“In the bleak midwinter” could be my theme song these days. I’m tired. The weather is glum. I’ve had enough election news.
The phrase is the name of a favorite carol written by the English poet Christina Rossetti in the 1800s and set to music by Gustav Holst.
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow, In the bleak mid-winter Long ago.
This is the darkest time of the year in a year that has already been so dark. I’m ready for new light. I even put up our Christmas tree and lights on Thanksgiving day. (I’ve never done that before.) I bought LED lights so I wouldn’t feel so guilty leaving them on.
I need light.
As I look forward to Solstice beckoning in the return of the light and the lengthening, I realized, oddly enough, that I didn’t want to rush through the darkness, The darkness has its purposes, too.
Social activist Valarie Kaur said it most poetically, referring to our present situations as the darkness of the womb, not the darkness of the tomb.
I’ve given myself the job this week to feel what wants to grow inside me.
As much as I enjoy the lights my husband and I put up, what I need most of all is inner light. In the darkness, one small candle can illuminate a room. This time of year invites me to nurture my inner flame.
It’s not always easy to find my inner glow. Healthy practices like breathing, laughing, and singing can help.
I also want to take extra minutes for contemplation this week. I need to find my light.
Here’s a process I’m trying:
As I sit, breathing calmly, I picture a candle glowing in the darkness. I imagine its heat and light within me, expanding.
I feel the sources of light outside me: the sun, the stars, as well as the earth with its fiery chambers.
I connect with my love for that which is numinous, mysterious, and eternal.
I remember whom I love and what I love. My husband, my dogs, my copper beech tree, my friends, our slanted madrona tree, the books, my tea, people I admire, ancestors, and strangers who are struggling with Covid.
The list grows. I let my love expand.
I allow my gratitude to fuel my inner flame. As I do, my light quickens.
Then I sit and open myself to receive love from the world.
I imagine myself like a star, radiating and receiving love.
Finally, I pause, give thanks, and resume my outer life.
All around the world, people celebrate the return of the sun. In Norway, it’s called Yule; in China, Dongzhi; in Iran, Shab-e Yalda. The sun was critical to early agricultural societies–no wonder people wanted to pray for its return. But a winter festival is also a time to mark the passing of a year, a time for letting go, and a time for celebrating.
I need to celebrate Solstice to mark the passage of the seasons in a year that seems weirdly arrhythmic. (Sometimes I don’t know what month we’re in.) Solstice helps me remember that nature, the sun, and the planets continue to move on course, even when our human world seems whacko. This year, I will spend time contemplating prior to Solstice and then use the event to take a pause, turn off the lights, and appreciate both the dark and the light. Then I’ll turn them back on and look to the time ahead.
I might also release to the fire something from 2020 (the list is long), and pick something to welcome in 2021.
On the Solstice, the sun will start returning. In January, the election kafoodle will be over. But the need to nurture our inner flame will continue.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” ends:
What can I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him? Give my heart.
When I need to find my inner light, the one source I can always count on is my heart.
Now, time to turn on a few more holiday lights.
If you haven’t heard the carol, here’s a lovely version.
My husband and I ate alone for the first time in thirty-plus years. Of course, being the Martha Stewart look-alike that I am, I treated it like any other Thanksgiving. I meticulously cleaned the house, decorated with the requisite orange and brown figurines, cleaned and polished the silver, put out the crystal, set a beautiful table, arranged the flowers I had pre-ordered, and cooked a five-course meal.
Actually, I treated T-day as a day of rest and remembrance. I contemplated gratitude. My husband and I relaxed, ate cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie on our china, and delayed cooking the turkey until Saturday.
I focused on gratitude. I read an interview with psychologist Nathan Green talking about the pandemic and suggesting that sometimes loss rather than abundance can lead to gratitude. Contrary to what you might think, abundance (in the sense of having a lot) doesn’t guarantee that we notice or feel grateful. Loss, even the kind that stops us in our tracks with a gut-punch, can.
