As I watch the Pendleton’s peonies I just bought rush from tight little balls to full-throttle fireworks of blossoms, I keep thinking of three impossible things: the massive tornado that tunneled through our area last May 28th, my eye cancer diagnosis right before the tornado, and the pandemic that ups the ante on anxiety and the longing to live . In short, it’s been a helluva year. In long form, there’s a lot to say about how all three events can grow into greater resilience, courage, community, and imagination in a hurry.
When I went to the Pendleton’s farm last Memorial Day, I was their last customer of the day. I bought some asparagus (which they’re deservedly famous for) and plants for the vegetable garden, but mostly peonies. Poet Mary Oliver describes this explosion of a flower as unabashedly mortal with “their lush trembling,/ their eagerness/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever?” I was reeling from my diagnosis through a maze of scans and tests toward what would be very painful surgery to insert radiative pellets in my eye, then remove them, and I knew the bold and brave peony was what I needed on my night table.
I spoke with John and Karen Pendleton that afternoon about the times they had to rebuild (such as when a microburst wiped out their farm) and the long hours and slim margins of the farming life. We also covered the care and feeding of the peonies, heavy balls on the ends of long sticks Karen fetched from the refrigerator for me to take home, plop in a vase, and voila! Magic happens. But only because the Pendletons, like so many local farmers, stick it out and put in the time.
The next day, the afternoon air was so weighted in humidity and danger that it was hard to think straight or breathe freely. Then the sirens started in earnest and didn’t stop for over an hour. I ran up and down the stairs to the basement many times, urging Ken to come join me in a protective underground space while he insisted he could stay outside a little longer watching the huge wall of rain approach. The only problem was that this wall held a rain-wrapped tornado (or more accurately, a bevy of tornadoes snaking together and apart), making it impossible to see what funnels of destruction were heading our way. Our son on the phone, tracking Kansas radar from his Wisconsin apartment, assured us whatever was coming was coming straight for us.
The last time we experienced this was shortly after I completed chemo 17 years earlier to poison-cleanse all the breast cancer out of me. I remember, when Ken asked what I wanted to save, just shrugging and suggesting the animals, kids, and photo albums. That tornado lifted back up and didn’t touch us. This time I was angry, yelling at the sky, “Really?” along with a bunch of curse words.
The tornado just missed us, downing and twisting trees a tenth of a mile north. But it grew larger and stronger as it drove northeast, overtaking the Pendleton Farm. While they were safe in their basement, the home and farm they climbed upstairs to was devastated, and they were faced with the decision of whether and how to rebuild, not to mention a massive mess. People came out of the woodwork for them and for our other neighbors who lost roofs, windows, whole houses, and certainly a sense of safety in the world.
Since then, I’ve finished my cancer treatment, and although I’m mostly blind in what I call my magic eye, I’m okay….for now. But that’s how it always is with life and certainly how it is with the pandemic for many of us. But oh, so many losses for so many this year, the kind you can’t rebuild or just use your other eye to mitigate. There’s also the overwhelming economic and economic security losses (how high can you count?), the fear and dread of how to stay safe in this long interim between pandemic and remedy or vaccine, and so much we took for granted no longer part and parcel of routine life.
But there’s also these peonies, this year’s bouquet I bought from the Pendletons now that they’re rebuilt and rebuilding. There’s this world full of tight communities coming together to help and support their members. There’s this human tendency to start over, exhausted and heartbroken, and make something good or good enough out of brokenness.
“Do you love this world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “Peonies.” Yes, I do, so much, especially now when the tender beauty and intoxicating scent of a flower is surprisingly strong enough to hold me, even with the possibilities of wild weather in this body and across this land and nation. I wonder what next year’s peonies will tell us.
The irises are falling all over themselves with the weight of their beauty. It’s banner year where they’ve gone beyond simply showing off to flinging their gorgeousness at us with IMAX screen intensity. For the last 15 years, I’ve cut and bundled them carefully in a cacophony of vases in a large box. Then I placed the box carefully between the driver’s and passenger’s seat in my car, Kelley Hunt on one side, me on the other, calling out, “Have iris, will travel!” as our motto as we headed to Brave Voice.
