I just finished Nina RIgg’s uncommonly beautiful and ultimately uplifting memoir of the last year of her life, The Bright Hour. Nina, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, weaves reflections on Emerson and Michel de Montaigne into this tale of family and cancer. Although living while dying might sound morbid, it isn’t. It’s a challenge we all face, ultimately, even if we’d rather ignore it. Nina dies the month after finishing her manuscript, leaving us with a note of sorrow and a great appreciation for life.
Nina had no interest in “bucket lists,” full of dramatic must-do-before-dying experiences. She preferred to spend her year immersed in her family, treasuring the commonplace, appreciating what she thought she’d miss most. She wrote:
“I want all of it–all the things to do with living–and I want them to keep feeling messy and confusing and even sometimes boring. The carpool line and the backpacks and light that fills the room in the building where I wait while the kids take piano lessons.”
Today, with COVID-19, “bucket-list” travel is not an option. We’re unlikely to jet to Paris, climb on Macchu Picchu, or walk the Great Wall of China.
Yet we can admire, like Nina, the messy and ordinary in our lives, finding within it magic, knowing how much we would miss it if our lives were to change.
I started a list: small, ordinary, no-cost things I adore in my life today. This was easy to make.
Small, ordinary (no-cost) things that I love and would miss
Dappled sunlight on a path.
Face-coating licks from bro-dogs Winston and Royce.
A bear hug from my husband, Steve.
A blueberry, fresh-picked from our patch.
The moon before dawn.
Purple gladiolas in bloom.
A simple piece of Chopin I can play on the piano.
The two Doug firs standing sentinel next door.
This list goes on and on.
But the more important list, perhaps, is the second I made:
Small, ordinary (no-cost) things that I don’t love but would also miss
Thatching ants, colossal composters, whose two-foot-high home (for a million ants?) covers a much-used walkway
The birds who have abandoned our protocol of share-zies at the raspberry bush and have decided “winner take all.”
A lawn full of false-dandelions, with bright yellow flowers and puffballs about to send their seeds everywhere into the garden.
Royce’s mistake as he steals my best pear off the counter then distributes its juicy remains on my favorite carpet.
The electric hammer my neighbor is using to build his barn.
My husband’s wheezie snore at night.
If I knew my life was limited, which of course it is, I would not take any of these for granted. The moment I thought I might lose them, I’d regret them all.
For these lists, I focused on small parts of life in front of me. In these days of global crisis, what’s right in front of me brings me the most comfort.
Appreciating the small in a time of COVID-19
With COVID, I move in a reduced orbit. Yet, my world is plenty big when I enlarge its scope by noticing the magic around me.
Two questions for you
You don’t have to meditate on dying, even though this is a powerful spiritual practice. Instead, try these two questions:
What are the small, ordinary things that you love?
What are the small, ordinary things that you don’t love but might dearly miss should your life be at risk?
Then, bask in appreciation for what is messy, common, and wonderful around you.
As part of my stretch-my-creativity-during-the-pandemic campaign, I’m taking an online course about voice called “Express the Music of Your Soul” from Chloë Goodchild, a teacher in England. She coaches students from around the globe on how they can access their “Naked” (authentic-soul) voices. I hoped the course might help me confront my I-can’t-sing-in-front-of-people phobia.
I love singing, and I make up songs which I belt out enthusiastically to my horses when I muck their paddock. They are quite a willing audience, especially when they know this means food is on the horizon. All it takes, though, is the sight of one person in the field nearby and my voice instantly retreats. If I’m chanting on a trail and I see another hiker approaching, my voice makes a quick dive for shelter into the pit of my stomach and doesn’t come out until all risk of being heard is gone. I consider this a problem, if not a pathology.
At first, that idea was disturbing because I never hear silence. I have a moderate case of tinnitus, which means that even in meditation, there is no silence. I call the ringing my personal, cosmic orchestra.
Turns out tinnitus isn’t a block to hearing silence. Neither is standing in a place that isn’t completely still. National Geographic reports that there are very few truly quiet places left on earth–the crater of the Haleakalā National Park in Maui being one of the quietest. Yet, we can all find silence when we listen to the silence that lies deep within.
