Joy and Lament

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.”

we’re back

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.

Before I sat down here to write, Annie and I walked to beat the forecast spring thunder showers. Of all the choices, I plugged into the just “dropped” On Being re-broadcast of Krista’s 2016 conversation with Northern Irish “Troubles” poet, Michael Longley. Called “The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” they explored the range of Longley’s poetry – his adoration, celebration and worship of wildflowers, birds, his ordinary and real life.

“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.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Snow

Krista Tippett:
Somewhere you say that snow creates a “liminal space, a crossing point between the mundane and the magical.”

Katherine May:
I think snow — what I love about snow is the way that it makes a clean break. It transforms the landscape. Everything’s different. Everything sounds different. The quality of light is different. The light kind of sparkles off it. You know, before you open your curtains, that snow has landed. And for me, I just think that’s such a gift. I know it’s less of a gift if it’s there for five or six months. But it’s a break in the routine. It’s a little bit like a kind of pause. You can’t go about your normal business. School chucks out. But you get to see your world in a different way. And it’s beautiful.

I grew up in quite an unbeautiful place, and snow used to make it beautiful. And I used to absolutely love that. And I now live in a very beautiful place, and snow makes it magical instead, when it comes.

On Being with Krista Tippett, January 21, 2021

Inspired by their conversation for Monday’s blog on Wintering, and given the recent snow and its transformation of so much around me, I had to include Katherine’s poetic rendering here, as Friday’s photo and poem feature.

Wintering

“Dashed and disheartened – again,” I emailed a friend. What with last week’s winds having blown in Arctic cold temperatures and flat light skies, reading up on my country’s vaccination rollout debacle and delays, virus variants that are proving to be highly contagious and perhaps more deadly than the original, and a speculated move to mandated mask wearing outside, this might be an understatement. Certainly enough to have been stalled again in writing here, having missed two of my usual Monday postings. Plumbing a bit deeper, what with my husband having celebrated his first “Covid” birthday two weeks ago, we realized with age, and life as we’ve known it “on hold,” we’re feeling quite wistful. Most apparent for me is missing traveling and all that it gives me, more fully appreciated now in its absence. I’m resigned to the probability that this will be another year, and most likely then some, of staying put. Too, the whisper of a question held this past year, “Will I – we – ever travel again as in the past?”

A few days ago, somewhat warmer with soft snowflakes fluttering down, Annie and I walked, she happy for her full-length coat, and NOT having to wear her fleece boots. I plugged into a recent On Being podcast, curious having read Krista’s weekend letter:

“Katherine May, in her book, Wintering – The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020), meditatively explores ‘wintering’ as a season of the natural world but also as a place our bodies and psyches need to go, a season that recurs again and again across a life. We cheat and dismiss this in life as we’ve been living it, but it has presented itself insistently in a pandemic year we might reimagine as one long communal wintering.

We can’t move forward without grieving all we’ve lost in the past year. Closer to the ground, this means we have to let in the fact of sadness — a precursor to pain and fear — with some reverence. If happiness is a skill, Katherine May says, so is unhappiness. Winter embodies the strange complexity of reality. It is the bitterest season, we blithely say. And all the while it manages not to be the death of the life cycle, as Katherine May reminds, but its crucible.”

Krista Tippet, The Pause, January 23, 2021

Wintering.

That would be the odd place in which I found myself last spring and summer. Whereas I’d used the words “fallow” and “lost”, as I listened to Katherine May, I recognized in her words a fuller, more accurate description of those several months lying cold and low, when all around me blushed and blossomed.

“…wintering is a metaphor for those phases in our life when we feel frozen out or unable to make the next step, and that that can come at any time, in any season, in any weather; that it has nothing to do with the physical cold…”

Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021

Not bound to season as we know it, but a necessary and recurrent place to drop into when we appreciate the cyclical nature of our lives. Thinking back, during an actual winter fifteen years ago, I dropped into depression. Not major, but enough that I and others noticed I was not myself. Little energy and enthusiasm, waning concentration, major exertions of effort to get through a day of work and home chores. Enough that once on the other side that spring, I’d mentioned it to my family doctor, and upon closer examination, recognized its cyclical nature. Perhaps a bit of seasonal affective disorder with some inherited family predisposition towards the winter “blahs.” Never since as severe, though I have a letter I wrote to myself then, upon the suggestion of my doctor, “to be opened in the dark days, to remember.” I’ve never needed to, though I know it’s perched on my desk amidst a collection of mementos. And that brings reassurance enough.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021

I wonder if because we are mostly acculturated out of such natural rhythms and rituals, those embedded deep within our DNA and beneath our consciousness, we find ourselves in “winter” out of season? That if we heeded Nature’s signs and stirrings, we’d ready ourselves, with each other, for wintering’s alchemical invitation. I feel a growing love and appreciation for winter, the season, since being unfettered by work’s imposed schedule, demands, and need for driving. And as many of us have felt during the pandemic, in lives slowed and diminished of obligation, its paradoxical gifts.

