Posts Categorized: Family Stress

How to Celebrate Survival: Sidewalk Art and What Matters

I know you, she comments, toddling along in tiny half steps, supported by her walker. 

I squat down to get closer. “Listen up!” I remind myself, aware of how quickly she could pack her wisdom in just a few words. 

“You’re a survivor,” she declares. “And you should tell everybody that a 97-year old woman told you that!”

I’m visiting my friend Anna Marie at her care center. This was to be the first of many short visits we would have now that she was settling in closer to me. We both knew that something would be coming for her someday, probably soon, given her age and fragility. This made each word from her mouth precious.

I could never have imagined then the pandemic cloud that would swing our way a couple months later. Or that both she and John, her life partner of more than seventy years, would each die merciful deaths in those years. Just now, four years later, I’m passing her words on to you, wondering what she meant when she called me a survivor and why it was so important that I pass it on.

Anna Marie was my best friend’s mom. She was the most talented listener I’ve ever known. Although I now know that she might have seen me as one of one of her special support projects, she never let on at the time. For several years I was often overwhelmed maneuvering through serious dysfunction in my family of origin. On any given Fourth of July or family birthday you might find the two of us huddled, chatting in a corner. I’d report the latest drama or tragedy, and she’d mostly just listen. Over time she became a kind of personal Yoda, with her tiny stature, her kind heart, and her pithy observations. So when she had something to say, I listened up. I knew that any words of wisdom that she offered would likely be chewable for a long time. 

But. Me? A Survivor? I just couldn’t see it.

At my stage of life, everyone is a survivor of something. Being upright and alive after sixty is qualification enough. Most of my life I’ve been a juggler, determined to keep all balls afloat, somehow believing that I could also manage the lives of a several other people in my orbit. My plan was this: I would keep their lives from exploding and avoid getting the mess all over me. (I know. A great plan. And hopeless. For one thing, follow-through on way too many decisions is up to them, and they didn’t have my superior skills in project management.)

But. Me? A Survivor? As I visit the idea today, I still struggle to find it. Not me. I’m not a Survivor. I never had to fight or flee for my life. I’m not in the category of people who have truly earned the distinction of a Capital “S” for the generations their families have survived. (At least we finally have holidays like Juneteenth celebrating some of these Survivors.)

As far as survivors in my personal life, Survivorship honors go to a dear friend who’s still bringing home Pickleball trophies despite her Parkinson’s diagnosis of several years. Or one who just completed chemo treatments for her ovarian cancer. Or another who did all the caregiving for his beloved wife as she slowly died of a brain tumor.

However, I do have some experience with “small s” surviving and perhaps even thriving when others were stymied or stilled. I’ve lost nearly every member my first family from self-harm (either literally through suicide or passively as the consequences of drugs or alcohol took their toll. 

I was lucky enough to experience serious depression as a teenager and young adult. Back then I swore I would do anything to avoid a recurrence. And I kept my promise to myself to make radical self-care a top priority. Since then, I’ve developed a personal anti-depression protocol that includes emotional and spiritual self-love. I somehow survived to adulthood and now to true elderhood. I guess this makes me a survivor, even if I haven’t earned a capital letter S.

I’ve learned to give myself some credit for simply showing up as I am and listening to my inner voice. This may seem like nothing, but it all adds up. Because what I’ve discovered is that taking time to relish tiny ordinary moments of life is a secret to a gradually happy survival. I’ve learned to celebrate seemingly minor accomplishments and playful human enterprises, like sand sculptures or sidewalk art. 

And so this summer and fall I’m acknowledging my survival and the thriving life of a Survivor by checking out some Sidewalk Art festivals. The summer tradition is popular here in the Northwest. Many cities around the US host similar events. 

Survival Sidewalk Chalk. Why not?

Survivors and survivors, unite! 

———-

Mo Love

Years before encampments,

just those two words scribbled

by a hobo in a stocking hat 

dragging himself on a skateboard

having lost his wheelchair again, 

moved by his mission, 

to remind them what matters:

Mo Love. 

They called him Flipper before he was born

for his ceaseless movement.

And when he emerged they called him Philip. 

Or Prince Philip of the Silver Spoon, 

dressed him in the style of the President’s son,

cheered every season:

football, basketball, track

always a starter, an American hero

Phil.

What happened next is not new 

for golden boys

who begin with victory and hope.

Assurance just beyond the next step

until he landed on the wrong side, 

in a pool of alcohol, drugs

and broken promises.

At last a fall from a slick roof

shrank his athletic limbs, 

cut short all the rich opportunity of his birth.

Mo Love.

He called himself Mo, 

for his home state, 

Last name Love, 

for the home he never left.

