I’ve been thinking about joy and lament for the past few days. How – as poet Christine Valters Paintner described them – as “sisters,” who make space for one another, even, I’d say, needing one another for a purer expression of each. I had logged onto a live Zoom call with Christine and a couple of hundred others from around the world for this year’s Novena for Times of Unravelling, another soulful offering from the Abbey of the Arts, this time oriented around the principles of their Monk’s Manifesto.
This day’s theme was cultivating creative joy by letting body and “heart overflow with the inexpressible delights of love.” Christine was clear to say this joy “isn’t about happiness, but something deeper…an opening to the capacity to taste paradise…and that this capacity for joy is in proportion to our capacity for grief.”
A few days earlier, I sent a “thank you” email off to another favourite poet, Samantha Reynolds, who writes under the pen name of “bentlily.” I think I’ve mentioned here that every Monday I’m greeted with her past week’s offering of daily poems, her practice for eleven years of musing on life’s daily moments. Included that week was her “17 flavours of joy”, evoking my memory of the “visceral experience of joy hurting a bit, being like an arrow that pierces my heart…unlike happiness, which is lovely, but not nearly as deep, as profound, as indelible.”
Today, a full moon, and in the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Too, the beginning of Jewish Passover. And in a couple of weeks, Ramadan. A “trifecta” of high holy days among the Abrahamic religions. I always intuit a certain potency of energy and possibility during such synchronicities. Maybe even a thinning of the veil. Certainly, an opening to the range of feelings and memories evoked. Life’s joys and laments.
“I want the beauty, the psychedelic wildflowers, the call of the wild birds. I want all of that shimmering beauty to illuminate the northern darkness. We have peace of a kind, but no cultural resolution — the tensions which produced the Troubles are still there. It is important for me to see beautiful Carrigskeewaun as part of the same island as Belfast.”
Michael Longley in On Being with Krista Tippett, March 25, 2021
I like how he describes what being a poet and writing poetry mean for him.
“…good art, good poems, is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.”
Michael Longley in On Being with Krista Tippett, March 25, 2021
For me, the capacity to hold joy and lament…in one’s life, in situ.
Today I’m flying low and I’m not saying a word I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must, the bees in the garden rumbling a little, the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten. And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off. Quiet as a feather. I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance. Stillness. One of the doors into the temple.
– Mary Oliver –
“I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance.” – How this line resonates. A week ago I learned about a live stream virtual travel tour company and have been literally around the world, in real time, sitting still. Paris and Lyon, Florence, Venice and Pisa, Cusco, the desert in Dubai, Dubrovnik, Istanbul – 30, 45 and 60 minute tours hosted by professional guides on a “pay what you will” tip basis. I take photos “postcards”, ask questions, and delight in this remarkable use of technology that is providing a livelihood for guides, and “green” travel for me. One of the guides, Mike from Peru, shared the unforeseen, but countless benefits of this “pivot” for him, his company and community, making it all the more worthwhile. It’s been a door back into the worldand the people living in it.
The day before Spring officially arrived, I took a walk with a dear friend. She and I have evolved a soft and fluid pattern of getting together as our respective cultures’ holy days are either waxing or waning. In the interim, especially this past year, we occasionally text or fob an email back and forth or send each other a “love note” in the mail. We’ve held the intention to meet for a walk these past many months of needing to maintain a safe, social distance and so it was that a few weeks ago she sent a message offering a couple of afternoons. I suggested we pencil in both, weather permitting, knowing how much can change on a dime. With the long-range forecast looking good for Friday, she suggested we meet at Bunchberry Meadows, a nature conservancy west of the city.
I vaguely recalled having heard of it somewhere, some time ago, so googled and printed off directions. Packed my Deuter daypack with requisite trail mix and water; rain jacket, gloves and toque; first aid kit and camera. Laced on my hiking boots. Grabbed my newly whittled willow walking stick – a gift from the woman who carves in our neighborhood woods. Fuelled up the car – still only a once-a-month ritual – and set out. Zigged once when I should have zagged, but still arrived minutes before my friend coming from a morning of meetings. Hellos said, virtual hugs exchanged on the breeze and we set off.
