Amazingly, we survive

It’s been such a long time since I’ve written here. I get notices that new people have signed up to read the blog, and I feel both happy about that and sad that I am about to disappoint you with my silence!

So… to begin again.

I’ve been thinking about how quickly a human being gets used to the most awful, unimaginable things. My Ukrainian friend Andriy lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This formerly lovely city has been under attack by Putin’s troops for weeks. Yet every day Andriy posts several times on Facebook, reporting not only about the horrors that Russian bombs, guns, and human cruelty are inflicting on his country and his own neighborhood, but also about his daily activities: his search for a safer place for his family to stay, the lines he waited in to buy food, his amusement when a Russian soldier tried to break into a building and couldn’t get the door open. He’s living in a war zone… and he’s living. He strikes up conversations, he gets frustrated, he gets angry, he delights at the clumsy failure of the enemy to cause yet more damage.

Also, I think back to the five days in August 2020, between the Friday morning my husband Andy and I learned that he had little time left to live and the Wednesday night when he died . At first we lay on the hospital bed, holding each other, and I felt myself sinking down, down, down into the most terrible pit of darkness and despair I have ever experienced. And yet, over the next few days, we lived with this awful sentence. He drew me a picture of how to turn on the furnace when it got cold. One evening I texted him a photo of the beautiful carrots I’d picked for dinner from his garden. Once he got settled at the hospice facility, where he would spend the last two days of his life, all our attentions were directed toward his dying, yet even then, I did crossword puzzles as I sat by his bed.

We’ve been discussing this question on the online community hub of my organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times. RadJoy members go to wounded places, like a stone quarry or a clearcut forest, to share stories and make a gift of beauty for the place. After the first shock, the place just kind of settles. Its reality makes itself known, the details start to emerge. One member, Julie Johnson wrote, “I find that an ongoing relationship with sorrow that has its own multi-dimensional flow. Like a musical composition. Sometimes it’s very piercing, other times more melancholic. Sometimes it is dampened down, more below the surface. Sometimes it’s tiredness or over-saturation or a resolve to not feel. I can experience pleasure in/of the place at the same time, too, layered in. I guess it’s not really a single tone, in my experience. It’s a mix.”

I think we go through this orchestral medley in our lives all the time. It’s a way of surviving. The psyche responds to emergency because it has to, and then some part of us insists on creating some kind of normalcy. This is no doubt one reason the human psyche has such trouble accepting the reality of climate change. You can’t see it, point to it, hear it—so you forget about it and “go back to normal.”

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor who survived captivity in Auschwitz and the murder of his wife, mother, and brother by the Nazis, tells the story of a man who rushed into the barracks one afternoon and urged the other prisoners to come outside quickly and see the beautiful sunset. “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before,” Frankl wrote.

The human spirit wants to live! And will find a way to do so as long and stubbornly as possible.

(Photo above: Fireweed growing in front of a dead spruce tree, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. Photo by Trebbe Johnson)

Practicing Ecolomy

The house is the foundation of two of our most important concepts. The Greek word oikos, meaning house, roots both ecology and economy. Economy, stripped down to its parts, actually means “household management,” whereas ecology means “study of the house.” In my current life, I am managing and studying my own house. In other words, I am practicing “ecolomy”

In last March of this year, seven months after my husband died, I moved out of the large house in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, where we had lived for 32 years, and into a small house on an acre of land in Ithaca, New York. Even though  I still find that every day is a sad and dreary slog without my Andy, I am loving building a relationship with my house.

Andy was a saver of all things. He thought scraps of lumber, old typesetting books, tax returns from the 70s, and free pens from the bank might come in handy some day. Sometimes they did, but usually they didn’t, and it took me months to clear out our old house. Now, not only do all my things have a purpose, they also have their own places, where they can associate with other things that they might like or learn something from. Dusting and tidying are fresh exercises, because I am administering to objects and spaces instead of getting annoyed, as I used to, because there were too many objects occupying too little space.

I have preserved some valued customs from Andy’s and my life together. For example, I have books in every room of the house. I also have at least one of the Valentines that Andy made me every year for 40 years in every room. But I’ve also made alterations. I took the TV to the Re-use center and haven’t missed it at all. In the guest room, which I have renamed the Friends’ Room, I framed photographs of people I love who I hope will come and visit.

