Friday, March 27, 2020

Remembering To Breathe

Looking upriver as the tide goes out.
I like grocery shopping. I take my time and find it relaxing. I like to look at products, sometimes for an embarrassing long time. Sometimes I have a hard time deciding what I want. It’s a process and I enjoy it, as it works as a relaxation technique for my brain.
I’m even able to tune out the blaring music that bounces off the high, steel ceiling, and ignore the other shoppers. I’m not there to socialize, I’m there to select my groceries (who you calling an  introvert?!).

My first foray into the grocery store since Nova Scotia went into a State of Emergency happened earlier this week, and it taught me something about myself.
I already know that “panic” is my default setting, but there’s a big difference between panicking the first time you find a tick on your leg and panicking because THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE STORE during a viral pandemic.

When I pushed my cart through the automatic doors and entered the store, my plan was simple: Get in and get out as quickly as possible. Pick up all the items on my large list as quickly as possible. Stay away from people as much as possible.
Unfortunately, I had to go in the afternoon rather than the morning so there were more people shopping than I was comfortable with.

All of a sudden, I realized how little space there is for “physical distancing” inside a grocery store. The aisles aren’t wide enough for two people to keep two meters apart if we are passing. I tried to hold back, to let others get their stuff and get going,
but right away, in produce,
there was a woman who was TAKING HER TIME.
Just grab the peppers, lady, and keep moving.
I couldn’t stay still. I had to power by – holding my breath, averting my eyes.

Two shoppers wore masks. At least four employees were shopping for phoned-in orders.
I turned around and left an aisle because I couldn’t go past a woman gazing at the cans of soup. The coolers holding the milk products were the busiest spot.

I kept holding my breath – to keep my moist breath in, to keep others’ droplets out. Not sure if it helps, but holding my breath also served to mute the instinct to chit-chat.

There was an older woman, with a small cart, walking around slowly and I now regret I didn’t speak to her. I sort of smiled, but I wish I’d spoken with her. She seemed lonely.

Reflecting on my experience now, I realize my panic default snapped into high gear when I went into the store and I had tunnel vision. I was in “speed” mode and not really considering my distancing. I’ve NEVER shopped so quickly or with such intensity.
What brought this home to me, in reflecting, was that I didn’t read the signs at the checkout that explained where to stand and when to unload your cart – and I read everything. I just couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t read the words, I couldn’t stop moving.
That’s all I wanted to do. Get my groceries and get out of there.

It was the barrier on the way out that almost undid me. For someone raised white and middle class in central Canada, who has never travelled or worked in a third world country, who does not have a family history with segregation or assimilation or genocide in it, seeing the barricade of dry goods separating the out from the in suddenly made me want to cry.
And it was only guiding my direction, it wasn’t truly a wall.
But it marked that we are no longer in the Time Before. It reminded me that everything has changed, and will continue to change, and will remain changed when we reach the Time After.

When I returned home, and washed my hands, and unloaded the groceries, and washed my hands, and put away some of the groceries, and washed my hands, I put on my outside gear and took the dog for a walk by the river.
And I stopped holding my breath.
The wind cleansed my mind of anxiety.
The sunshine disinfected my spirit.
The moving water washed away the heartache.

In times of human catastrophe, we find our peace in nature.
With air and fire and earth and water.
With wind and sun and trees and river.

As long as we can step outside and breathe, feel the sun on our face, smell the dirt and grass, we are never truly isolated.

Looking downriver as the ice flows towards Port Howe.

NOTE added an hour later: Just saw on Facebook that a local grocery store has "flow markings" now - arrows pointing in one direction in each aisle. Hallelujah! While no one else will race around the grocery store like I do, at least we'll all be going in the same direction -- and I can just bump them along with my cart.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Out Standing In My Field Again

From this angle, my office looks lovely - you can't see my messy desk!

What a week it's turned out to be!
Nimbus (my publisher) and Vagrant Press (the fiction imprint) decided last week to start an online book club for the weeks/months we are in quarantine. They held a vote between four books, one of which was mine, and on Sunday, it was announced that Field Notes was chosen as the first book of the club.

