I am not sure what to say, what is mine to say. There is so much uncertainty. And also now, so much unrest.
Then this scrolls by on Instagram, and the sentiment makes me stop.
Oh, I believe.
Yes, let’s pray, and believe.
I am not sure what to say, what is mine to say. There is so much uncertainty. And also now, so much unrest.
Then this scrolls by on Instagram, and the sentiment makes me stop.
Oh, I believe.
Yes, let’s pray, and believe.
WHAT A STRANGE and unsettling time we’re in, suffering the coronavirus pandemic. Two months of self-isolation and at least we can say we have managed to master the mechanics the situation: living separate, working from home, properly logging in to Zoom. We’ve found ways to love well, give well, pray well, and we’ve done it in the midst of a reality that was previously unimaginable.
So now I would like to make this pronouncement, which I suggest we make official.
I am worn and weary from the effort, I’ll tell you that. I am sick of using good energy simply to cope. My heart longs for connection, to be encircled, to be reinvigorated by the good that passes one to another when we human beings collect. Not virtual contact (although I remain grateful for this) but real, live, in-person, huggable, eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul connection.
Maybe there is hope on a far distant horizon. States are reopening and businesses are trying their best to figure how to operate in an uncharted Phase Two world. Still the truth is these decisions carry with them even greater risk than we’ve already faced, something that seems impossible. We are entering into a time that, to me, feels more burdensome and breath-stealing than ever. And so I worry and wonder, and my spirit constricts again.
THERE IS A VIDEO taking the world by storm, The Great Realisation. (If you have not seen it, please take four minutes to watch it.) The Great Realisation is a bedtime story made by a young English poet in which there’s a look back at 2020 as the start of a changed way of living. (Hindsight is 2020, you know.) The piece is gentle and lovely and hopeful, and as I watched, a line took hold that will not release.
But while we all were hidden, and amidst the fear, people dusted off their instincts. They remembered how to smile.
It’s a beautiful and insightful concept, dusting off instincts, returning to behaviors so central they are born in, they live within, they provide for our very survival. Instincts don’t just offer fulfillment, the poet suggests, they are fulfillment, and thus they offer the path to joy–pure, uncomplicated, and childlike.
And so I consider. The novelty of the pandemic is gone, and as hard realities stretch into the future so far they cannot be predicted, can I lean on instinct to walk through the slog that is ahead?
What has been my instinct, anyway?
IT IS THERE, of course, as I look back over my #stayhome days. And the answer surprises me because it is not what I would have expected. It has not been writing, it has not been photographing these beautiful mountains, it has not been cooking or walking or even being in nature.
No. In isolation, in all this anxious turmoil, my instinct has been to make.
And I know why: I am a maker at heart. I was, as a girl, my hands always busy with whatever happened to be the project of the day: a tiny book of poetry from typing paper and a stapler; construction paper and colorful markers then, voila, greeting cards; a set of Barbie clothes (with poncho) from an old piece of fabric.
All of which is to say, in recent days, I have been at my most content when I was making.
What has been your instinct? Can you name it, lean into it, lean on it as we move through these next slog months? Can you recognize and honor its significance? Can you let it offer joy–no expectation, no judgement–but just a return to the welcoming of sweet, simple joy, however your tender heart defines it.
It’s the only way we’ll make it through, that’s what I believe.
It’s how I’ll keep my own heart happy, of that I am certain.
There are a thousand reasons, I suppose, we are obsessed with the bear.
He’s beautiful, for one. Big, and healthy, with a full shiny coat that makes you wonder if he spent any time hibernating this winter. (He sure doesn’t seem to have lost any poundage.) So often the bears that emerge in early Spring look more haggard, hungry-looking, sometimes with fur that’s patchy and dirty. Not this guy. He’s thriving in the wild, clearly thriving, and something about this feels powerful, primordial. Oddly appealing.
