Arrive

I recently wrote about adventure for Darling Magazine. Well, I wrote the piece several months ago about a time nearly a year ago. It was accepted in March, scheduled to be published in April, but was delayed until last week to make more room for COVID related content. But revisiting this essay now, its message has new resonance for me.

This year has been the most changeable, capricious year of my life, not just because of the global pandemic. Plans, one after another, have collapsed like dominos. Plans to travel, plans with loved ones, plans of where to move or where to live, plans for my career, plans for another graduate degree.

I crave stability because routine and familiarity steady my anxiety. These changes, like small earthquakes, have unsettled the ground beneath my feet.

I wrote about adventure ahead of many of these unforeseen shifts. Adventure, I learned then, means, in part, “to arrive.” We experience adventure through being present in our own lives. For some, skydiving or free climbing or some other insane “thrill” grants presence through adrenaline. In the way of danger, you have no other choice but to pay attention.

I’m never going to jump out of a plane or climb a vertical rock formation or ski dangerously close to a patch of woods. I have one life, and I’d rather (attempt to) live it with normal cortisol. Adventure, to me, does not require danger or risk, just like bravery does not require putting yourself in dangerous, precarious, or frightening situations. Presence is an option constantly available to us… there is beauty and delight and meaning – I promise you – when we actually pay close attention to the life in front of us. Paying attention means we actually live our lives. It means we arrive.

*

At the start of 2019, I remember feeling slightly afraid. At our family’s New Year’s Eve celebration, which involves opening every door and window (don’t ask, long story), the wind was so fierce, doors were slamming shut, the shutters on the house were rattling, light fixtures were swaying. I thought, “Oh, God. Is this foreshadowing??”

The start of 2020, though, was markedly different. We released confetti poppers at midnight and spent the whole evening dancing, and I kept gathering up handfuls of the colorful foil to throw in the air so it would fall like a rain shower. I felt joyful. So rarely does pure joy replace my near constant anxiety, but when it does, it is so sweet.

We are still finding remnants of confetti in all our houses now. In Jack’s and my suitcases, in my parents’ couch cushions. In some ways, it feels like a distant memory to think back to the hope we felt for 2020, a new decade. But in others, it is a reminder that it is hope that sustains us. Joy, even now, is a declaration of hope.

*

This evening, I stood by my bedroom window looking at the hills of our neighborhood in Los Angeles. I could see a slice of the red sign of a coffee shop we love, a place Jack and I imagined visiting every week, a place we thought would nurture and nourish us through this year of many changes. It’s a small thing to grieve, small in comparison to all the big losses strung together.

I realized, then, again, that nearly everything in our lives is temporary, constantly changing, evolving. Like emotion. Like seasons. And it is painful. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that temporality itself is one of the primary reasons human beings suffer. But it is also beautiful. 

Like the rhythms that rule the earth, day and night, spinning and revolving, the waves are beautiful and painful. They are what make life an adventure, though, if we brave the changing seas, if we stay on the ship.

On Insight

Like many women, I have a bad habit of polling the people in my life. By asking, “well, what do you think I should do?” I crowdsource insight to make choices about big and small things.

Ironically, insight is defined as the capacity to gain a deep, intuitive knowledge about something. The etymology of the word points literally to “inner wisdom” or “inner sight.” Your insight, your inner wisdom, is yours alone. It pertains to your life, your intuition, your seeing.

When I realized this, a calm washed over me. I was soothed, suddenly. Could it be that I could gather enough information about how to create a rich life within me? Could it be that only I know the answers to my deepest questions, the ones that pertain to what will make my life meaningful?

For us all, this month, I imagine, has not been easy. Rightfully so, we are worried about our loved ones, the economy, and the future of our country and world – both of which, at the moment, appear dim. And yet in the midst of literal turmoil, we have been asked to sit still, to remain in our homes, without the usual distractions, without our typical amount of movement, which I maintain is arduous work. To do nothing, to draw inward, is often painful. It reveals that which we are avoiding.

This week, I listened to a conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Jen Hatmaker for the podcast, “For the Love.” In it, Gilbert argued for replacing the idea of a “purpose-driven life” with a “curiosity-driven life.” I’m not sure this is a long-term plan, but for the time being, the time remaining in this lockdown (which for those of us in California will be quite a bit longer) I want to foreground curiosity.

Curiosity is a lighter word, unburdened by other people’s assumptions. It’s not compacted by shame, the way other, loftier words are. I suspect, then, that curiosity might evoke my buried insight, my truest self to express what it wants to give, what it wants to receive, what it imagines the world might need.

“Clearing” by Martha Postlewaite:

Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
patiently,
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.

 

 

 

 

 

Ebb Again

In this time of upheaval, I have learned this: the ebb is as important as the flow. In the first few weeks of the lockdown, articles filled the virtual pages of magazines and photos on the grids of Instagrams about how to make this frightening and unusual time worthwhile. If we could bake enough or learn a new language or write a book proposal, then maybe we could keep things like, I don’t know, dread at bay.

Then around the month mark, those same online spaces flipped the script. No, actually, this time should not be marked by productivity. It is a time to survive, not produce, they said. And I suspect for people with children or intense work responsibilities or both, this was a welcomed relief: a reminder that our worth is not determined by how much we do because it is inherent. Just be – that’s a much nicer message.

Being, though, is harder terrain to navigate. Being leaves more space for contemplation, in the pockets of time once filled by things like reorganize storage closet or learn to make French Silk Pie or find a German tutor. Dread, fear, anxiety, sadness, longing, grief, restlessness – all the emotions we’d prefer to avoid – are given room to breathe and speak and shout and consume and overwhelm us then.

Existential dread? I wanted to say, Welcome to my neighborhood! This is the ground I freaking live on. Trust me, you don’t make it through divinity school without a healthy dose of existential dread. We throw the phrase “existential crisis” around a lot, like when we hate our new haircut or we can’t pick a major in college. But literal existential crisis is no joke. It is looking at the mystery of human existence and sitting with the unanswerable and yet unavoidable heaviness: what does it mean?

Does it mean anything? Was the world created arbitrarily? What happens after we die? Are we annihilated? Or does this earthly existence point us to something else? Something larger? Something truer? Something more beautiful? Something beyond our comprehension?

Well, when you’re exhausted, whether that’s by relentless deconstruction in rigorous theology classes or something more like a global pandemic coupled with global economic decline, an upcoming presidential election, and pervasive isolation, the answers will most likely be bleaker.

