A Pearl Lost to Nature: Synchronicity?

What could it mean? Two tales of pearls lost to nature, both of which I encountered within one day. A mystery. And an invitation?

As inspiration for some writing I’m working on, I’ve been reading elegies, poems of mourning for the lost or dead. The oldest one I found is by Sappho, who lived in the sixth century BCE. Other poets of notable elegies include Shelley, Milton, Katherine Philips, and W.H. Auden.

One poem that struck me was by an author whose name is unknown, but  who is believed to have also been the author of the Sir Gawain tale of Arthurian literature. This unusual elegy mourns not a person but a pearl that the poet has lost in the grass and now mourns. At first, I thought maybe the pearl was a metaphor for something else, but, no, he really is mourning the loss of his pearl.

The next day, Boulevard Magazine arrived. An essay of mine appeared in Boulevard years ago, and Andy had a subscription which has not yet expired, three years after his death. As I flipped through the issue, the name Keuka Lake in one essay jumped out at me. This lake is about 40 miles from me, one of the New York Finger Lakes. (I live in Ithaca, at the southern tip of another Finger Lake, Cayuga.) Curious, I started reading. The essay begins with the story of the author’s grandmother losing her pearl ring in the lake.

Two stories of lost pearls in one 24-hour period. As a writer and a person intrigued with signs and symbols, I’ve been pondering this coincidence ever since. Or is it more than a coincidence? Could it, in fact, be synchronicity? C.J. Jung coined this term to mean “the coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same meaning”. The critical factor, I would add, is that these events must happen to the same person or group of people. It would not have been synchronicity event if Boulevard had arrived and I had never opened it and seen that essay.

Have I lost a pearl recently? Not a real pearl, certainly. A metaphorical pearl? Can’t think of one. Or must I now become willing to sacrifice a metaphorical pearl? And not just to any random person or spot, but specifically to nature.

One answer keeps recurring. I keep feeling the call to give up a bit of my very valued solitude and become more public with ceremonies and art events related to climate change. This shift has been on my mind for more than a year… and I keep postponing acting on it.

Or maybe these two lost-pearl events really were only a coincidence!

Images above from (l-r) Fred Rocko on Unsplash, the Times of India, and Keuka Lake on Google Maps.

Gifts from August during a very hard time

My husband, Andy Gardner, died three years ago August 12.

During the last few weeks of his life, I felt like I was being flailed physically and emotionally. And yet, especially during the very last days, I received from the month of August, as manifested in nature, some truly precious gifts.

A very short reflection/poem about those gifts, “11 Interventions in the 10 Days of Your Dying” is now featured in Orion.

Transcending downward with a magical owl

Last week, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, I watched adult human beings become transported by art, ceremony, and magic.

At times we are all weighed down by the world at large and the world in us. Debt, an unhappy marriage, climate change, problems with children, the challenge to democracy, a bad situation at work, a scary medical diagnosis—we sorrow and worry and wish things for relief.

We think, If only this one thing were different, my whole life would be different and I would be able, finally, to live as I was meant to. Even if circumstances can’t be different, we’d at least like to be different ourselves: to take more risks, pursue our visions, be less afraid of the judgments of others. We long, in other words, to transcend.

When we think of “transcending,” we usually think of being lifted to some higher realm: coming closer to God or attaining enlightenment. But in my new book, Fierce Consciousness, I show that a more accessible way of shift our state of mind is to “transcend downward”. In other words, to lose ourselves and temporarily rise above our woes by letting the beauty of the everyday world seduce us.

Sometimes the beauty that grabs us comes from nature. Sometimes it’s in the action of another person. And sometimes it’s in a combination of art, people, and ceremony.

I’ve been attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions since 2009 when it convened in Melbourne, Australia. For several days, panels, lectures, workshops, worship services, films, and ceremonies bring together people of diverse faiths and spiritual practices to try to resolve some of the world’s most grievous problems.

This year, one program I really wanted to attend was Matthew Fox’s Cosmic Mass. On his website this pioneering theologian, author, activist, and spiritual DJ describes the Cosmic Mass as an event that “replaces pews with a dance floor and replaces reading with taking in the spirit while dancing.”

The event took place in a large room of Chicago’s immense convention center. First Fox asked us to honor people around us with a word of greeting. We next took a moment to consider what it is we consider sacred. Fox then asked us to get down on what he called “all sevens” (feet, knees, arms, and forehead) and express our grief with a single tone. We were to listen to our own tone first and then begin to hear and respond to the sounds of others. Sobs, moans, and wails erupted instantly. Grieving isn’t hard, it turns out, when you’re immersed in it with five hundred others. Gradually, miraculously, the sounds of sorrow began to soften, open, lighten. We moved from loneliness to togetherness.

Then it was time for a few of us (a last-minute shift and pure luck got me involved) to take up the beautiful animal puppets that Minnesota artist Mary Plaster had made. Transparent, with tiny white lights illuminating the insides of their bodies, the puppets included a bear, a fish, a deer, and a fox, each one suspended on a pole. I was handed the owl, which was attached to its pole by a springy cord that made the bird bounce up and down.

