Hope seems to be something we are all in constant pursuit of these days. I see posts about it everyday and every conversation I have with a friend or loved one will inevitably touch upon this. This past week, specifically, one of the most dear people to me, T, a miraculous goddess of courage and integrity, found herself wrestling to find hope and while typically I can come up with myriad strategies to connect to it, in that moment, on that day, I was immersed in sadness myself, in fear, in complex feelings that were weighing me down. When our Zoom call ended I sat for days in deeper self-reflection than usual. Being hopeful or searching for hope can sometimes feel like grasping for an impossibly unachievable state. But no matter what thoughts I wrestle with or what feelings I contend with, I always end up at the same place in my mind:
If we are searching for hope, we are capable of finding it. If we are here in this world, we are already in possession of it, even when it feels so far away.
I lost a friend and teacher of 25 years the other day. To the horrible disease I’ve also had to battle. (You can read about my journey in my article Of this Salty Sea) Another close friend of mine was also recently diagnosed. Within days of one another, one of my beloved friend’s journey with it has ended, the other’s beginning and here I sit, through what I have to believe was the worst of it. The feeling of fragility may never leave me but I also have the blessing of perspective and that is the starting place of where hope comes into play for me.
I’ve read many books about coping and finding peace. I’ve spoken to so many people. Looked inward and outward more times than I can count. It doesn’t matter how many books I read, how much self-reflection I do, how many people I look to for answers. When I strip everything away and come to the heart of it all, for me it always ends up the same; love wins every single time. And if we can identify the love, we can identify the hope. The two go hand in hand. But how do we find it in the times where life can feel so heavy, so unjust, so out of control?
To start, I’d say, that in the most literal, simple sense, we are either living or we’re not. And if we are here, it means we have life. Sometimes that is the most we can say. And living at a base line is often not enough. We all want so much more than to just survive. But when we don’t have more, we still have that. So that is where I start. I start with myself and work my way out. I am here. And once I remind myself I am here, I can begin again to rediscover the countless gifts around me.
I posted a pic of one of the many Toronto walls that have been tagged with the loving phrase “tout est possible”, a tiny moment of hope, crushed quickly the next day when I learned my friend and teacher had passed. And I asked myself like I had so many times, where is the hope in this moment? And I recognized again, that no, of course not everything is possible. Tout n’est pas possible. But it is always possibly possible. No, my friend’s desire to live was not enough to keep her living. But then I think of her final email to me and the thoughts and love she passed on to so many of us. Thoughts and love that soothe with their power, words that arm us with the ability to perceive her passing as an opportunity to receive the gifts she was offering us. That love she was able to give, even in her final moments, was such balm. And when I gave myself the chance to breathe it in and let it process within me, there it emerged, like it always had, just that tiny but magnificent amount of hope. Love created that hope. Love. And once I received that love, in turn, hope lay there before me. And the hope allowed me to not only receive love, but to give love. And so there she was, alive after all.
Pain doesn’t go away just like that. But given time, it can lessen, transform and sometimes even heal. But there are times when it just keeps coming at us. For us. It stifles us, exhausts us, chokes us, suffocates us, hammers us, terrorizes us, disempowers us, wounds, crushes, numbs. And we cry out for someone to save us. And so many times, no one can.
So what do we do? How do we save ourselves in moments of despair? For me, during my relentless battle with Cancer and of course during the long months of isolated quarantine it was and remains to be Mother Nature; the love of her and the love for her continue to save me. Trees and bodies of water in particular are an enormous lifeforce and source of inspiration for me and probably, for most. And they are a true example of how hope and love work together.
As northerners, when so much of Nature seems to vanish each winter, we have the privilege of bearing witness to the power, grace and resilience of our water and our trees. My husband, son and I walked down to the lake in the January cold a few weeks back. Anyone who knows Lake Ontario, knows the power and exhilaration of the force of these ocean-like windy waters. There in the dead of winter, the wind hurled and the waves crashed loud, the force of it completely exhilarating. We giggled and ran along the snowy sand and as we stood high on the rocks allowing the water to release us from our thoughts, a huge wave crashed over my seven year old son and soaked him through. We all stood in shock, then erupted into giddy laughter and it was as though the last few years of struggles were carried away by that wave, our troubles dissolving into the air and water, earth and sunshine surrounding us. We had been comforted by the elements, and it restored and replenished us. We’d been loved. And felt love. And we instantly felt hope. And we could then reach out to love someone else. Perhaps it was hope and love that brought us there to begin with.
