the formal release during an unprecedented conflagration of forests all around. Maybe this is what love looks like when you’re not afraid.
What I do know is that watching the video and chanting this mantra along with Noli Timerebring me a sense of equanimity during a dark and smoky time.
This Tuesday, Sept. 15th at 5pm PST, you can join in the live premiere of this new music video, “Mantra Sangha: Health & Healing,” on Facebook and YouTube, or join the Zoom call to participate in the artist meet and greet. All the details are here.
Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid,
P.S. I’ve discovered that Noli Timere were the last words of Irish poet/playwright Seamus Heaney, in a text message to his wife minutes before he died in 2013.
It’s Vacation Time, not the easiest assignment for the control freak that jumps into my body when the pandemic of stresses we call 2020 reaches a new level. My alarm system doesn’t even seem to know that it’s summer, some days. It just seems to go off without any provocation whatsoever. My days go most smoothly when I can truly stay present with what’s in front of me and handle essential decisions without getting caught in the grip of anxiety. Not an easy task, given the vigilance required to outsmart this virus. But vigilance fed by fear so easily tips into hypervigilance. Have you noticed?
So much of the future is completely unknowable right now. And yet plans do need to be made. It’s a highly complicated form of gambling involving hope, best guesses, prayer, and a toss of a lucky coin. Even those of us who aren’t in the direct path of the pandemic are taking calculated risks while attempting to live the lives that we have. And then along comes August. A time to let go. And the problem-solving mind, so helpful for daily vigilance has a few problems with that.
Hands off the steering wheel, my Wise Self reminds. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now, I calmly notice. And then the scared creature-child inside pops out with one whiff of the news. See all the good reasons to steer? Really hard? She trots out all her proof, and I move from social-distancing-and-face-covering-hand-washing caution to trying to control everyone around me, in ways subtle and not-so subtle. And the cycle continues, from fear to letting go of what I can’t control (most of it), and then reverting to all the Life Controlling Skills that seemed to work so well before, back when I believed that life could be controlled.
It’s a tricky business…
The other day I heard someone talk about “sitting at God’s Bus Stop.” This reminded me of some of my best memories of traveling, when all I could do was just that: wait at a bus stop or a train station or airport until I knew what to do next. Often this was the time when I could truly observe and experience my surroundings. For me, that’s about as close as one can get to the Mystery of life we sometimes call God.
So that’s how I’m spending my summer from now on. Giving my mind a vacation. For me God’s Bus Stop looks like this: hanging out in nature, listening for what is true and good and holy. I’m lucky to be able to go “off grid” at our rustic mountain cabin for days at a time, without phone or news. When I realize the world keeps turning without me, I come back with a calmer perspective. There’s more clarity about what to do about this world and when (or how) to do it, I’m better able to live in easy and light vigilance without the “hyper” part. To take the action that is mine, the one that truly matters. This has great relevance during this time in history.
So that’s where I’ll be the rest of the month. Waiting at God’s Bus Stop. May you also surrender to the pure pleasure of the summer that remains, even as you prepare for all that fall may bring. Because this season of abundance is too good to waste. And who knows what might show up while you’re waiting?
Most of us have been living in some pretty dang choppy waters for a while now. Adjustment after adjustment after adjustment, with an eye on some horizon that’s still pretty murky. A perfect prescription for seasickness. I know this state. And car sickness. And general vertigo. What I’ve learned to do from yoga is focusing on a drishti, an object in the near or far distance, to bring your outward focus inward, supporting inner (or outer) equilibrium.
Without a view of the far (or near) distant future, I’ve been noticing more internal vertigo, a frequent disorientation, with all the unknowns and the moving ground under my feet. Once I remember what truly matters, I’m fine. Breathing, slow and steady, helps. Or prayer, especially on dark and anxious nights.