Sometimes I worry that I acted precipitously by buying a house so soon after Andy’s death, especially since I haven’t sold our old house and I’m currently paying the expenses for both. A few of my friends also thought I was being unwise. Yet this new article in Parabola, “Kissed by Fire,” I interweave Andy’s cremation with the enduring myth of the goddess Isis as she simultaneously mourns her beloved and conjures immortality for an infant. The juxtaposition reminds us that we need to live, create, and manage both our physical and emotional houses, not just after a period of grief, but during it. It’s the practice of Ecolomy.

(Photo above: my office in my new house, looking into the living room)

 

Sorrow, Amazement, and My Wedding Ring

The other day I read that Carl Jung had at first believed that the psyche, the human soul or spirit, exists inside the body, but that he later became convinced that it is actually outside the body. This notion excited me. A relentless spiritual seeker, I’m always looking for ways and practices to penetrate the veil that usually hovers before me and the Great Mystery we can never know but that religions round the world attempt to identify and become closer to.

My psyche gave me a big gift the other day.

Andy’s and my wedding rings were made especially for us by a Navajo (Dineh, as they refer to themselves) silversmith, Thomas Begay, whom I sought out during the years that I was writing about a spiritual and cultural issue affecting the Dineh and Hopi. After Andy died last August, I told the funeral director to cremate him with his ring on. It seemed appropriate that this symbol of our immensely loving union be transformed along with his body. But since I moved to Ithaca, New York in March, my own ring has become very tarnished in the sulphurous water, so last week I took it to a local jeweler who said she could clean it. She had warned that she would have to cut it off first, since I could no longer get it over my knuckle, but that she would then resize it. I assumed that all this would happen at once.

No. The jeweler began by telling me she didn’t like silver, because it tarnishes. She then suggested it wasn’t the water that was darkening it, but sweat from my hands or perfume. She sawed my ring off and then told me I would have to wait six to eight weeks for my finger to plump back up where the ring had compressed it. I was devastated.

I drove home with my cut wedding ring in my pocket, sobbing, “What have I done? What have I done?”

I determined not to return to that nasty jeweler. A few days later, I noticed a jeweler at the farmer’s market and asked her if she could resize my ring. She told me she didn’t do soldering and suggested I contact a jeweler named David Huffman in Cortland, New York, about half an hour from Ithaca. I phoned him and he said he could fix my ring, so I brought it to him.

Huffman’s shop is small and a little cluttered, and he was bent over a dissected watch on a small table. Nobody else was in the shop, so we got into a conversation. He told me that many people don’t appreciate how intricate a craft silversmithing is. He described how the designs are incised directly into the silver. I then told him the story of our wedding rings and how they’d been made by a Navajo silversmith named Thomas Begay.

“I know Thomas Begay,” he said.

It turns out that he and Thomas had been among a group of jewelers who had gathered on the Anishinaabe reservation in Canada about thirty years ago to share their work.

He said he would repair my ring in a few days and measured my finger then and there. I walked out of the shop ecstatic.

“What are the chances?” I said to myself over and over as I walked to my car: a jeweler in a small town in New York knows the Dineh man in eastern Arizona who created Andy’s and my wedding rings more than thirty-five years ago!

Tomorrow I will pick up my ring. And I feel that, if Jung is right about the psyche, then that is a part of ourselves that is always seeking to connect us with the great mystery, whether that mystery is intuition, nature, other people, or the force sometimes known as God.

I can’t wait to go back to the jeweler at the farmer’s market and tell her this story.

(Photo above: Andy & me in Death Valley, 2003. You can see his wedding ring.)

My Relationships with Things

Years ago, when I was guiding a wilderness rites of passage program in the Utah Canyonlands, our assistant, Joe, became distraught because he had lost his favorite pen after spending the afternoon writing in his journal in some scenic spot. The participants were out on their three-day solos in the wilderness, and Joe spent hours the following day searching for his pen. “It’s out there somewhere,” he worried, “alone and afraid in the dark.” Finally, after one search, he returned to base camp holding the pen aloft before him like a flag of triumph. He had rescued it from a sad fate, and both were happy again.

