Grief Balms: Snow Globes & Beauty Emergencies

Grief seems to be at every corner this year. Many of us have shared occasions for grief, such as illness and death, the loss of normalcy, shuttered shops and closed schools, dwindling dollars in our bank accounts, isolation and loneliness. Most of us also have personal reasons for grief. For two weeks I haven’t left my phone out of sight as I wait for the call that my mom has gone to glory.

So when I saw an article titled, “How to deal with grief,” of course I clicked. While grief has taught me lived-and-learned lessons, I’m still up for additional advice within easy reach. For the same reason, I am a sucker for happiness research. Recently I clicked on an article with a title along the lines of, “This one trick will make you as happy as eating 20 chocolate bars.” Twenty chocolate bars would make me sick, not happy, but I appreciate the effort. The answer was: Smile. Smile more, even when you don’t feel it, and you’ll be happier. Apparently, people rate their smiling-more happiness as high as having received a gift of $25,000. Now I simply must disagree: a no-obligation gift of $25,000 would definitely make me happier than insincere smiling. Also, I’d be happy to have you try to prove me wrong.

I clicked on the grief article and found an interview with poet Maggie Smith. Smith published a volume of poetry in 2016 (Keep Moving) which included a poem called “Good Bones” that seems to go viral when the world teeters dangerously on the edge of a deep well – for example, immediately after the 2016 election. Also, 2020. Smith calls “Good Bones” a disaster barometer.

Smith offered two pieces of advice that have affected how I’m moving through these hard days. The first is to find “snow globe moments,” something you do every day that stills the world and allows you to feel like your genuine self. For her, that’s writing. I share writing as a core activity and I’ll add walking our dogs, preferably with my husband so we can spend that time connecting. He’s my best sounding board and also an encourager who gets me out of my own head. I believe author Cheryl Strayed referred to her Wild adventure as “walking back to her best self” which makes sense to me. Writing and walking have been life-giving and sanity saving this year.

Smith also discussed “beauty emergencies.” We tend to think of the word “emergency” negatively, as a problem, but it comes from the root “emergent” which means “happening now.” So a beauty emergency occurs when you pay attention and notice that something beautiful is happening this instant and you’ll miss it if you don’t drop everything and watch. Like a hummingbird flitting at the feeder or a sunset that shifts colors every second and will be over within minutes.

Poets necessarily cultivate the ability to witness to the present. To focus their micro-lens on this moment. I am not a poet, and my monkey brain leaps from past to future, future to past, bounding over this uncomfortable time. One more reason I am going to add books of poetry to my reading queue in this upcoming year, because I need the benefit of their wise and often witty reflections.

Meanwhile, I mentioned beauty emergencies to my sixteen-year-old son and, though I didn’t know it as the words spilled from my mouth, that may have been one of the best things I’ve said to him this whole year. Several times over the last two weeks, as my attention has been absorbed in writing or reading, he has yanked me outside to witness a sunset. I have done the same for him, pulling him from his bedroom desk where he counter-attacks against the never-ending onslaught of distance learning assignments.

We both carry our own foggy griefs which we have soothed side-by-side with regular applications of beauty, watching as the sky indiscernibly shifts from orangey-yellows to red-purples to dusky twilight. We’ve both tried – unsuccessfully – to capture the splendor in photos. And that, it seems, is also poetic: the call is to witness, not capture, rather to be captivated ourselves. To stay present and open to this stunning moment before our eyes. To become newly aware of life’s magnificence and brevity.

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Cover image by Meli1670 from Pixabay
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Be Where You Are

For most of the last eighteen years, our family has spent one week each summer vacationing in Pacific Grove, California, a NorCal coastal town nestled between Monterey and Carmel. Many years before our annual vacations began, while we were dating and newly married, Guy and I would drive from his childhood home in Santa Cruz to walk along the rocky coast, to picnic, to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For almost 30 years this place has inspired me with its beauty.

When our boys were little, we had to get up early to exercise them. As they got older and required more sleep, I began to get up early to exercise me. All year long I anticipate with physical longing my morning walk/jogs along the trail paralleling Ocean View Boulevard.