He’s calm. Controlled. Not holding back, exactly–more like he just doesn’t find any reason to get too excited. It’s fine, people, he seems to say. It’s all fine. He moves slowly, deliberately, not over-reacting. In fact, the couple of times he’s made it onto our deck (we don’t encourage this) he moves along like a slow vacuum, hoovering up the sunflower seeds dropped by the birds while showing not one bit of interest (as yet) in the feeders that hang just above his head. It is rather shocking, this behavior, it being a much more typical practice of the bears to rip those suckers down in a short, hot minute; to devour the contents; to inadvertently destroy them.
And he drinks from the bird bath, have I said that? He drinks from a bird bath that’s attached to our deck railing, and he does it in a rather (dare I say it) well-mannered way. Not sloppy, gigantic gulps that would splash and drip and then spit-stream down from his muzzle. No. This bear is more delicate. Gentile. Refined.
(Could this possibly be a female? We thought surely so, and then we saw that big head.)
Most specifically, this guy seems to like us! Or at least tolerate us, willing to co-exist in a socially distant sort of way.
Here’s what I mean when I say that.
He’ll come to call, then when we see him and we discourage his proximity, he’ll lumber just far enough away to stop, take a seat, and wait.
And like any sweet animal who feels relaxed, who feels at home, he’ll lie down, resting his head on his gigantic paws.
I SHOULD SAY THIS, and I want to be very clear as I do: We are keenly aware this is a 350-pound Black Bear, king of this particular wild blue ridge, and in no way is he our family pet (even if it sometimes feels that way). This mountain is his purview and we honor his dominion over it. We do not nor would we ever feed him (or any wild animals) because that spells disaster–for him, for us, and for our (albeit distant) neighbors.
Still we take total delight in his presence. Maybe it is because seeing a bear is remarkable. Or perhaps it is simply because we feel so alone on this mountain. We have been here 40 days and 40 nights and in that time we have hugged not one family member, welcomed not one guest, relished none of the joy that comes in the simple anticipation of sharing a place or a time or an experience with people you love.
And it still feels crazy. Right? Otherworldly? We just keep marching through, like all of us do, making our way one minute, one day, one week at a time. Month by lonely month. People need people, this is what we know, people need people like plants need soil and water and sunshine. And when either of us starts to wilt–whether it’s Tim or it’s me–the other will say, Hey, where do you think that bear is right now? or Do you think he’s gonna come by tonight? or Did you hear that? Gotta be him, don’t you think? And we go to the window and look, and we wait and watch and hope, and sometimes there he is, and sometimes a while later he comes ambling along and catches the look in our eyes (I swear I believe this is true) and he decides right then and there the very best thing he can do–the kind thing, really–is to just have seat and hang out a while, with us.
And so he does.
YESTERDAY WE AWOKE to a strange and beautiful scene. It was 5:55 a.m., and through our east window we saw that slight but gorgeous glow the sun casts to let you know it’s moving toward the horizon. (For us, this is the crest of a tall, wide mountain range far in the distance.) To our South, where the peaks are closer and more defined, there was no glow at all but simply darkness, a bright moon and star hanging sure in the sky. Down below, as best as we could see, there was a dense fog that looked like a fat layer of foam floating on a giant ocean, a sea that had risen overnight.
We grabbed our coats and ran for the deck, needing a better view. To our surprise the blanket of fog was everywhere, in every direction, filling every lower space as far as the eye could see. We watched for more than an hour, mesmerized, as it rolled and burbled through the valleys and hollers and flatlands, as it held thick and rich, unyielding. Light rose, and the scenes around us changed, and the fog held. The western sky slowly came to life, painted in gentle shades of blue and pink; the eastern sky blazed with gold and yellow and white.
Here and there, as lower mountain peaks buried in the fog formed islands, they’d be hidden, then peek up and out just for a moment, then disappear again.
There was so much to see, something surprising in every direction and we stood in awe and watched, it being the first time in four years of getaway mornings we’d had this experience. But don’t get that wrong-—we’ve been moved and humbled a thousand times by these mountain sunrises, for it’s one of the great gifts of life in this remote, high elevation cabin.
We’d just never experienced anything quite as surreal as this.
