Get dirty

The daffodils are coming. Planted last fall–before the snow, before the holidays, before the pandemic– they are starting to poke up. Soon they will be blooming everywhere adding cheer to the lives of whomever might see them.

A garden is a microcosm of life. Seasons of vibrance and beauty fall away into a frozen landscape seemingly devoid of color. But then, maybe when you’ve almost forgotten, there is blossoming and rebirth.

Gardeners and children know something that many of us have forgotten: there is joy in the dirt.

Literally.

It turns out, “Prozac may not be the only way to get rid of your serious blues. Soil microbes have been found to have similar effects on the brain and are without side effects and chemical dependency potential.”

Studies show the benefits gardeners and children will swear by of playing in the dirt are actually based on science.

It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress. Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.

So go ahead. Get dirty.

Brave and afraid at the same time

In this interview, Brené Brown discusses the complexity of emotions we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and social isolation. Her words bring comfort and solace to all of us, but particularly those of us raised to believe that only positive emotions should be felt or expressed.

These are tough times. And it’s particularly difficult because this is not an emergency you have to gear up for and get through; it’s a slow burn. As she says:

“Normally, in order to get through a crisis, you know, our bodies are built to respond with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy, a lot of super coping surge. And then the waters recede or the fires are out or, you know, the crisis ends and we slog our way through kind of cleanup and trying to find our new normal. But we are not going to be able to depend on the adrenaline surge for this, because it’s going to out- it’s going to outpace us. And I think we are hitting that moment where we are weary in our bones. We are physically tired. We, you know, anxiety, uncertainty take a lot out of us physically. I think, you know, we’re on Zoom calls. I don’t know what happened. Like, I work a lot to begin with, but I feel like I’m on Zoom calls from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. You know, and then we’ve got toddlers crawling up our backs and partners trying to, you know, tell us to be quiet. They’re also are being called. And we’re tired. And I’ll tell you, the other thing that’s exhausting; that we are not acknowledging – again as a collective – is grief.”

And the grief is perhaps more extensive than any we’ve felt before. It’s grieving a loss of everything that was normal to us. Brown explains, “Well, I think it’s a very difficult position we’re in right now because I think we are both grieving the loss of normal and grieving the ordinary moments that make the touchstones for our lives. We’re grieving the loss of those at the very same time we’re having to find and settle into a new normal. And those two things are very difficult to do. At the same time, not mutually exclusive, but as close as it gets without being mutually exclusive. So there’s grief, I think. Grief is the loss of normal.”

And it is ok to experience that grief and mourn those losses. We are vulnerable, and there is no shame in acknowledging that:

“To be alive is to be vulnerable, to be in this pandemic, is to be vulnerable every second of every minute of every day. And the thing about vulnerability is it is difficult, but it’s not weakness. It’s the foundation and the birthplace of courage. There is no courage without risk, uncertainty and exposure. And so, you know, I’ve asked 10000 people that this question, starting with special forces military: give me an example of courage in your life that did not require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And in probably 15 thousand people at this point, not one person has been able to give me an example of courage that did not require vulnerability. So we need to dispel that mess and we need to acknowledge we are in a lot of vulnerability right now. That means we can be our best, bravest selves or we can be our worst selves, and I think the thing about choosing to be our most courageous selves is having to understand this is another method to style that most of us know we’re taught growing up that we’re either brave or afraid, that the truth is we can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. Most of us are in these moments today.”

We can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. We can be strong in our vulnerability. And, even though we are living a new normal, we can choose how we show up there.

Doing good now.

There is an elephant in the room. We don’t talk about it, we try not to think about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist. That elephant is the fact that we are all on a one way journey through this life. Our time is limited. None of us knows in advance when our end of the journey will come, but that end will come.

When we pull ourselves out of denial and gaze directly at this elephant, we can realize something important: our opportunities should be seized now. That good we can do? Don’t put it off. That kind word? Say it. That gift or remembrance? Give it now.

We will not have this place and time and opportunity to make a difference again.

Comfort in, grief out.

Many are on the front lines of this pandemic, either working in health care or in essential jobs to keep the world moving, while others of us are on the sidelines waiting. We worry about ourselves, but also about our friends and family members on the front lines. Will they be safe? What are the right words to encourage them and let them know we love them?

