In the Abundant Heart of Winter

In the heart of winter, sadness has given way to acceptance, and even gratitude. After the quarantines and social distancing of summer, the arrival of winter had felt like a grim sentence. Yet even within the suffering and anguish of the world, there have been gifts.

Once a year in my former life, I would drive for hours to some remote lodge where phone calls and newsletters and signup sheets couldn’t reach me. The flames inside took several days to die down.

I spent hours without talking, I took walks in the woods, I went to bed early.

I always arrived confused and broken. Fooled by the outsides of people. They who seemed so confident, so easeful, so strong. And I, a sea turtle following the city lights instead of the moon.

This winter we hung the bird feeder my father gave us last summer. Squirrels and sparrows and cardinals gather in our backyard. Sharing, stealing, racing and chasing each other over the top of the bench by the fire pit, underneath the new trampoline, past the garage with the weight machine my husband assembled with the boys, and the rock tumbler, tumbling and rumbling raw amethyst and tiger’s eye into gems for Diana.

The kids play for hours outside in the cold because this is how they can see a friend. Riding bikes, clutching sleds, climbing trees, and tossing footballs until the sky turns dark. When a door closes, another opens.

If it weren’t for the virus, would we have kept clambering for more — richer, taller, fuller, more?
Terrified of what would happen if we stopped. If we let things decline, decay, melt back into the earth.
Cancer is the name we give to what never stops growing.

I used to love silent breakfast at the retreat center. Naps in the dorm room.
I would watch the sky turn gradations of yellow and gray and taupe from my bunk bed and think, God must live here. I didn’t realize that this was the feeling of being at one with myself in the world.

This winter silence, this absence, this draining of color and noise. An abundance of stillness.
Time to reflect, time to paint, to sew, to read, to dream.
Destruction blowing on the embers of creation.

My children have been doing school at home for almost a year now. The crowds of people I’d see every day — men in suits, women in hose, getting on the metro after dropping off their kids — I don’t see them anymore. I always imagined they were rushing off to do important things. Science or Education. Congress. World Peace. And I’d go home to my writing room and try to spin straw into gold by 3 o’clock.

Our high school senior is now in that room logging into class on Microsoft Teams. I write in the bedroom with the cat, who always finds an empty nook in my body to find warmth. Down the hall, Diana does reading workshop, and in her breaks, shows me how fast she can type on Typing.com. The boys are in the living room below, and our college student has returned home, now getting ready for her job at the bakery.

Death and life are two sides of the same coin. Endlessly flipping, tossing, through eternity.

Some days, when my husband takes the kids out, all I hear is the faint rumble of a plane plowing through the clouds. A single car shimmering over the icy street.

I tell myself, surrender.
Be still, while you can.
Go deeper.
Rest.
And when you wake, do not let yourself be led around on a leash by your barking brain.
Be guided by the heart of you, that silent prow cutting through the uncertain seas of your life.

Suspended Somewhere In-Between

We couldn’t leave for our picnic until Mark was done with his Italian class on Zoom, but it was almost dark and Luke was still unpacking the groceries, a job he had been assigned an hour ago.

“I’ll give you 100 niceness coins and a ‘play with me’ ticket if you help me, Diana,” he said, a currency of dubious exchange value given that the chore was partly earned by being mean to her. When I was tossing the last items into the picnic bag, he was still pausing to unscrew the top of the paprika bottle, removing with scissors the plastic wrap around the tub of caramel chocolates, and examining the contents of a free sample bag.

It was Tuesday night and Virginia was working late at the juice bar, my husband doesn’t get home until 9:30, and Sofia is having picnics of her own on her college green, so it seemed like a good time to break out of the domestic container.

Just as we were closing the door, Luke slid the last box of cereal on the shelf, grabbed his Nike’s and jammed his feet into them on the porch. Mark ran to get a soccer ball, and we walked over tree roots through the edge of Maxine’s yard to Fort Reno Park, the highest point in D.C. and once a Civil War fort and a freed-slave settlement before it was razed to make way for lots of grass.

The boys wanted to hang out on the soccer field, but I convinced them to climb up to the high point next to the chain link fence with the signs that say No Trespassing U.S. Govt. Property. As we got to the top, I could tell we hadn’t missed the sunset. In fact, we had probably caught the best part.

