“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.
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.
Maybe over was just a fantasy. The same forces that existed before the elections, some dating back hundreds of years, continue.
My friend John Perkins once gave me a wake-up phrase that I treasure. John, an African-American change-maker, said (and I paraphrase due to rusty memory), “To think that change has to happen fast [or in our time frame] is a sign of white entitlement. Our people have been working for change for over one hundred and fifty years. We’re in it for the long haul.”
(Sorry, John, for any butchering; the idea is so compelling.)
Over the past couple of years, I’ve felt a deep hunger stirring within me, a longing for values of goodness and for truths that run deeper than any presidential cycle.
If thoughts have forms and carry energy, I want to boost those that feed my sense of what is uplifting and good about being human.
As the educator/philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf School movement, wrote:
To Wonder at Beauty
To wonder at beauty, Stand guard over truth, Look up to the noble, Resolve on the good. This leadeth us truly To purpose in living, To right in our doing, To peace in our feeling, To light in our thinking. And teaches us trust, In the working of God, In all that there is, In the width of the world, In the depth of the soul.
Use your own word for God, if you like, and then dig for that place of trust.
Tracking on our inner nobility doesn’t mean ignoring the mean, heinous, and injust. Steiner’s verse asks us to go deeper within ourselves to find and amplify that place where nobility lives.
In my experience, most people, in their deepest gut, long for love, connection, and a sense of truth, beauty, and goodness. Yet that sense can become obscured by the chatter of life, an obsession with the chaos around us.
“The only solution to the problem is to go deeper.” Gourasana (spiritual teacher)
If ever there was a time to go deeper, it’s now.
Before and after
It would have been nice to think the US election would solve our current catastrophes and healed the wounds left by hundreds of years of collective trauma that surface daily as racism, genderism, classism, ageism, etc.
These wounds wouldn’t be wiped out by one election.
Before the elections, I needed to seek inner guidance, connect to the people and forces that inspired me, and pray for truth, beauty, justice, and goodness to prevail.
After the elections, I need to seek inner guidance, connect to the people and forces that inspire me, and pray for truth, beauty, justice, and goodness to prevail.
I know my body’s constitution. I need to stay away from the news for a while. Do what works for you.
But as we proceed in a time of clamor and cacophony, please spend time with beauty. It gives me strength, calms my soul, and helps me care for others.
I will draw, paint, listen to music, and feed my soul in nature. I’ll write about creativity. I’ll connect with friends. I’ll pray for the country’s highest good.
What will you do that will feed you, your dreams, and the country?
(Please drink water..)
Thank you, John Perkins. Yes, I’m in it for the long haul.
If you need a break from election-mania, here’s something different. (I voted Saturday!)
I watched the video below about a scientist, Nan Hauser, who was saved by a humpback whale. Her story is not unique. If you search the Internet, as I did, you can find loads of stories about animals saving humans. Not all are verifiable and some stories of animal altruism may have unclear motives. (Was the pride of lions that saved a kidnapped child acting out of love or hunger?) Nan’s story stood out because she’s a scientist with decades of experiencing observing whales. Plus three video cameras recorded her experience.
As a marine biologist, Nan has spent most of her life studying and saving whales. She has swum with whales many times and admires their non-aggressive behavior. One time, however, she couldn’t understand why a 50,000 humpback whale kept nudging her in the water.
“Instead of just swimming past me, he came right towards me. And he didn’t stop coming towards me until I was on his head. And next thing I knew, for about 10 minutes, he was – had me rolling around his body, really trying to tuck me under his pectoral fin.”
A whale can unintentionally do harm because of its size. She suffered some bruises. As the interaction continued, she became scared. “I mean, he was really pushing me with the front of his mouth, too. He could’ve opened his mouth, and he didn’t do that, either. But I didn’t know he wasn’t going to do any of that.”
She said, “I’ve spent 28 years underwater with whales, and have never had a whale so tactile and so insistent on putting me on his head, or belly, or back, or, most of all, trying to tuck me under his huge pectoral fin,”
Humpback whales can be people-friendly, but this was over the top. The pair engaged in a pas de deux (paddle de deux?) for ten minutes before Nan surfaced and called for help from her nearby boat. Then she learned what had been happening: the whale was protecting her from a fifteen-foot tiger shark that was swimming nearby.
