I’ve been swirling around this piece of writing much like water circles around a drain. Round and round it goes, in ever tighter orbits, before it disappears. And isn’t it amazing how few of us really know where it goes or by what routes. So much swirling in every aspect of life in these unprecedented times. When, after many years I came across Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous saying again, “Tis better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.” I slid down the drain, pen in hand, with no clear sense as to what surface or plain I might get washed up on or where this writing would land me.
A few days ago, I took the longest walk that I have taken since Covid-19 hit in early March. It was on a flat, forested, sun-dappled earthen pathways, with our two dogs. We went to the local cemetery to visit the graveside of our very dear friend who has recently taken up residence there. I miss her so much, as I do another beloved whose ashes are hardly cold and are housed, at least for now, not in the cemetery, but snug inside of a handmade ceramic urn, sitting on her wife’s shelf at home.
Being here in our island home is a fierce reminder of both their absences. Each of them held a place so utterly unique, irreplaceable and unforgettable. We laugh and cry, we share tea and stories with their two beloved spouses who live firmly (from my point of view) on this side of life. They each carry their loss as uniquely as they lived their love. Each courageous in their own way, leaning into having loved so deeply that their heart is now hollowed by loss, as well as being full from the blessing of having loved at all.
This leads into one of my favorite teaching stories. An old and very wise rabbi was teaching his class of Bar Mitzah boys (this is the initiation from childhood and into the community that young Jewish boys and girls can undertake). He explains to them, “God is so great that he takes the teachings and puts them on the hearts of the children.” One child, and there is always one who is a tad more awake, more inquisitive, asks, “Well Rabbi, if God is so great, why does he not take the teachings and place them inside of the children’s hearts?” “Ah!” says the rabbi, “that is your work as humans. You are to live in such a way that your heart breaks open, so that the teachings can fall in.”
This is and has been the summer of my broken heartedness. All the sidelined bits and pieces have now bored a hole where hope for the future used to live. The divisive politics, not only in the US but in many parts of the world, the re-emergence of the right, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement finally forcing so many of us to confront our privilege and racism, blowing away yet another layer of self-deception. I grieve the climate crisis that each powerful society refuses to turn into with the urgency that is not only required, but overdue. I grieve that women are still second-class citizens not easily allowed to determine the fate of our bodies. I grieve that we are still not able to realize that animals are sentient beings with rights and dignity rather than here to merely serve our insatiable needs and habits.
I grieve Covid-19 which has taken so much away from us all in the realm of commerce, community, movement and connection, as well as how much it has taken from me personally as I and millions of other ‘long haulers’ are hobbling or limping our way into recovering from the damage done by the virus. I grieve that on a really good day I can still only operate at 45% capacity seven months after I first got sick. I keep moving in the right direction, stronger and more broken hearted than before. I grieve that millions are so much more vulnerable than I am and are hurting so badly, in their pocketbooks, their housing, health, kids.
I grieve the massive devastation that has befallen the environs of my hometown of Ashland, Oregon where wildfires have left thousands without homes, flattened whole towns and left communities without utilities or water, with hazardous air quality along the entire west coast.
I grieve. Sometimes it is a sharp pain in my chest, or a dull ache behind my heart. Sometimes a slow but steady burning in the eyes, or a heaviness of each step as if to call into question the wisdom of moving at all. I grieve my loses, I grieve our losses. I grieve because I love and feel so keenly the dilemma of our time, this time in our lives.
‘May you live in interesting times’ is an old Chinese proverb. I still have no idea if this is meant as a curse or a blessing? We now live in interesting times and to tell you the truth, I’m very apprehensive. My husband is much less so. We are aware of the same trends yet it lands so differently within us both. I asked him if he understands why he takes it in reasonable stride, while I do not. He made the comment that he, more than I, has been a student of history and so appreciates this time as just one of the many tumults in human and earth’s history, one that the planet will survive, one that humans may too, in some form. He sees ‘the now’ through the broad lens of all that has already passed. He is at heart a philosopher and an astronomer. I learn from him but cannot respond as he does, though I often wish that I could also hold the long view, the broad view.
I have German Jewish blood running through my veins. The stories of my parents hardships and losses who fled Europe for their lives, as well as their extended families, who didn’t flee but perished instead, was part of the family trauma. This time is anything but casual for me. Having been brought up in the repressive Apartheid of South Africa, a later stint in the authoritarian craziness of Rajnesshpuram (see Wild Wild Country on Netflix), the specter of living in an police state is both real, far too close for comfort, and utterly plausible, especially if you happen to live in the US of A, as we do. The realization that most people of color have been living in a police state in our ‘free’ country while I was mainly oblivious, is mortifying and grievous.
We have to value or love something it in order to register loss when it’s no longer there or available to us. I suspect that the better part of wisdom is the knack of valuing what you have while you have it. There is an art to really valuing and cherishing the presence of goodness in our lives, rather than merely grieving its absence once it has gone. It’s a teaching that every wisdom tradition points us towards and one that we can’t possibly begin to learn till we have faced loss.
Who knew that being able to simply hug a dear friend when you see them again is a privilege? If you have been in prison, or deathly ill, or been exiled you might have come to realize this, to know it in your bones, not just with your understanding. But for most of us, we come lately into appreciation of all we have. It seems that most humans are more naturally skilled to feel what we do not have.
This morning I spoke to my friend from Boulder CO who called. She sounded so happy and spritely. She said it was the first morning in two weeks the sky was free of smoke from neighboring fires, she could breathe freely, she could see blue sky. She was elated. Before the smoke descended on that town, being able to breathe clean air and see clearly was not something that would in and of itself have made her giddy. Can I be elated that now (at the time of writing) I am able to breathe freely and feel the warmth of this late day and the clear clean air sparkling blue through the forest just outside of my window? Yes I can, partly because I remember what she and all those who live in Boulder have just lived through. We too lived through long periods of smoky air from surrounding fires, as is true right now again, and with greater and greater frequency in the western parts of the North America.
What does it take for us to love what we have while we have it, rather than simply mourn its loss once it has gone? The air, our energy, our animals, plants, trees, each other, our small and large freedoms, our lives?
I guess if I were able to ask that rabbi a question that was based on my 70 + years of knowing and not knowing, I would ask, “Rabbi, once we live in such a way that our hearts break open and the teachings fall in, do they stay inside of us forever? Or, do we have to keep having our hearts broken open, again and again so that we can remember?”
I wonder what he would answer. What you would answer, what I would answer?
What I do know is that the price of loving is broken heartedness. It’s part of the territory of love, the super scary part. There is also joy, deep contentment, the sense of belonging, the sense of fullness of meaning, these are surely the major experiences of loving and why we keep investing in love; whether it’s the flower that will close each night and eventually die, the child you are tending that will leave you, your partner that may die before you, the teacher who may betray you after having taught you so much, the business partner who may steal from you after helping to make you wealthy, the lover who may not choose you but still awakened you to our own beauty, the earth who may finally rebel against you after having fed you as long as she could, the wind that might tear down your home or flood your town.
I guess as humans we wrestle with open heartedness and broken heartedness as a matter of course. We try to maximize one, minimize the other, hedge our bets, bargain, calculate our odds, and all too often refuse love, rather than feel or risk losing it. What we actually think of Lord Tennyson’s maxim is made manifest in how we live and love ourselves, each other and the world we inhabit. At the end of my calculations I fall back onto some of my very favorite lines of poetry, the last stanza of “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver. It gives me the courage to love even more fiercely:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
May this autumn season find you resilient.