Being familiar with the trails as she comes out at the turn of every season, she pointed the way and said we’d be traversing through several distinct areas of old growth tamarack, white spruce, jack pine, and willow. The past week of more than seasonal warm and sunny weather meant we walked through large snowless expanses of meadow – exposing last year’s dried golden grasses – and forest mottled with white patches of snow. Paths varied in their coverage: soft crystalline snow made for easy gripping; fallen leaf and dropped needles padding evoked summer mountain treks in scent and feel; and ice sheened with melt became the most treacherous, where boot spikes, had I stopped to take them out of my pack, would have been a wise addition.
Coming to a long stripped log, perched as a bench and glossed to a smooth sheen by countless others who have taken rest on it, I suggested we sit to soak up the sun shining on our faces, while watching the hawk silently float above the meadow fringed with woods. There we soaked, too, in quiet conversation, punctuated by easy, companionable silences.
Encountering another woman on the trail, we clarified our location and route back to the parking lot, completed the circuit down a steep snow and ice covered trail, and through the shadowy filigree file of tamarack, sun lighting the end of the way into the berry meadow, now dotted with dried umber yarrow heads.
Up and through a couple more times, the sun now lower in the sky, but still exceptionally warm for three weeks into March day, and we arrived back at our cars to each make the trek home for dinner.
At the outset, I hadn’t thought of this walk being or bringing medicine. It was simply to be a lovely outing with a lovely friend. But at its conclusion, during the freeway drive home where I needed to shift into another way of navigating trails, and several times since, especially now as I’m writing, in the early hours of a pre-dawn Sunday morning, its soothing effects linger.
I’ve missed walking in Nature’s nature. Sure, Annie and I make our way in our suburban bits of natural landscape, but lately I’ve found myself growing irritated with the number of people on the paths of what are really, simply, barely hidden golf fairways and greens. The first I’m putting to words – this nuanced realization that the more we move out of winter into the inevitable golf season, whatever medicine I’d felt on those paths – a medicine that restored and rebalanced me beyond the basic benefits of being out in the fresh air and elements, moving – is now melting away like the snow, exposing its actual, man-made nature.
And as I think about it further in the last week or so, as a less than conscious response, I’ve found myself drawn back to walking on the path in the little wood lot where we’ve occasionally encountered our friend the stick whittler. Just to be a bit closer on the land…to get a bit closer to Nature’s nature…the healing kind.
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends, as we step into spring, or autumn for my southern hemisphere readers.
Please forgive this interruption. I am forging a career, a delicate enterprise of eyes. Yours included. We will meet at the corner, you with your sack lunch, me with my guitar. We will be wearing our famous street faces, anonymous as trees. Suddenly you will see me, you will blink, hesitant, then realize I have not looked away. For one brave second we will stare openly from borderless skins. This is my salary. There are no days off.
~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~
Monday’s post, Our First Panniversary, struck a chord for readers, resonating with their own growing pandemic impatience, frustration, grief and weariness. This week, again, reading of lockdowns in Italy, France and Germany; and another white man going on a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, aimed at Asian Americans prompted posting this poem. My reminder to pause, notice, see, and really take you in through my eyes into my heart.
That’s what I’m calling this past week – our global first – and may it be our last except in memory only – “panniversary” – when a world wide pandemic was issued, the world locked down, most everything stopped, and many people were dying.
And while we couldn’t go out for our own big one last summer, last night my husband and I went out for dinner as a nod to one year of pandemic life – our first since that exceptional sunny, warm evening last fall when we ate “al fresco” at a favourite local café and remarked that had been the first time since our winter sojourn in Spain, the one where we got home just in the nick of time, before the world as we all knew it shut down. This time, seduced the night before by a TV commercial showing a couple dining out and digging into their shared dessert, he made the reservation and suggested we get “dolled up” for a date. Proud to say, he was by far the best dressed fellow there.
Across media this week there have been multiple reminiscings about this remarkable, unforgettable year. Many countries paused to formally acknowledge those who lost their lives to Covid-19, in some cases, the tens and hundreds of thousands – family member, friend, neighbor, community member, colleague. Every one essential. Every one deeply grieved.
