For the past couple of months I’ve been participating in another Abbey of the Arts online program. “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” a thirteen-week study into the archetypes of contemplative and creative – two of my deep affinities – was another of those intentional activities undertaken to flourish during these darkening, distanced days. Again, each week corresponds to a book chapter, this time, The Artist’s Rule, authored by abbess-host Christine Valters Paintner.
Too, each week follows a similar agenda. Monday is a live video session with a couple of hundred of us tuning in globally as Christine welcomes us into the week’s theme, guides us in meditative reflection and journaling, gives the week’s overview and invitations for creative process, and answers questions. Tuesday features a scriptural interpretation by Christine’s husband and theology teacher, John. Wednesday is devoted to the sacred practice of Lectio Divina, listening with the “ears of the heart” to a scripture or poem, pondering on a word or phrase that “shimmers.” Thursday and Friday are for creative expression via writing and or art making. Saturday for closing reflections and “catch up”; and Sunday for rest and integration – what I like to think of as the yogi’s savasana. Throughout we’re invited to share our reflections and comment to each other, with the proviso that no advice be given. Instead it’s the application throughout of what “shimmers.”
Last week – our seventh and midpoint – focused on “Inner Hospitality and Welcoming the Stranger.” Scripture, Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” were frames for supporting the encounter with our inner strangers.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I’m struck how often synchronicity is at play, with the “unexpected” appearance of a poem, a podcast, a picture that deepens, resonates or brings a touch of humor. This favourite appeared on Facebook a few days before the week’s scripture:
Thursday’s creative expression was an exercise to get in touch with our inner strangers via “gush” painting. I welcomed this as an invitation to return to a practice I had left several years ago. I painted according to my teacher, Michele Cassou, and her intuitive process painting outlined in Life, Paint, and Passion: Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneity.
I’ve written in other blogs about my experimentation in this process, but shared last week in the course, the “back story” of having bought Michele’s book for $2.00 where it sat on my shelf for a few years. That one summer, re-intrigued by the cover, I read it in one sitting. Mesmerized by the paintings, and knowing in my core she was writing truth, and that being sprinkled with Rumi, what was not to love? That I immediately searched online for a class and remarkably discovered there was a retreat being held in – of all places – an obscure little town where we lived before moving to Alberta. It took a few years before the stars and my schedule aligned, but I went for a week, for three consecutive years, to have the requisite hours to go to Taos, NM during my sabbatical year and study at Michele’s master class, where upon my return home, I hosted painting weekends – a life saver for me and those many who attended, mostly women from work – each of us coping with the dismantling of our department and huge work stress-uncertainties.
Too, I shared that consistent with the “gush” practice, and how I entered into this activity, it’s never about product, but about process: attempting to paint spontaneously, allowing the colour and image to come to guide, without meaning or interpretation, without choosing, but following that often, nearly mute impulse. Typically, not shared, as like pages from a journal, paintings often reveal truths and vulnerabilities that others, upon reading or seeing, or our own critical selves, might judge, and then frighten and subsequently inhibit ourselves from expressing. So, too, when a painting is acclaimed, perhaps even a more insidious trap.
Given it had been a few years since I’d last painted in this way, so long that my tempera paints had dried, I took a “practice run”…just to get back into feeling the brush on the paper, my body into gesture, my head out of the way.
A second painting emerged, attracted to colours and a style that have always evoked creativity, life, vitality, desire, the ooze of life and inner fire.
“This is your body, your greatest gift, pregnant with wisdom you do not hear, grief you thought was forgotten, and joy you have never known.”
Marion Woodman, Coming Home to Myself, 1998
The third felt the most unexpected, unbidden, honest. A self portrait. Evoked perhaps from the poem I’d shared earlier in the week describing the impact of getting Bells Palsy in 2013.
“We have lived our lives behind a mask. Sooner or later – if we are lucky – the mask will be smashed.”