In this interesting article, health care worker Dorothy E. Novick suggests Ring Theory as a way to modulate our expressions of concern. It works like this:

“I came across an article about “Ring Theory,” written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. In this construct, we imagine a person who is suffering, like Margi, sitting in a small circle surrounded by concentric rings. Her dearest relatives sit in the circle closest to her. Best friends sit in the next larger circle. More friends and colleagues occupy the next one. And so on.

“According to Ring Theory, a person in any given circle should send love and compassion inward, to those in smaller circles, and process personal grief outward, to those in larger circles. To Margi and her mother, I should have said, “I love you, and I’ll do everything I can to support you.” And only when talking to others should I have said, “Her suffering feels impossible to bear.

“Comfort in, grief out.

“Ring Theory works for supporting health-care providers during the trauma of covid-19. We are grappling with a complex duality of mission plus terror. We are proud of what we can contribute and passionate about our patients’ well-being. But we are frightened — for our safety, for our patients, for the spouses and children we might expose.”

When we speak with people working in positions of danger, practicing Ring Theory makes good sense. Our comfort, praise, and admiration gives those heroes strength and helps them continue. Our hysteria or forwarding doomsday articles simply doesn’t. In all of this, we should strive to do no harm and let our words offer comfort.

Novick relates a message she received that helped give her comfort, a message that gives us a good example for how we can show up for people in dangerous positions right now:

The message read, “I am holding you in my heart being on the front lines of these difficult times. The professional skill, kindness, support and tenacity you give your patients and your medical community I am sure is a comfort in this darkness. Sending much love, appreciation and admiration.

“My heart rate slowed and my skin warmed over as I read the message. Then I pulled my mask over my face and opened the door to the next patient room.”

That, right there, is the power of the right words at the right time. We each have that power to do good right now.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/17/how-not-say-wrong-thing-health-care-workers/

Surprised by joy

Sometimes we are surprised. Things aren’t as we expect, and that is delightful. Like this story of a male Mandarin wood duck, native to East Asia, in Central Park.

How did it get there? The mystery of it can’t help but raise all sorts of fanciful explanations, and the duck’s beauty can’t help but cause us to stop and marvel. What are we walking right past today? Perhaps we can stop and marvel.

Danny Ursetti put together this delightful musical montage, an ode to this wood duck in Central Park and to joy. Enjoy!

To pray.

In a grieving, struggling world, we pray. Full of humility, we fall to our knees. Gobsmacked by the fragility of life and the interconnectedness of all creation, we lift our eyes to the Lord and join voices around the world to offer thanks, plead for mercy, and reach for hope.

Never before has it been more obvious that we belong to each other and are all in this together.

Choosing joy.

Sometimes joy is a matter of perspective. It’s reaching down and being grateful for it all, the mess, the euphoria, the triumphs, and the tragedies. Grateful to be here, to have a voice, to have people to care about, to have a chance to make a difference. Joy in it all is a choice.

In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen unpacks this further:

Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently from the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.  What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.

What is the promise behind the circumstances that threaten to steal your joy? Is there something hopeful there? Seeing that promise may just be the key you are looking for.

Lighting tomorrow.

On days that seem dark and heavy, mired with concerns about the future, it is nice to remember that babies are being born, people are proposing, family members are coming home, and we are all here today.

Today, where we still have power to work toward better tomorrows.

Embracing this life.

The might have beens are a killer. We each take so many forks in the road, it’s easy to wonder how our lives might be if we had taken a different turn—gone to a different school, chosen a different career, picked a different partner. Those might have beens can keep us up late with longing and despair about the life we currently have. And, more importantly, they can strip those lives, the actual lives we are living, of joy.

Consider this poem by Carl Dennis:

The God Who Loves You

BY CARL DENNIS

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week—
Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you’re living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you’re used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.

Carl Dennis, “The God Who Loves You” from Practical Gods.Copyright © 2001 by Carl Dennis. Reprinted with the permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. For online information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see http://www.penguin.com.Source: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2004 (Penguin Books, 2004)

We have choice and agency in the life we have. It is there we find meaning and purpose. It is there, in the now, that we can find joy. Embrace that life.