AS IT HAS BEEN with so many of the 25 days that have passed since we started this COVID Stay-at-Home adventure. We are on the mountain by design of course, isolated, removed from the world in a very intentional way. Which means since we’ve been here neither of us—neither Tim nor I—has had any real risk of exposure. Still the virus has hung here like the plague it is, having great presence and insisting it become our grand obsession, our primary topic of conversation. It loops and winds through every thought and consideration, and like the fog, it has sought and found and settled into every nook and cranny.
We count the days. We dissect the data. We suppose and suppose and suppose. We wait and watch and worry and pray and video chat, toasting every gladness. We settle in for the evening news and then, most nights, rise from it so heavy-hearted it feels impossible to breathe.
We marvel at the innovation, at the power of connection, at the new ways we are all defining community. At the ways human beings are finding to cope and entertain and bring hope and make good.
There is so much good.
We cheer each other on, Tim and I, and we watch a lot of Cheers.
And we offer boundless thanks to the people working so hard to make the world work amid this chaos, to the first responders, to those in every aspect of healthcare, in all corners, in all capacities, for whom boundless thanks is not nearly enough.
This too shall pass.
(It’s something I remind myself a hundred times a day. )
We all do.
And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well—even as it seems the sea is still rising.
THERE IS SO MUCH TO SAY, and also nothing to say, about the feels we’re all experiencing during this scary, awful pandemic. It reminds me of a recurring dream I’ve had for years in which I’m standing silent as I watch a Tsunami approach. Typically in the dream I am the mother or caregiver to an infant I need to keep safe; I’m facing off with this massive wall of water that I can see coming and it is getting larger and closer and I have only moments to commit to whatever it is I am going to do to save this baby. Almost always my solution is to put the cooing sweetie (and accompanying blanket) into the clothes dryer and close the door tight, as if this will be water-safe, as if the force of the wave will come and the dryer and the enclosed baby will bob right up to the surface and the wave will recede and the dryer and its babe will have been deposited right back in place.
My mind does not exactly figure all this in the dream; things happen fast and I just think: DRYER. And I do it. And if there is more to this story–if the dryer has actually worked or not I can’t say for certain even if my sense is yes. Because I never dream the end, or if I do, I never remember it. Instead I wake up, or else I move on to another dream, or maybe–and this is coming to me as I write this–maybe the ending of the dream is too painful for it to stay with me in my waking hours.
Anyway. My point is I feel now as I feel in that dream: aware, afraid, and certain I need to do something in these moments before full force arrives.
WE’VE BEEN SHELTERING IN PLACE, Tim and I, as I’m certain have you. On Day One I decided that in addition to the precautions we are taking to stay healthy physically I would need to focus on emotional health, as well. And for me, in this situation, this would require planning and intention. (I know myself well enough to recognize that left to my own devices, my response to this crisis would be to go hard, head-down, into one project or another.) And so I took a minute to jot down a list of things to do each day that I believed would contribute to my own well being. Since that time my practice has become to take to my journal each night, to write a bit about my day, and then to note the icons of the things from this list I have done. I like recording via the icons–somehow the act of reproducing those tiny sketches is therapeutic, and it also brings some levity to pages filled with a great undertone of worry. And let me be clear: There is no reason to score-keep. I do not consider my list TASKS TO BE COMPLETED. I consider them gifts, gifts I am giving myself during all the uncertainty; tiny little ways I am creating a new sense of normalcy and routine.
And for me it has been a godsend, I will tell you that. We are in the mountains for a time where life is blessedly remote. And while my days are overfilled right now with good, important work for the clients our firm is helping shepherd through this crisis, I find it is the Daily List that keeps my feet on the ground, that brings a small sense of balance to a time and circumstance I find impossible to process.
SO HERE GOES.
Here is my list, in hopes it will inspire you to create one of your own.
The Daily List
The Weekly List
That is what Sara sings.
We didn’t. We won’t.
Sending so much love and every good wish to you today, and in the days and weeks to come.
