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.
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
Since I’m in a state and county with very low COVID-19 numbers, and since I’m in a category both privileged and protected, I’ve had a luxury of contemplative time for self-reflection. What has emerged is a much deeper understanding of the power of the question, especially when it comes to my own thinking filters.
My whole life I’ve been someplace between intrigued and obsessed with questions. Life’s Big Questions. Living the Questions. 4 Questions and Turnarounds. My favorite question of all? “What am I not seeing or noticing?” This one is especially challenging, since the part of me that would usually answer is so unaware that it can’t see through the fog.
Months ago, when the pandemic hit, I asked my favorite question. I began to see how little I knew about everything from COVID-19 to the future. This was humbling but not personal, since we were (and are) all in this together. But when the pandemic of racism exposed itself for all the world to see, I began to realize how very many blind spots I had. And this time the cost, to others and myself, has been personal.
The past month I’ve been taking a deep dive to look at what I’ve been missing, with the help of some excellent books and films and videos. I’ve taken care to dose myself with self-compassion as I go about discovering everything I haven’t been able to see until now. This kindness has taught me my own innocence. It has taught me to keep going. To ask another question: What do I do now that I know? This is a question I’m still living with. The first clear answer came today. I’m sending this to you, my friends, with a list of my most educational and inspiring discoveries so far.
May these assist you in your own updates. And don’t forget to serve yourself a generous portion of kindness as you go.
Sharon Salzberg interview with Ruth King: Sharon Salzberg has long been known for her approachable style and for bringing Metta Meditation (or Loving Kindness Meditation) to the West. In this podcast, Sharon interviews Ruth King on her work with mindfulness, racial conditioning, and justice.
I’m a creature from a very white bubble. Until I was 15 I went to segregated schools. I’ve lived for fifty years in one of the whitest states in the country, largely because of the militant opposition to people of color throughout its history. When I first moved to Oregon, sunset laws were still in effect. In some small towns right by the city limit sign was another one: “If your face is black, don’t let the sun set on it here.” I’m coming to realize, even though I didn’t create the bubble where I live, it’s been embarrassingly convenient for me.
Apparently it’s even more difficult for white bubble creatures to understand their own racism because, with few people of color around them they’re more susceptible to stereotypes. I’m just beginning to remove the blinders that have kept me from seeing this. It’s been a bit uncomfortable but ultimately freeing to admit this. I highly recommend watching this video of the launch for the book White Fragility for some basic insight into this particular condition.
Yesterday four thousand people, almost 10% of the residents in my small city, took a knee in respect. It’s not much, but at least it’s humble, and it’s a start. Donation to racial justice organizations seems significant, too. But it appears I have some serious inner work to do on the ways I unconsciously assume and protect my privilege. Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming task, especially when there’s such a need for immediate action. But I understand now there’s so much more, if I’m listening and serious about real justice and equity.
I can actually say I look forward to discovering what I haven’t seen before, listening, and learning to repair the damage. A new and significant form of inquiry, available right here in a bubble that’s beginning to glisten with a few more tiny rainbows of color.
Anchored in one place nearly three months, there’s a surprising relief from all the movement that my life has become during early retirement. We sometimes talk about being “weighted down” by our dog or our responsibilities, as we take off for adventures near and far. But I’ve been noticing lately that I LIKE my anchors, the ones that keep me connected with the ground of my own heart and life. As a part of the “vulnerable population,” I’ve appreciated the Time Out required by this pandemic. There are days that I feel too confined, when I experience briefly the powerful inclination to bolt. I’ve been here before, many times in my life. Especially when I’m on a retreat or in the hot seat of change.
I figure I’m not evolved enough yet to live in a free-float state, and so my mind finds itself fixating on the advantages of anchors once again. Even though I grew up smack-dab in the middle of the country and never set foot in a boat until I was grown, anchors seem to find me. When I went to college I lived in a fancy sorority with an enormous anchor right above the colonial entrance. I was an “anchor sister”, bound by some rare combination of privilege and exclusivity. No Jewish members or people of color (out of respect for their own “separate but equal” sororities), they said. I was always slightly embarrassed because I sometimes secretly appreciated the identity and the status that the microscopic pin on my breast conferred on the enormous university campus. I felt strangely and reluctantly tethered to some tradition and idealism within the strict confines of convention.
