The changing landscape

The changing landscape

This pandemic has taken so much, so quickly. It is also providing so very much.

BRATTLEBORO — This morning, as I looked out my window to the mountain and river, I watched a drifting tunnel of fog kiss the surface of the water, then ascend until my house was embraced by its soft, white arms.

Just below the house, the ancient beech tree - where each spring a dozen turkey vultures simultaneously alight and spread their enormous wings in mating posture - now appeared as a mysterious ghost of itself. And I stood before it in my pajamas, greeting yet another day in the dramatically altered landscape of my life.

I do not want to become a ghost of myself during this emptying-out time. I am trying not to see so many things as gone. Loss is one of the most profound of human experiences, and for me it is the most challenging.

* * *

I began life with multiple losses, one after the other. A year ago, three of my nearest and dearest died unexpectedly within five weeks. Then a fourth, just two months ago. My familiar landscape of love appears so starkly bare on difficult days.

But new love appears, at times most unexpected. And its appearance is a reminder that where there is emptiness, there is also, lingering close by, a steady wisp of fullness-in-the-making.

During the passing decades, relationships, bodies, jobs, and roosting places have come into being. Upon their departure, they do not leave a void.

Life offers bottomless stores of meaning, infinite opportunities to learn, to discover, to grow, to transform into who I wish to become.

Loss has moved me to turn inward, turn away. But I also find that a day arrives when I am impelled to turn outward, turn toward.

Even in the midst of grief and pain, I get to choose my direction.

I grieved several weeks ago when my workplace, a hospice, had to halt all visits between our many clients and their volunteers. I was saddened again a week later by the loss of daily contact with my colleagues when we closed the office to staff.

The bereavement support group I had planned to attend, to soothe my heart after four deaths, has been canceled. The chorus I had just joined can no longer send its harmonies up into the acoustical rafters of the Brattleboro Music Center.

I wonder what is safe to eat, to touch.

The doors of churches, temples, mosques, and meditation centers are closed at a time when congregating with others in shared spiritual space would mean so very much.

After days of waking to anxiety in this new COVID-19 reality, I arose one recent morning and felt my tight chest unexpectedly expand to a realization.

This virus has emptied my landscape of its familiar signposts and stopping places. It has interrupted my habits and filled my calendar with white space. It has brought great worry and concern for my family in New York and for all those dying around the globe in crowded hospitals, severed from contact with their loved ones.

This very same force has brought me into a period of Sacred Time.

* * *

How can it be that, at a time when so much that is important to me has been halted or altered, removed or made to feel unsafe, this day still feels like it has magic - sumptuous, generous, fleeting, eternal magic?

How can it be that what has taken so much from me so quickly is also providing me with so very much?

As many restrictions were put in place, I was riveted on scarcity and riddled with worry. How well would I tolerate loneliness? Would those in my community have enough to eat? Would they be able to pay their bills, care for their children, feel secure?

What would happen if I contracted the virus without symptoms and unknowingly passed it to others, despite my attention to hygiene?

Would I find enough things to do with my time and talents which would be useful to others and provide a meaningful life?

It felt all too easy to itemize what was taken, to feel emptiness where there had been a strong sense of fullness, of purpose and fulfillment.

* * *

But then, one recent morning, I awoke to a sense of warmth and expansion. As I scanned the form of Mount Wantastiquet, so graceful and sturdy and ever-present, I felt as if this stripping away of the usual was birthing me into something new.

Birth can be painful. It's been difficult, these past few weeks, to ask myself: What is it I'm made of? Where do I locate my center? What is my identity, when so much that is familiar, reliable, and habitual has been stripped away? When the predictable structure of my day deconstructs and I am left to reinvent a life hour by hour? When the truth of uncertainty comes calling louder and clearer, and my illusions about having some semblance of control dissolve before my eyes?

The only way to engage with these questions was by leaning into a discovery of the gifts this crisis has given me. To give credence to the actual, unexpected generosity of such harsh experience. To name the gifts.

So I shall try.

• I'm loving people I've never met and never will. I feel a newfound, tremendous compassion for our species, especially for those who demonstrate us at our worst and most wounded. I am liberated from my cynicism, misanthropy, and rancor - feelings that were like a straitjacket on the heart. Why had I not perceived this before?

• I bought a set of watercolors and am going to spend time dwelling in the land of child-wonder at form and color as it arises out of inner mystery.

• My usually silent, contemplation-oriented house is filled with music, and I dance to it. I sing the lyrics to the Cat Stevens song Morning Has Broken.

• I meet with friends and colleagues on Zoom and share darkly hilarious virus-joke emails, finding that technology is more compassionate a phenomenon than I had imagined.

• I do laundry for a friend who is at high risk so he won't have to go to the laundromat, and while handling his clothing I feel the intimacy of our 50 years in a new way.

• I lie on my sofa and wonder: Where does joy come from? How do I want to die? How do I want to live? Who am I, when I am just being and not doing?

• I think about how very many people - apart from this particular crisis - must rediscover themselves when what is precious to them has been lost or denied, when they are made to redefine themselves in the presence of unwelcome and devastating change. Refugees. Those whose accidents and illnesses have left them with permanent disabilities. Parents who have lost their children. People who have lost their jobs, their careers, their paychecks, their homes.

• I inventory the million and one things I have, and the many that are so easy to take for granted. I count my blessings. I count them again.

• I connect in heart and thought with my ancestors, particularly my great-grandparents, who saw far worse than this and didn't survive to tell about it. I try to imagine their courage and barely find it imaginable. Although they are not here to accompany me on my earthly journey, still they whisper so much love and wisdom in my direction. The quiet that has replaced business-as-usual has opened a doorway onto their presence, their voices.

• The very largest gift of this event is the opportunity to consider - and, if I am lucky, to believe - the absolute truth: that I am enough, even without my usual roles, even without a place to do my daily work or to offer a compassionate, care-laden hug.

What an unimaginable concept.

* * *

Meanwhile, let's all continue to smile and wave at one another from across deserted streets. Let's keep doing so after the streets are full again with safety and liveliness. Somehow, strangers aren't strangers anymore, are they?

This pathogen is a destroyer and a teacher. Nature can be destructive - human nature, even more so. Now we've been given an opportunity to gaze within ourselves and our shared world with new eyes.

I put on my jacket and scarf and head for the nearby woods, which I usually do when I'm called into a state of deep reflection.

The sky above me is dense and gray, the air bone-chilling.

But the lilies outside my front door are sending pale green shoots up through the mud in a primordial act of faith and trust, and for this I revere them.

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