It seems like we are breathing a collective sigh of relief as we say goodbye to 2020, and look for better times to grace us in 2021. I can almost hear us shout, “Goodbye and good riddance,” as we cross over into the new year. With the enormity of all we have been through, the desire to turn our backs and walk away is completely understandable, but I’m cautious about moving on so quickly.
I can’t wholeheartedly plant both feet in the new year, without first giving thanks for the gifts I received from the challenge that was 2020. We like to imagine that wisdom just arrives with age and experience, that it comes to us in soft and gentle ways, but it is the challenging times that teach us the most. In that spirit, here are six important things I learned in 2020. I'm wondering what you learned and hoping we can carry our hard won wisdom into the new year and beyond.
Gift #1 - Rest: Slowing down even when I didn’t know I needed to.
On some level, the world has always moved too fast for me. In pre-pandemic times, it seemed that being busy had become a badge of honor in a society moving at breakneck speed. As long as we were busy, we were OK, though we did love to complain about it. If you weren’t busy, there was something wrong with you and people got concerned. I know because back then, I refused to use the word busy to describe my life. I didn't want busy to be an excuse for why I wasn’t giving time to things that really mattered to me.
In those days, I prided myself on not being busy and went so far as to insist that I wasn’t. When I spoke that out loud, I was most often met with an uncomfortable silence. I'm afraid my pride should have been a red flag, as when the shutdown came along last March, it forced me to realize that I had been far busier than I had ever imagined.
Once everything shutdown, time took on a whole new reality for me. It flowed like a never-ending river, and the little boat that was me, floated on it from daylight to darkness in a dizzying circle rather than a horizontal line. Without the punctuation of events and commitments, it was hard to orient, hard to feel my feet on the ground. With time, I have found myself surrendering to floating.
A friend recently shared a dream with me that expressed this changing relationship with time in a different way. In her dream, she opened her calendar and it was filled with cobwebs! During this pandemic, we are grieving the loss of all those events that used to fill our calendars. We are especially grieving the loss of the social connections those events nurtured in community, but I can't help feeling laughter deep in my belly every time I think of this image. What a cosmic joke to play on a culture that emphasizes doing, lots of doing, over simply being.
Pre-pandemic, my calendar had been central to my life. Scheduling appointments, keeping track of reservation from Airbnb, retreat guests, and fitting in social engagements, kept me in constant relationship with the flow of the days and months there on the page. My calendar was not nearly as full as most of my friends, which is part of why I didn’t feel so busy.
Back then, I would watch weekend guests arrive at my place on Friday nights looking drained and tense, only to see them looking like completely different people when they left on Sunday morning. When all this came to an end, I began to see just how much energy I had been expending in keeping it all going. It wasn’t just my guests who needed rest. I had to admit that I needed rest. These months have gifted that to me, rest, a very deep rest.
Whenever this pandemic is done with us, I hope to remember what rest feels like. I hope I allow myself plenty of it, to sleep, to dream, to see things more clearly, to lie fallow long enough to see what wants to plant itself in my life anew. In many regards, all of my remaining gifts are completely dependent on my slowing down.
Gift #2 – Frugality: I can live on way less money than I ever imagined.
Instantly losing a large portion of my income was a big shock and initially felt like life as I knew it had come to an end. Not so, I’ve learned. It is amazing how little money I need in my newly pared down lifestyle. Though I was never a big spender, I look back now on things I bought in the past, feeling like they were essential. They weren’t.
I see now that I wasn’t completely clear about the bargain I was making with my time, my life energy and my peace of mind, when I exchanged them for money. When the world around me starts up again, it might be harder to remember this lesson but I hope to go forward with this sharper perception about my habits of consumption.
Gift #3 – My Ancestors: Seeing my life in a historical perspective gives me strength and resolve.
Never have the lives of those who have gone before me been so front and center in my mind as during this pandemic. It was as if those folks moved right in and sat down next to me. Those I knew and those I never met, came alive in my imagination in a whole new way that has brought comfort and support.
Over these months I have had an ongoing conversation with them about their life and times, what brought them joy, what adversity they faced and how they dealt with historic challenges in their time. When I sat down to my Thanksgiving feast for one, they were sitting at the table with me. Their resolve to face the challenges they faced, helped me surrender to my own historic moment. Maybe it is the old sociologist in me that is still fascinated by the intersection of the personal and the societal. Whatever it is, placing my little life in the currents of history has been sustaining. I want to carry that forward.
Gift # 4 – Homemaking: The domesticity that I spurned when I became a liberated woman is actually deeply satisfying and profoundly nurturing.