Marion Woodman, Coming Home to Myself, 1998
A powerful depiction of the often felt, though less obvious to the outside world – unless I’m stressed or tired – lingering effects: the loss of facial symmetry, the odd tingly sensations and itchiness especially around my nose and cheek, my mouth that droops, my eye that dries or tears up. Not chewing as well, nor singing because of the loss of strength in my palate. Even speaking can be challenging some days. A shyness that developed, though perhaps it allowed for a truer introverted aspect of self to emerge. It certainly broke open my life –shattering the mask that paradoxically invited in a truer relationship to self, in my marriage and in my life. With a daily felt and seen reminder of how lucky I am.
And, in another stroke of lovely synchronicity, this, from the Vancouver poet, bentlily, appeared on Facebook, hours after painting:
“When I start to feel nervous about letting my creativity run free, it’s always because I am afraid of what people will think of what I create. And yet wanting the world to love what you make is not the problem. It’s natural (and financially, it’s very reasonable!). The problem is when I start thinking more about “you” than I do about me…But I still have to trust that if I write my poems for me, you will come. Because if I am too preoccupied with how and what to write for you, eventually, no poems will come at all because I will have lost the “me.”
bentlily by Samantha Reynolds, Facebook, October 23, 2020
Here’s to creativity off leash. Wild and messy and free.
Now I Understand (in response to Pablo Neruda’s An Ode for Ironing)
Your house cleaned. Your floors swept. Your bed made. Your dishes washed. Your gardens tended. Your dog walked.
You, who has the means to purchase the hands’ work of others inherited, earned, dignified
Who would have thought my taking on the task of ironing your linens and your clothes as I pressed mine –
my small act of gratitude for your generous hospitality for opening your home to me giving me sanctuary of rest and routine while I, the novice, explored the world making true and real my heart’s desire –
would be taking away this small but necessary weekly Sunday evening pleasure bringing you back to your self giving you back the ground of your being?
Now I understand this ode’s essence to bring substance and harmony to give routine and resurrection to allow you to feel with your hands your way into a new week.
I knew I needed practices to help me flourish with fall’s arrival, its shorter days, and the inevitable snows and cold of winter. No escaping it, even though we here in the parklands of Alberta have had a stellar September and first week of October with no frost nor flakes. I posted on Facebook last week how remarkable that the geraniums and marigolds in their pots looked more beautiful and abundant now than in the peak of summer.
Early in this pandemic, while making photo books from my last trips to Morocco and Andalusia, I saw the hundreds of photos I’d taken over the past decade and decided to sort into a collection those I’d like to use on the cover of note cards. A few years ago, before the advent of the terrific e-cards I now habitually send, I’d make a photo card to celebrate a family member or friend’s birthday, anniversary, wedding or other life transition. A photo, hand- written or stamped greeting, postage stamp and off it’d go in the mail. I chose to resurrect that practice this fall – my version of a non-Zoom hug or love note – to stay connected with friends.
“…I needed that bond to feel whole, competent and grounded, connected to my heart and soul, to my community, to my ancestors, and to the natural world around me…”
Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019
Times have changed. It used to be that I had a paper address book with friends’ contact information. As I composed my list of names, I realized for many I had only email addresses. And so, without tipping my hand too much, I asked, via email, for their “old fashioned snail mail” postal address.
“Over the course of just a couple of hundred years in the so-called developed world, we have become passive consumers of products, services, and information rather than active makers, fixers and even thinkers. Most of the time what we buy is made somewhere else, by a machine or by people we’ll never meet…”
Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019
Every week since early September, a few days a week, a couple of names on my list, I’d make a card, with a hand written note, maybe include a well-loved verse of poetry or a quote, a specially chosen photo evoking something for me about that person. Affixed a stamp and return address label and slipped it in the community mailbox.
“I gradually came to the conclusion that in its most simple sense, art (as a verbal noun that I now call “artifying” or “artification”) is the act of making ordinary things extraordinary. It is a uniquely human impulse.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
After the first week’s batch, I remembered that the cards I use are good quality water colour stock. I remembered how in that earlier iteration I might rubber stamp the inside with a greeting, and occasionally paint a dash of colour over. So now I’ve taken to embellishing the envelope with rubber stamp image and light water colour wash. “Now that’s an envelop worth keeping!” remarked a friend’s husband upon retrieving her card from their post box.