Green’s research makes sense. We take good health for granted when we’re abundantly healthy. But a chronic or temporary illness can make good health feel priceless. We become grateful for the health we have left as well as the health we hope will return.
Even when our capacities diminish, our appreciation for what remains can expand.
As much as Thanksgiving has been a favorite holiday that I love celebrating with family, I took our celebrations for granted. How I missed family this year! We couldn’t even include our grandson, a senior at Western Washington University. Given the spike in COVID cases, it seemed too risky.
I missed everyone. At the same time, I spent more time sending thoughts of love to all the members of my extended family. When my siblings and our families were able to Zoom, I was so grateful for the call, even though I’d been feeling Zoomed out.
What have we lost this year?
Just a few years back, I took civility and civic-mindedness for granted. Now, any sightings of those in public are precious.
I used to take our local businesses for granted. Now, I make it a point to support them and I pray for their survival.
I lost my mother two years ago. My gratitude for her (which, fortunately, I expressed to her) continues to grow.
Our Northwest rains make a short sun break spellbinding.
Keep your gratitude muscle in training.
Saving major gratitude-giving for Thanksgiving is like running a marathon without any pre-event training.
Gratitude is a muscle we can strengthen every day.
It’s a lose-or-use muscle, so best to keep it active through good times and bad, even in a year that’s been downright awful for so many.
Maybe in difficult times, we need even more gratitude.
The muscles in our bodies are designed to balance each other. For example, strong hamstrings balance strong quadriceps. This suggests that if the year has been rough (sorry if I’m pushing the metaphor), we can balance it by developing even more gratitude.
The major losses we have experienced or read about (Covid, fires, environmental, political, etc.) can inspire us to offer more blessings for the wonders in our lives.
We don’t need a big reason to feel grateful–noticing small items can fill our spirits as well.
Although I love the idea of keeping a gratitude journal, I haven’t managed to keep one consistently. Instead, I’m trying a new practice: doing a two-minute review of the day as I get ready to sleep, remembering everything for which I’m grateful.
My practice encourages me to notice tiny opportunities for gratitude throughout the day. A few minutes of blue sky. A redtail hawk atop a Doug Fir tree. My husband’s eye after his eye surgery. Pumpkin pie. Coconut Redi-whip. Aquamarine blue watercolor paint. A conversation with a friend. People I read about who are doing good for others.
Never judge an opportunity to be grateful as too small.
If I haven’t told you recently, I am so grateful to you for reading this newsletter-blog!
Starting the New Year gratefully
Let’s start 2021 with gratitude, and not just because 2020 is finally behind us! I’ll be grateful that we get to begin again.
We survived. We persevered. We get to invent the future.
Writing in the wake of the attacks of 9-11, he explored how people could regain their sense of inner safety. The book is exceedingly relevant to our chaotic times.
I never used to give safety much thought. When I studied Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, safety was listed above being able to eat and poop. Critical, but not very sexy. I preferred to learn about “Self-actualization” at the top of his pyramid.
I underrated safety. Now, I need to create it for myself instead of waiting for the world to change.
I’d like to think that we’ll be safer when the US has a new President or a COVID vaccine.
Although both events will be great, they won’t insure our feeling safe.
We don’t need to wait for the world outside of us to change. We can start to change our inner state to find the safety we need.
William Bloom made many great points. Here’s what I picked up on:
Don’t judge yourself for not feeling safe.
The science of epigenetics suggests that a genetic residue of ancestral trauma lives within many of us. Such trauma may trigger deep feelings about a situation that might seem non-threatening to others. Friends who are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors speak about how they carry primal feelings of being at risk. A good friend jokes that she’s always making sure she has food, even though she has never gone hungry. It’s as if a piece of her remembers, on a gut level, what happened to her Jewish ancestors almost ninety years ago.
Addressing deep-seated fears and trauma calls for kindness and compassion. It may take time to be able to release such fears.