Atheism says this: death and nothingness. Faith, in even its most shallow form, says: life and meaning. For me, faith is not a light switch, it is a dimmer switch. And there are days when the light is just hovering above its lowest point. Hope, then, might be a dimmer switch, too. Honestly, if someone never has a hard time getting out of bed in this time so full of grief and worry, I would suggest that person is avoiding quite a few serious things. It is hard to maintain hope, and faith, and productivity, which is why we need the rest, the ebb. We need the break. We need the occasional hours of forgetting and instead watching Call the Midwife (unless you’re my husband who says that watching an hour-long program with several scenes of childbirth is not relaxing).

Forgetting and remembering. Resting and trying. Ebbing and flowing. It is the natural order of things. The Productivity Activists and the Rest Advocates are both right in their own ways.

Both/and. For me, I’ll take both baking pie and existential deconstruction. The sweetness of life, in even the simplest manifestations, I have found, can edge us toward meaning-making.

Where there is beauty, there may indeed be truth – reminding us of the unseen order of things.

 

Earth Day

The earth shook on Earth Day.

In the early moments of today, we experienced a strange sort of earthquake in Los Angeles (or so I am told). Its magnitude was relatively low, but the quake was short and strong. Our windows shook. We heard our dresser and the lamp that sits on top rattle. I had never felt an earthquake before, not really. I was raised in the Midwest, the land of tornadoes and blizzards, not known for its earthquakes.

There is, of course, an odd poetry embedded in earthquake happening in the first few minutes of Earth Day. There’s also nothing like an earthquake in the middle of a global pandemic to remind you that this life, this breath and the next one, this day are precious.

We have all seen the stories of how our air, our water, and our green spaces have become cleaner, more vibrant, and healthier. We have all seen the statistics of rapidly falling pollution levels, or the photos of Venice’s clear blue canals. Or we have heard more birds singing above us.

This does not justify the quarantine. Too many people have died, and too many people are living with immense fear, coping with incredible loss. Yet it is still happening… and it is one beautiful thing to hold onto – the glimmer of a promise of a cleaner, safer world to come.

The Zen poet and environmental activist, Gary Snyder writes one of my favorite poems, “For the Children,” which I return to today. It shows me of living contemplatively, by walking softly upon the earth.

For the Children” by Gary Snyder

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light.

 

 

Signs of Life

We are being remade, together, it seems. This transformation is terrifying and painful, and, sometimes, beautiful, too. The beauty does not solve the pain, but it appears the two coexist.

In waves, I feel filled with homesickness, with sadness, with feelings of being powerless. In waves, I feel flooded with gratitude, even for the smallest things, and awash in love for the big, fundamentally good things.

It is both/and every day.

Last Sunday, I watched the reply of Middle Collegiate Church’s Easter service, in which Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, invited us to look for the signs of life in the midst of grief, loss, death – the reckoning we are all collectively experiencing each in our own ways.

A few weeks ago, my parents decided to foster an abandoned dog from their local animal shelter, and this week, they chose to adopt her.

Her name is Aurora, like the aurora borealis – the northern lights. The mysterious light phenomenon that appears in the darkest skies, in seemingly forlorn places.

Aurora has brought joy to my family, light into their lives when I cannot be physically present with them. This has brought me great peace.

This world is life and death. Hope and despair. Love and fear. Light and darkness. Both/and. All the time.

We gather and we lose. We lose and we start again. We learn how to carry on. We learn how to repair things that are broken.

I would offer to you what Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis offered to me and to her congregation. Look for the signs of life.

The way that wildflowers grow in sidewalk cracks. The way that forest floors encroach on abandoned farmland. The way that creatures reclaim public parks, singing to greet the day when human beings stop driving their cars… life finds a way to keep blooming. And us? We have to find ways to keep living.

May your Mondays, wherever you find yourselves today, bring you calm strength.

 

Weekend Reading

My husband is becoming a therapist. Until last month, he would drive north once every four weeks for an intensive weekend, classes from 8:30 am to 9:00 pm for three days straight. Now and for the foreseeable future, he will sit for the same amount of time each month in our home office, learning over zoom. We like to joke that our cat, Isabel, who loves sitting with him is earning her master’s in counseling psychology, too.

Before the quarantine conditions shifted everything, Jack looked forward to his weekends in Santa Barbara. He loved being nestled in the foothills, on the campus that used to be a Jesuit monastery. It was his monthly retreat.

Retreat, of course, means to withdraw to a quiet or secluded place. Retreats bear reflection, new insight – set apart from normal life. In this quarantine, we are all in new circumstances that could seem like retreat. We are more isolated from one another. For those of us without children, our homes are undoubtedly quieter…but in another way, our lives are much noisier. While we remain in one place, inner noise – panic, anxiety, dread, sadness, anger, frustration – is understandably much louder. There is a lot to fear, grieve, and process… things we could not have anticipated having to emotionally metabolize.

My quarantine partner will be occupied this weekend, learning about attachment theory and the subconscious. Save for the three 20-minute breaks he gets per day, where he will excitedly tell me about what he’s learned, I will be by myself, and this weekend, I am going to use this as a personal retreat. Time set apart to reflect, to read, to do restorative yoga, and drink ginger tea.

If you are able, I would suggest you find even one hour to “retreat.” One hour or several hours or one day where you pull away from the chaos of the news to fill your inner well.

And finally, an offering for your weekend reading…

Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

On Grace Again

Over the last six weeks, I have heard this many times: “Our grandparents had to go to war to serve their country. We just have to sit on the couch to serve ours.” It is intended to be inspiring, I think. “We can do this, it’s not so hard!”

The implication is that it was harder to go to war than it is to remain at home. This is completely true. The ways in which war destroys communities, families, and our social fabric are innumerable, unfathomable, immeasurable always.

It goes without saying that World War II was harder than it is to be in our own homes. Bombs were dropped upon people’s homes in the middle of the night for days on end. Families were separated. Food was severely rationed. People had to tape their windows so that the glass wouldn’t shatter if there was a bomb dropped nearby. They had to paint windows with black paint and cover them with thick fabric to block every fragment of light.

We live in a world that contains war, genocide, human trafficking, mass incarceration, and gun violence. There are myriad ways human beings suffer “more” than we are suffering now.

It also goes without saying that our community heroes, the nurses, doctors, emergency responders, and essential workers, are sacrificing more, are in a uniquely dangerous position, and are the ones who are truly serving our world. We see how their protective equipment has rubbed parts of their faces raw. We witness their fatigue, their trauma, their grief. It is all heartbreaking.

Yet, comparative suffering does not heal anything. It minimizes one kind of pain to elevate another intangible, abstract, and elusive kind of pain. We fill the gap between the two with our imagination and our shame.