My role in all this is to post once a day for seven days about something related to the book, including a video of me reading from one of the essays.
That 5 minute video took THREE HOURS to upload to the discussion group today! All hail rural satellite internet that is even slower than usual because of the increased volume of users stuck at home.
It was ridiculous (although I used the time to do two loads of laundry and read) but hopefully the effort was worthwhile for those watching me read from "Starry, Starry Night".

It's been wonderful to talk and think about Field Notes, the book, again, and to come up with ways to interact with readers. I still love my sweet little book - my first book - and wish there could be a follow up. Rural life is special, and disappearing, but if there's one thing this pandemic and quarantine has shown me, it's how lucky I am to live in the country.
If I ever had to choose between truly high-speed broadband and food... I certainly feel fortunate we have a big property where we can grow our own veggies.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Hope Shines, and Sings, and Breathes

Lighting up the chicken coop as a sign of  hope and solidarity.

There are moments when I feel very scared.
The news: the growing numbers, the overwhelmed hospitals, the caskets in Italy.
The weeks: one down for us in Nova Scotia, two more to go…and then two more…and two more…until weeks become months.
The work: disappearing, and no one knows when it will be business as usual.
The future: it’s na├»ve, and selfish, and hopeful to think about when we will get back to normal.

Business as usual. Back to normal.
To even use those phrases: A radical act of hope or an exercise in futility? This is going to get worse before it gets better, and out of that, I worry about domestic violence and suicide, food security and prescriptions, looting and home invasions. I am safe, I am well, and I know I will remain so – which frees up space in my mind and heart for those who are not, or will not be.
It seems foolish not to worry, it seems pointless to worry.
The news will get worse before it gets better.

These are the moments when I feel very scared.

I can’t allow those thoughts to overwhelm me. I work in my office, I watch the news – and then I go for a walk. A cleansing walk. I breathe in fresh air, I stand with the sun on my face, I listen to the birds.
As I took that photo this morning, at ten to seven, the birds were singing in the treetops, waiting for the feeders to arrive.
Feed the birds. Walk the dog. Scramble eggs. Watch a movie. Do yoga. Call a friend. Have a bath.

All we can do it take this one day, one week at a time, and not make plans for or assumptions about the future. The future is uncertain; in today, there is hope.
Which is why I turned on the Christmas lights hanging off the chicken coop. I saw a report on the Nova Scotia news the other night, and then a tweet out of Newfoundland: People are putting out and turning on their Christmas lights again.
Lights on for hope. Lights on for solidarity.
We’re not in the city, not many people will see our lights shining in the night, but they are there, connected to a power source so why not?
Why am I turning on my Christmas lights in March?
Why not?
The coloured lights shining in the dark actually shine into our bedroom so they were the last thing I saw before I closed my eyes to sleep, and the first thing I saw when I woke up in the pre-dawn dark.
Hope shining.
And there were cars on the road after dark last night, and cars on the road before the sun came up over the river this morning. Drivers thinking, “Why?”
And hopefully realizing, “Why not?”

With a smile on their face. 

We'll get through this. I hold onto that thought whenever I get scared. We'll get through this. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Self-Isolation: A Writer's Life

Saying hello to the two maple trees back in the woods.  

The other day, someone on Twitter reminded us we should start a "Covid-19" diary, apparently like many people did after the 9-11 terror attacks in 2001, so that we remember the details of what this global pandemic experience was like.
That's a great idea; I know from experience that we don't remember details like we think we will, that the further away from an event we get, the less we remember it clearly and precisely.
(I need to write down my experience with Dwayne's stroke in August 2018 before all those details fall away; now that I'm not talking about that first night and day as much, I know my sense of fear and urgency are fading.)