I could so relate to his woe and his jubilation. I’m the same way with Things. They are personalities, all of them. Some are friendly and graceful, some stubborn and uncooperative. Some are sweet, others unforgiving. The other day I was afraid I’d given away my favorite spoon when I took a whole drawer of Andy’s and my flatware to Goodwill. When I found it, I greeted it and, yes, kissed it hello.

These days, as I get settled into my new home in Ithaca, New York, two weeks after moving from rural northeastern Pennsylvania, I am also thinking about the Things of mine, and especially of Andy’s, that I chose to bring with me and the ones I gave away. My husband was an artist, a lover of tools, and a saver of just about everything. He knew my conviction about the personality of Things, but he didn’t share it. He did have a fondness for his Things, but he saved them because he thought he might need them one day. This was especially true of his tools. He also loved the aesthetics of tools—how they were shaped, especially the old ones, to do what was required and to be held comfortably in the hand. There were many times when something broke, and he would go into his large, messy studio and come up with exactly the right little screw or piece of molding or tiny screwdriver to fix it.

In the many months that led up to my move, even before I started looking at houses, I spent countless painful hours going through Andy’s things—giving some away to friends or his kids, passing some along to a friend who is trying to sell them on eBay, dispersing others to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, the recycling center, the paper shredder… or the trash. The tools were the most stern and critical of my packing angst; they would be treated with respect and taken to my new home.

Now I am in my new, much smaller house and the basement is filled with tools. I don’t know the purpose of half of them, and I’ll likely never use most. Seven screwdrivers? Nine kinds of files? I took them with me not just because the tools insisted, but, really, because my brain was operating under a faulty equation:

Andy loved his tools.
I love Andy.
Therefore I must love his tools.

In their new location, the tools do not seem nearly as bossy and demanding as they did in Andy’s studio. There they insisted on being cared for by me for the rest of my life. Here they seem, frankly, like unwelcome guests. So, after I get my home arranged for me, I must see about arranging a new home for them.

(Photo above: a few of Andy’s tools, awaiting their positions in my new home.)

Pilgrimage

Recently I was asked to write a testimonial for a book about pilgrimage. It’s by James E. Mills, and it’s called Pilgrimage Pathways for the United States. The author contacted me because he had read my most recent book, but what he didn’t know is that I am a major believer in and conjurer of pilgrimage opportunities.

Mills includes many definitions of pilgrimage, but doesn’t narrow it down to one. Personally, I’d say it’s a journey one makes to a place that has special meaning unto itself and, so the journeyer expects, will have meaning also for her.

One important pilgrimage I made was to Greece in 1981. I was writing a novel about Medea (not very good; fortunately never published), and I wanted to visit all the places she and Jason and the Argonauts had spent time in. My guidebook was Pausanius’ Guide to Greece, written in the second century AD. That book actually did work in Greece, where so much of what’s ancient remains.

In 2019 I made a pilgrimage I’d looked forward to for more than fifty years. I went to Liverpool. I spent several hours in the Beatles Museum and the following day took a seven-hour private tour to all the boys’ homes, schools, and hangouts. The photo above is me at St. Peter’s Church, where John’s group, the Quarrymen, was playing for a village fete in 1957. Paul’s friend Ivan Vaughn brought him along especially to meet John. For me going to Liverpool was like going to Lourdes would be to a religious person. It was an opportunity to walk the sidewalks of those individuals, and the four of them collectively, who had changed my life—to see the bricks and trees and shops, the Penny Lane roundabout, and even the drainpipe that teenaged Paul used to shimmy up when he returned home late at night after a gig.

 

A pilgrimage makes a place real in a new way. You go with intent, but the pilgrimage demands that you leave your intent in the wings and just wait and see what’s going to happen. When you reach a pilgrimage site, you don’t just glance and leave. You gaze. You attend. You listen. You remember and envision.

My organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times, also recommends visits that are a bit like pilgrimages. We urge people to go places they love that have been damaged and spend time there, sharing stories, getting to know the place as it is now, and making a simple gift of beauty for it. This simple practice reminds people that they remain profoundly connected with the places in their lives, even when something drastic has happened to those places. Usually, they leave loving the place in an entirely new way and feeling empowered themselves.

