Written during the 2020 pandemic, these slice-of-life moments offer reflection over a morning cup of coffee, a woman contemplating slowdown and respite. A flash of inspiration, in the garden or a walk with a friend, we felt the value of the moment. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Essays by Marilyn Gilpin
Pandemic Gardening and Nature’s Eternal Lessons
July 13, 2020 ~ My garden has always been a haven. I can lose myself, or rather lose my cares and worries, when I am surrounded by nature. This escape has become so much more essential during these pandemic times. The news is almost all bad. There is the worsening health crisis, mismanaged at all levels, and the cavalier attitude about the virus of many of my fellow citizens. There are police killings, protests, vandalism, climate change, Hong Kong. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed to near despair.
So, I venture into my garden. Far from perfect, it is messy and chaotic, with so many weeds that I have redefined what a weed is. If it is not invasive, or if it flowers, it can usually remain. My little oasis is a stunning, elegant and delightful nook where tranquility reigns; peace prospers. My sunflowers don’t have covid; my hydrangea never heard of coronavirus; climate change hasn’t yet touched my maples and poplars. I find solace in the certainty that Nature knows what she is doing. Acorns grow into oak trees with no help from any human.
I learn patience while tending my garden. If my new clematis doesn’t flower, I am certain that it will next year. A garden’s needs are simple. If my morning glory looks wilted, I water it. If my astilbe looks dead, I examine it carefully for any sign of growth. Growth means life. If it dies, I plant something else. Nature has been growing things for millennia before I arrived. I get to be a caretaker for just a little while, choosing what to plant and where in my small corner of the world, but Nature is ultimately in charge.
One of my favorite quotes is from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers GROW, GROW.” It is such a comforting thought. I belong to the universe, and the universe has my back.
This little pandemic will be a minor blip in the eternity of Nature, unnoticed by birds and rivers, trees and stars.
Pandemic Pause: A Writer Muses Time and Choices
September 2, 2020 ~ There have been times in my life when I wished for a “pause” button. Even before there was such a thing. Sometimes, I felt overwhelmed by life, responsibilities, deadlines. I needed time to catch up. This was especially true in college. There were always papers to write. Projects to complete. Rehearsals, exams, classes, campus job. There was never a moment when nothing was due. I wanted to stop the world for a little while until I finished a few things. I pleaded with the universe:
“Just let me finish this report before I get a new assignment.”
“Just let me memorize my lines before the next rehearsal.”
“Just let me pass this test before I have to start on that project.”
After college, there were other pressing matters. Work always got in the way of the important stuff. I have several bookcases filled with hundreds of books that I haven’t read. When will I ever get the time?
Many years ago, I started a list of films that I missed when they were in the theatre that I hoped to catch when they came on television. That list is now a dozen pages long. How will I ever see them all?
Suddenly, the cosmic pause button is pressed.
I cancel all vacations, trips, theatre and concert tickets, outings, luncheons. I can’t go anywhere.
The world has stopped. There are no appointments, no deadlines.
I should be thrilled, right?
Well, yes I am.
But I am overwhelmed again. Too much free time. Too many choices.
Which of my 639 books to read first?
Which of 297 films on my list to watch tonight?
The cosmic voice says: JUST PICK ONE!
What are you choosing now that time is on your hands?
Marilyn Gilpin has been an avid reader and writer for as long as she can remember. Some of her pieces have been published in The New Sweetwater Reporter, the newsletter for East Nantmeal Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She is a passionate gardener, theatre lover, and student of piano and has contributed to numerous Women’s Writing Circle read arounds. So far, Marilyn has made some progress on her lists: she has watched Hidden Figures, and her reading has included two classics – East of Eden (John Steinbeck) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). Contemporary works include Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and A Marriage Story by novelist Tayari Jones. She lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania with her husband, Michael, his many guitars and their four cocker spaniels.
(Photos courtesy of Marilyn Gilpin.)
Essays by Susan G. Weidener
Zoom Calls Us To a ‘Dark Winter’ Of Despair
October 27, 2020 ~ A rainy day, crows caw and a damp chill steeps the last Tuesday in October with dreariness. This weekend we push the clocks back an hour. A dark winter lies ahead. That’s what we hear, anyway. Poets have written about winters of despair. In “Snowdrops” Louise Gluck writes:
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.