I am learning to stop and find silence before and after I sing, chant, or warble a few notes. Anchored in silence, I’m discovering a welcoming space where I can soften and even escape the fierce voice of self-judgment that’s ready to offer commentaries: “Your voice wobbled.” “You didn’t hit that note.” “Your higher voice sounded strained.” “Your lower voice sounded like mud.”
Silence is a safe harbor where those nasty thoughts lose much of their bite.
Silence opens a judgment-free zone that becomes as important to the singing as the singing itself.
Drawing in silence
When I precede singing with a few moments of silence, and a couple of breaths, it’s easier to allow my voice to come forward and do whatever it does. It’s all an experiment, an opportunity to notice.
Re-reading Frederick Franck’s classic book on drawing, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. I was struck by how he always started his classes with silence and asked his students to remain in silence while sketching.
Silence opened the door to seeing.
The value of silence may not be a surprise to anyone who meditates, yet I had never thought about how foundational it is to creativity.
We don’t have to wait for our daily meditation or an occasional retreat to find silence when we can make room for it in our daily lives. I can find silence while standing in a grocery line (that is, when I return to the world of stores and lines).
When, with silence, I shift from my “How-am-I-doing?” fervor into more “What-am-I-noticing?” attention. I can drop some of the judgments that inhibit or impede creative life.
A creative’s best friend
I admit I’m still learning to develop the discipline of taking a pause, a moment of silence, before plunging ahead with my writing, a project, or playing the piano. Inspired to start, I jump in and try to build momentum at the keyboard. Yet too often, when I become tired or distracted, I lose that momentum. Taking an initial moment of silence is a way of setting a peaceful focus.
Sitting at the piano, the legacy of lessons-past, and my aversion to mistakes, still haunt me. Rather than playing through the chatter in my mind, I can Just Stop. It’s my practice session and not a concert, so who cares if I interrupt a piece mid-phrase in order to touch into silence for a moment before continuing?
If I no longer feel my spirit delighting in sounds or loving the music, I’ve lost touch with my creative core—time to pause and reconnect.
Chloë Goodman likes to ask, “Who is singing?” and “What is left in the silence after we sing?” She’s listening for the foundation from which the note comes, the sound before the voice finds it. She’s also listening for the resonance left after the voice has sounded, and we return to silence.
In a noisy world
With the din of current events banging on my ears, and self-judgment always nibbling at me from the inside, silence becomes an ally.
Silence is part of the pond we draw from when we create.
Am I still shy, singing or performing in front of others? Yep. Changing that pattern of timidity and self-consciousness may take time, but there’s no “have-to-get-to” to get to. My voice is what it is now. My job is to keep paying attention. The part of my soul that is filled by singing doesn’t care about results. It asks, “Were you present, alive, enjoying your right to be creative?”
Four ways to play with silence
Try dropping into silence at the start of a project, whether it be your work, music, or a piece of art.
Listen to what you can hear when you are in stillness, allowing yourself to listen deeper.
Find music in the ordinary: a kettle on the stove, a refrigerator making ice, a toilet flushing.
Feel the peace that comes to you when you sit, however briefly, in a moment of judgment-free observing.
Are there areas where a healthy dollop of silence could improve your practice or your life? Try dipping into silence as you move through your day, and I’d love to know what opens up for you.
First of all, it’s OK. Whatever you are feeling, or doing, it’s OK
Life today is not normal.
How can we hope for normalcy when planetary normalcy has been disrupted? It takes courage, daily, to stand tall and say to ourselves, “This is the new normal.”
Given the current global realities, together with our personal variations, it’s hard not to let an invisible wave of worry seep into us.
I’m finding it hard to let go of expectations of what I “should” be doing. I think I “should be” doing better.
It’s been difficult to write. I’ve been making false starts, often running out of steam in the back alleys of my mind. I have the time, so why is my output so low?
My writer friend Mindy and I both refer to our “fuzzy brains.”