And then I remember a private interview with some Babalaos, or priests in the Santeria community of Cuba, a few years ago. Once they uncovered my guardian spirit, Yemaya, the ocean, they became very concerned. It turns out that people of my archetypal temperament need an anchor connecting with the deepest parts of the ocean. As it so happens, Yemaya’s consort is Okalun, who lives unseen in the deeps and can be counted on to prevent capsizing. The priests were bent on convincing me that I should take an anchor home with me in a very large blue ceramic pot, probably not advisable with post-911 security.
But I’m thinking of their advice this evening; with no focusing point on the horizon, I suddenly feel the crucial need for an anchor. Where is my anchor?I think. And there’s such simplicity in the answer, a deceptive simplicity: It’s the love. The deepest mystery of the love.
And from that knowing, everything becomes clear.
Love is profoundly deep, beyond description, but some things are not a mystery. Love would object to treating anyone as inferior, especially refusing them their humanity or their life. The cable to this anchor is unfrayed, unafraid. When I recognize this, the vertigo is over. I know what to do. And I lead with love, the best I can. One step at a time.
It’s scary!It’s a mystery! It’s Novel! These billboards of the mind have captivated me for two months of living in this apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. Collecting silver linings has kept me sane. So has connecting with other people, whether it’s with a wave or a Zoom, ora goofy quarantine video with Suz Doyle & friends. And then there’s the infinitely challenging practice of remembering again and again to look at what’s right in front of me. The cherry blossoms which cycle from bud to blossom to fruit right outside. The seed sprouts in the kitchen window. One step at a time, focused on noticing when I go too far into the future, or “borrow trouble”, as my dear 97-year-old friend Anna Marie tells me on Facetime, locked down in her wonderful nursing home.
I’ve been a good sport about everything in this interim world, tried to help out where I can and to “keep myself safe.” After all, most of the immediate casualties of the viral war are far away, so far, I think. But as time goes on, the novelty of the challenge starts to wear off. A voice keeps saying: Job well done! Now, where were we? Time to return to normal! I’m just now beginning to realize that I’ve mostly been biding my time since this all began. As if everything will return to The World Before. Part of me has been patiently holding her breath and waiting for that to happen. I wrote a poem about that (see below). At this time of life, instead of going out and kissing strangers on the mouth, I put myself in a little Time Out.
Or Time In. There’s a luxury of time now to read a poem or write myself into deeper understanding. Time to read from an inspired or a sacred text or a book of meditations. Time to pray. Words from a hymn from my childhood come: Abide with Me. I go straight to YouTube, and there’s a clear voice (Audrey Assad), sweet and beautiful, singing the old, bittersweet melody, still healing and relevant to many stricken by the virus.
And I take the only path that brings me home. The choice to truly abide in all of it, with and without the silver linings. This is the new life, I think. A life of holding close to the slowing, the staying, to the world as it appears to be, ever greener and bluer and full of daily miracles. More words come unbidden, like the ink dripping from my pen. And that poem is still being written.
May we all learn new ways of Abiding together.
This complicated engine parks at the station,
And we wait for some signal of what’s coming
from some far distance.
I hear birdsong and not sirens
Count calendar days and not the stricken.
One of the lucky and protected ones,
I take the measure of life at full stop.
I feel the pulse of relief inside the fear. I always wanted to slow down, I think
As I light a candle. Sigh once and twice.
But the body count mounts, somewhere far away.
Shaking up attempts at sleep, jumbling dreams This too will pass, I think
As I stir the soup, feed the starter, make the brownies,
Help with masks, ride the bike, trek into the stars. I’ll bide my time. Wait this thing out, I think
But this doesn’t keep it from coming
straight at me, a ghost stalking silently in ever closer circles.
Distraction is best, I think.
I stir the soup, write the check, eat the brownies,
Walk the body, Zoom the friends, wear the mask. Plant the seeds. This will be over soon, I think, waiting and biding away.
But I long to get these hands good and dirty,
to go out and hug strangers,
maybe even kiss them on the mouth.
Schedule a Session
Let this be the day you declare peace on yourself.
Deep Listening. Deep Questioning. Your answers. Your life.