A Garden of Volunteers

Covid has taken many things this past year. Lives, freedoms, our sense of safety. I have been going back in my journal and noting how I was feeling back then. It was like a mix-tape of feelings, both mine and how I was affected by the feelings of others.

Here are a few journal snippets as well as a few days I documented, not with words, but with art. I did a drawing a day for most of 2020. As I have sharpened my camera skills in 2021, I have become more of a visual storyteller. I hope I don’t muck this up with too many words. 

March 21, 2020

Mom says it all feels like a dream. Like she wakes in the morning expecting it to be gone, but it isn’t gone.

March 22, 2020

I’ve been to the store just once since this all started and I imagined a neon green-glow throughout the store where the virus was spreading. We can’t know right now where it lives and that is probably the worst part

March 25, 2020

“Yesterday Trump suggested we could start “re-opening government and commerce”. He ignores the advice of professionals and speaks of 50,000 deaths as if those people are expendable. A dystopian nightmare this is. I long for sanity…

April 2, 2020

What will we remember most about these times ? The noise or the silence ? The fear or the helping ? The tears or the laughter ? The loneliness or the solitude ?”

April 3, 2020

Why, oh why can’t I want what I have ? Tonight I start praying. Maezen says it doesn’t matter who to, only that I begin the conversation. And so it is. And so I will.

April 16, 2020

My world is full of fits and starts and I can’t get any traction. I know there is no “right way” to survive a pandemic. This is all uncharted territory here. The world feels “off it’s axis”… like it’s wobbly. Like it could crash at any moment …”

So what now ?

There I was, in a beautiful, quiet space for a few days with nowhere else I needed to be. I’ve craved time alone without interruption or responsibility, but now that I had it, I slipped into this place where my stomach hurt and I felt like I should be “doing” something. 

It should be enough to hear the mourning doves on top of the tallest trees. Or to watch the Black-headed Grosbeaks (that I have only ever seen here at this airbnb) frequent the feeders like drunks to a dive bar. It should be enough, but I am full of a weird anxiety about time. And purpose. And the world. 

As I try to ease more gracefully into the solitude I remind myself of the one crucial act of re-emergence:

Lean in.
Occupy the space you occupy. 

I recently started listening to Pema Chödrön’s new book : Welcoming the Unwelcome. I chose it in part because of a question posed on my health profile ahead of my first “in-person” doctor visit in around 18 months. 

I had to go in to see my doctor for a test you simply cannot do over a Zoom call. It was late last week but they asked me to fill out my annual health questionnaire prior to the appointment. You know, the usual questions about the state of your mental health, if you are experiencing any symptoms of illness, etc … 

Simple enough. 

Then come the questions about family history. Mostly easy stuff. I am aware we aren’t perfect specimens and our history is far more than a few checked boxes, but then I come to a question that stops me in my tracks. Nestled between heart disease and lymphoma is “intellectual disability”.

“An intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior which covers many everyday social and practical skills.” 

I actually know what this defines and I mean no disrespect in sharing my first (and wildly inappropriate) thought: Does this explain what may be at the root of those who think Covid is a hoax ? Democrats worship satan ? Vaccines are planting tiny microchips to track us ?

Also in that moment, I come face to face with my own polarizing process. I wonder if I’m more a part of the problem than the solution ?

As I write this, I am now re-reading the book. So much food for thought. Covid is an extremely polarizing topic. I see “the middle” now as a vague outline; a muddled, fuzzy mess. Has even the idea of it lost it’s appeal ?

I’ll write more about this later, I’m sure. It merges with the wisdom of Karen Maezen Miller who speaks of a place “where there is nothing to accomplish, everything to allow”.  

Amen ! 
Or Touche’. 
Or ” You got that right, sister ! “

A walk with a friend over the weekend got us to talking about the year behind us. There were a lot of changes and maybe a few revelations too. She described for me about her garden. How dutiful care seemed to slip away and it became a garden of volunteers. I love even just the thought of this and it becomes a perfect metaphor. 

I look at my own yard and see signs of the same thing. Clematis winding it’s way up the broken birch. Hostas bursting out of their pots. Lilac pushing up under the fence and through the dense soil and river rock. The maple, exploding with leaves as it settles fully into it’s new place in the yard. Morning glory coming up from under the front porch, periwinkle crossing the boundary fence from my neighbors yard …

For me, 2020 was not without noticeable loss. Not everything can be neatly measured. Clearly though, there are things that have fallen away and just as clearly (and maybe more obviously) there are things that have grown in unexpected places. Life itself has become a garden full of volunteers. A perfect metaphor. 

