As we enter a post-lockdown world, many folks are ready to make up for lost time in the social whirl. But if you’re finding it difficult to reconnect with the demands of the interactive human world, you’re not alone. Literally. A lack of personal space or forced togetherness has been tough on everyone, but the reality is that for some it has been harder than for others because (newsflash) we’re all different. Just as most humans crave connection, others long for a permeable membrane so that they won’t lose touch with that quiet inner voice they hear best in solitude. Hello Neurodiversity. If you’re in the last group, I suggest you read The Divergent Mind (see below) to help you understand your introverted or sensitive self. Then start where you are. Claim a space (or a time) wherever you are to ground and center. Even a small corner of your apartment or bedroom works to start. Check out ideas and links here to create a “virtualMindSpa:” (with thanks to Oregon State University’s CAPS program). Later, as you move into new or bigger spaces, you may find the idea has expanded, as it did for me.
A Room of One’s Own. When I was a mother of young children with a marriage in tatters, the title of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 manifesto began to haunt me. My little corner of the bedroom no longer offered the precious personal space I needed. I claimed one of the tiny bedrooms in our ranch house as my own space, with an actual door. I remember painting it white against all advice. It looked more like a padded cell than a retreat space, which is just what I needed at the time. While the children grew, I began imagining a third life stage, when I’d vanish into a cave in India or commit to a simple life inside a Carmelite monastery cell. While other mothers fantasized about dealing blackjack in Vegas, I saw myself as an Anchorite, like those nuns in the middle ages who stayed in place, praying for divine wisdom, advising pilgrims who came to them with a word or a verse. I continued to long for solitude even as I was (mostly) enjoying a sweet life with family and community.
A Room of One’s Own. Twenty years later I headed over to a monastery to check it out. Eventually I trained as an ecumenical “spiritual director,” which involved little directing and a lot of listening. I claimed our little garden room as my Oasis, and I began to invite a few people, one at a time, to listen to the fountain and to smell the jasmine, to engage in inquiry and conversation. I created an online landing place. And presto. I was an anchorite without leaving home. This oasis is still the perfect setting for early morning meditation, but there’s enough clanging and banging in everyday life that my very distractible inner monkey has been having a field day. Listening to that still small voice took more and more uninterrupted time.
A Room of One’s Own. Then along came the many-tentacled pandemic. As we sheltered in place, the refrain returned, this time like a desperate shriek during the togetherness time of the lockdown. I was in luck. A couple of years ago, we cleared out our bike shed and turned it into a tiny “she shed’ where my nomadic daughter could land between musical tours. Covid brought her home and moved her into her own place of her own. And the space became vacant. You can see where this is going. I now have a separate space of my own, a place to retreat and write and listen to the precious uninterrupted voice of solitude. A Housie of My own.
In the middle of current real estate craziness, this may not be on your immediate horizon. But you can start where you are. A corner can become a room can become an oasis can become a housie.
It all starts with listening and tiny little steps.
Love from the Housie,
The Divergent Mind:
A game changer. You may have missed the memo since this ground-breaking book was released on the exact day of the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. This well-researched book has given me a deeper understanding of my own nature and the ways of many of my clients. It’s also helpful in explaining to friends and family the neurological differences those of us who are highly sensitive or introverted often struggle to find the words to communicate for ourselves.
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
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
Love is Letting Go of Fear. I read this book over and over while nursing my daughter Johanna in 1982. Home on maternity leave, I made it a focus by asking myself every so often throughout the day when I was operating from love or from fear. (I’ve often thought this may have been my worst parenting advice ever for reasons involving safety. She was the kid who went down the slide face first while I stood by, no doubt meditating on fear and love.)
Today, adult Johanna continues to throw herself into everything she does. She has been deeply drawn to the yoga of Bhakti, the path of devotional love. How wild is that? I’m getting my comeuppance, shall we say.
