Tender Mercy

I’m at a loss for words.

There is nothing I can write today that isn’t already being penned by those more astute, more qualified and more proximate to the rioting south of me in the United States, this time catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. To say the collective outrage is palpable would be a gross understatement. As I write, headlines appear on my screen reporting increased aggression and violence from police towards protesters. And all the while, the nation’s “leader” resorting to his m.o. – ironically one he tried to shut down this week – tweets with the effect of throwing gasoline on fire.  To say these already volatile scenarios in American cities are being intentionally and strategically inflamed by bands of out-of-state Neo Nazis and white supremacists, taking their lead from the one in charge, might be speculation bordering on truth.

So I borrow from the words of others to help me find my own.

And a perspective I heard yesterday in a zoom conversation.

“We need to connect the demand for justice –
which is an outpouring of love –
with tenderness.”

Omid Safi
Islamic scholar and teacher of The Heart of Rumi, May 30, 2020

Over the years at summer folk festivals across my province, I’ve heard American songwriter Mary Gauthier sing one of her most memorable songs, Mercy Now. Released in 2005, its relevancy persists as a poignant anthem for these times. Reading the lyrics over at her website for an excerpt here, I realized, with a heavy heart, that every word is as pertinent today as then. Maybe because her gift is to write with a sparse honesty about our human condition.

“…My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom
He’s shackled to his fears and doubts
The pain that he lives in is
Almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, and he could use some mercy now

…Yea, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now…”

Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now, 2005

I’ve completed the seventh week in The Soul of a Pilgrim with its practice of “embracing the unknown.” This, too, a reality of the human condition, despite our best efforts and delusions to think we know one moment beyond this one.  An early morning practicing the art of contemplative photography, framed by this theme, bore these ephemeral gifts of tender mercy in image and word.

Please, can I have a God who
within me
beyond me
enboldens, encourages, enthuses
me and we

to be better
to do better


for self and kin of
every tribe and colour
every love and gender


so that me and we
may always love, live and breathe


free.

(inspired by “Please, Can I Have a God,” by Christine Valters Paintner, in The Soul of a Pilgrim, 2015)

Too Much, Too Fast, Too Soon

Photo from Dr. Eileen Villa, Twitter, May 23, 2020, Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park

In a Dark Time

Do not rush to make meaning.
When you smile and say what purpose
this all serves, you deny grief
a room inside you,
you turn from thousands who cross
into the Great Night alone,
from mourners aching to press
one last time against the warm
flesh of their beloved,
from the wailing that echoes
in the empty room.

When you proclaim who caused this,
I say pause, rest in the dark silence
first before you contort your words
to fill the hollowed out cave,
remember the soil will one day
receive you back too.
Sit where sense has vanished,
control has slipped away,
with futures unravelled,
where every drink tastes bitter
despite our thirst.

When you wish to give a name
to that which haunts us,
you refuse to sit
with the woman who walks
the hospital hallway, hears
the beeping stop again and again,
with the man perched on a bridge
over the rushing river.
Do not let your handful of light
sting the eyes of those
who have bathed in darkness.

– Christine Valters Paintner –
2020

Way Closed, Way Open

The Quakers have a saying “the way will open.” I first encountered it when reading Let Your Life Speak (too, a Quaker quote) by a favourite writer, Parker J. Palmer. I first “met” Parker when I read his book The Courage to Teach, for me, the quintessential description of teaching. Meaningful because it focused on the inner life of a teacher, being premised on the idea that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (10)

“Way will open.” Parker described a time in his life when he struggled with “what next” in his career. Perplexed and frustrated, he believed in the notion of career as vocation, that to live a meaningful life, he needed work which aligned with an inner calling, where, as Frederick Buechner says, “your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Taking his growing angst to his friends in the Quaker community, Parker learned that while many see the “way open,” others are guided by “way closed,” all the ways that do not and cannot happen in one’s life.

During these “49 million days” of self-distancing (thanks, Glennon Doyle), I watch this dynamic play out in the pandemic: “way closed” in family, community, city, country, global lock downs – with the obvious and yet to be understood impacts, costs, deaths, endings, gifts and blessings – and “way opening” as we, at every scale around the world, cautiously, more or less, engage in re-opening strategies. Right now, most apparent, the relief and happiness to be let out of our rooms and back in to life as we’ve known it, wearing masks – or not, keeping our safe two meter distance – or not, planning our next vacations – or not, get back to work – or not. Still so many “nots.”

