Praise Song for the Pandemic

Season's End, Perspectives with Panache, 2019

PRAISE SONG FOR THE PANDEMIC

Praise be the nurses and doctors, every medical staff bent over flesh to offer care, for lives saved and lives lost, for showing up either way,

Praise for the farmers, tilling soil, planting seeds so food can grow, an act of hope if ever there was,

Praise be the janitors and garbage collectors, the grocery store clerks, and the truck drivers barreling through long quiet nights,

Give thanks for bus drivers, delivery persons, postal workers, and all those keeping an eye on water, gas, and electricity,

Blessings on our leaders, making hard choices for the common good, offering words of assurance,

Celebrate the scientists, working away to understand the thing that plagues us, to find an antidote, all the medicine makers, praise be the journalists keeping us informed,

Praise be the teachers, finding new ways to educate children from afar, and blessings on parents holding it together for them,

Blessed are the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, all those who worry for their health, praise for those who stay at home to protect them,

Blessed are the domestic violence victims, on lock down with abusers, the homeless and refugees,

Praise for the poets and artists, the singers and storytellers, all those who nourish with words and sound and color,

Blessed are the ministers and therapists of every kind, bringing words of comfort,

Blessed are the ones whose jobs are lost, who have no savings, who feel fear of the unknown gnawing,

Blessed are those in grief, especially who mourn alone, blessed are those who have passed into the Great Night,

Praise for police and firefighters, paramedics, and all who work to keep us safe, praise for all the workers and caregivers of every kind,

Praise for the sound of notifications, messages from friends reaching across the distance, give thanks for laughter and kindness,

Praise be our four-footed companions, with no forethought or anxiety, responding only in love,

Praise for the seas and rivers, forests and stones who teach us to endure,

Give thanks for your ancestors, for the wars and plagues they endured and survived, their resilience is in your bones, your blood,

Blessed is the water that flows over our hands and the soap that helps keep them clean, each time a baptism,

Praise every moment of stillness and silence, so new voices can be heard, praise the chance at slowness,

Praise be the birds who continue to sing the sky awake each day, praise for the primrose poking yellow petals from dark earth, blessed is the air clearing overhead so one day we can breathe deeply again,

And when this has passed may we say that love spread more quickly than any virus ever could, may we say this was not just an ending but also a place to begin.

– Christine Valters Paintner –
Abbey of the Arts
2020

As we head into our 7th month of living in the pandemic, I wanted to share this poem, now making special mention of all the teachers around the world, who as another lovely poet wrote this week: “To All the Teachers, we see you turning your hearts into classrooms where not even masks can block out your love.” bentlily by Samantha Reynolds

Praise be the teachers.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

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.

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.

Hearing the Pilgrim’s Call

So many moments in these so many days
living in “lock down,” and “socially separated,”
while the trilling waxwings gather
to strip the mountain ash of their fermented berries,
the geese returned now flock together on thin iced ponds,
the pussy willows shyly reveal their soft inner grey.

Today again I wake to a dusting of snow and
the wind blowing cold from the north.
They say again, the coldest April in forty years,
just as the wettest July in forty, and coldest last February, too.
(Something biblical in those forty years…)

So many glimpses of Life’s natural rhythms,
a reassuring comfort
in this encircling return
in this history making time.

So many times I ask inside, out loud
What is my place?
What do I do to help?
How am I to be?

And I hear
Make your life your prayer.
Notice and name the good, the true, the beautiful.
Keep your heart open in hell.

You were born for these times.
Now let’s get going.
Walk on.

– KW –
April 18, 2020

 

Inspired by my participation in the online study gathering, “The Soul of a Pilgrim,” hosted by The Abbey of the Arts, April – May, 2020.

Home

We’re all just walking each other home.

Ram Dass

Home. My word for 2020.

Not chosen but invited, it arrived early into a simple, elegant process offered by Abbey of the Arts, called “2020, Give Me a Word.” Developed for the twelve days of Christmas, but available in early December, I’d receive an email invitation to “create some space each day to listen and see what word comes shimmering forth from the dailiness of my experience.”

At first, “at home,” which evoked being home and staying put. Perhaps wise counsel given I’d had another autumn full of travel. This time I’d become quite ill during my last trip in early December, a visit with a friend I’d not seen since the passing of her husband. A disappointment for us both when first, our great plans for trekking in the desert mountains became dashed by my excruciating case of plantar fasciitis. Then, a viral infection contracted days before departure had me reach for the emergency cipro to be well enough to get home without an ear-blocked, cough-racked flight. Just recovered and now into a serious grip of Arctic winter cold, staying put, at home, has been the order of the day.

But as the twelve days passed, with a new practice offered to evoke or ripen – a contemplative walk in nature, writing a poem, illustrating the word visually, attending to my dreams, consulting a soul friend – “at home” became distilled to “home.” Still that comfort with being at home (the best place to be when you’re sick and it’s ridiculously cold outside), but now with a spaciousness that allows mystery to unfold, shadow and surprise to emerge, dreams to awaken.

Last week, browsing somewhere, I came across these wondrous words in an essay, “To Find Your True Home Within Your Life.”  Home came knocking.

The mystic Thomas a Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary. When you face your aloneness, something begins to happen. Gradually, the sense of bleakness changes into a sense of true belonging. This is a slow and open-ended transition but is utterly vital in order to come into rhythm with your own individuality. In a sense this is the endless task of finding your true home within your life. It is not narcissistic, for as soon as you rest in the house of your own heart, doors and windows begin to open outwards to the world.

John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes (1999), 93.
Home with her heart red door, a few years ago…same season with a bit more snow