Discover more from Comfort for the Apocalypse
Living the questions
Comfort for the Apocalypse, February 2023
If it’s true that “there are years that ask questions, and years that answer,”then 2022 was my year of asking.
It was a year of quitting things—a job assignment, my union leadership role—and taking on projects I did not exactly choose. A year when under the duress of job pressures and illnesses I had to explore my values and priorities as a part of my survival. I got right up against the edge of a breakdown, but managed to pull myself back before jumping headlong into the swift moving river below. I am thankful for the guardrails of my life which allowed me to make the necessary choices to step back when I did.
Thanks for reading Comfort for the Apocalypse! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
As a result, I met the new year without much of a plan and no big resolutions. I did not rush back to the gym in an attempt to recapture the strength I’ve lost since illness in November derailed my weight lifting. I did not promise myself so many hours of writing per week, or to finish the book draft I abandoned last year. I did not renew a daily schedule which prescribed all the hours in my days. I didn’t even declare a number of books in the annual Goodreads book challenge.
I don’t think I’m alone in this approach to 2023. The last couple of years have exposed just how unknowable the near-future of our lives becomes in sustained social crisis. Between cancelled gatherings due to illness and lockdown, labour shortages which have left many without medical care and other essential services, and inflated food prices, we can barely plan the next meal let alone the next twelve months.
We know the worst may still be arriving as we look towards Ukraine or the twin-edged sword of the mental health/opioid crisis unfolding in our communities. Climate change disasters close to home kill humans and animals, shred our infrastructure, and leave us standing on the threshold of a world we no longer recognize. On a personal level, a single accident can render our former life opaque in an instant.
At the outset of the pandemic, I found myself abiding abrupt changes to plans and schedules, and adapted my life accordingly with some ease. Admittedly, I was so over-scheduled until that point that letting go of many engagements was a relief. But I also felt my Zen study and practice were a crucial component to my equanimity. In particular, I thought a lot about “beginner’s mind”, a concept popularized in North America by Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki.
The beginner’s mind calls on us to not-know, to be liberated from the known. When we come to the world as an expert, we have expectations to outcomes that are very specific. When we come as a novice, we are open to many plans and possibilities. Likewise, embracing a state of not-knowing (not predicting what is going to happen next) we are liberated from our attachment to future outcomes, and called on to live in the present circumstance in front of us.
Easier said than done in most areas of our lives, but because the early days of the pandemic were unprecedented in my corner of the world, I found it possible to stay with the beginner’s mind in those first months as I carried out my altered daily routines.
As the pandemic wore on, however, that ability to roll with things and remain open decreased, as I began developing expectations around what would happen (or not happen) next. Like everyone else, I became an “expert” on viruses and medical systems, and that (faux) expertise shackled me to a particular set of desires and frustrations about the roll-out of vaccines and lifting of lockdowns. I wasn’t alone in this. It seems as a culture we have entered 2023 quicker to anger and distrust, so sure are we of the answers, so gratified by outrage. The self-appointed pundits of our culture demonstrate on the nightly news that the more we “know”, the angrier we are allowed to be.
Now, I don’t know about you, but coming out of a pretty rough year it’s clear to me that living with frayed emotions, frustrations, and anger does not serve me or my community. It does not serve the planet. And so 2023 is my year of taking a step back from all the knowing, planning, projecting, and deciding. Instead, this is my year of “making do,” which calls on me to figure out what I can do with what I have, to persevere without blaming others when times are unexpectedly challenging, and to look at every situation or problem as having many potential outcomes. This is an orientation I hope will not only kick me out of my 2022 stress and anxiety hangover, but also guide me to greater acceptance in a churning world.
I don’t know if 2023 is going to be an answer year for me, but I am dedicated to the questions. I take as a guide these words of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Maybe these words resonate for you as well. What are the questions we must learn to love? How do we know when we have lived into the answers? Perhaps it just means new questions arise. And so we are always beginners as we stumble along.
Things are still not back to normal in the world of performance, but we do have opera again! One fun February thing was taking in the Vancouver Opera Society presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
February recipe: Spiced cashews
I discovered this as part of a soup recipe recently and now it goes on everything: lentil soup, salad, stir-frys - everything. It is the ultimate salty/sweet/hot/crunchy thing that amps up whatever you put it on.
1 tablespoon coconut oil
3/4 cup cashews
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. raw sugar
In a skillet over medium-low heat, add oil, cashews, and pumpkin seeds. Toast, stirring constantly (seeds and nuts burn quickly if left unattended), until cashews are lightly golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add in all remaining ingredients and stir for another 2 minutes. Stores well for weeks in a sealed jar.
In the workshop
Many years ago I made myself a envelope-style pouch out of heavy cotton canvas to carry around my small cross stitch projects in. At the time I did not know how to use a sewing machine and was also terrible at hand sewing, and yet I still managed to use that project bag for twenty years. The cloth was coffee-stained and frayed at the edges when I finally picked it apart last month.
Now I am turning it into a new project bag, having scoured and dyed the fabric with dried dhalias from my garden and Eastern brazilwood. The embroidery thread I’m using for embellishment is also naturally dyed with madder/marigold and myrobalan/indigo.
My embroidery is as unpolished as it gets, but I am enjoying this small project and all its “making do” energy right now.
There are a lot of Substack newsletters out there, and I only pay for a few (maybe, four?) One of those is Human Stuff by Lisa Olivera, specifically because I appreciate her monthly reflection guide. A lot of her content is free and worth a read - she is a thoughtful and incisive writer - but I’m in it for the guided questions at the start of each month. A little prompting to help me write and think when I don’t know where to start on the page.
Everyone knows Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work Braiding Sweetgrass (and if you don’t, go read it right now). Earlier this month, David Marchese published his interview with her in the New York Times magazine titled You don’t have to be complicit in our culture of destruction, which offers us more of Robin’s insightful words. Highly recommend.
One of the best things I listened to this month was Krista Tippet interviewing Nic Offerman on the podcast On Being. Offerman talks about the power of making things by hand, Wendell Berry, and ways that we reconcile modern life when we know we weren’t meant to live this way. Not surprising that a conversation between these two people would be entertaining and engaging.
Yes, this is supposedly a monthly newsletter but has been intermittent since everything fell apart last year. I’m fine with it if you are.
But I do miss this newsletter as a focal point of my months so we’ll see what happens next. Will it become monthly again? Will it stick to any regular schedule? We’re living the questions here so only time will tell.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God