Of note for me was falling off the kindness wagon. First, the phone call to our local butcher to say the pre-seasoned roast I’d bought for dinner was too salty to eat. His daughter, naturally defending her dad’s business said it was the way it’s done, and no one had ever complained before. Not so much a complaint as wondering with her, but I could feel the impasse growing as we went back and forth a couple of times. So I thanked her and hung up. She immediately called back to tell me she didn’t appreciate my hanging up when she was about to tell me to come in for an unseasoned replacement. Not necessary, I said, but thank you and let’s just let it be. But I couldn’t. Headed upstairs and felt awful that I hadn’t brought my best self to the conversation. I knew I needed to make amends. This time, I called her back to apologize for my abruptness, to acknowledge her and her father’s efforts and service. Suddenly I was overcome with emotion and then crying. “If you came in right now, I’d give you a hug,” she said. “Next time I’m in, I’ll say hello,” I replied. Heart to heart. The balance restored.
Later in the week I went to the local registry to renew my driver’s license. Nothing new: mask affixed, met by the sign telling me how many people are allowed in,arrows directing me where to stand,directed to the counter and begin the process. Straightforward until I ask for the photo from my expired licence. Since they shred it, a simple request, a quirk to have these mementos of time passing tucked in my wallet. No, she shook her head, this was not possible. Why not? She goes to ask and I see more heads shaking no. Do I press the matter? No, let it go.
Then, how would I like to pay? Visa. Oh, that will cost me an extra 4%. What are my options? Cash or debit. Any charge? No. Fine, debit it is. That done, then I’m told to take a seat, which I don’t because there a couple of fellows standing too close. But quickly I’m called for my photo and am told I have take off my glasses – no problem – but then I have to remove my neck scarf from inside my sweater and expose my throat (to the wolf? I wonder) And no smiling. Oh, like passports. “Government wouldn’t want too many happy folks,” I mutter just loudly enough. Next told to push my hair behind my ears. I fiddle. She persists. I resist, literally half complying. She invites me to see the photo. Good enough. Thank you. Mask back on and I leave.
By the time I walk the dozen steps to my car, yanking the mask off my face, I’m furious, swearing to myself. Once settled inside, I’m still swearing but realize quickly, whoa this is way out of proportion to the incident. Quickly registered that I had had it with being told – by the government – what to do and when, how, and why to do it. It’s been a year’s worth and I have willingly accepted and consciously complied, but the straw broke in the face of what felt to me as unilateral, nonsensical rules for my driver’s license. I admit, I reacted with in moment with some oppositional deviance.
Deep breath taken, I headed out to continue my errand run, but at the lights instead chose to drive home. Went inside and called the registry to once again acknowledge and apologize. And once again I was met with an empathy, patience or kindness I regret I didn’t have or offer in that moment.
“Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” and stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory.”
Then I discovered findings reported this week from a peer-reviewed study published in Scientific Reports indicating that our cognitive abilities have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including our decision-making ability, risk avoidance and civic-mindedness or altruism. Hmmm, this explains, but doesn’t excuse, my lapse.
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
I remind myself:
“…I forgive you. I forgive
you. I forgive you. For growing a capacity for love that is great but matched only, perhaps, by your loneliness. For being unable
to forgive yourself first so you could then forgive others and at last find a way to become the love that you want in this world.”
Dilruba Ahmed, “Phase One”
And I remind myself:
“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.”
It’s our first Panniversary, dear friends. It’s been a long haul and we’re still not through to the other side. We’re still wading through uncertainty, stress, boredom, grief. So let’s remember to be tender and kind and patient with ourselves and each other.
May you and yours continue to be safe and well. May you know and be and have the love you want in this world, today and everyday.
How do you know what’s essential? Could you have predicted this particular version of paring down? Perhaps your work is essential, but maybe not. The face you wear to the outside world, the picture in the mirror, has probably slipped. Even the fundamentals of human touch might not be required to assure us that we are not alone. Who could have imagine that we would somehow come down to making bread even without yeast? To the fact that with nothing more than food and water and air and time, even the least of us will find a way to rise?