It’s worth watching the video just to hear Nan’s gleeful laughter when she understood what had happened. The creature that she had been working to save had saved her.
We don’t have a clue how much animals are giving us.
A foray into animal communication
Years ago, I attended a weekend seminar with Penelope Smith, a world-renown author and animal communicator, who teaches others to communicate intuitively with their animals. Before you start singing the theme song from Dr. Doolittle or making “Mr. Ed, the talking horse” jokes, my key take-away from her seminar was that those of us who have close contact with pets or animals are already communicators.
My cat taught my husband and me to understand the meaning of “Outside, NOW!”. My dogs eloquently convey, “Yo, it’s past dinnertime!” or “Ignore our muddy paws, we want in!” We in turn communicate, “Chill, we’re fixing your favorite food.”
Skilled communicators do more than that. During a phone call, an animal communicator diagnosed the cause of my horse’s mysterious lameness, even though she had never seen him. In a beautiful marriage of science and intuition, my vet checked out her suggestions, confirmed the diagnosis, and began the treatment that quickly brought him back to soundness.
As I watched Penelope Smith communicate with participants’ pets at the workshop, I thought, “Either this woman has the most vivid imagination I have ever encountered, or she’s on to something.”
Penelope translated the love that each animal felt for its human companion. What I heard brought me to tears. I left thinking. “We have no idea.”
Of course, love doesn’t always lead to perfect behavior in animals or people. Occasionally, misunderstandings arise as with the retriever who peed in all the corners of the living room as part of his role as house-protector. Penelope acknowledged his commitment and then suggested a different behavior
If the God in all life matters
After working with Penelope I bought a book by Machaelle Small White Behaving as if the God in all Life Matters. She had me at the title as she described her journey communicating with invisible forces in nature and with animals.
For me, the question isn’t, “Is this animal-communication stuff scientifically verifiable?” although I was grateful that my vet was open-minded and willing to test out an idea from an uncommon source. Sometimes what we hear intuitively may be verifiable, sometimes not. We still have to use our discernment.
The questions I ask are:
How would I act differently if I treated the natural world, particularly the gardens and the animals, as if they really mattered?
What if I treated animals (and plants) as partners rather than objects?
What if I acted as if the animals had forms of intelligence that I don’t have or understand?
What if I appreciated the ways they too might be wanting to help the earth?
What if I imagined their love?
Just asking these questions changes me.
Loving animals doesn’t mean necessarily that one can’t eat meat (animals do–but I leave that one to you), or “use” them kindly. My mare agrees (I believe) to be trained and carry me on her back in return for great digs and lots of apples.
I don’t put my animals in charge of the household, though. At home, they are under my direction, hopefully for the good of all. I quietly reprimand my dog Royce when he invades the vegetable waste bag and distributes corn cobs and cabbage across my favorite rug. (He’s very sensitive–so a little “no” goes a long way.) My husband, in turn, reprimands me for leaving my wet riding gear distributed on our bed. We’re in a system together.
Royce and I differ in our intelligences, capacities, and how we see the world, yet we’re also partners.
We give to each other and create a common world.
You don’t have to become a Dr. Doolitlle to live life with more gratitude for the roles animals, domesticated or wild, play in the world.
Nan’s life changed after her encounter with the humpback. Mine changed after Penelope Smith’s workshop, coupled with so many experiences with my animal friends.
Just imagining their love opened a door of awe and appreciation for the many forms of life around me.
Given the mess we have created on our beautiful, endangered planet, we humans could use some help.
Let’s listen more to what our fellow inhabitants can offer us, honor their gifts, and maybe we can work together.
This week was struck by the first line from Wicked Game, Chris Issak’s iconic mega-hit from the early 90s.
“The world was on fire and no one could save me but you.”
Last week, the word fire caught my attention as the West Coast burned and many us huddled indoors, hiding from the smoke.
This week, the first line from “Wicked Game,” Chris Issak’s iconic mega-hit from the early 90s, jumped out at me:
“The world was on fire and no one could save me but you.”