In the Jewish tradition, Tu b’Shevat is an ancient ecological holiday that honours our connection to the earth and our responsibility of caring for it, a belief system, of course, at the core of many cultures and communities, especially true of the original caretakers of the land whose profound connection and relationship to it is something we can all learn from. I’ve felt a profound need to continue my relationship with Nature, continue my ongoing learning about Canada’s and the world’s history and also to deepen my understanding of my own ancestry. My friends E.M. & L.Z. inspired me to read more about Tu b’Shevat. As I began reading, so many things resonated. While the practices and thinking behind Tu b’Shevat vary and expand from community to community, at its core is the annual cycle of trees and our literal or symbolic relationship to it. The sap begins at the roots and ascends up through the trunk and branches, creating buds and leaves and fruits. I read an article recently comparing this process of growth to that of the process of the people, and while the analogy of the author was meant to symbolize Jewish peoples, it of course can be compared to humanity as a whole; the roots of the tree representing our ancestors, the trunk as the base that gives people strength and shape and nourishment. People process the sap, the knowledge, differently and as such, carry the nourishment in different ways as do the branches that spread out away from each other, which represents the different parts of humanity. Different fruits may grow on the tree and go on their own separate journeys, but they all literally stem from the same place.
In Derek Markham’s article, passed on to me by my love-giving friend J.F., Trees Talk to Each Other and Recognize Their Offspring, Markham writes about the widely researched concept of a tree’s ability to send messages to the next generation of seedlings and the network they create around themselves.
I am in such awe of trees. They are always standing, always available, always present. Some lose their leaves, some do not. But even in the cold of winter, when so many things die or temporarily sleep, there they stand, rooted in the earth, rising up into the sky, through all that the universe hurls at it. Bearing witness to this day after day, season after season, year after year, decade upon decade, to me means that we all get to bear witness to the possibility of hope.
Before every daunting treatment I faced during my 6 months of chemotherapy, when at first we didn’t know what the poison would do to my body and spirit, and then following that first treatment once we knew exactly what it would do, there was very little anyone could do to soothe me. I knew I had to go through it, but I didn’t know how to find the strength to face it. In the end, I always carried a piece of nature with me, one of my ocean stones or shells or a living breathing leaf (a gift of wisdom from a friend M), something I could touch while I was inside what felt like the chemical warfare room, and before I stepped inside, knowing I would be trapped there for half the day, I would put my hand on a tree and push against her, asking her to keep me safe. And she always nudged me back so I could focus inward and walk inside. Trees are a lifeforce for all of us, available whenever we need them. And I try my best to feed them back with small acts of love and awareness.
As I write this I’m reminded of the words of International Ambassador at Black Lives Matter, Janaya Future Khan, in response to the storming of the Capitol: “Like the Sequoias, we have been burned. We know the hunger of neglect, the thirst of drought, the exploitation of inequality…and like the Sequoia, we still reach for the sky. We turn our faces to the sun.”
There is more love and hope in this than I have words to express.
And as I discover over and over again, we can’t always change our situation, but we can change how we react to it. We can stay in the place of discomfort or pain or fear, as we should for some time, and then we can find our way forward. We inevitably always do, so maybe we can try to find it sooner, that surrender that can bring an ease to our situation, that softening that is rooted in love and hope, for ourselves, someone else, something bigger than us. And when we can’t soften or surrender, we can use our anger or despair or fear to push towards love, because when channelled, these things are fuel to get things done. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be done with love, tethered to love, rooted in love; love for ourselves, love for others, love for a better world. For me, Survival will always hold these two opposing forces; the ability to adapt and change the parts of ourselves that no longer serve us or anyone else, coupled with its antithesis, the ability to retain the parts of ourselves that makes us who we are.
Self-love can go a long way. So can loving someone else. We can use love to smooth out the rough edges; with tiny acts or with a beckoning force. When we call upon it, as we push against the things that threaten it, we can also take comfort knowing that hope must be there. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be calling for a change.
I don’t always feel loved enough even when I am. Nor do I always feel that I have the capacity to give love to the extent that I wish to. But I do have hope that if I keep centering love, trusting in love, reaching towards love, and measuring my actions against love, it is there for me to find.
Recommended Reading: In honour of my very much alive friend, who has begun her battle, I’m recommending the book I bought for her, Peace is Every step, by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is a gentle read full of gifts for those who need some ease in their weighed-down lives.
Recommended Donation: My friend, teacher and mentor who crossed over into her bliss recently, had a rich, authentic and active connection to Nature. In the spirit of her love, her hope and courage, if you are looking for somewhere to donate, I encourage you to make a donation to one of the charities that were especially important to her, The Center for Indigenous Environmental Resources or The David Suzuki Foundation.
Lauren Brotman is an award-winning actor, creator and artist educator. Her company, Bound to Create (B2C), founded by Lauren and her husband Jack in 2004, is keenly interested in the beauty, boldness, and truth born from confronting the challenges that face the human spirit telling stories for the stage, recently expanding productions to film and television as well. Lauren is a mother, wife and recent Breast Cancer Survivor. For more about Lauren’s work, please visit www.boundtocreate.com. You can find her on IG @laurenrachelbrotman, you can find her company on Twitter and IG @boundtocreate and you can follow her upcoming film project on IG @ellesvalleyfilm.
(Photo credit: LV Imagery)