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Janet Thomas: ‘Tis The Season of Returning Light

These COVID times are challenging in too many ways to count. I do not hide my own distress about it all when I encounter a friend in the store, on the street, or online. In return, I receive the honesty of their own distress. We briefly commune and there is a light of comforting connection; then we “catch-up” in all the “normal” ways. I am so grateful for these encounters. They momentarily reassure me that I am not alone with it all and that IT ALL is impacting US ALL and knowing this is a source of comfort in the midst of the grief and alienation that is defining these times. I am stunned by how much I have taken for granted in my daily life. The smiles, the eye contact, the verbal and non-verbal recognition of one another as we go about our day--without thinking.

And then there is music. I started Contra-dancing at the Grange many years ago and losing this weekly pleasure is a shock to my system. I had no idea of the comfort I was experiencing from dancing on Monday evenings for many years under the instruction of music /dance master Mike Cohen. The dance steps were repeated in ways that the body could show up without thinking. And with partners changing non-stop, there was a lot of touching with lots of people and lots of lovely rhythm from the musicians who showed up weekly to play. And, although the musicians continue to play beautifully together on Mondays (weather permitting), there is no dancing, and no touching.

Yet here we all are, touched beyond reason by these times.

My wake-up instinct is to click on the radio. Not long ago I woke up to the voices of young people protesting in the streets of Scotland where there was an international climate conference. A recent wake-up was to the heartbreaking crisis of non-stop deadly tornadoes streaming through the United States. Now it is to the record-breaking cold weather here in our ‘hood. Scientists are indicating climate change as a cause. The grief of it all is paralyzing. What to do? How to help? Caving-in to the grief is useless. Feeling it and taking action is useful inside and out. As I write these words I am hoping and praying, they lead to some useful action. But what? What can we do?

For me, the most critical thing is to be positive and act accordingly. Something that is damn difficult to do.

I am working on a book about our underwater neighbors, the critically endangered Southern Resident orca whales. I started it before the COVID crisis and its global impact. This crisis expanded the context of the book into a global perspective of it all. The subsequent research pretty much did me in. We are destroying species of animals and plants nonstop and in greater and greater numbers. We are, in fact, destroying ourselves--because, believe-it-or-not, we are part of it all. This dynamic of destruction is heart-breaking beyond description.

Living in the San Juan Islands is living within the nature of it all. We ride the seas to get home from our excursions off-island. We walk the shores. The partnership of land, sea, and life is our nonstop environment. As I research the environment of the Southern Residents, I am awed by the variety, complexity, and extraordinary beauty of life-under-water. We see the surface of it all, but it is what we don’t see that supports our survival and reflects the exquisite nature of it all. The light, the colors, the complexities of life underwater in all its plant and animal beauty reflects the ongoing miracle of life-on-earth. We breathe it in. Oxygen. The basis of human life on earth.

Scientists estimate that more than 70% of the oxygen on earth comes from the oceans of the earth. Most of it from plankton, the plant and algae that photosynthesize. Yes, we get oxygen from rain forests, too--but it ranges around 30%. The oceans of the world are our literal partners-in-life on earth. As is the sun.

This season encompasses it all--the birth of Christ, the birth of the earth, the return of the light, the return of our beloved friends and family members, the return of it all. Yet, in the midst of Covid isolation and its heartbreaking consequences, all the spontaneity of the season is missing. As are all the personal connections we take so for granted at this time of year.

Perhaps ‘Tis the Season of real gratitude. All the spontaneity of spirit and the planning of sharing it together is lost to how best to protect one another. The loss of both careful planning and casual spontaneity leaves us with a kind of emptiness--but within it is the manifestation of our true love and care for one another. These are isolating times. As we lose the celebratory presence of one another, perhaps we can open our hearts to the gratitude we feel for one another. Thanks to technology and its various screens we can send our love far and wide even as we feel the sadness of it all.

This year, I am really feeling the loss of all the seasonal good stuff, and it is bringing more reality to the really good stuff. Friends matter more. Celebrating and appreciating them at the time of year is the norm. This year, not being able to be exuberant about it all is our collective grief. Perhaps it is illuminating the reality of our connections to the everlasting light of close and distant friends and relatives who matter so deeply in our lives. And to the lights sparkling throughout town and shining in the hearts of masked faces of those on the streets.

‘Tis the season to be thankful. And I am. To all I know personally as well as coincidentally. And to those who brighten my life online as well as passing by on the streets

Just because these COVID times have turned our world inside out it does not mean we have to turn ourselves inside out. Going from outside-in is going to the heart of it all. To the gratitude we feel for the friends in our lives, for family love, for the beauty of our island home, for the return of the sun. Going to gratitude is not always easy when the going gets tough. But as I write these words my heart is filling with gratitude for my island life, my island friends, the ferry workers, the grocery store workers, our post-office employees, all our San Juan County and Town of Friday Harbor employees. Thank you for all you are and all you do.

As we isolate ourselves for the good of us all, let us not forget the deeper truth. We are all in this together. Our grief, our loneliness, our despair, is as real for others as it is for us. Underneath it all, are our hearts beating for the life of it all and the love of it all.

May the spirit of the season be with us non-stop. May our smiles break through our eyes into the eyes of others. May we know this time as a sad wise time of love and appreciation for all our dear friends, island acquaintances, and dearest family members. May we all be one--in our grief and in our gratitude.


Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 29 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

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