My vision of the future and my hope condition how I see today, even as I want to “live more in the now.” Nothing is predictable.
I’m trying to invent routines and schedules that can support my new, stay-at-home life, but they don’t work as well as I’d like.
If only I could create a rhythm for my day and stop checking to see whether my email has changed in the last fifteen minutes. (I’m attempting to limit media…but news from friends?)
I repeat for you and for me: “Whatever you’re feeling, or doing, it’s OK,” and “It’s OK if you don’t feel OK.”
Spending time in your castle
Roger Harrison, a seasoned organizational consultant and wise friend, used to talk about the dynamics of change, offering the image of the castle and the battlefield. Sometimes, he said, we need to push ahead, taking risks on the battlefield of change. Yet other times, when we’re wearied from too much change, we need to return to the castle, cross the moat, and pull up the drawbridge for a while.
No wonder that these days I’m drawn to the most basic of tasks. Clean the closet. Pull the weeds. I don’t need excitement. I’m content to watch the world from a small slit window in the castle wall. There, my heart feels safe to connect with the peoples of the world from Mumbai to Mexico City. Even as I support my local community, I want to keep my personal borders open. The pandemic has brought the truth of globalness to us as never before. We experience the crises differently, but we’re in it together.
Betting on the good
I notice a few good things I’m experiencing:
As an introvert who needs time alone, I’m reminded by how much I also like being with people.
I’ve stopped taking for granted the idea of a simple cup of coffee with a friend.
I’m meditating more and spending more time in nature.
I’m more conscious of how I use toilet paper.
I’m learning to draw.
Seeing with new eyes
My beginning attempts at drawing may be “no big deal,” but for me, they’re life-changing. For 55 years, I’ve clung to the story that I can’t draw and therefore can’t “do” art. In third grade, my friends Toni Squitieri and Susan Hart were the real artists; they must have born drawing. It’s taken me years to finally test the idea that anyone can learn to draw. (If I can, anybody can!).
Staying at home, I’m discovering a world of online resources and am learning that it’s ok to copy, use measurement and rulers, and erase a lot. I’m amazed at how shading can transform a sketch. Who knew?
It’d be presumptuous to call these first sketches “art” but they are my expressions, my small steps on a path towards adding a bit more art and beauty into my life.
I’ve been surprised to discover how fun it is and how it’s opening my eyes to new ways to see the world. I contemplate shadows; I try to observe shapes; I wonder how I would ever sketch my dogs.
“I have lived through two world wars, survived, miraculously the horrors of this cruel century, and yet…my eye has been in love with the splendors of the world that surround us. My response to what I see has been to draw, and the more I have drawn the greater has become my delight in seeing and my wonder at the great gift of being able to see…”
Art in the ordinary
Even as we’re confined to our houses, we can add creativity and artfulness to ordinary life.
For you, that might take the form of cooking as you add a pinch of sweet cumin to a stew; cleaning the office, as you expose the wood on the surface of a desk; writing, as you think of how to send a note to a friend; playing, as you invent a game with your kids; or placing a single flower in a vase.
One drop of beauty, like my crude drawings, can transform how we see the world. And the world needs our beauty and artfulness, now more than ever.
In times that feel wobbly and uncertain, an ounce of beauty, a dash of creativity, or a dose of care add to the light we need to guide us into an unknown future.
On Sept. 19, 2019, the New York Times published a devastating statistic about declines in the bird population across North America, citing research quoted in Science Magazine. Since 1971, numbers had been reduced by almost 30%.
How can we deal with such an overwhelming statistic, knowing it’s just one of many similar coming at us every day?
Maybe we use the words of author Anne Lamott. In her book, Bird by Bird, she shares a story about her brother when he was ten. Having procrastinated for months on an assignment to write about birds, he panicked as he sat down to meet the next day’s deadline. Her father put an arm on his son’s shoulder and gave him this advice,
“‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
Thinking about the magnitude of loss we are facing is mind-numbing. Better to take it bird by bird, grounding ourselves in the particular before trying to fathom the more global.