What pilgrimages have you made—or want to make?

 

 

Fighting with the Storm

It’s been months since I last wrote this blog. In that time, coronavirus has made us all realize the immediacy of our mortality. In the U.S., we’ve witnessed millions of followers of the President of the United States so convinced that a fair election had been unfair to him that they followed his bidding to storm the Capitol Building and deny the rightful transition of power.

For me, the greatest loss of all has been the death of my husband, Andy Gardner, from cancer on August 12.

But I like writing this blog. It helps me to think clearly and, I’ve been told, it helps others to think clearly as well. So—I’m returning. Thank you for being here. Really. I promise to post more regularly.

Rilke writes:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Watching,” trans. Robert Bly)

After my husband’s death, I, too, was beaten back into life by a storm.

Andy and I always used to say that, if the other one died, we wouldn’t want to keep on living. But about a week and a half after he died I realized that I did want to live. Desperately.

I was out mowing the lawn when the sky darkened and the wind began to blow furiously. Leaves and twigs hurled themselves out of the trees to twirl in the air. Since our house is the last one in the village before the countryside opens up, we often lose power in severe storms, and it seemed likely that that could happen in the storm now shaping up. I finished mowing the lawn and had just gone inside when, sure enough, the lights flickered and faded, the old refrigerator gave a last choking gasp, and the house settled into premature silence and darkness. I went upstairs to take a shower before the hot water cooled, and afterwards I went into the bedroom and sat on the bed. Through the windows I could see the rain driving almost horizontally from the west, the wind whipping the tops of the trees back and forth. And suddenly, the violence of the tempest mirrored my own violent anguish so sharply that I felt I must be on the verge of death myself, for I could not possibly live much longer with such pain. It seemed that grief itself was about to extinguish my own life, just as the storm had shut off the power in our house.

I realized that I didn’t want to go. “I want to live!” I wailed. “I want to live! Show me,” I pleaded with whatever greater force might hear and intervene, “show me how to survive this!”

I think that at that moment my grief was so intense that I felt it was trying to kill me. And I rebelled! The grief did not diminish after that unexpected rendezvous with my own fierce consciousness, but I did realize that I would survive. And that I would be okay, even while in the midst of the grief. My declaration to the cosmos that I wanted to live gave me the courage to stick with the suffering as much I had to in order to come out on the other side.

Six months have now passed. I still can’t say the grief has abated, but it is less violent now. Less like a storm, more like a drought. Life is filled with amazing teachers. I am grateful to the storm for forcing me to choose life.

(Photo by Greg Redfern, WTOP News)

 

What are We Smiling for?


In my last blog, I wrote about Andi Olsen’s short video, Where the Smiling Ends,” and how it made me feel as if I had been granted the brief, momentary gift of seeing people’s souls shimmering within their anonymous bodies.

Ever since I wrote that, I’ve been thinking about smiling in other contexts. For example, in February, I was part of an extraordinary delegation of spiritual leaders, peace activists, and ecologists traveling in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Whenever we reached a new stop, people would gather together in small groups and have somebody take their picture. Throughout the journey and afterward these photos kept popping up on social media.

Over and over I found myself baffled by this impulse to group and smile. Sometimes it actually seemed inappropriate. Why, for instance, were we organizing ourselves in this way as soon as we stepped out of the bus at Mt. Nebo, the legendary summit from which Moses is said to have stared out over the valley and the Jordan River to see the Promised Land that God had forbidden him ever to enter? Wouldn’t simply gazing in sympathy or even bending down to touch the soil be a more heartfelt response for us?

Why, when you came to think of it, would we even want to pose for a photograph at such a place? To show people at home that we had spent time at a famous place with likable people? We were a very diverse and compatible group. Maybe our photo-ops were an unconscious way of indicating that these places, some associated with all three Abrahamic religions, some of special importance to either Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, could be touched and honored by people of diverse faiths? Or is having your picture taken at a famous place and smiling happily for it simply an act so engrained in our psyches that we don’t question it? (Not that I didn’t participate. Here’s a group photo I myself happily joined at Mt. Nebo.)

