Hold on.

Is your life all ups, no downs? Do you ever feel a need to make it look like it is? Maybe to pretend the rough stuff doesn’t exist or put on a big smile to cover a broken heart? Do you ever feel like there must be something wrong with your faith if your life is going badly?

Truth is, shit happens. To the best, most faithful of people. Life’s struggles can feel overwhelming. You can get to the point where you simply cannot see how someone could think and feel the way they do. You can lose hope.

At times like these you need to breathe deep and get yourself to a quiet place. And it sure would do no harm, and maybe a whole lot of good, to read a poem like this:

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Barry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

And the good news is, you can read this poem, and your soul will calm without even being in that place where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. The words of a good poem are like magic. They can heal you and still the churning waters of your soul. And they can help you remember the ‘day-blind stars waiting with their light’, because, yes, we cannot see the stars in the daytime, but they are there. Shining.

May you rest in the grace of the world and find peace.

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.

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.

Small things with great love.

We are each called to new challenges today. To make a difference, to protect the community, to keep our hope alive. Over the last few weeks, we have seen stories of both tremendous generosity and simple acts of kindness. And of compassion and resolve from leaders such as this from Queen Elizabeth.

‘We will overcome it’: Queen Elizabeth invokes WWII spirit amid coronavirus outbreak

As we move forward, Queen Elizabeth’s challenge to act in a way which will make us proud years from now rings true. How we respond to these times defines us. Consider the acts of this little boy working to secure PPE for his local hospital.

What can we do now to help?

Talk softly.

There is no one right way to get through a pandemic. Perhaps you’ve seen social posts suggesting you write a book, paint your house, or finish some other huge project. And some people do respond to stress by throwing themselves into activity. (And, apparently, love to post about it.) But others don’t. And that’s ok. We are each unique and need to listen to our own hearts and bodies to figure out what self-care looks like right now. Perhaps it’s enjoying tea, watching the sunset, reading a good book, or cleaning out a closet. Perhaps it is being still. Perhaps it is taking a break from social media to enjoy some introspective time. There are as many answers as there are people asking the question, ‘How can I best care for myself right now?’ Listen to yourself, and be gentle with yourself. This is tough.