It’s been a hellova year. A hell of a year. And here we are now again with Covid spiking at higher numbers than the initial rush in the spring, and higher than wave two during the summer. In Washington State we’re locking down again, including no gathering in homes with anyone who you do not live with.
I watched Governor Jay Inslee give a press conference announcing the additional lock downs. While yes, yes, yes, I am thankful to live someplace where the officials are taking this virus seriously and still, after the press conference I had to do some therapy cooking. I boiled five giant beets for 50 minutes so I could peel them and dice them. I roasted a spaghetti squash, a delicata squash and a summer squash as well as a quart of mushrooms and two pounds of carrots.
As I cooked I calmed myself down with a little Gillian Welch.
Pretty soon the story of the pandemic settled itself in along side the stories of my ancestors. Gillian told so many stories of love lost, life gone a little wrong, people who have done wrong trying to do right that this seemed like just the trouble of our time. My mother who was born into the Great Depression and my father who as a youngster hid behind the couch in his North Minneapolis home when he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My grandfather who fled Eastern Europe conflict as a child.
We are living through a traumatic, terrifying time. It’s hard. It’s going on forever. And it’s getting worse.
Here’s what I learned from Gillian. I know we can do this. I know we can. We come from people who lived through stuff. STUFF.
Who are you, I mean who are you really? What lives in your heart? What is it you are absolutely called to do? What IS your thing to hang onto? You have strength. I KNOW you do. What does that strength flow from?
Join me in creating art even if it’s beautiful caramelized delicata squash. Listen to music that moves your heart . Take a cup of coffee back to bed if you can. Nap. Have a Zoom happy hour with your friends or a dance party on Skype. Write a note to your fifth grade teacher. Pick up trash in your neighborhood.
We can do this. I know we can. I know you can. I know I can.
My friend Sarah is 8 years old. One day not too long ago she woke up really, really sad. Things had not been going well for her. Her teacher Miss Smith was going to have a baby and Sarah was really happy about that but Miss Smith was not going to be at school for months and months. Sarah’s best friend Joe was moving away and she worried about who she would sit with at lunch and who she would share recess time with when Joe was gone. And then, she had just learned that the summer camp that she looked forward to all year had been cancelled.
Sarah felt really, really sad.
On this morning, not too long ago Sarah got out of bed and went downstairs. Her brother was already downstairs working on his lego robot. He said to her “Oh Sarah. You look so sad! Everything about you looks really sad.”
She said “Yeah, I’m really sad.”
In Sarah’s family they had a special way of helping when somebody was sad. So, he said to her “Do you want me to try to cheer you up? Or do you want to talk about what is making you sad? Or do you just want me to keep you company?”
Sarah thought. Then she said “I want you to cheer me up and then I want to sing the “Be Well” song.
Brother said alright. Then he made the FIVE mouth noises that he knew how to make. Sarah giggled and giggled. She was still sad but now there were some bubbles in her chest.
Next her brother took her hands and looked right into her eyes and he sang “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things….will be well.”
Sarah breathed for a minute, and then brother went back to his robot and she poured a bowl of cereal, poured some milk on it and started to eat.
Then mama came downstairs and took a look at Sarah and said “Oh Sarah. You look so sad! Everything about you just looks sad.”
Sarah said “Yeah, I’m really sad.”
Mama said “How can I help? Can I cheer you up? Do you want to talk about what’s making you sad? Or do you just want company?”
Sarah thought for a minute and she said “I think I want to talk about what’s making me sad.”
But Sarah knew that mama had to make her coffee first. So Sarah finished eating her cereal and mama made coffee. Then they climbed into the rocking chair and Sarah settled in and mama held her close.
Then Sarah said “Miss Smith is leaving to have her baby and I’m really going to miss her. And Joe is moving away and I’m not sure who I will sit with at lunch or who I will play with at recess. And camp is cancelled and I look forward to it all year long. I’m sad.”
Mama listened and held Sarah close and rocked her back and forth, back and forth for a long time. Then mama said “do you want the Be Well song?”
Sarah said “Yep.”