– Lynn Ungar – April 28, 2020
One year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Determining what and who was essential continues to be of consideration in decision making. Global vaccination rollouts promise a light at the end of this very long, dark, and lonely tunnel. While this past year, much has changed and too, much has remained the same. Hoarding toilet paper is giving way in some countries to hoarding vaccinations. Home bakers are making their sourdough creations their livelihoods. Virtual meetings, family gatherings and celebrations have become “de rigeur” and may change the landscape of onsite work. Here at home, I continue to feel the absence of essential connections.
A stick, a stone It’s the end of the road It’s feeling alone It’s the weight of your load
It’s a sliver of glass It’s life, it’s the sun It is night, it is death It’s a knife, it’s a gun
A flower that blooms A fox in the brush A knot in the wood The song of a thrush
The mystery of life The steps in the hall The sound of the wind And the waterfall
It’s the moon floating free It’s the curve of the slope It’s an ant, it’s a bee It’s a reason for hope
And the riverbank sings Of the waters of March It’s the promise of spring It’s the joy in your heart
– Antonio Carlos Jobim – 1972
One of Brazil’s greatest songs, inspired by Rio de Janiero’s rainiest month and written in Jobim’s signature bossa nova style, I found myself humming it as Annie and I skirted puddles and crossed street streams during this mild, first week of March. Click here to watch the most well-known version, sung in Portuguese by Jobim, accompanied by famous Brazilian singer, Elis Regina. And what’s become my favourite version, a high school jazz band playing at the 2015 Barcelona Jazz Festival. And here’s an English version sung by its composer. While I imagine we’ll get more cold and snow, this week and this song are joyful reminders of what’s to come.
Click here if you’d like to listen to this post on my new podcast, A Wabi Sabi Life.
Whew! Today is the first of March. Despite yesterday’s snowfall, amounting to a couple of inches right after The Scientist shoveled, this new month, in northern climes, evokes Spring. And while we who live on the prairies know it and its capricious cousin April can bring the season’s fiercest snowstorms with highway whiteouts and broken power lines and tree limbs, it feels like we’ve crossed a threshold of no return in this year’s cycle of seasons. We know that underneath it all, willows will eventually pop their furry buds, robins will begin their predawn serenades, geese will return to fields and ponds, and the backyard cherry tree will unabashedly blush pink.
Last week as Annie and I walked our usual route, I saw Magpie with a twig the length of his wingspan clamped in his beak. Landing in a leafless tree, he hopped from branch to branch, looking for a place to settle, and begin nest building. Then, in response to another’s caw, he took flight across the snowy green to the thick limbed spruce. “Does he know something I don’t?,” I wondered. “Is this the prairie iteration of Groundhog Day foretelling Spring’s arrival?”
A few days later, after an early morning sitting, I suddenly heard as a clear as a bell, the two note high-low song of the black capped Chickadee through the triple pane windows, purring furnace and ticking clock. The first time such sweet birdsong at dawn.
Sunday’s fetching of the mail from the community postal box brought a welcome greeting from a friend. This card featuring the painting of local artist Gina Adams, with inside note “to chirp you into Spring,” brought a smile and now sits as a reminder of what is to come, eventually.
Last Friday’s posting of Jan Richardson’s poem, Beloved is Where We Begin, struck a chord with friends near and far. One emailed “what a yummy passage.” Another used it as the opening theme for her weekly words to her faith community in their exploration of the geography of the heart. And another said it would be included in the collection of poems read aloud to questers at the Sacred Mountain later this spring as they embark on their three-day silent solo fast.
Remembering we are beloved as we journey inward and outward in our own metaphoric wildernesses, through a Winter still to come to a Spring yet to arrive, brings me a similar comforting reassurance as today, the first of March.
If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, named by the One who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears, and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for.
I cannot promise this blessing will free you from danger, from fear, from hunger or thirst, from the scorching of sun or the fall of the night.
But I can tell you that on this path there will be help.
I can tell you that on this way there will be rest.
I can tell you that you will know the strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this, that fly to meet us bearing comfort and strength, that come alongside us for no other cause than to lean themselves toward our ear and with their curious insistence whisper our name:
Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.
– Jan Richardson – Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
I included the first three stanzas of this beauty in this week’s blog, Stirrings.
