I have been reading Mary Oliver’s essays. I don’t remember what was happening in 1999 that would have caused Mary Oliver to write the words that seem so prescient now:
In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit. The sprawling darkness of not knowing. We speak of the light of reason. I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of ______. But I don’t know what to call it. Maybe hope….Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer
–Mary Oliver, Winter Hours
Although I have confined my interaction with current news to morning coffee with a side of the New York Times, I encounter the dark times every day. I have not lost a job and none of my family members are ill with the COVID virus, but the feeling of suspended animation has become a challenge. I am the kind of person who is always careening ahead. That doesn’t mean that I have a plan (because I have never really had a plan) but my “monkey mind” is full of random fears about what is coming and how I need to get ready for it.
All of my delighted anticipations for the short-term future are in disarray. I am not at home in Minneapolis because traveling with a dog and a car full of stuff across Nebraska seems like a truly bad idea. We know that we cannot predict when this will change. We will cancel summer trips, and it is impossible to say when we will be able to visit our Massachusetts family pod. Unanticipated online work obligations and ill-fitting roles as home-schooling parents distract my mid-career students from their own writing, but I cannot nag them because Zoom meetings incessantly divert me as well. Even though there is supposed to be more time because we cannot go out, it feels like less.
These are not serious complaints – we are very fortunate to be nicely housed and fed, as well as (knock on wood) healthy. I am surprised at how easy it is to “accept the things I cannot change” under these conditions. But, I have to choose between accepting a year of suspended animation and considering, on a day-by-day basis, the offered opportunities. And Mary Oliver’s comment about darkness and a scrappy kind of hope hit home.
Arundhati Roy’s recent heart stopping article described the current pandemic as a portal: “the rupture exists….And in the midst of this terrible despair …it is a gateway between one world and the next.” Portal implies threshold, door, an invitation to change – a topic that I wrote about in lighter times, in the post Close a Door and Begin Again? What I wrote nine months ago about looking both backward and forward seems like an innocent discernment of subtle rumblings that are as Roy suggests, becoming seismic and obligatory.
Back to hope, which Mary Oliver proposes not as a path but almost as a prayer. Hope feels so insubstantial – not something that you can hold in your hand and appreciate, and certainly not a plan. Yet so many others whom I admire see it as essential. Parker Palmer, who struggled with the darkness of depression, describes it as an asset and “of all the virtues, ‘hope’ is one of the most-needed in our time. When people ask me how I stay hopeful in an era of widespread darkness, I answer simply: ‘Hope keeps me alive and creatively engaged with the world’. ” There is it – anticipatory engagement with the world that prepares us for walking through the portal. Like Mary Oliver, he sees hope as an active virtue rather than a personal characteristic.
Krista Tippet, my go-to practical spiritual director, talks about hope as a muscle – something that must be exercised if it is going to be of any use to us when we really need it. Hope is more than sunny optimism (a hard sell these days) because, unlike optimism, it is grounded in reality. However, hope’s reality distinguishes between today’s dramatic headlines and the whole story of the human condition.
It is easy for me to dismiss hope. I can be a Debbie Downer, whose character on Saturday Night Live made me laugh uproariously (while cringing a bit inside). I still sometimes watch the YouTube clips of my favorite Thanksgiving skit, which references pandemics along with global inequity and dementia…. my mind drifts to worry a lot. But, Mary Oliver’s observation about hope being a fighter and a screamer helps, because I have long played those roles too. Moreover, as we peer at the portal into the unknown, some intensity and focus may be useful. We can drag the detritus of our old preferences and prejudices with us into the future or, as Roy says, “we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” That suggests that hope rests on our capacity to change, even with an incomplete vision of what will be asked of us.
I can rejoice that the natural world heals as we drive less and as we spend more time cementing relationships with those who mean the most to us. But, are any of us really ready to anticipate what we will do when we walk through the portal into a transformed world? I need to develop my hope muscle before I leap to purpose and passion. For now, this means (perhaps for the first time), observing the details of each day and the moments in it with care, and finding hope – and joy – in them. Choices are required: Do I stop and meditate on the clouds, or rush in to make a call to someone who means a lot to me? Do I focus on the grandeur of the Colorado foothills, or look at the equally awesome iris unfolding in a neighbor’s yard? Do I choose to play with my granddaughter this morning or extend a deep conversation with my husband? Any of these choices can bring hope, both in the present and for the future, if I am in the right frame of mind.
My calendar is not full and life seems suspended, but time moves along at the same pace that it did before. If I wish to prepare myself for what cannot be known, my hope muscle exercises need to start with basic training: paying attention to what is most important right now, in this moment that cannot be repeated.