I’m coming to a deeper understanding of the pain that privilege caused many others. What I began to experience as an anchor that weighed me down was a form of access to the privileges of my race. Although I argued against the policies, I wore the pin.
The glamour had worn off by my junior year, so I exchanged the pin for a wedding ring and took off for the West Coast. Within weeks I was anchored again to a new identity as a part of a hippie couple in the counterculture. I was more than privileged to be able to instantly reject my conforming conservative Midwest background, in favor of work shirts, boots, and blue jeans (preferably from the Salvation Army). No skin color change required. Within a year I sold the sacred pin, the only gold I’d ever worn, for five bucks at a garage sale.
I thought of myself as a nomad, unweighted down by things. After graduate school we took off for a six-month off-season trip to Europe on five dollars a day, hefting our backpacks on and off trains and hostels. We thought we were only anchored by the clothes we carried. But by the time spring rolled around we felt disconnected, rudderless, and ready to get ourselves anchored again. We moved back to the Northwest, where I eventually got a job that felt like a calling, gave birth to two children, and celebrated the stability that followed.
I only came to see anchors as an image of transformation in recent years. (more about that in next blog post). The question of where to anchor my attention has become a part of my practice as I facilitate inquiry. As I meditate. As I live my own inquiry into the heart. I’m using a piece on Anchoring in Self-Empathy every morning nowadays, as the outer world changes and shifts in sometimes frightening ways. Here’s the link, with a big word of praise for the work of the Wise Heart folks.
I’ve been carried into the new decade on the tail end of a flu comet, one that wiped out the last couple weeks of the old year. Just before that, Ram Dass, a spiritual guide to me and thousands of others, took flight. As I begin 2020 and think about his brilliance at summing up the life of the soul, I’m remembering his reminder to me, words I have carried for years: You aren’t a pumpkin. You aren’t a mother. You are a soul.
As I resurfaced from Influenzaland, in time for the New Years, I was reminded of other wise words of Ram Dass: Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality. I’ve been sitting with that as I think about what my Planning Self might list as goals (or even intentions) for the coming year. But this Planning Self still had the brain fog of flu.
Luckily for me, years ago I realized New Year’s Resolutions haven’t worked out because in truth most anything good in my life has come from inside out. And so I set aside Epiphany, on Jan. 6th for reflection, celebrating my own personal holiday. And so this year, once again I remembered what I’ve always known. Change comes for me at its own speed. From a slight pause and a step to the side. Often the new way comes as natural as breathing, from inspiration to exhalation, a bridge between the old world and the new. Now that I can breathe, now that the flu is gone, I can trust all of it and measure my intentions, mixed with reality. May you find your own breath, your own voice, your own way, remembering the tastiness of reality, even sweeter than your planning self might believe.
I am 5 years old. For a brief moment, I’m alone, on a break from my usual job of making sure everybody in my family of five is fine. Sitting under the locust tree on a hot summer afternoon, I look up at branches, then sky. And I suddenly know something I had long ago forgotten. A voice, in my bones;
You are not your name.You never were.
I repeat the syllables over and over: Sue Son Hi Sner (Susan Heisner). They fell like nonsense. And then there was Big Feeling, a very very big one, this world place beyond the name. Past this place they called the world. It seemed like I was there, too, with that voice that told me about names. I knew right away that this was the greatest and biggest feeling ever. I made a note in my little-girl self, “Remember. Think about this every night. Right after the prayer that says I might die.”
And then the words stopped. I had no idea how to even try to describe this to my ever-present mother, who knew everything about me. Even as a chatty and loquacious child I knew no words to describe how big this territory was. It became my secret, this deep sense of enormity and unity.