Bird by bird
I’m thinking about birds after attending a fascinating lecture this weekend on Birds, Song and Poetry by Dr. Brian Reed. I’m not even a birder and I was entranced. Dr. Reed read and explored examples of poetry describing specific birds. Through the poems, I saw the birds, heard them, imagined their flight, and felt moved. I was drawn into their world. When he presented the above statistic at the end of his talk, the loss of bird populations was no longer an abstraction. It felt personal.
In the face of tragic news, however, I didn’t tank because art and poetry continued to carry me.
Delighting in the beauty and behavior of birds, I discovered, could be an antidote for despair. Birds are colorful, amusing, song-filled, and aerially acrobatic, even if often endangered.
Poems opened me to more curiosity and compassion, serving as a portal into an expanding sense of care.
My love for our dogs, (the turbo-charged, whirligigs named Winston and Royce), leads me to care about all dogs. My passion for dogs fuels my concern for all animals.
This love helps me counter the creep of environmental despair.
A process for surviving environmental gloom
Addressing environmental despair has become a topic for our times.
How can we bring more love and imagination to strengthen our capacity to deal with environmental loss without going down? This week, I’m experimenting with the following three-step program: Observe, Create, Care. (The order’s not too important; the steps reinforce each other.)
First, I pick an aspect of the environment that interests me. This week it’s Australia’s Superb Lyrebird.
Step 1: Observe with fascination.
Full of curiosity and more than a little wonder, I search online for everything I can learn about the Lyrebird. The male, large and fancy, has two stunning, arched tail feathers laced with silver strands in between.
A common bird in Australia, it has the uncommon ability to be an impersonator who can imitate the sounds of other birds and animals, as well as human-made ones like camera clicks and chain saws. David Attenborough calls the bird’s vocal skills, “the most elaborate, the most complex, and the most beautiful” in the animal kingdom.
Watch his incredible video.
Step two: Create something. Play. Make art.
As I became more and more interested in my new friend, it was time to do something with my body and imagination. Art was one option, and I could create a painting, poem, a letter, song, dance, or story. Or, I could take a walk while thinking about the bird, thus connecting my motion with my mind.
Art, for me, is challenging. As some of you may know, my ceremonial middle name is She-who-cannot-draw-and-stays-away-from-creating-art. Nevertheless, I decided to draw.
My goal wasn’t to do a “good drawing,” but to let the experience change me.
After copying the bird’s wings, beak, and wavy tail from a photograph, I saw it with new eyes.
We risk becoming jaded by lectures and statistics. The arts, including poetry, story, and other forms, give us a way to embody what we learn and carry the weight of painful subjects without shutting down our hearts.
Multi-talented artist and educator Dana Lynne Anderson understands the power of art to transform consciousness. She designed and offered, with others, a performance piece called Ancient Future to help audiences envision new ways to save the environment. The work debuted at a conference on Art, Consciousness and the Environment at Findhorn in Scotland. Using myth, music, dance, art, as well as audience participation, Ancient Future informed and uplifted, stimulated thinking, opened hearts, and created the possibility of new pathways for action. Dana’s work allowed people to envision new futures by touching their imaginations–through art. (Listen to Dana talk about it here.)
I’d like to see an environmental conference open with poems about birds. Or better yet, an invitation to participants to write poems about birds. The conference would be transformed!
Step three: Let your care fill your heart.
Delighted by drawing the Lyrebird, I feel stronger. Now, I care about a new creature. My affection warms my heart and balances the coldness I experience in learning the devastating statistics about bird loss. My caring won’t protect me from pain; environmental tragedies may hurt even more. My imagination and care can gird me and support my resilience.
The Lyrebird isn’t endangered yet, but fires have devastated thirty percent or more of the habitat it shares with the kookaburra and other birds and fauna. Caring about the bird makes the tragedy of the Australian fires more real for me, just as watching pictures of a polar bear on a melting ice block can provide an unforgettable image that captures the impact of global warming.
Offering poetry may not be the same as taking action in the streets and legislative halls. Yet the arts have a place in the puzzle of what to do next–if only to keep our imaginations and spirits from deadening.