Just above the tangled lights and chunky buildings of downtown Arlington, a slash of foggy red hung over the horizon line, diluting up into orange and yellow, green and turquoise, and finally a periwinkle blue that washed over the rest of the sky.

This was dinner theater, and before the show was over, I began tossing out grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. Steam escaped when we opened them, but the butter-fried bread was still crispy and the melted cheese had made the insides spongy.

A high school running group that had been doing calisthenics on the ridge below seemed to be dispersing. It was so dark on the hill we could only make out people dressed in white. A few pairs of teens sat along the fence, clouds of marijuana occasionally drifting towards us —nothing like the party that took place here every night in summer when the hill was colonized by young people, someone always bringing fireworks.

Behind the fence guarding a brick water tower and a cluster of buildings reputed to belong to the C.I.A., a flying thing swooped back and forth like a small plane doing exercises. “Look, a bat!” I said. After a brief exchange over whether it was a bird, it was agreed by all that it was indeed a bat. There is something different about the way they flap their wings, their flight path, they way you only see them at night.

The kids kept exclaiming and saying, “There’s another one!” as a handful of bats seemed to be surveying the sunset-viewing ridge.

We used to come here in March and April when schools closed and the virus was spreading like a laser through the country. We thought it was going to be a war-like experience as it was for my husband’s family in northern Italy. But here hospitals were never overwhelmed, and bodies were not collected in military trucks.

Ours was more of a slow death. The dying of a way of life, of buildings, institutions, stations, as if this were a game of Monopoly and an invisible player was winning, taking all the properties, hotels, and stores. A player who won’t let you have a turn, who keeps going around the board, collecting its pay, passing ‘Go’ over and over, methodically taking, emptying, clearing.

More than seven months later and no one has been able to stop its winning streak, even though it has slowed and now it wins quietly. Its rounds have expanded, like a mathematical roulette, making circles and eclipses that spin off into other territories, leveling, silencing. Now in Europe a spike of cases higher than the first is triggering a new set of curfews and lockdowns.

But it hasn’t taken this park. It hasn’t taken this sunset, this life, this family, these teens laughing and cussing when the bats swing close. The bats flutter like moths, they travel like messengers. What are they looking for — food, companionship, blood?


They say the coronavirus may have been passed to humans by bats. Bats pass diseases easily among their communities, sometimes numbering in the millions, because they are so highly mobile and social. 

“I can see through their wings,” Mark says, as we look up and watch them fly back and forth right above us, just as magical as the sunset. Sometimes I can see their ears against the blue-black sky.

“I wish it would stop right here,” Diana says, pointing to the end of our picnic blanket, “because I want to see what it looks like.”

I want to see it upside down, its webbed wings, its claws, its gargoyle face, its shape-shifting, its way of transforming into a creature both mammal and bird, charming and grotesque, of land and of air.


The man in the fancy pen store downtown watches as I try out rollerball pens by Cross and Faber-Castell that I can buy with the gift card my husband gave me last Christmas. I had to make an appointment to be here, and although I am the only one in the store, he is rushing around as if there wasn’t a minute to spare.

I comment about how one pen writes thickly and he says, “You press down hard,” the first time anyone has told me this, which would explain the callus I’ve had on my middle finger since I learned to write. I always thought it was ugly, but now I might see it as a pillow for my pen, the type of pillow that would carry a ring before the vows. Or a pillow that conveys a sword for knighting, a pillow to rest your head in the late afternoon in a private garden in Scotland.

Visiting the pen store was a chance to break out of the patted-down trail of my everyday life, the treads of our heart-pine stairsteps, the unsoiled sidewalks of our neighborhood. It was June when I was last down here for the thronging marches for racial justice, and with only 11 days until the election, I wanted to hear the voices of America, to see new metamorphoses, to stand in a place where the winds are blowing from all directions.

