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26 March 2020

Present Tense

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Writing has long been my solace. When I face into fear or sadness, writing has been my lifeline, the way for me to hold myself from drowning in the dark pools into which I sometimes fall. And the two times I’ve had cancer have been dark pools indeed, icy blackness with a skim coat of uncertainty and a desperate need to get through to the other side. Writing helped me make sense of myself to myself, and in so doing, helped the dark pools sometimes become smaller, and sometimes more beautiful.

But here we are, all facing into the same moment. All in our different ways, each of us afraid in our own special context. But there are few places on our whole planet where humans are untouched by the fear of what it means to be now when our health systems and then economic systems are on the edge of collapse. The dark pool has spread across the world.

And somehow this joining up of us all, which could have made me feel somehow more connected through writing into the world, has made me more quiet. The scale is so far beyond me, my ideas are so obvious, that I sit mute at my computer, hours and hours of typing and erasing and binge reading the Guardian or the New York Times (News flash: it’s getting worse. There is no other news). The lessons I learned from my time on cancer island are only the seeds of what I need now; my personal tragedy so small in the face of this global disaster. Maybe now is the time to nurture those lessons to grow big enough to help me make sense of this place where we are, and perhaps that can help me connect to words again, and maybe, just maybe, these words will help you connect to something that matters deeply for you.

Like cancer, this Covid19 season is woven through with paradox. Most human lives are, but mostly we have ways of keeping this knowledge at bay and moving through the world as if it were sensible and predictable. Now the sensible and predictable veneer has been ripped off, and we are left with the tangle of paradox underneath. For the next few blogs, I’ll try to write about that, and we’ll see where we get.

Here’s the first one: We cannot look to the past. We cannot look to the future.

This is particularly miserable because our minds reach to the past to tell us about the present. We don’t mean to do this, it’s just the way we work. Right now, this natural way of working is impossible for us to satisfy and, worse, we know that it’s impossible. So our minds circle and circle, searching for the signal that will quiet them where the past and the present connect to the future. But now the past and present don’t connect. And so our minds circle. For me I think this is where the binge reading of the news comes from; surely some nugget from 1918 or some piece of data from now will help me connect the past and the future. But these nuggets do not exist. We are in a discontinuity. The future will not be like the past. Horrible things emerge from these times; glorious things emerge from these times. We will know it when it happens. The process of emergence is everything.

This experience is similar to those times when my past and future couldn’t connect: waiting for the biopsy results, looking out from the fog of chemotherapy, the first days of an ongoing treatment that had the chance to change my personality or mental state. The past becomes a series of moments to mourn; the future so murky that even three inches ahead is impossible to see.

And now, nearly the whole world is poised at this edge together. All of us are mourning the past—with the wide variety of real losses that the present has brought us. All of us are bewildered about the future.

When I was sick and afraid, the only response I found to this quandary was gratitude. As my mind worked into exhaustion racing ahead and behind, gratitude was the break. And still, it helps. Today I am grateful for the light that comes through the living room windows in the morning. I am grateful for my chai tea in a tiny cup I bought in Istanbul. I am grateful for my young adult kids who are still asleep upstairs, all of us under one roof.

Unlike my time on cancer island, though, my gratitude practice is somehow not enough. Looking back from this perch, it suddenly seems so straightforward to be worried just about my personal health; it’s worrying about the world that sends me really spinning. My own gratitude can sometimes actually amplify my worries for others. Yes, it’s lovely to be grateful about the light coming through my window, but what about the poor? The lonely? The marginal? The unwell? My gratitude in this moment becomes threaded with guilt, helplessness, anger.

So for me the difference in this time is the bigger—and sometimes smaller—gratitude. I feel whole again when I connect to wonder, to the astonishing miracle that we are alive on this planet at all, to the absurdity of the beauty around us, to the grace of our capacity for love. I need to soar up to the clouds, empty of planes now, to touch the mystery of humanity; I need to dive into to the cherry blossom in the park to swim in the gratuitous pale pinkness of it all.

And that wonder connects me at the biggest and smallest levels to cycles of life, to the ways humans have always faced love and death, fear and comfort woven together like a rope that binds generations and spans continents. This practice of wonder simultaneously lifts me out of the darkness of this moment (because this darkness will pass, everything passes) and also sinks me more deeply into what actually exists in this moment (because this moment is all there ever is). The hospitals will fill. The ducklings will waddle in the park. People will die. The fallen cherry blossoms will cover the hills like snow. Medical professionals will stretch to their limits and some will break. Babies will be born. Scientists will connect around the world to use the best of what we have to save lives. Fraudsters will prey on the vulnerable. These are not out there, somehow. They are all in here. We are all of these. Each of us contains the birth and the death, the villain and the hero, the beauty and the horror of the whole world. This moment is unlike any moment that has ever been before; it is like every moment humans have ever been alive.

Gratitude for the particular moment of my life. Wonder for the miracles of all life. Grief for the beautiful horror of mortality. This is the practice of now. May we bow and dance and weep and laugh alone together, in our little isolation pods around the world.

8 thoughts on “Present Tense”

  1. Thank you for the beautiful words. It helped me decide to stop trying to connect this to something familiar. We are in the land of the unknown. I needed that clarity. Big Elbow Bump, Eileen O’Grady

  2. Trish Lees says:

    Beautifully expressed. My heart is aching and rejoicing.

  3. Susan says:


    Thank you for sharing this with such honesty and vulnerability. Like you, I have been focusing on gratitude during this perilous time and concerned about those who are suffering acutely in my community, country, and around the entire world. I have been leaning even more into silence and am grateful for what I am hearing and learning. Our world will be forever changed as will I. I’m grateful for the various, diverse communities of which I am a part, including the AODC. I feel even more connected to friends in new ways.

  4. Pat Walker says:

    An extraordinarily loving, wise and inspiring letter. Thank you so much. Truly.

  5. Eva Tuschman says:

    Thank you for expressing so vividly, and with such humanity, the paradox of the moment. I was reminded of a passage from psychotherapist and soul activist, Francis Weller, which describes how we can hold the polarities of grief and gratitude.
    “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
    I look forward to reading more of your writing.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      I love this idea, Eva, that Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft….

  6. Mercy Martinez says:

    Thank you for you openness and the warmth of your words.

    I have been enormously helped by your books, by the opportunity to see beyond my edge and wonder what is to come.

    Last week I woke up with this image and sensing in my body– although is a global experience it is also a individual journey of discovery. As I felt as I was being invited to re-examine “The Hero’s Journey” found myself with the following words:
    “I landed in a new world with no way back
    all the years preparing for this day
    they have long passed.
    I have become who I am now
    someone familiar yet unknown
    awaiting to be explored.
    Today I am grateful for being alive
    sadden for what has been lost
    and hopeful for what is to come.”

    Your books and the opportunity I had to attend last year’s GEN retreat has giving me a space to land in these uncertain times while inviting me to explore that is okay to experience what it is vs what I would like it to be.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Ah Mercy, This is lovely. It was a bright spot on a rainy day in London. Thank you.

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