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.
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
Last Friday I found myself dangling above the current of a local river, on the advice of a boat-patrolling sheriff, who was busy catching up with my husband, somewhere downstream with the overturned canoe.
Earlier, in the instant that we were tipping over, I had grabbed my dry bag and a huge, funky, double-sized beach/picnic towel. I’ve never felt more one-pointed in my focus than I did once I got his directions. No matter what, I was to hold on to that branch (and my pack and towel). Ten minutes later, the rescue boat returned for me. After we made it back to the dock the sheriff handed back my items. The towel must’ve weighed fifteen or twenty pounds. But still I had clung to it. I had saved it.
He said people often do that. Hold on to whatever they’ve got, whether it helps or not. There’s a big lesson there. It reminds me of the way I’m holding on to my Sense of Myself as a Master of most anything, when there’s a sturdier branch, a kind of surrender to what actually supports me and always has. I’d like to drop the soggy towel now, please. A wish and a prayer.
It’s Vacation Time, not the easiest assignment for the control freak that jumps into my body when the pandemic of stresses we call 2020 reaches a new level. My alarm system doesn’t even seem to know that it’s summer, some days. It just seems to go off without any provocation whatsoever. My days go most smoothly when I can truly stay present with what’s in front of me and handle essential decisions without getting caught in the grip of anxiety. Not an easy task, given the vigilance required to outsmart this virus. But vigilance fed by fear so easily tips into hypervigilance. Have you noticed?
So much of the future is completely unknowable right now. And yet plans do need to be made. It’s a highly complicated form of gambling involving hope, best guesses, prayer, and a toss of a lucky coin. Even those of us who aren’t in the direct path of the pandemic are taking calculated risks while attempting to live the lives that we have. And then along comes August. A time to let go. And the problem-solving mind, so helpful for daily vigilance has a few problems with that.
Hands off the steering wheel, my Wise Self reminds. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now, I calmly notice. And then the scared creature-child inside pops out with one whiff of the news. See all the good reasons to steer? Really hard? She trots out all her proof, and I move from social-distancing-and-face-covering-hand-washing caution to trying to control everyone around me, in ways subtle and not-so subtle. And the cycle continues, from fear to letting go of what I can’t control (most of it), and then reverting to all the Life Controlling Skills that seemed to work so well before, back when I believed that life could be controlled.
It’s a tricky business…
The other day I heard someone talk about “sitting at God’s Bus Stop.” This reminded me of some of my best memories of traveling, when all I could do was just that: wait at a bus stop or a train station or airport until I knew what to do next. Often this was the time when I could truly observe and experience my surroundings. For me, that’s about as close as one can get to the Mystery of life we sometimes call God.
So that’s how I’m spending my summer from now on. Giving my mind a vacation. For me God’s Bus Stop looks like this: hanging out in nature, listening for what is true and good and holy. I’m lucky to be able to go “off grid” at our rustic mountain cabin for days at a time, without phone or news. When I realize the world keeps turning without me, I come back with a calmer perspective. There’s more clarity about what to do about this world and when (or how) to do it, I’m better able to live in easy and light vigilance without the “hyper” part. To take the action that is mine, the one that truly matters. This has great relevance during this time in history.
So that’s where I’ll be the rest of the month. Waiting at God’s Bus Stop. May you also surrender to the pure pleasure of the summer that remains, even as you prepare for all that fall may bring. Because this season of abundance is too good to waste. And who knows what might show up while you’re waiting?
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.
It’s scary!It’s a mystery! It’s Novel! These billboards of the mind have captivated me for two months of living in this apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. Collecting silver linings has kept me sane. So has connecting with other people, whether it’s with a wave or a Zoom, ora goofy quarantine video with Suz Doyle & friends. And then there’s the infinitely challenging practice of remembering again and again to look at what’s right in front of me. The cherry blossoms which cycle from bud to blossom to fruit right outside. The seed sprouts in the kitchen window. One step at a time, focused on noticing when I go too far into the future, or “borrow trouble”, as my dear 97-year-old friend Anna Marie tells me on Facetime, locked down in her wonderful nursing home.
I’ve been a good sport about everything in this interim world, tried to help out where I can and to “keep myself safe.” After all, most of the immediate casualties of the viral war are far away, so far, I think. But as time goes on, the novelty of the challenge starts to wear off. A voice keeps saying: Job well done! Now, where were we? Time to return to normal! I’m just now beginning to realize that I’ve mostly been biding my time since this all began. As if everything will return to The World Before. Part of me has been patiently holding her breath and waiting for that to happen. I wrote a poem about that (see below). At this time of life, instead of going out and kissing strangers on the mouth, I put myself in a little Time Out.
Or Time In. There’s a luxury of time now to read a poem or write myself into deeper understanding. Time to read from an inspired or a sacred text or a book of meditations. Time to pray. Words from a hymn from my childhood come: Abide with Me. I go straight to YouTube, and there’s a clear voice (Audrey Assad), sweet and beautiful, singing the old, bittersweet melody, still healing and relevant to many stricken by the virus.
And I take the only path that brings me home. The choice to truly abide in all of it, with and without the silver linings. This is the new life, I think. A life of holding close to the slowing, the staying, to the world as it appears to be, ever greener and bluer and full of daily miracles. More words come unbidden, like the ink dripping from my pen. And that poem is still being written.
May we all learn new ways of Abiding together.
This complicated engine parks at the station,
And we wait for some signal of what’s coming
from some far distance.
I hear birdsong and not sirens
Count calendar days and not the stricken.
One of the lucky and protected ones,
I take the measure of life at full stop.
I feel the pulse of relief inside the fear. I always wanted to slow down, I think
As I light a candle. Sigh once and twice.
But the body count mounts, somewhere far away.
Shaking up attempts at sleep, jumbling dreams This too will pass, I think
As I stir the soup, feed the starter, make the brownies,
Help with masks, ride the bike, trek into the stars. I’ll bide my time. Wait this thing out, I think
But this doesn’t keep it from coming
straight at me, a ghost stalking silently in ever closer circles.
Distraction is best, I think.
I stir the soup, write the check, eat the brownies,
Walk the body, Zoom the friends, wear the mask. Plant the seeds. This will be over soon, I think, waiting and biding away.
But I long to get these hands good and dirty,
to go out and hug strangers,
maybe even kiss them on the mouth.
Schedule a Session
Let this be the day you declare peace on yourself.
Deep Listening. Deep Questioning. Your answers. Your life.