I’d like to tell you that I’ve got things figured out. The mind would love to have answers that are linear and repeatable. The heart, on the other hand, takes a more circuitous route because it lives in the forest where doers do not tread but with beings who wander, guided by seasons and the tug of the moon.
Since I’ve gotten my first vaccine, I’ve been thinking about what happens when COVID as we know it is behind us. I have a feeling that I’m going to find that joy and relief have company from their murkier cousins, anger, numbness, sadness and confusion. I think my body has some limbic residue. Over the year, I’ve feared the very air I breathe, felt the divide between people become even more hateful, hurtful and cavernous, and watched mom in her nursing home room, unable to hold her hand, die on a Zoom screen. What happens when fight, flight, freeze have nowhere to go? In gentler times when the danger abates the nervous system regulates, but these stress responses have been stuck on “on.” As a result, I know I will have to go through some stuff before my body metabolizes this last year. I come to this honestly—they’re called survival defenses for a reason. But the body keeps score to use the title of Bassel van der Kolk’s seminal book* on trauma and the body.
So, I decided to do a self-led, home-based 4-day silent retreat. I used Natalie Goldberg’s, longtime Zen practitioner and author, retreat structure, “Sit, Write, Walk,” alternating between sitting meditations, writing meditations and walking meditations. I’ve had a lot of silence this year but it’s different when you make it an intention. The retreat was not easy. Mother Teresa said, “God is silence, prayer is listening.” Well, my listening felt like trying to find a radio station while driving through the middle of Nebraska. My static had serious cravings for my go-to distractions—just a peak at the NYT, a skip around on the Internet, maybe email or Facebook, call someone, what’s on Netflix, has the refrigerator gnomes left any goodies since last time I looked? The difference was that with my intention of silence, I noticed.
There is something that shifts when we deepen our attention. It’s not like taking a Tylenol. It moves on its own time, but it moves. So, in the midst of my struggle and following a bad night’s sleep, I made my breakfast of champions—savory steel cut oats. I made them slow, nowhere to go, nothing else to do, smelling, tasting, feeling each step. Chopped onions and celery sautéed until translucent and just beginning to caramelize, added chopped garlic, cilantro and jalapeño peppers cooking until fragrant, added diced carrots and broccoli, pureed sweet potatoes, stock, and cooked steel cut oats, and then simmered until the vegetables were just tender. Finally, topped it off with a soft poached egg. I hope this sounds as good as it was!
Then I hiked to Twin Peaks. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s one of the highest points in San Francisco with a 360° view. Breathtaking on a clear day and on this day, it was gloriously glistening. I laid down a blanket and got myself into lotus position (or close enough) and began a lovingkindness meditation, sending kindness and compassion (our superpower) to myself and to those who came into my mind’s eye. At some point mom appeared but I could only see the back of her head. It seemed she had somewhere to go. Most of my grief over these last four months has been tight, broken and sharp. But on this spring day, when California poppies dotted the hillside and there was a soft breeze of fresh Pacific Ocean air, something shifted. I wanted to choose spring. No one told me it was time, but the dirt, rock and sky sent an invitation. I loved the sun and let the sun love me back. I sensed the spring flowers like promises I thought would not be kept yet they were singing. Yes, my trip around the sun included winter, fear and death but also this—new life and possibility. I told mom that I wanted to dance with the bumble bees and hummingbirds as they flew from flower to flower with their moans and urgent kisses. “Gimme some of that Kool-Aid,” I chuckled. And Mom began to float away. For that moment, I let her go with a slight smile. Something in my body released, just a bit. There would be tomorrows with other fragments of grief but on this day, two weeks after the vernal equinox, I chose spring.
* Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, (Penguin Random House, 2015)
If spring had a sound track . . .
James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma "Here Comes the Sun"
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.