Mary Oliver wrote:
What I Have Learned So Far
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside, looking into the shining world? Because, properly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kindness begins with the sown seed. Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
Let your caring, attention, artistry, and imagination help keep your flame alive.
That meant no heat and no hot water. We warmed the house by turning on our stove’s gas burners. My husband chivalrously carted buckets of hot water from the kitchen to the bathroom so that I could take a bath (sacred evening ritual) pioneer style.
After the furnace was repaired, I had several moments of reverence for the miracle of hot running water.
Last winter, we lost power during a winter storm (not unusual on our island). After a couple of days, the delight in dinner by candlelight and experiencing a computer-free existence faded, and I was tired of looking for clothes in a dark closet.
When the power came back on, I flipped on the closet light with amazement.
Years ago (many), while a college student, I traveled to Turkey on the cheap and encountered overflowing stand-up toilets in a hostel in Istanbul.
When I returned to the States, I had epiphanies of appreciation feeling the soft toilet paper in a clean bathroom.
Each of these times I felt, for a moment, the magic of the ordinary.
Sadly, in all cases, my reverence faded away with time, and I returned to taking much of life for granted.
How can we wake to the magic of ordinary life without enduring blackouts or filthy toilets?
The magic in ordinary life
I’ve read that what people miss most when they are forced to leave their homes or know they are dying is not the lost opportunity to visit Timbuktu or climb Kilimanjaro, but the simple stuff: Adam’s peanut butter on whole-wheat toast, the smell of fresh ground coffee every morning, the purple and yellow blooms on a winter pansy.
My friend Merna teaches immigrant and refugee teenagers to write poetry; the results are heart-rending. The kids describe what they miss from their homelands: onions cooking on the stove, tortillas on the grill, honking bicycles and jitneys, the morning smell of jasmine, a grandmother’s touch. Daily life. Ordinary stuff.
These days what I would sorely miss are my husband’s hugs, horse’s kisses, and movie night with the dogs, when we all crawl onto the bed to watch “The Queen” on Netflix. (The dogs are crazy for the Queen’s corgis.)
How can we wrest ourselves from the unconscious sense of entitlement that lets us take so much for granted?
If we could see how much is there for us on an ordinary day, we’d soak in abundance and delight in wonder.
Welcoming more enchantment
Enchantment invites the imagination to be a part of our everyday, grounded, worldly life. No need to leave science and common sense behind when we allow curiosity and surprise to accompany us through our days. (How many great scientists were enchanted by their fields and used imagination to interpret their data?)
Here are some ways to try:
Do without something for a while. You may be able to interrupt the trance of taking things for granted.
Stop and observe. Notice the world before you. If you were painting, what would you see? If you were conducting, what would you hear? If you had to leave, what would you miss?
Imagine that stones carry stories and trees, history. What might they tell you if you were willing to listen with curious ears?
Wander differently. You don’t need to visit another country. Take a spin around your backyard, neighborhood, or city, and deviate from your usual path. Walk backward for a bit. Close your eyes, and listen to sounds. Try navigating without sight. Vary your routine and see what you discover.
Indulge your senses. Eat your food super-sloowly and track the sensations that come with eating an everyday fruit, like an orange. Imagine what it was like for the first Northern European to take a bite. Using your imagination and all your senses, you may taste the hot sun and dusty paths where that orange was born.
Talk to the things that surround you. Not everyone wants to be Dr. Doolittle, but I regularly converse with my horses and say hello to my trees (especially Harriet, my copper beech). Do they understand? Don’t know–but it puts ME into more relationship with them.
Be grateful for the small stuff and the people around you. In amplifying my appreciation, I feel more connected to the world, and crack the door open for new enchantment to enter.
While we may think “enchantment” means spells, the real spell we’re under (or I am) is sleepwalking through life, taking the ordinary for granted, ignoring the opportunities for wonder that are right in front of us.
Brewing a batch of enchantment requires doses of gratitude, sensory awareness, being very present, wonder, and imagination.