This year of cancellations, postponements, mask-making, and stay-at-home directives means we’re not going deep into the Flint Hills to welcome people from across the country to this 6-day retreat of writing, singing, art-making, prairie-wandering, and magic-manifestation. I woke up this morning distinctly sad about this. While I’m counting the weeks until our rescheduled Brave Voice for Sept. 20-25, I’m missing this deep spring immersion into community, imagination, and prairie. At the same time, I realize many of us are missing events as well as people, places, ordering some extra hummus at a restaurant, or casually walking into a friend’s house and plopping down on her couch.
But the irises are blasting headlines across my heart about this particular event not happening because the iris is surely the Brave Voice floral mascot (we also have the cougar and pineapple, but those are other stories). Every year, we place overflowing bouquet of iris in the center of our circle where we gather to write about a time we experienced a miracle or sing in a 3-part-round with what could easily be 7-part-harmony “Breathe in…..Breathe out…”. We bring armloads of irises with us to place in the cabins and on tables, most from my yard, which increased in its iris population as I kept planting more each fall so for Brave Voice each spring. The camp often has its own herds of iris blooming, and everywhere, there’s the scent and promise of this resilient flower.
Irises look so delicate with their almost transparent-thin petals and complex bends and curves, but they’re powerfully strong. Put a bunch of iris in a vase, and with enough water and care, they can easily last a week or more. Plant an iris bulb, and it will reproduce itself underground, burrowing into the dirt to gather all the nutrients it needs to send up sturdy shoots while multiplying over time. Even when the weight of their tops makes them fall over, they keep opening their buds. They can survive horrid winters and mind-melting summers. They can find a way around stones or, as in our front yard, wayward kayaks blocking their usual trajectory. Even in a time of drought or harsh conditions, they still come calling, blossom and all. In short (although they’re tall), they’re brave.
I also think of irises as vibrantly musical. Synesthesia is when one sense takes on the qualities of another, and irises to me are synesthesic creatures. Their scents and shape sing to me, and not in a whisper kind of way, but full-throated, putting it all out there. If we could translate them into sound, I think they would belt out tunes like the love child of Laura Nyro and Josh Groban. Their brave voice is velvety and resonant, occasionally lilting through high notes while also encompassing us in a raw warmth that says home is so much more mysterious and alive than you can imagine.
So here we humans are, out in the wind and the rain of a pandemic, trying to stay upright and rooted enough. But we’re as beautiful in our vulnerability and propensity for music and magic as the iris. Let us keep remember, even celebrate, our brave voices at this time. Let nothing impede the courage that comes from digging down deep, soaring high, and opening our hearts completely.
A year ago today, pacing an empty parking lot, I cried so hard on the phone with my friend Kelley that it was hard to get the words out: “I have cancer. In my eye. I’m so scared.” Ken was racing back from Topeka to meet me after my two hours of scans at the ophthalmologist’s office. My right’s eye blurry eyesight wasn’t a minor glitch in this body’s solar system, but a large asteroid crashing through whatever semblance I had of calm, whatever thoughts I had of being safe.
Thus began my personal pandemic with its the customary WTF? phone calls, bouts of fear storms, and a lot of clearing of the calendar. The next day was far worse when my new ocular oncologist said it could be a melanoma but it was more likely a brain tumor. “Let’s hope for the melanoma then,” I said. She shook her head, “They’re both bad!” The interim between that moment — a few hours of more scans in between pacing the waiting room with Ken and my brother Ravi — and the oncologist confirming it was a treatable melanoma was terrifying. But when we got home that day, the sky took on a new sheen: a rainbow to the east, and it was enough.
I thought my life would be briefly interrupted and not changed all that much, but just like my breast cancer road trip 17 years earlier, it took many months and knocked over many plans, notions, and habits. I would have many more scans and tests, a radiation implant in my eye that would require two major surgeries, and a whole lot of time enveloped in hurt and anxiety. That summer, I hardly left the house except to visit a doctor or my therapist, donning two pairs of sunglasses and often a towel over my head because light hurt (obviously, I wasn’t driving). Eventually, I healed, and although my right eye is far past legally blind and I still can’t open it completely, I’m okay. The changes put in motion are still unfolding, and that’s okay too.