But for me, self-isolation is a way of life! I don't know how long it will be before I really feel the impact of this pandemic shutdown. Mondays are always church service day, and I have an interview to transcribe and an article due April 1. I have to write a message for church this Sunday, and there are little things to write up for my Facebook page.
Yes, we're still meeting for church this Sunday; it's a big sanctuary and there will be 20 people or less there. What has always bugged me -- how spread out people are in that huge space -- is now a bonus! We've been "social distancing" for years.
Perhaps when we move online for church, it will feel different, but since I intend to present those services from the empty sanctuary in town, I will have a "normal" Sunday routine.
I intend to carry on with message on the Alphabet of Faith, posting it on Facebook, regardless of whether we hold worship or not. I expect people will "attend" online; doing a Facebook group for our church will be a new way of creating and maintaining community.

Once the article is written and submitted, I start another round of editing on my memoir about my father, the funeral director. My "early version reader" liked it, and didn't suggest any major revisions, so I can take my time with the work and really make sure I'm saying exactly what I need to say.
Who knows what's happening to publishing? Who knows where we will be in two months or six months? Everything is slowing down. There is stress -- watching the news creates anxiety and fears about the future -- but I can turn that off and return to my work.

And of course, I'll walk in the woods with the dog for companionship, as always. Nothing different there either. What has always been my space for peace and quiet and contemplation is even more essential now.
"Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone," as Mary Oliver started her poem, How I Go Into the Woods.
Of course, spring is coming, our wet and muddy season here in this river valley, so I must order a new pair of boots online -- my current ones have worn through with holes.

The only contact I'm craving is the city in its shutdown.
When I see reporters standing on empty sidewalks alongside empty downtowns in cities, I think, "How lovely. And only the dog walkers will appreciate that."
I wonder if people realize they can still go outside, can still walk their dogs all over, can still walk on sidewalks and through parks?
And it makes me remember my first Christmas in Vancouver, in 1996. It was early Christmas Day and I took my dog, Maggie, for a walk, alone, as I always did first thing in the morning. But it was my first experience with a holiday morning, with empty city streets, with only the occasional cab driving by. My memory seems to think it was snowy, but memory can be faulty so I won't say that it was.
It was just cool and dark and quiet. It was wonderful. It's a feeling -- of expansiveness in the midst of the quiet and aloneness -- that I have never forgotten. I even crave it, that special time in the city before it wakes up, before it gets noisy and crowded, when it feels like it belongs only to you.
I hope the dog walkers, at the very least, in every city gets the chance to explore their city in its emptiness, in its social isolation.

A chance to breathe, a chance to be curious, a chance to hope, a chance to believe things will get busy again.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

K is for Kingdom & Kommunity

For my friend Shelagh, and others, who aren't on Facebook, where I'm publishing a condensed version of my messages, like this one, from The Alphabet of Faith every Sunday afternoon.

Detail of a larger, student-created painting that hangs in the foyer of the
Oxford Regional Education Centre in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. 

The KINGDOM of God was the message of Jesus. He proclaimed it, he taught it, and he lived it. He walked the talk – that the kingdom is here. It was the reason he would die on a cross, rather than sit on a throne: to bring about the kingdom of God for all humanity. For all who believed in him and followed his way.

This is where the focus and faith of the church needs to be. Creating the kingdom of God. Here. Now. At all times. This is the work of the church – “The work I’ve come to do” as Jesus said at the start of his ministry.

Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is among you”. In his time, those in the crowd who questioned him were thinking of a kingdom that would bring material and political benefits but in saying that, Jesus shifted the emphasis from future expectations to the observable presence of the kingdom in his ministry.

On earth as it is in heaven.
Among you, right here, right now.
Watch the news and read the newspapers, and you’ll think we have a long way to go in creating the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. It’s the 21st century, and we’re still reminding people that the kingdom of God is meant to happen here on earth.
And yet, the Kingdom of God is already an observable presence; we just need to see with new eyes because if you watch the news and read the newspapers – you will see the Kingdom of God is here.

So, what does the kingdom of God look like?

