Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Knives, Lightning, and Awe

October 20, 2020

Sometimes the real gift is hidden deeply within the gift we think we have received—or the tragedy we have experienced.

A case in point: a few years ago, a friend gave me a couple of beautiful, exquisitely crafted knives far sharper and far more beautiful than any I had ever owned. Because I love to cook and because I love working with good-quality tools, I immediately fell in love with those knives and looked for opportunities to use them as often as I could. But the more significant gift, it turns out, was something included with the knives, not the knives themselves: a simple sheet of instructions emphasizing the benefits of sharpening those knives after each use rather than sporadically.

So, like any good trainer-teacher-learner, I adopted that tip and applied it to all the terribly-dull, far-less-efficient knives we own. And, after months of after-each-use sharpening, I had an entire kitchen full of knives that were far more useful—and required far more attention and caution if I wanted to avoid inadvertently slicing something I would rather not have sliced. And I also experience cherished, rekindled memories of this friend—who is no longer with us—every time I use the knives she gave me…and all the others I own. As if her spirit had become embedded within the knives themselves.

The often-unnoticed gift within a gift—and its corollary, the initially unnoticed (potential) tragedy within something that initially is pleasurable—is something that has been on my mind quite frequently this year. We have the gift of opportunity (the opportunity to build a “new and better normal”) mixed in with the terrible tragedy of the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and our radically-different environment resulting from the shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to that pandemic. We have the pandemic-inspired opportunity to better explore and use our online resources in response to the sense of social isolation many of us are feeling while continuing to follow modified shelter-in-place guidelines.

And, for those of us who find comfort and inspiration (in challenging times) in the work of writers, musicians, and other artists we admire, we have the gift of finding ourselves able to carve out time to revisit that work—and finding the work of additional writers, musicians, and other artists—because of some of the experiences we are currently having.

Scott Russell Sanders

This becomes completely circular for me through what I continue to see as an ever-expanding “extended pandemic/wildfire moment” that began a couple of months ago during an hours-long bombardment of lightning and thunder here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California. My initial reaction to the pre-dawn visual and audible bursts was a rekindling of a sense of awe—a rekindling that sent me back to Scott Russell Sanders’ memories (in his book A Private History of Awe) of being a four-year-old and feeling awe at the sight of lightning striking and splitting a beautiful old oak. The lightning filled me with a positive sense of awe; the wildfires that spread rapidly over the subsequent days and weeks grounded me in a sense of loss and grief I hadn’t been astute enough to anticipate initially. And, in the middle of the grief and loss friends and so many others experienced from the wildfires, I found a bit of comfort in re-exploring Sanders’ work and absorbing much more of it than I had ever before taken the time to read.

The result, as I devoured his most recent collection—The Way of Imagination—was to more fully and viscerally immerse myself into the idea of lightning as a metaphor for creativity/creation/acts of creation. As a force that lights our nights. And as a force that carries the potential for and reality of tremendously devastating destruction. Something reminding us of by the double-edged sword of creativity and destruction, opportunity and loss.

Sanders’ richly complex and lyrically stunning body of work and the interviews he has given over a long period of time weave together all of that, and so much more. His appreciation for and love of nature. His commitment to place and community. His dedication to taking principled stands that are rooted in a belief that we should be looking far into the future to be sure what we do lays the most positive foundations for a future we can be proud of helping to create. And his invitation to us, as readers, to share the moments of awe and the moments of tragedy he and those around him have experienced during his own lifetime of writing about life, love, community, and place in ways that inspire us to join him for as much of that journey as we care to take with him.

The gifts are obvious, complex, and ever-expanding. We see the world through the eyes of one of our master storytellers. We feel a bit more connected to him and to the world he describes. We feel inspired by what he reveals and what he unleashes in us. And we feel a bit less isolated, less overwhelmed, than we might have felt without hm.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-third in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: “And I Am…”

September 13, 2020

Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.

My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.

What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.

With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:

“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.

“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.

“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.

“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”

I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.

–N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Awe, Night Skies, and Inspiration

August 16, 2020

Loudly-rattling windows in our home suggest a raging conversation between those windows and the howling wind. An unexpected downpour of rain starting at 3:30 a.m. offers relief to our thirsty garden and sends water flowing in streams though gutters along the street. Lightning ripping through the San Francisco fog illuminates the west-facing rooms of our home, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean. Thunder careens across San Francisco Bay, roars through the city’s numerous hills and valleys, and reverberates for several very long seconds before fading, only to be followed by more bursts of lightning and thunder.