In “the raw wind of the new world”, a world none of us has ever lived, the news media tells us one in four young adults has considered the possibility of suicide. A friend recently returned from visiting a loved one at the hospital where nurses say they have been overwhelmed by people incapacitated from drug and alcohol abuse. Still, I believe that with a purpose to our days, making the small moments count, we stay sane and healthy. The ordinary days infused with a touch, a smile, lunch with a friend ….
I appeared on a local author’s Zoom call organized by the library. It was the first time this year I had the chance to connect with my readers, other than through this blog, which is why I accepted the invitation. As I talked on Zoom to those little squares of faces listening to me share thoughts about writing fiction and memoir, I noticed that my eyeglasses looked like headlights, catching the reflection from my dining room chandelier. I hadn’t been prepared for eyeglasses looking like headlights. Had it distracted my listeners, few as they were?
The church I attend received a grant to install audio equipment and cameras in the sanctuary to expand its Sunday Facebook audience. Maybe this is the way it will go now, I think. This is how we find God. Online. No one has to dress the kids for Sunday School. The memory returns … teaching Bible Study to preschoolers in a sunlit room with crayon-colored pictures of Jesus taped to the walls.
Writing offers intimacy with others through sharing our stories. Gluck’s poem acknowledges that we all experience despair. It’s what we do with it, what we learn and how we survive, despite it, that tells our story. When this is over, will we take the risk to ‘open again’? Will we survive the ‘raw wind of the new world’ and find the intimacy that brings joy?
Contemplation on Solitude and A Creative Life
November 30, 2020 ~ There’s not a lot there to show the suffering that frigid winter of 1777-78, the men with bleeding feet wrapped in rags huddled around campfires. Just a few makeshift log cabins and monuments to Washington and Baron von Steuben remain here at Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania. On this day fields flood with afternoon light and a small white ice house tucked below the curve of hillside seems rustic, other-worldly.
Walking through Valley Forge yesterday with a writing friend reminded me of my childhood here. The Girl Scout hot dog roasts … the evening four of us in high school got arrested for drinking beer, not having read the signs ‘no alcohol permitted’, as we looked across the barren beautiful vistas … the landscape as it was in Washington’s day, before the development of office parks, shopping centers and subdivisions.
I remember thinking when I was young how much I needed to get away from this place. I went to college. American University. Washington DC still had the feel of a small town in those days, albeit with an Indian restaurant and a museum to explore around every corner. I needed to get away from the country roads, the farmhouses of Chester County and Valley Forge. I needed a change. I needed to grow.
Now almost half a century later, here I am back in the park. Watching a young couple pushing a baby stroller … a woman walking her Golden retriever … me and my friend, who also lives alone, talking about writing, about retirement, about the next act once the pandemic ends. A cliché, perhaps, but where has the time gone?
Solitude and the creative life. Hadn’t this always been the life I longed to live? I thought of another writing friend. One who two years ago this coming month committed suicide. My friend and I knew the trauma she suffered, but the last time we saw her she seemed happy, she had just gotten her passport, her granddaughter delighted her. I don’t judge people who commit suicide and I don’t think others should either, my friend said. We agreed earlier in the conversation that we could never imagine sinking to such depths of despair. Living, though, isn’t enough. It’s how we live that makes it worthwhile or not. And on a day like this at Valley Forge, how worth it was to be alive.
I realized, as I had before, that the pandemic, while a horror, hadn’t been so bad for me. I was used to being alone and I had the luxury to pursue a creative life. I didn’t want or need to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. And that as the world slowed down, it suited me fine. I had never had a big family or a lot of social engagements over the years after John died, and retirement from the newspaper, followed up with a parttime career of creative writing and teaching suited me to a tee. Yes, I missed international travel, although even that had had its drawbacks. Airports and layovers … meals in foreign places that made me sick for days on end.
As we drank coffee at a small outdoor table next to Washington Memorial Chapel, the carillon bells sounded across the brilliant blue sky. Here the ghosts of Revolutionary War soldiers remind us of a time long past but which resonates with the human experience of sacrifice and suffering. As my friend and I talked about our writing projects and our commitment to the creative life, I forgot the long winter yet before us. We agreed to meet again, before Christmas, to share a meal and to write.
A Writer Waits to Find the Words
January 18, 2021 ~ Writing is my work, my pastime, my job. With writing, all the rest falls into place. Lately, though, finding words to describe what I feel remains elusive.
There is no velocity to the days, no urgency to get anywhere. As one day blends into another, I attempt a few creative tasks―finish a chapter in my novel, read a book, take a long walk in the brisk January air as ravens caw from barren trees.