Pay attention to our bodies.
Bloom repeatedly stresses how we need to find safety, not just in our heads, but in our bodies. Stress and fear can kick up a hormonal shit-storm within us. He suggests learning to fortify ourselves with feel-good endorphins, the ones that come from a good laugh or run, to help us rebalance our systems. If he were writing his book today, he would probably talk about the Polyvagal theory and techniques for helping people release trauma and balance their sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) with their para-sympathetic or calmer side.
If your head is spinning and life does not feel safe, deep breathing is good, followed by getting grounded in your body. Pay attention to what your body is feeling. Just noticing your body can help you calm. It’s difficult for your mind to spin out into the future when you focus on a question like “What is my arm feeling right now?”
Pay attention to real dangers. Learn about COVID, social injustices, and environmental deterioration. Take appropriate actions and precautions. Survey the horizon, not from a sense of fright, but from an interest in being prepared. Wear the dang mask.
Identify which fears are yours.
When we’re swimming in a socio-political soup of anxiety, it’s hard to know which fears are ours and which belong to the collective. (Often, it’s a mix). We start out with a few worries (ours), but after listening to fear echoing through the media, our little spark of fear can morph into a bonfire.
Let’s focus on the fears that are ours, without getting burned by the flames of other people’s fears.
We affect each other with our energies. If I am around a really angry person, I often end up feeling agitated, ill-at-ease, and angry myself, even though I felt fine earlier. Vibes rub off on each other.
Support the kind of energy you want to be surrounded with.
This is another reason, for building up one’s feel-good resources. When I’m projecting calm and happiness, I’m less likely to pick up other people’s anger and hate.
This may mean avoiding situations where you know you can’t stay grounded in yourself. You may need to walk away, kindly, from a political conversation with a favorite relative or turn off the radio when a commentary comes on. Your good energy is precious and you want to build and maintain it, rather than succumb to others’ fears.
Connect and do something good for others.
Feeling connected to yourself and others is a key to feeling safe. Helping another can calm our fears.
Admittedly, being physically connected is harder these days. Yet, there are many ways to connect and give.
I woke up early on Earth Day to the song of a white crown sparrow. It seemed fitting that to honor something as big as Earth Day, I needed to start small.
Listening to birdsong is like stepping into a land of wonder, a foreign world that I never really heard before because I never really listened. That, or the fact that the regular noise of airplanes flying overhead obscured more tender songs. (Fewer flights and less noise being one of the benefits of the pandemic.)
How generous nature is to provides such treats. Birds are almost everywhere and it takes only our attention to enjoy their trills, tweets, chirps, and chatter.
I’ve never been a birder nor could understand why anyone would wake up pre-dawn on a cold Northwest morning to stand, shiver, and watch birds. I prefer hot tea, morning meditation, and comfort. Then again, the world is changing and I am, too.
In these days of a BIG pandemic, I need the solace of the small. One bird, at one moment, became soul-food for me.
A new relationship
When I first learned history, many moons ago, I read stories of men (sic) as master-commanders, who built kingdoms and made “progress” by dominating nature.
I’m still occasionally tempted to believe that I’m the center of my own universe–or at least, with my husband, the center of our property.
This morning’s sparrow, however, didn’t get the message. He lives in his universe of song, hopping along the ground looking for seeds, insects, and spiders.
Birds are not deferent to our starring roles as masters. I doubt they spend much of their time talking about us.
That holds true for other inhabitants of our property, including the squirrels, worms, voles, chipmunks, tree frogs, and occasional raccoons, each holding private exchanges that don’t have anything to do with us humanoids.
It feels humbling and important to know how much of nature goes on without us, hurt by our actions, but never deferent.
Covid-19 is proving that.
During these stay-at-home days, I have no need to travel. I can sit and discover a world in a bird’s song. Even a little snail in a terrarium can open our hearts to nature. (Read Tova Bailey’s exquisite The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.)