Our pain is our bridge to understanding the pain within others. Empathy is sitting with someone in the pain of their own existence even if that pain is not a mirror image of our own. In order to join another there, though, we have to be awake to our pain. Compassionate means “to suffer with.” Compassionate, empathetic people are those who have not dissociated from the suffering of other people…which means that they have not dissociated from their own suffering and pain – a huge part of being human.

You can attend to your own heart without oppressing other people. You can hold within your mind two non-competing thoughts simultaneously. It hurts here, and it hurts there, without saying, “You know what, war is actually easier than social distancing? I’d rather go to war!” Or, in another way, “This is the hardest thing any human being has ever had to do. What do those nurses have to complain about?”

Self-compassion is not complaining about not getting the right brand of peanut butter, et cetera. Self-compassion is having grace with oneself, which serves the world in its own way. Compassion is not self-absorption. Compassion begets compassion.

I heard Richard Rohr say something like this: in order to dehumanize others, to ignore the suffering of others, we have to dissociate. In other words, not being tapped into the suffering of children separated from their parents at the border, of homeless people, of women sold into sex slavery, you have to disconnect yourself from their pain. You have to split yourself into two and walk around as less than a full human being to function in a dehumanizing world. The reunification of these halves requires greater consciousness, purer awareness, and deeper compassion.

During this strange and tumultuous time, we are starting to think and respond to the pain of the other living beings we’ve largely been ignoring.

Restaurants are donating meals to lower income families. Churches are opening their doors so that homeless people can have access to shelter, heat, food, and a hot shower. Families are fostering animals. Neighbors are making meals for each other, going grocery shopping for each other, checking in with each other – these connections forming between people who did not even know each others’ names two months ago.

And the earth? We all know the stories of seemingly miraculous change. The rivers are clearer, the air is cleaner, the birds have returned.

These shifts represent shifts in our collective consciousness. By slowing down, by witnessing the suffering brought on by the virus, we have remembered what makes us human. And, I believe, we are more sensitized now to other people’s, other being’s suffering. And to become more sensitized in the midst of global chaos, while not being allowed to leave your home? That is incredibly difficult… and dissonant.

This is the kind of interior work monks, nuns, and contemplatives choose. To sit in a confined space for hours, weeks, years on end, contemplating the suffering of the world, while trying to make oneself more virtuous. For the majority of human history, most people have not chosen to be contemplatives… because it’s no walk in the park. It is arduous work, work of the mind, spirit, and heart.

I find that I am crying more, lately, in response to the beauty and cruelty of the world. When we become more sensitive, we become more sensitized to both joy and pain. Unfortunately, we cannot choose to respond to just one because what recognizes beauty, truth, wisdom, love, grace within us is the very same part of us that recognizes the lack of it.

We may feel guilt, or sadness, or despair quite often in this season of quarantining. I certainly am. Without tangible actions to distract ourselves, beyond washing our hands or sterilizing doorknobs, feeling one’s feelings will seem inadequate because it does not solve anything.

If you can donate to your food bank, or make cloth masks for your neighbors, or buy a little extra food for someone in need, or help a family member carry the loads they’re carrying, that is wonderful. That is such important work as well.

But on the days when even all of that feels like it falls short of making the world more beautiful… remember that the work of feeling and sitting still in the midst of chaos is the work of wisdom. All that you are doing now to become more compassionate will serve the world.

We cannot see the light at the end of all of this, but there will come a time when the question will be not, what can I do today, but what can we do to make the world a more equitable, just, beautiful place? Full of grace for yourself and for others, with your heart reaching forward, you will have an answer that will make the world new.

Wayfinding

As I write, I am looking out of my bedroom window, onto one of the hills in our Los Angeles neighborhood. Here in LA, houses are stacked up against each other like dominos. This hill, though, is lush, countless varieties of green trees – nearly all transplanted from elsewhere to this desert climate – coexisting, trying to flourish in shrunken spaces.

It is cultural lore here, that when one moves to LA, the energy of the city kicks you out of the nest. It makes you start over. It forces you to become who you are meant to be. I heard that before Jack and I moved here, before we made the decision on a weekend holiday at a bed and breakfast in Tennessee last year. Next to a roaring fire and while a thunderstorm raged outside, we clinked our glasses together. “We are moving to California!” we said to each other, the statement our friends had been predicting for months.

The next chapter of this story, as you will know if you’ve read any of my writing from the last year, was not simple. It was though LA was sending us the message, “Go back to the East Coast!” In many ways, we don’t look like we belong here. Jack owns tweed jackets. The majority of my closet is sweaters. While our neighbors might go to Joshua Tree, we read Russian literature and French philosophy to understand humanity. We drink coffee, not Reishi mushroom tonics. We overanalyze everything. And I regularly miss cold, snowy weather.

In another way, we were drawn to LA, obviously. We were drawn to its relentless sunshine. To its creativity. To its changeability. To its unassuming excellence. To its salt-laced air.

We’ve never had better coffee in the U.S or fresher oranges or better dinners out. Our cheeks have never looked rosier. Jack loves the Oyster Bar 50 feet from our house. I love hearing the sounds of seagulls and crickets. It is all beautiful in its own way. But though there has been joy, it has by no means been fun. Things have either worked or they haven’t.

Rather than saying “leave!” it seems as though this place is saying, “wake up!” Saying: “wake up! You don’t have your whole life to become who you are meant to be. Be that person now. There will be floods and natural disasters and pandemics and gas leaks. People you love will get sick. Time is precious, don’t you dare forget it.”

Unlike all the other more mild places I’ve lived, California sits literally on the cusp of disaster. Fires can burn whole communities to the ground. The earth can shake more powerfully than I could ever imagine. Waters can and will rise. The people who live here, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, know in some deep way: life is not guaranteed, make it count.

The last year, since I graduated from graduate school, has not been as I had imagined it would be, in any way. No one could have imagined that we would spend the spring locked in our individual houses, worrying about economic collapse and losing loved ones and community heroes to a global pandemic. And yet, here we are. Alone and unsure, lonely and sad, trying to map ways forward.

For those of us in our twenties still, this is an interesting inflection point. Hopefully we are all still in the beginning portion of our lives, and if that is the case, then how can we not be made new by this? Some decisions may be made for us, by the twists of the economy, for instance, but in the ways we can control how we live…how can we be shaped by the experience of this pandemic in ways that make us more compassionate, braver, and stronger?

This is the gift California is giving me: more urgency in my becoming. This process begins with asking better questions of ourselves, like:

What is unspoken?

What needs to be healed?

What breaks my heart?

What brings me joy?

What needs to be made new in the world?

Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In this season of greater simplicity, I think we all need to take those two poles very seriously and learn to honor where they intersect, so that we can reawaken, reinvigorate, and bolster our wayfinding.