We all have rhythm. It’s built into us through our heartbeats and the circadian (24 hour) rhythms that influence when we feel hungry, energetic, or sleepy.
As our biology influences our rhythms, so, too, does the way we work.
Our distant ancestors followed rhythms that were tied to light. Our parents may have worked “on the clock,” subjected to a rhythm established in industrial times.
We no longer follow the sun or work 9–5. With our increasingly flexible workdays, we have the option of working 24-7.
Such flexibility might seem like a good thing. If you’re a night owl, you might be more than happy to forego commuting before dawn for another dread breakfast meeting.
I can assure you that I wasn’t happy when a former client announced that he was scheduling my workshop for 7 am. (I like to write in the morning – but strictly in my pajamas.)
Lack of schedule: liberating or not?
Freedom from an imposed or arbitrary schedule can feel liberating, which is why vacation, retirement, or working for one’s self can feel great, at least for a while.
But, devoid of rhythms imposed by other-directed schedules, our days can lose their spines, and we’re left feeling like we’re spinning around.
At a minimum, those external demands, deadlines, and meetings keep us pulsing through our days.
Without them, where’s the incentive to get out of bed on a bad hair day?
Job or no job, many of us have gone a-rhythmic with our days.
I was initially delighted when the Internet offered me the freedom and flexibility to work when I wanted. Ride my horse at ten am? Yay! Work at 9 pm? No problem!
Until one day, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t tell, from my schedule, when I was “off work,” and when I was “on.”
My schedule had lost its boundaries. It was as if I was composing music by stuffing in more and more notes while forgetting to add rests. (Usually called cacophony.)
What I lost
As I survey our new world, I notice how many the rhythms that used to be part of life are endangered:
Eating regular family meals together. (Stats vary, but a 2003 study suggested that US families eat dinner together only three or fewer times a week, with 10 percent never eating dinner together at all.)
Going to bed and rising on a regular schedule. (Sleep doctors keep trying to convince their patients on this one.)
Observing a sabbath, rest day, or even intentional time off, consistently every week. (Read Marilyn Paul’s book with her convincing rationale for rest days. You could try a rest break if you’re not yet up to taking a full day.)
Taking vacations at all. (In one 2017 study, 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their paid vacation days.)
Stopping work at a given time, or establishing work-free zones. (Guilty as charged!)
Rhythm is about more than schedules
Our loss of rhythm isn’t just about our crazy schedules. It’s about listening to our bodies in a world that’s gone head-centric and body-negligent.
In some African cultures today, the beat of work lives like a pulse entering the body and then manifesting through music, song, and dance. It’s as if the rhythm lives in their bones–and in their souls. You can see it in this video.
Listening to the rhythms of life
Can we recapture that sense of everyday rhythms by listening more to life?
Watch how people walk and see if you can feel their beat. Listen to how a rooster crows on fixed intervals. Explore if that amorphous rush of traffic might contain hidden rhythms that give its noise a shape.
Maybe some of your everyday work, whether chopping onions, sweeping a broom, or pumping iron, might be more fun when you can feel its beat.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the erratic tap tap of my fingers on a keyboard gives me the rhythmic boost that I need.
Become your own composer
Once you start to listen, then you can compose. Has your life become bland as you march to a steady, but monotonous, four-four beat? Could you add more rhythmic variety?
If you’re always working at a high rhythmic intensity, could you deliberately insert some downtempo activities?
Have you structured the rhythm of your days to be so complicated that even a professional dancer might stumble? How about notching back, and introducing some time in an easy to follow two-two beat?
If no one but you is driving your schedule, why not introduce a few regular beats into your life to set a rhythm for your week?
Create routines, for your early morning, evening or mealtimes, that punctuate your day.
Set regular weekly meetings with friends and colleagues, or join a class.
Plan together-times with your family or partner you can count on.
Create deadlines that fit the rhythm you want to establish for yourself.
Publish a blog every Thursday–my secret formula!
Finding more flow
Rhythm comes from the Greek word that means “to flow.”
Let’s give it more attention, so we can become master composers of our days.