This past week marked a joyful beginning, where many years of professional endeavor came to a new and exciting starting point (click here for the news from Putnam). At other beginnings, whether first days of school, or moving days, or first dates, or new jobs, I’ve felt the familiar flutters of anticipation, happiness, determination, hopefulness, and maybe even a little queasiness. This time, I feel all of that once again. But overwhelmingly, my feeling is of gratitude.
Coincidentally, I just received one of the greatest presents ever from a dear friend – a jar of joy. It’s full of quotes from my favorite authors, so that when I need a little perk I can reach in and find inspiration. Can you imagine a more thoughtful gift?? The very first packet I pulled out was from Oliver Sacks:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world; the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Dear Honeybees, whichever beginnings are arriving in your life, and whatever emotions they elicit, I hope there is a big dollop of gratitude mixed in — and a jarful of inspiration to guide you on your way.
Winter in New England has a stark beauty, and sometimes it also has a relentless gray bleakness, which brings a certain kind of reflection. Lately I’ve been considering the sharp pain of loss and the role that rituals and community can provide. We’ve spent centuries developing ways to support and comfort one another, and when those comforts are needed, wow, they are powerful. There are rules about funerals and mourning and bereavement leave, a bridge of structures to get through the initial acute misery. And then there are friends and memorials and counselors, to hold you up through the longer and more chronic sadness that stretches out further.
This season can also bring on a powerful case of the might-have-beens, the almosts, the could-haves, and worst of all, the should-haves. When these afflictions hit, we don’t really have rules to carry us through. There are not rituals for absence in the same way there are for for loss. Where nothing has existed, how can it be mourned?
Though we don’t have rituals for absence, we do have models. Have you ever seen a blank spot in the forest? It does not exist. Plenty of spots lack trees, of course: there might be a glen, where the soil supports a patch of grass instead of pines. There might be an open spot where a stretch of rock has broken through the topsoil. But these places are not empty. They just have an absence of trees.
Absence is all around. But absence is not empty.
Dear Honeybees, if you encounter midwinter loss, I hope that ritual and community shelter you through the storm and its aftermath. And if you encounter the could-haves of absence, I hope that you also find the haves, the life that springs up to fill any gap.
* Painting by Lavaughan Jenkins. And if you haven’t watched On the Waterfront lately, hooooo doggie, it’s got all of the above and way more!
Years ago, I was on a service trip in Argentina, lying sleepless near the window of a small hotel. I spent the night gazing at the open sky, considering all of the topics that come in the middle of the night, big and small.
When dawn finally came, I found that I’d been contemplating the universe while staring at a brick wall. No skies, no stars, not even a glimmer of moonlight — but I still remember that magical feeling of being in an unfamiliar place, thinking unfamiliar thoughts.
Last year, about this time, I was flying to India on a spiritual retreat. Looking out the window of the plane, I saw some curious lights outside, but dismissed them immediately, thinking that we were flying over some large, light-polluted city.
Turns out those curious lights were the northern lights, seen from above. I almost missed the chance to be awestruck, because I refused to imagine something so wonderful.
Dear Honeybees, as we launch into this shiny new year, I wish you the awe of the northern lights. And when those aren’t available, I wish you the awe of a plain brick wall.
Last Sunday was the first in a long while without a Sunday Best, due to an unexpected snow squall that left me stranded. I was heading home in a tiny rental car, no snow tires and no 4-wheel drive, and even before I got to the edge of town the wheels were spinning and I was sliding across the road with that queasy feeling of hey-that’s-the-wrong-direction.
As any good New Englander knows, when you start to skid, you have to ease up, lifting off the pedals and giving in to the direction of the skid before gently steering away. You will also know that this takes a lot of practice, because when we start to skid the natural impulse is to press harder, to slam the brakes or accelerator and steer sharply away.
Of course, even if you follow your drivers ed training perfectly, sometimes you end up spun right ’round, facing ongoing traffic with nothing but the goodwill and skill of others to save you.
Dear Honeybees, as we slide into the new year, I hope the weather is fine, the traction is great, and the obstacles are nonexistent. But if we find ourselves skidding, I wish for the ability to ease up, just for a moment, instead of always pushing harder. And if all else fails, I wish for generous and kind drivers alongside us, who will gently swerve to give us space, and maybe even stop to help us on our way.
Dear friends, I’m sending you best wishes for a courageous, joyful, and graceful new year.
One of our most popular pieces ever is the New Year’s Flip, which talks about my year-end reflection practice. You can read about it here.
A dear friend reminded me this week that we are smack-dab in the middle of the season of reflection and gratitude, despite the contrary indicators of jam-packed calendars and distracting sparkly holiday sweaters and occasional bouts of end-of-year whining.
Luckily our conversation sent me straight to the wonderful Anne Lamott for refuge, and her book Help Thanks Wow opened right up to these lines:
This passage started to set me straight.
Then, the very next day, my amazing mom sent me a little note that read, “I said a prayer for you today.” What greater gift could there possibly be than to know that another person is holding you in their prayers? There is no easier on-ramp to gratitude than receiving a note like that.
In the same book, Lamott says, “as it turns out, if one person is praying for you, buckle up. Things can happen.”
Dear Honeybees, as we revel in year end business and busy-ness, with hopefully some reflection and gratitude mixed in, I am holding you in my prayers.
So buckle up.
Things can happen.
* Yes, this photo is my very own St. Joseph, who was buried in the backyard while I waited for my home to be sold earlier this year. I dug him up before leaving, of course, and he is safe and sound, presiding in a place of honor in my new abode.