All things as they are. 

I love metaphors. I find them everywhere. It’s a unintended benefit of days filled with attentiveness. My time outdoors has really helped me develop this mindfulness as a life skill. The birds help me see and listen differently. I watch for flashes of color and movement, I listen for familiar songs. But almost as much as what I see, are all of the things that I cannot. There is also what those sights and sounds bring to mind; how they make me feel. 

I always go back to Mary Oliver whenever I think of attentiveness and awareness. She is my mentor in this way:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver

And so I muddle through. I feel like I have a lot to say about how this past year has changed me and the world around me. Forever the student, I started this post a number of times and I still don’t feel like I said what I came here to say. I cut as much as I’ve kept. So I will leave it be now. As it is. My beautiful garden of volunteers. 

20 Comments on “A Garden of Volunteers

  1. Thank you for sharing this, I know the struggle with finding the right words, trashing them, starting again, rearranging. We will be muddling through many words trying to capture this past 15 months for a long time, and perhaps re-figuring things out over and over. We’re far from done. And, your art is wonderful, as appealing as your many photos, and I look forward to seeing much more.

    • Thanks for this. Glad you like the art snippets. Mostly I have it in Facebook albums and on my Braenstorm IG page. I think you’re right about this all being far from over. More will be revealed. I’m so grateful for all the writers, artists, musicians and dreamers. It will be creatively documented for decades. Thanks for writing ✏🎨🎶🙏

  2. Perfection. I cannot find my pandemic journal; I’ve looked everywhere. So I’m glad to see yours here. The illustrated version. “Drunks to a dive bar,” haha! Really, you’ve only seen grosbeaks here? I wouldn’t know; I’m glad to have you monitoring the birds. And, yes, your bird photos are stunning. Thank you, as always.

    • Yep. Only there have I seen the black-headed grosbeaks. Both male and female, so I expect they have a nest nearby. I’ll send you a cute picture of one that was soaked, yet still braving the storm for seeds. Thanks for the kind words. As is true with the pandemic itself, I’m not quite sure what to do with the pieces that remain. Most likely keep making art !

  3. Wonderful post!! I love how you write, so easy to read, yet so thought provoking. The sketches and photos are just the “cherries on the top”! Great way for me to start my day-thank you!!

  4. As much as I love your photo images, and the birds (THE BIRDS, THE BIRDS, THE BIRDS!!!) nothing FOR ME compares to your (editorial) cartoons. So…. despite the fact that certain irritants have receded somewhat from top of mind, please do not abandon your sketch gift, which is both art and commentary of the highest form…*

    • Thanks so much, Mare. I was just thinking as I put this together how I had let so much fall away. Thanks for the encouragement 💜 I have two projects to finish, but after that, I will quite literally “get back to the drawing board”.

  5. Wow! What a lovely post. I didn’t know you were also an artist. That’s great that you created something for so many days in a row. I was in a fog for parts of the last year and didn’t feel inspired to draw. It was very appropriate that you started this post with a plant whose common name is “love in a mist.”

    • Thank you 💜 I have pondered some kind of book for the drawings. Some are overtly political, some more subtle. They all carried a message that words couldn’t seem to hold. You can see many of them on my Braenstorm IG page. Love in a Mist are my favorites. I will never tire of trying to “speak” visually.

  6. You do Mary’s poem well–and I thank you for that!

  7. Full of wisdom and beauty and feelings in this post. Are these your birds photos? 😮 Amazing! Your drawings are most excellent. I love the most the fact that you were writing on toilet paper. 😀 “Wear the damn mask” is a great one. I will not say much about your country because it’s slipping out of my, and everybody’s grasp, in a way. It feels like an experiment. As in what happens with you, happens with everybody. So stay tight and proud. Not much more we can do than stay attentive, mindful and loving, and do NOT let us be divided. All well to you.

    • Thank you for this. Of course I would like to think things are improving quite a lot with our change of leadership, but the ideas held by his fervent supporters still sully everything. I am learning ways not to contribute to the negative energy in the world. Thanks for the kind words. Don’t give up on us yet !

      • No, no, on the contrary. You might be the ones. Just what I was feeling about Italy when it got his hardest first. If Italy can pick up from there, everybody can. It’s moving along, slowly but surely…

        • Whew ! 😊 Italy is on the bucket list. Can’t wait to put Covid in the rearview … glad to see some positive stuff happening around the planet.

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