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close up photo of water lily flowerIn these days of social distancing and self-quarantine, it’s a good time to shore each other up — virtually, of course — and offer the human nutrients of encouragement and inspiration. We can’t see each other in person, but we can still check in. So, how are you?

For those of you who are sick at home with the Coronavirus (COVID-19), our prayers are with you. For the rest of us, hearing about states shutting down and shoppers fighting over toilet paper, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed right now. 

I could tell you not to get stressed, but that doesn’t even seem reasonable. What I will offer is this suggestion: Gather all the facts you can from reputable sources. Do all your due diligence, then take your mind off everything virulent and volatile. That includes viruses, of course, but also people who are trying to amp you up, make you anxious, or otherwise just get on your nerves.

This is a good time to protect all that is precious to you, and remember: The order to shelter in place extends to your soul. Do all the things you can to stay sheltered in a place of peace. Take your mind off the catastrophe as a whole and focus on one thing at a time.

Remind yourself that you’re doing everything you can at this moment. You’re safe at home. Everything is okay where you are. Let it be okay. Don’t go back and check the stats every ten minutes. How many cases are there in my town today? What’s the latest terrifying news? 

Step away from the stress. Sit down and decompress. All will be well and life will go on. We’ll get through this together, and before you know it, the “new normal” will just be “normal” again. 

You’ve seen the memes, the stories on the news. People are having a difficult time with social distancing. I ran into a church friend at the grocery store last night, and it was all I could do to refrain from hugging her. Right now, being together is not good for us. But how can we cope with being alone? It will take a journey to the center of ourselves to find the answers.

Though you fill a room with silence,
you are not alone.
Though you thrash in a sea of panic,
you are not lost.
Instead, remember:
everything you do is sacred;
every movement a dance.
Let your touch be only healing.
Draw energy from the sun.
Turn with purpose toward
what is essential and cull
with tenderness what is not.
Do not lose yourself.
Let the holy within you rise
to greet silence as a friend
and enter into prayer
that moves and lives
and has being in you
for as long as it lasts.
Gethsemane surrounds us.
But Easter is coming.

Blind with panic, we cannot see
God working, fingers flying,
amassing miracles, accruing saints,
laying hands on the dying, the mourning.
Deliver us, Lord, from this plague,
and in return, we vow
to treasure blessed boredom,
the hole of silence round as a mouth
in mid-yawn,
to bless each ordinary day,
to remember how it felt to need,
keenly, and let no other feel it
though selfish safety finds us;
to see we snub the least of these
at our own quite pointed peril.

Maybe it’s not news to you, but it was to me: Human beings, scientifically speaking, are not designed to be truly happy. It has to do with evolution and the large frontal lobes in our brains — well, I’ll leave the explanation to the experts. Suffice to say, if you keep trying to be happy and can’t quite get there, it’s understandable. We’re not meant to. But why?

I think of happiness as a “whole-cloth” experience — it’s not something that one part of your life or experiences can achieve. Having money won’t do it. A good relationship won’t do it, if you are lacking in other areas. Happiness is holistic. And we really can’t get that totality here on earth; not if we have even a drop of human kindness running through us. And without that kindness, without empathy and fellow-feeling and mercy, personal happiness just doesn’t mean much. Does it?

We pluck at pieces:
this job, that pair of shoes.
It is empty in the face of want,
a bit of bread when a feast is needed.
If you can wrap yourself in happiness
and turn blind eyes to need,
you will find your coat is made of ashes
and will not keep you warm.
We rise together, a family of yeast
or we sink like a fish with a belly full of stones.

In light of Lent, let us contemplate perhaps the lowliest of substances, dust. Ash Wednesday was yesterday; it is a day on which we are reminded that we are all dust and that we will return to dust one day. But is that really so bad? I am reminded of a glorious poem by Carl Sandburg called “Grass.” In a similar vein (and with apologies), I present the following.

Stir up a commotion,
Watch me rise and fall.
I am dust; I persist.

And when the woman is caught in adultery
I will be Christ’s pregnant pause, his ledger.
And when blind men plead for a cure,
I will be made mud — and then, a miracle.
And when apostles shake me from their feet,
I will be a pronouncement against the inhospitable.
I can be swept, but never contained. I always return.
I am dust.
Let me settle.

rule of thirds photography of pink and white lotus flower floating on body of waterThe narrator on the meditation app that I use called HeadSpace said in a soothing voice, “We’re training the mind to both let go of difficulties and familiarize itself with calm, clarity and contentment.” As it turns out, that voice actually belongs to the company’s founder, Andy Puddicombe. Once I got past the fact that his accent reminds me of the Geico Gecko from the insurance company’s television commercials 🦎, I found the meditations relaxing. 

His suggestion to “let go of difficulties” gave me pause. While focusing on the positive is beneficial for mental health, discontent and anger are red flags that tell you that something needs attention. 

As Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, James Carmody says in this article, humans are wired to worry. “Tension is often unnoticed in the midst of managing everyday demands, but its background discomfort sends us looking for relief in something more pleasant like a snack, a screen, a drink or a drug.”

Those points of tension in your body are the way your psyche asks you for a relief valve. For me, along with meditation, I decompress with prayer, exercise, and knitting. Things that allow me to just breathe and be. 

At the risk of sounding like a guru-gecko, your to-do list will always be there in some form, so give yourself a break. Moments of repose can help bring you back to center.

In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up and realizes he’s been turned into a horrible insect. I had a similar, though less pestiferous, experience last night. I was all cuddled up in my blankets, when I realized that my own heartbeat — in combination with the heartbeat of my cat, who sleeps so close to me I literally cannot move — was making the blankets reverberate: ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. It was like being inside a cocoon. I wondered briefly, sleepily, what I would be reborn into.

Wouldn’t it be nice to end each day by completely shedding your old self, only to be born anew? Wouldn’t it be great to leave past mistakes behind — permanently? What if we treated each new day as a chance to start over?

How about today
you wake up and do not take
up your old soul (you know the one,
grubby and tattered, in need of baptism
or at least an industrial washing),
but put on instead fresh new wings?
Let them lift you above the expectations
and the petty seething of those so earthbound
they cannot fathom metamorphosis. Be today
an altogether better thing. Leave your old self
sleeping in your bed. Shed it like chrysalis, like a shell
you’ve grown too large for. And when you see someone
soaring, greet them with amnesia of what worm they were
before. Let the past go like pollen dropping from your feet.
Examine a new leaf. Let your vision go skyward.
There is nowhere you cannot go.

There was a time in my life that I seriously considered becoming a nun. Some people in my life are baffled by this. Perhaps I don’t fit into their idea of what a nun should look like or be. That’s common among those who have not spent much time among women religious. I have, and I know them to be individuals, humans. They are smart and funny and brave…they also drink beer and cuss and find themselves wanting. My calling ended up being to a life quite different from what I’d imagined. Still, when I think back to that time, I want to say to those doubters, “Do you not remember being young and in love?” Because I do.

I fell. Or rather,
I flew. I floated,
feet barely brushing
the sturdier surfaces of the earth.
You don’t forget your first and I do not;
we smuggle messages (he to me) in secret,
in sudden, stark realizations and serendipitous surprise.
Together we are children. We are as ancient as old bones.
Love lands lightly as a feather, as snow falling on the ground,
even now. After all I’ve done to desert it. After a lifetime,
we are still in love. One faraway day, we might even meet.
I can hardly contain my hope.

You know the guy (or gal). The one that takes up space in your head, whose very voice you cannot stand to hear. The one that makes you grit your teeth, scream in frustration, want to resort to acts of violence. THAT guy (or gal). Mental health workers tell us not to let someone like that take up real estate in our heads or hearts because it’s not good for us. Why empower them that way? But it’s more than that.

I believe we will all be called onto the carpet at the end of our lives here on earth, and we will have to answer for our sins, lacks and weaknesses. THAT person will have to do this, too. Let God judge him (or her). But don’t add to your own liabilities by harboring ill will toward someone. Don’t let THAT person add to your deficits.

Forgive them — even if you have to do it multiple times daily — and love them. (You don’t have to like or respect them. Those things are earned.) After all, you can only change yourself. Make yourself the best you.

Lord, you know them:
They try the patience of saints.
They take what is good and render it sullied.
They walk on hearts in their big black boots.
They laugh at those on the margins because they live smack dab
in the center of the page, where nothing can assail them.
Safe. Satisfied.

Lord, I am old enough to know
there is little justice on this earth.
Let me not become a part of the problem.
Take my soul and bleach it clean.
Take my heart and reshape it like clay.
Take my voice and redirect it from pain to prayer.
Let me love the least lovable, so as to be
the least like them that I can be.

If I had to analyze my spiritual journey, I’m afraid it would look like a jagged series of hills and valleys — up and down, up and down. There are probably times when I even go backwards. The road to self-knowledge, to goodness and to God is hardly a straight line. Even saints take circuitous routes (just look at Augustine, a self-proclaimed sinner supreme who turned it around…eventually).

How do we chart our progress? Through actions? Prayer? Some sort of peaceful inner feeling? Only God knows for sure.

Time on the road has been fraught.
I struggle with a lack of maps
and too many mysterious signposts
for one weary wanderer to divine.
You’ve sent me, I see, on the slow course;
baptism bought me no bridges. But —
I catch sight of you often. There,
you peer at me through a sunset;
I sight you in the looped letters
of my own name on an envelope.
Again and again, you elude me,
a child playing hide and seek.
Why can I not keep up with you?
You ought to be less spry
after all these millennia.
Still, I plod. Put one foot down,
and then another, testing for
quicksand, for precipitous drops.
Knowing the way will be arduous,
but ending in green fields, rest,
and radiant reunion.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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