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.
Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be a Mermaid. Then Always Be a Mermaid.
Every morning these words, carved on a plaque directly across from my meditation space, greet me. I’m in my Ocean room, a space dedicated to my Orisha, Yemaya. Some explanation: In 2003, I visited Cuba to learn about Afro-Cuban folklore and music. While there, I discovered Orishas, archetypal guardian spirits who guide your life, according to the Santeria faith. Curious about who my archetypal fairy godmother might be, I requested a formal divination. I met with three Babalaos (or priests), who chanted and tossed black and white stones on the floor. After some discussion, their conclusion was unanimous: Yemaya, the ocean. My Orisha.
Returning home and sponge-painting a room blue to create an underwater cove, I remembered the Santeria priests’ warning. Yemaya must have an anchor. In the mythology, her other half is Okulun, who lives in the deepest part of the ocean. Unseen, he anchors her so the waves don’t tip her over. Since then, every time I go near the ocean I take a small blue jar of water with a tiny anchor inside. In a tiny private ritual, I fill it with ocean water and take it home to place on my altar.
Also in my meditation space is an altar with objects that serve as totems, or wayfinding symbols to take me back to my essential self. When I light a candle, I see the blue bottle and I’m reminded to be anchored in the mystery of that which cannot be seen. I often see meditation as a time to dip into a watery, less linear state of mind. It helps me remember a different self than the one who navigates the daylight world and reacts to the challenges served up by everyday land-bound reality.
In that dreamy underworld space, I can swim with purposeful abandon, gracefully flip my mermaid tail and dive to clean underwater castles and shipwrecks. My inner life as a mermaid is pristine, uncluttered with daily compromises and responsibilities. I treasure this mermaid world. It’s a place where I can commune with the ineffable essence of the deep unknown and still stay anchored to my inner world with equanimity. But then there are the twists and turns that real life brings up. The troubling feelings and thoughts that keep coming back for examination, requiring a look at less charming aspects of my inner life.
That’s where the walrus comes in. Long ago in Anchorage, I spent hours in a tourist shop seeking a totem, a “power animal” to call my name. My eyes kept coming back to a tiny walrus, carved from ivory tusk. This attraction definitely wasn’t what I’d planned. I had in mind something sleek (say, a wolf) or something sturdy (like a bear or a moose, even). Definitely not a large, blubbery animal who’s mostly stationary.
But there she was, refusing to let go of my imagination. I bought the tiny icon and brought it home. Then I did a little pre-Google research on walruses. They feed in the mud and muck, excavating for their food by using their extremely sensitive whiskers, “mustacial vibrissae,” as detection devices. I can relate to that, I thought as I placed my tiny totem on a small craggy rock on my altar. And there she has perched for thirty years. A reminder of the nutrition to be gained from the darker challenges that life offers. Over time I have been reminded that what is pretty or acceptable or even graceful or fun may not take me to my deepest truth. My walrus amulet reminds me to be brave and to learn to have compassion for less attractive or appealing parts of myself.
She serves as a reminder that, as much as I love the pretty mermaid dive, sometimes her song may be a distraction fueled by denial. Over time I’ve learned to trust something I think of as the walrus dive. I’ve learned to value shadow work, which has taken me into (and through) the troubling, ugly, unacceptable things in the world and in myself. Through extensive inquiry, I’ve discovered that even the pettiest or most troubling thoughts and feelings deserve respect. The walrus world may not be as pretty or pristine as my imaginary mermaid world. But when I dive into the muck and messiness of my thinking, I often discover the innocence of even the darkest recesses of the psyche, I return feeling truly anchored in the truth and kindness of the deepest mystery.
The Halloween fear factor stopped grabbing my attention years ago. Adrenaline shows up enough in my life at irregular intervals without my courting it. The allure of tiny candy bars and packages of promising an immediate sugar lift has taken a little longer. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s something even more primal than cortisol and sugar about this time of year.
The slant of light. The rapid encroaching darkness. The allure of a good bonfire. It’s bone deep. And so for a while I‘ve settled into Celtic New Year or Samhain, which better fits the feel of the season for me. Bonfires. Pumpkins. This ancient pagan tradition honors the thin veil between the living and the dead, and it also falls exactly between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice on Oct. 31st. It’s a time when the mysterious space between the two reveals itself. The next day, All Soul’s Day, in many Christian traditions, a time to pray for the dead. I’ve done all of the above.
For many years I’ve heard about The Day of the Dead in Mexico. I love the Mexican people. I loved the Coco movie. I’ve been particularly intrigued for a long time by the indigenous cultures in southern Mexico. Then a few weeks ago a friend offered us his place in Oaxaca, Mexico next week for the festivities. It’s a city full of art, life beauty. So how could I say no Muertos? I’m delighted as a metaphysical tourist, but I’m intrigued at a much deeper level.
Lately my life has been reminding me of the encroachment of the ultimate Mystery, as loved ones leaving this world one by one. My brother. A beloved healer and friend. There’s a sense of loss and grief and then a wondering. The numinous space between worlds has beckoned in recent poems I’ve been writing,. Some of my buddies have called them my “Bardo poems.” (In Buddhism, Bardo refers to the transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth).
And so next week I’m extending my curiosity about the season celebrating the living and the dead by traveling south to Oaxaca City to share in the joyous reunion of families. We plan to walk in cemeteries, appreciating the beautiful connection between families alive and their departed. I plan to admire the beauty of the family ofrendas and build one for my own dearly departed.
There’s a certain soft, numinous beauty in anticipating it all. To be continued…as life and death seem to just keep playing on the edges of my everyday reality.
This spring I returned to sing in a choir of my Homies called Jubilate!
It’s a different experience than chanting as a yogic practice. But it’s a practice still, singing harmonies with these women of all ages and stripes, songs about heart, about spring, and about what it means to stand up for what matters. This practice reminds me of what’s important, especially right now, when times can be pretty dark.
Last month we serenaded the local Marchers for Life, where about a tenth of the population of my town showed up. When we started I barely managed to squeak, flooded as I was by the tears and the beauty of all the layers of past and future that came together in the faces I saw. When I got home, it turned into a poem of impressions, a poem that could remind and inspire me. For Life. For Love. For these times.
One Foot In Front of the Other, and Lead with Love!
A choir of 30 women, named for jubilation,
We sing, sway, clap, and dance to the river of determined
Marchers for our Lives.
Arms linked, signs as varied
As their new bodies, their life-worn bodies, and in-between.
Pink flowers with the names of the fallen.
A skinny tween-aged girl carrying her advice:
Use Ur Indoor Voice. Don’t Yell at Us.
The songs, the river, the people keep flowing,
Never Turning Back.
We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting for, we sing.
Won’t Let Nobody Turn us Around,
Mind holds a prayer:
May I remember this.
The constant constant constant beat
The never-ending flow of
The pulse that holds it all. The refrain:
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
Schedule a Session
Let this be the day you declare peace on yourself.
Deep Listening. Deep Questioning. Your answers. Your life.