Hearing the sparrow reminds me of when, at 17, I left the United States for the first time. Spending the summer in Brussels, my lens on life shattered when I looked back at my country and saw that it was part of the world, not the center of the world.
Will Covid-19 shake us so badly that we’ll look at our relationship to the world around us in new ways? Partnerships would be a good a place to start, between countries, among peoples, and between humans and the many aspects of nature.
When we let go of master-commander or center-of-the-universe roles, we observe our interconnected places within a larger system.
“We’re in it together,” is today’s strong and uplifting mantra. That phrase really should include birds, tree frogs, viruses, government leaders, and ground beetles.
Still at the center
Eco-system thinking aside, I cling to the hope that there’s one place, with my husband, where I could be at the center of someone’s universe. When I look at our joy-boys, Winston and Royce with their ever-wagging tails, I think there’s still a chance.
But when they look at us, it’s likely, from their perspective, that THEY are at the center of the universe, and we’re just a little, you know, slow to learn.
Here’s to partnership…with a little birdsong for theme music.
Next week, we enter a new decade. This week, as we move through the days between the years, it seems a good time to spend a few minutes exploring what is mysterious, beautiful or holy around us.
A Christmas Story
My Christmas was quiet this year, but on Christmas Eve, as I was consumed by the getting-ready-ness, rather than by the sacred, I saw an iconographic image by artist Kelly Latimore that blew me away. (Sorry I can’t show you, but you can see it here).
The backdrop to my surprise was the traditional story we’ve heard so often:
Two thousand plus years ago an itinerant couple, had to undergo a long journey by walking on foot to a distant town. Although they needed shelter, they were told “no room,” which was particularly inconvenient because the woman was about to give birth. Somehow, they were able to hide out in a manger, albeit with limited sanitation. The animals, not concerned at all that these people were “outsiders,” got very interested when the baby came. You probably know the rest.
In the painting by Latimore, a family is traveling light through the Mexican (I assume) brush country at night. The father, carrying only a backpack, looks worried as he hurries his family along. The mother is bearing the load of a young son strapped into a purple shawl she wears across her shoulder. Walking through the brush in flip flops, she looks tired.
Their story is probably similar to that of thousands of refugees today. But what strikes me are the halos behind the heads of the three travelers, the child’s containing a sacred symbol.
In the second image by Latimore, we see an ominous-looking chainlink fence dominating the canvas. Behind it stands a Madonna, probably Mexican, her head covered in a white shawl, carrying a baby. Her eyes haunt as she stares into the fence. Brilliant halos backlight both of their heads.
Latimore’s analogies were making were more than clear and brought to me a sacred wondering, thinking about the many refugee families that include a potential madonna, a harried father, and the sacred Child, in his or her many guises.
Their journeys, their escapes, and their struggles have been written into the great story of humankind. They are us.
It was heartbreaking to think, once again, about their suffering. But, what can we do as fellow humans, whether we’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, or…?
First, stop thinking of these people as “other.” Banish the word “alien,” (although I admit sometimes to feeling a little alien myself).
Send money, if you can, or help directly, if you’re called to do that. Telephone politicians. March and rage.
Then send love.
I’m not a scientist, but it appears that it’s finally possible to measure, if only in a preliminary way, how sending healing thoughts can impact others, even those far away. In a well-documented experiment, scientists recorded the brain patterns of my friend Dr. Joyce Hawkes by covering her head with brain sensors and measuring her brain activity while she sent specific healing energy to a client, himself similarly hooked up. Remarkable changes were seen in both of their brain patterns as she focused her thoughts on him. This was all the more notable because her client was 7,000 miles away from her in India.
What’s important to me is not just the healing power of our positive and loving thoughts on others, but what such thinking does to us.
Sitting in a little room, saddened by the state of the world, and yet uplifted, perhaps, by the season of light, I can send hope, healing, and love to the Madonnas waiting at the border, living in detainment camps, or crossing the Mediterranean in contraband ships.
