I watched a charming video this week, one of those lift-you-up-in-the-storm pieces, about a man, Stjepan Vokic, in Croatia, who has spent the past two decades taking care of a wounded stork. He fishes for her, builds nests, and cheers when her long time mate returns each year from the south, having eluded the poachers. By now, Vokic and the bird have celebrity status; their story has helped build the case against stork poaching. But it didn’t start out that way. Vokic was just a guy who became devoted to a stork in need.
Devotion, for me, is a magic word. Yes, there are people who would question why anyone would commit that much time and resources to a stork. But there are also plenty of us crazy animal lovers who can easily understand.
Devotion changes the world. And, as I discovered this week, the object of your devotion doesn’t even have to be alive or animate.
Rekindling an old friendship
The piano played a big part in my life for twelve years when I was growing up. Despite some ups and downs and other activities, I was pretty faithful to my upright instrument. But, as in all relationships, stuff happens. In my case I went to a liberal arts college with a great conservatory of music. I had to audition to be able to take lessons in the official program, and, not surprisingly, I didn’t meet the grade. I was devastated. Disheartened, I tried playing for a bit, then stopped.
It was only when I settled in Seattle fifteen years later that I realized how, for me, a home wasn’t really a home without a piano, and I bought one. When my career began to take off and I started a doctoral program, my piano had to wait on the sidelines. Soon it was spending most of its time alone.
The piano went from being a living piece of my life to an object, from a friend to a piece of furniture. We became like those buddies whom you only hear from at Christmas. (I played carols once a year.)
Fast forward thirty years. The piano sat unappreciated and often dusty as bits of country dirt flew in through our windows and coated the keys. Last year, my husband and I had it tuned. Then, once again, it sat unplayed.
A hidden gift from the pandemic
Enter the shelter-in-place pandemic that has felt to me like a global tragedy, a national disgrace, and a stay-cation.
The piano started calling me. Truth is, I have to credit my friend Sara who captivated me with her tale of learning to play the cello in her 60’s. Hearing her talk about her love of music and her beautiful instrument made me swoon and regret that I had abandoned my keyboard.
One afternoon, when my husband was away, I inched my way to the keyboard. “I’ll only play five minutes,” I told myself, knowing how quickly my back could object to being asked to sit up straight. I picked up the book of Hanon finger exercises I had used as a seven-year-old and started playing, my fingers stiff with disuse. Then I attempted to read a simple song.
My husband, after hearing about my adventure, assured me that he likes to hear me play (gulp) and there was no need to sneak. The door to playing again was opened wide. Fortunately, the piano welcomed me back. Now it talks to me when I walk around the house, inviting me to come over for a brief visit even when I’m getting ready for bed.
It’s humbling to start over and feel like I’m at the beginning of my piano studies again. Still, even the simplest Chopin can make my heart melt.
My devotion has returned. And here’s where I’ll dare to sound strange.
The piano is no longer an inanimate object to me, an “it.” Now that we’re back in relationship, I sense that it’s alive, with its own energetic qualities. I tell it “hello” and “thank you,” as I might a partner, knowing that the piano is already changing my life.
I still have healing to do. Old patterns of tension are set pretty deeply into my body, and I tend to wince after every mistake.
But in a long-term relationship to which you are devoted, healing can happen and so can wonder. I’m giddy to have music back in my life in this way.
What we are devoted to changes us. I’m sure that Stjepan Vokic would tell you that his stork, Malena, changed his life.
This week, the cherry tree began its two week run of glory, set against a backdrop of near perfect Seattle weather. The peony stalks started shooting towards the sky, in anticipation of their upcoming starring role in May’s garden.
This week, I was shaken by bad news about a close friend’s cancer. And the pandemic continues to leave tragedies in its wake.
Ecstasy and agony come bundled together. My heart needs to expand to hold it all. It’s a good time for a pause.
In case you missed the last posts, tailored to these times:
In Finding the art of the “new normal,” I wrote about how we sometimes need to retreat to take care of ourselves, and how we can enhance life by looking for the art and beauty in the ordinary that surrounds us.