With my new black and gold Waterman pen in a little shopping bag, I walk down F Street by the Warner Theater and the National Press Club. The streets are so barren it’s like a movie where something has gone wrong and dawn is just breaking. I see the president’s name emblazoned on a grand hotel just a few blocks away from the White House and for the first time it seems odd. Lafayette Square, the core of the unrest in June, is sealed up with tall black fencing, and signs that protesters once punched in the air are now stuck there. A couple of police officers stand chatting on bikes, and a small group of tourists look like they are waiting for a double-decker bus.

Through a black diamond in the fence, I try to find the White House. It’s so far away now that I can barely make out the white columns beyond the statue of the rearing horse. Even the portion of 16th Street which has been emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ is completely empty. A solo guy with purple hair sits on a concrete barrier looking at nothing in particular.

I know I’ve missed something. I can tell by the pubs and churches boarded up with murals of Desmond Tutu and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It feels like the moment between pulling in a breath and letting it out. The yogis say that this time, between one breath and another, is when you can feel your soul.


We went back to the hill for a picnic on Thursday. It was so warm the kids wore shorts. Maybe it would be the last time we could come. The red of the sunset was muddled with cloud dust. Wispy clouds were painted all over the sky like a calligraphy written backwards. An explanation someone else could read. A message that would be covered by night and never seen again.

“Let’s lie down and look at the stars,” Diana says. The damp ground smells of mildew and salt. “The stars look so… so… What does meditation do?”

“You mean relaxing?” I asked.

“Yeah, relaxing but something different too,” she says. “Something else,” and she seems to still be searching for the words. I wonder if it’s something about their steadiness, their stillness.

“They feel like the sunset and the crickets and the ‘ee ee!’” she says, mimicking the distant sound of Mark and Luke playing farther down the hill, pretending to be monkeys.

“I hope a bat lands on us and talks to us,” Diana says, “and then lies down to see the stars with us and then we pet him.”

Bats are considered liminal beings. They occupy the space between two states. Mammalia and Reptilia. Fur and flight.

“I don’t hope it because I know it won’t happen, but I… I…” she says, again searching for the words.

In China bats are associated with happiness, joy, and good fortune. Here they make us think of darkness, witchcraft, and death. Everything is sacred.

“Dream. Do you dream it?” I ask.

To fly unnoticed in the night. To be in the nowhere space between sleep and wakefulness. Night and day. Between the angels and the beasts. A place of no limits. 

When

When your daughter comes down the stairs wearing a satin bustier under a Las Vegas jacket, you will want to say no but you won’t, because you will remember being 16 too. 

When you think refinishing the kitchen table will take a week, you will still be eating outside two months later, balancing dinner plates and glasses of milk on the porch swing.

When your youngest daughter loses her front tooth on the slide in the backyard, she will come rushing in with a radiant bloody smile and you will see her new again.

When you are thirteenth in line at the public library to read a novel loved by a friend, you will open the latch to the door of the Little Free Library and there it will be.

When your ten-year-old gets braces, he will let you hold his hand on the walk home and everyone will get butter pecan ice cream after dinner for the pain.

When your daughter’s college announces high levels of coronavirus in the wastewater, they will close the dining room and library, and she will eat alone in her room.

When Air Force fighter planes roar through the sky above you, your throat will blur and you will miss the child who believed there was something so powerful and so good.

When an ornery melancholy sits down inside you, you will try to convince it to leave, you will lean your back against it and try to push it out the door.

A friend will tell you to let the feeling rest. This will go against what you’ve always known, and you will be afraid it will stay like a squatter in an abandoned government palace in Madrid.

You will stop trying to find out who the squatter is or why he is here, and this is when you will see that it was you who invited him in, and this is what you have been waiting for.

Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Impermanence

A giant tree limb fell on our car yesterday. The car’s back looked like it was broken: roof crushed, rear end bent, tires kneeling to the ground. Black glass was spattered everywhere. 

It didn’t look like I’d ever drive it again.

That night Diana asked if she could give me a face massage and a hand massage and a foot massage after I tucked her in. She touched my eyelids and my eyebrows, pressed her tiny finger pads into my forehead, along my cheeks, the whole length of my lips. Everywhere she touched, a prickly metallic layer under my skin melted away.

It’s just a car, I had said when we saw it there. We have insurance, shielded as we are from the buffeting winds of misfortune by our position, our color, our nest egg.