“It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential.”

Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021

Recently I came upon these words from Toko-pa Turner’s book, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. They echo the hidden transformative gifts in this crucible of winter and wintering:

“Like the bowl that has yet to be filled, there is an emptiness that precedes creativity that is alive with potential. With ordinary eyes, it’s easy to mistake this emptiness for stagnancy. We may think, “I have nothing of substance to offer! I have no original ideas!” But down at the invisible base of things, there is a holy dance taking place. Though we may want to run from the tension, the polarities are in constant motion, readying themselves into harmony. Far from dormant, this dance is the active receptivity that calls things into form. We are such a vessel. These times of nothingness are actually busy with living into a new capacity.

Originality comes when you stay close to that emptiness, making it a welcoming place, adorning it with your divine longing, learning the shape of it, and filling it with your questions. Every great artist I know is obsessed with a question, and their artworks are less attempts to answer that question than they are exaltations of asking. As Jean Cocteau says, ‘The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.'”

I listened last summer as I wintered, lost and fallow. I remembered it as a familiar season of my life and followed its nudges to find my way through. Walking with Annie. Reading and writing. Photography and painting. Making love notes to friends. Cooking and circling up with women friends. And now in the fullness of its season, I sleep longer, nap more, give myself permission to pause the writing until I feel stirred. I let myself feel, once again, dashed and disheartened, trusting them to be worthy of these times. And I wonder.

“I recognized winter. I saw it coming a mile off, since you ask, and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started to feel the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child, with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and I made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself, what is this winter all about? I asked myself, what change is coming?”

Katherine May, Wintering – The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020)

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

My Life My Prayer

I love our Annie dog for her daily nudging to get outside and walk – her, me, us. Like clockwork, come early afternoon she’ll fetch me. Typically finds me sitting at my computer so it’s easy to put the full weight of her head on my arm to signal, COME. She is patient and knows it might take a minute or several, and I have a commitment to her, to come.

We’ve had a cold start to spring, with lots of snow, and this week, temperatures well below freezing, and well below that with wind chill. Frankly, oddly perhaps, I’m grateful. Because this prolonged winter with its invitation to cocoon, might help us all “stay home” and do our personal best to contain this, as yet, incessant spread of COVID-19. Yesterday afternoon, another brilliant blue sky sunny cold day, Annie and I were the only ones on the path through our bit of urban nature, the golf course five minutes from home. It’s spacious, lined with trees – cottonwood and aspen, mayday and spruce. It’s quiet enough to hear waxwings twitter, sparrows chirp, and now the returning geese honk. And it’s open enough to see wide expanses of sky and clouds floating overhead.

Lately, with the sun higher in the sky, we’ve taken to sitting on a bench at one of the tee-offs. I help Annie up and nestled in the crook of my side, with my arm holding her warm, we sit together and take in the view, breathe in the scent.

Lately, I find myself praying – to the sun and the moon, and the stars and clouds, to the sky and the trees and the wind and the birds, to the god of my being and beyond. Sometimes silent, but often out loud, with Annie as my witness, I say “thank you” for as much and as many as I can remember in the moment. I speak my worries. I ask for guidance and help to stay present with the “bigness, muchness, fullness”of these unraveling times. And I ask that my life be my prayer.

“It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.”

Mary Oliver, Redwing, 2008

“And I pray….my life is a prayer more conscientiously now.” I first spoke these words in an email to a dear friend a few weeks back. It just came, in the moment, fingers pecking at the keyboard. I paused. True, and what does this mean? How does one live one’s life as prayer? 

In a first draft of this post, I had a list of things that I’m doing. But when I “winnow to essence,” the simplest, truest response is notice, name and thank people being and bringing their best to the world. Be kindness. Be.

“It is a great gift to yourself and also to the world…
to get settled inside yourself,
to know what it is to befriend reality,
to figure out how to stay soft.”

Krista Tippett, On Being, 2020

There are moments when this hardly feels enough. When I hear of friends living on the brink, doing all they can, moment by moment, to recreate business plans to stay afloat. Or those who have been laid off as community services shutter. Or learn it’s a distant family member stuck on the cruise ship no port had permitted safe harbour until now, wondering if her spouse, diagnosed positive, will make it home, alive. Or read the text from my “sister” in Germany, she in self isolation with a chronic respiratory condition, but on the phone day and night with her team of pharmacists to ensure the best care for their community, while frantically sourcing medicines that are fast running out.

Then a wave of sadness.

Then a deep breath to remember this is my offering. It comes from my deepest regard and kindness. With the highest intention, for the good of all. 

It has to be enough. 

“Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
until now.
Until now.”

 

David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet, 1990