Building the village, from the inside out

I came home three nights ago exhausted after a week of community and hard work at the Ontario Art of Mentoring. The next day, I wrote many notes of gratitude and love, and lay around on my couch dozing and dreaming and finding some space to rest after a week of little sleep. Yesterday, I had a mini reunion with some of the people I spent all of last week with (because we just can’t get enough!) and canned peach salsa in my kitchen all afternoon. 

What happened last week? After two years of being a participant at AOM, this year I spent the week volunteering in a kitchen with two chefs and half a dozen other volunteers feeding between 150 and 200 people three meals a day, snacks, sometimes packed food for overnights, and various other special requests. Around us were groups of adults, children, elders, parents/grandparents with babies and toddlers, all connecting to the land and to each other. Teens immersed in a separate nature experience out on the land all week. A “village hearth” of elders; people working on traditional skills; people offering spaces to rest and heal, have a massage, and stay grounded. Community meals, heart-opening singing, powerful group processes, talking circles, people feeling a space of safety in which they could open up.

One evening I sat resting on the steps of the main building we were in and looked out at tents where families were staying, a central fire with groups singing around it, people chopping wood for the fire, others hoisting up posts for a tepee, others cleaning up after dinner, children playing a hilarious game of racing down a hill in a wagon, babies being passed around,  people sitting and lying on the ground in deep conversation. A panorama of the village in action.

Today I picked up a magazine, and in a critical article about something else entirely found a line which I’ll paraphrase as “Those who romanticize village life have never lived in a village.” This made me pause. It’s easy to scoff, to take things apart; harder to create something that transforms people’s lives. Years ago, in university, I learned many tools of deconstruction and no tools for building. Critical analysis in a vacuum with no way to get out. Years later, transformative life experiences and transformative educational experiences helped me make some big shifts in myself. Today, I focus on looking for best practices. Right now, when I see tools for building, I grab them. The more tools for change I already hold, the more I can see all around me.

This is all to say that the village I experienced was not a product, it was a process. It wasn’t static. It was fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving. It was a regenerative, continual feedback loop. It wasn’t a romantic vision of the past; it was real and in the moment. It was full of mud and mosquitoes and challenges and discomfort and room to grow.

And so here are some of the things – by no means a definitive list – that I am grateful for from my experience last week:

  • Starting with some total honesty… I’m grateful for the process of working through my initial ambivalence about being asked to be in such an intense service role. This experience reminded me that most of my favourite jobs from the time I was a teen had some service/hospitality component to them. It’s something I’m good it. It made me really chew over why I devalue that, why our culture devalues it. Pushing through my resistance and throwing myself into the role was really good for me. It made me think about what it takes to make everyone feel welcome and cared for in any context.  It made me tremendously grateful to all of the people around me who do that so beautifully. It made me think about what I can actually offer to people. 
  • Grateful that every participant at some point had a turn helping in the kitchen: serving, washing hundreds of dishes, mopping floors. This made me think once again about the ways work is segregated in our culture, in so many cultures. And what it tells me about someone who can move gracefully from large group facilitation to large-scale dishwashing all in one evening. Or someone who can throw themselves with purpose into whatever job needs to be done.
  • Having said that, grateful also for the ongoing recognition that every job and action and gesture and effort needs to be appreciated and thanked. Over and over and over again. As a wise friend affirmed yesterday, after I had sent a note that I wasn’t sure would get a response, “you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
  • Grateful for the dance of working collaboratively with a committed group of people: the graceful verbal and non-verbal communication needed to smoothly plan, cook and serve meals for such a big group, and to know what needs to be done and when. Grateful for the presence, competence, warmth and playfulness of the kitchen team.
  • Grateful for the actual dancing and singing that went on all day in the kitchen. Wow, music and dance. That’s what we need to make every experience transformative. That’s what I need to get me out of my head and fully into my body. Grateful for the musicians who came in to serenade us a few times; and for the amazingly talented musicians on our team who sometimes stopped chopping and played a guitar or mandolin. And for the people on our team who turned everything into a song. The best parties always end up in the kitchen!
  • Grateful for good practices and how they transform any working culture. Daily gratitudes at the start of each day; good feedback and communication protocols established from the start; good modelling by leaders of getting things done effectively while always maintaining respect and warmth; a culture of hospitality and accommodation. 
  • Grateful for the intuitive and flexible schedule we kept, with breaks each day to swim in the expanse of Georgian Bay or in the winding, silty river surrounded by cattails and tall pines. Or to lie down in the relaxation tent for a massage or chat. Or to lie among the pines until the red squirrel scolded me away. 
  • Grateful for the openness and vulnerability I saw all around me. People taking risks in performing, risks in facing physical discomfort, risks in relating to each other. 
  • Grateful for glowing smiles, long hugs, deep conversations.
  • Grateful for being part of a powerful ceremony of staff stepping into their roles on the first day, using the 8 shields model that underpins the AOM process. Feeling the power of ritual and ceremony to help each of us channel what we want in our lives, to tune into energies that are all around us or inside us waiting to get out. Feeling my understanding deepening of what it means to step in and out of a role. Not performance, but channeling something that is already there in the collective unconscious or deep in my core. Something that will look different with each person who steps into it.
  • Grateful for children running around freely among groups of adults, muddy and happy. And for many arms to hold all of the babies being passed around.
  • Grateful for the words of the teens returning from a week-long nature immersion. Each teen spoke so simply and powerfully, and I wondered why I, in my late thirties, feel like I’m just now learning the same lessons they are already working through. Gratitude mixed with grief at not having had such an experience in my own teens. Feeling how gratitude and grief are all part of the same picture.
  • Grateful to witness a process through which a friend unexpectedly recalling earlier trauma was held and supported by a group of elders in the village, able to move her healing forward, and reintegrate when she was ready. 
  • Grateful to leave my tent every morning and not return until late in the evening. Grateful to walk comfortably through the dark woods each night, in a way that still astonishes me after being so scared of the dark as a child and teen. Grateful to return to find my tent cozy and dry after a day of heavy rain. Grateful how sleeping in a tent for a week really makes me appreciate the concept of shelter and how little I really need.
  • Grateful at the end on the second day, when heavy rain had kept the whole group inside for dinner, everyone needed so much attention, and our nerves were all a little frayed, for the realization that it was not time to reflect on my experiences yet. It was time to ride out the wave, get some sleep, stay in the moment, and do the work that needed to be done.
  • Grateful, after that same heavy rain, for the huge full rainbow spanning the sky.
  • Grateful for the insight, in a brief moment of envy at someone else’s skills and talents, that I am only ever going to be myself, with all my own particular gifts and flaws. And so I had better stop wasting time on envy and do the work of being myself with as much presence, intention and grace as I can muster in each moment.
  • Grateful for people who speak their truth in the face of discomfort; who hold others to agreements and question injustices. People who question processes with love, in the goal of improvement. People who keep trying, always.
  • Grateful to openly share words of love and appreciation with people around me and to accept those of others. Reflecting on how often we don’t speak our hearts for fear of how our words will be received. Grateful for people who can accept words of appreciation gracefully, fully honouring the spirit behind them. 
  • Grateful to return home and feel ripples of my experience moving into those around me. Grateful for my bed and my home. Most grateful to my husband who listens patiently to my stories, asks the good questions, makes sure our children are well cared for while I’m away, and anchors me always.
  • Grateful to the vision of regenerative culture and the work of so many who created this experience for me and others. Grateful for people who don’t get stuck in cynicism and despair, but keep doing the work that needs to be done to heal individuals, communities, and cultures.
  • Grateful for all of the possibilities the future holds.
  • Grateful to feel my tribe and extended family ever-growing.


Moose and wolves and bears, oh my! Summer tracking in Algonquin Park.

