What a challenging and chaotic time we are living in.
As we are informed daily, there is no known vaccine that will keep your body safe from the COVID 19 virus. There are, however, time-tested strategies that can help keep your heart buoyant in times of despair. There are three practices that are particularly important to save us from dis-ease: gratitude, beauty and love. These may not be able to change your outer circumstances, but they can significantly alter your inner experience. I know, because I have felt the "immune boosting" effects of all three during one of the most disastrous weeks of our collective life.
On Wednesday, I led a day long retreat on "The Garden of Possibilities". About 30 brave souls gathered from across the San Francisco Bay Area at the stunningly beautiful Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael. We met in the exquisite chapel to sing Taize songs and read Mary Oliver poetry; we drank in the inspiration of the art of Andy Goldsworthy and the story of Hildegard of Bingen. We took time in silence to journal in the garden, meditating on the beauty of the daffodils and hummingbirds, and sharing from our hearts with one another in dyads.
It was a sweet and tender time that had capped a week of unforgettable and marvelous experience. Sunday I had performed with the astonishing violinist Nigel Armstrong in Inverness. Monday had a beautiful tapestry of Mediterranean Music from the Middle Ages with the luminous singer Catherine Braslavksy and poetry of Rumi recited by Hari Meyers and Doug Von Koss at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.
Storyteller Hari Meyers and Musicians Gary Haggerty and Catherine Braslavksy at the Petaluma Museum
I was packing up my books to depart from the retreat when I received a phone call: my beloved step-father Doug had died that day. I immediately drove three hours to tend to my grief-stricken mother. Over the next forty-eight hours I wrote his obituary, helped my mother sign the death certificate, made arrangements for his cremation and tried to plan a memorial service in the midst of the Corona outbreak. At the same time, my fiancé Carl was out of the country and there was concern whether he would be able to return to the United States as international airports began to shut down. In the middle of all of this, I received one cancellation after another for every concert, class, pilgrimage and lecture I had planned on for the next six months. As of Saturday morning, there remains not a single paid job left. Like millions of other independent contractors, adjunct faculty, musicians and entrepreneurs who are affected, there is no insurance, sick leave or financial employment safety net for me.
These are three situations that would have sent me spiraling into the depths of despair and terror before, and yet I felt surprisingly calm, grounded and at peace. Why? I think it has much to do with the deepening of the practices I had adopted for Lent: to spend time every day in nature and to immerse myself in beauty and gratitude.
For weeks, I had begun each day hiking through the trails of Helen Putnam Park near my home, watching the sunrise from a meditation bench where I read poetry. I had practiced opening my eyes to learn to notice more and more beauty, observing each new cluster of wildflowers that popped up, taking time each night to bid farewell to the moon. I had been offering a steady stream of concerts and lectures that illustrated the fact that the most astonishing beauty can be brought forth out of times of darkness, death and disaster.
Every day, I had been keeping a journal of what I had witnessed and experienced that had touched my heart with goodness, beauty and kindness. Every day, I had been playing music by Bach and Dvorak that had been written in the midst of terrible grief and loss. Listen, for example, to this gorgeous piano quartet written by Dvorak.
I had a reservoir of resilience to draw on because day by day, I had been filling my cup with beauty. This allowed me to move grief into creative action: writing poetry, composing music and in so doing, holding on to hope.
MOdern neuroscience teaches us that we need practices that cultivate both the awareness of and the remembrance of the Good and the Beautiful, in order to have resilience. Knowing this, each day during this time of confinement, I will post a link to music, a poem or image to Mythica's Canticle page on Facebook that speaks to these critical themes. I invite you to join the group and do the same. Keeping a collective journal of acts of compassion an inspiration can inspire us each to hope and provide much-needed resilience for our challenging times.
Fill your cup with beauty. It is still here to be found. Even on a day when disease ran rampant, the daffodils are beginning to bloom.
Even on the day after Death came knocking on my family's door, there were still thirteen cherry trees bursting with vitality, their white blossoms raining onto the mortuary driveway. On the flatscreen of your computer or tv, it may be a nightmare unfolding, but outside, in the garden, it is spring. Let the sun sing to you, let the moon pour her love into the fractured cracks of your being. Every day, remember to fill your cup with beauty. Then, together, we can offer a cup of kindness back to a world so desperately in need of compassion.
Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
From Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I've just had the most wonderful dive into The Divine Comedy, offering lectures in Napa and a three-day retreat in Inverness. Revisiting Dante was a wonderful reminder of how much beauty can be found even in the midst of despair. The great composers, artists and writers of the world didn't wait until life was calm before picking up the paintbrush or the writing pen. Rather, they channeled their pain, grief, anxiety and fear into courageous acts of creativity. The Divine Comedy was written in the midst of financial catastrophe, rampant political corruption and personal despair in the years after Dante was exiled with a death sentence over his head and all his property confiscated. Bach's sublime Chaconne in d minor for solo violin was the outpouring of his broken heart after returning home from a business trip to find his beloved wife dead and buried. Beethoven's magnificent sonatas were composed as his deafness mounted and liver disease overtook him. Rumi's ecstatic poetry was birthed as an imaginal pathway to reunite with the mystic spirit of his beloved soulfriend Shams of Tabriz, who legend has it, was murdered by his own inner circle.
Too often we think we will make time for beauty and creativity after things "settle down". I hear people say they will make time for beauty after the stock market stabilizes or the Corona Virus is contained or after the next election or (fill in the blank).....But for Dante, Beethoven and Bach, life never "settled down" and got easier. They each created light in the midst of the growing darkness, light that shine on us still. It may well be that it was only the beauty that they brought forth in their acts of creativity that gave them the strength to endure and have resilience to hope.
In the escalating fear of headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that life has always been -- and always will be-- tenuous, uncertain and fraught with anguish. This is not news. In fact, it is the First Noble Truth in Buddhism. However, it may be helpful to be reminded that things have been much, much worse throughout history. The Corona Virus is nowhere near as deadly as the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which claimed almost two hundred-thousand lives within thirty days. The flu was nowhere as lethal as the Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, when 30-60% of the population of most large towns died. What our ancestors did in the face of true epidemics like these can give us pause and inspiration-- and a pathway of consolation.
The Laudario, two collections of extraordinarily beautiful music were penned by anonymous artists in the midst of the Black Death plague. Their songs of lamentation were sung as the guild members tended the dying and buried bodies in mass graves in Florence; the songs of joy were danced in the woods outside Cortona where the celebrants gathered to remember St. Francis's call to praise all of creation and befriend the entire cycle of life, offering even "Sister Death" a place of honor in their dances.
Ultimately, no one is immune from suffering and death. The question is, will you inhabit your days fully, drinking from the well of beauty while you are here? Can you unleash your creativity to give voice and shape to your longing, love and even loss? If you can, you will have found a path worth following, one that might well soothe your anxious spirit and offer an oasis of beauty, a sanctuary for your heart in times of trouble. In the poetic words of Mary Oliver, when death comes, will you be "a bride married to amazement? Will you be "the bridegroom taking the world" in your arms? Our ability to open to joy, Dante's Paradiso informs us, is directly related to our capacity to our ability to behold beauty. In times of distress, enlarging this capacity seems a matter of great urgency. What can you do this day to open your heart to more beauty?