Be well, friends —
PS: I’ve created a scan of this list, including my incredibly unprofessional icons, if that would be helpful to you. Just click the button to instantly download.
THE OTHER NIGHT, not long after Tim had gone to bed but long enough for him to be soundly asleep (60 seconds give or take)–I tiptoed in to join him. My own teeth brushed, my face washed and layer upon layer of promised youth moisturizer applied, I slipped between the covers then reached to turn off the lamp and settle into one of my favorite moments of the day: the calm and relief of a dark room that’s quiet; the gentle mist of a diffuser; the soft smell of lavender, floating through the air. I took a long, slow breath, exhaled, and readied my body for sleep.
Then I remembered: Temperatures were dropping. We’d had a spurt of warm weather lately and I had removed the quilt beneath our spread. Now there was a return to winter which meant no matter how much I wanted to convince myself otherwise, the odds were 100% I’d wake up during the night and I would realize I was cold and I would not fall back to sleep until I was warm.
And so I got up, fumbled around in the dark to locate the quilt, and gingerly, so gingerly, spread it across the bed.
I got back in.
I nestled. My pillow wasn’t quite right, so I reached back to adjust it. This is more difficult than it sounds, there being a pillow sweet spot that on rare occasion will allow just the right amount of support in just the right places for a back sleeper to actually fall asleep on his or her back, eureka. But it is elusive, and to be clear, I would rather sleep on my stomach, or my side, or really in any position but on my back WHICH I HATE but which I am truly giving the old college try these days as it is better for your body, experts say, and your spine, and your face which otherwise bunches up and pooches and wrinkles, SO THEY SAY.
(Also medical professionals have told me this back sleeping is a really important thing for me given previous shoulder surgery.)
So. I get the pillow almost right when I realize I do not have the corresponding smaller pillow that goes under the knees to minimize undo pressure that can compromise one’s lower back.
I get up, find the damn thing, get back in bed, struggle to get it properly positioned under my knees, rework the head pillow which is not in the exact perfect spot but is close enough and I close my eyes.
I squeeze them shut.
Then I remember the mouthguard that bless it is right there on the night stand but once I reach for it and return to this exact spot my back will nevertheless require all the repositioning once again.
My arm goes out. My hand hits my glasses that bang against the pretty tray I keep them on at night, which wakes up Tim, who says in a faraway sleepy voice, Babe. Everything all right over there?
I might have cussed, and I for certain made a pointed comment about how frustrating it is to be getting older and to have so much to take care of, about how glorious it was to be young when we just frigging got in bed. He didn’t agree or disagree but simply rolled to his other side, where within 30 seconds this time, he snored.
Oh, I was worked up.
I was lying there in the dark worked up, as happens when you get something on your mind in the night and it takes on monstrous proportions, I was lying there in the dark worked up and thinking about ALL THE THINGS like how fast time flies and how the body ages and how–given all that–right at this very moment I was actually the youngest I would ever be, ever again. I was thinking about the realities of being 60 and how it feels to me like I am 16 or 28 or maybe, on a bad day, 40–even if my body insists otherwise.
Yes I was quite worked up, and a little sad, and more than a little bit mystified by it all.
THE FEELING LINGERED when I arose the next morning. I am not proud of this, as I am a healthy human and I hold a deep awareness that of all the gifts, good health is the one to be most grateful for. And in the bright of daylight I also held a very clear understanding that health and aging are two different things, even if they are inextricably linked and often wound tight around each other.
And the truth is: I am healthy.
(The truth is also: I am aging.)
I hate even writing that.
AND THEN I WENT to my computer to begin my workday, and right there in my inbox these words from Ann Voscamp were waiting to greet me.
Every single day has a bit of its own now-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not just the life crises that are traumatic. The mirror can be traumatic — and time and aging and life can be traumatic for us who are made to breathe eternity.
But maybe: The point is that your life is meant to be spent.
The point is that your life is meant to be used up and every wrinkle means you are wringing out the good of the wonder of this thing called life.
I thought of that a thousand times that day, and in the days since.