I spent last weekend in Algonquin Park, staying at the Wildlife Research Station by Lake Sasajewun. I was there as part of a 10-month, one-weekend-per month, tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks that I’m doing for the second year in a row, this time as part of a pilot second-year program in a work-trade supporting role. The past few months I’ve been helping to write up detailed stories of our days for the Earth Tracks blog. This month my two fellow second-year apprentices took on that task for the entire weekend. So I’ll take share a few of my highlights here, without feeling any need to be comprehensive, and without giving away anything like all of the weekend’s stories.  And I’ll share some photos, to balance out all of the writing – the inner tracking – I’ve been sharing recently.


Blueberries are in season. Even if we hadn’t seen any bushes, we would know, because everything is eating them. And mostly they don’t get chewed or digested very well. We came across blueberry scats of all shapes and sizes. Also, sarsaparilla berries in scat – a good mystery that took us most of the day to identify. The clue was their D-shaped seeds. Yes, we do spend a lot of time poking apart animal poop with sticks. But it’s such a wealth of information. Coins, while not much use in the woods, are always useful for scale.


My hand inside a black bear track. There’s something very powerful about putting your hands inside the track of a huge animal like a bear. This track was hard to photograph on its own. A vague shape in the moss caught our eyes, but it was putting my fingers inside it that gave me the jolt of identification. My fingers fit so neatly into the impressions of the bear’s toes. The moss was soft on my hand and I could imagine the spring of it under the bear’s feet. Tracking by feel is surprisingly effective in debris like leaf litter and pine needles, especially with a heavy animal like a bear or moose, or one with sharp-edged tracks, like a moose or deer. Also, it’s exhilarating to take in information through non-dominant senses.


Blissfully cool and beautiful water on a blazing, hot August day. Algonquin Park reminds me of why we gave our older son his name, Lachlan: “from the land of lakes”.


We found huge old moose bones half-buried in the ground, just starting to decompose back into the earth. This is the pelvis. I find the pelvic bone strangely beautiful. I can imagine long ago – or not even so long – in a time and place where everything had a use, these bones being used as masks or fulfilling another ceremonial function. They are gracefully but solidly sculptural, and hold the residual power of reproduction and birth. 


Saturday after dinner, we went for a sunset paddle on Lake Sasajewun. The lake was still and the sky clear. It was the night of the August full moon, the “super moon”. My camera never does justice to a photograph of the full moon – oh, I try, believe me!  It never looks anything as spectacular and huge as it does in real life.  But here is the sky to the west instead.  Ohhhh….  We paddled to the north end of the lake, watching beavers and herons, peering into the trees for a glimpse of the moose and bear and wolf we had tracked earlier in the day. As the sky darkened fully, we paddled back south and rafted up in the middle of the lake for a glorious wolf howl. The wolves didn’t howl back… not this time. But they sometimes do.

So many more stories and mysteries from the next day. But I’ll leave it at that. Check out the Earth Tracks blog for more.

Grateful for these wild spaces and the creatures who inhabit them. Grateful that I’ve had the space and support in the past few years to take part in these adventures, and to bring these stories back with me.

Everybody’s lonely

Last year I came across some simple words in a book, quoted from a story the author had read in another book. Pretty far removed from me, right? And yet these words shifted something in me.

The words are spoken to an awkward young girl at a party by a mysterious older man who sees her struggling with self-consciousness and a hunger for belonging: “Everybody’s lonely,” he tells her. And with that, the girl’s view of the world changes.

I came across this story in Joanna Macy’s memoir, Widening Circles. She makes these words into a mantra. In those moments where I am inwardly spiraling too deeply into myself, it’s become my mantra too. 

When I was younger, awkward and pretending not to care, I often couldn’t see outside of myself. Rationally, yes; truly, no. The narcissism of youth. I would get trapped inwardly, unable to see the reality of other people’s lives. Always sure that they had something I was missing.