I’m still wondering.

What do you think?

What I’m reading—and more about smiling

After finishing Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody, I picked up her second memoir, Almost There. It’s shorter and more loosely organized and, frankly, I’m finding it a little thin, as books authors write as follow-ups to their previous bestsellers often are. Nevertheless, I perked up when I read what she had to say about smiling when she visited the September 11 shrine at the site of the World Trade Towers and looked at the photographs of those who had been killed:

“…[H]ow happy the missing looked. No one had ever posed for a photo appropriate to being missing. Ordinary people are photographed when they are rejoicing, and here they were, beaming in tuxedos from behind littered restaurant tables, poised in bathing suits to dive from a jetty, standing proudly behind a bar mitzvah boy, coy in a bridesmaid’s satin dress. Every single one of them was smiling.”

Which photo of you or of me will be the one to depict our life after we’re dead? 

Savory Moment

I love to dance. Not having any dance opportunities available where I live, or even within a reasonable drive’s distance, has been one of the hardest things about leaving New York. A few days ago a friend of mine told me about Soul Motion, an on-line dance session with Michael Skelton that she participates in every Sunday. I joined for the first time last week, and it was a dream come true—an hour and a half of dance to great music with lots of variation, occasional gentle but deep guidance by the facilitator, and time afterwards for sharing responses. Cost is your choice, from $5-$20. You dance in your own home with more than a hundred people from around the world dancing in their own homes. And it’s live. I hope that other dancing fools among my readers will join me! Here’s the link:

 

 

When the smiling ends

In Baltimore’s American Museum of Visionary Art I once saw a video about the soul. It’s called “Where the Smiling Ends,” and it’s about seven minutes long. It made me realize something about human beings that I have never forgotten.

No one paid any attention to filmmaker Andi Olsen when she positioned her camera in front of the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome. She was just one person among thousands who visited the fountain that day and took photos. Probably few people lingered long enough after having had their own presence there memorialized to notice how one woman came and stayed.

All around the fountain people positioned themselves—singly, in pairs, in family groups—and brought up their smiles. That is what you do when you are before a camera; everyone knows that. You demonstrate your gladness to be where you are and with the people you’re with. The photographers aimed, focused, clicked, and the moment belonged to the posterity of albums all over the world. Someone had been to Trevi Fountain and here was the evidence to prove it. The subject of Olsen’s video, however, was not the smiling face of a particular loved one. What she was interested in was what happened to all those people right after the camera was lowered.

Set to the music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the short black-and-white video shows in slow motion how one posed face after another releases the enthusiasm they have ratcheted up for the camera. At first, the vanishing of the smile strikes the viewer as little more than an individual quirk. But as the video spools on, something more becomes evident. Olsen has offered her viewers an  intimate glimpse into that instant in which authenticity fills the space carved out by public expectation. Over and over again, the falling of the smile reveals each face dissolving into its own private and unfulfilled world. Husbands and wives, teenagers, lovers, grandparents, friends—one after another, they stop smiling, and what replaces the smile is the person we are when we assume we are safely unwitnessed. When the smile fades, it is often with a bow of the head, as if the very effort of manufacturing that expression was tiring. These faces, supposedly unobserved, settle into their private wells of sorrow, envy, boredom, resignation, and relief. The people in Olsen’s film were saying something much different from what they assumed their photos would later say. They weren’t saying, “This is me in front of Trevi Fountain!” They were saying, “I stood in front of Trevi Fountain, and now I must go home knowing it has fixed absolutely nothing in my life.”

I stood there in the museum and watched this film three times. And when I turned away, it was as if I could see in every person I encountered that place where the smiling ends. I saw that they had struggled, that on this particular day, when hundreds of people would pass them by as if they hardly existed, there was something each was worried about. I saw that they loved and that sometimes love hurt. That they couldn’t help feeling that if just one particular thing would go their way—a job, a new beloved, a raise—then everything would be so much better. I fell in love with all of them. Andi Olsen reminds us of how quickly, if we pay attention, we can catch a glimpse of the soul of people.