While the word “pandemic” refers to a global epidemic, for me and for any of us who go through such mortality-laced journeys, it sure felt like my whole world was in crisis. To ensure healing and safety, I was in home lock-down much of the time. The economy of Caryn World also tripped into the ground and stayed there for a while with lost income and, even with decent health insurance, thousands of dollars of medical bills. But lucky for me — and lucky for all of us right now — I could choose to surrender to what I needed to do based on the best science and medicine available.
Yes, a global pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes, but most if not all of us have lived through the world as we know it dissolving under our feet in a flash. Having the rug pulled out due to serious illness, death, heartbreak, and all manner of other very human challenges is part and parcel of being alive. We think we’re living one story, and poof! Suddenly, it’s a good thing to have erasable gel pens for your calendar, some savings, and the ability to make good things out of our friend, the potato.
This comes home to me lately on Tuesday nights when, through Turning Point, I facilitate writing workshops for people living with serious illness. I started doing these workshops 18 years ago, fresh out of cancer #1, although now we’re meeting through Zoom instead of in-person. A little like a warped futuristic vision of the Brady Bunch, 18-21 of us write and listen our way to greater meaning, strength, and mutual understanding. Some are finding new ways to bake chocolate tortes, some are summoning the strength to get out of bed while irrevocably heartbroken by the loss of a spouse, and some are dealing with chronic pain or what bad news might be just around the next blood test or MRI.
We’re well-accustomed to the land of the personal pandemic, and a good many were unfazed by stay-at-home orders, which we’ve had to enact before for a few months or as a way of life after losing some of our immune system’s robustness or our body’s mobility. We know what it is to eat resilience for breakfast, aiming ourselves toward outlooks and activities that tilt open the door to some calm, some comfort, some joy. “Yeah, I don’t go to the store anyway,” a woman with a neurological disease told us. “I’ve hardly left my house for years,” someone else chimed in. Over years of living with illness and/or being a caregiver for a patient, many have learned how to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” to quote Boyd K. Packer. No wonder we find great intrigue in the antics of squirrels or birds, growing flowers, baking bread, or other everyday resilience practices, readily available as we cross over the threshold of one room to another.
But it’s not just what people do in a personal pandemic: it’s very much how they frame the narrative, including the low dips, of their experience. Someone I’ll call Lulu has minimal energy because of her aggressive cancer, so she’s determined to make the best use of her time and energy left, using it to talk lovingly with her family and make special surprise boxes for her husband and daughter to find after she’s gone. “Bill” goes to his porch to breathe through the pain, focusing his attention on cardinals fighting it up in aerial dances. Lou (who has given me permission to use her name) wrote a book about her Vietnam nursing experience, where she was exposed to the Agent Orange that planted Parkinson’s in her; now she regularly speaks to veteran groups and community gatherings in between gardening and grandmothering, even if she’s a little off-balance some days.
This day, a year after my last personal pandemic showed up, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, seven weeks in lockdown, but I take note of how many doors are still open, like one leading outside, where I plant some lilies or the door to my car which I can drive well enough with one eye to meet friends for socially-distant walks. As time passes, I even cross the threshold of not seeing my eye adventure as a loss because I keep learning how in any pandemic — personal or global — we have the ability to grow magic eyes that let us see our small worlds or the world-at-large in new ways.
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Yes, I hear you knocking on my door at all hours of the day and especially night, calling me out of my sleep because you’re not getting enough of your own. You want to know what will be, how it will happen, and especially when. Fair enough questions given that you’re human, and humans can’t help but to desperately want some ground under their dainty or lumbering feet, a sense of control so they can puzzle together some steadying vision of what they believe will happen. You’re planners, all of you to some extent, and you like to think your plans matter.
