My grandfather died at the beginning of October. He was 96 years old and had lived a long and extraordinary life. His health had been declining and while we knew he wouldn't be with us forever, there's a deep sadness in knowing that I'll never see him again. But while there's sadness, there's also joy, and love, and gratitude. My grandfather lived an extraordinary life. He was creative and curious and taught me to be too. And he taught me to be open to the beauty, ideas, wonder and wisdom of many cultures. That's a gift I'll treasure for the rest of my life.
I'm profoundly grateful to have grandparents in my life until I was in my late 40s. A lucky combination of good genes, and a tendency to have children young meant I had more time with them than many people get. As we head towards a new period of lockdown, I am also deeply grateful that my family were able to gather for his funeral to connect, remember and say our goodbyes - a rare and precious moment of togetherness in a year that's kept us apart.
My grandmother is 96, sharp as a tack, and very much still with us. And it is my grandmother who taught me to knit. Long before I ever learnt to meditate I learnt to turn a spool of yarn into intricate interconnected loops which, with enough patience, sometimes even turn into warm soft things to snuggle up in when the nights turn dark and cold. The nights are turning cold and dark now, sure enough. And I still knit. In fact my response to this strange year, with so much time spent at home, has been to knit, and knit, and knit.
I was working on this lovely yellow jumper today when I realised just how many years it's been since knitting gave me a first taste of the mindful awareness that I now find in meditation. The same balance of gently focused attention, keeping coming back to my body, my hands, the anchor of awareness resting lightly in my fingers. If my body is too tight, breath shallow, shoulders tense and gripping then it shows in my knitting - stitches grip and become hard to work, the whole piece becomes tight and contracted. If I can soften, ease, sigh and let go a little but stay aware then the knitting, like the meditation, is more likely to flow.
When my attention is scattered and I knit, I make mistakes. I have to unslip the loops, unravel and start over. So with meditation... when my mind is busy and agitated, can I remember to let breath unspool like the softest yarn? Can I let the chattering of an over-busy mind unravel; coming back, over and over to the softness of breath? Can I let this moment unfold, just as it is, without forcing or holding, pushing or pulling... starting over with each breath?
These are tough times we are living in. Life is not as we might want or choose it to be, in so many ways. These strange circumstances can leave us feeling disconnected and discombobulated. There is loss, and loneliness. But there are still moments of joy and gratitude to be found. The autumn leaves, the golden yellow yarn of a new jumper, the sun when it shows itself from behind a cloud... Drink them in. Soften around them. Turn your face towards the sun and kick up the leaves, even if they're soggy.
And in the moments when things are tough, when it feels it's all unravelling, take a breath. And another. Let your shoulders drop away from your ears, unclench your jaw, and soften your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Take another breath. Let it out with a sigh and turn your face towards the sun, even if it's behind a cloud. Even if you get rain in your eyes.
Be kind to yourself, and to each other.
The world needs wisdom, kindness, and joy more than ever, and so do we.