The sameness of the days, the twisted chaos on the news, the lack of face-to-face encounters, the virtual workshops and events planned well into the year make me feel something is amiss. I can’t figure out what comes next.
Last week I dined on mushroom stuffed ravioli and asparagus tips. The restaurant bar area resembled a ghost town out of “Twilight Zone”, although my sons and I struck up a lively conversation with our waiter who said he pondered retirement. From the window next to our table, I looked out on the gray day … folks huddled in winter coats next to heat lamps. What planet had we landed on?
We have a vaccine and still people are dying by the thousands. I’m on a waiting list. Who knows when or where I get my vaccine? A while ago, my friend said there should be a lottery. How do you prioritize one life over another, he asked?
Yesterday, my church held a Zoom coffee hour fellowship. The conversation turned to how faith sustains us. When did we first believe, the pastor asked? I don’t remember the exact moment, I say. I just know that it all came together sometime in my forties, although that’s not to say I don’t have moments of doubt. I’ve written a chapter in my new book about spirituality. The protagonist, Ava, says of her journey:
On Sundays I attend the 19th century Episcopal church, once a way station on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. The little white church looks out on a highway where cattle drivers drove their herds to the marketplaces in Lancaster County and beyond when the land was no more than farms and open fields.
It was several years after Jay died before I again started attending church. Early one Sunday before a 10 a.m. service, I walked into a church up the road from my house. I don’t know why, but I do remember a gold crucifix on the altar, sunlight streaming through a stained-glass window depicting Jesus as a shepherd, holding a lamb. A coming home, a sense of peace in the embrace of my Christian faith enveloped me.
Writing this gives me a spurt of glad energy. As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way:
As gray, as controlled, as dreamless as we may strive to be, the fire of our dreams will not stay buried. The embers are always there, stirring in our frozen souls like winter leaves.
Maybe it’s not so important to worry about what comes next. Instead, a writer waits, knowing and believing she will find the words in time.
Signs of Hope and Possibility
March 1, 2021 ~ Days lengthen and it’s light until 6 pm. Snow-glazed lawns give way to rain and patches of green grass. For the first time in months, I hear the coo of a mourning dove. My house has been a lovely shelter, marooned with Lily, but I’m hopeful this time is near an end. I said to someone the other day “Get that refrigerator door,” except I was talking to Lily…. Poor Lily. A friend called last week. “Hey,” he said, “did you see that article about dogs as quarantine partners?”
As May Sarton wrote: It occurs to me that boredom and panic are the two devils the solitary must combat. I am bored with my life here at present. There is not enough nourishment in it. There are times when the lack of any good conversation, theater, concerts, art museums around here —cultured life—creates a vacuum of boredom.
These bleak winter weeks, this blog remained on hiatus. Motivation in short supply, writing stems from experiences, not talking to your dog. What could I say here on this blog that I hadn’t already said? Disillusionment, perhaps? I grapple with how this pandemic brought out the worst in many (not to mention, the ineptitude and corruption of government). With limited vaccine access, folks jump the line without regard for others. Other than posting my writing blogs, I gave up Facebook for Lent. And, please, PLEASE stop posting those selfies of your rolled-up sleeve or your vaccination card. It only makes people who can’t access the vaccine (as is the case for millions in suburban Philadelphia) feel worse and takes a toll on their mental health. I know. Until a stranger’s kindness led to my vaccine appointment, I was one of them.
Maybe now, these signs of hope and possibility—a bird’s sweet song, longer days, a stranger’s thoughtfulness—offer a path back. I’m practicing self-compassion. It’s been slow, but I got some decent writing done this winter. My novel, crafted, refined and crafted again has been years in the making. A widow grapples with aging and explores the world to learn more about herself and others, while remembering her past. Thanks to the writing life and the hope of connecting with my readers, days are fuller, take on meaning.
Ava trudged through the heavy snow, wearing her Aunt Edith’s old wool knee-length coat with racoon collar. When she turned the corner into their street, the first thing she saw was the snowman in the front yard. Jay had tied his navy wool scarf around the snowman’s neck and put his old gray fedora on its head. At the sight of Jay waving, Ava felt the joy of being in love, the icy scald of snowflakes on her cheeks, mingling with tears.
This weekend several members of our Women’s Writing Circle plan a small read around. Boredom be gone! Attempts prior to this were scuttled, first in December with a new wave of infections and then three weeks ago due to a snowstorm. This Saturday looks warmer and no snow predicted. I look forward to the company, the in-person conversation. There’s a sense of hope again, a sense of possibilities.