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Something From Everything  

Don't let despair grow

It was dusk, and I had forgotten where I was. 

Not literally, of course. I was on my way to pick up my son from school, and having passed through the low marshland, I began to traipse up the hill approaching the back school yard. But my mind was elsewhere, distracted. Likely somewhere between the states of Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. 

It was Nov. 5, two days after the U.S. election. There was a lot in the air. 

For days, I had been refreshing an electoral map that changed, state by state, by single digit percentage points, if that. In between habitual refreshing of the map and news stories, I endlessly consumed the outrage, disgust, despair and then, fragile hope, on display in my social feeds. 

Closer to home, viral cases had begun to jump exponentially. That morning a nearby elementary school had registered another outbreak. Collective thoughts were turning more frequently to the heightened regulations and restrictions that would surely soon be coming. 

In response to both viral cases, and political upheaval, and tethered to my phone as I was, I began engaging in online arguments with both acquaintances and strangers.

Tense conversations about the balance between civic responsibilities and freedoms, about disputed numbers and scientific models, about what constitutes safety and acceptable risk.

That evening as I trudged toward my son’s school, anxious thoughts of Trumpism and anti-establishment scepticism blurred together, making the moment even more precarious in my mind.

I shivered in the crisp evening air, and, habitually, I pulled out my phone and refreshed the election map, one last time. 

Then, suddenly, a great noise encircled me. 

Startled, I looked around, squinting and unable to find the source. My eyes were temporarily blinded by the glare of my phone’s screen as I stared into the near dark.

Then, it came into the view: against the backdrop of the fading sky, a great mass of redwing blackbirds moving as a single co-ordinated, unpredictable cloud. Slowly my eyes began to identify individual birds, circling and weaving between the cattails.

It occurred to me how silly it was that the birds had startled me. They were hardly quiet now, their chorus of chirps audible amongst the tumult of beating wings.

Had they been silent and still as I had descended into their home? Or had I been sleep walking, so lost in thought that I had stumbled into another world without realizing it? 

The phone slipped back into my pocket. And concerns of U.S. elections, viral cases and online arguments were far away. I stood on that hill, held by that moment. Still staring, and listening. Realizing where I was.

A few weeks earlier, I had decided to memorize Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things. I was not feeling at all at peace; it had been featured by the On Being Project, read by Berry himself.

The poem is 11 lines long, and read slowly in less than a minute. From the moment that Berry intones his first words “When despair for the world grows in me…” I knew that the poem was for me, and many of us, in this moment. 

In the poem, Berry conveys the unique peace that nature possesses and can lend us. In the night, when assaulted by anxious thoughts, the poet leaves his home and lies down in the grass, where the “wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

In nature, the poet gains the “peace of wild things,” but only for a time. For in the end, the poet does not proclaim a final victory over despair or sleepless nights, but only that “for a while, I am held by the grace of the world, and am free.” 

There I was, suddenly free myself. Held momentarily by the hidden grace of that moment I stumbled upon. Caught up in something that felt so strange and otherworldly. But, of course, was very much a part of our world, occurring outside my notice in the twilight of each and every evening. 

Despite the fact that I no longer go to church, I found myself thinking of the words of Jacob in Genesis. In that old tale, Jacob falls asleep in the wilderness at dark, and in his dream he sees a ladder extending into heaven, and angels ascending and descending.

After he is blessed and reassured by God, he awakes. And Jacob marvels to himself: “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not realize it.” 

This story is more than 3,000 years old. Any story that old is loaded with meaning, importance and interpretations that others have placed upon it, long before it ever reaches our ears. 

But that story has survived for a reason. 

Now, you may not believe in God or angels (or ladders, I don’t know you…). But this was a story of a man finding himself face to face with a much larger reality than he realized:

  • A place that was sacred and alive when he thought it was ordinary and desolate.
  • A story where his world became much bigger, and his previous concerns much smaller.
  • One where he was still blessed and accepted.

As I stood there stunned and still and free, it felt like my story, too.

On this we can agree: that there is a whole world, that we think of as “other,” below, above, and outside our distracted attention. That beyond our notice is a world where redwing blackbirds, or heavenly messengers are ascending and descending. Where the voice of the Divine, or a chorus of chirps and beating wings can bless us and remind us that we belong. 

