in which we all begin to live like monks
because i don’t mess around with red-ringed buggers, i perked my ears at the first mention of this spiky-edged invader. i all but pulled up the draw bridges. all but clambered under the bed covers.
but then i decided that rather than quaking under said covers i might be wise to consider this my short-term spell in monastic living. call me brother babs.
i rise before the sun, step outside as first light seeps across the inky edge of night. drink in the gallons and gallons of birdsong. it’s ambrosial out there (a word i picked up in all my monastic reading this week, a word that aptly describes the velvety notes of interlaced and twining love songs from the trees). i don’t hear a single human-made sound, except for the far-off whoosh of a morning train, and even that is drowned against the clamor rising from the itty-bitty lungs of all the flocks declaring start of reproduction season.
i could stay out there all day, the one sure place where i can breathe. where i don’t imagine the virus chasing after me. (the grocery store i find an exercise in weave and dodge, surrounded by masses wearing masks, imagining with my x-ray vision whole crops of red-ringed dots splattered all across whatever i’m about to pluck from bins or shelves. you now witness how my days in microbiology labs come back to haunt me, how they exercise my far-too-active imagination. how my special powers allow me to see otherwise invisible objects.)
i’ve been down on my knees for good spells this week, but not so much in prayer as in scouring-the-earth mode. i’ve heard reports from parts south that spring is actually rising, breaking forth from slumber. here in the heartland, here not far from the great lake michigan (which i can hear quite clearly these days from my so-called hermitage), there’s barely a hint, though i’ve been raking back the leaves, all but coaxing vernal stirrings. unwilling to dawdle while spring takes its time, i’ve pulled out the clippers. hauled in what looks like armload of spiky sticks. but in fact it’s my annual exercise in forcing, forcing spring, all the more essential this time round, in this the corona siege. (see above.)
i have been known to leave the premises. to take a morning constitutional, to ply the sidewalks. that’s where i ran across this:
praise be the children and their chalk. praise be the ones who spread the gospel of faith and hope and calm.
because i believe in stockpiling but not the toilet-paper kind, i’ve been busy all week tucking away bits and morsels for your consumption here at the virtual kitchen table. i’ve clipped smart paragraphs and poems that packed a punch. here’s some of what i’ve hoarded just for you:
margaret renkl is a writer from outside nashville, now a once-a-week columnist in the new york times. this week she wrote about the balm for jangled nerves, the balm that oozes from the earth:
The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context.
a few paragraphs later she wrote this: …reminds me of Alice Walker’s words: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
and then there was this: The scent of freshly turned soil works on the human brain the same way antidepressants do.**
that last bit from margaret set me off on a bit of a goose chase to dig into this scientific finding that turning over trowel really does do wonders for the soul. sure enough, i found:
Researchers from Bristol University and University College London discovered using laboratory mice, that a “friendly” bacteria commonly found in soil activated brain cells to produce the brain chemical serotonin and altered the mice’s behaviour in a similar way to antidepressants.
When they treated mice with Mycobacterium vaccae they found that it did indeed activate a particular group of brain neurons that produce serotonin – in the interfascicular part of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRI) of the mice, to be precise. They established this by measuring the amount of c-Fos in the area, a biochemical marker whose presence indicates that serotonin releasing neurons have fired.
Serotonin, also known as 5-HT (short for 5-hydroxytryptamine), is found in the gut, brain, nerves and blood of humans and other animals. There are 14 different receptors that bind to serotonin each working a different property of this highly multi-functional chemical messenger.
The friendly bacteria in this study appear to be having an antidepressant effect in a third way, by increasing the release of serotonin.
and because poetry will always be sacred text to me, because poetry has a knack for seeping into those unspoken nooks and crannies that make us who we are, i found this from one of my favorites, dorianne laux, who calls herself something of an unschooled poet, a poetess who worked as a sanitarium cook, a gas station manager and a maid before earning a B.A. at 36, and whose poetry is said to be “compassionate witness to the everyday.”
because in some ways we are all carrying the load of grief, because we all teeter on the edge of holding it together or otherwise, this poetic bit of wisdom and truth struck me hard this week. we are all in this together. the kindness of strangers just might be our saving grace. as we move through our so-called monastic days and nights….
For the Sake of Strangers
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another–a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them–
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
because i imagine we’re a table of survivors and stockpilers of another sort, what saving graces have you stocked up on this week?
and before i go, i am stockpiling all the birthday love in the world for two of my favorite people in the whole wide world who happen to have back-to-back birthdays today and tomorrow. they are both best friends forever, and they both live and breathe the purest most radiant love that ever there was. happy birthday sweet P, and happy almost birthday auntie M. xoxoxoxoxo
may you be safe and strong in this week ahead. look back here for any particularly urgent (and delicious) morsels i find in the days ahead. i tuck them down below in the comments. we are all in this together, each and every gentle kindness our path toward the light on the other side…..
Margaret Renkl’s statement is so very true during this gorgeous yet odd spring. But the purple finch is nesting in on my front porch and life springs anew. B, I always knew I liked the smell of fresh dirt & compost. Thanks for teaching me why I do!
i loved that bit about the dirt. how amazing is that? the wonders of science never cease to bewitch me. when i mentioned dispatches from the south that spring had arisen, you of course were the unnamed author of such dispatches, you with your glorious images of cherry blossoms and magnolia abounding. i have one or two periscopes of scilla, tempting with its cobalt blue. but no true bursting yet, my snow boots are still posted by the backdoor. on guard for muck and mud as the earth begins its thaw….
keep those dispatches coming. you are hope in a snapshot! xoxoxo
I’ve been leaning on Joanna Macy (and Rilke, of course) lately. I started a blog/email newsletter to help me stay sane at home, and I wrote about little moments I’m enjoying this week: https://ivy.substack.com/
It’s wonderful to have online spaces like this … already established, ones you know will be nourishing. Thank you, as always, for sending some goodness into the world. ❤
ah, dear ivy! leave it to you to grab a pandemic by the neck and seize the moment to start a survival blog, one that dips far more heavily into philosophy and timeless wisdom than how-to-can for the apocalypse. brava! joanna macy is always great company, especially so for these monastic days. i’ll go grab her off my shelf. i’m just coming to the end of CS Lewis, whose Surprised by Joy leapt off the shelf after i saw a one-actor play of his spiritual awakening…..
i’ve subscribed, and will be reading along xoxoxo thank you!
A few months ago, I read “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Toward the end of the book, Alexander explains how he got through his house arrest by saying he lives by two rules. 1. Always be cheerful. 2. Don’t let your circumstances define you; rather you should define your circumstances.Those words have been my saving grace recently.
wise words, dear jack. i’ve heard that’s a most wonderful read. last night my homebound college wonder wanted me to watch shawshank redemption with him (he’s a fabulous movie watching partner because he tells me when to close my eyes, he promises the worst scenes — the ones i didn’t watch — are behind us, and he swears there will be an ending i will love) and one of the messages extracted from that (netflix crashed halfway through so we’re not finished watching) is your second: don’t let the circumstances define you, and its corollary: define the interior as much as is possible when external constraints push in on you…..
may we all find ways to live inside moments of joy or calm or serenity however it speaks most deeply to us……
“The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Selah.
ahhhhhhh! my heart just leapt! hullo and sending love to the high desert, beautiful PJV! xoxoxo
Love sent back in return, beautiful bam! Sending tight hugs and much love. Trusting and believing … xoxo
Barbara, what a time of possibility and opportunity! Thank you for being an angel now and always! xoxo
see the pope’s wisdom below. oh my…..
just spent an hour with Pope Francis in a St. Peter’s Square emptied of all but one white-robed soul. i never thought any of us would live to see the sight of that famed square, empty. glistening with rain.
here is how Pope Francis, bless him, began his homily. i know many who come to this table aren’t Roman Catholic, but in Francis we have a holy man, to be certain. his voice in this storm is one i will listen to…..(will post the link after i post this opening passage. breathe it in breathe it in deeply…)
“When evening had come” (Mk 4:35). The Gospel passage we have just heard begins like this. For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.
here’s the link to the transcript. and i will find link to recording, too. worth your time. even the first half hour of it……i watched with my sweet boy alone in new haven, the one who’s been alone for all of three weeks now….
just saw this, a conversation with Ross Gay and Krista Tippett, at the OnBeing Project this week. ross is a poet, gardener and joy-seeker who wrote The Book of Delights, which i reviewed for the Tribune a couple years ago. here’s the link if you care to listen or read the transcript. we could all use a little joy-seeking and practicing delight right now.
i know that the struggles to grasp this new normal come in ebbs and flows. and this gray morning, after a night of thunder and lightning, makes me wonder how long this might go on…..
so, for now, for the struggles, here’s ross gay in conversation with the great krista tippett:
and now, from the health & safety files, this really fabulous video chat with an ER doc was sent to me by a dear friend of the chair who asked me to post it. i found it really really smart, straight-forward, and clarifying.
it’s a youtube recording of the doctor talking to family members, all of whom sent in questions so he knew what they wanted to know. this is the note that preceded it: It’s a critical care doctor from the busiest hospital in NYC hosting a video chat with his extended family. There is a ton of great education on COVID19 and what you can do to protect yourself. It has definitely helped relieve of much of my anxiety about this whole situation.
Dr. David Price of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City shares information in a March 22 Zoom call with family and friends on empowering and protecting families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
and here tis:
seems to be a motherlode of a morning, here in Comment Central, where we offer the comments as a rolling public square, where the virtual kitchen table becomes a compendium of things to make you feel safer, saner, and soothes your jangled nerves.
here is a beautiful poem from italy, from a glorious italian poet, mariangela gualtieri. the final stanzas might carry you through the day……
“March the Ninth Twenty Twenty”
A Poem by Mariangela Gualtieri, trans. by Lucy Rand and Clarissa Botsford
I’m telling you this
we needed to stop.
We knew. We all felt it
that it was too furious,
our frenzy. Being inside of things.
Outside of our selves.
Squeeze every hour – make it yield.
We needed to stop
and we couldn’t.
We needed to do it together.
Slow down the race.
But we couldn’t.
There was no human force
that could hold us back.
And since this
was for all of us a tacit wish
like an unconscious will –
perhaps our species has obeyed
loosened the bonds that protect
our seed. Opened
the innermost cracks
and let it in.
Perhaps this is why there was a leap
in the species – from the bat to us.
Something in us wanted to be opened.
Perhaps, I don’t know.
Now we are at home.
It is extraordinary what is happening.
And there is gold, I believe, in this strange time.
Perhaps there are gifts.
Nuggets of gold for us. If we help one another.
There is a very strong call
of the species now and as a species
we must each see ourselves. A common fate
holds us here. We knew it. But not well enough.
Either all of us, or no one.
The earth is powerful. Truly alive
I feel it thinking a thought
that we do not know.
And with what’s happening now? Let us consider
whether the earth is not what’s moving.
Whether the law that rules
the entire universe, whether what’s happening, I wonder,
isn’t the full expression of that law
that governs us too – just like
every star – every particle of the cosmos.
Whether the dark matter was this
being bound together in an ardor
for life, with the sweep of death that comes
to rebalance every species.
Keep it within its dimensions, in its place,
going in the right direction. It is not us
who made heaven.
An imposing voice, without words
tells us to stay home now, like children
who are in trouble and don’t know why,
and won’t get kisses, won’t be hugged.
Each within a suspension
that takes us back, perhaps to the slowness
of ancient ancestors, of mothers.
Look more at the sky,
daub a dead man ochre. Bake bread
for the first time. Look intently at a face. Sing
a child softly to sleep. For the first time
hold someone else’s hand tight
feel the strength of the agreement. That we are together.
A single organism. The whole species
we carry within us. We are saving it inside us.
To that grasp of a palm
in another person’s palm
to that simple act that we are now forbidden –
we will return with expanded awareness.
We’ll be here, more attentive, I think. Our hand
will be more delicate in the doing of life.
Now that we know how sad it is
to stand one meter apart.
don’t know about you, but i could use a bird song opera today. this sent by a most beloved friend of the chair who knew a bird opera just might make my heart soar today,,,:(promise you’ll be delighted…..) xoxox
That was a delight! Thank you.
Hello beautiful friend! Glad you’re up and about, post serpentine adventure.