Grief in a Time of Not Knowing. The podcast’s title had me at hello. It turned out to be an interview with Zen Buddhist teacher and author Joan Halifax. The discussion opened by considering whether living in these times means to be engulfed in a collective initiation. Roshi Joan noted that a classic initiatory experience begins with separation and moves through a threshold phase before reaching the time of return. She pointed to the separations of our time: the quarantine and social distance caused by the alien coronavirus as well as the hurtful chasms we have carved for ourselves through hundreds of years of history. These separations have hurled us into an uncertain and unwanted threshold. She noted that the first syllable of threshold is “thresh”, only a letter away from “thrash”. The long interim threshold phase within initiation is the place where the reckoning and turmoil, the revelations and transformation happen. This can feel like a thrashing. Who among us would dispute that?
Here, like everywhere, the grand frame of initiation falls around life in the day to day. Earth’s rhythms continue. Strawberries, onions, radishes, lettuce, peas are, as Kate (one of our master gardeners) phrases it, “taking off.” Squash planted only days ago is putting out stems and wide leaves. The garden is an abundant and fertile field of daily effort and reciprocity.
West Virginia and Jefferson County are re-opening, which means cleaning and readying facilities, getting set up for campers (refurbishing the outhouse, creating an outdoor hand washing station); setting guidelines and sanitizing procedures for the Retreat House. We’ve been learning the new territory of online meetings and retreats.
There is much to occupy us. Still, busyness and the hundreds of forested acres surrounding us are not insulation from the news of the world.
A few days ago the mountain laurel bloomed. A native shrub, laurel is evergreen. In coldest winter, her deep green foliage is a totem of the life that waits in the roots. Then in early summer mountain laurel brings forth clusters of delicate, fused-petal blossoms, like exquisite white and rose lace in the woods.
It is a gift to walk in the forest, among the laurel; and the maples, oaks, dogwood, hickories, the pawpaws, the beeches and poplars, acres and acres of rich green trees lifting their branches wildly to the sky and sending their roots deep down into the old Earth. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the forest as lovely as it is in this moment.
On the morning Kate and her daughters had settled the hens into their new chicken pen with its large shaded yard and cozy coop, a brilliant bird banged into the wide plate glass window of the living room where the three had just returned to begin the school day. They rushed back outside and gathered around the creature, who lay stunned on the ground. Kneeling down, sitting, the three watched and waited. It seemed that the bird’s wing might be damaged, but just as Kate reached out cautiously, the bird flew to rest on her knee. He was an indigo bunting. He perched for timeless minutes, gazing around, a blue shining. Then he gathered himself together and flew off.
Kate, like parents all over, has been accompanying her children through this threshold, this initiation happening to all of us, of every age. There is precious little protection, only the surety of love and the evidence of wondrous things.
Sometimes I think the work and grace of this time is to make of our hearts maternal vessels wide and deep enough to cradle all of it: the sorrow, beauty, shame, tenderness, hurt, redemption, and resolve. A sign at a protest read, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his momma.”
I’ve always loved Rebecca Solnit’s idea of hope as the spaciousness of uncertainty, the acknowledgement that we don’t know what will happen, the sanctifying of confusion and not knowing. We are, as Rumi said, “dumbfounded.” This is when we are able to sense something beyond the anxiety and helplessness and grasp the thread that is ours to pick up in this moment of turmoil and possibility. Who knows what that may be or who we may become?
We have maintained, more or less, the practice we began in March as the pandemic rolled over the world. Kate suggested then that we walk together in silence every evening. Thus we have become dumbfounded pilgrims trying brokenly to walk the walk, listening humbly to the righteous cries for racial justice rising all around and echoing with the urgent pleas for healing of climate and the restoration of right relationship with Earth. As we stand in the field at the end of the walk, a storm is rustling round the edges, making branches dance, leaves swirling like emerald garments. The sky is silver, purple, lavender clouds brushed across a luminous white canvas, a portentous beauty. We read,
…Let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies.
Let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears.
Let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surrounds us…
The world is big, and wide, and wild and wonderful and wicked,
and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable and full of meaning.
Let us pray.*
Afterwards, at the edge of the field, we discover a luna moth: pale green, delicate pattern on gossamer wings outstretched, holding it all.
*Padraig O Tuama, from “Oremus” in Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community.