“There is a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens...
...a time for crying and a time for laughing,
a time for mourning and a time for dancing...” Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
Not long ago a dear friend who lost her home and her studio in the fires told me how she’d gone to a fundraiser for victims of the fire. It was at a winery and the music had been so amazing, that to her surprise, she’d danced all night—for the first time in years. She’d just let the music carry her into the “zone”—away she went for a beautiful night.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is not really about separate times—it’s not that laughing and crying have different scheduled times, nor mourning and dancing either for that matter. We most often find ourselves in times where we are all mixed up. We dance in the midst of mourning, we laugh in the midst of tears—and sometimes our tears of laughter flow into tears of grief in a split second. Dancing can express our mourning as well as our hope and even joy. Our bodies are where these deep emotions are stored. Tears and dancing are two ways to express their truth.
Thanksgiving is upon us. Our national holiday inviting us to give ourselves over to gratitude. It’s rooted in a history that is generally told from a skewed perspective, but in any case, for Christians and people of many faiths, it is one national holiday that is rooted in bedrock spiritual practice. Gratitude is a practice that reminds us of our interdependence— with the earth, with one another, and, with those who have gone before us. It’s a time to honor the gracious gift of life. Gratitude puts us in a humble place—a place where we recognize our dependence, not our independence.
And, Advent is right around the corner—a time to live into our longing for the presence of Christ and for new life. At just about the same time, our Jewish brothers and sisters will be celebrating their feast of lights, Hanukkah. In our society though, the emphasis is not on spiritual longing nor on the miracle of the oil for the menorah, instead it is on being consumers! Buying gifts, putting on lavish parties, and hosting the meal for the extended family. The images we see everywhere are of happy people, surrounded by things—many things.
How could we not grieve? How could we not? As I write this we are just over a month since the fires. The messages that already fill the news and internet are so often: “Time to Rebuild,” “Sonoma Strong,” “Let’s get on with it!” And, yet the grieving of losses has barely begun--painful losses for those whose loved ones and friends died in the fires. And such complicated losses for those whose homes have burned. Most not only lost their place, their possessions, their neighborhood—in some cases relationships built over decades. They’ve been displaced on so many levels. Those who’ve been fortunate enough to find housing at all in Sonoma County, find themselves in strange places, driving different routes to work and school, different neighbors, sleeping in a bed not their own.. The homes they lost, many of them were places that had been built and rebuilt, added on, recreated time and again—they’ve lost places where they put in hard work and creativity—some have lost their workplaces as well as their homes. And some their beloved pets.
Ours is a materialistic society. Our national identity these days seems to be as Consumers. We know we have too much stuff. And yet, when people say, “It’s only things, we’ve got our lives,” it’s important to acknowledge that while that is certainly true, “things” often are laden with meaning, beyond what you might guess. Family photos, drawings your children made for you, gifts from loved ones, just the everyday things you loved—maybe a favorite blanket, toy, sweater or watch. Who knows? We’re talking comfort and memories, but we’re also talking history and generational connections. That lamp that was your mother’s is a link to her and to your past. These are real losses.
And we’ve hardly begun to realize the other displacements. The family home where Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hannukah were celebrated. Who will be the new host? Who will sit at the table in some new place? Who might be missing? It’s not that there can’t be some new and deeply meaningful way to be together—but it’s important to live into the truth of loss.
There is the land, the trees, the creatures... even those who have survived with their homes intact look out on a decimated landscape that once brought them peace and beauty. They look out on a neighborhood and all the losses of their neighbors and friends. They weep.
They weep if they have time to weep. So many of those who sustained losses are facing the overwhelm of dealing with insurance companies—some demanding lists of every possession in the house—others with such impenetrable processes and hoops to jump through that it’s hard not to despair. Add this to the uncertainty of what lies ahead... can we rebuild? Can I find a place to rent? Will I be able to find a new job? How do I help my children get over this? It’s exhausting.
Because of course, the children and adults who raced from their homes in the dead of night have harrowing memories still coursing through their bodies—and their sleep. The terror that was mixed in with the flames, the wind, and ashes has not been erased.
To grieve is to honor the truth in which we live. To grieve is to create a spaciousness inside where the pain of loss can be acknowledged an felt. That space allows us really to live fully in the place we are in. To grieve is to acknowledge the losses, material, economic, and spiritual. In our tradition, the prophets have much to teach us about grief. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and cries out from the cross in his aloneness. The words of the prophets start in grief. They lament how things are—and how far they are from where God would have us be. Eventually, the prophets move to hope—but not before grief. Not before.
How do you grieve? Do you cry? Do you feel depressed? Is your heart breaking? Do you obsess over your losses? Do you find yourself distracted? Unable to get a good night’s sleep? Do you feel stuck and unable to move on? Do you feel alone? Is God absent? Are you angry? Short with others? Or, does it come in spurts for you? You’re driving along maybe, and suddenly from nowhere comes a memory, and there you are. Do you try to stuff it? This is us, grieving.
We’ve been through a crisis: a time that cracks us open and truth becomes visible that had been shrouded in ordinariness. During the time of the fires, we saw uncovered another truth--the beautiful truth of our human capacity to care for one another, to act courageously to save another, to reach out with compassion. We saw our basic oneness.
But we also came to know something else. All of us lost something in the fires-- the illusion that we have control. We now know a vulnerability which is real, but is a truth we’ve mostly pretended wasn’t so. It reminds me a bit of the grief that some here in Sonoma County felt when the results of the last presidential election were clear. There was at that time a stripping away of illusion that many had lived with—an illusion about who we were as a people, who was hurting, and what was important to the country. This moment now in this place gives us a hard opportunity to live into our very real vulnerability as humans—a certain humility presents itself.
We know there is a risk as we go ahead—a risk that these two truths will be covered over, forgotten, and it will be back to “business as usual.” “Sonoma Strong” “Every man for himself.”
The days ahead may be difficult for many of us. Thanksgiving, Advent, Hanukkah, Christmas, “the holiday season” may serve as measures of our displacement. I hope that, no matter what, we will be able to honor our grief and to stand with one another in it. We have hardly begun really.
Of course, we can and will move ahead. People will deal with their insurance companies, communities will gradually be rebuilt. New ways of being together will be discovered. New ways of honoring our past. What will rise out of the ashes will not be the same. There will be new life. But for now, it’s important to grieve and to honor our losses. We may do so in the midst of tears, and dancing, we may laugh even from time to time, and cry as well. There is a time for every matter under heaven. Strangely enough, grieving is one spiritual practice that can open us to the divine: it honors the value of the present.