This Easter

This is the most beautiful thing I have ever read about Easter, and perhaps, Christianity as a whole, written by Rachel Held Evans:

I keep thinking about the women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. On the days that I believe the story, I’m struck by the fact that they showed up with burial spices. They showed up ready to walk through the rituals of grief and say goodbye to their friend. That was women’s work in those days, tending to those vulnerable things. But it’s only attending to the vulnerable things that we can expect to witness a miracle.

I can’t promise you resurrection, but I can promise you companionship. I can promise you friends for the journey. I can promise you fellow travelers to help you carry those burial spices. And as we tend to the vulnerable things together, may the God of every season, the God of survival — and if not survival, then death and resurrection — bless, preserve and keep you, now and forever. Amen.

This Easter, like all things this year, is stretched around new pain, new loneliness, new fear. It is much less about belief, doctrine, dogma, or ritual. It is less about the theology of the resurrection of the body, which I promise you is a complicated, highly convoluted debate. It is less about who can have participate in communion, and who cannot. No one is sharing the Eucharist this year. It is not even about bringing our collective weariness to a shared table because we aren’t under the same roof as our loved ones, let alone the people with whom we share the same religion.

Easter, this year, is much more about love, new life, and finding wells of hope. In my own life, I see more friends reaching for practices and texts that offer meaning and relief.

I have never thought that God only cares about those who stand under white steeples. Christianity, to me, is one way of understanding the meaning, the significance, and the importance of our lives. I could never look at the living world or my own family without curiosity, wonder, and gratitude. Faith, therefore, is an act of hope rooted in love. Faith means not that your beliefs remain static. Faith means that you reach your heart toward the vulnerable things, hoping that God or love or awareness will meet you there.

For many I know, faith is irrelevant. And today is just like any other Sunday. People are organisms, and all of us are just fighting to survive on this piece of space debris, which luckily for our creature ancestors, happened to have water. Honestly, that’s fine. That’s one way to live a human life.

But for me, the world is far more mysterious, and even as we stand in the midst of this mystery, I still find beauty in the story of Christianity. The very idea that there is a God who loves us and welcomes us home with tears of joy and open arms and celebration always, that death leads to life, that love wins, that love pervades all things… it is so beautiful that I can’t shake it.

Why? Because love is the best of who we are, individually and together. And in Christianity, Christ is God incarnate – love incarnate. And in the Easter narrative, love rises again. The tomb seems empty at first, but the truth is even more beautiful than even Mary Magdalene could allow herself to believe. God returns not seeking punishment or retribution or acclaim. He simply says, “Mary,” “why are you crying?”

I have been a teacher, a student, a crisis worker, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a spouse, a caretaker, and a writer. I live my life at the site of vulnerable things. I want to live my life in this way, more and more and more.

Easter, this year, is pervaded by sadness, confusion, loneliness, despair, and unanswerable questions. Just as it would have been over two thousand years ago. Unlike in previous years in our lifetimes, when this day would have smelled of lilies and incense, today may feel more empty, more uncertain, punctured by human things, like cloth masks and black coffee and vitamin C.

We, most likely, will not behold a vision of Christ clothed in white. At least, I’m not banking on that. But I think the way we can cultivate a little more strength, a little more comfort, a little more hope is by tending to a vulnerable something. More like gardeners and less like a resurrected Christ, we can hold something gently within our hands, whether that is a pet or a cloth mask or a bar of soap or a phone we use to call our families, and infuse our actions with love. Be like a gardener, who holds hope for new life, who plants seeds, who knows what good things need to survive, who knows that seeds lead to life, life leads to seeds.

May you find some peace this Easter day. May you know that you are never truly alone. May you feel the presence of love encircling you. May you tend to things that grow and heal the world.

Happy Easter.

Holy Thursday at Home

Many Christian traditions observe an important ritual on Holy Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday: the rite of foot washing. In the church of my upbringing, we formed lines in front of empty bowls and pitchers of water. We knelt to wash each others’ feet; then sat to have our own feet washed by the next person in line.

It was the one day of the year in which faith made sense to me. Without fail, I would understand that theology is about life, that faith forms us to endure and shape a brutal world.

Feet washing is a practice in humility, a tradition in inversion. The first becomes last, the last becomes first. The leader becomes the servant because the hierarchies never mattered anyway. The practice reveals the character of Christian love.

Jack and I had planned to be with my family for Easter. We had planned to visit England and Scotland in March and fly back to LA through Ohio. Those plans feel like a dream I can’t remember all the details of. Having to practice Holy Thursday at home, however, reminds me of how drastically our lifestyles have changed.

Although I will miss the music, the incense, the fleeting sense of community, the gold thread lit by candlelight, we will kneel to wash each others’ feet, as a reminder of how to love each other well, as a reminder of how to serve the world well.

Holy Thursday services conclude in silence. Congregants are invited into another part of the church to sit in silence, prayer, and symbolic vigil with Christ. We will be doing that, too. Contemplating how God, suffering, pain, love, redemption, death, birth, sacrifice, loss, and hope are all wrapped up together, all the time.

Holy Week

In the Christian tradition, this is Holy Week. It is one of the most sacred times in the liturgical year. In the span of one week, we will grieve, we will fast, we will wait, we will rejoice. We know what is coming, and yet, this week will break our hearts and restore our hope in the same breath. This week, we will remember.

In my experience, you get out what you put into Holy Week. There have been many years in which I haven’t prayed very much at all or gone to any of the services. And there have been other years in which the rituals have occupied all my time, all the space within my heart. Transformation requires, above all, your willingness, your openness, your softness.

To me, it is like this: you can go your whole life without acknowledging the vastness of human suffering, or you can open yourself to it. You can go your whole life ignoring the profound mystery of human life, or you can choose to pay attention (wonder requires our attention, after all).

I struggled in divinity school with many unanswerable existential questions. I contemplated my own mortality seriously for the very first time. I longed for the religious conviction I witnessed in my peers. And I was pissed.

I said to Jack, my words dripping with exasperation, “Why is God so silent. God isn’t anywhere to be found in this awful world. It is falling apart.” And Jack, who used to be an atheist but now embraces spirituality, replied, “We have to make space for God in our lives.”

In truth, my faith is a fluid thing. It is sadness, exhaustion, hope, love, lament, connection, as much as it is trust. It dims and returns. It is bright and absent within every day. I remember, and I forget. I believe, and I doubt. I wander, and I return.

To my brother, the actual comedian in our family, I once said something about staring into the abyss. And he replied, “Sarah, the abyss?? That’s dark!” We both laughed. Humor helps take the edge of existential crises, for sure.