— SgB 2023

Lessons from a Rescue

April, 2007.

I retrieve the local paper from the driveway. Page 1 is filled with accounts of a puppy mill raid. About ninety designer mutts in desperate need of foster families. The single-wide trailer where they procreated and fought and chewed through the floor to find food was now emptied, the owner awaiting trial for the second time.

It’s my first morning back from an intensive life coach training, and I’m definitely on the lookout for coincidences. The leader of the course, a famous writer, was known for something she called the Technology of Magic. She wrote Get a Dog! on the title page of my copy of her new book. This puppy mill coincidence seemed pretty magical, so I head down to the shelter, curious but not convinced.

I get there to find cages with various combinations of Maltese, Yorkie, Chihuahua, and Papillon mutts stacked into a very unstable doggie high rise that rose to the ceiling. It’s a frantic, chaotic scene. Some of the animals are starved skinny. All are barking. 

I’ll just look for one that’s not barking, I thought. And there he was, poised at the entrance to a crate full of fuzzy mutts, sitting calmly and gazing around him like a Beanie Baby Buddha.

Then we found out he was only about eight weeks old. No problem, said my inner genius. He’s too young to be messed up by his surroundings, given some good training. And so we took him home to “foster,” (My family used air quotes too). Once there, I gave him a bit of water and kibble. His eyes lit up. “My person” could’ve been written in neon over my head in dog writing.

And that is how it was for the next 16 years. Within days he figured out that his main job was to be a therapy dog in the Oasis. And I’ve been accompanied by a little white shadow ever since.  Forget about privacy. Doors not firmly shut would be likely nudged open by a nose during one of his ongoing sweeps of the house.

He was eye candy his entire life, from an irresistible puppy, to a stately, 15-pound senior. We called him Calvin for his cowlick hairdo, his wide-eyes and mischievous nature.

It didn’t take long after we got him before we discovered that his anxious attachment to me was becoming a problem. He occasionally nipped people who hugged me, so I stopped hugging my friends when I encountered them on the bike path outside our house.

Experts were called in. Training commenced, with spotty results. He nearly got himself killed in the dog park when he squared off against a German Shepherd. This was before he got his testicles out, but he held a grudge for pointy-ears his whole life. And that life ended naturally last month.

During his lifetime, Calvin must have nipped or bit at least ten people, most of whom were admiring what a cute little dog he was. Only two reported him. This earned him a tag labeling him dangerous. That tag is on his collar on the mantel now, right beside a hand carved box with his ashes and a snip of his soft white hair. And a beautiful memorial portrait on a Christmas ornament hand painted by his admirer, Liz-e. His hypervigilance is over, and he is at rest.

Being Calvin’s person taught me many lessons, but the biggest I think is this: Never underestimate the power of early childhood (or puppyhood) trauma. The neural pathways established in the very earliest stages of life never quite go away. But if we can meet the victims with something like the patience and devotion that our pet offers us, our hearts grow a bit wiser, kinder and more compassionate. And that compassion can extend even toward ourselves as our own hearts heal from life’s inevitable losses.

Antidote for Worry? Soup!

My worries have worries. So I built little matchstick houses

with large ceilings, a garden for them to grow tomatoes, cilantro, & carrots

their worry babies will eat.

—Laura Villareal, Poetry Unbound

Last week my friend Jenni sent me this snippet of a poem. And there it was, in one perfect image. Everything I’ve been hearing from friends and strangers alike for the last five years. “Worry babies” seem to be invading the planet: growing in gardens, dropping from trees. Once they get established, worries, like crabgrass, tend to take over, setting up residency in our brains and getting busy raising their own worry families. Sometimes they take cover in dreams, full of spikes and hooks that keep drawing us in when we’re just minding our own business. This is the work of the Nightime Worry Family, whose patchwork ticky-tacky housing development parties get wild about 3:00 am.

One of my favorite thoughts about worry comes from Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks’ character, who is trying to save a spy who might well be executed at any moment, repeats his one question three times: “Aren’t you worried?” The reply is always the same:  “Would it help?” If you’d like to check it out this link.

Lately I’ve been asking Wilma, my inner Worry Wart, if she’s trying to help,  because it sure seems the opposite. She made the case that ignoring her completely might mean turning off flashing yellow lights that keep me safe. But often, especially in the middle of the night, her honest answer is “no.”

Although an actual worry may contain the seed of a solvable problem (or at least an action item) by the light of day, the ones that set up housekeeping and wake you up at night do NOT offer solutions. Their job is to feed on any anxieties the body may have stored. In unprotected moments, when you forget to ask if it helps to worry, they can have their way with you, repeating past regrets or imagining fearful futures in an endless loop.

