Living Under Hope’s Roof

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. ― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

As Guy handed me the bouquet of tightly curled, fist-sized pink peonies he just couldn’t resist buying he remarked, “I hope they’ll open.” We have, in the past, purchased cut peonies only to be disappointed that they never unfurled their petals.

Hope. We place such varying weights on this little word, from wishes (I hope she likes it) to aspirations (I hope to become a surgeon), dreams and desires (I hope to travel to Thailand someday) to pound-the-pavement plans (because I hope she’ll win the election, I’ll join the campaign efforts). Longings for loving relationships. Expectations for how the world should be.

I’ll say it again: we are living in a messy moment in history, a confluence of what might have been and what was. It will be fascinating to someday read about 2020 in my grandchildren’s textbooks, to recall the TP shortages, endless hand washing, and frozen Zoom calls, almost comical sidebars boxed alongside the heaviness of illness and death and the racial and political strife dividing loved ones as it threatens to irreparably crack the democracy we claim to hold dear.

And it is also the first week of Advent in my church tradition, the four weeks before Christmas in which we anticipate the birth of Jesus. The theme for this first week is hope.

Last week Americans celebrated Thanksgiving and, as with so much of this year, the festivities might have looked different with loved ones on Zoom rather than around the table. In this odd year it may be harder to locate our gratitude, more difficult to name our hopes. Once again I turned to Facebook and asked friends and neighbors: What are you hopeful for – for the last few weeks of this year or this holiday season or next year, for yourself or your loved ones or our community, country, world?

Interestingly, answers poured in when I invited people to share their uniquely 2020 points of gratitude. It took longer to receive less input on hope, perhaps evidence of our collective weariness. Yet hope is resilient, and personally I hope that in sharing we will nurture our individual hope-filled seedlings. Like the entwining of tree roots under the surface, we gain strength from one another.

And so, we hope…

We hope for good health and that a COVID vaccine will become widely available soon.

We have many hopes for our children but this year our hopes have nuances – that, with tweaks to at-home desk arrangements, they can become more successful in remote learning; that somehow we can mitigate stress and preserve their mental health; that their memories of childhood won’t be scarred by hand sanitizer and social distancing. We yearn to see children playing, hugging, and running freely with friends. We’re hopeful to soon hear the giggling of unrestrained joy.

We hope to get back to normal and yet we also hope that we will have allowed this time to change us for the better. We hope for a new-and-improved normal over the version of normal we left behind last March. We hope for light and love to outshine hate and darkness. We hope for the unity of the United States, to disagree and discuss our varied viewpoints (how boring life would be if everyone agreed on everything) while maintaining respect through civil discourse.

We hope for peace. For a peaceful transition of power come January and for global goal-setting and collaboration. We hope to experience a greater appreciation for our human family. We hope that the pandemic has given us space to grow into being the humans the world needs, more patient, more compassionate, more flexible, more grateful. Willing to do what it takes to address not only our own health but the health of our planet. We hope to emerge with a renewed understanding of what matters most and commitments to prioritizing what we say we value, like creativity and kindness. We hope to experience an unstoppable wave of love washing over our hurting planet.

And let’s have a laugh: we hope that January 1, 2021, doesn’t inexplicably flip the calendar back to the beginning of 2020 – it feels like Groundhog Day around here.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that hope seen isn’t hope – who hopes for what they already have? The whole point of hope is that we hope for what we don’t yet have. He advises us to wait patiently, especially when it’s hard, and this year has been beyond hard for many of us. I’m not very patient; it’s all I can do not to peak at the Christmas presents not cleverly hidden. Still, Christmas is coming. 2020 will end, as will the pandemic.

So we wait, with all the patience we can muster, joyful in hope.

By the way, the peonies bloomed fantastically like something out of Alice in Wonderland. For almost two weeks they have graced us with their beauty, worth every penny of that hope-filled purchase.