“Joie de faire – an inherent joy in making: There is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something that didn’t exist before, of using one’s own agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold, craft physical materials, apart from anticipating the fact of its eventual beauty, uniqueness, or usefulness.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
I’m crystal clear within myself that I make and send these cards with no expectation of hearing back from anyone. And yet I’ve been delighted to read about how surprised or touched by, or perfect the card. Another friend reminisced about days gone by when letters and notes were the way we maintained our relationships and connections, saying she’d been inspired to follow my lead, and that perhaps this was fulfilling my purpose.
“I think a lot of modern people’s ennui, or feelings of depression or meaninglessness, comes from the fact that although our physical and material needs are met, we are not satisfying those psychological and emotional needs of our hunter-gatherer nature.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
While I was touched with her suggestion, I’m not sure this is my purpose, per se, but it is satisfying that yearning to make, to make something beautiful, to share that beauty with people I cherish, and to invite them – for a moment or longer- to feel they are cherished by me. It is responding to my inner need to flourish when I’d felt so fallow and forlorn during the early months of Covid-19.
“…active making, and making special, contributes to satisfactions (fulfillment of basic emotional needs) that cannot come any other way.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
It is activating my slogan: The power of prayer and the making of beauty are HOLY ALCHEMY for social change.
Mid August has come and gone and with it, most of summer. I used to say that August felt like one long Sunday night, especially for those of us in education. That mix of anticipation, apprehension, excitement and trepidation with September and the start of a new school year. All the stuff that can keep one awake, tossing and turning on a Sunday night, wondering what the new week will bring.
For the first time, this isn’t my felt sense. Maybe enough years out and away from the day to day. Too, knowing my work with schools has ceased, at least for the time being. Not wanting to be insensitive, I admit it’s hardly a year I’d want to be returning given so much continued uncertainty and real apprehension about the safety and well-being of staff and students as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise here and around the world with school resuming.
Despite another run this week of hot, sunny weather and cloudless skies (only the second this summer!) there are signs of what’s to come. Sitting by the local pond late last week I wrote:
The change in weather weighed heavy today. Every bone in my body ached. My jaw clenched as my third eye pulsed. Indelible and subtle, this signaling of the season to come. Tell-tale morning chill. Golden haze on aspen, ash and farmers’ fields. Sun that sets earlier, rises later. Geese gathered on the cat-tail bordered pond, leisurely swim in the same V formation as they fly. And for a moment I hear in my head the opening lines to a favourite Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese. Try to speak aloud from memory. Give up but remember its essence, remember the world announcing my place in the family of things.
Look up into that blue sky, heavy with lead bottomed clouds. Beseech the wind who is my guardian, “Where is it I’m meant to be?”
Like a squirrel gathering nuts, the geese and crows gathering to migrate south, I’m beginning to prepare myself for fall. Like its predecessors, spring and summer of 2020, I imagine it, too, will be the likes of which none of us has ever experienced. More pronounced again have been those waves of grief as I realize all too soon the ease with which we’ve been able to safely see friends will pass as colder temperatures and shorter days become the norm. And still, though curiously more acute, the sur-reality of living in this pandemic, every day continuing to learn more and more its impacts. Something I felt in the spring, but was able to hold lightly, off to the side during summer.
“… it is in those moments that we must remember the difference between despair and grief. While despair traps us in the bog of despondency, grief carries us into life. Grief calls us into a deeper engagement with those things that we love. And even as we are losing them, grief wants to exalt their beauty. If we let grief move us into expression, it will sing the blood into our songs, colour the vividness into our paintings, and slip the poetry between our words.
Toko-pa Turner, Facebook post, August 14, 2020
So thoroughly engaged in the first programs I took under their hosting this spring, in the pandemic’s novel, early days, I signed on to another self study with the Abbey of the Arts. Starting in September for twelve weeks, “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” promises to be an equally deep, communal dive into creative expression. I’m lightly researching how and what I need to begin a project based on some mandala paintings I’ve made over the years, and today I signed on for a self-paced study in abstract creative painting. Lonely for community, I’ve decided to resume my weekly Saturday river valley walks with the local Camino group.
