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.
Last night I Zoomed with five high school friends who’re exactly my age, having graduated in the same year. Some of them I’ve known since I was ten. All had successful careers, now mostly behind them or replaced by community, church, and family service. All of us have been lucky, hard-working, and clever enough to be financially stable in retirement. Most, but not all, are well-traveled. Most, but not all, are doting Zoom grandparents. All, not most, are thankful each day for our lives and health.
The check-in began with our hit parade of insights and fears about the pandemic and politics, richly interwoven with memories of our shared youth. Then there was a noticeable pause. And it was Vicki who confessed first. I’m so content with this quiet life. I don’t want to go anywhere, change anything. I’m just peaceful. Then one by one each woman testified to the deep satisfaction of solitude and living in a kind of day-to-day flow: the creative surprises that have emerged from quarantine. We realized we’ve become “homebodies,” an identity that would have gagged us at a certain time in our lives.
Today I still see the face of each vibrant woman in her early seventies, combined with a clear memory of each face at different stages, all the way back to the girls we were at 16. There’s something transcendent in each face, something more at home with itself, something less stressed and more rested than ever before. Apparently cocooning is a powerful regenerative beauty remedy.
I’m so humbled and honored by the sacrifices being made to keep me and my generation safe. I remember the frenetic pace and the stress of trying to hold together career and family as it came at me from all directions during my householder years. I can only imagine how much harder it is for those of you whose lives have become infinitely more complex in the last year. I realize that you’ve borne the brunt of the pandemic, as you’ve shouldered the need to protect us from the ravages of this plague.
I want to say thank you, but those two words don’t describe the gratitude I feel in my heart. This may be the first time that many of us in the cocoon have ever been truly rested. We hope to do you proud when we emerge, and now, here we are. In deep appreciation of this world between worlds where you took good care of us.
And so I begin each morning with a prayer of gratitude and a poem. For you. For us all.
Bless the fuzzy dream world. Try to remember it as body arises, foot meeting the floor, slowly staggering to the toilet. Praise the plumbing that still works. Watch as body releases water. Boils water. Makes tea (and thus more water) Heart beats of its own accord.
Open curtains. Breathe out the sleep world (in praise of fog rain sun snow). Notice the flurry of to-do’s and no-don’ts, the packages of maybes piling up on the doorstep of waking, helpers with the best of intentions. Ignore them for now. Light candles of gratitude for the warmth of being Sip the tender morning light. Savor it. Go forth. Remember these things.
– Susan Grace. (2021)
Film Pick for January: My Octopus Teacher
An interspecies love story…
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.
About a month ago a friend sent me this meme. It was right after my husband and I escaped the firestorm in the ancient forest that melted our two-story cabin AND outhouse into a pool of scrap metal. Some might have thought it insensitive or in “poor taste,” whatever that is. I laughed a full belly laugh, for the first time in weeks. It fully captured everything words couldn’t.
I haven’t yet experienced the death of a loved one to COVID or fire, so perhaps it’s easier for me to tap into a sense of the absurd. Lately, I’ve been thinking of writing a holiday letter for the first time in years. Instead of the cringe-worthy shiny happy facts of the classic letter, I envisioned a month-by-month list of unpleasant surprises, with various non-lethal outcomes.
For instance, this past month, after the fire, we planned on a do-over of the night of our actual anniversary, the day we were evacuated from our summer home. We chose my husband Geo’s birthday, and a friend offered us a couple of overnights at their cabin on the Oregon coast. A few days before the trip Geo began having severe nerve pain in a tooth. We thought we’d leave right on his birthday right after his visit to the endodontist to relieve the pain. Which couldn’t happen yet, apparently, although he was given something to relieve the symptoms. We went on our getaway to the coast anyway, and when we arrived we decided we could just peek at the first presidential debate that first night without spoiling the mood. Bad plan. We came home a day early, with tooth and heart pain active.
This was a week ago and so much has already transpired on the world scene that I’ve lost count. When I’m too tuned in to all the crazy bad news, fear just seems to follow and I quickly lose my sense of humor. I figure these experiences are a tiny sampling of what people around the world are experiencing during this longest year in recent human history. Our situation is different (and luckier) than most. I’m no longer responsible for the education of my children, grandchildren, or teenage students. Not caring for an elder with precarious health. We are healthy and virus free. We haven’t lived in lockdown for months, and we have tons of green space and good air, now that the smoke has cleared. For all these things I am truly grateful.
A new tally begins as I savor the lingering beauty of Indian summer. There’s a slant of light on the garden. A colorful green, gold, and orange backdrop as we circumnavigate the hills and town on our bikes. Gradually I let go of the Crappy 2020 Tally and the fear of the Dark Days Ahead. Tonight I’ll sit down to write a few letters encouraging my fellow citizens in Georgia to vote. I’ll call a friend whose father was just moved to hospice care. And maybe I’ll tune into a soothing escape show (Looking at you, Great British Baking Show.) Without the tally, it’s all just life, following the directions, one step at a time.
