What I Learned

There was a lag between my dad’s tests and the results. We knew something was wrong, and it could be bad, but we didn’t know for sure. The Saturday between his test and the oncologist appointment, I stopped over as usual for lunch after hitting the farmers’ market. It was a brilliant June day in 2011, and Dad was making the most of it in the back yard. Mom and I agreed: We wished we could just freeze time.

M&D Kitchen 3 (1024x768)

Dad on a summer day

We couldn’t. The oncology appointment brought the kind of news every family dreads: terminal cancer.

I sometimes feel, now, like I’m in “please freeze time” mode. A pervasive sense of dread stalks some of my days and many of my nights. Watching swifts in their lilting flights as I walk my dog early in the morning, I have a weird sort of anticipatory nostalgia. This spring has been stunningly beautiful. The world is so inviting. And who knows what lies ahead for my family, my community, my country, the world?

But then again, who ever knows? We just think we will keep on our merry way, that nothing will ever change, but that’s an illusion.

But time can slow down a bit, when you pay close attention and know that you are really there, occupying the moment with all your senses.

20200513_132906

Follow the path with senses open…

What I learned from that horribly short period between Dad’s diagnosis and his death (and from what came next) is this: We can handle the worst. We get through it. There are still beautiful moments even in the awfulness. Dad speaking into a circle of family and friends around a fire. Grinning over a fat slice of cake, his 71st birthday. Going to the front door to thank the folks from church who surrounded the house in song one evening. Hugging me close, saying he didn’t want to leave us. Tender times I will never forget.

This is a tender time for us all, no matter how we show up for it, and the intensity packs a punch. I won’t soon forget standing in a parking lot with tons of neighbors spaced more or less 6 feet apart, scanning the skies for a Blue Angel flyover tribute to essential workers (including my nurse spouse, who got to be there too). Hailing from a pacifist tradition, I didn’t expect tears to well up, but they did.

There are many things I will remember as touchstones in the coming months, no matter what happens. And being here with my whole body/mind/spirit is the only way to navigate the uncertainty.

20200513_133202

Rooted

Gratitude: Sharing garden plants with friends and neighbors feels so abundant, and brings Dad back to me. We dug up Virginia bluebells that had spread all through his and Mom’s yard since he’s not there to thin them. We took some to Kate, who gave us two different kinds of tomatoes and 3 different kinds of peppers, plus basil. A neighbor came by with cilantro starts and went home with shovelfuls of various overgrown perennials from our yard. I have my eye on some wild ginger and salad burnet spreading in my beds that I can pass to another gardening neighbor. And on it goes.

Tip of the Day: Try this practice from Martha Beck to bring you into your body and the moment: Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Now experience them all at once. Guaranteed to take you out of your thinking mind and into your body.

Resource of the Day: Check out this article from time expert Laura Vanderkam about savoring time to stretch out the feel-good moments (and to make memories more vivid).

The View from Here

Program Note: When I first started this series, I had the ambitious idea of posting something daily. Turns out life is not as spacious as I imagined it would be in sequestration, and spring weather has me loath to spend any more time in front of  a screen than I need to. I have not wanted to add force to the equation, believing that “powering through” would taint the result with an energy I don’t want to perpetuate. I’ve tried to take my own advice and rest more. But… I do miss the days when I just let fly with my words, and I wonder if all the napping and stepping away from screens might also stem from reluctance to be seen. Several half-finished/half-baked posts are languishing, “not good enough yet.” All to say: I hope to find some balance and post regularly without too much drivenness. I don’t want to add more jangling to the global collective. And now back to our regularly (?) scheduled programming…

Several years ago, when I was dealing with chronic pain, I read a book written by someone with a similar condition. She wrote of widening beyond the place of pain and all its attending emotions.

One example: Her feet hurt terribly every time she took a step. But they did not hurt during the part of the step where they were off the ground. So she put her attention on the lift, not the footfall.

The spaces between the painful things can expand in our awareness.

These days when it seems like there is so much that hurts, or has the potential to hurt, where do I put my focus?

