After eight months of silence here in this Journal, during which our world has been turned upside down and we are often scrambling for ways to cope, I thought, at long last, I might venture a post here to share some of my lifelines with you, just in case they might be lifelines for you too. I’m tempted to look for silver linings in rough days, being a natural optimist, but this has been a lot. A lot. Apart from the pandemic quarantine and the fires and the election and the general malaise of depression among just about everyone, not to mention (not to mention?) death all around, there is the sheer crushing dailiness of just going on, through uncertainty and fear and loss.
I have been doing all the self-care things, the time-tested ones, and some new ones. I know how to eat and sleep on the regular which keeps my blood pressure up and not in the weeds the way it sometimes goes. I know how to do isometrics in bed to keep my hips strong when I can’t get out for walks because the air is too full of smoke or contagion. I’ve refreshed and rededicated my daily qigong practice, often by the creek in my backyard, but other times inside in a quiet corner.
So my lifelines have been, in no particular order: kittens, my writing workshop, my journal, my friendships and family, reading, beauty, saying the beads. and making masks for all of my beloveds.
When we began to open up in May after six solid weeks of not going out, my anxiety level went through the roof about what my dear ones were risking. So I came out of the writing studio and went back into my sewing room to make masks with my old quilting scraps. My rule was to use what I had, but I had to buy ear loop material and filters on Etsy, glad to support small businesses. So that has been my crafting pleasure. It lets me access my handmind, that wonderful phrase by Ursula K. LeGuin (about halfway down that linked page). My poetic offering to go with the photo of my mask in use was:
This mask is my smile.
This mask is not for hiding my face. It is for showing my face in the world, in these times.
This mask gives me freedom to move in the world, in these times. It does not conceal, it reveals. It says, let us all be safe and well.
This mask says, I love you.
I made a writing nook for myself at the start of the lockdown in my art studio, so I would have a quiet retreat space. I am lucky that I signed up for a 12-month writing workshop that began in January of this year. I was full of doubt as to whether I should do it at all, but I had studied writing with Ellen Sussman three times last year through Stanford Continuing Studies, and was impressed with her ability to coax and coach her writers to produce and finish their work. The agreement for the yearlong class was to write a new book, so I began one about when I lived in Iran during high school. I was about halfway through it when the pandemic arrived. I went to Ellen and said, Look, everything’s changed; I have to finish this other book, because if something happens to me and it’s not done, I will never forgive myself. So she let me switch projects midstream and pick up the rewrite of the book I drafted last year. It only worked because I knew I was going to have to do a deep restructuring and write a lot of new material, essentially looking at it in a whole new way. Between the class meetings on Zoom and the weekly café writing, also on Zoom (I would never actually go to write in a real café, but from the comfort of my own studio these mornings were gold), I managed to work steadily all year on this project. Writing became my sanctuary. I learned how to not beat myself up about all of its flaws, so that it could function as the safe space it needed to be for me.
I have just about got it knocked into a new shape now, with yet another new title. When the rewrite became snarled in my mind, I reverted to my old graphic artist’s way of cutting apart all my scene synopses and literally rearranging them on my desk. Ordinarily this space is occupied by the MacBook Air I bought on closeout at the beginning of quarantine, with the refund from the lodging I had to cancel for the March workshop meeting in the North Bay. That was a very good decision, to have a dedicated writing laptop without all the peripherals of my art business (scanner, printers, big screens) and be able to take it where I need to in order to write.
I have been better about subscribing to good writing instead of always trying to get it for free. This means active subscriptions to responsible journalism, as well as The Paris Review, where I love to follow the work of Sabrina Orah Mark, whose fairy tales are scarily relevant, plus all the great interviews with writers. I also love Laurie Doctor’s blog and the LitHub digest which offers up a daily potpourri of essays, book reviews and excerpts. Heather Cox Richardson has kept me marginally sane during this hectic election season. I especially appreciate her generous helping of American history to go with her analysis of our current predicaments, along with her optimistic take on our resiliency, formed from that long view.
I am also lucky for the fact that I can actually focus on reading books for escape. My lifelong habit of fleeing from my various woes into the pages of a book is serving me well now. This year, for the first time since college days, I have kept a list of the books I have read. I will share some recommendations in the comments, if you are interested! but this is already shaping up to be a long post, so I will refrain here.