And that belonging is grace.

Sometimes, we think of grace as solutions to our problems, that:

  • The things we fret about are resolved.
  • There is political co-operation and co-ordination, where before there seemed only discord and chaos.
  • A virus spread and cost is halted by reliable and rapid testing, and the distribution of an effective and safe vaccine.
  • An online argument is resolved, as each participant thanks the other for bringing a new and thoughtful perspective.

But sometimes (and most often), grace comes as the simple dawning awareness that there is a world larger than our concerns. A world that does not need us, but welcomes our observance and participation. Those moments that leave us feeling both small and accepted are sacred to us, precisely because they seem so rare. 

Perhaps these moments are occurring, even now. Even in the midst of our anxious thoughts of viruses or politics or strife. How often, in our forethought of grief, do we walk right into, and through, a world waiting to capture our attention.

Waiting to lend us a moment’s peace. To cast our anxieties far from us. To cast us in a production far bigger and wilder than ourselves. 

A hidden grace, waiting to hold us and make us free. If only just for a little while. 



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Kiss the Earth with your feet

This morning, I’m in pain.

It’s not terrible at the moment, but it’s right there (there being an ever-moving target along the nerve pathway of my right leg).

A few weeks ago, a spasm of sharp, grabbing pain suddenly relocated from my lower back to my right hip, where it began sending unexpected pain shooting across my right buttock, groin, and down through the front of my right shin.

My sciatic nerve was not happy.

The pain came on suddenly, unexpectedly, and erratically. And it has stayed with me since. Like an unwanted guest, far overstaying their welcome.

Since then, I’ve tried a number of stretches, visited massage therapists, employed alternating hot and cold compresses to the muscles in question.

The overall pain has diminished, but to this day, an overextending of my leg, an unexpected turn to the side, or a bend at the waist, will create a spasm that takes my breath away (and usually has me making some involuntary sound that send my family running to see if I’m OK).

What does help, invariably, is walking.

Not at first, of course. At first, each step feels unnatural, pain flaring at a certain rotation, or as I first put my full weight down into my shoe. The first few steps are always limping, as one of my kids (or partner!) asks me if they should grab my cane or walker.

(That is doubly insulting because they laugh at me and they never hand me a cane or walker)

Eventually, after a few painful and stuttering steps, I begin to find a rhythm; one foot in front of the other, equal stride and weight placed as I move. But it’s always slow and careful. The spasms of pain remain inconsistent, so each movement is measured, intentional, and sensing.

I walk slowly, aware that each movement may need to be modified mid stride. I am fully aware of each step. I am aware of each and every time my shoe touches the earth.

Today, after walking my youngest to the nearby elementary school, I veered off and walked along a path littered with overgrowth and uneven terrain. Each step came slowly, feeling the leaves, twigs, and small gravel give way under my foot.

The sound of the dirt moving beneath my shoe as I shifted my weight. It reminded me of the advice from Zen Master Thich Nat Hahn: “Walk as if you were kissing the Earth with your feet.”

Those words from the Buddhist monk have often been in my head when I am walking. Not that I’m especially practised at it. Those who have gone on retreats with the master relate that they spend hours or days in silence, simply walking, simply attempting to apply this rule to each step.

But now, in my pain, I can understand it more than ever before. Before, even as I attempted to be mindful of each step, my pace would slow only as long as I focused my attention on it.

As soon as the master’s words slipped away from the forefront of my mind, I would unconsciously return to my brisk, utilitarian stride. A quick stride is useful in a lot of our day to day activities, but “brisk” and “utilitarian” are not the adjectives you want associated with kissing.

But now, in my injury, each step is measured, gentle, aware of its weight and force. Each foot touches the Earth with a tenderness and a reaching curiosity usually reserved for only the most intimate of touches.

“Kissing the Earth with your feet” sounds superfluous, an attempt to spiritualize the most mundane of actions, simply putting one foot in front of the other. And, of course, it is.

That is the great challenge hidden within even the simplest of tasks. That each action could be undertaken with our whole being, if we had the intention and mindfulness for it.

Nothing brings mindfulness to the present moment like pain.

Pain is the message delivered in ALL CAPS. Pain reminds us exactly where we are. Exactly what we are doing. It has been incredibly hard to become lost in thought these days.