This past week we’ve seen the lifting of stay-at-home orders in my state and elsewhere. Here this is happening in a phased way, more or less status quo in my county till May 15—except the golf course opening, which foils my afternoon jaunts. I would have been glad to stay hunkered down much longer, but I know that people without a work-at-home job, broadband internet, a harmonious home, a friendly neighborhood, rainy-day fund, etc., are hurting.

Even knowing it was inevitable at some point, the announcement of this new phase brought back me some spikes of anxiety and dread. Wondering how an ambitious rollback of restrictions (“back on track” by July 4?) will play out for people most at risk, and how it will impact the front-line workers, such as my spouse, who stand ready for fresh numbers of COVID-19 patients.

I also notice some exuberance, sort of like “the nightmare is over! they said so!” And that scares me too. I live with someone facing the toll of COVID-19 every time she goes to work, and I can still entertain “it was all a bad dream”?

Then there’s the fraying of social cohesion. I’ve had this nice notion that this crisis will eventually result in a new, saner, more equitable world, but how exactly is that supposed to happen? It seems like divisions are being drawn ever deeper, scapegoating is on the rise, and the pandemic is far from over (no matter how tired of it we might be, or how much our leaders want to declare victory).

I don’t really want to document all the things that worry me right now, but instead expand my awareness to the space that holds the fear. I’m not saying fear never offers valid or useful information. I’m talking about including it in something bigger.

20200507_065317 (1024x768)

View from the morning walk, leaning against my hackberry tree friend.

(Short rant: Sometimes in the spiritual development world, there’s a certain pollyanna way of looking at things, where people try to hush up the hard stuff by pasting a smiley face on it. There’s a lot of bullshit around the role we play in creating our reality, a mindset that makes it easy to ignore major systemic injustices. I’m not of a mind that nothing bad will ever happen to those who live right. New Age bunkum implies that feeling bad is basically your own fault for not being spiritual enough. That way lies madness, and further injustice. We don’t need to slap a happy face on things that are really crummy.)

So, what I’m talking about is not so much looking the other way as widening out. 

I made a very basic list of things I could count on in my journal early on, when I was reeling. Maybe it’s still useful. A place to put focus. I added to it and buffed it up a bit to put here—maybe you can add things to it too.

20200426_164339 (768x1024)Things we can count on:

  • The sun in its cycle.
  • The moon in its cycle.
  • The seasons of the planet.
  • Stars up there. Milky Way.
  • The fact that the sky will cloud and clear and cloud and clear.
  • The way buds open, flower, fruit, and fall.
  • The fact that every oak tree starts as an acorn.
  • The universal truth that everyone experiences loss and grief.
  • The space between the tiny particles that make up a body. Particles whirling so fast they seem solid but actually hold vast spaces between them.
  • The way ice melts when it’s heated. The way fire burns.
  • Gravity.

Gratitude: Friends who hold me up even from a distance when I’m falling.

Tip of the Day: This one brought to you by the one and only Fred Rogers, whose biography I’m listening to: “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices, and hopefully your choices come from a deep sense of who you are.”

Resource of the Day: Speaking of gravity: Abigail Rose Clarke, founder of the Embodied Life Method, offers a marvelous free meditation, “The Solace Practice.” It gently guides you into really feeling the way your body gets heavier on the exhale. I can’t describe it, you just have to experience it. Go here to connect with her and receive a link to the practice.

Both/And

I admit to some shame after my last post in which I wrote of the blissy aspects of this bizarro time, as I experience it. Of course I have also shared heavier stuff in previous posts. I experience the gamut of emotions and I am open to all of them moving through me… and I want to live in the present and in my body (where all is well just now) as much as I can.

But the mind will have its say, and here’s what it said after that post: You are insensitive to go on about joy when so many are suffering. Last night we drove down the “main street” of our neighborhood last night and it was a ghost town. Seeing our sweet small businesses close up shop really hurts, especially knowing each such street all over town—all over the world—represents untold financial hardship for countless families.