So here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how you leap from here to there or how high you’ll have to jump to make that leap because this isn’t a situation of you being able to soar high enough on your own volition to aim yourself toward a pre-designated target. Besides, it usually doesn’t work out well for the future to be too chatty about itself with the present. But what I can tell you is this:
- Be where you need to be. For most of you, that means home or whatever approximates home for now. Some of you go out to work in hospitals, grocery stores or gas stations, and that’s, as they say, essential work, but if you have an option to work, worship, meet and otherwise gather from home, believe me (and I should know) that you’ll be glad you took that option in the long run.
- Many of you — I’m eyeing you, America — really don’t like being told what to do and not do, where to go and not go. Please, for the sake of my time, get over yourself. No one is ripping away your liberty or free will, just tilting you toward using it to discover greater freedom and possibility at home. You are completely free to clean out that drawer in the kitchen that holds everything from extra screws to old sunglasses. You can discipline yourself to create a new wall hanging out of scraps of fabric or a new garden bed. There’s plenty you have dominion over.
- At the same time, this is a pandemic, not an all-expenses-paid creative retreat. If can’t do more today than make some microwave popcorn and stare out your window at a pair of cardinals, that’s okay. You’re not going to regret the days that don’t register on your old scales of productivity. You will regret driving yourself crazy to win the pandemic self-improvement sweepstakes, so don’t even enter. Create what comes to you. Sleep enough now (believe me, there will be a lot of new work ahead when you get to my time). Take good care of your body and soul, and if you live with others, your housemates or pets too.
- Accept that you have many shifting behavioral and emotional strategies and phases to cycle through, and you don’t all do this the same way at the same time. Try not to judge your brother-in-law for practicing for a marathon while the only marathon in your life involves Netflix. If someone judges you, tell them to back the #$% off, but say it nicer — this isn’t a time to escalate tensions. One other thing: make your bed. That’s something you can do to put some semblance of order into your day from the get-go.
- Some of you are suffering tremendously. Maybe you’re sick with something that’s different or the same as Corvid-19. Maybe you’re terrified of dying or of losing someone. Maybe you’ve already lost a beloved, or you’re climbing out of a close brush with death. Many of you are losing income, and the unemployment checks haven’t started trickling in. Or you might be on the cusp of losing a job, health insurance, and other necessary supports. Some of you (maybe all at moments) are swallowed up in dread, despair, and anxiety for stretches. All I can tell you is that this is horrendous, I’m so sorry, and I wish I could do something for you back in what’s my past. But I can also tell you this: hang on, Sloopy, hang on. That’s because….
- This future — and I know I’m biased here — is very promising. Many of you are already opening your hearts wider than you have in some time, helping others with donations, prayers, plans and tools. You have incredible potential to change yourself, and with you the world, for the better by just learning to stay. Sit tight without trying to impose your will or ideas of what your life is supposed to be on yourself and others. The more you do this solo, the more you learn how to do this together, household by household, community by community.
- Also, listen to the real science (the more of us who do this, the better for the future). It will enhance your ability to be guided by reality in other aspects of your life too. At the same time, protect yourself from whatever news overwhelms you or sensationalizes reality. Take news fasts when needed or ask someone close to you to update you on anything vital you need to know about the real science and reality of where you are.
- This is the spring and beyond of being much more than doing. Listen to the birds. Pet the cat. Take notice of that shining pale blue that holds all the trees in such grace. Marvel at the lilac, and this year, you have the time to smell them and even get down on the ground to smell lily-of-the-valley. Listen to your favorite singer streaming an old song about when you first fell in love. Cry at the end of “Casablanca” and laugh at “Ferris Bueller.” Call your grieving friend. Zoom with your lonely mom. Text your unemployed niece back and forth about cool movies she likes. But also get in touch with yourself: who you are (whatever that means) without decking yourself out in the story you don each day about who you’re supposed to be.
- One other thing to remember: you can’t see the whole story until you get to the end of it. Yes, this pandemic absolutely has an ending, and most likely, you’re okay there and then, even if a little older, sadder, and wiser. When you get well past the arc of this story, you’ll see what the arc was, not just for our planet but for your own precious life. Especially, you’ll know heart-to-heart more about the preciousness of this gift, this life
Hey, kiddo, please also remember that I believe (and depend) on you.