It’s a delicate balancing act, like the pattern I’ve noticed when I’ve been out and about a bit, around more people than usual. Without much conscious thought, I find myself laying low for the following several days, staying home, and only going out to walk Annie. I hear friends and family acknowledge their loneliness, while others live with the millstone of chronic illness and the deaths of their beloveds. My heart aches for my sister, recently moved to the States, where as the crow flies only fifteen minutes from her children, grandchildren and our parents, but with the border closed, now for another month, now an eternity away. I prudently expect more of our traditional celebrations – Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year’s – will continue to be severely curtailed by Covid-19.
“Rumi says, ‘All medicine wants is pain to cure.’ And so we must cry out in our weakness, our ineptitude, our beautiful inadequacy and make of it an invitation that medicine might reach through and towards us.”
Toko-pa Turner, Facebook post, August 14, 2020
Sitting by the pond, in response to my question, the wind whispers:
Right here, dear daughter. Resting in the still warm sun. Breathing in the fresh northern air. Your hair like the green rushes, swaying, dipping and dancing in rhythm to my silent song. Right here. Right now. This.
Thinking about this week’s post came from a few rambling experiences finally resting on the need and practicality of being closer to home.
Lifting a page from the books of some friends, we’ve taken a couple of day trips to see some local sights, obscure and otherwise. Like most folks these days, we’ve opted for the “staycation,” sticking closer to home, not yet venturing far enough for an overnight accommodation. While the mountains call, from what we hear people are flocking in droves to Jasper, Banff and Canmore, so we’ll hold off until…. Plus, we didn’t want to kennel Annie. She’s been such a stalwart companion these months, relying on us as much as we her for a steady supply of love and attention. We just didn’t have the heart to leave her cooped up with strangers. And being on leash, the only way in the mountains, gets pretty frustrating with so much wild scent around. After all, she’s a bird dog. Scenting, hunting, stalking and pointing are her nature.
So a drive east down a prairie highway to Viking, a right turn south across the rolling pastures and freshly cut hay fields, up the hill to a white fence enclosing the two Viking Ribstones. An ancient aboriginal site, now adorned with colourful prayer cloths, these large quarzite boulders were carved thousands of years ago to resemble the ribcages of the revered bison, the main source of sustenance for the plains people.
Last week, north and east to Metis Crossing, we spent another few hot, sunny hours enjoying the quiet of this cultural interpretative centre along the shores of the North Saskatchewan River. Bison sausage with saskatoon relish, bannock with fresh rhubarb jelly and saskatoon lemonade were in keeping with history and today’s garden harvest. Flowers grew in abundance.
I’d like for us to make a further trek south towards Rosebud and Blackfoot Crossing. That landscape of treeless, golden high prairie cut by deep coulees green with willow and cottonwood, set against an endless horizon of blue begs acknowledgement that it, too, is as magnificent as the mountains. An acknowledgement I’m only too willing to give, though it would be a long day.
This weekend would have been the 40th anniversary of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It, like every other festival in Alberta and large gatherings around the world, was cancelled due to the pandemic. Here, every summer weekend we watch rodeos, listen to music of every genre, see theatre at the famous Fringe festival, revel in parades and gatherings celebrating culture and heritage. We mark our all too short summer with one or several of these “must attends.” It’s helps us get through winters that go on and on. All weekend my radio station, CKUA, an ardent supporter of Alberta culture, featured music and interviews from past years’ performers, while the Festival commissioned a full-length film feature, The Hill, to stream and hosted over fifty videos of past performances. As beautiful the efforts to be on “the hill at home,” as I drove past the festival site early Saturday morning, a time when any other year I’d see orange vested volunteers managing traffic, I felt a bit bereft and wondered, when, if ever, would, what has been called North America’s finest folk festival, return. I recalled having had my first pandemic meltdown, weeping the morning I heard it, and my go to, the Canmore Folk Festival, had been cancelled. The ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning of grief. That day it came closer to home and landed on my doorstep.
Yesterday I zoomed in on a conversation hosted by Melanie Falik, author of the recently published Making A Life: Working By Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live. A few hundred people from around the world, mostly knitters, listened along. As a kind of checkout, we were invited to type in the chat box one project we’d start this week. I got to thinking that for the past week or so I’d been saying out loud that I needed a project. Something I could sink my teeth into. Something on which to focus my ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning energy. Something besides cooking that would engage my curiosity and creativity.
