One afternoon, after a torrential Alabama rainstorm had just passed, I walked outside to check on my garden. I had a large planter that I had yet to fill with dirt, and in the storm, water had filled to the top. On the surface of the clear rainwater a little chipmunk was drowning, with barely enough energy to keep his head above water. I quickly tipped over the planter and watched the poor chipmunk ride the wave onto the nearby ground. He lay panting, unable to move.
I ran in the house for a towel and came back to wrap the chipmunk and gently rub him. I did this until he showed signs of wiggling, and then I set him down. He hobbled off into the bushes so crookedly I wasn’t sure if he would survive, but I told myself he would and left it at that.
I wondered. If I did a painting about this experience, what part of me would it represent? Had I ever felt like a drowning chipmunk? Of course. We’ve all felt like we were drowning or sinking at some time or other.
I wasn’t feeling particularly down when I encountered the chipmunk, and while I painted her I didn’t access any emotions like anguish or hopelessness. But I am no stranger to despair, and painting the chipmunk felt a little like helping the real chipmunk out of the planter. I was acknowledging the times I was in desperate need of emotional help, and reminding myself I had always received it. It made me grateful I rarely felt this way anymore, and I felt slightly triumphant that I had survived a good share of near drownings in my lifetime. (At least they felt that way at the time.)
In moments of despair the well-meant words of folks trying to cheer me up can seem to hold a great lack of understanding and validation. I am a big believer in letting people move through their pain at their own speed, especially when it involves those awful moments of deep sorrow and disconnectedness. I’ve been told by those who’ve lost close loved ones never to spout pithy sayings about how it will all work out for the best or about heaven or about God’s will. A simple “I’m sorry” is the only appropriate thing to say. Simply being with someone reminds them that they are not alone. It may seem small, but it’s a gift that can begin the healing.
Along with the compassion of others, there is something I have come to rely on in times of great sorrow. In fact, my most desperate times hold the greatest opportunity to get in touch with it. It is surrender. When things look darkest I am being shown that there are many things in life over which I have no control. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily lessen pain, but there is the tiniest sensation of relief when I acknowledge that there is nothing to be done about it. Surrender loosens the grip of trying to manage and direct, to stop the unstoppable, to change things out of my power, and wishing things were different. When I loosen my grip I find myself in that bewildering place where things can still look bleak, but I am in a place called, “I don’t know”—a place of wide-open possibility. I am shown my true place in the cosmos.
It may take time, even lots of it, but I feel better eventually. In that process I am often more of an observer than an orchestrator. I heal at my own pace, and mostly watch as little by little I feel better than I did a week ago. People show up with the most uncanny timing, giving with grace and humor and not even knowing they’re doing it. Eventually the suffering lessens, and the path that led me through it gives me benefits I couldn’t have received any other way.
A couple days after I saved the floundering chipmunk, I saw two happy, quick-footed chipmunks playing near the same area, and I’d like to think one of them was my sea-faring buddy. I hadn’t expected to see such a joyful sign that things probably turned out OK. In any case, it seemed like he was saying thank you, in a small way. If I could have spoken to the chipmunk I’d have thanked him, too. And then I’d have told him to take some swimming lessons.