Memories flow from and through the unexpected, rare summer storm here—one unlike any I can recall experiencing in nearly 35 years of living in the city. Memories of being awakened long before dawn to watch and hear and revel in similar primal screams and bursts of nature from hotel rooms in Austin while I was there to attend conferences with cherished colleagues long before any of us imagined a time when adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic would become a way of life for us. Memories of pleasurable, complete immersion in and surrender to similar storms blazing across mid-summer skies in the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence and Siena. Memories of being so overwhelmed by a mid-evening autumn deluge accompanied by lightning and thunder while I was driving on a poorly-lit rural road outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, that my wife and I decided to pull off to the side of the road and wait it out because we couldn’t see far enough to continue driving in those conditions.

A word comes to mind as those memories flow into one cohesive moment: “awe.” And that, in turn, inspires another memory: first encountering the work of one of my favorite essayists, Scott Russell Sanders, more than a decade ago through his book A Private History of Awe. Being completely captivated by his recollection of being wrapped in his father’s arms during a booming blowing thunderstorm and being there to see a magisterial oak “snapped like a stick, its top shattered on the ground, a charred streak running down the wet gray stub of the trunk,” I raced through that book. And have, many times since then, returned to reread large chunks of that lovely, literary exploration broken into sections under the subtitles “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth.”

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

I feel sadness—not awe or fear—when I see a friend lose his mother to COVID-19 and know that if we had all taken a different approach to the coronavirus, she might still be alive. I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration when I see a skeptical member of my extended family ended up close to death in a hospital intensive care unit because he didn’t see the need to take any sort of protection to avoid succumbing to the coronavirus, and am further saddened and frustrated knowing he is now facing the possibility of a year-long “recovery” period that may still leave him permanently disabled. And I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration knowing that another skeptical member of my extended family who, after testing positive, blithely ignored the likelihood that she would spread the virus, so ended up gifting it to two additional generations of relatives in that one household. What makes these up-close exposures to the human impact of COVID-19 as well as to the economic tragedies so many people are suffering difficult to accept are comments I read from wonderful friends who have a much different view of the situation than I do—insisting that we’re making a mistake by not letting nature run its course so that we, collectively, develop herd immunity (a term that bothers me tremendously because it seems to dehumanize the situation by hiding individual deaths behind a term that groups individuals into “herds” rather than members of our communities). Their contention is that we’re causing more harm through economic devastation than the coronavirus causes through illness and death. From their perspective, the high unemployment rate—impacting millions of people—could have been avoided and still could be remedied if we reacted to that rather than reacting to the “small percentage” of deaths caused by COVID-19.

So, we’re stuck on opposite sides of what appears, for now, to be an uncrossable chasm: millions of Americans devastated by loss of jobs/income compared to “only a small percentage” of people who have died (775,000 globally/170,000 in the U.S.) as a result of contracting COVID-19—their perception that “only a small percentage of people” will die from COVID-19 and my perception that hundreds of thousands of deaths is a national/global tragedy requiring the best, most creative efforts we can pursue collectively to try to avoid additional deaths and avoid the pain and suffering millions of people are facing in the United States because we can’t, legislatively or in any other way, find approaches that address both sides of that awful divide.

Hours have passed since that pre-dawn combination of wind and lightning and thunder drew me to a window, where I stood transfixed. And months have passed since I was, along with so many others, drawn into a much-altered world I had not taken the time to ever contemplate. I’m back to the concept of “awe” and all that it suggests about us being able to notice—and to react to in the most productive, positive, inspired way possible. To remember that there are forces far bigger than we can ever hope to be. To remember that the momentary, tragically painful challenges that produce life-changing results (e.g., loss of cherished loved ones regardless of how small or large a percentage of our communities those people were; loss of the income needed to survive in a wealthy country that can’t find ways to guarantee minimum subsistence for every member—every member—of its communities; acquiring permanent disabilities that in their own way obviously add to the economic challenges we are facing) require that we set aside the differences that divide us so we can work together to find solutions based on our belief that we are stronger and more awesome together than we will ever be alone.

It is now midafternoon. The windows are no longer rattling. The lightning and thunder from that hours-long storm have finally subsided. Clouds and the sun seem to be engaged in a playful dance that sends dappled light upon leaves shimmering in the maturity of a midsummer afternoon. Offering hints of the beauty that surrounds us. The beauty that needs to be nurtured to be sustained. The beauty that reminds us that numbers tell only part of the story of what sometimes makes our world awe-inspiring when we look to something bigger than ourselves and, against all odds and against all likelihood of failure, embrace it.

–N.B.: This is the nineteenth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


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