The best hope for evading the Nighttime Worries is to notice the quick moment when we start to feel ourselves getting hooked at other times in our daily lives. This can be especially challenging during the holidays because that’s when worry families thrive.

Try it out for yourself. sometime, in one of those elusive moments a when a worry first arises. Ask yourself whether it’s helpful. Breathe deeply once or twice. Just this much might be enough. Sometimes simply remembering to pay attention at that moment can calm the system. Next, find a quick way to tend to your actual body in some way, even if that means washing your hands or stretching for a couple minutes. Embrace whatever acts of self-care you can, even if it means a quick bathroom Time Out in a moment of overwhelm.

When the time is right, you might ask your version of Wilma the Worrier to help develop a long-term plan. Allow some time to listen to what calms her, especially if you tend toward worry loops. Ask her to prioritize your to-do list, quietly eliminating her crazier ideas. If you listen closely, she might suggest you cut out unnecessary duties or dance or take a walk move excess energy. Or perhaps she’d like a little Time Out for herself. Send her to the spa and then give your body and spirit a few minutes (or hours) for a nervous system reset. Cozy up. Take a quick nap if you can. Simply stare out the window while savoring a comforting hot drink.

Even better, nurture yourself by getting soupy.

Warmly,

PS. Below is a great soup created from a couple of other recipes by way of my friend Martha. The first is from relishmag.com for African Peanut Stew. The second  is from  http://wpr.org/zorba/recipes/z07-0203r.htm (African Peanut Soup). Enjoy!

 

Getting Soupy

I get all soupy in the fall

Squash and pumpkin soupy

Mulligatawney soupy 

Chicken noodle soupy

Muertos with salty tears soupy

Sacred soupy

with your face 

in every spoonful,

each memory of you, 

all that and more

reduced now to a rich melange

congealed on the serving spoon

at the end of this meal.

But I’m still the same greedy monkey

who sops it up, every bit,

with a soft sourdough roll.

—SgB

November, 2022

Martha’s Peanut Soup w/Veggies 

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 onion finely chopped (about 1 ½ cups)

1 medium bell pepper (chopped)

1 large yam (peeled and diced)

1/2 chopped carrot (2 small)

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 cup zucchini, diced

3 cloves garlic (more to taste)

2 tablespoons minced, fresh peeled ginger, more to taste

Jalapeno pepper to taste

*1 tablespoon curry powder 

(or this combination of spices: 1 tsp. ea. mustard seed,

ground cumin,. turmeric, coriander, cinnamon plus ¼ tsp. cayenne

1 (14 ½ oz.) can diced tomatoes, drained (or may use combo. of diced toms. and salsa)

4 – 8 cups veggie or chicken broth to desired thickness

1 bay leaf

1 ½ cups edamame

1 cup garbanzo beans 

¼ cup creamy or crunchy natural peanut butter or almond butter (mix in bowl with some of the broth)

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

5 oz. baby spinach or kale, torn into bite-size pieces

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice

1) Heat olive oil in a large saucepan, add fresh veggies (zucchini last), sauté until soft and translucent.

2) Add garlic, ginger and curry spices and sauté until fragrant.  Add tomatoes and bay leaf, cook uncovered until tomatoes are slightly reduced.

3) Add broth, diluted peanut butter, edamame and garbanzo beans and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer.  Cook until thoroughly heated.  Stir in cilantro and spinach until spinach wilts.  Season with salt and pepper.  May  top with fresh cilantro, diced green onion and/or plain yoghurt.  Serve over rice.  Serves  8.

Runaway Rescue! (Resolution Revolution)

Once again reality didn’t agree with my plans. The nerve of it. Less than month ago I reflected on a Christmas past, the year our family spent the holiday tending sick puppies and watching them die from Parvo, one by one. For me it was a story of grace and humor in the weirdest places. I had no idea that another dog-centered holiday movie was about to be released.
 
This year on Christmas Eve the scene was set. The lights. The wrapped presents. The Tree. The baking. The full refrigerator. The early afternoon arrival of my son and his partner Liz-e, along with Finn, a year-old beagle they’d rescued from Korea, where a stray might be headed for the meat market. He had experienced more than a little trauma in his life: a tsunami, loss of his entire litter, being shipped half-way around the globe. But in the end he was rescued by a warm-hearted network of dog lovers from both countries (https://wildheartspdx.com).
 