So they turned and faced each other, and they held hands, and mama looked deep into Sarah’s eyes and sang “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things…..will be well.”
Sarah and mama rocked back and forth, back and forth. Until eventually mama needed to get up and fix her breakfast and get dressed and get on with her day.
Sarah was thinking about what to do next. She decided to color a picture to send along with Miss Smith when she had her baby so Miss Smith wouldn’t forget Sarah.
Now Sarah is one of those really lucky kids who lives with a grandparent. As Sarah was coloring her picture Grandma came in from the back yard. She’d been out gardening all morning and she came in with a big basket of strawberries.
Grandma said “Oh Sarah. You look so sad. Everything about you just looks sad.”
“Yeah. I’m really sad” Sarah said.
Grandma asked: “What do you want me to do to help? Do you want me to try to cheer you up? Or do you want to talk about it? Or do you just want company?”
Sarah thought for a minute and she said “I think I just want you to keep me company. And then let’s sing the Be Well song.”
So, they ate probably more strawberries than they should have. They were quiet for a long time. Grandma just kept Sarah company while she was sad. Then Sarah said “OK, I’m ready for the Be Well song.”
They turned to face each other and they held hands and they sang together “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things…..will be well.”
Sarah went on with her day.
She was still sad, but she wasn’t alone.
Thanks to my colleague Tim Atkins who shared his original story “I Just Need to be Sad” which inspired this story.
This story uses a line from 14th century Catholic mystic Julien of Norwich’s writings sometimes written as “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” I sang it roughly to the tune in the song written by Rev. Meg Barnhouse.
Please feel free to use this story as you wish with attribution. Thank you!
I have always believed that I am terrible at keeping a spiritual practice. Isn’t keeping a spiritual practice sitting on a meditation cushion for the same amount of time every day over and over again? Aren’t you supposed to become enlightened and ethereal. I mean, I always thought maybe your skin starts to glow and you speak with a breathy knowing or something.
I had a sleepless night last week. Between then and now I have learned from a beloved teacher about sleepless nights as “Dancing with the Divine”. The things avoided during waking hours come and tap you on the shoulder for their spin. Distractions are gone, regular coping bypassed. Time to dance with what you’ve been running from.
What I didn’t understand is that Spirit, God, The Divine does not only come to me as a calm, peaceful presence. Nope. Spirit also arrives screaming in my ears making my heart pound hollering “PAY ATTENTION!”
On this night, because I had no other choice really, I decided to face it. To let all the feelings flow, to experience every flash, every boom, every gut wrenching thing that came over me. Somehow I knew it had to be done.
I invited it: “Come on in, bring what you’ve got. Here I am.”
As the hours passed and I let the feelings flow over me, I also invited Spirit to join me, deep inside my soul. I practiced what I understand to be Centering Prayer, with a storm raging, yes, but still, I was inviting the Great Mystery to accompany me as I weathered the night.
I did not realize that I was already dancing with the Divine.
As the storm started to abate to a simple waltz I began to flow through a body prayer a beloved teacher teaches during Spiritual Psychology class. There is a phrase and an action that accompanies each of seven stages of development and healing. I moved through this body prayer, if only in my mind, over and over “I am grounded. I flow with the cycles of life…” until I fell asleep.
The next day I was berating myself. If I had a real spiritual practice I would never have had to go through this hellacious night. I would have calmly glided through all of these emotions and quietly set them down as they arose. Why did I not yet have this perfect practice?
And then. And then. And then I realized. I had practiced centering prayer. I had done my body prayer. I may not be the perfect practitioner of seated meditation or Lectio Divina. But I was able to connect with that which is greater than myself. Accompanied by connection with Spirit I had faced the storm. I had faced myself.
In fact, I had danced with the Divine.
I am an eclectic spiritual being, or so my spiritual director reminded me a few days later when I told her this story.
