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.
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.
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.
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.