Within a couple of hours of his arrival, as a rare Oregon snow began to drift in, he zoomed out the front door, down the bike path, and (eventually) all over town. We were able to follow him some of the time by using Air Tags, which sent occasional beeps to my son’s phone when an iPhone is close by. For three below-freezing days a scattered tag-team of family and friends and firemen and security police random strangers stalked him through the snow, many of them foregoing their holiday plans. Gratitude isn’t a big enough word for these many acts of human generosity. He had travelled almost 30 miles over three days when he stopped running and took shelter under a parked truck. The smell of Korean carry-out food was what it took to lure him out in the end. And all was well. It was The perfect Hallmark holiday movie, with less kissing. And afterwards a few more nightmare-type dreams of losing control. 
 
Isn’t that the way life shows up sometimes? Just when you think you’ve got some idea packaged into a preplanned version, it can explode into something more chaotic and less welcomed. You’d think this is a lesson we’ve all learned from the last couple of years of Covid. And yet along comes the terrible surprise of one more highly transmissible variant just as things were settling down and life was returning to something we recalled as normal. The only surprise here is the fact that we’re surprised, having lulled ourselves into the belief that things would match our intentions for them. 
 
A teacher of mine once asked me if I’d rather have a flexible mind or body as I age. I don’t like having to make that choice, but I would land on the mind every time. Because when it’s limber, it’s easy to see what’s negotiable with the Universe and what’s not. And at its heart the mind knows to love what it has no choice but to accept. In a throw-away line last week, Stephen Colbert said, “Can I change it? I can’t? Then I love it!”
 
Now that’s flexibility. A tall order during these trying times. A full-time job, really. But this is the kind of freedom I want in life. This peace. This freedom. 
 
I want this for all of us.
 
—SgB
 
Resolution Revolution
 
Here I am once again
 
same time new year
 
holding tight to the road,
 
to this revolution of my own making. 
 
The one where I resolve 
 
not to resolve
 
to be lighter, brighter orsomeone
 
with nothing out of place,
 
a corrected version of me,
 
but built back better. 
 
Instead, let me evolve into someone 
 
good enough but better when still.
 
Because this revolution is not televised. 
 
 
—SgB 1/2022

Dead Puppy Christmas and Carbonated Holiness

One Christmas past, my daughter and her friend brought home fifteen sick puppies from a kill shelter rescue mission that had gone awry. I imagined a family home Christmas as a video, swarming with curious, slightly weak puppies around the Christmas tree.
 
I didn’t know much about Parvo at the time. Reality hit quickly. When we saw how sick the puppies were, we rallied to a new mission, setting up an emergency vet clinic. 
 
For the two days leading to Christmas we nursed half-pound infants, trying desperately to save them from the grim effects of the disease. We kept our arms full, set alarms and devised a way to hydrate with homemade IV’s. Instead of going to a midnight service we prayed for their survival as we held them and watched them fade. Hour after hour the little pile of bodies in the corner grew. In the end only one survived, born miraculously on Christmas Eve.
 
My blog post that season said “This will be the Christmas of Dead Puppies soon, and we will laugh. Someday.” When my son Ben read it, he said he cried, and I saw how powerful my protective shield had been, and how truly traumatic it had been for all of us. We needed to grieve. Now, ten years later, I have the distance to see the whole picture and appreciate how we coped.. We cried plenty, but somehow even in the midst of it all there were moments of hilarity.
 
What saved us was being able to see our own powerlessness in the face of the absolute absurdity of the scene. We told ourselves that it couldn’t get any worse and then it did. Again and again. I guess you could say that dark humor became our greatest ally. This and the power of distraction. My memories of the year feature us stumbling through some Christmas carols, playing Pictionary, and awkwardly dancing to a Wii Rock Band workout featuring Beatles music. But mostly I remember the laughter.
 
It may seem strange, but ten years later I realize that this may be have been our most deeply soulful Christmas of all, working together through the crisis and still finding a kind of humor in the midst of an awful situation. Later I heard Anne Lamott call laughter “carbonated holiness,” and I knew just what she was talking about.
 
This is what I wish for each of you this holiday season. 
 
Without the dead puppies.
 
Just some carbonated holiness. 
 
With love,
 
Susan Grace
 
Dead Puppy Christmas
 
Today in the mist of a stroll 
through the Advent calendar
I open tiny windows of Christmases past,
The first scene is one I tenderly recall, 
Dead Puppy Christmas
There we are, five of us humans,
 jostling fifteen half-pound puppies 
recently rescued 
before the Grinch of Parvo took over,
now sick and getting sicker.
Across from the tree in this diorama 
is a small I-V stand
Each hour another pup stops breathing 
and a tiny body Is added
to the pile in the corner.
In between we cry, 
stumble through carols,
distract ourselves with sugar cookies,
eggnog, gingerbread and games,
Tending to life and to death,
Awaiting the miracle of Christmas Eve, 
one surviving puppy.
 
—SgB 12/2021

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.

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.

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

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

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