Will my thoughts change the world? Perhaps a little, but there’s no guarantee. In this inning of life, we’re coming from behind.
Will it change me? I think so.
During this liminal week between the decades, why not send thoughts of light, love, compassion, and hope to those struggling with the weight of the world, either near you or miles away. Then, let me know how you feel.
Welcome to the season of light. Whatever your faith, the light, in the Northern Hemisphere, can shine in radiant contrast to the dark around us.
But during this fly-by-get-ready-for-the-holidays time of the year, do we take time to appreciate both the light and the darkness that surrounds it? Or do we just fume when a traffic light doesn’t change fast enough for us?
I had an opportunity to ponder this potential lack of appreciation when I took a few minutes to interview the Light during his once-a-year sabbatical. He takes a yearly break when the days are short north of the equator. (For the record, the Light increasingly self-identifies as non-binary and gender-neutral, but says “he” is OK for now.)
I was stunned to hear him say, “This year, I’m debating my return.”
He told me, “People expect me to come back and light up the world. But this year, they’ve been so busy creating darkness, it’s as if I don’t matter. Mass shootings, lies, separation, hostilities and greed. Hardly the welcome I deserve.”
“I get it,” I replied, “But what about the darkness? Is darkness necessarily bad?”
He went on, “No, the real darkness isn’t bad at all, just the dark stuff you create with unkindness.
The kind of darkness I travel with is astronomical, natural and necessary and can make me stand out and look distinguished, if I say so myself. Have you noticed how the moon glows when its light is set against a deep indigo sky? Or appreciated the beauty of a single candle glowing in a dark chapel? Or admired the red rays of dawn streaming across the dark blue backdrop?
Darkness and I can be quite a becoming pair.
This year, at the same time you keep creating man-made darkness, you believe you can make up for your excesses with the man-made light from your electricity and electronics. You keep your skyscrapers illuminated around the clock, put 1000 lights around Santa Claus and the reindeer on your lawns, and use those awful halogen lights when you’re camping.
The more you fill the world with artificial light, the more you seem to forget about me. I assure you that the Light of the World will not be found on your devices.”
I told him I hoped he was exaggerating about our neglect, and asked what would make him feel better about returning for the Solstice.
“Don’t take the Light for granted. You need to do your part and match my light with your inner light and goodness. The outer light and inner light are meant to be together. When you send light to each other, you dispel darkness, even that which you’ve created.
I can’t light the world without you.”
I asked him if he could give a few more specific suggestions.
“Take time during these December nights to appreciate the dark. Go outside and watch the fog, the stars, or a frosty moon. Spend time in darkness watching how a flame flickers. Greet the dawn with gratefulness, even if it is still shrouded in clouds. Honor the natural world. You’ll gain respect for the balance in the relationship that’s meant to exist between the light and the darkness.
Spend more time in reflection with yourself. Without judging, notice the parts of you that feel heavy, despairing, cynical or in need of illumination. Feel free to invite light into those places rather than trying to escape your inner darkness by projecting it on others.
Build a fire, and allow it to burn away your feelings of shame or your regrets. (You could write what you’re willing to let go of on a paper you then throw into the flames.)
Find the secret storeroom where you keep your light. It might be your soul–or your heart–anywhere you hold caring, compassion and concern for others. Pay attention to these and amplify your love for the world–it’s the wattage you need.
When I sense your light flowing to others, it will be my time to return.
Finally, don’t take me for granted. I start to come back on the Solstice but it takes me three days to get up and running before I can increase your light by one minute each day. During those three days, I suggest you contemplate the light: mine, yours, and ours, and celebrate what we can create when we work together.
We have a lot to do to brighten and heal this place in 2020.
Do your part, and I’d be delighted to return on December 21st.”
He paused, wincing,
“But, promise me this: no more children in cages next year. I’m not kidding.”