I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. ––E. B. White
My friend’s father, who is one part Santa Claus, one part Ron Swanson, has a saying for difficult times: fight back with normal life. When heartbreak hits or unconscionable violence and loss leave us breathless, we can find our way by embracing the small, tick-tock routines of a clockwork life. We jog by the river. We load the dishwasher. We tuck in hospitable corners. We may not feel like getting out of bed, but we do. We put one foot in front of the other down the hallway, the stairs, and all the way out the front door and through our day.
The only way through, I heard a meditation teacher say, in what may or may not have been a paraphrase of Robert Frost, is through.
In difficult times, our routines can anchor us so that instead of getting swept up in worry or tears or frets about the future, we can stay right here in the familiar––maybe even comforting––actions of the day at hand. We clear the table, we mail an insurance claim, we call our moms. We fight back with normal life.
I’ve been thinking of this saying since last Friday. And I’ve also been wanting to tell you about a new ritual I have with a coworker, inspired by something we heard on a Tara Brach podcast. Every day for the past two or three weeks, we’ve sent each other three specific things we are grateful for. Working by a bright window, today’s rain, a scone for breakfast. It served as a welcome relief when the day got stressful, but after a week or so, when novelty wore off and our enthusiasm waned, we nearly lost our new ritual to the forces of old habits. We forgot. And then one night, walking home down Sixth Avenue, I had to text to tell her: about the night air, so drizzly and unexpectedly mild, the hot bath I planned to have at home, the lights on our tree. She texted back right away about her anticipation of building a fire, a new handbag fit for a PanAm stewardess, and the winking pink flowers on a midday walk. We were back on track.
It turns out, as powerful as it is to be heard, hearing her daily bright spots was even better than sharing my own. It reminded me of my first job after college where I loved reliving with each customer who pushed through the door my favorite moment of the day: that first cup of coffee. And so it was with my friend. With each little detail she counted, my day got a little sweeter, and I could feel my eyes open wider: oh yes, that.
As the weather has turned colder in New York, I see more people sleeping in subway stations and wrapped in blankets on the street begging. I hate the feeling of walking by, in too much of a hurry to stop and help, but also not certain what the right thing to do is. Where is the balance between helping everyone and turning a blind eye? What do you do? I asked a friend. You can sit with people and talk, she suggested, or share food you might have. Her simplest idea struck me as the most powerful: just try to really see them.
There is a lot of bullshit in this world, just as there are horrors so unexpected and unexplainable they can make even the leader of our nation cry. Both can make us lose sight of what matters and of hope. But we can fight back with normal life. We can open our eyes and be sensitive to the experience of those around us. We can help. And we can have one moment of sweet, honest exchange about things that, no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial, imbue this briefest flash of life with meaning and beauty, with love and connection.
And I am grateful for that.