Anxiety is hovering in the air, like a cloud that might let loose with a storm of bad news at any moment. How can you protect yourself if a torrent of anxiety threatens to fall? I experienced one last week, and I used some very simple steps described below to calm and ground myself.
When my anxiety heightens, I may look the same to others (you can hide a lot on Zoom), but I know that I’m fuzzy-brained, can’t concentrate, and my innards are all stirred up. I feel weighed down and have trouble doing anything useful.
Apparently, I’m not the only one with such feelings these days.
If this hasn’t happened to you, feel blessed, but someday you may need to help someone climb down from a tree of panic. We all need to stay grounded during an emergency.
Greg Crosby, a health behaviorist currently consulting to governments around the world on behavioral responses to COVID-19, shared the simple research-based protocol (below) for grounding if high anxiety or trauma has been triggered.
Help when I needed it
After college, I spent 18 months in Ecuador and loved the country. I still do, even noisy, tropical, hot, congested Guayaquil, where I lived. Recently, when my husband asked, “Have you heard what’s happening in Ecuador?” I was worried.
Rightly so. A Washington Post article described Guayaquil as the epicenter of COVID-19 in Latin America, where life is like a dystopian horror show. Their struggling public health care system has reached its limit. The city can’t deal with the corpses. Can you imagine having to stay inside a 90-degree apartment with a corpse in the room? People are dragging bodies into the streets, where they may lay, rotting, for days.
OMG, I thought, as prepared for bed. Is this what’s ahead for other developing countries? Good-bye, quiet snooze. I slept fitfully that night, waking multiple times. The next morning, my anxiety heightened, I road-tested the following grounding exercises.
Grounding: A way to begin
When I want to calm in meditation I focus on three elements:1) Ground, (feeling my weight in a chair or on the floor); 2) Sound (becoming aware of the sounds in my environment): and 3) Breath. (Deep breathing). Listening for sounds is especially helpful when my mind is on over-drive.
However, meditation isn’t recommended, at least at first, if someone is severely anxious, panicked, or re-traumatized. Neither is trying to reason with them. Once the brain’s amygdala is on fire, it’s too late for a reasonable conversation. The first step needed is to help the mind “constructively-detach” from the panic-provoking situation.
First, do deep belly breathing. Then follow this sequence to offer your worried mind something to focus on other than what has it concerned. You’ll start with the mind, then the body, and then feelings. The order is essential.
In a pinch, you can do all of this in less than five minutes, which makes the technique helpful in an emergency.
Mental Grounding exercises.
Notice a color in the environment: for example, how many instances of blue can you find?
Count books, windows, chairs, curtains, or books in a room.
Make a list of all the songs, cities, animals, or TV shows you can think of.
Do some simple math like 50 minus 2. Take your answer and subtract 2 again. Keep going. It is okay to get it wrong.
Say each letter in a sentence. Read the sentence backward letter by letter.
Describe in detail an everyday activity such as a meal you cooked. Explain the sequence: take out ingredients, boil water, chop food, start to fry, etc.
Wiggle your toes
Run cool or warm water on your hands.
Touch objects and notice if they are rough, smooth, warm, or cold. Compare two objects, such as a glass and a fork.
Dig your heels into the floor.
Breathe from your belly.
Touch a pet or stuffed animal.
Soothing grounding. Calm and soothe your feelings by evoking pleasant memories, sensations, and imagery.
For example, think of a:
Soothing time of day
Soothing season of the year
After grounding, notice how you feel so that you can return to that sense if a bolt of anxiety hits again.
The grounding system was designed for acute situations. I hope you never panic or need it. But it’s good to be prepared and you might be able to help someone else.
Think of it as a “Behavioral Emergency Kit,” to have just in case.
Beyond that, there are many ways to support ourselves to stay positive as we shelter at home. Click here or here.
