I went out to the front porch today, feeling so low. Worrying about the things that we’re all worrying about right now. Trying not to worry. Trying to focus on one breath after the next. Trying to feel my inner light. But still feeling darkness. Wanting to look into eyes, real eyes, of dear friends and family and neighbors, and also of people in India and Nigeria and all the faraway places who are worrying about exactly what I’m worrying about, and not just love and death—the usuals. But this stealth virus which has stopped the world. It was eerily quiet, the way Montana can be in winter, but not in springtime. And I went back inside, back to my bed, where I’ve been self-quarantining for almost a month.
My father always said, “People are the same everywhere.” I’ve made it one of my life’s central goals to see that this is true. I’ve said that you don’t have to look very far. It’s the guy helping you find fresh mint in the produce section. It’s the crossing guard and the way she looks at children as she’s holding up her sign. It’s the view through a window of someone looking through a window. I miss people. But I don’t want to have to turn on the news to see them. The images are too much. Not because it’s bloody gore like war as we’ve known it. But because there’s no visible enemy and so much pain and sickness and loss. It helps to look into an enemy’s eyes. To wonder how we are the same. To practice on those eyes– our love and our empathy, and yes our fear and anger. This one has no eyes.
We are all in our respective rooms, globally, wondering what comes next and if we have any power right now. I won’t list the myriad ways this virus is affecting our lives because it is too overwhelming and never have I felt how important one inhale, followed by one exhale, is…not for just sustenance, but for calm. I have never valued calm before. Not like this. I have valued creativity, and creativity values thought, and thought is dangerous right now because it goes too quickly into the future. And all the unknowns. Even writing this right now feels dangerous. And writing has never felt dangerous to me. The only writing that’s been coming out of me in these weeks has been very short phrases about very small things. Not ideas. Things. The holy mundane. I need to get back to journaling. I need to get back to that practice which I’ve lately abandoned for fear of my own thoughts.
It has been weeks of snow showers and rain showers. I’ve watched it through my bedroom window. I have been sleeping a lot, which isn’t always safe ground. Historically, my dreams are full of saving people from burning houses that I don’t even know but somehow I am responsible for them. All too often my dreams are full of total world upheaval with images that are so terrifying and exacting that I wake up in a cold sweat with my heart pounding, gasping for air. I don’t watch or read anything about the end of the world, as a rule. I know that my mind is too active and I don’t want to be scared or to put darkness into the world, even in my sleep. And yet it oozes into my dreams no matter how calm and settled I am before I shut my eyes. It’s been this way for years.
But lately, I have been dreaming of my deceased family members. We are walking in the radiant sunshine, everything bright green and sapphire blue and lit from within– and all of them so calm and joyful like nothing bad is happening in the world and nothing ever has and ever will. They are so totally free from fear, that I hardly recognize them. I come from people who worry. There is no worry. Their faces are soft and relaxed. Their bodies are easily taking step after step through sunny meadows and dappled forests. They say “Don’t worry. Everything is okay.” They say, “All of your plans don’t matter right now. There’s nothing to do right now but be still.”
I wake feeling so calm, breathing so easily and slowly. I’ve asked my friends if they have been having these dreams. It turns out that a lot of people are dreaming about their peaceful deceased loved ones right now. I guess it doesn’t surprise me. I figure, either they’re angels coming in to help us during this terrifying time. Or our subconscious doesn’t have room for nightmares, life being what it is. Carl Jung would know. All I know is that I need these dreams. I need my elders and their calm. They soothe my soul while I dream, and help me feel less isolated and worried when I wake. I open my eyes and I feel like it’s Christmas morning and everyone’s there and I am little and I am safe and the grown-ups aren’t going anywhere all day and everybody is going to be nice to each other. I get to sit in so many laps and no one’s going to make me take a nap or leave me to play alone so that they can do grown-up things. This day is like one big long hug.
But then consciousness takes over and all the habitual just-waking thoughts rush in: What day is it? Am I supposed to be somewhere? Am I late, am I prepared? And then I remember the calm from the dream and my loved-one’s gentle voices, “All of your plans don’t matter right now. There’s nothing to do right now but be still.” My mind has a fight in it: How do I make a living being still? But like my grandmother’s veiny, translucent, soft hand rests itself on mine, I have this overwhelming understanding that we must honor the feral fact that the world has stopped. And let the lessons come. We must learn these lessons.