Also, in the last few days I’ve had conversations with people who are closer to the economic impact of this worldwide shutdown. An urban farmer brought up his fears about the food supply, and whether he would be able to protect his crops if things went really bad. A friend in South Africa spoke of the immediate need all around her, with people going hungry right now as they live in a veritable police state.

Also: 2000 deaths each day in the U.S. alone. And no real plan or social cohesion to get through this ongoing crisis.

It’s frightening, sad, and angering to witness the leadership void at the top worsen the situation for regular folks (even while yes, I am glad for relief packages and stimulus checks).

Joy and worry, shame and gladness, fear and hope: I’m feeling “both/and.” These words from Daniel Foor really resonate:

I am concerned about expanded government abuse of power and I support the shelter-in-place directive right now.

I abhor the exploitative aspects of the global economic order and I am deeply concerned about it just falling apart.

I want systemic measures to truly address climate change and I feel uneasy about a rapid jarring halt on the ability to travel.

I am not afraid of death and I don’t want to die. OK, I’m a little afraid, but not so much. Mostly I love being alive here today.

I am open-minded and not inherently trusting of any source, and there are also facts and knowable things.

I want more nuance, play, and irreverence in the collective and also I want people to submit to facts and what is knowable.

I am truly gut-level worried about where we’re headed and also spacious, relaxed, and in touch with levity.

To quote a true American patriot,
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.”

– Walt Whitman

So, what to do with all this? (Surely there must be something to do, beyond airy-fairy being.)

20200426_125845 (1024x768)

This creek holds raw sewage during heavy rainfall events. That concrete structure overflows with it. It’s the way our city designed the sewage system years ago, an unsustainable combined sewage overflow setup (which is being updated in recent years). I love this creek. Shit and beauty exist side by side. Love abides no matter what.

Unable to steer an entire culture or country, I return to the small ways I can have an impact. I create more space in myself to be more present to possibility. I come back to the guidance of my Wiser Self, as Ellen Meredith calls it, in contact with the big-big picture. I write things down in case they speak to someone else’s soul.

And in the practical arena, I’m giving in ways I can, since I feel amply supplied. In that giving, I don’t want shame to be my motivator any more than I want fear to take the driver’s seat. I want to give my courage and gratitude the space to lead, even as I realize that this attitude is itself a measure of my (largely unearned accident-of-fate) good fortune.

Gratitude: I’m grateful for a Zoom call with my family members last night, for belly laughs and shared concerns. Also grateful for a heritage of Mennonite thrift that helps me stretch resources, so there’s a sense of abundance, more to share, etc.

Tip of the Day: Speaking of Mennonite…It’s soup-stock-making day! I save veggie scraps like onion skins, carrot tops, mushroom stems and celery trimmings in a freezer bag. When it gets full, I make a pot of veggie stock. I add it to this recipe, but it would also work on its own to make a mineral-rich and tasty soup starter. Using up items that would ordinarily be immediately compost-bound makes me feel so smart and thrifty. (Bonus tip: don’t put anything too strong or bitter in your scrap bag, such as broccoli trimmings, and don’t put anything that looks questionable, like moldy onion skins.)

Resource of the Day: I usually send you to an online resource here. But in keeping with the last post’s theme of cutting back on screen time, how about considering inner resources, instead of outer? What are your special resilience superpowers? Maybe your sense of humor never quits (mine certainly does), or you always know how to bring comfort to a friend in need. Mine include the frugality mentioned above, but also a spiritual framework, a strong creative drive, and a willingness to turn toward whatever is passing through me.

If you’d like to post a comment about yours, I’d love to read it! We inspire each other.

I’m Missing Out and I’m Fine with It

I don’t know about you, but I’ve cut way back on inputs lately. Even helpful meditation videos, positive media, cool online gatherings centered around dance, poetry, music… I mostly miss out.

Setting aside the amount of media I expose myself to? I really have to monitor the amount of time I spend in front of a screen.

There’s so much good stuff out there, and I have appreciated every donation-based dance class, every yoga offering, every social connection made via Zoom and Whatsapp… AND I end up quite frazzled if too much of my life is mediated through a digital platform.