Diana asked if she could hum when she was massaging my hands, and “Is it okay if it’s just a made-up song?” She stroked the tendons on the backs of my hands, squeezed the tips, intertwined her fingers in mine and wiggled the forgotten crooks. She squeezed the fleshy parts — the heel, the ball — parts of a body that work without being acknowledged.

It’s just a car, but it was the car that Sofia and I had just driven to her first semester at college. The car that had taken us on 5 Thanksgiving trips when all the kids were living at home, summer visits to the grandparents, Christmas pilgrimages, missions to Dutch Wonderland.

Diana takes my feet. Having my feet touched has always felt like being in the hands of Jesus. It touches someplace deeper, more sensitive, a place both loving and needy.

We were at the pool when the limb broke. I had wanted to give the kids something more than riding bikes around the block, and it would be closing soon. The rains come almost every day now, the cone flowers have all turned black, and every last day lily has bloomed.

Something is dying in me too: a hope, a brightness. An opening is closing. When will I be able to bear this? When will I know that this is what happens when something else needs to be born?

“Why does it feel so good to be touched?” Diana asks. We are part of a whole, I say, and touching makes us feel less separate. Touching someone else is like touching our own selves.

The broken car, schools closing, summer waning, blossoms fading — they are all here to show me, again, that nothing lasts. And everything is special.

long8614/Shutterstock

Diana asks if I could give her a face massage. I run the pads of my thumbs over her plump cheeks, around the backs of her ears, and over her scalp and behind her neck.

There’s something different about this type of touch. Unlike a hug or a kiss, it does not need to do the work of communicating. It conducts something that we can’t control, that we don’t need to control, that will flow whether we do anything or not. Touch recognizes what is in each of us and allows it, unfettered.

I say to myself that I’m okay with this loneliness, this quiet, solitary life. But the tension builds, the silent grief, the continual battering of what used to be, the howling of what needs to die but won’t. And the pain sits there in a parking lot, keys hidden under the mat, until a tow truck comes to take it away.

The last time I saw the car, an orange caterpillar was inching up the curve of the wheel. I wonder if it felt lost, or if it knew it was just finding another way.

Letter to Myself

When you are so busy throwing stuff into the shell of your body, you don’t realize that to feel fulfilled, you must simply stop.

The sound trickling in is not water rising to drown you, but the sound of your own self coming into its rightful space.

Nothing can replace this ‘being one’s self.’ That is why you keep running, seeking, rushing, doing — desperate to fill the emptiness you fear.

Your longing is the longing for your own self: your own love, your own trust, your own intuition. 

Sometimes you feel that you are an empty riverbed. A ditch that can never be brimmed, never satisfied.

Don’t be afraid of this blackness. It is what connects you to everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. It is what everything springs from and dissolves into. This is the power you are afraid of. The unknown, the endless, the incomprehensible.

Don’t fill the emptiness with small tasks and petty demands and a million directives from your in-box, your to-do list, and your self-help books — they will never be done, and you will never be full.

Don’t fill it with someone bigger, more powerful, more charismatic and brilliant than you — this person will leave and you will be alone again.

Don’t fill it with what you want to buy, become, create — if these things come, you will still feel something is missing. Even when your arms are full, even when you have everything you asked for.

These glimmering, brightly-colored, squeezable things — they are always morphing, growing, disappearing. You can never hold them and be done.

Only water can satisfy a riverbed. Only the part of you that is connected to all the streams, all the oceans, the lakes, the waterfalls, the floods and fjords that circle the world. The river of life that never ends and never begins. 

Jack Anstey/Unsplash

Let all other things be washed away, all that has blocked you, obstructed you, made it impossible to hear the sound of your river rippling, to taste the flavor of your own soul.

In the stillness, your breath is a wave, coming in and going out. The knowing will eventually come, flowing through you from somewhere deep inside, filling the space you thought was vacant.

Hidden Grief

All of Western culture is suffering from very profound grief. We are not comfortable with impermanence. We try to fix things in time and space, but because impermanence characterizes our lives in a very fundamental way, we are in a constant state of loss.

— Joan Halifax, American Zen Buddhist teacher