With love always, the future
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Or Facebook Live. Or Youtube. Or any number of places to help us worship together while keeping physically apart and spiritually close. A church in Lawrence is doing by having people drive to their parking lot to watch a minister leading them while listening to the service on a radio station. The Kansas Zen Center leads meditation practice on Zoom. And if like me, you find the holy in the living earth, there’s plenty of opportunities for communion right now too with an explosion of blossoms to admire, gardens to plant, and trails to walk. The point is, we have options, people, so why is there any fuss whatsoever?
In the great state of Kansas, the state supreme court today will hear the case of Governor Laura Kelly suing a legislative committee that overturned her order that no more than 10 people meet in places of worship while we’re approaching the pandemic apex. A small committee decided the governor overstepped her authority in trying to keep Kansans safe on and beyond Easter Sunday. Petty politics aside, as Forrest Gump’s mother told him, “Stupid is what stupid does.”
Praying at home also protects those who protect us: the nurses, doctors, technicians, and others working so hard and putting their own lives at risk to take care of people with Covid-19. These people, who often can’t hug their spouses or children and have to tend the ill while wearing protective gear and putting in long hours, are put at far greater risk by people congregating in large groups where they’re much more likely to spread the virus widely. Listen to the wise words of my friend George Thompson, a doctor who is leading the call for us to worship safely.
I’ve been praying via Zoom with our Jewish congregation for over a month: attendance at our Friday evening Shabbat services is up, and these weekly services life us up. The first time we did this, close to 40 people (instead of the usual 10-15) showed up, families and singles lighting candles and showing off challah (if they made some) in their Brady Brunch-esque Zoom windows. A week ago, when our service ended, hardly anyone would leave the call, all of us staring at our screens with hunger to connect and love in our hearts.
Earlier this week, we held our first Zoom seder, Ken, Daniel and I set on the back deck instead of the laptop while Forest, who works at a grocery store and lives with 20 people, sat six feet behind. Within minutes, we had friends and family from Tucson, Winnipeg, Orlando, Brooklyn, and other locales taking turns telling our story of Exodus, singing prayers together, and during the meal, divided into break-out rooms where we could catch up in earnest. Two and half hours after we started, we ended the call with joy and renewal. Of course, it would have been more ideal to have been together in the flesh, but what we were living brought home the lessons of Passover in powerful ways.
As a Jew, I’m well-acquainted with the narrative of plagues from Passover and history of efforts to annihilate us (so goes the old joke that sums up every Jewish holiday, “they tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat”), and in all those stories — especially Passover — there’s the core refrain of stepping up and taking action to protect the community and survive as a people.
Action is key here: it’s not like Moses just shrugged and went back to his habitual patterns and old life after the Pharoah refused to free us. Instead, he and other brave leaders packed up and headed out of Egypt, crossing the parting Red Sea to wander the desert for 40 years. They didn’t know how long they would wander before finding some semblance of home, and they had to adapt, making new definitions of community and home along the way.
We’ll likely just have weeks or months to wander through Netflix offerings and pace in our backyards before we can resume meeting friends for dinner in restaurants, going back to school and work, and even meeting in person at synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and the like. But the thing is, that like the wandering Jews, we’ll have moments of making do, doing without, and praying fiercely for our loved ones and beloved communities.
Protecting the herd, ensuring the survival of our most vulnerable, requires us to put our faith in staying put and our butts on our couches. Just like with so many other aspects of our lives, we are called to pray in new ways as if our lives depend on it because they do.
The Night John Prine Died
The pink full moon rose over the pandemic
singing through the tree, “Hello in there. Hello.”
We listened, all children grown old, but always
looking for something to hold onto, even angels
of the old rivers of our heart’s journeys,
grown wilder in their holiness, forcing new channels
like the holy is prone to do, especially when everything
changes. What is there to do but stand here,
willing peaceful waters to calm us, sometime
in the future as if that’s where paradise lay?
But John Prine knew there’s a hole in the world.
We can just see it now while time changes us,
if we’re true, into souvenirs of this life,
talismans of something precious and lasting
beneath the tree of forgiveness the moon climbs.