YOUR LIFE IS MEANT TO BE SPENT.
It’s a beautiful thought, comforting, reassuring even if it doesn’t do one thing to change the realities of how difficult it is to age.
How difficult it is to accept aging.
But I am clinging to Ann’s words, nonetheless, believing that if I live my life this way, if I “spend out,” at least I will have lived more worthy of the gift.
Which is the point, anyway.
I mean, it is the point. I know this.
(Still it doesn’t do one dang thing about the realities of confronting that stranger in the mirror.)
ps: I should tell you this story is not “mostly” true. It’s all true. It’s all embarrassingly true.
In my newsletter, Grace Notes, I mentioned what joy, and grounding, I found in working through Laura Tremaine’s 10 Questions for the End of the Year. I loved it so much I bought a new Leuchtturm1917 Journal specifically for that purpose. I’ve continued to work on my 2019 pages through this month of January, and in addition to the beautiful clarity the practice is giving me, I think it will be great to look back over my life this way, year-to-year.
One question Laura suggested–which is new to me, I have to say–is to consider not just what you want to change as you move toward a fresh, new, clean slate calendar, but what you did in the past year that actually worked well for you?
I love thinking through this, walking back through the intentions I had that came to fruition, realizing there were good things that in one way or another enhanced my life. I love realizing even tiny, tiny changes held good, solid weight.
I thought it would be fun to share my list, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. (Alas, on Laura’s list of questions is also, inevitably, WHAT BEHAVIORS DO YOU WANT TO CHANGE?)
So here we go. Things that worked well for me in 2019.
There is more, I’m sure there is more, but for now that is plenty to consider.
AND SO IT IS a new month, in a new year, in a new decade*. It is a season that has found my soul unusually quiet, unusually uninspired.
I have not made a list of resolutions, for one. Nor have I made the counter list “Things From Last Year I Am Proud Of,” ** an idea which came to me last January and an exercise that proved both clarifying and powerful. I have thought about both of these, for certain I have, and yet I have done nothing about either. Instead I have spent these first days of 2020 in a state of slow rather than sure, more solemn than reflective.
Gratefully, my life (at the moment) allows for this. We are in the mountains where I am afforded this immense luxury. We are alone, Tim and I, and the weather is wet and cold, and there is little that demands our attention. And so I have slept in, and I have sipped my coffee in pajamas, and I have sat and watched as the thick fog rolls and intermittent rain sweeps across our steep, bare, backyard meadow.
There is little on my mind as I’ve done this. There has been no grand planning and there have been few deep thoughts but for the strong, heartful prayers for people I love who are facing real challenge or heartbreak. (It is a list that seems extraordinarily long these days.) I have read more than usual; I have written exactly NONE.
I have been content, it seems, to let the days pass.
I DON’T EVEN KNOW what the point of this post is, to tell you the truth, other than to acknowledge there are seasons that are fruitful and seasons that feel dormant; there is planning and growing and stretching–and there is resetting. Resting. And releasing, perhaps, although about that last point I am not sure at all, for “releasing” is surely something that requires consideration and thought. Forethought and awareness.
HERE IS WHAT I do know. In these first days of 2020 God has enveloped my world in silence and fog, and He has tuned my heart to stillness.
It feels, I would have to say, as if He has set my soul to sit, and to watch, and for once, simply to wait.
*Lest you feel the need to debate that last point, yes, there are varying positions on the matter, and so I turned here for confirmation of the point. And anyway. Why complicate matters.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO a writer and blogger I adore, Hannah Brencher, wrote a beautiful post about the pressure she feels in our inevitable rush to Christmas. It’s a topic that is neither shocking nor eye-opening–I’ll bet you’ve felt the pounding heart, as well, as we plan, shop, list, wrap, cook, decorate, prepare.
Still Hannah went on to say something that, all this time later, is still with me. Instead of focusing on the payoff of a perfect Christmas day–instead of looking forward with such anticipation (and such high expectation) to the big stuff to come, she suggested this:
Let’s just pretend it can’t get better than this right here.