It looks like a people who are taking care of each other.
It looks like a people who are laying down their lives for each other.
It looks like a people who are living as an extended family.
It looks like a close-knit, functioning body where each member is affected by what happens to the other members.                                                                      

It looks like what we heard last week, when talking about justice, and hearing what Jesus called the work he’d come to do:
​- feeding the hungry
- clothing the naked
- blessing the poor
- giving sight to the blind
- caring for the sick

In an online article published at last week, author Herb Montgomery, who is the director of Renewed Hearts Ministry, a faith and social justice non-profit organization based in West Virginia, said, “When Jesus says, ‘the Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,’ he is rejecting the specific way in which prophets had led masses of Jewish people to their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. Jesus instead offered a new vision for human society in the form of a community that practiced nonviolent resistance, liberation, and reparation, with the hope of both personal and societal transformation. This kingdom was within their grasp. Where other approaches were revolutionary suicide, Jesus gave them a A NEW WAY [my edit] that they had the ability to accomplish.” 

There’s what word again: community

So what does the "KOMMUNITY" of God look like…when we are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Well, let me repeat:
It looks like a people who are taking care of each other.
It looks like a people who are laying down their lives for each other (we see you, nurses and doctors).
It looks like a people who are living as an extended family.
It looks like a close-knit, functioning body where each member is affected by what happens to the other members.   

It looks like a guy named Shea Serrano, who I came across on Twitter on Friday PAYING PEOPLE’S BILLS.
“Who needs help?” he asked.
That’s it. “Who needs help?”
So he – and others who hopped on board – paid phone bills, medication, a student loan payment, a monthly insurance payment, a car payment. He gave money to a woman expecting her first baby just because she’s worried.

No questions asked. No judgement. No conditions. Just “We got you.”
WE got you.

That’s what the KOMMUNITY of God looks like. And that community is growing – expanding and spreading as if love – kindness and compassion – was a highly-contagious virus!

Jesus’ vision of life was communal rather than individualistic. It places each of us – with our personal needs – in the context of a larger community. The kingdom of God is the community of God.
Just changing that word brings it right down to earth. Right down to our space. Right down to our laps – and our living. In community – with God, with Jesus, and with each other.

Right here, right now. Even during, or especially during, the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic. As Dr. Amit Patel, an author who lives in the UK and is visually-impaired, wrote on Twitter just this morning: “Now, more than ever, community matters.”

~ by Sara Jewell, for Trinity United Church, Oxford, NS

Monday, March 09, 2020

My Messy Magnificent Life

Leonard says I need to chill. "Be like me. Totally relaxed." 

I screwed up at church last week, on the first Sunday of Lent, and then I screwed up some more, but a little less, this past Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent.
They weren't big mistakes, just mistakes of inattention, of rushing, of doing too much.
Lent is a season of contemplation, of taking a good, hard look at ourselves to see what's out of alignment with our values, of doing some serious strolling through the "wilderness" or the "desert" areas of our life -- those uncontrollable and untamed spaces we usually avoid because there are truths there we don't want to face or deal with.

My wilderness, apparently, is falling into the trap of "juggling too much". That's how I put it when I explained to the congregation my very wrong choice of scripture last week. In my defense, doing The Alphabet of Faith is a narrative style of preaching; the topic comes first then the appropriate scriptures are chosen. I had a phrase to search for, but I don't just like to do a line or two of scripture; I think there needs to be more provided for context.
Well, hearing one of the scriptures I chose spoken out loud in church was horrifying! It was one of those passages that people use to exclude women from leadership roles, to oppress them in relationships with men, and to generally diminish them in every way. All I wanted was the line about "made in the likeness of God".
Big oops.

So I took a good, hard look at myself, and the way I'm living these days, to see how I could have made that mistake, and I realized I'm doing too much. I'm rushing my church work in order to get writing work done, in order to get back to the book, in order to get those books read for that order to...

Inhale slowly.
Exhale slowly.
Do it again.