I am not a morning person, so it’s truly something when I can yank myself out of bed, start the coffee while I get dressed, swallow a half cup and be out the door before anyone else stirs. I’m at the beach, I reminded myself. I’m only here for a few days.

Every morning without fail I hit the trail, either walk/jogging toward Monterey or walking the longer, less even trail toward Asilomar. My body felt tired but healthy. Stronger. And my will felt stronger, too, more determined.

I told myself it was the view that pulled me outside. It was, but I wondered: if I lived here, would it motivate me 365 days a year? Would it ever grow old?

I live in a beautiful, walkable neighborhood. I love walking my dogs, walking with Guy or friends, walk/jogging myself around our neighborhood. I can take a slightly different route every day of the week, though by now they are all familiar.

But I live here, so it’s easy to say I’ll get outside later, or tomorrow. That we can take the dogs to the park, or I can go to the gym.

I came home from vacation with a new resolve to stop making excuses and get outside to appreciate the gift of living in this particular neck of the NorCal woods. And so I have put on my shoes, leashed the dogs, and gone outside each day since.

I live here, and I am going to soak it in with gratitude.

Quieting Our Souls: Solitude

So many shades of blue

So many shades of blue

Born and raised in SoCal, most of my life has been lived within 20 minutes of the coast.

Until now, when the coast is at best 30 minutes away and at worst, an hour+.

I have noticed lately an intense craving to be near the water. The local reservoirs, and the two or three hikes within sight of them, come close but not quite. I need to see, hear, smell salt water lapping shore, sea gulls squawking overhead, and feel sand between my toes.

Yes, oh yes, but it's not the ocean

Yes, oh yes, but it’s not the ocean

Happy beach dogs

Happy beach dogs

The beach invites me into solitude, a reminder of God’s Great-Big-ness and my comparable insignificance. And yet, I am loved and held and cared for by the God who created such overwhelming beauty.

beach invitation

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Beach sound quiets my soul. Meanwhile, I strain to hear beach sound while the noise of life grows clamorous. I crave solitude.

My personality inclines itself to solitude but it doesn’t always come easy. When Teen was a toddler I read that those with my personality type need an hour or more of solitude each day to maintain emotional health – I squawked in laughter like my sea gull friends! How does a mom of littles get even a few minutes of solitude? Gracious me, I was lucky if I could shut the bathroom door without a child in there with me!

As the kids get older you do get some of your own life back (hope for my mom-of-littles friends!), and solitude becomes a more achievable goal. Gym time, walking the dog, silence rather than radio in the car (often on the way to pick up a kid or a carpool – silence until the kids get in the car, and then they’re so noisy they often don’t notice the music isn’t on, and I get to eavesdrop on their chatter), and a big YAY for uninterrupted writing time.

I get a little Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs when I haven’t had enough solitude. This quote from Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Solitude and Silence sums it up well:

“I try to run into God’s arms and give myself to his embrace, but I am holding lots of stuff, and it gets in the way. The baggage I am carrying makes me clumsy and hard to hug” (p45).

Clumsy and hard to hug – I don’t know how to hug myself, let alone anyone else, until I have sorted through my soul’s detritus with Jesus.

So here’s to finding small and big ways to include time for solitude in the schedule!

Connect
Where do you go to be alone, and why?

Study
Read aloud Mark 6:31-34, 45-57.
Describe the situation in which Jesus invites His disciples to come away. What did He intend for them (vv. 31-32)?
Jesus’ plans for solitude were interrupted by the crowd. How did He handle it (vv. 33-34)?What did Jesus do when He finally got away (v. 46)?

Live
Does the idea of solitude thrill or threaten you? Explain.
How is the spiritual practice of solitude like/unlike simply being alone?
What ‘noise’ keeps you from quieting your soul, and what can you do to turn down the volume?
When have you experienced a “crowd” in your solitary place? How did you handle it?
How could solitude focus your prayers and help you seek God?
Which Faith Training Exercises have you tried recently? Share joys and struggles. Which exercises might God call you to this week, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that God will use your spiritual training to make you fit in new ways for Christ.

birds

“Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).