The word fire grabbed my attention as the West Coast burned and many of us huddled indoors, hiding from the smoke.
As I listened to “Wicked Game,” I wondered why a song about feeling betrayed felt uplifting. (OK, Isaak’s sultry voice and melt-your-heart-looks helped.)
The lyrics sounded depressing:
No, I don’t wanna fall in love (this world is only gonna break your heart) No, I don’t wanna fall in love (this world is only gonna break your heart) With you With you (this world is only gonna break your heart)
Yet, what I heard, echoed in his words, was an overtone that sounded like the opposite of his words. Here was someone feeling betrayed by love, who obviously wanted love. Hurt perhaps, but still believing in love. I heard the call for love.
Within the dark, the fear, the anger, can we hear overtones of the ideals and visions that call to us?
Praying beyond fear
Last week, I felt gut-punched by the news of the death of our beloved RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Grief for the loss of a truly great soul and pillar of justice. Almost immediately, though, I was flooded with fear, big fear, for the fate of the country and the U.S. Supreme Court. I prayed that the values she represented: fairness, justice, and compassion would survive in the Court.
I realized, though, that I wasn’t sure how to pray. I cringe at prayers like, “Let my team/side win.”
How do we pray for what we want in such a tumultuous time?
I find both power and comfort in prayer. But if prayer isn’t a word in your native tongue, or the idea of praying “to” something is off-putting, don’t worry. You can think of prayer as a conversation with your deepest self.
I think, intuitively, we all know how to pray. Almost everyone knows at last two basic prayers. One is “Help!” the other is “Thank-you.”
As I wondered how to pray in a meaningful way, a friend, who is a wise guide in such matters, offered me insight. He reminded me to:
“Pray without fear and not from fear.”
He suggested that it’s OK to use prayer as a way of offering positive imaginations of the world we hope to see. Our world, especially now, needs strong, life-affirming visions.
I realized that underneath my fear was a desire for justice that cares about the good of all, that is fair, compassionate, and not swayed by money, religion, gender, nationality, or skin color.
When I allowed myself to hold onto that image, and offer it without fear, I felt stronger.
Much stronger than when I imagined all the things that could happen if “the dark side” wins.
Finding something positive within a fear or complaint
Years ago, I took a program that used an exercise in complaining as part of its teaching. We were given instructions to pair up, designate one partner to be A, the other to be B. A, the speaking partner, would then complain vigorously about something that irritated them. (This turned out to be fun because we’re rarely invited to complain.) B, the listening partner, was told to listen for the values or desires that lay beneath A’s complaints.
What we discovered was that under many complaints and fears lives a true desire, a value, a longing for something.
“The Russians are evil and conniving,” might really mean “I want the United States to be self-governing with fair, safe elections.”
I have trouble appreciating the values held by “the other side.” My skin bristles when I hear statements like, “I don’t trust yyy candidate. He’s a loser. I don’t care what the media say about candidate xxx or what he’s done. He understands me. ”
While I could debate whether candidate xxx cares about or understands the person in question, what stands out is that our speaker wants to be heard, understood, and cared about. He wants a better life. He wants to feel hopeful about the future.
There may be things that he wants that I’m not too happy about. Yet, I can align with the idea that everyone deserves to matter, feel cared about, and live with hope for the future.
I heard, inside the rant, an overtone of yearning for a better life.
Like the hint of love when Chris Issaks sings, “I’m never going to fall in love again.”
What I can do
I don’t need to remind you that we live in perilous times. I can speak out. My husband and I can empty our pockets and contribute as much as we can–right now we’re focused on voter registration initiatives.
I can also hold a strong, positive, generative vision of the future I want. Because my imagination has power, too.
I want to stand for something and not just run from fear.
If “my side” wins in November, it will be the beginning of massive work to be done.
If “my side” doesn’t win, then I’ll need every fiber of strength within me to stand up to my fears.
No one promises life will work out on my timetable. As Issak sings,”This world is only going to break your heart.”
I will be praying to find a center of calm within so that I can pray, not from fear, but from the overtones I hear distantly ringing through the fear: a vision of what still matters.
Responding to an interview question in 2018, Issak said:
“The most important thing is just to love and be loved in return.”