Art by Morgan Harper Nichols, https://www.instagram.com/morganharpernichols/

Giving Thanks in An Exceptional Year

I always prefer to focus on gratitude, yet I hadn’t been feeling it this Thanksgiving week. So I posed a question to our community via Facebook:

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wonder if you would share what uniquely 2020-related things you are thankful for?

In this exceptional year, I thought we might move beyond the typical answers: life, health, family, community. As it turns out, those answers carry exceptional significance this year. When U.S. COVID cases have reached 12.7 million and 260,000+ have died, the essential facts that we and our loved ones are alive and healthy becomes a precious truth for those who can claim it. This year has yielded a renewed awareness that we aren’t promised anything and everything can change without warning. We are learning anew to appreciate our own vitality, the breaths we inhale and exhale over minutes that become hours that become days, and the people with whom we share breathing space—especially those we trust within six feet.

Which leads us to: Family. We’re grateful not to frantically rush out the door for our commutes or carpooling children hither and thither and instead to move a little slower. To share family lunches, hearing about school in the middle of the day. To teach kids to ride a bike or overhear through the bedroom door as they sing along with the school choir. To have unexpected time with littles who grow too fast or with older children who will soon fly the nest, or those who tried and got COVID-grounded or those who’ve made a return trip with fledglings of their own. We’ve had time and space to connect and care for one another differently as we’ve all gone through the strange experiences of this year. Some increased the love under their roof by adding dogs or cats to their households.

Zoom has taught many of us that we can work remotely and it’s given us another tool to connect with family and friends in other places. Some have been holding weekly dinners or game nights via Zoom, an idea that likely wouldn’t have occurred to them before March. Who can tell how many families and friends will celebrate with a virtual Thanksgiving feast?

We are grateful for friends who make us laugh. Last spring the world witnessed Italians singing from the balconies of their homes and apartment-dwellers who held evening calisthenics each outside their own front door. As we walked our dogs, we saw socially-distanced neighbors in cul-de-sacs and on street corners enjoying a “six feet at six o’clock” cocktail hour. A local DJ held socially-distanced neighborhood dance parties. One person commented, and many chimed in, that she is grateful for the way those in our community “swarm” to help others with small or big needs; this swarm produces honey as it relieves life’s stings.

We’ve rediscovered ways to savor time, playing board games and card games with family, hiking our spectacular trail system under smoke-free skies, or dabbling in watercolor painting through a subscription art kit. Reading lots and lots of books. Developing our skills through online classes.

It seems to me that the unexpected and initially undesirable changes brought about by the pandemic initiated so much more than cleaner closets and bread baking skills. It gave us quiet in which to reflect on our priorities and lingering conversations with family and neighbors. It forced us to get creative about how we would maintain the essentials for living and it freed us to be creative in other previously neglected and also life-giving ways. It freed us to live into who we are and who we want to be.

One respondent admitted that she found my question difficult to answer since the pandemic has hit her family hard. Although I’ve never met her nor do I know the specifics of her situation, I extended sympathy. As we say, “we’re in this together,” and clearly this year has been hard…illness, death, unemployment, draining bank accounts, loneliness, mental health issues, grief on so many levels. That’s precisely why I asked the question. We know how hard it’s been, and most of us know that our mis/fortunes rest along a spectrum: we have it hard, and also easier than others. Everyone’s lives have changed…in the same and vastly different ways.

In my faith tradition we acknowledge that when you don’t have words to pray for yourself you can rest in the prayers of others. Similarly, when I couldn’t name my own gratitude, I relied on the gratitude of others. “Yes,” I repeated with each response. “Yes, me too,” I’m grateful for that, and that, and I’m grateful to hear about that small or spectacular development in your life.