Whether or not we acknowledge it, the very fact of mortality, suffering, loss surround us. This world is vast and cruel. We confront the “abyss” in Holy Week. We lose the light. We strip the altar. And it is painful precisely because we do not know. Is it true? We wonder. We speculate. We feel the full weight of the emptiness – the possibility that life is only biology and that this is all there is. All of that – the descent – must happen first, before Easter Sunday.

This week, in the waiting and grieving, we will all be alone in our own homes, away from most of the people who carry us through our individual pain and who help us make sense of the impossible world we find ourselves in. We will be staring at screens, instead of washing strangers’ feet. We will be lighting candles alone. Our collective voice will appear thinner, more wiry, more like a meek call for help.

In the midst of a global pandemic, pervasive economic uncertainty, a looming presidential election, we are facing the fact of human finitude, loneliness, uncertainty, and injustice all at the same time and by ourselves.

This is my advice to you, this week, whether it is holy to you or not. Make space for the God of your understanding. Carve out the time for something new to come forth. New understanding, new love, new hope, new trust, new healing, new peace, new sustenance.

This is the anchor for my remembering this week: “See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Now it springs up. Now it begins.

Weekend Reading

Today, I am homesick. I rose at 5:00 am, feeling sadness and fear, feeling isolated and helpless. I will always have mornings like these, I know, but knowing does not lessen the intensity of them as they are happening.

It is still dark here in LA. With the window open, I hear the songs of birds echoing down our block. The house smells unfamiliar today, like a place I haven’t really lived in.

This year has not been an easy one. Within the span of ten months, Jack and I have contended with three moves, a house flood, fire evacuations, a gas leak, stolen mail, a broken car, a problem with carpet beetles (as if the world didn’t have enough problems, there are also nuisances like carpet beetles). Now we are quarantined in our home because of a global pandemic. And within the last month, one of the people closest to Jack in the entire world is battling terminal cancer, while it is dangerous to get on a plane and visit a terminally ill patient.

This year has felt like whiplash. And yet nothing has really moved forward. Underneath it all, I feel stuck. My heart is anxious and tired at once. It is carrying the knowledge that New York has less than six days of ventilators left, while our “president” is completely incompetent, more concerned with lashing out at journalists than preserving life, more concerned with his own reelection than informing the public. It is carrying the knowledge that we will be alone like this for most likely many months. It is carrying the knowledge that my partner is grieving, and I can’t do anything to fix grief.

I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss sharing meals with my brother every week, being closer to him was after all, one of the primary reasons we moved here. I miss feeling like things were possible, like maybe the tension of feeling stuck would maybe be relieved soon.

I am longing for home, for a world that makes sense, for something that feels known and familiar and safe. Instead, I find, this morning, a world that is still turned on its head, and today, unlike some other days, that world looks less like a world being made anew and more like a world falling apart.

Because now the sun is rising again in California. The sky is periwinkle. Though it doesn’t solve anything, it somehow feels like a miracle. Evening, then morning, then evening, then morning. The sun still rises, every day, on pandemics, on heartbreak, beckoning us into something new.

*

We’ve all received enough suggestions of what to read in the news. Between our podcasts and the New York Times and our local newspapers and social media and the myriad links being shared between loved ones about how to fashion a mask out of clothing, I think we’re saturated with those kinds of insight and information for now, as important as they are.

Instead, I offer you this poem – one a friend shared with me this week.

“Insha’Allah” by Danusha Lameris

I don’t know when it slipped into my speech
that soft word meaning, “if God wills it.”
Insha’Allah I will see you next summer.
The baby will come in spring, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this year we will have enough rain.

So many plans I’ve laid have unraveled
easily as braids beneath my mother’s quick fingers.

Every language must have a word for this. A word
our grandmothers uttered under their breath
as they pinned the whites, soaked in lemon,
hung them to dry in the sun, or peeled potatoes,
dropping the discarded skins into a bowl.

Our sons will return next month, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this war will end, soon. Insha’Allah
the rice will be enough to last through winter.

How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

Holy Rage

A few nights ago, while reading Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I reached the chapter in which she analyzes the most extreme rules for women, marriage, and sex in the Bible.

A woman could be forced to marry her rapist. A woman could be executed if she claimed to be raped within city limits, but no one heard her screaming. A woman could be one of many wives. A woman could be stoned to death for adultery. A woman could be killed if she was not a virgin on her wedding night. And more.

Not only were women required to be submissive to their fathers and their husbands, women were property. Women could be bought, sold, and abused.

I felt, at first, as though I was going to vomit. Then, I felt filled with rage. “Women are property?!?! ” I wanted to scream, “THIS is the text we consider the word of God!?!?”

I remembered why I abandoned religion altogether for many years. It was Rachel Held Evans, after all, who said, “I have come to regard with some suspicion those who claim the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven’t actually read it.”

People assume that I am pious because I went to divinity school. People assume I am more demure than I am. People assume I am a pushover because I am soft-spoken. The people who know me well, however, know that I am tougher than I look, that I have strong opinions I am not shy to share, that I am a debater at heart. So here’s my argument.

This complicated text, what we call the Bible, is a composite of teachings, laws, letters. It is not cohesive in its genre, nor its message about anything. Every book has been fashioned out of fragments, called codices. Theologians and historians have poured over these excepts for centuries to piece together scripture.

They were as selective in what they included as what they excluded. For instance, many scholars study a text from the same era as the gospels penned by Mary Magdalene or Mary, the mother of Christ. Is the “Gospel of Mary” included in the New Testament? Nope! Because it was written by a woman.

There are threads of Christianity which have vanished. No, scratch that, which have been erased. Eliminated and silenced by patriarchy.

In the gospel of Mary, one of the male apostles speculates that Jesus might actually prefer the company and leadership of women, asking, “Did he intend for us to listen to her?”

Instead, women’s oppression has been shaped by thousands of years of misogyny. Women are hysterical. Women are objects. Women’s bodies can be bought and sold. Women’s beauty remains a commodity. Women aren’t paid equally for the equal work they do. Women’s bodies are dangerous, they need to be regulated by white men. Women cannot decide on their own if they want to be pregnant or not. This is what drove me from the church.

By the time I was twelve years old, I had realized how unfair the Catholic Church’s approach to women’s bodies and female leadership was. I did not want to be a part of a system which viewed women as derivative of men, which viewed women as fundamentally and irrevocably subordinate to men.

I had a sense, then, of something I know now: there is absolutely no reason why men are more equipped to lead or teach or interpret or heal than women. There is simply no reason why God would choose to speak to and elect women to lead more than men. It makes more sense that women – the ones who have to contemplate what it would me to hold and grow life inside of their wombs from the time they are twelve – would be the ones equipped to manage the spiritual formation of communities.

