Finding Footing in Troubled Times

Finding Footing in Troubled Times
Reflections on the Renewing Properties of Natural Beauty and Art


Passing by a sun-parched lawn in Florence after dropping my trash and recycling at the city transfer station, I noticed four cloth banners fluttering from a rope strung across the yard. The banners carried a message I assume was meant for passersby and neighbors.

Possibly, it was meant as well for the occupants of the home, as a kind of note to self: Large, neat, block letters: Beauty. Hope. Love. Each word a different color. The fourth banner in purple, not a word, but a big heart.

An ordinary weekday. An ordinary chore transformed by something within the human spirit that yearns for more than death, despair and divisiveness.

Beauty. Hope. Love. Heart.

In the middle of a pandemic. In the middle of necessary turmoil about race and white supremacy, came a necessary reminder of what has the power to transform and heal: Beauty. Hope. Love. Heart.

Back in the times before what we never imagined happening happened, I believe I took beauty for granted. I might have been cynical about Hope. Perhaps not expansive enough about love.

Early on, after my workplace sent us all home indefinitely, after I set up a workspace in a spare bedroom and while I was deep in worry about my children working in an ICU and a detox, a niece living in Brooklyn, and other unknowns, I started taking long walks every day.

It was March, so some days were still very cold. A couple of times I walked in slushy remnants from the night before’s weather. These walks were a necessity for my mental health.

Like many people, I felt disoriented, frightened, disconnected, slightly in shock by how quickly the circumstances of our lives had changed and the dire predictions for the future.

Fast, long walks helped ground me. Yes, there was anxiety and fear propelling me.

But at a certain point, I started noticing. What I noticed was beauty. The way the clouds hung in the sky, the sunlight coming through the trees making a certain pattern on the path ahead of me. The sun glinting on the water. A stark swamp just minutes from Big Y that seemed like it could be the setting for a horror film. In its eeriness, I saw beauty. The way trees sometimes grew out of rocks. Sights that literally made me stop and pay attention.

Things that took my breath away.

I’ve never been one to take a lot of pictures. I’m known for taking pictures that lop off heads and Iphone shots with my thumb at the edge.

But something compelled me to photograph things that moved me, the beauty I spotted. That became an essential part of the walk. Noticing, and then documenting, made me notice more.

And so it went:

Observation, seeking out beauty.

Beauty, feeding hope.

Hope, exerting a loving influence on me.

Click, click, click.

 You saw some of those images in the slide show accompanied by the beautiful singing from my friend Mindy Ray.

Like many people, my hope took a huge hit in 2016.

I was on the board at the time and during check in at our meetings, just about the only thing I could say was that I felt awful. I didn’t want to say I was hopeless. This is a place of faith, after all. How could I not have hope?

To some degree, that’s been the ground I’ve walked on pretty much since that election because to me it seemed forces of hate, not love, of fear not hope, had taken over.

It’s still hard for me to see it another way. That felt like a gash in my psyche.

During this practice of noticing -- whether it was a bright orange salamander on the ground in front of my feet, the crooked tree in a rock, a bridge and trees reflected in the river below them -- I began to feel mending taking place.

 I came upon this quote recently.

“Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: in the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us…. A belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.” That, of course, is President Barack Obama.

Believing in things not seen. That’s faith, I guess, and hope.

I tell people I’m a recovering Pollyanna. For those who don’t know, Pollyanna is a term meant to describe someone who is annoyingly optimistic.

Pollyanna is the title character of a 1913 novel considered a classic of children’s literature. Basically the story goes that Pollyanna had a tough childhood. Her parents both die, so she goes to live with a resentful Aunt who is mean to her. She puts her in an unpleasant attic room or makes her eat bread and milk for dinner if she’s late. Pollyanna always finds a way to look on the bright side, something she calls the Glad Game. In her room she marvels at the view. Milk and bread for dinner: She loves milk.

This is a character, not to mention a writer, in denial about defining circumstances of a person’s life - namely her dead parents and cruel aunt. There are more twists and turns in the book, but suffice it to say that this was the source of a core belief I held as a young person -- that you might suffer in life, but if you only keep a good perspective, you will be ok.

Pollyanna is described as a classic in children’s literature, though I seriously doubt it’s a classic in anyone’s canon other than privileged white people. This bootstrap philosophy has an element of gaslighting, by denying what’s true and feelings that are truly understandable.

When my brother died in a fire at the age of 27 in 1983, that unconscious coping strategy was blown to smithereens.  

I started reading books like “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” by Rabbi Harold Kushner and came to a different understanding of hope and despair that continues evolving.

Victor Frankl’s famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” describes his time in concentration camps. It’s harrowing reading. In one paragraph he talks about a young woman near death who tells him she found hope in the branch of a chestnut tree she could see from the window of her deathbed. When she describes talking to the tree, he asks if it replies. The tree says: “I am here. I am here. I am life. Eternal life.”

How is it possible to have hope along with despair in the midst of such unthinkable cruelty and brutality?

Yet, people found it.

The writer Etty Hillesom, who died in a concentration camp in 1943 is known for her book “An Interrupted Life,” basically her diaries, many written while she was in the camps. Before she died, she gave those writings to someone asking them to get them published, but “An Interrupted Life” wasn’t  published until 1981 and was translated into English in  2002. She wrote: 

 “There is no hidden poet in me, just a little piece of God that might grow into poetry. And a camp needs a poet, one who experiences life there, even there, as a bard and is able to sing about it. At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls gently snoring, dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, women and girls who often told me during the day, “We don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, otherwise we are sure to go out of our minds,” I was sometimes filled with infinite tenderness...and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of the whole concentration camp... I feel my strength returning to me; I have stopped making plans and worrying about risks. Happen what may, it is bound to be for the good.”

Created in the hellhole of a concentration camp, this takes my breath away. When I read it, I think, I have no right to succumb to despair. And yet, in fairness, despair comes to us all, sometimes unbidden.

I’ve come around to thinking that I don’t have a right to abandon hope.

And despair: maybe it is something earned by lives much harder than my own.

On the other hand, it’s also true there is no use in comparing one person’s tragedies and despair with another’s. They exist within a persons’ life not in relation to someone else’s.

 “Despair and hope are inseparable,” said Cornel West. “One can never understand what hope is really about unless one wrestles with despair.”

And sometimes, like despair, hope comes unbidden.

You can’t really summon it or even will into being.

It can come when you don’t expect it.

Even after a trip to the dump.

Beauty. Hope. Love. Heart.

 I believe what follows is called Grace.