The photo books from this past year’s trips are done. I’m writing a bit. I’m still committed to not learning how to bake sourdough bread, nor grow a garden (hell, I’m having enough of a time picking slugs off my flowers, and we love the bounty from our bi-weekly CSA, thank you). Like most knitters, though I blush to call myself such, I have a started sweater in a bag and a few patterns and skeins waiting in the bin. But I hardly need more sweaters, or scarves, or shawls, even if Friday’s sudden cold weather reminds me what’s coming.
No, what I realized, as I knitted together these recent bits of my life, was that the dreams I’d been keeping, hoping to sustain me through these days of uncertainty and change, were too far out of reach. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath as long as it would take, if ever, to return to the folk festival as I had known it, or to Morocco as I’d planned for this September. I realized I needed to dream closer to home.
I have no idea what dream or project. Not yet. But I feel a smile inside and out as I begin to wonder and feel those energies shimmer, swirl and coalesce.
I first wrote this post six months ago, before the pandemic, before life as any of us had known it would come to an abrupt stop. I kept it the draft folder, thought about it every week. I had just created this blog, A Wabi Sabi Life, wherein the beauty of my imperfect, sometimes broken, mostly well-lived life is acknowledged and honoured. Like my previous blog, A Moment Rescued, it’s premised on knowing that by naming and noticing life’s bits, one makes meaning and gives value to life. And this time, it’s the committed space to keep my promise to write, for if I am to become a writer, then write I must.
Six months ago I felt too vulnerable posting this. But after writing some about grief – mine, and loneliness – mine, while feeling no less vulnerable, I now have a bit more in the guts and gumption department to pull it out, dust it off and press “publish.” And too, knowing I have the companionship of others who have felt similarly in these covid days helps me call out “anxiety” as my on again, off again companion.
Arriving mostly unbidden…it’s like a cloud covering the sun, turning it suddenly chilly. Or the wind that moves through the just-a-moment-ago-motionless spruce and willows, as darkness gives over to dawn. Subtle. Nuanced. Insidious. And then, there it is, colouring my insides like an ink drop in water. Chest tightens. Thoughts on overdrive. Adrenaline racing. Washed over with dread and wrung out. And too, the gnawing visceral pain. During its visits, I’d often withdraw socially, mustering energy enough to get by and through to other side. In its aftermath, often the lingering fatigue and yes, shame.
“Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve worried, been told I over-think, over-analyze. Told myself it’s a habit of mind that I was convinced helped me make sense and stable, the senseless and chaotic. Realized it’s like an addiction wreaking havoc with my energy, focus, and sleep; wasting my time, which becomes more precious with every day; withering my enjoyment and enthusiasm for life.
Named it anxiety. Now have learned it’s a manifestation, and not exaggeration, of “trauma.”
“Trauma is not an event. Trauma is the body’s protective response to an event – or a series of events- that it perceives as potentially dangerous. This perception may be accurate, inaccurate, or entirely imaginary.”
Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands, 2017
These words too, like those of Dr. Vivek Murthy’s on loneliness, are a stone dropped into the pond, rippling out in concentric circles of awareness, connection, awakening, and compassion.
These words, and others of Menakem’s – “we can have a trauma response to anything we perceive as a threat, not only to our physical safety, but to what we do, say, think, care about, believe in, or yearn for”– pretty well cover, for many of us, the territory of living, particularly now during the pandemic. Recognizing when something happens too fast, too much, too soon to the body, and causes it overwhelm, may create trauma. Understanding a body-embedded trauma response manifests as fight, flee, freeze, or as a combination of constriction, pain, fear, dread, anxiety, unpleasant thoughts, reactive behaviors, and other physical sensations.
Bessel van der Kolk, a global expert in the field of trauma research and treatment, and Rachel Yehuda‘s work on epigenetics, or cross generational trauma, brought a contemporary lens to my growing understanding. And Canadian physician Gabor Mate’s study of addiction, attachment-attunement, stress and illness, make more connections within and across disciplines and experiences.
“Trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst… you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival. And in some ways, I don’t think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you also know the dark side of life.”