Christianity is complicated in its origins and its translations. The way Christianity was used as a weapon of the empire, of slavery. How indigenous people and their faiths, their ways of life, their communal practices were called “demonic.” How fear-mongering was called evangelism. How faith was used to justify unfathomable violence. How the Bible was used to justify why white people were free citizens and black people were property.

All of this has made me skeptical about religion and its ability to see its own blind spots. It has made me skeptical of the idea that truth is only found in the shadows of white steeples. It has made me deeply skeptical of anything or anyone who says that there is only one way to salvation, that God only loves certain kinds of people and institutions and ways of being.

I could go on. I could write entire books about the ways in which narrowness is not compassionate. About how love matters a hell of a lot more than rules. About how Jesus wrote in the sand and walked around with all the people systems of power declared sub-human. About how rage is what has made earth look a little more like heaven.

And I could write an entire book about this: I believe in a God of both/and. A God of love who transcends all of our expectations about what love can do. A God of neither gender. A God who trusts women with wisdom. A God who cannot be put into a box, who doesn’t speak in black and white, who loves people more than rules, who does not consider people property, who seeks to understand and comfort, not condemn. More on that at some point.

I went to divinity school not for dogma or doctrine or even community. I went because for as long as I can remember, I have been gripped by thoughts of the human condition, by existentialism, by how we can create a more humane world together. The truest way I know how to speak of those things is through spiritual ideas, but not necessarily religious practice.

Recently, on social media, I have seen women of faith share this quote. “How to faithfully celebrate Easter this year. Only women on the zoom call. Call is scheduled before dawn. We speak of only impossible things that would topple the empire.”

My, my, how different the world would be, I think, if the women were in charge. Hold onto your rage, dear sister. My hunch is that your rage might be connected to sadness, to longing, and to love. If it is, then your rage is holy – something you can use to make the world new.

On Peace

I live near the Pacific Ocean now. It is a long drive, through canyons and mountains, but luckily, Jack and I have found pockets of time on weekends to put our feet in the cold, mud-like winter sand, to immerse ourselves in salty air, to watch clear, frigid water pour over dark rocks and large clumps of seaweed washed up on the shore.

I have lived in many beautiful places – the lushest part of Ohio, between two mountain ranges in Vermont, the English countryside, Manhattan, to name a few. It is one of the biggest blessings of my life to have been steeped in so much beauty. Now, I live where fires can rage, where the earth could shake at any moment, where the temperatures rise and drop in the desert climate. Honestly, it can contribute to my anxiety.

But looking at the ocean, I see before me an example of the way I need to be – in flow, shifting, and yet at peace. I pray for peace often. It is one of the simplest yet most important refrains I whisper to myself.

I say: I pray for peace within my self. Peace within this home. Peace within my family. And peace throughout the world.

I contemplate these words when I blow out candles. When I wake up in the morning. Late at night when things in beautiful, bright, bustling Los Angeles, finally, feel quieted. When I can find the edges of my own thoughts.

Keeping the peace and true peace are distinct from one another, of course. Peace that freezes things in place and silences people is not really peace – it is suppression. True peace is liberation – freedom that makes flourishing for all possible.

Peace within ourselves, our birthright.

Peace within our homes, where many varieties of beautiful things can grow.

Peace within our families, given and chosen, where unconditional love can be shared.

Peace throughout the world, so that compassion permeates everything.

Ordinary Tenderness

For the the last several nights, at 8 pm, our neighbors have opened their windows and clapped, cheered, and shouted “thank you!!!” for all the essential workers in our community in Los Angeles. Hearing disparate voices unify gave me chills.

We know none of our neighbors. Coming from New York City, where we only spoke to one other building resident once for a few minutes after she had a baby, we assumed, “People will be so much friendlier in California.” We live now in a four-plex, which in other words means that our one lot is divided into four dwellings. We have lived here for nearly four months, and we have only waved at one neighbor once through their car window as we walked by.

LA has mostly felt vast to us. While four weeks ago, that vastness felt like unbridled possibility. But now? That vastness has felt overwhelming, inhospitable, as we have tried to tend to the corners of our home, trying to make them feel comforting, welcoming, familiar.

But for a few moments, then, I felt a part of something. Awash in the beauty of humanity, I thought, “We will be okay.” Human beings are capable of grace, together.

Jean Vanier said, ““Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” Our lives are now grounded, for better or worse, by ordinary things. By computer work and laundry and cups of coffee.

This week, do little things with great love. Do ordinary things with tenderness. Somehow, they make the world a brighter place to be, a kinder place to grow and exist.

Weekend Reading

I had a draft with a list of links to articles I will be reading this weekend, but it deleted itself. So, in the spirit of going with the flow, I will simply share this with you: the best thing I have listened to throughout this pandemic this far.


May you find some peace this weekend. May you find the nourishment you need.

Lessons from Kitchenette Building

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of my favorite poets. Her work is trenchant, melding politics with poetics. Gwendolyn writes about race, racism, inequality, and cultural issues. Reading Gwendolyn’s lines, every time without fail, I get chills. She was a sage, a masterful poet, and a truly phenomenal woman. Her words shape my mind, my heart, and my political beliefs.

It matters what we pay attention to. Our attention is a precious resource. What we consume, what we read, shapes how we are able to engage with others, how we vote, how we love or fail to love others well. If we only read or watch the news, we’ll have one idea of what’s true about the world. More often than not, probably that it’s falling apart, or perhaps, that the apocalypse is coming. I mean maybe it is? I choose not to pay attention to those parts of the Bible and other sacred texts. As Geneen Roth said, “Well, it’s not here yet.”

What is truer about the world is that it is mysterious and paradoxical. It contains cruelty and compassion. It contains inequality and possibility. We make progress together in some ways and regress together in other ways, within one day. We carry within us the potential for immeasurable harm and immeasurable good.

To look upon the world’s paradoxes with clarity is wiser and more productive. Gwendolyn’s poetry is unflinching. Read her words for directives on how to see, how to breathe, how to be, how to act. Here is one of my favorites, about how dreams transcend bleak circumstances and how dreaming sustains the weary. And further, reminds us to see each other’s humanity.

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Unseen Order

“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

Faith is as much about seeing differently, as it is about living differently, for one leads naturally to the other. These are natural rivers: from contemplation to action, from clarity to compassion. But no matter physical or metaphysical realities, the way we see the world determines how we experience the world. What we notice informs who we become and the choices we make.

Mainstream media, everything from the news to commercials, offer little perspective about what is true, little perspective on what is happening in the world on any given day. Spirituality or faith or wisdom – whatever you call it – should help us look for the miracles. If we believe in, as William James calls it, “the unseen order of things,” then we should look for signs pf the sacred in the everyday.

This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read: “Earth is crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” We have Elizabeth Barrett Browning to thank for that.

The earth is cleaning itself. As we stay home, pollution and carbon levels are drastically dropping in cities all over the globe. We are losing a great deal, but we are also gaining something new. The earth is resting, too.

Instead of making gin or vodka, alcohol distilleries are making hand sanitizer. They are repurposing their production to make a substance which will save lives, planning to distribute their new products to healthcare professionals. Innovation is not lost in times of crisis, nor is compassion.

A couple who cancelled their wedding due to the outbreak got married on the street in their New York neighborhood. A friend officiated from an open window several stories above the ground. Love encircles us, even still.

Look for the miracles this week. And look for the order, that which remains. While we have no cures for the infection or for the grief that follows, we do have ways of healing ourselves and others in the midst of this at our fingertips, like hope and faith.

What the World Needs…

Despair is palpable these days. Hope is tempered by realism. My wish for you today is that you find, even if just for a few moments, something that fills you with joy.

Joy is a sort of remembering, a remembering of our birthright. I read this yesterday: “she made a sanctuary inside of her heart.” Sanctuaries are where the weary can rest, be safe, and find new ways of growing.

A friend re-shared this video from a few years ago. It helped my heart; I hope it helps yours, too.

Contemplation and Connection

I said to one of my dearest friends this weekend, “I feel like we are watching everything happen in slow motion, but we can’t do anything to control the outcome.” It is like a bad dream in which you can’t speak. It is like a tidal wave you can see rolling in. He responded, “Like collective paralysis.”

Together, we are anticipating real loss. Some are worried for their own health or the health of dear loved ones. Others are worried about the loss of their jobs, their companies, their way of life. This grief is certainly a real possibility; it is natural to fear it.

I often think: we fear because we love. This has always been true for me. In a harsh world, love is sacred, but also vulnerable because we can lose people. Because people we love can suffer. To be deeply entangled with one another without being able to control illness or natural disasters or violence is risky. And yet, the love we share with others is what sustains us. Connection is the most beautiful thing about the world; at our best, we can nurture each other through heartache, dread, illness, loss.

What helps us cope with the pain of being alive? The fear of loss?

I studied religion, in part, as a way of coping with and understanding life’s suffering. The atheist asks how things work, but the theologian asks what things mean. I figured the scholarly tradition which birthed poetry, history, and medicine might have the most to reveal about the human experience.

Indeed, religion, spirituality, and ethics are the stuff of humanity: love, birth, death and dying, sickness, mercy, justice, liberation, and community. Additionally, we studied suffering – a subject at the core of most religious epistemologies.

In the Buddhist tradition, this is a fundamental truth: life is suffering. We suffer, in part, because everything is temporal. “This, too, shall pass,” is sometimes comforting, but also existentially threatening. In the Christian tradition, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection reminds us that suffering is unavoidable, but life, rather than death, has the final word. Unfortunately, you cannot have new life without pain.

Last week, I shared the verse: “I will make a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” Every spiritual tradition has an answer for what to do with your suffering. Buddhists will tell you, for example, about the importance of detachment. Every kind of Christian will honestly probably give you a different answer. But here is what has worked for me.

Contemplation and connection are my streams in the desert. In order to clear the clouds around my heart, in my mind, I have to be silent and to be still in solitude. This morning, I woke up at 3:10 am and could not, though I tried for two hours, to fall back asleep. Instead of lying there and rehashing every mistake I’ve made for the last five years – as I’m known to do in the middle of the night – I crept downstairs and I meditated. In the middle of the guidance, Tara Brach said something like, “What would the wisdom of compassion reveal to you.” You have to be still, I thought. In the midst of all this uncertainty, you have to be still and know.

And then, because I am not a cloistered nun, I also need connection, emotional reciprocity. My husband, my mother, my father, my brother, my friends, my cat. Gratitude wells within.

In my experience, when I make time to attend to fear and anxiety, the fear itself is not all-encompassing. It is just there, alongside love, connection, gratitude. It is just part of my day, along with making toast, feeding my cat, writing, contemplating.

This strange time, in which both love and pain are saturated, offers us the wisdom to find what we need to bloom, if even just a little. Kathleen Norris writes, “The word crisis derives from the Greek for “a sifting” – to jostle, sift and sort things until only what was most vital would remain.”

May you find vitality today: the things which sustain you.

Weekend Reading

LA is officially on lockdown, so I will spend this weekend watching old movies, writing, and reading. Here are some suggestions, if you are looking reading and listening material.

How to serve your community during the COVID-19 outbreak

Laura Di Panfilo’s sermon, “I Have Something Hard but Important to Say to You,” in Earth & Altar

Brene Brown’s highly anticipated new podcast, “Unlocking Us

And on the book front, these are new additions to my quarantine reading list: Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Devotion by Dani Shapiro, Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, and Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans.

May you find some moments of peace and inspiration in the midst of all this.

Spring Forward

I grew up in Northeast Ohio, the lushest part of the state. When my East Coast friends arrived in my hometown for my wedding, they were stunned by the green rolling hills, the river running through the town, the New England architecture, the horse farms. It is a beautiful corner of the state, a forgotten gem.

My family and I stood out, being biracial and multicultural. My mother, born in LA and raised in New York. My dad, originally from Malaysia with Keralan roots. As a child, I felt safest in our home and yard, being with my family. At the time, I felt out of place. Now, I like the image of the four of us, transplanted there in the green landscape – in it but not of it.

In my early years, we lived in a rural-suburban community. To get to our house from the nearest town, we drove past countless dairy farms. We had sheriffs, not police officers. The closest intersection had a bar, a convenience store, a cemetery, and the township’s ‘museum.’ We only spent a few years there, out of the way, but those childhood memories are still vivid. Each is permeated by visceral impressions of the seasons.

Crisp fall air: a mix of drying leaves, woodsmoke, and apple cider. Icy snow crunching beneath my boots. The balmy summer heat and the cool freedom of pool water.

In springtime, though, I always felt a sense of anticipation. Soon, we knew, life would burst forth, turning bareness to fullness, turning everything brown, green, flooding the forests and streams with new life. As the temperatures inched higher, we felt freer, at home again in the world.

As I chopped onions last night, memories of the spring in Ohio washed over me. I remembered, playing in a patch of woods in front of our house. I loved being between those trees, finding daffodils, bluebells, and green onions, making houses out of sticks, logs, and leaves.

I felt so homesick, in that moment. I missed my family. Even though my brother lives eight minutes from our house in LA, we haven’t seen him this week. I felt homesick for a world that existed with a predictable thrum two weeks ago, a world that now feels perhaps permanently threatened.