Too much time in front of a screen and I get twitchy, buzzy, irritable—yet also curiously mesmerized, unable to break away.

I know that we are electrical beings (a quick web search brings up numerous articles, including this one in Forbes, of all things). That jangly feeling comes from the interaction of the body’s electrical field with that of our ubiquitous devices. I’ve gotten really sensitized to that interaction, and have been using energy work more and more to rebalance myself.

I’m drawn to body-centered activities more than ever, and also to just being outdoors. One of the great things about working from home is the chance to break up the work day with walks, naps, movement, salad-foraging, etc. Even if it stretches my day longer, my brain is clearer, body happier.

Still, I find I want to touch something real after my work day is over. (I don’t take for granted just the fact of having work at all, and I love working part time for a nonprofit I believe in—but my role is mostly about moving pixels around, no matter how you cut it).

So, nature to the rescue.

20200418_135529 (1024x768)Last weekend I went for a walk at one of our nature preserves. Oh, the wildflowers. But even closer to home, what a privilege I feel ever day: to be able to walk out onto the (closed) golf course in the middle of the day.

Today I actually lay down right in the middle of the green in total solitude and looked at the clouds for a while. At moments like that, a big part of me feels like this time in my life is utter paradise.

I know that’s a measure of my privilege, and the fact that my economic and health situations are so far stable. I try to stay open to all the responses moving through me, including joy, and not shut any of it down. And by detaching myself from machines as often as I can manage, I allow that flow more room.

Gratitude: Along with the above, I’m grateful for human goofiness and wacky autocorrects. A few days ago I had a funny text exchange with a friend that started with “70s clothes. This is taking far longer than I anticipated…” explaining she might need to bail on our social-distanced walk.

Me: Darn! Well, do what you need to do. But what do 70s clothes have to do with it?

She: /laughing emojis/ I-70 is closed.

Me: I thought it was some newfandangled way of cursing!

She: Maybe it should be! Oh, bellbottoms! Platform clogs! By all the stripper’s go-go boots!

Me: Poncho!

She: Oof! You win. /goofy emoji/

(Well, we thought it was pretty funny at the time. Leisure suits! Oh maxi dress!)

Tip of the Day: Airplane mode. You know it? Schedule some time to do it. Or in any case step awaaaaaay from the inputs.

Resource of the Day: Interested in learning how backyard plants can help keep you and your family healthy? Greg Monzel, my friend and stellar herbalist, will show how to identify and use common plants to make syrups, teas and extracts, as well as answer your herbalism questions, every Friday at 10 (or watch the replay). (Yes I know this is another online thing… but you will feel like you’re there at Wild Persimmon School of Wellness learning at Greg’s side.)

Season of Renewal

I’m sure I’m not alone in how much I live for signs of spring right now. We’ve had several freeze warnings this past week, prompting me to go out and snap some flower photos for posterity (though the flowers actually did make it through for the most part).

Serviceberry blooms last week (they’re browning now, right on time)

Even through the windiest, shittiest weather (snow? really?), I’m amazed that the blossoms on my little serviceberry still cling on. Well, until it’s their turn to fall.

I had in mind to write something about how the magnolia blooms turned brown and fell, and how the little tree next to it took up the mantle of holding beauty, but I don’t think that’s quite it. Though I do like the idea of taking turns—sometimes I’m shining, sometimes you are, sometimes we take a turn down in the dumps.

That doesn’t seem quite right though. Not the correct metaphorical use of a cycle that renews itself every year, fallen blossoms spreading seed, feeding soil. Just doing what they do.

I’m more thinking in terms of resurrection, redemption, rebirth. I started to noodle on this last Sunday, which was Easter in many traditions. Orthodox religions will mark the day tomorrow. Passover takes the theme of renewal as well. Whatever the faith tradition, this time of year fairly screams resurrection.

Vibrant.

Easter and Passover are not my holy days (though I have fond memories of pancake breakfasts and Easter dresses). But of course people began celebrating the season of renewal long before these traditions.

As a half-assed gardener and a sometime forager of spring greens, I feel more in tune with nature’s awakening than the religious rites that have been overlaid on those ancient rituals.