The kittens came to live with us in January and were well established by the time we entered lockdown. They are pure pleasure, and the best entertainment, much better than TV or almost anything else I can think of. My husband and I report to each other on their daily antics. The tabby is Tabitha (natch, and the daughter of a witch besides), and the grey and white one is Tybalt, prince of cats. If you can’t tell, they are siblings and came to us at about three months of age. They are much bigger now!
I have learned all over again the true value of friendship. Even from afar, it feeds me in such important ways. We are lucky to live in a time when we can connect in so many ways that our ancestors did not have, from a card in the mail to a Zoom conversation on our screens, and everything in between. I have been especially close to my little spiritual writing group, whose other two members live in Ireland and England and who I have never met in person, and to my oldest friend in the world who I have known since I was fourteen years old. Every month or two she and I have a marathon telephone conversation. Speaking it all aloud can be overwhelming, but she listens, and then she holds it and thereby takes some of the burden, reflecting it back to me with a loving lens.
My journal also carries me through. In the interests of focusing on writing rather than handcraft, I no longer make my own journals (you can see plenty that I created by following the “journal” tag), but I still enjoyed making a wrapper and a leather strap so I can secure my pen with it. Sometimes I pick up my densely written pages and wonder for a moment, where is the Search button? But I do love writing by hand and nothing will truly replace that. I confess that I write this online journal as much for myself as for any readers brave enough to wade through it. I refer back to it and use it for a touchstone through the years since I began it (2008!). Best of all, I can search it.
I read the tarot faithfully on every new and full moon. This year’s favorite deck is Tarot of the Spirit, which speaks often and piercingly to my work writing an old family story. This deck uses Father, Mother, Sister and Brother for its court cards, to great effect when I read for messages from and about the ancestors. I also like to add objects to the reading to make a little altar for the message and time of year. I keep a tarot journal of these readings and also like to look back. For example, the Tower card was in the center of my Winter Solstice reading last December, and prescient it was in both personal and global ways. Above is my reading for Beltane, at the Strawberry full moon. The symbols surrounding the Magus represent the four elements.
Then there are the beads. I have not quite known how to explain that I am doing this now, and how I came to it is a story for another time. But saying the rosary has been a lifeline for me too. I don’t know why it works, but it is something like a mantra, or a meditation, and every now and then induces something like a trance state. Not always, but often enough. I feel held and I feel heard. I talk to the Mother about all of my problems, and feel connected to Goddess in a profound way. And as I say each bead I am connecting to my lost grandmother and all the generations before who spoke these prayers.
Beauty and the natural world have become more important than ever, and I drink it in like a parched pilgrim. This jacaranda tree stopped me in my tracks on a walk in my neighborhood last June. And tending my herb garden gave me delight and medicine too, all the long summer, especially this echinacea plant.
And then there is joy. Love likes to bloom in the middle of despair and dire straits, surprising us all with happiness. A midsummer wedding meant stitching something old to something new, making memories out of memories with my mother’s beaded bridal headband, to bedeck my daughter all these decades later. As I sewed I felt Mom’s happy dance from beyond the veil, in a manner of speaking, and sweetness through the generations.
The fires in Northern California were terrifying, and for weeks we feared to go outside for the smoke in the air. I obsessively checked the Air Quality Index, becoming familiar with wind patterns and directions and looking for moments when I could venture out, based on a monitoring station I found close to our house. I’ve learned how to make lists of what to pack if we need to evacuate, although the chances of that have receded since fire season in California might be over. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you can’t take anything for granted anymore.
As futile as it felt, I was soothed during the many weeks of fires by lighting a candle in a bowl of water, praying for containment and cease. Too many friends were evacuated from their homes, and some have lost homes altogether in the last three years. This is really the worst news of all, affecting all of us even more than the rest of the bad news. Lives have changed, and will change because of this, the effects of global warming coming home to our own doorsteps.
Finally, I will share one of the most stirring videos I’ve seen in a long time, and one which speaks to all of our situations: using what we have, staying home, and some deep soul prayers. I love having this tune on loop in my mind throughout the day, so be aware, this is catchy, in a good way! Thank you, Bengsons!
If you have stayed with me through all the above, thank you. I hope you will have found something useful or helpful here. I wish you, and all of us, continued good health, good company, and good times as we keep going on. And singing, singing too!