Each time I sit, my right hip muscles call out to me: “WE ARE HERE! WE DON”T LIKE THIS POSITION!”

Each time I stand, or step forward, those same muscles and nerve endings scream to me, "YOU ARE HERE! IN YOUR WOUNDED BODY! MOVE SLOWLY!”

Yet, my immediate response to pain is always the desire to escape it. When I’m in pain, I want to be in any moment by the present. I don’t want to hear what my body is saying to me right now.

I want to reach for something on the ground without paying the price for imperfect posture. I want to escape from my painful body with a podcast, a show or a video game.

I want to numb those same nerve endings with medications or alcohol. The pain makes me want to ignore, escape, or numb exactly what it is trying to tell me.

But despite these desires, the only healing I have found is slowly and tenderly moving through the pain.

So, how are you responding to pain?

You don’t have to be in physical pain, of course. The pain doesn’t even have to be yours, personally. Because there is pain all around us.

This is true in years not marked by pandemics, economic and political uncertainty, and isolation, but it’s unquestionably true now. And as with all forms of pain, some will attempt to ignore it, some will seek to escape it, and some will attempt to numb it.

I don’t know a single one of us who have not utilized these tactics to gain a small reprieve in these past few months. I certainly have. But it doesn’t move us forward. And it doesn’t bring us healing.

Even in the tumultuous year that 2020 has been, life is far too short and precious to be ignored, numbed or distracted from. We need to be able to move forward in full acceptance of the pain that we are experiencing and surrounded by.
But that movement must be slow, careful and mindful.

When we move through this pain, it might look like we are limping (because we are), and it might look painful (because it is). But we will not miss the next days, months, or years in numbness, denial or distraction.

Maybe, even as the pain eventually subsides, we will have learned to move as ones who are slow, mindful, and tender.

We would be those who walk, as if our feet were kissing the Earth. 



The great squeeze

I recently encountered a very angry man.

That isn’t particularly novel these days. There are angry men (and women) everywhere. But this man was at the grocery store. He was tall, well built, middle aged, and dressed casually.

As I steered my cart toward the produce section, the man stepped in front of me and yelled out: “There’s no pandemic! It’s all BS!”

(But he did not say BS.)

I was wearing a mask, as I do whenever I am indoors in public. It was a simple cloth one, not a N95 mask, a face shield, or a particulate respirator. This. too. was not novel.

Many of us are now wearing masks indoors, with many stores advising or mandating it.

While it offers some protection for the wearer, most understand it is primarily a safeguard for others.

It’s a barrier to prevent us from unwittingly (and moistly!) breathing viral particles on grocery clerks and fellow shoppers when we come in close contact with them (as in when someone unexpectedly pulls in front of you with their grocery cart). 

Regardless of its simple or common appearance, my face covering seemed to incense the man. 

Stunned by our initial encounter, I watched the man as he shopped. Everything about him appeared agitated, almost comically so. Items were thrown, rather than placed, into his cart. He moved hurriedly and impatiently around other shoppers.

When we both arrived back at the checkout line, I watched him swear loudly at the wait, and then abandon his line for the self-checkout. He swiped his entire cart’s worth across the small scanner, breathing hard and sighing aloud each time an item required a cashier’s assistance.

Incredibly, the man had chosen not to buy any bags and instead attempted to pile his full grocery cart’s worth on the small scale beside the scanner, so items were falling to the floor.

Then, because truth is stranger than fiction, the scanner malfunctioned, and the man was forced to wait as the (unfortunate) grocery clerk assisted him to re-ring in his entire order.

With the eyes of every patron and employee on him, he disappeared, as we all breathed a sigh of relief. I had been watching the man with great interest, but also wariness. Being near him felt like being near a dog who curls his upper lip in a snarl, exposing his teeth. 

This was an angry man. But he was not the only one. I was angry, too.

From the moment, he yelled, I was angry. Annoyed at his brazen ignorance. Resentful of the space he occupied, how he demanded that every other shopper be wary of him.

He was the second stranger in less than a week who had derided me for wearing a mask indoors, and I was furious that a piece of cloth could become so divisive.

Angry that we are still here, still arguing the legitimacy of a pandemic that changed our world completely, which has injured and killed hundreds of thousands (yes, even if they had pre existing conditions...). 