Polar votex and mid-winter thaw. Valentine’s and Family Days. Pancakes and ashes. Blood work and cardiac test all ok. Poetry reading and writing. Online retreat and travel tours. And the reassuring rhythm of walking with Annie.
It’s been a full, few weeks yet for all of it, not much in the way of words to write. Sat down several times and simply surrendered to not having anything to say which I’ve learned usually means I’m cooking on something. Right this moment I hear Tom Jones – yup, that one from “What’s New Pussycat” fame, now making a comeback – sing about the “talking blues.” A peculiar synchronicity. So again, I’ll rely on the words of others to give shape to what might be simmering in the sacred cauldron.
Last week, on Ash Wednesday, I received another of Barb Morris’ beautifully written – I’d say “inspired” – letters from God, this one to beloved daughters who observe Lent. I’m not sure how I first “met” Barb or encountered her letters from God, but each one has touched a chord. Words like these land especially deep in me:
“Despite what you’ve been taught, “holy” does not mean pure and unearthly. “Sin” does not mean breaking my rules and making me mad. “Penitence” does not mean listing and wallowing in all the ways you’re wrong and bad. “Repentance” does not mean promising to do better to stay out of trouble…
…This Lent, the only fasts I want from you are these: Fast from distractions that allow you to stay wounded and broken. Fast from believing you’re not good enough. Fast from making yourself small, and nice, and silent. Fast from all judgment, especially of yourself.”
Later in the week, again in response to Lent, poet-artist Jan Richardson, another wide-open-hearted woman, sent out her poem, “Beloved is Where We Begin,” from her book, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (2015). Here, the first three stanzas:
“If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, named by the One who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears, and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for…”
Reading it now there’s a beautiful resonance with the recently released, eight episode “3 Caminos,” a Spanish TV production about five people who meet walking the Camino de Santiago, first in 2000, then in 2006, and finally in 2020. This weekend, watching their stories unfold within the magnificent backdrops of land and location, stoked the embers of my own latent, on again-off again, dream to one day actually walk the way.
I rose early on Saturday to attend an online Lenten retreat hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama. I’ve written here about Pádraig’s eloquent hosting of the podcast, Poetry Unbound. As poet, theologian and former conflict mediator, Pádraig brings a contemporary, justice centered interpretation to scripture. Taking three perspectives of Jesus in isolation – fasting in the desert where with nature’s befriending, he encounters the devil’s three temptations; making the harrowing journey through his own inner hell ; and in resurrection (what does it mean now to be born again after such journeying) – he shared his poetry and invited in our words and memories as touchstones for the inner work and meaning making of our own journeying in times of desert wilderness. Pausing to consider in this past nearly year of sheltering in place – compassionately retreating – being locked down (the term shifts on how long and what day) the room in which we’ve spent the most time, and what in that room we look upon for comfort, solace, grounding. Or writing a “collect” of praise and appreciation to an item or being that has done the same. Over those four hours together on ZOOM, what lingers was one of Pádraig’s recent poems, wherein he imagines an elder Irishman in the local pub, typical and traditional in his abstention from physical touching, but who – after living through the pandemic alone in his home where he first meets his first granddaughter and attends the funeral of his oldest friend via ZOOM – was taken to unabashed hugging and speaking endearingly to kith and kin. Even now as I type, my heart and eyes sting with a tender poignancy and yearning.
What seems to be simmering are the stirrings of the mythic, heroic journey, this time held within the season and story of Lent. This time more sobering because of the pandemic’s isolation.
Saying yes to the call, wittingly or otherwise. Crossing the threshold alone into the desert. Encountering what frightens, tempts, challenges and strips naked. Waiting in uncertainty and in vulnerability. Moving blindly through and into an unknown future. Letting go to let come loss and grief. Clearing the way for the new. Being unaware of benevolent helpers. Remembering blessings that accompany.
Alone. Together. Again and again.
I’ll end with some wonderous words from Vancouver poet Samantha Reynolds. Writing a poem a day as “bentlily,” every Monday my inbox shimmers with seven gems from the week before. This, her Valentine, “All I want from love“:
“May our love for each other grow tall enough to reach forgiveness and big enough that it can never be misplaced.”
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends, as you make your way during this season of waiting and beyond.