The truth is, I’ve been wanting to stop for a long time. Just take some time to myself. To write. To be quiet. To be responsible for only me. But I’ve wracked my brain: How can I stop if the world keeps hammering away? Plus, that’s selfish anyway. The poet Rilke chooses these words to describe the practice of love in a relationship with oneself and others: hearkening and hammering. He means listening, noticing, allowing your senses to be open, and he means hard work on the self and hard work in the relationship. Maybe this is a time to create much space for hearkening. Because humanity can’t not hammer. We will hammer again. So lying in bed, I decide to let all of my thoughts of the future, all of my plans I’ve been hammering away at for years…suspend themselves in springtime sounds and senses. I decide that the hammering I do will be in what love I can give freely to help myself and others. I decide to let go of the future and to embrace this world event from my own small room in Montana. There is so much relief there that I catch myself smiling at the ceiling.
As with most of these days of snow and rain showers, it stops by late afternoon, and the sun comes out. I have been ignoring the sun’s call to come out and bask in it, instead trying to pick up the pieces, the shrapnel, from how this war has affected my life, as we are all doing right now. Trying to put the pieces back together into something that was or something new. Pivoting. Re-inventing. But my deceased loved ones are asking me to be still right now. For a time. Be still. Hearken.
So when the sun came out today, I went out to my porch and sat on the front stoop with a wool shawl wrapped around me up to my chin, and a thick blanket covering my legs and feet. And I closed my eyes and felt each breath, in and out, the sun on my face, warm and tingling, each breath, the gentle breeze, such fresh air. I sat there for a long time. Not sure how long, but long enough for the sun to move through trees and me to move to different places on my porch to stay in its glow. I felt still. And I felt happy. Moving with the sun, breath by breath.
Life reduced itself to one small gift for the senses after the next, but not too fast. Just in perfect time, by a perfect slow metronome.
The musky smell of my neighbors’ sheep riding the breeze through the woods.
A raven just overhead—the heft of the air in its glistening underwings.
A chickadee singing its spring my tree in a river birch, standing bastion after wintering over when most other songbirds leave.
But this…this…this was what I’ve missed. And I wouldn’t have heard it, felt it, looked into the eyes of it, if I hadn’t gone outside and sat down for a while in the sun.
I heard someone pounding a nail. It came across the valley and hit up against the ridge behind my house, and showered down on me in echo.
Someone is building something.
Someone has plans that they haven’t abandoned.
Or maybe they had a dream that they’d put away for a time. And now they’re dreaming it alive.
Someone is creating something.
Someone believes in the future.
So I came in. And I wrote this because I want you to hear the echo of that one hammer, on that one nail.
“All of your plans don’t matter right now. There’s nothing to do right now but be still.”
I’m going to add two more words, “And help.”
In this time of hearkening, and a different kind of hammering—maybe not at the rate we were before, but one nail by one nail…I feel that it is important to hearken for what we can give in the most simple way, from our most pure heart and skillset, to help others. I know that writing is a deeply powerful tool. I know how to use it in my life as a practice, a prayer, a way of life, and sometimes a way to life. I have said for years, “Writing should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.” We need to be writing, whether we are writers or not. We all have this tool. We know how to put our thoughts into words on a page. All we need is a pen, some paper, and an open heart. And our worry and our wonder. The hammer: the pen. The nail: the page. The heart: the listening, noticing, allowing, and yes, dreaming.
So for the next four Fridays at 4:00 pm, MST, and maybe beyond, I’m going to host a one hour FREE guided journal-writing session called So Now What Writing. I will continue leading Haven Writing Retreats, and The So Now What Workshops, and will be launching an extensive online writing course later this spring or when it feels right in light of our world upheaval. But for now, I want to give something to you at no cost, because I want this to be available to all who need it. Bring your kids. Bring your partners. Bring your elders. Bring you! We’ll sit “together” in my home in Montana and hearken and hammer together using the written word. We’ll focus on what we want to shed from the past. What we want to embrace right now. And what we want to create going forward. I’ll give you inspiring prompts and time to write, time to share (optional), and I’ll give you a practice that you can do on your own to help you get through this time.
We need this. I need this. Again, “Writing should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.” Let’s be well together.
Here’s the info for how to join me:
Fridays, 4:00-5:00 MST
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 983 992 436