Today is the first day of spring. In LA, the landscape looks the same as it did two weeks ago, as it did two months ago. Looking out our bedroom window at sunset, I stared at the row of shops one block from our house. They are closed now, but I sat there remembering the lunch my brother and I had there a few weeks ago with our mom. I sat there remembering how we walked on the sidewalk and how I’d showed her the new coffee shop I loved and how I’d taken her around our new home and she’d said, “Wow, Sarah! This is amazing!” And how much that meant to me.

My family is my home. They will always be the most important people to me. Their voices and presence will always be most important to me. It makes sense to feel sadness, heartbreak, and fear, even though spring – the time in the calendar year for new life – begins today.

Some days, we don’t have to anticipate anything. Some days, we just have to dwell in the present and call our moms.

Sending love to all.

Breakfast for Dinner

Last night, Jack and I had breakfast for dinner. Sometimes, you just need pancakes and bacon, no matter the time of day. We have held a lot of sadness this week, and for an hour, we savored the sweetness of maple syrup at 8 pm.

Afterward, the whole house smelled like butter.

This reminded me of how small, good things sustain us. Simple pleasures go a long way in helping us soften to the life in front of us. They keep us present.

Water Wins

I have heard it said: in a competition between water and rock, the water wins. It may take years, but the water shapes the rock, wearing it slowly down into sand.

In volatile periods, like the one we presently find ourselves, any sensitive soul might ask, “is it really wise to be soft?” Softening makes us more open, more compassionate, more loving, more attentive, but also? More sensitive, more vulnerable, more permeable.

Softness is like closeness. When we are soft, without so much armor, we are closer to the surface of ourselves. We can be reached, touched, shaped, more easily, by love, but also by pain.

I cannot count the number of times I have teared up in the last week. The stories of the impossible choices doctors have had to make between who receives intensive care and who does not. The stories of family members separated without knowing if their quarantined loved ones are infected. The stories of fights at the grocery stores. The stories of fear about not making ends meet and not feeding children, of economic decline, of delayed cancer surgeries. This world, I have thought. It is cruel and harsh and mysterious.

We are all homesick for something, these days, it seems.

But then, being close to the surface of myself, I have also cried taking in the following. The story of a man standing outside his wife’s window in quarantine with balloons and signs to celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary. The story of a group of friends who left a $2,500 tip on a $30 bill at an Ohio restaurant. The countless stories of people buying groceries for their elderly neighbors. And on.

By all accounts, this new normal will not abate for many months, if not over a year. But this is what I will be reminding myself: “Stay soft, Sarah.” What we do matters. How we are matters.

As Mother Teresa said, “We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Be like water. Have the patience to keep offering your loving kindness to the world, with the hope of healing it, shaping it, making it a safer, more compassionate, more humane place for all.

 

Better Conditions

This month, we have been reminded of our own fragility, that our existence is contingent upon other things. And in the midst of this collective realization, we lack certainty. How much will the virus spread? When will we get to see our parents or our children or our friends again? How bad will this get? How much will the economy suffer? Couple that with completely lack of faith in the leadership of this country, things can appear rightfully bleak. I mean, it’s a global pandemic.

We want to gather our people together and keep them under one roof, keep them where we can see them and care for them. But even this instinct, we are being told, should not be trusted. It breaks my heart, not knowing when I’ll see some of the people I love the most again, when we will be able to breathe deeper again. We wonder, when, life will be turned back right-side up. We pray. We hope.

I have been thinking about things which are contagious, like viruses. When things spread among us, we call them “viral” for a reason. Fear, panic, rumors spread like viruses. But kindness, too, is contagious. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is from Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Do you perceive it? Can you see it? Can you see the relief, the food, the light, the love, in front of you, springing forth?

My husband, one of the people I love the most in this world, received crushing news last night about someone he loves most in the world. The waves of grief are rolling in. We see them from the shore of where we stand now. And honestly, where we’re standing, alone in our home, is heartbreaking in its own way, too. That these two crises, these two tragedies, these two uncertainties are converging is unbearable. Unfair. Unfathomable.

Hafiz, the 14-century poet, wrote, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions, for your mother and my mother were friends.”Fear is evolutionary; it is protective, at least it starts out that way. It can quickly become destructive, like a flesh-eating bacteria consuming us from the inside. All the people I love and cherish, I want better rooms for them.

You know what else is protective? Joy. It sounds cheesy to say, looks trite to write, but somehow it’s the truest thing I can perceive now. It reminds us that more things are sustained than destroyed, at any given time, even in the middle of a global pandemic. There are still things to cherish, and animals to love, and people to love, and music to be listened to, and the day to receive.

I cannot solve my husband’s heartbreak. I cannot even heal it. I can only be with him in it. I can only cry with him. I can only hold him, so that he knows we will face whatever comes together. If I have learned anything in the past 24 hours, it is that life is precious.

Do something restorative today. Dance around your house. Read something beautiful. There are many different ways to give and receive love. There are many ways to open your heart and mind to grace, ways that turn the volume down on the fear.

Sending you all love.

* * *

Fear is the cheapest room in the house
I would like to see you living
in better conditions,
for your mother and my mother
were friends.

I know the Innkeeper
In this part of the universe.
Get some rest tonight,
Come to my verse tomorrow.
We’ll go speak to the Friend together.

I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Pray
somewhere in this world –
something good will happen. God wants to see
More love and playfulness in your eyes
For that is your greatest witness to Him.

Your soul and my soul
Once sat together in the Beloved’s womb…
Your heart and my heart
are very, very old
Friends.”

Hafiz

Notice

Prayer, I like to think, is another word for communication, but communication that is sacred, intentional, borne of truth and love. Prayer, then, can look like gratitude, questions, wonder, request, lament, and hope.

Sometimes, it can simply look like acknowledgement: I noticed. To really see people, so we know them and then love them. To really listen to others. To tend to life. We have to be paying attention, even when it hurts. It is sacred work. The beauty in refining attention to life is that it grants us, over time, a way of seeing differently. There is always light stitched within the darkness. Hope stitched within fear. Gratitude stitched within heartbreak. Knowing stitched within uncertainty. If we notice the beauty, we witness it. We honor it.

In Siena, Italy, this week, neighbors opened their windows and sang in harmony together. Their voices washed over me like holy water. As the author Glennon Doyle reminds us, being human is brutal, being human is beautiful – “brutiful” – all the time.

Humans create terrible things, humans create masterpieces. Humans succumb, humans overcome. Humans despair, and humans hope – often in the same breath. Noticing the light sustains us, as we hold the weight of being human together.