Bessel van der Kolk, On Being with Krista Tippet, July 13, 2013
When I feel anxiety’s pain, relax, take a breath and ask “Sweetheart, are you feeling safe?” I create a sliver of space and that space, for a moment, makes possible a different story, and invites in a kindness.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
I’ve grown to appreciate, too, that I’m sensitive and empathic. True, the wounded healer‘s cocktail when mixed with anxiety, but not without bearing several double-edged gifts: a certain “prescience,” the ability to listen into the silence of words not spoken, to notice and name elements of the emotional field for people to feel deeply seen and heard, and to see connections and patterns among the disparate and barely perceptible, helping identify root causes.
Learning to claim and cherish my quirks and qualities, my flaws and features, naming this particular brokenness of anxiety and trauma gives me rest and brings me comfort. Perhaps in naming it here, you, too, may come to name and cherish those of yours.
With love and kindest regards.
“There are days I drop words of comfort on myself like falling rain and remember it is enough to be taken care of by my self.”
Last night as we ate dinner my husband remarked that it was all homemade. Yes, I had cooked and composed while he grilled, but what he meant was that every ingredient, except the seasonings and Italian olive oil and parmesan cheese, was locally produced. From the Hutterite grown potatoes, boiled and smashed, then mottled pink with a sauté of chopped beet greens and garlic scapes from our bi-weekly CSA bag of freshly harvested vegetables, and topped with a grating of that Italian cheese; to the grilled “cowboy” thick-cut pork chops purchased from our local butcher and CSA drop-off, smeared with a piquant carrot-top chimichurri; to the salad of brilliant green leaf lettuce and dark wild arugula, topped with cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, dressed in a light vineagrette. Every mouthful bursting with colour, alive with freshness, deeply satisfying.
Several years ago I won the big prize of a basket of locally produced good for the night’s best tweet, “live local with love.” Since, it’s become my slogan and hashtag for supporting local producers, artists, entrepreneurs and efforts. During the pandemic, it’s become the basis for choices and decisions to spend our resources of time, energy and money on these local mainstays, hopefully to ensure their current and future livelihood.
Last week, when a member of the CSA Facebook community mentioned the smallness that week’s harvest, I took a moment to kindly reply:
“Purchasing this CSA means helping “share” the risks that our producers take on for us. Bringing that risk to my doorstep, not having it anonymously “out there.” Sometimes that might mean abundance in the bag, other times it might mean fallow. Regardless, I am surprised, delighted, curious and appreciative. And I feel good knowing I am, in a very small way, doing what I can to say thank you, that what you (and other local producers we support) do matters a great deal. I notice your efforts. I care.“
Yesterday, walking Annie, I enjoyed a spontaneous conversation with a couple walking their dog. From across the street he recognized Annie and asked if sometimes we rode her off a bicycle. Yes, that’s my husband’s way of exercising both him and her, and that she, as have all our dogs, love the pull and rigor of it. One thing led to another and we started talking about life in these pandemic days, how we were coping, the gratitude for the companionship of our aging dogs, theirs, twelve years, ours ten. Then we talked food and the pleasure we take from its sourcing and preparation. Wine and meat, bagels and bread, cheese and fruit, we flitted on the surface, landing lightly on where to find, how to make, what to enjoy.
Bidding them a good day, I reveled in the sweetness of this brief encounter with strangers, who like me, love their dog, good food, and wine. I savored the knowing that cooking has been a main source of creative expression and consolation these many weeks. I felt the love for my Oma whose presence watches over me as I cook with utensils from her kitchen, shipped off to me years ago in her meticulously wrapped “care packages,” and with whom I pulled my first carrots from the warmth of her garden during cherieshed childhood summers spent at her home in New York state. And for a few moments, I welcomed back the grief of missing her, and of being unable to share a lovingly prepared homemade meal with friends, as now so much depends on weather to cooperate to be safe.
“When you learn to make things with your hands, you begin to awaken an awareness of the beauty and value of things in your life. Handmaking teaches us about slowness: the antidote to brevity and efficiency. It shows us, through the patience of our own hands, what goes into a thing. When we put those long efforts into bringing beauty into the world, we are honouring that which made us by creating as we have been created. We are taught to respect the slow, attentive piecing together of the life we yearn for.”