Here’s one more. I’m enjoying the “good news” Youtube channel created by John Krasinski of The Office fame. In response to a little girl who was upset that she’d be missing seeing Hamilton, he called upon his buddy Lin-Manuel Miranda. In an act of amazing generosity, Miranda reassembled the cast of the original Hamilton to sing the “Hamilton” song from their homes. Talk about a treat! The look on the girl’s face says it all. The song plays about two-thirds of the way in.
You, like me, may be feeling overloaded by news of COVID-19.
People are stocking up on hand sanitizers, (Hopefully not like the bloke in Tennessee who bought 17.700 bottles thinking to price gouge.) If you need any, why not make your own? It’s just as good. (Recipe here.)
But as we heed the warnings and care for our physical health, what are we doing for our souls? How about creating some heart sanitizers?
We need something that can cut through panic, speculation, and the grinding numbness that comes with endless news of the pandemic.
You can make your own recipe. I’m keeping mine simple: one part laughter. one part tears. and a heavy dose of nature. Optional adds: gratitude, giving, music, tracking on good news, and lots of love.
Laughter cleanses. And you don’t need a reason to laugh, as the folks who do Laughter Yoga love to demonstrate.
Here’s one you have to see…this baby could be a laughter yoga coach by age two. I dare you not to laugh.
You’d think it would be easy to cry with all the ways the world is hurting, but I carry a lot of pain that’s been hard to let go.
Tears can help, especially the kind that roll freely and flush out your system. Think of them like Windex for the soul that can wash doubt away and help you see more clearly. In just minutes they can wash off grime left from stored up anger, sadness, and dullness.
Don’t worry, even if you’re really sad, tears won’t last forever. After a good cry, I almost always feel more peaceful. I finally watched A Star is Born with Lady Gaga and cried, of course, at the end. I can’t tell you what will work for you–one’s taste in crying is very personal. But if tears come, stay with them. One. Moment. Longer. Your body will thank you.
This beautiful song “Broken Angels” from the band Over the Rhine, brought me to tears when I first heard it this week. Even without tears, I find it calming and beautiful.
I want to take a break from heartache Drive away from all the tears I’ve cried I’m a wasteland down inside In the crawlspace under heaven In the landscape of a wounded heart I don’t know where to start... (From Broken Angels by Over the Rhine)
What music brings you to more peace?
A Dose of Nature
Fortunately being in nature isn’t off the list of activities we can enjoy, even with a friend, if we keep our distance. It’s my go-to these days.
In the face of everything that is uncertain, nature heals, reminding us that we don’t have to be in control (which we aren’t now) to delight in life. I recover part of myself when I sink my hands deep into soil, walk over fallen logs, fill my lungs with the smell of wet cedar loam. I listen to birds I can’t identify singing their chant of “We will go on.” I plant peas.
Nature lives in the city, as in the country. It lives in a window box. It sprouts through a crack in the sidewalk and lives in an avocado sprouting on a sunlit kitchen table.
Of course, there’s so much else that could be added to our heart cleanser: practicing gratitude, reaching out to others, giving, music, tracking on good news in the face of the crisis.
You can potentize this recipe by sitting in silence, calming yourself, and sending your care into the world.
People are deluging the Internet with suggestions for weathering the storm, offering their poems, music, and videos of people, around the world, singing from their balconies.
It’s all good. We’re trying. We offer what we can. We’re in this together.
Just remember, in the face of all that is unknown, take good care of that heart of yours.
This post is not another list of precautions about the coronavirus. You doubtless have them already.
I won’t deny the enormous cost of the outbreak, including the tragedy of lives lost, businesses grounded, families disrupted, events canceled, teaching curtailed, and more. The list of consequences, known and not yet anticipated, will keep growing. The scale is boggling.
But when we extend our sight beyond the catastrophe, the virus may have something to teach us.
Sadly, in the intervening years, nationalism, war, closed borders, walls, and the rejection of refugees has tarnished this global perspective. (Add to that the taking apart of the mission of the EPA.)
Now we have a second chance. A coronavirus, COVID-19, is reminding us that we are together on one planet.