What I’m reading

I finally finished The Forsyte Saga and so missed all those characters that I caught up on magazine articles for a couple of days before picking up another book. I’d bought Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody at a local used bookstore several months ago, and it seemed like just the antidote to the Forsytes: from Victorian England to Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, from upper class to working class, from a male-dominated world to a woman making her independent way in the world.  Here’s what O’Faolain has to say about reading:

“I would prefer to read something I don’t enjoy than do almost anything else. I like the act of reading in itself. Following the line of something—not just the story but the rhythm, the tone, the feel of what has accumulated from before and what is beginning to impend—becoming surefooted on the high-wire of the author’s intention. I liked everything to do with English as a school subject.”

Yes! Me too!

Savory Moment

My savory moment occurred a few days ago. We woke up to see about six inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. “At least we don’t have to shovel the driveway,” I said to Andy, “since we can’t go anywhere.” Much of the snow had melted by afternoon, and I went outside. I wanted to check on the daffodils that I’d planted in the meadow and on the trail leading to it when we first bought our house 32 years ago. Daffodils are my favorite flower, and I was sad to see them all bent over, their yellow blossoms pressed to the ground by snow, the green stalks flattened. I set to work liberating each daffodil everywhere I found them. Finally, my gloves soaked, I picked a bunch of them and walked back to the house. I realized I had never before picked daffodils after freeing them from snow. They have survived beautifully and continue to bloom.

Going (to the inner) home

We’re all staying at home these days, unless you’re—depending on your point of view—lucky or unlucky enough to have a job that still needs your presence. We’re keeping our distance, socializing only through Zoom, pirouetting around people who get too close in the supermarket.

It’s an opportunity to think about what it means not just to stay home, but to go home. And not just to go to an outer home, but to our own inner home.

At home you take off your coat and hang it in the closet among those other familiar jackets and raincoats you’ve known and worn. At home you have a favorite chair. You know where the vegetable steamer and the good china are kept. The floor creaks familiarly beneath your feet, and you can anticipate just how many seconds it takes for the hot water in the bathroom sink to reach the temperature you like. Home, both inner and outer, says philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a feeling of belonging. Home is an interior sanctuary in the mind as well as an interior refuge in the physical world.

The coronavirus is forcing us to think about what it means to go home and then stay home, physically, mentally, and spiritually. In our isolation, we find ourselves super-conscious of our behavior. We lose patience with our partners or roommates. We stay in our pajamas all day. We note in ourselves an increase or a decrease in compassion for  others. We realize how much money we typically spent on expensive coffee drinks and, having no idea where the money will come from now, we cut back. Or we fill our anxious moments by shopping on line for things we really don’t need. Having to live with ourselves, we discover how restless or content or creative or pessimistic we really are. We have to face ourselves without the mirror of others to build us up or cast us down.

What are you coming home to in yourself. As for me, I’ve found that I’ve quit striving and pushing in the way I’ve been doing since I was a freshman in college. Since no one is able to plan these days, I’ve discovered a surprising new faith that things will unfold in some creative, unhurried way when they need to—that I, personally, don’t need to foresee, predict, plan for all outcomes, and fret that others aren’t striving and foreseeing with the same intensity.

For another thing, I’ve been pondering mortality. There have been days when I’ve been in an utter panic about my own death, that of my husband, and those of the people I love. There have been days when I’ve been preoccupied with the sacrifices of the trash collectors who come to our town on Thursday, the nurses and doctors who risk their lives every day, the women who live with alcoholic abusive husbands. There are also days when, introvert that I am, I really enjoy the opportunity to read, write, and think more. And there are days when I realize that, simple as it sounds, I will survive until I don’t, and I feel enormous comfort about that.

What are you coming home to?

What I’m reading

Of course, I’m still reading The Forsyte Saga! It’s almost 900 pages long, and I only have about a hundred pages left to read. I will miss it!

Savory Moment

My savory moment occurred last Monday. We woke up that morning to see about eight inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. “At least we don’t have to shovel the driveway,” I said to Andy, “since we can’t go anywhere.” Much of the snow had melted by afternoon, and I went outside. I wanted to check on the daffodils that I’d planted in the meadow and on the trail leading to it when we first bought our house 32 years ago. Daffodils are my favorite flower, and I was sad to see them all bent over, their yellow blossoms pressed to the ground by snow, the green stalks flattened. I set to work liberating each daffodil everywhere I found them. Finally, my gloves soaked, I picked a bunch of them and walked back to the house. I realized I had never before picked daffodils after freeing them from snow. They have survived beautifully and continue to bloom.