But I was also angry before I met this man. For months now, I have noticed a low-grade irritability; an agitation stirring just below the surface; a readiness to be annoyed or incensed.

It is as if I am constantly and consistently squeezed a little tighter than the moment before. It shows itself as a less grace for those who frustrate me. Even the occasional outburst at those whom I feel safest with and love the most. 

If you had asked me why I have been feeling so agitated and irritable, so prone to outbursts, I don’t think I could have told you a specific reason.

Had someone asked the tall, angry man in the grocery store why he was so irate, he might not be able to articulate what he was so angry at either. 

That is how anger works. It is like a fire. It builds until it ignites, and as it grows it becomes harder to contain, searching wildly for any fuel that will sustain it. The flash point may be specific, but the fuel is not.

In this moment, with so much that feels uncertain and beyond our control, there is fuel everywhere. 

There is so much I don’t know about the tall man at the grocery store. But this much I do know: long before he stepped into that store and saw my mask, he had been squeezed by the same factors we all are.

Whatever fears we harbour, whatever anxieties we carry, and whatever agitation and anger we bear are amplified in this moment. 

That does not excuse poor behaviour, of course. Empathy and understanding are not synonymous with acceptance. Swearing at strangers in public is not a defensible behaviour from a grown man. He should know and act better.

Likewise, when I find myself irritable and yelling at my family for reasons I cannot pinpoint, I should know and act better, too. We are responsible for our actions, and our reactions, regardless of the stress we find ourselves in. 

Our stress will increase. As tested and stretched and squeezed as everyone has already felt amid this pandemic, the fall and winter seasons will feel tighter. 

There are many things we can expect to squeeze us. Viral cases will continue to rise. Face-to-face visits will decrease as smoke and colder weather decreases our ability to gather outside. Financial hardships will increase as many businesses struggle to stay afloat in a limping economy.

We will decide between safety and liberty. We can expect to know someone who is infected. We can expect outbreaks in our workplaces and schools. We can expect our children to be sent home from school or daycare for weeks at a time with sniffling noses and coughs that have nothing to do with COVID; and we can expect to worry about them as we await intrusive test results. 

We can expect to feel it all. We can expect to feel apprehensive, anxious, frustrated and angry. We can expect to see other’s feeling the same. Sometimes all in the same day. Sometimes all within the same grocery store trip. 

If this sounds like fear mongering, I promise you it is not. This is mental preparation, and preparation is a gift to the aware and the alert.

If we knew that the temperature was dropping, we would bring out warmer clothes. If we knew there was a famine coming, we would store up food. And the one thing we know there will be a shortage of in the days to come, is grace. 

Let’s stock up now. Let’s decide to be gracious, now. Even if we do not know the specific ways the months ahead will stress us, we can all expect to be squeezed, and expect others to feel the same.

It would be dangerous to blindly deny all the turmoil we carry within us, and stresses that the upcoming days may bring us. And it is too much for us to expect that we will never be anxious, irritable or angry.

Instead, let us be gracious, both with ourselves and others.

  • Gracious with our stressed out spouses and children.
  • Gracious with our public health officers.
  • Gracious with our children’s teachers.
  • Gracious with those working in our hospitals.
  • Gracious with those grocery clerks assisting us through malfunctioning self-checkout scanners.
  • Gracious with even those who angry and at their worst.

Perhaps they will return grace to us, when we need it most. If that sounds a little like how masks work, well, it’s not a coincidence. 





All things new

I love my mini-van. I mean, not really.

Who loves a mini van?

It’s a stock silver-grey, has a cracked front bumper, and I’m nursing a check-engine light that just appeared.

It’s similarly “maintained” inside. Dog hair covers every grey surface (you can have any interior colour you want, as long as it’s grey), and half-read books, USB cords, and rocks and sticks that my kids deemed too interesting to throw away are jammed into the back pouch of each seat.

In the front door caddies are coupons, sunscreen, bug spray, and (because COVID) face masks and sanitizer. 

It does all the boring stuff well: commuting groceries and passengers alike, transporting to and from work.

But that’s not why I love it.

I love it because it is the gateway to the new. The next adventure. 

That desire to experience the new is always within us. To place our feet on unfamiliar ground. For some, the gateway to the new is their backpack and flight tickets.