I’m wearing my Nolo Timeri (Be Not Afraid) button for many reasons these days, and she’s one of them. Johanna has made her living for the last five years singing and teaching yoga at studios and churches and festivals throughout the country. I’m guessing you know what this means in COVID times. I’m still coaching myself about love and fear and reciting Nolo Timeri.
What does my “fearless” offspring do during quarantine? She finds a mantra online from some teacher in India, chants it daily, and adds her own twists. She asks all of her friends and colleagues to join her in a global mantra for healing. (Did I mention that she thinks very big?) She spends the summer, with the help of my bonus daughter Lyris, setting up an online studio and editing the videos sent in from dozens of Bhakti musicians. She’s hosting a new channel, One Heart TV, to unveil the new music video. And all profits will go to a foundation I love focused on helping children in Nepal, like my other bonus daughter Priti, who is still under lockdown there.
And Johanna is doing all this and going through with the formal release during an unprecedented conflagration of forests all around. Maybe this is what love looks like when you’re not afraid.
What I do know is that watching the video and chanting this mantra along with Noli Timerebring me a sense of equanimity during a dark and smoky time.
This Tuesday, Sept. 15th at 5pm PST, you can join in the live premiere of this new music video, “Mantra Sangha: Health & Healing,” on Facebook and YouTube, or join the Zoom call to participate in the artist meet and greet. All the details are here.
Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid,
P.S. I’ve discovered that Noli Timere were the last words of Irish poet/playwright Seamus Heaney, in a text message to his wife minutes before he died in 2013.
It’s Vacation Time, not the easiest assignment for the control freak that jumps into my body when the pandemic of stresses we call 2020 reaches a new level. My alarm system doesn’t even seem to know that it’s summer, some days. It just seems to go off without any provocation whatsoever. My days go most smoothly when I can truly stay present with what’s in front of me and handle essential decisions without getting caught in the grip of anxiety. Not an easy task, given the vigilance required to outsmart this virus. But vigilance fed by fear so easily tips into hypervigilance. Have you noticed?
So much of the future is completely unknowable right now. And yet plans do need to be made. It’s a highly complicated form of gambling involving hope, best guesses, prayer, and a toss of a lucky coin. Even those of us who aren’t in the direct path of the pandemic are taking calculated risks while attempting to live the lives that we have. And then along comes August. A time to let go. And the problem-solving mind, so helpful for daily vigilance has a few problems with that.
Hands off the steering wheel, my Wise Self reminds. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now, I calmly notice. And then the scared creature-child inside pops out with one whiff of the news. See all the good reasons to steer? Really hard? She trots out all her proof, and I move from social-distancing-and-face-covering-hand-washing caution to trying to control everyone around me, in ways subtle and not-so subtle. And the cycle continues, from fear to letting go of what I can’t control (most of it), and then reverting to all the Life Controlling Skills that seemed to work so well before, back when I believed that life could be controlled.
It’s a tricky business…
The other day I heard someone talk about “sitting at God’s Bus Stop.” This reminded me of some of my best memories of traveling, when all I could do was just that: wait at a bus stop or a train station or airport until I knew what to do next. Often this was the time when I could truly observe and experience my surroundings. For me, that’s about as close as one can get to the Mystery of life we sometimes call God.
So that’s how I’m spending my summer from now on. Giving my mind a vacation. For me God’s Bus Stop looks like this: hanging out in nature, listening for what is true and good and holy. I’m lucky to be able to go “off grid” at our rustic mountain cabin for days at a time, without phone or news. When I realize the world keeps turning without me, I come back with a calmer perspective. There’s more clarity about what to do about this world and when (or how) to do it, I’m better able to live in easy and light vigilance without the “hyper” part. To take the action that is mine, the one that truly matters. This has great relevance during this time in history.
So that’s where I’ll be the rest of the month. Waiting at God’s Bus Stop. May you also surrender to the pure pleasure of the summer that remains, even as you prepare for all that fall may bring. Because this season of abundance is too good to waste. And who knows what might show up while you’re waiting?
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.
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.
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.