I began this blog last fall as a way of sharing my own personal rituals about facing fear, loss, and change. As an astrologer, I knew 2020 would be a year of dramatic change, in which we’d all be dealing with Plutonian themes (death, transformation, despair). I didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.
I published my last blog post while I was on a trip to New York and Philly in early March, but I’d written it a few days before—weeks before lockdown, weeks before we knew there was a deadly virus moving through the country. On the first day of our trip, concern about the coronavirus seemed overly paranoid. But each day the background levels of collective dread rose a little, and by the end of our trip every day brought exponentially worse news. Five days before we flew home and entered voluntary quarantine (a week ahead of the national shutdown), we were at the Natural History Museum with our sisters, touching dinosaur fossils and herding small children. I remember doing a dance with my sister, pressing our foreheads together and swaying slightly, like we’ve done since we were teenagers. My partner’s nieces were curious and tried it, too. We giggled the way people do when they’re acting oddly in a crowded place, full of families and tourists and people checking bags and buying tickets and eating lunch on the broad front steps. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York, and the joyous, chaotic throng of life there is familiar to me. A few months later, this memory of a sunny day in New York when my partner and I got to introduce our families to each other feels like a vanished world.
Until the pandemic, I was doing these grief rituals monthly. I carved out a time during the balsamic moon phase, I called in protection and beauty and boundaries as I faced the shadows. Now—as we all face unprecedented, prolonged grief and fear—I’m praying all the damn time. Like many things during a global pandemic, the format that worked before isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Moving forward, a lot of things won’t cut it anymore. We have serious work ahead of to liberate this world from the death cult known as business-as-usual. We need to push for a world where governments don’t relax pollution restrictions while people in the most polluted regions are dying faster from this virus. A world where we love and protect the most vulnerable instead of keeping them locked in cages, refusing them adequate care, and deciding it’s okay to prioritize the economy over their lives. We are not all affected by this virus equally. The people who are most vulnerable to this virus are already the most vulnerable under business-as-usual. This is why the US government is so cavalier about reopening our country while infection rates are still rising in many places. They consider the death of these people acceptable. Mere numbers numb the heart. Notice the absence of context in the phrase “3,000 deaths per day.” It’s not “3,000 people each day die painfully and alone, leaving behind children and spouses and collaborators whose lives will never feel complete without them, and traumatizing the care workers who are risking their own lives to save so many.” When we stay in numbers, we can stay numb. We can go back to normal.
Before the pandemic, in a state of slow and quite despair that might have just felt “normal,” many of us gave up on fighting the genocidal, geocidal business-as-usual way of life. Maybe in peak moments we felt outrage, then time grinds on and we return to powerless, numb. We are in a peak moment now, and they’re trying to lull us back into numbness.
And sometimes numbness is easier, because it hurts to love what’s dying—like the Amazon rainforest and those whose lives are woven through it, the indigenous protectors who are falling ill and can no longer halt the increase of logging. Humans are destroying this forest, the lungs of our planet, as a virus is destroying so many human lungs. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, lungs are associated with grief. Many of us in the US don’t have cultural grief practices, don’t know how to handle the pain of grief. We’re used to winning. Americans love a happy ending, a quick fix. We want to sign a petition or raise awareness. We like to be busy doing instead of stuck at home, feeling powerless in our grief.
But this crisis doesn’t have a tidy, clean ending. Coronavirus is one among many indicators that we are environmentally out of balance. There will be more novel viruses as more animals are displaced from their habitats. As climate changes rapidly and we are in Earth’s sixth mass extinction, there really is no normal to go back to. What has seemed normal for centuries has been killing us (though unequally, some more than others) and the many species we share our world with. If we don’t have tools to work with the truly gigantic grief and fear this raises, it’s impossible not to shut down, go numb, and retreat to despair. We sink into despair, we feel powerless to climb out of it. Maybe this is where you are, right now. Sunk into it.
Which brings me to the secret behind all these grief rituals: when we do have effective tools for experiencing grief, terror, and pain we can stave off despair. We can stay in touch with what is good and beautiful and joyous, without needing a guarantee of a happy ending. We can keep showing up for the hard work of being human. In the immortal words of James Baldwin, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter.” Or, to paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon: the work of transforming the world is not ours to finish but neither can we turn away from it.
So, as someone who’s not currently in despair but has been familiar with it, I offer you a tool. I consider this a spiritual tool, but you might not. I’m sharing it the way it works for me, but you may need to customize it for yourself. As always, the more you practice the easier it gets.
Metabolizing Despair. An Exercise.
Despair tells us it is the only reality. In despair, our bodies lock up and refuse to be in connection with anything outside the despair story. Despair can be self-protective, though it might feel more like a nightmare.This pandemic itself feels like a nightmare, including the dream logic of life feeling strangely ordinary (for many) while something terrible has happened or is still happening or will happen. We can wake up from a nightmare, though. This is not to say the pandemic isn’t real, but rather that we are trapped in something that is only one version of reality.
So, begin by acknowledging there is more to the story than you can currently perceive. Reality is more complex than you can perceive. This may not be comforting yet, but it’s a necessary first step. Don’t jump from this to trying to cheer yourself up with visions of possibly rosy outcomes. Optimistic fantasies aren’t the antidote to nihilistic fantasies. What you’re looking for is a different orientation to time itself.
You may be stuck in a story that tells you: “What I love is dying (or has died or will die).” Maybe it’s a loved one, or an ecosystem, or your own body. Despair freezes the grief process, ricochets the pain forward and backward into infinity. What I love has always died, what I love will always die. I am caught in the tenuous center in which I love—on all sides are death (if death isn’t your fixation, repeat this exercise with oppression or cruelty as the focus). Whatever you feel hemmed in by, I want you to focus on that sliver of present tense: “I love.” The center of the phrase. “I love.” This is what your despair is trying to protect you from: the pain of loving. Loving and grieving are two aspects of the same experience. You can flip them like you flip a coin—joy and pain, pain and joy. To be able to love is what you are here for. That love might look like playing music or studying physics or raising a family or having orgies. Love is a quality of attention and engagement that ripples out in all times and dimensions and creates the conditions for healing to happen.
This is when you may need to cry. If you are able to cry, you are well on your way to getting unstuck. You might need to ugly cry for a long time. You might need to cry every day for months or years. Crying may become a practice, an exercise, like anything else you do to maintain your human life. If you are unable to cry, you will need to be gentler and slower as you ease out of despair and back into connection with what is alive in you. Remember, there is so much you can’t control—in despair, you have created a world of total tragedy because it is one in which you know what to expect. Staying in reality means staying open to uncertainty—arguably much scarier than tragedy. When you practice these exercises, you’re extending your ability to stay with what is real, even as it remains unknown and uncertain. In staying with uncertainty, you are bringing your attention and presence to what it means to be alive in a way that can only be called love. And when you practice love in this way, you feel it holding you up. This ceases to be a solo exercise. Loving and being loved cease to be separate actions. This is where it gets a little mystical, so if you’re not into the woo feel free to rewrite this part. But don’t omit it! Think about the reciprocity that exists in all encounters—Earth’s gravity pulling on me as my body pulls on it. Get as scientific as you want to, while understanding that love is the act of deeply searching to know—deeply enough to understand what all that you can never fully know.
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(tentative) Balsamic Moon Blog Schedule:
May 20: Ritual #9
June 5: Blog Post #9
June 19: Ritual #10
July 5: Blog Post #10
August 17: Ritual #11
September 2: Blog Post #11