Roses and rosemary in January! I am walking along a path in Los Angeles in the company of roses. Rain has drawn out their perfume. It wraps me in palpable grace.
A day earlier, I shoveled my front walk half a dozen times during a snow storm. Now, here I am, bending to a bloom that opens my heart after a long, hard season.
On the morning of November 9, I discovered that I had lost my voice. That day, I tried a few post-election letters to my world. But a stone lay on my tongue. Words seemed wholly inadequate to circumstance. Or: the words I would have used would have skidded across the surface of a numbingly frozen pond.
My season of Advent, like that of so many friends, was long and dark and uncertain. It didn’t feel anticipatory in the slightest. I watched the sky (it seemed as good a thing as any to watch), but the stars didn’t speak.
In unaccustomed silence, slowly, I found that I was able to move away from grief, shock, fear. All of the sure, strident, clever, glib, able words — all of the polished, official and oft-repeated phrases — fell mute.
At first, it felt a kind of withdrawal. But gradually the sense of being a news-amputee gave way to a different, far more steadying quality of awareness. I was no longer flitting from idea to idea, or text to text, from one shallow conversation to the next. I was no longer focused on logistics and next actions. I felt my attention shifting. Or, better, the very act of “attending” was transformed. What changed wasn’t the focus of my thoughts. It was the quality of thought itself.
As long as I remained aware in this way, no unfinished wrapping, no late-arriving packages or broken ornament or family members’ “attitude” issues, could disrupt me.
More than this: I began to see the important life that matters beyond the glare of the headlines.
As sanity returned, so did a kind of moral memory: hurry destroys the capacity to be with oneself in any meaningful sense; our “out there” culture of activism with its constant pressures to identify with causes, have a position, be socially and politically useful, can make us brittle and leave no room for inner movement. In the face of certitude and efficiencies, the “inner witness” falls silent, or just repeats what it is accustomed to saying. Either way, it ends up failing me.
During these months, only thistles and thorns were visible in my garden, and this was oddly apt. To renew, and see life with fresh eyes, I needed to stop. Stop ruminating, producing for the sake of producing, and most importantly, stop consuming a diet of sound bites that was starving me of deeper wisdom and the still, small voice within. For days. Weeks. Going on three months. Winter, or just about.
Now here I am, walking down a path filled with roses and beauty, on a warm day under soft skies. Perhaps, the roses seemed to suggest, it is time to emerge from hibernation and get on with the business of blooming again.
What have I learned?
I’ve learned how easy it is to join the wagging tongues, the policy patois, the dangerously false urgencies that always drive bad politics. Easy to become too depressed or distracted to be present to what is in front of me: my loved ones, neighbors, community, and the needs right next door or under my own roof.
Healing and growth may both require the fallow time of the winter roses, the waiting time, when we unhook from reactive living and simplify long and amply enough to let some new green slip of insight unfurl. Each day is about becoming, isn’t it? When I lose myself in the high winds of talking heads, and dishonest politicians, I completely forget the value of a more considered vigilance, which along with a certain detachment, prepares the ground for what the Buddhists call “right action.”
In honor of the winter roses, I have written a poem to illuminate the collage above, my New Year’s greeting to you, dear readers.
Wherever I look
If I allow myself the sweet prayer
of mere being,
I can see the greeting
of the winter roses,
the dance of the birds,
the beribboned and wholly
rests in its just orders —
How we define or defile
will bring the winter roses
to their knees;
the nests of blue jays,
the red-capped woodpeckers,
the hungry hawk
on a barren bough
the cistern with its cold sweet water
our waiting doves of peace.