We puppet carriers circled the large central altar as Fox and his co-facilitators, an indigenous woman, a Black woman, a Latino man, and a male rabbi, offered communion. Then the music began and we were invited to dance for life. Several of us puppet bearers now began circling through the crowd.

I soon saw how people’s eyes lit up when as this great bird came to hover over them, lit from within, twice as big as a real owl, and moving as if on its own accord. I began then to play with the bird and with the people, deliberately making it swoop down close to their heads as they looked up with delight. Some people raised their arms, as if to embrace this cosmic being or be touched by it.

The moments when we are able to transcend downward don’t last long. We’re lucky if they last a full minute. But they are reminders that beauty, life, creativity, and plain old perseverance persist, no matter what is going on in the world or in our own lives At the Cosmic Mass, the transcendence happened with shared grieving, shared ecstatic dance, and animal puppets that glowed from within and made humans glow in response.

Photo above: Cosmic Mass at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, by Mary Plaster



The last time I traveled from one coast of the United States to the other and back again was in 1971, when I hitchhiked the whole way (except for hopping freights from Colorado to Sacramento) with my boyfriend. Now, more than fifty years later, I’m going on my own, undertaking a tour for my new book, Fierce Consciousness: Surviving the Sorrows of Earth and Self. In 23 cities I’ll be doing readings and discussions at events organized by my friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in years.

As this event, which I have been planning with increasing attention to detail, has gotten closer and closer, I have watched as excitement and anxiety crash back and forth in me like waves splashing onto and rolling off of the shore.

It all starts in two days, March 10, my 75th birthday, with a reading here in Ithaca at Buffalo Street Books.

Anxiety is a sneaky visitor. It wants your full attention, so it vexes you by tossing the same hypotheses at you over and over again, demanding answers to questions that either cannot be answered from a far place and time or else don’t really matter that much anyhow. For example:

      • What happens if there’s snow in the Rockies and I can’t get across?
      • What if something goes wrong with the car?
      • What if I don’t have enough books?
      • What should I wear to the book launch in Ithaca?

One night, after tussling with anxiety instead of sleeping, I got up in the middle of the night and started making a very detailed day-by-day itinerary, including where I’m staying, the events of the book reading, how many books I’ll need, and approximately how long it’s going to take me to get from one city to the next.

That helped. Slowly excitement began taking over. Excitement, too, has its own personality. It appears to us more like a beguiling mystery than uncertainty. As I have, in fact, written in the book:

I sense that the unknown is beckoning me ahead, rather than threatening me from behind. I don’t know what may occur, but I’m not impatient for it, or at least not too impatient. I might feel some anxiety, for I know that if I step into new and untried ground, I may be tested. And yet, if I follow the allure instead of the fear, let the glimmer of mystery shine brighter than the fog that’s shrouding it, I feel excited. I know that things will emerge that I just haven’t noticed before.

No doubt anxiety and excitement will continue to splash in me once I’m on the road. One thing that would certainly be exciting though, would be if some of you, who read this, would come to an event near you! Here is my complete itinerary.

Luxuriating in the Moment

The sensations of the moment give us a little jolt of happiness. But how often do we take the time to dive in and relish them?

Even those who have never read Marcel Proust’s immense In Search of Lost Time are familiar with the famous scene in which a bite of madeleine pastry dipped in tea ricochets the narrator’s memory back to his childhood, and the sounds, sights, and smells of the country village of Combray.

I have read Proust, but right now I’m thinking of him and that “Proustian” elision between present and past, because I’m reading a book of essays on translation by Lydia Davis, who recently translated Swann’s Way, the first of the seven-volume novel. In fact, I was sitting in bed on this pre-dawn first day of the new year, reading Davis’s book, when I slipped into a reverie of my own. I had put the book down and laid my head back against the pillows to reflect on something I’d just read. I felt very cozy, my bare feet warm in the flannel sheets and a large mug of hot tea on the table beside me. Outside, silence curled in the dark trees, yard, and street. The lamp made a circle of light around the book and me. Another faint brush of light emanated from beyond the bedroom, for I had left the lights of my little Christmas tree on throughout that last night of the year and, though I could not see the lights themselves, I saw their warm, radiant glow.

And I was acutely aware of my own contentment. I was reading a book I liked. Today was a holiday. Usually, I get up very early and begin my writing immediately, but today, was special, so I was lingering in bed. I had no appointments until a call with a friend at noon. Later in the day I planned to make a big pot of split pea soup. I would probably take down my little Christmas tree. The day stretched ahead, leisurely and capacious. But right now, it was the moment that felt spacious—warm, interesting without being taxing, and roomy enough to accommodate all my physical and and mental pleasures.

I vow to continue not only to be aware of the pleasures of the moment, but also to luxuriate in them.

My First Tattoo: What and Why

A few years ago a friend asked me, “If you were ever to get a tattoo, what would it be?”