Come on home, come on home, come on home.
Like many of us around the world, I adored and revered John Prine, one of the greatest of the great songwriters, musicians, singers, and mensches. WIth great gratitude to him, I used a word or short phrase from the following songs: “Hello in There,” “Paradise,” “Lake Marie,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Souvenirs,” and “Long Monday.”
Amazingly enough, we are arrived at the last day of March, a month that has lasted at least 1,283 days in fear, panic, and dread years. But here we are, and as April — what T.S. once called the cruelest month — approaches, we know we’re in for a far longer, harder, and more unimaginable month with the virus likely peaking over the coming weeks.
Walking — our new and only in-person social life of late — with our son Forest through East Lawrence the other day, I asked him what the word was for the world looking one way while it’s also a drastically different world at the same time. We were ambling past heartbreakingly beautiful manifestations of spring — magnolia trees loaded with pink boats of blossom, tender green just-leafing trees, and a gala of daffodils, hyacinths, and even some early scout redbuds showing off like the main attractions they are. Forest thought for a moment, then said the word I was looking for was dissonance, that anxious tension from two disharmonious elements.
The numbers of people with Covid-19 are rising exponentially, more and more people are dying, medical supplies are running out, and the map in the New York Times I check (with bated breath) every few days looks like the country has a bad case of chicken pox and rampant poison ivy all at once. At the same time, the birds are singing in overlapping and ever-shifting harmonies even if some of their song is about holding onto their territory and driving out invaders. The peach tree in our backyard blossoms in its usual aching beauty. Spring seems far more beautiful and far-reaching in its volume, and even the soft glow of the air, maybe because I’m paying more attention or, more than ever, this is the renewal I need each morning when I wake up, to paraphrase Rumi, scared and empty.
We’re in a time when there’s likely not enough anti-anxiety meds or slow meditative breaths to lift any aware person completely out of feeling some of the vast uncertainty, fear, and suffering happening throughout the world. There’s obviously only vague maps and best-guessed timelines ahead, although we humans cling to patterns and answers. Yet when I pass people on walks in the wetlands or through various neighborhoods, all us carefully keeping at least six feet apart, there’s a tenderness, even among strangers. “Hey, how are you doing?” people will call out, or they’ll just smile and send wishes to stay healthy.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability,” Brene Brown tells us. We are growing our courage to get out of bed, unsure what bad news will land today and what beloveds of ours (including ourselves) might be threatened, hurt, or just very afraid. We find our feet and begin walking through our days, our hearts open and trembling like the vulnerable and courageous creatures we are.
So it’s step by step — the living room to the kitchen, the front door to the backyard, the trail a few feet or miles away, and of course, wandering through what fear, foreboding, or other difficult emotions grip us while we make a meatloaf, pet the dog, call our mother or child or friend, to try to fall asleep. It’s movie by movie, dishwashing by dishwashing, laundry by laundry. But wherever we are in our internal landscape, we can always take the next baby step with courage, vulnerability, and tenderness.
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It only took a few seconds of looking at the NYTimes map of the pandemic Saturday night for me to start hyper-ventilating and crying. At that moment, I didn’t yet realize I needed perspective, big-picture, deep-time, and wide-angle views to not just calm myself at the moment, but forge a more informed path forward. After taking a Lorazepam, drinking some water, vowing to self-isolate from regular bouts of Coronavirus news, and breathing slowly, I called my friends Judy and Denise. Both poets with miles of life experience winding through great wisdom, they gave me the gift of such perspective.
“I think of us as part of the herd, and now we have to do what keeps the herd healthy,” Judy said. Although we’re socially distancing, we’re actually coming together to support our collective health and life, giving each other a wide berth to ensure our safety as we roam the sometimes narrow trails of our homes and yards. I think of a Washington Post article I saw last week about staying home and apart not primarily to protect ourselves (although of course that’s essential) but to protect others who might be far more vulnerable that we are to Corvid-19.
