It’s been a hard year. Each day a new challenge to stay soul balanced. Each day so much lost. Quite frankly, the swiftness of the storm’s onset and the ferocity took all of our breath away.
I tally in my mind the millions of acres of forest charred, black lives lost in the streets to police violence, loved ones slipping away with COVID, political strife and painful national division, jobs gone in a moment, financial ruin. But mostly, as this ledger of grief has become endless, my heart has been broken open, over and over. Each day a new opportunity to find meaning, purpose and hope in the ashes of death. To lament and find a way to go on.
I turned to the poets, singers and writers most days for some way to make sense of the great unraveling. Despite wanting to hide away in my shell like a turtle, I knew I needed to find some small driftwood of meaning, some tiny grain of hope daily which propelled me to swim out into the sea of suffering. In this post, I’m including some of the gems that have kept me as we come to the end of a long and painful year as a country and individuals.
I received the following gift in the midst of grappling with the depths of what it means to struggle as a human being. The Austrian poet Rainer Marie Rilke knew sorrow. His own depression and trauma from his childhood, the horror of WWI as it burned down Europe and then raked apart their souls with it’s brutality. Still, he wrote,
We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. It has its terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if we could only arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
As the presidential election was called, part of the country celebrated in the streets, the other America showed up to demand “count the votes”, then “stop counting the votes”. Those who moved into the streets felt the boot suddenly taken off our necks for this moment. We could breathe again.
As I rejoiced with others in the streets, I remembered a song from my choral days with Quintessence. Everyone Sang! from the poem by Siegfried Sassoon, also written at the end of WWI (is there a sordid theme here of wars?!). He lived through the Spanish flu pandemic and the brutal enterprise of war on the front lines, converting him to pacifism.
Feeling my own energy rising and jubilation after many days of dread and wondering what new assault would be launched anew each day, I remembered this joyful song.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;Siegfried Sassoon
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
The 2020’s fires of purification have burned to embers for now. But it is still hot. We must stay vigilant. Allow the chaff and destitution of this year to burn away. Heal. Go gently. Stay ready for the winged ones taking flight, sure to be released.