If not her, then who am I?
I would forget and remember and forget and remember this for the next sixty-plus years. And yet this one moment, one of my very few memories from childhood, would guide my curious and inquiring nature.
Each time I try to describe it, I’ve come to the edge of language and been forced to leap into metaphor. I’ve landed on a continent often lost, but one that I knew to have always existed inside, beyond, around, and below and above this name, this particular “me.”
It lives in the land of the Ineffable, The Home to Everything That Doesn’t Know or Need Language.
The land of mystics and poets and artists.
The land of forever. And yet also the land of now.
And yet…I keep trying to “eff” it. I’ve dedicated myself to finding the words, images, sensations, definitions, stories, reminders of what is truly true.
The light and indescribable and ineffable and nameless essence of me.
The landing in the subtle and wordless silence of all that is.
Which does (and doesn’t) have a name.
Because that is the mystic’s path, and, like it or not, that makes it mine.
Her oversized suitcase was open: a yawning, yearning invitation. She wanted to fill it with trinkets, with Mardi Gras beads and crow feathers and toys for the children, puzzles and sweets and crayons. They had told her to bring nothing but Tylenol and repellent and filters and probiotics and Pepto-Bismol. All the rest would be hers for a song at the marketplace, they said.
Why go to a marketplace when all I want is the rarest thing: the silence of no sound, no humming lights, the quiet of my own life? she thought. Why even fill a bag or go to some faraway overpopulated country for that matter? I already know that everything I need is right here. Inside this bubble I call me. In my life as it is. Available.
The silver panel light flickered on at that exact moment. She felt the beckoning of the sleek, square machine, open and ready, offering everything. Her fingers began to itch. All you need to do is cross the room. Tickle the keys. Find the marketplace right here. Easy as that. In no time, new hip packs and bras and wicking socks were on their way. Done.
Four days later, in Kathmandu, the marketplace was all around her, a bazaar as old as a birthing room for a millenia or two, the center of the Tibetan-India trade route. She started out for a walk with friends in Thamel, the old town, with the usual air bubble around her intact. Then two horns converged behind her, having reached a loud agreement that she was wrong, wrong wrong, weaving as she was between rickshaws and motorcycles and people and motorcycles and dogs and motorcycles and broken pavement and motorcycles and still more motorcycles.
Life itself, with all its technicolor terror and magnificence entered her and her private bubble popped. There was nothing to do about it but keep on. Day after day she ventured out into the too-muchness. Her dreams filled up with cacophony and incense and pashmina scarves. She began to long for an escape, and yet still she went forth.
One day she followed the labyrinth of narrow alleyways to the very center and found herself at a bookstore for pilgrims, a site made famous and prosperous by the Hippie Trail of the Sixties. It was deep and tall and stretched back, back , back, filled with esoteric books and tools for the seeker. From what she had heard, it was more humble, more hidden, following the earthquake three years ago. She fumbled around and then requested a title from a small, dark man with wire rim glasses. He nodded, disappeared up, up three flights of stairs. Just when she was about to leave, he returned with a pink paperback. It was a stripped-down version of the beautiful antique illustrated one that she had hoped to find, like the one she had given her own daughter as a teenager. But she had always secretly known that her daughter had never read it, would not. She didn’t find pleasure in long afternoons of reading, preferring to sing and dance instead.
This one was for Preeti, the girl she had come to know only barely, but one whose education she had supported from the other side of the world, one month at a time. She had longed to give her everything. But most of all she dreamed of giving her a way out from the fear and disappointment of her alcoholic stepfather and her sad quiet mother who had escaped with broken teeth and no home or room to claim as her own.
As she paid for the book, this treasure, she felt right, right right. But when she gave it away she felt even better. A pink, paperback copy of A Secret Garden. Hardly an object to be worshipped and savored, in her country of used book stores and garage sale finds. But Preeti grabbed it, kissed it, refused to offer to loan it to the other children who were already asking. She clung to it in every photo, proudly announcing that it was hers, hers, hers.