Come, even if you have broken
your vow a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.”

Rumi

The past week’s focus in The Soul of a Pilgrim is “beginning again,” the sixth of eight practices. A curious synchronicity that the arbitrary start date for this program would now coincide with these local and global re-opening plans. This practice of beginning again understands that one’s commitment waxes and wanes. Within the context of this pandemic, we might hear the call to embark on pilgrimage (practice #1, hearing the call and responding), using this time for inner house cleaning, soul work. We might make the choice to heed, not knowing the destination nor even what the journey entails, or simply find ourselves on the path as a matter of circumstance, not by choice. And then, we wonder how the hell we got here and how the hell do we get off (practice #6 beginning again).

We do our best with what we have, perhaps even discarding what no longer serves (practice # 2, packing lightly). We might try to find or make meaning of these odd, “fft” (f’ing first times, thanks Brene Brown) experiences (practice #3, crossing the threshold; practice #4, making the way by walking). We’re numb with disbelief that something invisible to the human eye has the capacity, without exception or distinction, to render millions sick and many thousands dead. It continues to perplex the most skilled and wisest among us, keeping steps ahead, leaving us weary with vigilance, wanting simply for it to be gone, or us immune, so we can get back to living our lives, praying somehow we’ll escape a second, even third wave. (practice #5, being uncomfortable).

This week I had a temper tantrum. Getting ready for an appointment with my chiropractor, I was running late. (How that can be, when I have nothing that pressing going on in my life, only pages and pages of empty space in my daytimer, is beyond me!) Appreciating their rigorous safety protocols, thought I’d do my part by wearing my mask. Couldn’t get the damned thing to stay up on the back of my head, with my glasses, them now steamed up as much as I. Realized wearing earrings was a stupid choice, getting stuck in the elastic. Gave up lipstick weeks ago as it only smeared. Took more time than dressing for 40 below. And when it was all done, so was I. Quite ready to bust out, go to Costco, among the imagined throngs of people, no mask, no gloves, wandering the aisles, taking my time, mindlessly looking at stuff, tasting stuff. The more time the better. No bleeping arrows telling me which aisle to go up and down, no red tape marking off my space. No one asking me the same stupid screening questions I’d just answered at the last place. I’d f#*!&ing had it with Covid-19. I’d already broken the rule last week when I hugged a friend (first time other than my husband in four months) and walked with her, hardly keeping our safe distance. And my husband stopped by his local version of “Cheers” to enjoy a pint with the only four folks there, all safely distanced. Our first big blow-up during these 49 million days as we’d not talked about the implications for each other, and ourselves in doing so.

No sense to be made. No meaning to come. Yes, reconciliation. But way had definitely closed.

Too, I realized I’m feeling out of step with the “way open” of a new season. After two days of much needed rain, spring is full out blooming, blossoming, greening and growing. A riot of colour decks doorsteps and gardens. Birds amorously announce dawn’s four o’clock arrival.

But I’m feeling fallow.  The threshold space between way closed, way open. I know this might sound whiney. I know this is a wee fingernail experience. And I know, it’s all true. That perhaps, you, too, dear reader, have had your own meltdown(s).

So how to practice beginning again, to see “way open?”
How to begin again making my life my prayer?

“Open your eyes and see there
are no more words…
but only the shimmering presence of your
own attention to life.

Only one great miracle unfolding and
only one sacred word which is 
yes.”

Christine Valters Paintner, “How to Feel the Sap Rising, “
excerpt, in The Soul of a Pilgrim, 2015

I wake early.
The old cuckoo calls three. By four I rise quietly.
Tie my robe close, softly pad downstairs, put on the kettle for tea.
After an hour scanning the morning paper, emails, social media,
I notice the light changing, the day breaking.
Step into my sitting space and see shimmering
our last old mayday tree draped with white lacy blossoms, 
tall stalks of purple pink bergenia bells,
this sudden lush and verdant backyard life after two days’ soaking rain.

Yes, to this attention to life.
Yes, to this miracle unfolding.

But truthfully, in the stillness of this early morning,
my inner yes to the all of life right now is
reluctant, doubting, hesitant, scared.

And while my habit would be to
push, fix, deny, admonish,
the best I can do is to
open my arms,
receive and say welcome.

Yes, you are home.

Prescience

ONE FINE DAY

Saw the wanderin’ eye, inside my heart
Shouts and battle cries, from every part
I can see those tears, every one is true
When the door appears, I’ll go right through, oh
I stand in liquid light, like everyone

I built my life with rhymes, to carry on
And it gives me hope, to see you there
The things I used to know, that one fine

One fine day

In a small dark room, where I will wait
Face to face I find, I contemplate
Even though a man is made of clay
Everything can change that one fine —

One fine day

Then before my eyes, is standing still
I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

– David Byrne and Brian Eno –
2018

David Byrne, founder of my most favourite dance band, Talking Heads.

Lost

Last week’s spoken weariness persists. Now with another soupçon of sadness. I think of Rumi and his guest house, welcoming all these sensations and feelings as guides from beyond. I continue to practice the art of sitting in the void of uncertainty, in the tension of it all, of it all being true.

Too, I continue my participation in The Soul of a Pilgrim. It’s become a way to chronicle my reactions and response to the pandemic within the context of these eight practices. Last week, the fifth, the practice of being uncomfortable, particularly with being lost.

In the week’s online conversation, and in anticipation of how I’d create a scenario walking in my neighborhood where I’d feel lost, get lost, be lost, I posted this favourite poem, Lost, as a guide for me and others.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner, 1999

The evening I set out, was initially along the familiar route, with our Annie dog leading the way. With each step, I recalled those times I’ve been lost, or more significantly, worked to not get lost. With each step, I felt the discomfort of my body tightening, butterflies in my gut, my head straining to figure it out, find my way.

Travelling solo in Europe in my fifth decade. Late to the party, I never did the university gap year, backpack, Eurail pass thing. I finally made that long held dream come true, thanks to a deferred salary leave which allowed me to travel for three months. I remembered arriving in Venice at the beginning of Carnavale, disembarking from the train, stepping down onto the platform to catch a water ferry, and find my way to my apartment. Almost a decade ago, the borrowed cellphone didn’t work. Wifi was sketchy at best. But constant as a northern star, the kindness of strangers helped me arrive and make a quick email connection with my husband to let him know I’d arrived safely, the one and only
during that leg of the trip.

I’d always considered myself poor with directions, but that trip, those three months, taught me otherwise. Perhaps I erred on the side of over-vigilance, but travelling alone, in low season winter and spring, when the days were short, I did what I needed to stay “found”, using my paper map, practicing walking routes to train stations to estimate time, asking for help, photographing landmarks to get me “home.” It was all about self-care, managing my anxiety, not getting too overwhelmed with the “bigness, muchness, fullness” of it all that was new, alluring, exciting, different. For me, travelling alone, getting lost would not add to the experience.

Those memories and visceral feelings walked with me and Annie as we approached the school playground. I was struck by the oddness, the “wrongness” of not seeing any children playing on the equipment, not seeing their parents watching them, on this sunny early evening. I felt lost in this pandemic scenario.

Even though Annie and I walked along different streets that evening, some, for all the years I’ve lived here, I’d never walked nor driven down before, the lost I felt was an interior one, grieving so much which is no longer, and wondering, will it ever be again.

This lost has weighed heavy these past days. Here in Canada, it’s our first long weekend of the summer. It’s been unseasonably cold across the country, with snow falling, oddly even, in more temperate locations. While it makes easier not getting together with friends for barbeques or going to the greenhouses for bedding plants, it’s not supposed to be this way. And yet it is.

Last night over dinner, I wept. Then a chance viewing one of our iconic folk-rock bands, Blue Rodeo, sing their anthem song, We Are Lost Together, with Canadians at home, I wept some more.

Of among hundreds in this global online community, one woman responded to my writing with this lovely insight:

I appreciate your reflection on the inner experience of ‘lostness’ – how brave of you to do Europe like that, ‘late to the party’ as you called it.  And the irony that for all its challenges and your self-belief about your poor sense of direction you were not once lost.  And yet something of this time and its strangeness in the midst of your familiar surroundings can induce the sense of lostness and one that ‘weighs heavy’.   I find myself identifying with you, thank you Katharine.”    

I felt seen. The lost that had weighed heavy became lighter with connection.