And so…

A Prayer of Overflowing Gratitude During Thanksgiving Week of an Entirely Unexpected and Exceptional Year

To the One from whom all good gifts flow I whisper Thank You for life and breath and health and the reminder that we can’t take any of it for granted. For families and slow time to hike and ride bikes and learn to cook or bake or support local restaurants by eating delicious take-out food. For the particular humans I get to call “mine,” and for the shared memories and the coming moments that will be tomorrow’s memories. For board games and card games, even the video games I don’t like but over which my guys bond and burn through their frustration loudly in the garage while I quietly read a book in another room. For skin care products which matter so much more than make up and baseball caps to hide the pandemic-casualty formerly known as a hairstyle and for the comfort of lounge wear all day and night. For the enthusiastic love of our furry friends and the hours upon hours we’ve walked dogs through neighborhoods and along trails, watching the tiny and wondrous changes of the seasons. Thank you for California poppies and irises and hawkweed and thistles, roses and hydrangeas and mums, and mustard plants that grow taller than our 85-pound dog. For sunshine and clear skies and the end of fire season and for the twisting and turning of rainbow-colored autumn leaves on the trees and the ground. For the neighbors we’ve greeted from a distance and waved at through windows and conversed with on the phone or over social media or Facetime or Zoom. For books and our library system and my never-empty Kindle. For Netflix and The Queen’s Gambit and Schitt’s Creek and Disney+ and Hamilton; may Lin Manuel live to write many more plays. For creativity and its multiple expressions we might not have witnessed except for this year. For freedom and those striving for freedom for all. In this Thanksgiving week and on every day of this ridiculous year whether I feel it or not, I whisper Thank You. We say Thank You. The people shout Thank You. And so, Amen.

Storm Reflections

Today it’s blustery and gray outside, and the forecasted rain is most certainly on its way. It’s chilly and the storm hasn’t yet hit. It will be colder and wetter soon.

But not that long ago the sun radiated through the autumn-bedazzled green-yellow trees. The sky was a brilliant blue and even with a slight breeze the sun warmed my skin as I strolled the dogs through our neighborhood.

Today’s storm will hit and darkness will descend during daylight hours. But we know, in hope and from experience, that the sun will rise again.

Even on sunny days, for many of us 2020 has been a stormy year. Things have changed, minor inconveniences and devastating losses, and despite our attempts to calibrate to this “new normal” or our plaintive longings for the old “normal” that may have been the song on repeat but also may have been more ear worm than desirable—can anyone define what we even mean by “normal”?—this has been an exhausting year replete with challenges we’d prefer to have avoided. We’ve been shoved into a marathon for which we didn’t train; we’re parched and gasping for breath to fill our aching lungs.

But when we’re alone in our rooms, quiet outside and in (hard as that may be), we can take comfort that this, too, shall pass. We know, in hope and from experience, that the storm will cease and the sun will rise.

We don’t know when, or how, or what the newly-illuminated landscape will look like. We have theories, arguments, conjectures, sure we do. Or at least we try to conjure or adopt or collage theories, arguments, and conjectures so we appear educated, thoughtful, “in the know.” Other times we simply throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders, and sigh with the admission that we have no idea. We’re just doing our best to slug our way through today.

So today I’m going to light candles and start a fire in the fireplace. I’m going to drink hot tea. I’m going to listen as the rain thrums on the roof and the wind whistles and I’ll watch through the windows as the trees enthusiastically dance like they’ve been waiting for the storm as debutantes waited all season for the grand ball.

I will seek moments of beauty in the storm. Living in drought-prone California, I’m trained to appreciate water falling from the sky even when it’s inconvenient. I will respect the storm for what it is, for its differently beautiful gifts that nudge me to a new and necessary perspective.

I know, I know, that may be easier said in an actual rainstorm than done in the unimaginable storms of this year. Yet I can’t help but wonder: what candles can we light, and what will we admire in their glow? What unexpected gifts might this year offer as it prods us to reconsider our priorities, as individuals, neighbors, and citizens of our country and the world?

Because the sun will rise. It’s coming, friends.

Cover Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay