from what i know, from what i hear, and from what i gather, there’s a miasma of gloom hovering over the landscape, not unlike an early morning fog that forgets to scuttle away once the sun burns down.
it’s a despair in general and in particular. it’s a despair that has long been casting its shadow, as we seem to be dwelling in an epoch of upheavals. from a rage that’s spilled even into the lanes of the little village where i live (did i really deserve a middle finger for driving exactly the speed limit on a curvy hill?) to venom poured onto airwaves and social media feeds (excuse me for backing away from all but a quick scroll for news), it’s gotten harsh out there. and institutions we counted on seem to be pulling out the rug.
but i read something this week that reinforced what’s become my saving grace, though reading it helped me to see more clearly that i needn’t feel guilty for reaching toward my apothecarial shelf of simplest balms. i’ve been making a practice of stitching the tiniest joys into my day, and pausing long enough and deeply enough to let them sink deep down into the crevices, the nooks and crannies and channels of the soul where the life spark burns.
i might pause in my dashing down the walk to listen to the gurgle of my bubbling fountain. i might plop in a wicker chair to watch the slanting sunlight turn golden a flapping hydrangea leaf. i might catch mama wren ferrying a worm to her chirpy little ones. they’re the littlest wisps of joy, the things that percolate my heart and soul and each and every summer’s day.
what i read this week were wisdoms from mary pipher, an american clinical psychologist, long rooted in lincoln, nebraska (which in my book certifies her down-to-earth wisdoms as deep as the roots of the prairie dropseed that rolls across the miles). pipher, whose wisdoms are too boundless to be bottled, is best known for reviving ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls, her 1994 rescue guide for an america she calls a “girl-destroying place,” and more recently she’s written women rowing north, a book on aging gracefully. (note to self: please read.)
this week, though, she wrote an op-ed for the new york times, in which, after outlining the simple joys with which she unfurls her day––a morning cup of coffee, watching the sun rise over a lake, listening to the sounds of sparrows, the commonest of common birds––she writes that she is “leading a double life.”
Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So, we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless.
Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson.
As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.Mary Pipher
she goes on to write that in an age where ukraine and afghanistan and yemen are everyday news, and the horrors therein threaten to numb us, where the american political landscape some days resembles an extreme-wrestling match, nothing short of world-class coping skills are called for. and thus she lists three of her wellsprings: her grandmother who raised five children on a ranch during the dust bowl and the great depression; thich nhat hahn, the buddhist monk and zen master; and her years-long study of psychology.
her wisdoms are these: her grandmother urged her to “be the person you want to live with every day of your life,” and on the last day of her life she told mary that her life goal had been “to leave the world a better place;” from thich nhat hahn, who’d witnessed great suffering in vietnam, she not only absorbed his practices of mindfulness, anchoring herself in the present moment, but also his deepest teaching about our interconnectedness with all of life, a worldview that finds healing through reaching out to the frightened, the hungry, the ravaged in all its forms; and, from psychology, pipher learned that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it, feel it in our bones, explore it, extract its meaning, and then muster the resources to move forward. here she prescribes: “find ways to balance our despair with joy.”
maybe take a minute to let each one of those soak in. . .
“be the person you want to live with. . .”
“present moment. beautiful moment. . .”
“action is an antidote to despair. . .”
Most of us cannot be great heroes. However, we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes.
to be an ordinary hero is to find someone close to home who’s hurting, and be the healing balm. resist the urge to flip back someone else’s insolence. even on a day when you might prefer pure silence, invite in someone whose days are defined by loneliness. make your front stoop or your back porch a place where the welcome sign is often posted.
go about the business of gathering up simple joys; know that they’re the fuel to carry you across the long and lonely miles. revel in the red bird who alights just beyond your window sill, and serenades the coming darkness. follow a butterfly across your garden. watch the night stars turn on. keep an eye out for the fireflies’ first flickering.
make room for joy. joy is a necessary oxygen for both soul and psyche. without it, we shrivel, furl inward, gasp for breath amid the not-unlimited allotment of days we have here.
those joys needn’t be grand, needn’t strike up any band. we’re on the hunt here for simple joys, barely detectable threads of joy; weave them through your day.
they just might embolden you for the long haul, the long and seemingly unbearable haul.
where will you find joy today? how will you make room?
i just yesterday got page proofs for my next book, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (pub date: march 21, 2023), and that means i will be underwater for the next two weeks making sure there are no runaway commas, or words wrongly landed amid a sentence. it’s nerve-wracking and eye-straining, but it moves me closer to the finish line. i might not get a chance to circle back to reply to comments for awhile, but sooner or later, i promise i will. and soon as i can i’ll show you how pretty someone made the pages of my little book. till then, take care, and take joy, as tasha tudor always insisted…
photo above by will kamin.
p.s. here’s a little joy that slipped under the transom yesterday, when my beloved brother brian found my little book available for pre-order in — get this!!! — park slope and switzerland. excuse me while i gulp. (the actual cover, which i’ve not yet been told i can share, is peeking out from under the pre-order banner on the community bookstore, now a shop added to my must-visit list. xoxoxo thank you little bookstores, online and real-world.)