“Think of what our parents and grandparents went through with World War II and the 1918 flu pandemic, which started in Kansas” Denise reminded me. We talked about the very long arm of what we know of human history — all the wars, pandemics, and natural disasters that patchwork a large story of perseverance. “Humans are wired and evolved for resilience,” Denise added.
Since then, I’ve been pondering the histories of my ancestors — the pogroms and the Holocaust that killed many but not all, the wars that turned daily existence into insecurities of scarcity, danger, and loss — as well as the generational stories of others I know. What was it like for one of my German friends who was born in early 1945, just in time to be piled in a wagon with many household items, because her family’s home was now destroyed? How was it for my grandparents to live through WWII, even though they were safe in Brooklyn, not knowing if Hitler would take over the world or if their relatives back in Poland, Russia, and Romania would survive (they largely wouldn’t)? During the 1918 pandemic — one the most deadly pandemic in human history — was it so much like living in a war zone that many were enveloped in fight/flight mode for months?
Denise and Judy reminded me that most generations have to deal with something overwhelmingly threatening; this is ours. Yes, it has its distinctions just like any disaster, but there’s a lot in common with past threats. We don’t know when it will end, who it will sicken or kill, what our economy will look like, how the herd will change, and then there are dozens of ifs that can wake up a person at 5 a.m. We don’t have control over ending this quickly, although we can do our part to hasten that ending. We don’t know a thousand and one things about the time ahead or the time we’re in right now.
I don’t mean to minimize suffering, death, mourning, and terror around the world. At the same time, despite this age of collective anxiety and fear (surely bred into our bones from past generational traumas, and reinforced by viral wolves at real doors), we go on like so many other species still vital. Just like the herd of shy deer edging the woods where I live, the squirrel families racing across the roof, the crows landing in the field to find something tasty or shiny.
We have history on our side and the herd to tend, so tend it we will, extending care and affection (without touching), attention and intention toward those we love and those we don’t even know, guided by what’s imprinted in our DNA about the herd and history. I leave you with this call to courage and love from Valerie Kaur of The Revolutionary Love Project: “This pandemic will test who we are, as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self interest? Or will be double down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? I believe this is is a time to love without limit.”
Dear Me (and Dear Me!),
I know you’re crazy-scared about the coronavirus. How could anyone paying attention not be when the closings and cancellations fall like dominos. Just in the last day, many universities in your state cancelled in-person classes, events on your calendar vanished in a wisp of precaution, and your synagogue called off services. In an age when even a minyan (Jewish term for the minimum number of Jews to be present for formal worship) is a risk, it’s hard to turn away from the ticker tape parade across the frontal lobe that keeps blaring, “The world is ending!”
Actually, it’s just the world we know in the ways we expect it to be based on how it’s been rollicking along for a while. Your son was videoconferencing with his friend in China last night, who lives one province over from the virus epicenter, and they were laughing and catching up. A Facebook friend in Italy posts about the beyond-imagined new normal and how they’re hanging out at home, watching movies, making food, taking short walks, and worrying about loved ones with the virus.
Moreover, this moment — while certainly unique in most or all of our lifetimes — is another one of many ongoing overwhelming threats to human life and activity along with climate change, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and so much more. While we’re in an expansive rift, let us also mention the reality that we are all exceedingly mortal and can control only a fraction of what happens to us.
Telescoping in to what might be in your purview, it’s not a good time to think about your retirement investments, and yes, some of your gigs are called off, but please don’t go down this rabbit hole because you, along with a lot of people you know, are likely going to be fine and will have the resources you need. You have good health insurance, you live in a lovely home in the country with fields and woods to traverse, and you can afford to stock the pantry. You’re also abundantly outfitted with books, art supplies, sewing projects, movies, and animals. Oh, and you have the phone and internet, and already, you’ve been visiting deeply with lots of friends more even if the conversation is often punctuated with “I’m scared too.”
So many people, close around you and scattered around the world, do not have such a safety net. You can pray, send good wishes, and contribute money here and there, but consider what else you can do. Your son’s idea to contact neighbors and make connections so that, as needed, we can run errands for each other is a good one. It’s also important to contemplate little, quiet fundraising efforts for people who will lose most of their income. What else can you do? As for everything and especially this thing, more will be revealed in time.