Oh of course. I AM an eclectic. I write prayers on little slips of paper and attach them to a tiny easel and then light a candle to remember. I slip little crystals in my pocket, not that I think they have absolute magic power, but because they help keep my sacred intentions close. I light candles and speak my gratitudes into the day. I touch my heart when I am moved to connect my spirit, mind and body in the moment. I invite the presence of the holy when I am listening for understanding and touch my belly because it’s where I feel most connected to that which is beyond my understanding. I wear the beaded bracelet the founder of my seminary made from beads people brought her from all over the world which she prays over before she creates them and I feel connected.
Not a failure. Not missing the moment of the sacred. No. I am this. I am enough. And I have danced with the Divine.
One page, One day. Move on.
Today is cooler and my chair is a little wet from the dew. The prayer flags flow gently back and forth.
I sit alone, here, but my ancestors are before me. My sister women around me. My animal friends padding around, sniffing and growling at the leaves that skitter off the patio and the thought that there might be a cat across the way.
I can hear a squirrel a few trees over who is unhappy, chirping and clucking, likely because the dogs are perched on this little patio with me. Even here in the middle of the metropolitan desert, nature dominates. There is dirt and many bugs and stray leaves. We smell the earth and feel the fingers of the sun and the silky breath of the breeze on our cheeks. I lift my chin to catch it.
This morning in my effort to avoid being productive, I circled through my touchstones of life guides on social media. Ann Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, I can’t do the Love Warrior anymore but I have found a fresh voice in Elissa Altman. This morning she wrote something just to me and closed with “you are worthy of saving.” Who me? What? No. Everyone else, yes. Every animal even. But not me. I learned that lesson really well. Not me.
But no. Stop. I am finally getting it. Here, next door to 52, I am starting to learn that “you are worthy of saving” means you. And me. And everyone.
Everyone. And here’s where it gets dicey.
Any leader who thinks that some are more worthy than others is the embodiment of pure evil. EVIL. Even if you are a person without empathy, as science shows us some people are, you might want to notice that any group of folks a leader deems unworthy of existence today can flip in the beat of a heart to your group. To you.
Even if you don’t care about anyone but you and yours, a leader who points at a group and says “them, those people” will, one day, point at YOU.
I know I can’t stop my president’s hate from inspiring mass killing. I know I can’t fix it. But today I can work to let my neighbors who are targeted by this evil know that I see them, I support them, and I am not afraid to say so.
Screw the “to do” list. I’m off to make signs and buy flowers and then I’ll stop by the local places of worship most likely to be impacted today.
Peace be upon you. And you. And me. And all of us.
Update: a colleague suggested that leaving anything at a mosque, including flowers, might cause stress today. Agreed. Good advice. But then I heard about a mosque a little north of me who was calling for neighbors to come and stand outside during Friday prayers. So I went. I took goofy pictures to show my concerned family members that there was a crowd and we were all safe and fine, or as safe and fine as our Muslim neighbors. After the service was over a community member brought out lunch for us and some children from the community passed out candy. I share these in the spirit of inviting my friends and neighbors to come out to show our strength. Next time may it be in celebration of good news and not in solidarity with those who are grieving.
“Um, will this be together?” This happens to us all the time. Every week. Sometimes more than once a day. Even living just outside of both LA and Seattle hasn’t prevented the head tilt, quick evaluation by baristas, bartenders, servers and doctors. At the coffee shop, grocery store, bar, doctor’s office; people are always asking if my husband and I are together.
I mean, really, it’s my groceries and his? Wouldn’t there be a little bar down between the limes and the bread? Would I be chatting with him so comfortably? Sometimes we play them a little.
“What him? No way. Creeper, get away from my avocados.”
“Her? I’m not paying for her. She’s been following me around for like 30 years!”
It’s our own multicultural teaching moment. I don’t like to humiliate people, but make them flush with embarrassment a little by holding their bias up for all to see? Oh yeah.
Once, we were out to dinner with all the families from our swim team. We had driven all day from Seattle to Idaho for the big regional swim meet. The kids had their own table and the parents were at one big, ranch style table. The server was matching up couples to prepare our bills; I knew we were in trouble. Tommy’s mom was Asian. Even though she was seated all the way down from us and across the table, her bill was paired with my husband’s. There was no way in our server’s mind that the Asian man and woman were not together. No way.