Today’s blog is late. Moved to write, I got up at four, and while I finished before my usual 7 am posting time, I needed to sit awhile with this before pressing “publish.”
I think this might be, in part, why I’ve been having a hard time finding words, why I’ve been feeling fallow of late. Realizing this, admitting this, to myself, here, feels vulnerable. Yet it’s absolutely true. And perhaps in doing so, words might now come easier for me. I don’t know.
I do know, that when I walked Annie last week and I listened to Brene Brown’s podcast with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States and author of Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, I felt a big penny drop deep inside. In mid-April, a month into the global COVID-19 lockdown, they talked about loneliness and its huge physical and emotional toll on social connection. Three months later and I’m feeling its price.
The early days of COVID-19, when winter hung on with its snow and cold, the days had not yet appeared significantly lighter and longer, I enjoyed the prolonged cocooning it invited. While odd to see few cars on the streets, and even fewer folks around, I felt comfortable and at home in the stillness and quiet that would only come during those occasional holydays or snow days when everyone stayed home. But now, four months later, into summer with its longer days, and our staged re-entry, I find it harder to navigate. Each week it becomes more apparent that life as I have come to know it, with its felt rhythms and routines, conversations and connections, is no longer, at least not yet. Too, the utter uncertainty as to what I might next conjure in the way of work baffles and confounds.
Grief. I’ve spoken of it here on this platform over the months.
But when I heard Dr. Murthy define loneliness as the gap between the connections that you need and the social connections that you currently have, I knew “I am lonely.”
Murthy describes three dimensions of loneliness to reflect the particular type of relationship we might be missing:
Emotional loneliness is missing that close confidant or intimate partner with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust.
Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support.
Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.
“Loneliness is not a concept, it is the body constellating, attempting to become proximate and even join with other bodies, through physical touch, through conversation or the mediation of the intellect and the imagination.”
David Whyte, “Loneliness, ” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, 2015
So despite, blessedly, having a loving, steadfast husband of forty years, and family including my healthy, alert, fully engaged parents, I feel lonely.
I have dear friends, near and far. We stay in touch. Yet, I feel lonely for the in person, physical, face to face, exchange of energy and ideas and feelings and smiles and tears and embraces. For that “mediation of the intellect and the imagination.”
Now living into a different age and stage of life, my felt sense of community has shifted. Those ready-made places and affiliations, conveniently arrived at through work, are no longer. So how to create new connections? And how to do so under these peculiar circumstances induced by the pandemic?
As I’m writing this, I feel my body sigh in relief, with recognition. And, too, the toll. Anxiety that hurts. Insomnia, most often for me early morning waking at two or three. Lethargy. Lack of focus. Aimlessness.
In the last few days, I’ve begun to talk about this.
I’m reaching out to friends to find ways to “safely” meet together, in real time, in our real bodies.
I have “professional” support. When I arrived home from three months living in Europe, culture shocked, rattled to the bone by family upheavals, destabilized with the news my position at work had been “abolished,” grieving the passing of our Lady dog, I sank. And from that place I reached out to make an appointment with a therapist I’d once recommended to friend. I knew I needed to take my own advice. I’ve been seeing her ever since. Ten times a year. Like a zen sitting – calming, soothing, regulating. Having myself worked as a therapist, and years ago been involved in analytic process work, I recognize how the practice has changed, now informed by research in trauma and its neuro-physiological-emotional impacts. That hour, with me and her, helps me show up well in this world. I smile imagining I’ll maintain this part of my self-care practice for the rest of my days.
“Allow your loneliness time To dissolve the shell of dross That had closed around you; Choose in this severe silence To hear the one true voice Your rushed life fears: Cradle yourself like a child Learning to trust what emerges, So that gradually You may come to know That deep in that black hole You will find the blue flower That holds the mystical light Which will illuminate in you The glimmer of springtime.”
John O’Donohue, “For Loneliness,” an excerpt in To Bless the Space Between Us, 2008
Loneliness. One of the hidden, insidious impacts of life during this pandemic. Even more so. Because of it.
Paradoxically, I know I’m not alone with loneliness. So, let’s not suffer this one alone. Talk about it. Reach out. Get help.