So why, little trembling darling, are you still so anxious? Of course, telling yourself you need to be less freaked out right now so that your emotions don’t diminish your immune system isn’t going to get you anywhere either. Panicky urgency should not be given the keys to drive the bus right now. Instead, I want you to consider this:
- Right now, no one you know is sick and suffering with this virus, and while that’s likely to change, it would do you good to dwell in the present. Speaking of which….
- Right now, the pale blue-to-white sky is as soft as the warming air. The peas and carrots you planted in the garden on Sunday are germinating in that rich dirt after rain saturated everything. The fields are just on the verge of going from washed out tans and browns to scribbled-in exuberant green.
- Right now, you have a cat asleep near your feet and a dog asleep (although looking at your quizzically) by your side. They fear nothing.
- Right now, there are deer in the woods walking gingerly up the hill. There are happy rabbits regrouping with their buddies for the spring. Hibernating turtles stir underground. Early spring birds sing across the airwaves. Here we are in an unfurling world beyond the reach of headlines and soundbites.
- What we worry about happening usually bears no resemblance to what happens. If and when you or loved ones get sick, as a zen master pal of yours said today, you’ll be okay even if you can’t imagine what okay is or how it might play out. Or you’ll not be okay, and that’s okay too.
- Most of all, know that while you can’t do anything to stop a viral pandemic, you can do something about your airspace in the pandemic of fear. When you get scared, get off your bum, walk outside, and take a long, deep breath. Go hang some laundry and feel the wind lifting and dropping all around us. The world is infinitely larger than the scaredy cat meowing inside you. Take another breath. Then another.
“It’s like an animal daycare here,” said my friend Laurie, here to give Shay some doggy acupuncture today. She was right, and with two dogs and two cats, it’s also a canine and feline exercise and mindfulness training program, continually interrupting what I thought I was doing to point my attention toward a higher power. Never underestimate the call of the dogs to go outside. Add in the cats, whose needs must be met whenever they arise because: cats, and you can imagine how much practice I get sitting down only to stand up again.
It wasn’t always like this. For years, we had a constant balance of three animals, mostly two cats and a dog, and occasionally a cat and two dogs. But the addition of Moxie — a border collie with a bit of rat terrier in her — to our trio of Shay the dog, and Miyako and Sidney Iowa, the cats — the balance has shifted even more from the two-leggeds to the four-leggeds. Working at home means I’m in the thick of Animal Kingdom much of the time, and wherever I am in or around the house, they must be also. I could be in my favorite chair, laptop fully engaged, or at the kitchen table meeting with a client over Zoom, or on the front porch, talking on the phone with someone to plan an event, and I will be interrupted. Repeatedly. Just about everyone I work with has heard barking, meowing, and doors opening and closing often.
The animals must of course situate themselves around each other and me. If I pace as I talk on the phone, sometime I’m prone to do, the animals must pace too. If I head to the kitchen to make tea, there they are, herding me toward the stove (particularly the border collie, who can’t help herself). If I need to concentrate — especially in the middle of composing a sentence, revising a poem, or editing a manuscript — someone will leap, hiss, yelp, or knock over something loud just as I’m struggling the most to find the right word or punctuation.
At the same time, I really like being part of a pack. Besides never feeling alone, the mammals do the same thing for me as the meditation bell I downloaded onto my computer, which rings every hour: they stop me in my tracks. I more or less have to look up from the bottom of my rabbit hole to see what else the world holds: three crows balancing on a branch of Cottonwood Mel, the wind picking up and clouds filling in, and a big, lazy cat in the window sill who wants back in. I use the meditation bell to make myself pause for five minutes, breathe and meditate, and check in with how I’m feeling and navigating.
Mostly, I discover that whatever I thought was set in stone or anxiously urgent actually isn’t. Instead, there’s fur-covered faces staring intently in my direction, saying, wake up as well as get off your ass and feed us! I do because I don’t want to be in the doghouse with these animals or with my own habitual deadends. Besides, there’s a lot to learn from surrendering to a higher power even if it does take the form of muddy paw tracks all over the house.
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