We have been very lucky as a family. Our health has been good, we have always had enough to eat and a safe place to live. We come from humble beginnings with little assist on the financial launch in life, but my husband is the hardest working man I know, so we’ve done OK.
We have not, yet anyway, had our house vandalized or been told to leave a neighborhood. We moved to the West Coast because in Minnesota we were always the diversity crew on the block, and people would literally turn around to stare at us in the grocery store. Now that our kids are gone, we mostly keep to ourselves. We know the other dogs in the neighborhood and their people, and we wave to the couple who lives next to us. People around us know we’re together.
It’s a funny thing. I don’t believe that a barista is making an intentionally racist statement by totalling my husband’s coffee without looking past him to the white woman standing there. I don’t. But it is a little of our systemic racism poking at us all the time. Sometimes as he orders I’ll touch his shoulder or hand as code for “we’re together” to save time and avoid the hassle. It’s always present for us.
What I wish was that we didn’t have these deep scripts that play out about who goes together and where race fits in our lives. But we do. Me, too. I work hard to root them out, but it is in the air I breathe and the water I drink. It’s deep.
Luckily, I do have this fine partner in life who claims me over and over again, even when the bartender tries to make me pay for my own drink.
I know. Another voice reacting to the ringing bell of depression and death by suicide. Who needs it?
I don’t know. Maybe someone. Maybe you.
I live with depression. I know you might, or maybe you know someone who does. It’s a real thing. I am not always depressed, but I always know it’s there. I am no mental health expert, but so far anyway, I am an expert at living with this thing for a long, long time. So I’m going to say my few true things.
There are gifts in being a depressed person. It’s hard to see but I believe this is true. Our people, the depressed ones, write the best books and music and create soaring art. We feel the world so deeply that when we can convey this depth, it moves mountains and hearts and minds. I have a depth of understanding and compassion that comes from living on the edge of meaning. It’s a part of me I treasure.
Depression is a liar. It’s a dirty rotten f*ucking liar. It will tell you that your children/spouse/parents/friends/coworkers will be so much better without you. Get a thing that reminds you that this is NOT true. I have a spoon bracelet with a Steinbeck quote hammered into it by a dear person. My friend has a locket with a line of a hymn tucked in it. A physical thing that I have with me helps me remember. Or get a dog. I can never believe, even at my darkest, that my dog will be happy I am gone.
Therapy can help. I did a stint of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helped. But I’ve also had therapists that were……less than great. If your therapist isn’t a good fit, try again.
Write. Every morning for 10 minutes. Just write. Get a pen that flows and paper that feels smooth (or a random IKEA pencil and a sticky note) and just sit someplace soft and write. During one particularly low point, a poetry therapist told me to just DO this every morning and I did. I listened. Julia Cameron’s morning pages are a good format, too. There is no product coming from this, it’s just a way to skim off the nonsense that dances around at the top of my mind.
Try everything you hear about. There was one time I could *see* from outside that I was depressed and making terrible choices. So I grabbed every piece of advice that floated by. Take vitamin D3? OK. Exercise for 30 minutes a day? Sure, if walking slowly on the treadmill while watching home improvement shows counts. Eat green leafy food? Yuck, but alright. My depressed tastebuds trend toward tots, not greens. Leave the evaluations about whether it will do you any good or not out of it. Just try.
This one is weird, but it works for me: do one thing. Like…clean the sink. There may be dirty dishes piled on the counter and a floor that desperately needs to be swept, but if I can use cleanser and a green scrubbie and really clean the sink, I feel better. Or fold one basket of laundry. Not all of them, just one. It’s like one little clear spot opens in my brain and sometimes that clarity grows from there.
Give the people in your life a little head tilt/sideways glancing look. Who else is like this? Who in your life would nod and smile a sad half-smile and understand that sometimes you are not quite OK? Tell them. Assemble your team. I think it helps to know we’re not alone.
Do the things. Take your meds. Shush the haters. Wait. Sleep. Give it a day. Please.