Quick funny aside: When my young cousin, raised on a green and vibrant Caribbean island, came to Indiana one winter on a visit, she couldn’t help but notice all the bare trees. She finally asked my dad: “Why don’t you cut all those dead trees down?”

Having never experienced that cycle of apparent death and rebirth, she had no concept of waiting for the greening.

The yearly miracle

Maybe it takes a bit of faith, or simple experience, to know that renewal is just beyond the horizon of darkness. To understand that what looks like a death might be, instead, a state of deep rest.

What’s more of a resurrection than the annual opening of a bulb left seemingly lifeless in the ground?

The thing about renewal: It only comes after a deep, dark place of quiet that can feel so deadly to a culture accustomed to going/doing/racing/running/grabbing/shouting.

Even while spring bursts forth all around us, many of us are curling inward to that space of quiet, being asked (or ordered) to stay in one place, curtail our social impulse, limit contact. In a time when our forebears gathered in celebration of surviving another winter, we can’t join hands and sing, or pass the glass between us.

My Virginia bluebells look delicate but they’re hardy.

Recently I’ve had a recurring dream of a street fair, neighbors pouring out onto their sidewalks laughing, talking, feeding each other. There’s music, light streaming from windows, kids on tricycles. A feeling of joyous conviviality.

I do feel that some sort of resurrection is on its way, and it could well be a massive reordering of all that we think we know. We have been so impoverished by a culture built on acquisition, greed, exploitation. Even those of us who live comfortably have a hard time finding peace in a world marked by massive injustice. And for the people and places that get squashed by such a system, there’s no question that the dominant societal narrative isn’t working.

The writing’s been on the wall for a while now: Business as usual is not a viable prospect.

How long will we need to gestate before the (re)birth? And what will emerge out of this inward-coiled time?

Gratitude: I’m grateful for the generosity of nature this time of year. For our salads I’m picking pea shoots from a bed sown last fall, baby lettuce I set in earlier this spring, plus accoutrements from my perennial chives, salad burnet and sorrel plants. Not to mention wild ingredients foraged from my yard and nearby: basswood leaves, trout lily leaves, violets, dandelions, chickweed, and redbud blooms. Everything but the olive oil-lemon dressing coming from within 100 feet or so of where I sit right now.

My “100-foot salads”

Tip of the Day: Uh, go outside, if you can. Spring is poppin’.

Resource of the Day: Local folks, check out this offer from local herbalist/forager Thea Newnum, who will accompany you into your yard for a social-distanced foraging lesson. She’ll help you know what to safely harvest from the undiscovered wild edibles growing there. You will never look at a weed the same way again.

Looking Down

For a short month during my horse-crazy girlhood, I took horseback riding lessons. I remember riding around an indoor arena. I remember not being allowed to choose the same horse each week, because “you’re learning to ride horses, not a horse.” Beyond that, I don’t remember much.

Other than the instructor telling me repeatedly, “Look where you want the horse to  go.”

Weirdly, I couldn’t seem to do it. Down and to the side, that’s where my eyes went, to the churned-up wood chips on the floor.

Looking back, I think I was rattled by the stimulating environment and the scary thrill of being high on a horse’s back. All I could see was the ground.

I sort of thought I was looking forward, and I was even more rattled by the frustrated instructor’s repeated injunction to “stop looking down.” I may have managed to glance at the horse’s ears a few times, if not actually through them to where I wanted the horse to go. (On the other hand, where was there to really go in that small arena?)

Did I mention I was a myopic and dreamy child? When I later started driving, on rainy days I found myself absorbed by the raindrops hitting the windshield of the vehicle, vs. the street I was driving down.

But about the riding lesson, two things come to mind. 1) It’s hard to learn something new while overstimulated or scared, and no amount of clear instruction will change that; and 2) Looking where you want to go, while good policy, may require some preliminary work.

I was reminded of this episode by Martha Beck’s video, Thriving in Turbulent Times. In it, she talks about being mindful of your focus, and training it toward where you want to go—looking between the horse’s ears, say, or kicking into a goalie’s net. Or moving toward a future defined by resilience, justice, and mutuality.

I absolutely love this idea, and it makes total sense, and I have sought out evidence the positive side of humanity, wanting to put my focus there. I live for the kind of good news that can somewhat counterbalance the hard stuff (see Resource of the Day below).

And I also know that for me, sometimes there’s a crucial first step before I can reclaim my focus from where I don’t want to go.

I must first find a way to hear the parts of me that may not be on board with positivity in the moment. I need to find a way to calm my nervous system. I need to be extra extra gentle with myself for falling into an unwanted pattern.

(Martha Beck is also down with this, by the way, so I’m not dissing her work in any way.)

This week I went to ground a bit. John Prine died, the refrigerator broke, I had to wear a mask to the drug store for the first time. Everything piled up and seemed sad and scary and hard. I couldn’t sleep. I found myself sinking into despair and anxiety, overloading my nervous system, ending up shaky and overwhelmed—then making it worse by shaming myself for going there.

Enough already. A good cry is as necessary as a good nap, in my book. Why do we have tear ducts, if not to use them?

If I let myself look down, or allow full absorption in the raindrops instead of the street ahead, it can be a relief. It’s honest. Right now, my body says (from the floor, curled up in a sobfest), this is where I need to be. Time enough later for windshield wiping and plotting a course.

horse

Me and my brother and one of our cousins, long before the lessons.

Gratitude: One thing that has really sustained me, and given incentive to continue this project, is all the feedback I’ve received, even third-hand. In addition to this blog, I sent out an e-newsletter called How Will We Choose to Live? that received more responses than any in recent memory. Thank you to everyone who takes time to read these words. I know how much content is out there to wade through, and I’m honored.

Tip of the Day: A double-edged one today. Writing this series has helped me, and has given me a sustaining project, an outlet. Friends are going deep into gardening, or rediscovering crocheting, or learning languages, or making masks. Maybe there’s a project that can help you through this time.

But maybe it’s also, conversely: Don’t try too hard to get shit done. Maybe don’t try out a new skill or join another online lecture. There might be some inner tending that needs to happen before new learning can happen. Do we really need to take a free Yale course on well-being right now? Maybe the highest of higher education is found down deep within.

Resource of the Day: In the good-cry department, here is John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” episode 2. I love everything about this DIY online news show, which gave me a fine place to land while surfacing from my funk. Around minute 9 is where it really kicks up a notch, at least for Hamilton fans.

 

The Peace of the Day

My brain has been snapping with ideas for this series ever since I started it. When I sit down to write, I can pull from many half-baked musings, brilliant-sounding phrases, and indecipherable middle-of-the-night scribbles. There’s this sense of urgency. I feel I will never run out of things to say.

But this afternoon I feel spacy. My spouse is doing one of her long shifts again (she’s been going twice a week to the hospital, but her hours add up to full time). I savor my solitude, but also feel unnerved, knowing just a bit of what she’s dealing with at work.

After walking Opal and reading Some Writer!, I melted into the couch for a while and felt my body breathing. It seemed so essential to stop moving, stop thinking, and just attend to my physical being. I even felt an upwelling of joy.

To spring from that spacious place into a super-duper wordy one… doesn’t seem possible. It seems right to stay in a bit of a fog today. Like maybe that fog honors the magnitude of what we’re going through.

20200325_083730 (1024x768)

A recent foggy morning on the golf course. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

So often I go around with my eyeballs and my jaw trying to run the show. My mind scrabbles for control, and says, “Get your ducks in a row.” I’m usually quite good at pushing myself.

I could. I just don’t want to. Resting might be my major contribution to the peace of the day. Letting the notion of control slip away. The world doesn’t need me to add more rigidity and drivenness to its orbit.

When in doubt, insert a quote. From Charlotte’s Web:

“I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

Gratitude: Breath. Body. Life.

Tip of the Day: Is it time to rest? To let fog descend for a time…trusting it will lift again?

Resource of the Day: I was captivated by this 5-minute message of hope from a British molecular biologist/activist.