May you relish the absurd and the beautiful, of this entire messy world in this stressful but crucial season.
Be the love,
Poem: Grandmother Snag You were there in your place last Monday before the fire winds spiraled in. Half of you, anyway, the top part ripped away long ago 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
As solstices go, the winter one gets most of the press here above the equator. Perhaps it quells the primal need for the comfort and serves as a cosmic reminder that the darkness of the season is not a one-way ticket into forever darkness. For whatever reason, nearly every culture north or south, the longest night of the year is met with candles, lights, fires. We gather in the cold and dark for the warmth of the human community and to remind ourselves that the sun (or son, however we spell hope for the future) is once again being reborn.
But Summer Solstice is like a younger sibling that doesn’t stand a chance here in my hemisphere. After all, there’s so very much to do in the warm weather. Graduations. Weddings. Festivals. Road Trips. Air Trips. Home Improvements. Family Reunions. Not to mention Gardening. Swimming. Hiking. And then there’s the summer Beach Reading List, somehow closely tied to the imperative to relax! Quick! And on. And on. Most of us are so carried up in the joyful whirlpool and the busy-ness of summer activity that there’s no time out until fall.
This is the exact opposite of the actual source of the word Solstice itself (rooted in Latin for “sol” or “sun,” combined with “sistere” for “standing still.”) Especially at Summer Solstice, ancients observed that the sun seems to stand still in its seasonal movement before reversing direction and moving on in its inevitable trajectory to the next season. Situated as we are in our whirlpool of activity, we tend to forget the “standing still” part. Whether or not it’s possible to set aside the actual longest day of the year for some stillness, most of us can use a little time out sometime during this week to catch our breath (if nothing else) before jumping back into the whirlpool.
I write this now as the sun stands still above me for a few minutes, as I reflect on sundown two days ago, on June 21. For the very first time this year I was privileged to honor the season in a way that fit me just right. I’m a member of Jubilate, a choir of women of all ages. This year we sang at a benefit for a local wildlife refuge, to celebrate the upcoming full dive into summer. During rehearsals last week, we listened between songs, inviting migrating birds to join us as we sang. The quieter we got between practicing our parts, the more willing they were to show up.
Then we gathered on Solstice itself to sing and celebrate nature under a canopy of tall trees. The resulting performance/ritual was a potent combination of praise for the earth and a plea for justice in the world. As we sang and listened and sang and listened, poetry of birdsong and woman-song merged, and the movement of the earth seemed suspended in the stillness. What emerged was a deep gratitude for this world, punctuated by birdsong. And so it is that I’m doing my own personal re-branding of Summer Solstice. Birdsong Solstice. A time out. A sweet pause in this greenest of seasons to thank the world for continuing to spin.
Spring Cleaning this year has a vengeance all its own in my home. We decided to go for it, and to (get this) remove everything from our under-the-house crawl space/basement. Did I mention that we’re digging out the floor so we can stand erect? Did I mention that the ceiling is fiberglass poking out of sagging chicken wire? Did I mention that it contains the overflow of 40-plus years of living? That we’ve raised two kids, helping move their stuff in and out with regularity through various ages and stages? That this includes their twenties?
When we consulted with a company about replacing the ceiling, a very concerned contractor pointed out a fire-blackened suitcase, worried that we had an undetected fire down below. We opened it and found it stuffed with the singed and charred remains of a life. The life my son lived before his apartment hit flash point in a fire about twelve years ago. Living alone, he defied medical logic, waking up instead of falling prey to oxygen deprivation. He got himself out alive, and his place hit flash point a minute after he walked out the door, wrapped in a neighbor’s blanket. This qualifies as Number 1 on my personal list of inexplicable and miraculous life experiences.
Opening the suitcase, crouched in the basement, we discover a curious collection of items: old tech manuals, a social security card, a few priceless mementos: post cards, birthday cards from family and friends. These are all that’s left from the period we now refer to as “before the fire.” When I called him in his “after the fire” life to share my find, he said he remembered where he had kept these: in his file cabinet. Apparently, the thin metal frame was an over-achiever at its job and functioned much like a strong box, keeping a tiny bit of his past away from the flames.
I salute its loyalty as I stand here now, holding a birthday card blackened around the edges. It’s an old Far Side cartoon card with a caption on the front that reads What really happened in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn on the night of the Great Chicago Fire. There’s a cartoon drawing of a goat, a pig, and a cow. The goat, holding a match just behind the pink pig’s butt, says to the cow, who is looking on, Ha! That was a real flame thrower. Now it’s your turn to light one up!
On the inside the card says Hope that your birthday’s a real blow out. The card was signed Johanna, and she gave it to him six months before the fire. Inside she had written, “on second thought, I feel I may need to clarify that. I do not mean it literally. Please.” This was followed by her birthday promise, the offer to make curtains for his entire apartment. She doesn’t remember how or why she chose that particular card or wrote those lines. And the curtains were never made.