I had never thought of getting a tattoo, but as soon as she posed the question, I knew. “A book with wings,” I said.

And then, a few months ago, I began to realize that I wanted to do it. I know a lot of people with tattoos, but I’d never seen any as beautiful as the ones my friend KiRa has. I contacted her tattoo artist, Phoebe Aceto, and made an appointment.

In preparation, I searched the internet for images of the right kind of book, the right kind of wings, and I sent them to Phoebe, so she could render a design.

So I was going to do this thing. I felt compelled to do it. But I really didn’t know why. I was pretty sure it had something to do with reclaiming my body’s new direction in the world two years after Andy’s death. I also felt it was a way of marking my body with a new kind of beauty at this time in my life, at age 74. I make most of my decisions intuitively, rather than logically, but this one continued to feel both very big and very mysterious.

On August 9 I arrived at Phoebe’s small studio, Here’s to You Tattoo. I told her I was nervous, not about the possible pain but about the permanence of a tattoo. She began to work. It wasn’t painful, just a little scratchy. Soon I was paying close attention to the movements of the needle, trying to guess which parts of the image she was drawing.

Mostly we sat in silence. At one point she asked, “I wonder what the story [of the book] might be.”

I had asked myself the same question several times. Now, all of a sudden I knew.

“I think it’s all I’ve ever written and all I ever will write,” I said.

And in the saying I felt close to tears.

My love of books and my wish that my own writing will continue to take wing after I am gone is now a permanent part of my body.

The Comfort of a Weather Report

I never used to listen to weather reports. When my husband and I first married and lived in Brooklyn, New York, he would wake up first, turn on the radio, and get into the shower. I would get up a few minutes later. Often, as he made breakfast, he’d ask me if I’d heard the weather report. I never had. Even if someone on the radio had made the announcement, it had simply passed me by. My theory was, you looked out the window to see what the weather was and then, if something unexpected happened later in the day—rain, snow, sun—you dealt with it.

But in the past two years, I’ve come to find comfort in weather reports. So much has been alarming and unpredictable during this time: the global Covid pandemic, the state of the American democracy, the failing health and then the death of my husband, the ever-more-tangible advance of climate change. It seems impossible to make plans for next week, let alone a whole year from now.

But then comes the weather report, bearing the gift of reliability. This afternoon, says the forecaster, there will be rain. Tomorrow will be sunny and warm. Even if the predictions do not suit my own personal preference—sun when we could really use some rain, rain on the day of the picnic I want to attend—I feel consoled. I feel as if, in at least one sphere of this scary, mixed-up world, there is, if not certainty, as least a strong likelihood that a particular phenomenon will occur. There will be a future after all, and it will include things happening in the sky that will affect those of us who live in a particular region of the Earth. The weather is impersonal and cares nothing for the health, wealth, or preferences of individuals. It will do what it must do, and we must adjust to accommodate it.

Even knowing full well that climate change is influencing weather patterns all over the world, I am soothed by the knowledge that the weather is and will continue to be alive, insistent, and relevant.

Uh-oh! Is It Safe to Have Fun?

A few months ago, my friend J. and her husband adopted a rescue dog. Finley, who is five years old, has a very troubled past. She was a laboratory dog who was repeatedly impregnated. Then, as soon as her puppies were born, they were taken away from her, so that scientists could study a hereditary disease that she carried.

J. said that when they first got their new dog home, she showed no curiosity at all. She did not respond to affection and was terrified to leave her crate.

I visited my friends last weekend and, though I am not a dog-lover, I felt sorry for this troubled animal. On the second morning of my visit, J. suggested I might like to watch as she took Finley outside for her morning playtime. I stood discreetly in an upstairs window, as my presence on the deck the afternoon before had clearly made the dog nervous. Now she actually wagged her tail after J. had gently coaxed her down the steps to the lawn. When J. tossed her ball, Finley chased after it, picked it up, and then ran back with it. Watching her little legs, so long forced into immobility, as they trotted across the green grass was oddly moving. It was as if Finley was remembering how to be a dog, loved and played with.

But sometimes some noise from the street would alarm her, and she would freeze and look nervously in the direction of the source. She would recall her old instinct that it was necessary to be vigilant at all times, for surely danger lurked

How many times I have done the same thing: paused in the middle of pleasure with the sense that it was somehow unjustifiable. When I was falling in love with my husband, I worried that he would die. When my first book was about to be published, I feared that a catastrophic world event would abort the process. Even at simple moments of relaxation, I have seized up with panic that I was not paying sufficient attention to something imminent and worrisome.

I hope Finley becomes a relaxed and happy dog, able to take walks, sniff out her world, and play with abandon. I hope she’ll cease to rely on those behavioral necessities that her past inflicted on her. And I hope those of us who exhibit our version of “Uh-oh! Is it safe to have fun?” will take encouragement from Finley’s little steps making the progress of play across the green yard and that we, too, will realize, Yes, in this moment I’m fine and nothing more is demanded of me.

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)