COVID-19 has spread across the globe, scoffing at national boundaries, distinctions between rich and poor, and ethnic divides. Scientists collaborate across borders, as we turn to science and medicine for real facts.
That’s not all bad.
However, fear strikes fast
Panic travels faster than COVID-19.
I’m not above it. I have a husband in the prime risk category: older with heart and lung problems. On top of that, he had a heart procedure last week and visited his doctor in a hospital where twelve victims of COVID-19 recently died. So when he called me in the middle of the night, three days after his surgery, panicked, and sounding ghastly, I listened. Unfortunately, I was 90 miles and two ferries away from home at a writing retreat. In a shaky, slightly delirious voice, he told me that he had a fever and couldn’t stop shaking. He felt weak, dizzy, and needed to vomit.
I knew what we both feared: Was this the dread coronavirus?
I called 911, and three emergency medical technicians (EMTs) sped to the house, wearing masks, visors, and comforting smiles. These men, not at all upset at being called out after midnight, began taking his vitals while asking a battery of questions. Within ten minutes, they had their verdict: he did NOT have COVID-19—most likely food poisoning. A good vomit later and he started to come back to life.
I realized how easy it is to panic.
When we panic, we see the worst and ignore other ways to look at the disease. We follow immediate precautions but fail to think about building the longer-term wellness of our communities.
As the virus runs its course, and we may be required to stay away from work, schools, or gatherings, why not consider what else there is to do?
What we can do
Connect with community. We’re in this together, globally, as well as locally. A safety net of community surrounded my husband when the EMTs raced to his side. Let’s build more durable safety nets for each other. Maybe we can check on a friend who can’t go out or notice who on the block might need extra help. We can lend support to the people, organizations, and businesses that are seeing their incomes evaporate. For example, our local movie theater, which offers great entertainment and events to our community, operates on a shoestring budget. We’ll need to make sure it survives.
Pay attention to the soil. Masks and hand sanitizers may help in the fight against the disease, but longer-term, our healthy habits, attitudes, and choices are what will sustain us. As a gardener, I’m not above reacting hysterically when an onslaught of pests or disease invades my garden. Before the buggers kill my kale, I want to DO something, hopefully organic, to fix the problem. But most of the time, the best defense I can offer the garden is to nourish the health of the soil. The planet needs such nourishment as well.
Respect science. People sometimes treat science the way a teenager treats her parents, disrespecting and doubting them at times, but running home for help in a crisis. Let’s give science a boost and refortify the decimated budget for the Center for Disease Control.
Understand that we’ll always live with uncertainty. It may be a bummer, but we can’t control the world. I don’t like hearing surprises such as a friend’s cancer diagnosis, but they come with being human. Just because we can be technologically fancy doesn’t protect us from the volatility, unpredictability, and uncontrollability that’s part of life.
Last weekend, I read “Wash Your Hands” a poem by Dori Midnight, who has pulled beauty out of the viral chaos. It’s worth reading the entire brilliant piece.
“…Wash your hands
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture.
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource
made from time and miracle…”
She inspired me to think about how I could use my moments of handwashing.
The gift of twenty seconds
Taking twenty seconds to wash one’s hands can seem like a long time, yet it’s just enough time to:
Take two deep and renewing breaths.
Enjoy the running of water and the sloshing of hands.
Admire the buds on the Japanese maple outside the window.
Send a blessing to first responders, doctors, and everyone working to address the crisis.
Say a prayer for those harmed by the disease.
Offer gratitude for something taken for granted, like clean water.
Appreciate how the planet is interconnected.
Handwashing can be transformed into a moment of mindfulness.
In twenty seconds of washing, let’s start clearing away global toxicities like greed and separation, and rinse away the fear this virus is causing.
Then, let’s prepare to hold hands again, spanning across the globe.
It’s not the easiest quality for me to find in these dystopian-feeling days.
So I turned to a fourteenth-century mystic who somehow managed to find hers in the darkest of times.