I don’t know how this kind of thing happens. But it’s not the first time I’ve been humbled by the unexplainable way of things. As I look at the card today, posted right here on my bulletin board, I’m left with no logical answers. Mind is stumped, as it is every single time I come face to face with events that defy logic and yet have the audacity to still exist, rocking my world a little off its certain center.
The big miracle, of course, is his survival. And then after that is a trail of little ones, always shyly hiding at life’s edges, the reminder of an unseen world that I often don’t notice. But when I do remember to trace the thread of Mystery, I discover a truth that is stranger (and kinder) than the fiction we create from past memories. But I am grateful for all of it.
“Life itself will be my Art,” I told my friends late one night in the profound philosophical depths of my sophomore year in college . Even as I said it, I felt the truth of it. I was up to the challenge of it. Life would give me my lessons and I would respond artistically. Easy. That was as specific as I got. A pretty vague sense of surrender there, I now see.
In the 50-plus years that have followed, the specifics got real. For the first ten years I thought I would have a charmed (meaning easy) life. Instead of that hopeful and naïve view, my life has been marked by untimely deaths, suicides, drownings, fires and general disappointments. The losses have been far more than I bargained for.
And yet… the blessings of life’s challenges have also rained down. From retrospect there is a sense of the rightness of those things I couldn’t control (like the Universe itself). Always, always I was carried safely to some understanding. But I’ve only known this when I’ve looked into the rearview mirror with an open mind.
I have many artist friends who are hanging retrospectives of their work at this time of life. As I sit in my study and look around and within, my life of art shows itself in a more inner landscape. Solstice brings me that gift every year, on exactly this day. It’s almost my favorite holiday because it’s the day of my own private Ritual of Retrospection. I arise before dawn or sit in the dark following sunset in a warm candle-lit room. All around me are icons that take me to that deep place inside. A painting of Mother and child, crystal waves and labyrinths, sacred hearts, a copper Saraswati, and the divine Sacre Coeur. In the soft golden glow I ask to see the what I haven’t seen before, what I’ve been missing in the rush of the year. I ask forgiveness from my inner critic for my human failings. And then I count on Grace to show me what else I’ve missed: the beauty that I have been in the perfection of all that has passed.
With that soft lens I go back further in my life, reflecting on all of it, the ways I have showed up and haven’t, how I’ve learned to refine the art from my mistakes, and the ways I’ve allowed my light to shine as a result. I see myself as the truly innocent child and when the candle light is just right, I see the perfection of this incredible woven tapestry.
And because my heart is so full of gratitude for all of it, I write you this morning and invite you to do the same for yourself. During this season may you find time for reflection, to be kind to yourself alone in a room full of soft candle light (bath and bubbles optional). May you meet your kindest self. May you find the art in all of it, all of this thing you call your life.
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.
I’m just emerging from the profound depths of this 2018 flu. I’ve developed a battalion of illness-fighting forces over the years, and it’s been decades since I actually experienced the full ride. But this month the little virus buggers wanted to set up shop, and they had their way with me.
While I was fighting them back there was struggle and stress. But then I remembered to ask one of my favorite questions of myself: How might this be a good thing? “It’s over. Give up the fight,” came an answer. After that, such a deep surrender. An opening. Peace. The mind stopped its incessant solving and strategizing. I simply couldn’t think that anything needed (or even could) be done. There were no appointments to be keep. No calls that needed to be made. No battles to be fought (or thought).
And what was left was breath, silence and spaciousness. The body had aches, fevers, coughs. Yes. And I can’t say that it was pleasant, but some other part of me could see that this existed inside something else, something vastly deep and powerful. Something that I could trust to either kill me or heal me. Suddenly nothing about it was personal.
I was already aware that sometimes these viruses take no prisoners and make no sense. So the breakthrough surrender wasn’t like a magical New Age carpet ride of positive thinking. I’m old enough to find evidence of my own ultimate fate all around me. A woman I know died of the flu three or four years ago. She was in her late fifties, fit and full of life force, on her way to Hawaii with her first grandchild and her children. There was no sense to it.
During the worst part of the flu, I remembered her. And instead of fear I experienced a deep understanding of my own powerlessness in the face of the most mysterious of forces. Without the words to frame it, there I was (or wasn’t) again. Simply a deep and powerful state of surrender and vast space.
It’s been a couple of weeks since this realization, and now I feel a lot like I did during my pregnancies. Once the morning zest (aka coffee) wears off, the tiredness comes…and goes…and moves around. I’m focused on catching the old habit of “pushing to overcome,” because I have somehow believed that this is the same as thriving. I don’t want to lose this new perspective.
There’s a different sense of things now, just at the edge of the fatigue. Something big, ineffable, irrefutable. A softness. A deep willingness to trust in the way of things.
It’s not altogether unfamiliar; it’s a way of being and living that I have sensed around the edges before. I’ve used words in an attempt to describe it. And I’m using words now. But ultimately words are no match for the peace. It’s an experience. And that has no words.
What’s left of the flu is a felt sense that I used to call fatigue. But now it feels more like gratitude.
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Let this be the day you declare peace on yourself.
Deep Listening. Deep Questioning. Your answers. Your life.