Let’s just pretend it can’t get better than this right here.
IT’S A BEAUTIFUL way to approach the season, I think, settling your heart into the hundred thousand moments of prelude. As if these are the moments, themselves, that matter most. Because it is true, wouldn’t you agree? In so many ways? Pulling from TREE BOX NUMBER TWO the worn Rudolph ornament your childhood friend’s sweet mother gave you all those years ago. Opening the mailbox to a stack of red envelopes. Finding the very most perfect little something something for someone who means the world.
Hannah’s words have come back to me time and again in these early days of December. I feel my anxiety rising and there they are, wrapping round and round me like a quilt meant to stop a chill. They remind me to slow down, to settle down, to take note.
And to smile. To simply smile, in acknowledgement of the sweet, simple moments that are the heart of this holiday season. To remember life is good, people are good, that sometimes love and joy and peace come to you in a hundred thousand tiny ways.
We’d planned it for a while, this trip to the mountains for Thanksgiving week, and we both knew it would do our souls well. It always does. There is a sweet gravity in these hills that anchors me, that sets my feet on solid ground and holds them there, working as a poultice on whatever ails me. It is the same for Tim who finds peace in a place where, as he says, the earth is just as God intended. We are mighty blessed to have this pretty spot where most everywhere we look our eyes take in North Carolina’s Black Mountains. The entire range lies before us like an accordion fold pulled open. It begins to our left, east–then spreads wide, knob to peak to gap to peak for 15 miles. It descends just in front of us via Big Butt (meant to be Butte, locals say) having intersected the Great Craggy Mountains just behind, which roll on to west.
The view this offers is spectacular, changing from month to month, hour to hour, minute to minute as the weather shifts or light passes across. We find ourselves endlessly fascinated. And deeply humbled, I will tell you that, with a profound yet grounding reminder that life goes on, that seasons change and plants and animals carry on doing what they do day after day whether we are watching or not, whether we are here or not, that it has been this way for thousands of years.
It is not difficult to feel small here, and to count that a blessing.
It is not difficult to feel all the blessings, every time you’re here.
IT’S THE SAME, I know, for folks when they make the long trek up the winding road to visit. There are so many reasons I find these to be some of the most joyful times of my life. For one, once you’ve traveled up up up the unpaved road–wondering more than once if this can possibly be right, if you’ll ever, ever get there–you find you are as removed from proper civilization as it felt you might be. It is a strange sensation when what you are used to is traffic and noise and lights and activity. You step out of the car, here, and the sound that greats you is wind. Or nothing, if it is a calm day, but for the birds or the buzzing bees if they are about. (Until I come running, that is, inevitably squealing YOU ARE HERE! with delight.) You catch your breath then catch the view and breath leaves again, it requiring every molecular space in a body to take it in. And that’s just what happens–I swear. You stand quiet on this mountain for a nanosecond and it will pull you in–no, no that’s not quite right–the mountain comes to you, is more what happens, you feel the glory and close your eyes and before you can open them no space divides, no boundary separates as you become one in the same with the beauty, all the beauty that surrounds.
It is a feeling both lovely and overwhelming, at least for me. Because at the same time you feel the beauty, you also feel wild, the native, the unrefined.
The unspun truth.
AND SO WE are here for Thanksgiving, for which I am thankful, and for which I am roasting a turkey and making dressing and my mother’s gravy (I will stir like hell) and my world famous Bourbon Cranberries. Dear friends are driving up following their own family gathering and have graciously agreed to eat Thanksgiving Round Two with us tomorrow night. I will miss having Eliza and her sweet Preston this time around but who can complain as we now live so close? And there will be football and fires and hiking (motivation pending) with just enough of a chance for snow to keep things interesting.
AND SO. WHEREVER you are, however you are marking this let’s give thanks holiday weekend, I hope it is filled with people and experiences that bring you joy, that make you feel wonder, that remind you blessings and beauty abound. And that grace will find you–always, always–grace will find you if you give it space, if you allow your soul room to breathe.