In our family of five, it has long been the road trip.

The van, as unassuming as it is, has been places. Our youngest, now six, has never been on an airplane, but he has spent endless hours looking out the rear passenger window.

In the last two years, the van has driven the 15 hours to Prince Rupert, and the eight hours of open sea by ferry to Haida Gwaii.

It’s driven days on end along the Oregon Coast, through the interior of California, and even to the canyons or Arizona and Utah. 

You should not buy this van if we decide to sell it. It has not been used gently. But it has been used. And in the search of the (affordable) new and novel, it has taken us on many a far-flung adventure and magnificent trip.

This year, there are no such magnificent trips planned. The United States is right out for the foreseeable future, as are escapades into neighbouring or nearby provinces and territories.

Far-flung remote communities on the island or Northern B.C. beckon to our imaginations, but those invitations are tempered with the pleas of local residents asking tourists to stay away. 

That leaves a lot of day trips in the interior of B.C. On many a weekend, the van is loaded early, and driven for hours to the next adventure, only to return before dark. All these day trips re-inforce what we already know: that we live in a breathtaking landscape, an area where others come to vacation. 

But they also re-inforce another thing: that in our search for the new and novel, things have begun to feel awfully familiar. As amazing as our backyard is, it is still our backyard. 

The endless search for the new is exciting, but it can also feel insatiable. Even before COVID restrictions and considerations, our resources have always been limited. The new feels increasingly scarce.

Maybe we need to think about new differently.

A few years ago, I began walking along a section of Mission Creek. The section is accessible from only one side, running a number of kilometres before abruptly coming to a dead end at a riverbed.

I have walked for hours along that trail, lost in podcasts, audiobooks, conversations with family and friends, and occasionally, even walking the path in silence. 

For the longest time, it was the same, familiar trail. But eventually, great and obvious seasonal changes could be seen and felt.

  • Dead and disintegrating leaves crushed into the mud in late fall.
  • The hoarfrost reflecting the sunlight in early winter.
  • The endless swath of green as leaves emerge in spring.
  • The fluff of poplar seeds and pollen drifting lazily through the air in early summer. 

Eventually, your awareness increases. You begin to notice the smaller and subtle changes.

  • How erosion exposes a new root of a familiar tree.
  • How a nest of ants is particularly busy in a dead stump.
  • A gale of wind on a particular day, the strange stillness of another.

You begin to notice what you bring to each walk, as well. The difference between a purposeful stride and a meandering one. The tone and context of the dialogue inside your head. 

This section of trail has become one of my favourite places on Earth. A place I have seen hundreds of times, and is never the same. 

Because really, nothing is. 

When we think of the new, we are most often referring to the novel: the place we have never been, the sight never beheld, the unfamiliar.

But there is more than one type of new. It can also refer to the unveiling of things previously hidden, the dawning awareness of that which we’ve chronically overlooked.

It’s natural that we would long for the novel. Fantasize over flights we cannot board. Plot out future excursions to territories and countries who can not welcome us currently. Even yearn for van trips reaching new and unfamiliar communities in our home province.

But with our eyes fixed on the distant horizon, we risk overlooking so much that is new in the here and now. Especially when it feels frustratingly familiar. 

In the poem Everything Is Waiting For You, David Whyte reminds us that “alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”

Everything is new. Always. But it requires discipline to see it. We will regularly overlook it and miss it entirely, especially in the places and people we are most familiar with.

These days, it’s hard to imagine a more timely piece of advice than to “stay alert.” So much feels paradoxically both unknown and overly familiar. Unprecedented threats coupled with the mundane. The days, weeks and months threaten to blur into each other.

We wrestle with the restlessness of staying close to home with a smaller, constrained group of family and friends.

As we long for the novel, we need to develop the alertness to see what is hidden in plain sight:

That all things are new, and ever unfolding in front of us. 

May we have the alertness to see it. 



More Something From Everything articles

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About the Author

 

Matthew Rigby is a grateful husband to one, and father to three. He works as a registered nurse in emergency care, and has spent more than 15 years in healthcare. 

Matt, an avid reader and podcast enthusiast, is committed to great questions and honest discovery.

You can find his podcast "Something From Everything" wherever you listen, and find all his writing at www.somethingfromeverything.com.



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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