More than any other time in my life, my days alone here in the forest seem a lot like how the women who came before me lived. Rarely driving, tending my vegetable garden, baking bread, planning and cooking fantastic meals, all reflect women’s lives before my time.
In pre-pandemic times, I had a love/hate relationship with cooking. I’ve always enjoyed good food, so even as I’ve lived alone, I’ve cooked for myself, but it was a chore I that fit in. I'd often collapse after a full day, and opt to go out dinner instead of cooking. When what I planned to cook, got postponed, more food than I’d like to admit got wasted in cooking fantasies that never got manifested.
In these pandemic times, cooking has become my passion. The whole experience is pleasurable, the planning, the prep, the cooking itself and of course the eating. Literally nurturing myself in this way is deeply respectful of my body, my desires, and is the epitome of loving myself. I’ve come to find it essential.
More shocking to me, is my desire to keep my house tidy. I’ve never been terribly messy but the feeling that a tidy house was part of nurturing myself, had escaped my awareness. Cleaning house, doing the dishes and the laundry, all have a certain grace to them.
After ten years of hosting guests in my home, I now provide all those little special welcoming touches to myself, cleanliness, treats, even flowers. It may sound like I'm falling off a cliff into selfishness, but I see it as a new respect for myself that I know will spill over in nurturing ways with others.
Gift #5 – Solitude: A treasure with deep teachings.
Since the time of my divorce and my children leaving home, I have kept a quote from anonymous on my refrigerator. It reads, “The difference between loneliness and solitude is your perception of who you are alone with and who made the choice.”
I certainly didn’t make the choice for the amount of aloneness that was in store for me when the world shut down. I’m an introvert and have always treasured alone time, but I’ll admit that at the beginning of the shutdown, I was alone so much that it was a bit daunting, even for me. One day early on, I was surprised to find a feeling of shame arising in me. In a flash, I was blaming myself for being alone in this new predicament. My longing to be in a relationship, something that is always with me, sharply increased. I sat with all those feelings which rose and fell in me as I sailed my little boat on this new river of time. We learn so much about ourselves in being with others but over these months, I’ve learned that extreme aloneness teaches us about ourselves too.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, this pandemic is bringing us all to a confrontation with our existential dilemma. I’m surprised to find that being so alone through this time, has left me more at peace with my existential aloneness than ever before. Having fewer distractions has helped me see many of the coping mechanisms I use to avoid confronting my aloneness head on, over eating, consumption patterns, projecting my shadow and my light onto others rather than accepting them as my own. In reflecting again on my quote above, facing into my aloneness, has indeed let me know a lot more about “who I am alone with.”
I am emerging from this pandemic time with gifts that came from being in solitude, a treasure I only half understood before. The funny thing is, I know that my discoveries will change who I am when I am in relationship. It already is. I see it in my willingness to be more vulnerable, in a new openness of heart, and in a deeper capacity for love and acceptance of myself and others. My solitude has been a deep blessing.
Gift #6 - Belonging: Mother Nature waits for me to pay attention and is always ready
to welcome me home.
The poem Lost, by David Wagoner ends with the words, “Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.” You can hear the poem here. https://youtu.be/qnaq_QyjWJA. For these ten months now, I feel like I have been standing still here in the forest and because of it, I feel more a part of this beautiful landscape than ever before. While I wrote about this in Finding the Wild Inside, standing still during this pandemic, has helped me deepen my experience of simply being another creature here on this earth. I feel I am known by the frog that croaks when I sit on my deck in the sunshine. The deer know my habits and are incredibly sensitive to my movements. One day when without moving, I opened my eyes after meditating in the center of my labyrinth, a deer across the meadows leapt as if startled.
My wildlife camera is full of videos of bears, foxes, raccoons and skunks. The bears who visited my fruit trees brought chaos equal to the chaos of the pandemic, threatening the very existence of my plum tree. Last summer, I saw only one bear with my own eyes, when crashing branches awakened me one night. I looked down into the meadow from my upstairs bedroom window. It was a bright moonlit night. The light cast a dark shadow under the apple tree where the bear was feeding. Then out of that dark shadow, a moving shadow appeared, this one in the perfect shape of the bear. I've come to call that bear the Shadow Bear, an apt visitor for the year that was 2020, when so many lessons were learned from the darkness we have endured.
When I move at natures pace, I more easily feel my belonging in the web of life. No one is excluded from that web, yet we struggle to accept our place there. This is our human dilemma, something we struggle with over our lifetime. There is no greater feeling of peace than when we truly understand ourselves as a small but vital part of a magnificent whole. What a different world we could create, if we could surrender to this deep truth at the center of our existence.
Now that I've honored the gifts I've received, I can move into 2021. Happy New Year everyone! May this year find us living ever more deeply into the best of who we were meant to be.