Worrying

I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

– Mary Oliver –
Swan, 2010

Or in my case, danced.

Well and Weary

It’s been a good two months living in this history making Covid-19 time. Socially distanced. Compassionately retreated. Many of us are baking bread, Marie Kondo-ing our homes, cleaning our yards, walking, taking photos or organizing those we took, ordering take-out, reading, streaming movies, watching YouTube travel videos, zooming meetings, face-timing our family and friends.

We adapt. It’s one of our long and strong suits.

On the surface, life in and around our home is pretty much the same as it ever was. Quiet, with few interruptions except for a parcel delivery, and Annie “guard dogging” with her barks whenever anyone walks by, or rings the doorbell. Funny thing, she doesn’t differentiate if it’s the same person walking by. A neighbor has taken to walking circuits around the green space in our cul de sac. Every five minutes or so, there he goes past our house, and there she goes. We could set a timer with her barking.

And yet, truth be told, in the past week I’ve been feeling weary. Well yes, and weary. This cycle of growing daylight interrupts my sleep patterns. Finally, I’ve learned to keep my sleep mask under my pillow if not on my head. Several recent episodes of early morning insomnia in the past week, like right now, when I’ve been awake since two. Four hours sleep, and if I’m lucky, perhaps a couple more as the sun rises and the robins lullaby me into dreamtime.

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing
and also a kind of healing.
We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved.
They come together and they fall apart.
Then they come together again and fall apart again.
It’s just like that.
The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 1996

But this is different. Last week, I listened to the news that Alberta’s honey production has been seriously impacted by the loss of 50,000 hives and how would they be replaced given pandemic-imposed travel restrictions. This became another proverbial straw this time broke on the back of knowing each day more and more of the pandemic’s pervasive personal and global impacts and implications. Using as metaphor from one of those travel YouTube videos I’d been watching, I feel like I’m on a train travelling through a mountain tunnel. It’s dark as pitch, and while I trust there will be a light at the end, I have no idea how wide the mountain we burrowing through, how long before I see light, nor will I recognize anything once through and on the other side?

I am weary.
Heavy with the weight of so much
unknown so much
unravelling,
with each day’s turning into this new season of
hope and rebirth.
I am stretched with a tender tension,
the holding of what is over,
the hoping for what may come.

Ever late to the party, last week I started walking Annie and listening to podcasts. I heard Krista Tippett from her OnBeing podcasts speak to the very real fatigue of virtually connecting.  Calling it “zoomzaustion,” our heads and hearts feel good seeing and hearing each other on our devices, but our bodies miss the very real enlivening energy flow we give and get only when in the physical presence of others. These months of not being physically present with friends, unable to visit family are exacting a toll, even though I’m home in good loving company.

“The only time we ever know what’s really going on
is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or
to put ourselves to sleep.
Right now — in the very instant of groundlessness — is
the seed of taking care of those who need our care and
of discovering our goodness.”

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 1996

During the weekend we dined on take out. It’s our commitment to “live local with love” and support local chefs by once a week ordering in dinner. A mix up with the order meant I sat and waited in the empty but for chef and staff restaurant as our food was prepared. First time visit, I was struck by the attractive décor, the open kitchen, the hip music. Staff were pleasant, apologetic, offered me a glass of BC sparkling wine to pass the time. Food delivered, bill paid, goodbyes and well wishes exchanged, once home and chowing down, my husband and I both remarked on the heart and soul put into creating that space, making this food, serving their customers, realizing a vision; on the questionable future to sustain themselves under their current pivot business plan, as opening under the province’s re-entry plan, with 50% capacity and the required 2 metre distance between tables would ensure bankruptcy.

Today, I’d hoped to have a “safe distance” walk with my friend in celebration of her birthday. “Thick rain” meant we cancelled, for now. So I’ll make chile cheese cornbread muffins to go with the “beerbutt” chicken my husband will grill for supper. I’ll call a friend grieving the passing of her mother. Tomorrow, I’ll purchase a CSA from a local greenhouse. Then I’ll see my chiropractor for a long overdue tune-up. All of us masked and gloved.

This weariness ebbs and flows.
I stay open to the vulnerable tenderness of this life.

“When things are shaky and nothing is working,
we might realize that we are on the verge of something.
We might realize that this is a very vulnerable

and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.
We can shut down and feel resentful or
we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 1996