Here's the thing: March came in like a lion for me. The first two weeks of this month are madly busy, busier than I've ever been (how is that possible for a lazy writer like me?!). It's like I stepped outside the door and said, "Wow, there's the month of March coming and there's hardly anything to do in it. I'll be able to focus on my church work and do some creative writing."
And then,
A big snowbank slid off the roof and landed on top of me. Just like in the cartoons! There I was, my big head sticking out of the top of the snowbank, buried in all the work of March.
I don't feel

Now, where were we?
First of all, I sent off my manuscript to my "early version reader" and didn't expect it to be returned until after Easter. It was back three days later. She loved it; no major problems, no rewrite needed. But now I want to get to work on it; I feel I should be working on it. Yet there is all this other work to be done -- a two-day workshop in Halifax to attend, an interview to transcribe and an article to write (I didn't even have time to post a story about getting to snuggle a day-old baby goat), weekly church work, an essay to write and submit, an Order of Nova Scotia nomination to put together (which is really important to me), a box of books to read for an awards program, and I should be substitute teaching...

Truth: You didn't expect to be working on that manuscript until the end of April, maybe even May, so forget about it for now.
Truth: You are looking forward to the workshop.
Truth: You have been waiting to write that article about your friend for seven years (!), and it was great to get to visit with her even if you had to drive 500 kilometres.
Truth: You feel out of your comfort zone with the church work but you are good at writing those messages.
Truth: You are missing your ordinary, messy, wonderful, lovely little life.

In her wonderfully-titled book, This Messy Magnificent Life: A Field Guide to Mind, Body and Soul, Geneen Roth talks about those three a.m. worry-fests, and says once she realized she could just get out of bed and "meet up with friends", she started going outside and looking up at the night sky.
Wait, what? Why didn't I think of that? I mean, that's what I do: I look up at the stars.

This is what happens when you get "too busy" and you are "juggling too much" -- you stop doing what you normally, ordinarily do. You stop stopping. You stop looking up. You stop breathing.
"After so many years of many practices, I have only one left," Roth wrote. "Let me remember to pay attention to the ordinary, not just to the extraordinary."

So today, as I worked on the next church service, I thought of my ordinary and lovely, supportive and encouraging and forgiving congregation who take me in every week even though I'm utterly out of my comfort zone.
And this week, as I'm in Halifax for the workshop, I'm going to focus on the ordinary moments of light and breath, of listening and responding No, just listening -- I'm just going to BE present for two days and not feel the need or the want to say anything. I'm going to absorb and think, but not speak.
I'm going to sit and breathe. I'm going to stand up and breathe. I'm going to look at the water, I'm going to look at the sidewalk, I'm going to look at the sky -- even though it will be cloudy.

And after that, when I get home and get back to work, I'm going to slow down. I'm going to stop rushing. I'm going to try a practice that Geneen Roth picked up from author Eckhart Tolle: Stop complaining.
I automatically want to say "I don't complain. I'm a very positive person" but I'll bet when I become aware of what I am about to say, that a lot of what comes out of my mouth is some kind of complaint. Including, "I'm so busy."
Not complaining, just noticing.
Every ordinary thing. 

My house is messier than my life, and my life is full of magnificent love and laughter and warm hugs, and I'm fortunate and blessed by the people who uphold me, and I have this cat who flops around, absorbing all the sunshine into that hot, white, furry body of his. Every time I look at him, I think, "Gosh, if only I could learn to relax like that."
So the next time Leonard rolls over on his back and closes his eyes, I'm going to lie on the floor with him and soak up the sunshine for five minutes. for as long as I want.

I rushed right by this window and didn't even notice the icicles -- or the sky.
Mother pointed them out.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Thought for the Day

"Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing: that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us."

Anne Lamott is the second writing guide I found through her book about writing, and the first Christian writer I started reading. She's still writing, and I'm still reading - and quoting - her, but this is one quote I can't share in church!

The photo is mine, and our front yard. Just happened to be doing yoga early one morning when this gorgeous girl showed up scrounging on the ground under our lilac bush for sunflower chips and peanuts.