Memories of traveling to Newfoundland five years ago were evoked this week, thanks to photos I’d posted on Face Book coming back to remind me, and viewing the beautifully shot episode “Strange & Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island.” I didn’t get to Fogo Island then. Hadn’t even known about it. But it’s been on my list since, and visiting may come sooner than later as international travel might now be a thing of the past.
That trip, with its magnificent vistas of land, sea and sky, awakened a deep love for the wild and inspired words that remarkably won me a writing contest sponsored by the tour company.
It’s been good during these my fallow days – when the only vistas I’m seeing are those in my back yard and community, and the only words that come are few and far between – to remember back then, to trust in now.
Seeing Newfoundland in Six Vignettes
I The Table Lands, Gros Morne June 20, 2015
The vastness of this Island’s spirit, holding the Earth’s very own heart exposed to all the elements.
A paradox of deep beauty, magnificence and awe, with a cutting desperation for survival.
A people who, fierce and proud – despite what we mainlanders think – know what matters.
II Woody Point, Gros Morne Early Sunday Summer Solstice Morn June 21, 2015
A Bonne Bay full of Sun on this Sacred Sunday Summer Solstice morn.
Shhhh… the only sounds…
A choir of birds. Robin singing, thrilling, trilling. Black Crow cawing. Meadow Lark warbling. Red winged Blackbird wooing.
Blood red blossoms about to burst forth on the front yard crab apple tree.
Water softly lapping on the stony shore.
Locals sitting on their front porch stoops, sipping coffee, smoking the day’s first cigarette.
The “from aways” their laughter and chatter break the spell.
I stand on yet another threshold looking for the middle way.
III Norris Point, Gros Morne Our Summer Solstice Prayer June 21, 2015
Intention held in the hearts and minds of twelve women wild to witness the whale, grand dame of our species.
A blow…once, twice seen along the rock and tree faced cliff.
Colour full kayaks skim the surface, carry us Home.
Our hands drum the chant of welcome, invoking her wisdom, calling her in.
A tail sighted…once, twice breaking though the glassy bay.
A sudden breach.
Our collective Heart leaps with the closeness of her show.
A prayer received and delivered.
IV Woody Point, Gros Morne Last Breakfast at the Granite Cafe June 22, 2015
“I’d be nervous all the time,” explains the sweet young server (can’t be more than twenty-two, eyebrow piercing twinkles a delicate blue, matches her eyes), sharing a bit about her baby girl, why she’ll stay put on Woody Point, where the closest traffic light is in Corner Brook, so Adrianna can run free.
V Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne June 22, 2015
That long-awaited landscape. The one I first saw on TV. You know, the one that grabbed my Heart and fired my Imagination. The one with the cliffs.
“I’d like to go there one day.”
So what fired the Imagination of those ancient mariners? The ones whose fjords evoke the very one I’m travelling down right now?
VI Long Time Home L’Anse aux Meadows and Home July 7, 2015
Two days travelling then waiting. Anticipation grows with the wish to be settled back home. Thankful all uneventful, as a day later, and for several more, re-routing, premature landings, delays, all in response to bomb threats on my airline.
The world’s madness – is it more than ever, or the consequence of instantaneous connection – hits my consciousness broadside, closer to home.
And what of those ancient mariners and the many days’ and weeks’ and months’ anticipation and sailing across the ocean? What bold imagination and steel-hearted courage, madness even, drove them from their Nordic homeland to what we now call Iceland, Greenland? And then further south, to be the first of their kind, my kind, to settle on this, my home and native land?
L’Anse aux Meadows, the very tip of Newfoundland’s northern most shore. One thousand years ago. We now know centuries before the likes of men we call Cabot, Columbus, Cartier.
When I recall the day I disembarked from the van, set foot on and looked out over that first “from away settlement,” over the bare expanse of naked land and sea and sky – cold and windy and grey and raining – I can hardly imagine, in a thousand years, their first reaction to seeing and setting foot. Unless I search in my own DNA and evoke that of my father’s, when he first saw, from the ship carrying him across the ocean from post-war Germany, and set foot on the land that he would claim and make home, that day over a mid-century ago.