Julian of Norwich, an anonymous anchoress (recluse) lived during a time in which a third of the population died from the bubonic plague. Julian may have lost her own children. The world reeked of poverty, pestilence, and war. Then, on the brink or her own death, Julian received visions that stayed with her for the rest of her life. She proclaimed:
“All shall be well again.”
Julian spent the remainder of her life living in a cell built into the walls of the Norwich church, with only a window from which to view the world. Not a lifestyle that would appeal to me, but a good way to spend one’s life in prayer and conversation with God.
In researching her famous quote, I learned two things about Julian.
She didn’t invent the words “All shall be well,” but attributed them directly to God. (I use the word God because that’s the word Julian used, adapt to your preferences.)
She didn’t use them lightly. Apparently she first had to duke it out with God. “Dude, can’t you see that’s there’s suffering, pain, and evil everywhere? The world is NOT OK and not likely to be getting better soon. How can you possibly say ‘All shall be well?’ “(My paraphrase.)
God was not forthcoming with an answer.
What Julian received instead was a deep sensing, a trust she didn’t have to understand, that the future would bring wellness.
It fueled the remainder of her life.
“All shall be well” might sound like an invitation for passivity, but for Julian, it was an invitation to work. She spent her days writing reflections and helping the locals who came to her cell window for support, consolation or advice.
Is our ship going down?
Many of us today feel the ticking clock of climate change and the imperative to do something before our environmental ship goes under. We watch our core values being mocked, see greed in action, and observe the stalemate of our political systems. After decades of environmental near-complacency, we risk unprecedented disaster.
How can we believe in the wellness of the future and still act?
We have to trust and feel urgency. When we work out of a negative view of the future, we sprinkle gloom into what we do.
Granted, there’s a lot of data that could justify apocalyptic conclusions.
Trust invites us to dig deeper.
It’s not a matter of making a list of the good and the terrible about our prospects and then adding up the results.
Trust invites us to go within ourselves to discover an inner equanimity that doesn’t preclude sorrow or even rage.
Trust is a stand we take, not a conclusion we draw.
Trusting creates an energetic container in which to work with goodwill and hope, collaborate, and look for solutions.
Working hard, with hope
Just today, I read about two positive hope-worthy initiatives (among the thousands out there).
My friend Rondi Lightmark founded the Whole Vashon Project, to give her community a way to “stand up to climate change with creativity and hope,” and showcase the positive work being done. Thus far, over a hundred of local businesses have made green pledges as part of the initiative
76-year-old author, and theologian Matthew Fox teamed up with two activists half his age to create an intergenerational, inclusive community called the Order of the Sacred Earth, inviting people to deepen their commitment to the earth with the vow:
“I promise to be the best lover and defender of the Earth that I can be.” (I signed on.)
Initiatives are everywhere. (What’s inspiring you?)
It’s time to trust and garner hope, without denying our grief.
I still plant oak trees. I wouldn’t do that if I thought the world was like the Titanic.
Staying positive doesn’t require knowing HOW the world will evolve. Julian didn’t.
I can offer no PROOF that “All shall be well.”Julian couldn’t.
I wish I could save the world through my scientific knowledge, medical training or political acumen, but, like Julian, I have none of these.
What I can do is strive for a sense of equanimity and then do what I’m called to do.
Today, I sing in the spirit of Julian’s vision. Here are her words set to music by the late English poet and songster, Sydney Carter, and sung in one of my favorite old recordings by Anna Mayo Muir, Ed Trickett and Gordon Bok,
Join me. It couldn’t be easier to sing.
Loud are the bells of Norwich and the people come and go. Here by the tower of Julian, I tell them what I know.
Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go All shall be well again, I know.
Love, like the yellow daffodil, is coming through the snow. Love, like the yellow daffodil, is Lord of all I know.
Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go All shall be well again, I know.
Ring for the yellow daffodil, the flower in the snow. Ring for the yellow daffodil, and tell them what I know.
Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go All shall be well again, I know.