Is There a Lesson in All This?

My philosophically minded friends and I have can’t help talking about whether the coronavirus has some kind of lesson to teach us. By “us” I mean us-personally and us-as-humans.

A few people think there may be some cosmic overall plan meant to help us evolve to a higher level of consciousness. Others believe it’s all just random—physics at work in the physical world. As for me, I think that, whereas there’s no meaning for why this virus is rampaging the world, there may be something we can seize upon later, as we look back and ask ourselves, How have we changed?

Because we will certainly change. Never before has every single person in the world faced the same lethal threat at the same time. The virus does not discriminate among genders, religions, or races. We are all worried. At some point in the future, right now yearned-for but unimaginable, we will be sitting in the sunlight in cafés, laughing with friends, browsing inches from one another in a crowded bookstore. We will be exuberant and we will be sad, for we will have suffered through the disease and many will have lost someone because of it.

How will we change? Will we become more polarized as a country? Or will we become more generous and compassionate? Will we realize that we don’t need to rush out and shop whenever we realize we’ve forgotten one or two things at the supermarket? Will we become more patient? Or will be become more impatient, more greedy to reward ourselves with all the little indulgences we had to forsake during our self-enforced isolation? Will we realize how much we could do without—celebrate the clearing of the skies when so many planes are grounded, the return of dolphins to the canals in Venice, the bubbling once more of springs in Bali when thousands of tourists are no longer luxuriating in spas and taking long American showers?

Sometimes I feel optimistic. Today, for example, I was moved by a video of musicians from Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, playing their instruments from the homes where they’re isolated, so that we, isolating in our own homes around the world, might hear a beautifully rendered “Ode to Joy”. People can be wonderfully kind and creative, I thought.

And then, less than an hour later, I read a the Facebook post of a Florida friend of Puerto Rican heritage that his daughter is afraid that kids in her neighborhood will mistake her for a Chinese person and beat her up because they blame the Chinese for causing the coronavirus. People can be very cruel and unfair, I thought.

The mission of the organization I founded, Radical Joy for Hard Times, is to find and make beauty for wounded places. The whole Earth is a very scared and wounded place right now. The only thing we can possibly do is to be excessively generous and patient and grateful for as long as we can—and then a little longer.

 

What I’m reading

I’m now reading Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien.  It’s the story of a woman who was a child during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s. Her father is killed, her mother dies of weakness and mental confusion, her younger brother decides that the only way he can survive is to become a merciless child soldier himself. The girl, who goes by several names during the course of the narrative, eventually escapes and creates a life in Canada, but her past keeps wreaking havoc on her life.

My husband Andy asked, “Why are you reading such a depressing book at this time, when the whole world is falling apart?” I asked myself the same question and realized that in some way it just makes sense. Often, when I read books or hear news stories about tragedies and tumult that other people are experiencing, I feel like it could have been me—or even that I actually have lived that life somehow, in some region of my being or past life or very active imagination. So now, during the time of the coronavirus, when I feel like I’m connected to everyone on Earth in a new way, it’s the perfect time to read a story about fear, survival, and small acts of rebellion, because on some level that’s where we’re all living now.

 

Savory Moment

On a recent cold, gloomy day, after negotiating the untrafficked aisles of the supermarket and feeling both grateful for the staff unpacking boxes of yogurt, arranging apples in the bin, checking people out, and unsettled by the sparse number of shoppers resolutely keeping our distance from one another, I felt so sad and vulnerable and moved. Then Andy and I went to Home Depot to stock up on birdseed, and while we were there, I was captivated by little flats of pansies in beautiful sunset colors. I loved that there can be flowers blooming at a time like this, as if everything is right and normal with the world, as if the soil will always be glad to receive little roots that know exactly how to behave in it, and as if flowers are possible at a time like this. I bought some of the pansies and put them on a little table in my office. Together we await spring.