More recently, if I’m falling into self-doubt, sadness, jealously, fear, or confusion, instead of trapping myself inwardly, I’ve started pulling myself outward. Everybody’s lonely. Once I look out I can see it. The change in perspective is huge.

I’ve started looking for other people’s loneliness, cataloguing it to myself. I think of people I know – those I love easily, those I struggle with – and I tell myself their stories. Every one – even the most accomplished, the most eloquent, the most loved – is missing something that they want, isolated in some way, unsure about something deep inside themselves. It brings out a lot of tenderness in me to see it.

It’s fascinating, in a sense, this universal loneliness. And – dare I say – it’s beautiful, that we all have this in common, if only we can see outside ourselves?


The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part Two)

The first part of this post is The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part One).

Some time last year or the year before, I dipped in and out of a book called Spiritual Ecology: the Cry of the Earth. It was a collection of essays and interviews, and I found it wildly inspiring. One of the pieces was an interview with someone named Sister Miriam MacGillis. I don’t know much about her. But I love what she said:

Typically the religious meanings we hold are still based on our separation from nature – the pursuit of God is equally separated from nature – and so they do not bring us to truly reverence nature. We don’t go out into our backyard and kneel down before the soil and know that we are in the face of sacred mystery.

She went on to say that Western religions, although they have explored the sacred in other realms, have never fully explored the spirituality of the natural world. And then she went on to say – and this is what has stayed with me and what I keep turning around in my mind – that if you see the Universe “as the process by which God created”, then the Universe becomes “a primary sacred scripture.”

Whether my view of God – which is vague and questioning and uncertain – matches hers, doesn’t matter to me right now (one of my only strong views about spirituality has always been the less certainty, the more openness, the better). What I’m holding on to is the idea of the Earth – in all its earthy beauty and messiness – as the primary sacred text. It captured my imagination. It fit beautifully into what I saw emerging for me in my own life. The sacred is here, not out there. Not a new idea – a very ancient one. One that bears revisiting.

I see that our responsibility, as humans, is to pay attention to the Earth with our whole selves: to read, to witness, to trace the connections between one being and another; to study each tree, plant, track, bird, insect; to connect the web of influences. It’s the closest thing to a spiritual creed that I’ve approached in the more than twenty years that I stopped identifying as Catholic, a part of me that lay fallow for most of those years. I’ve so long been cagey on the subject of belief, it’s like opening that proverbial kettle of fish. It’s where I am right now.

I see that part of reading the Earth is learning facts and information. Those are useful; they can be crucial. They are what accumulate from time spent immersed in the natural world, wherever we live. We need to see the details. We need our relationships to be grounded and specific. We need to know, practically, how we can steward the land. We need to know what animals live around us, what plants, what trees; what was here in the past and could be here again. We need to be in relationship. We can’t care for nature unless we know it intimately. We need to actually know what is here.

But I’m also learning that some reading I need to do with my heart. I read the text, but I want to read behind the text. I find that symbols and metaphors bring me into deeper relationships.

I don’t think looking for symbols is naïve or superstitious. Perhaps it can be, if it’s without context. But it can also offer another, very rich, layer of understanding.

Each animal I form a relationship with, each plant and tree, has a story to tell. When I see how they connect to my own story, my relationship with them deepens. If I repeatedly see deer and start to ask and read about what meaning deer could hold, I learn that one of the qualities people have traditionally connected with deer is gentleness. Not pushing, not forcing things. I find this reminder to have a lot of relevance to my life right now. I also see grace, awareness, finely tuned senses, speed, the ability to suddenly change direction. Can I develop these qualities in myself?


I sit with the images I uncover; my intuition pulls me towards the symbolism that has meaning for me. Discovering that meaning becomes part of my relationship with the deer, along with factual knowledge about their tracks, feeding patterns, mating behaviour, habitat. Along with what I know about deer in general and about the particular deer I encounter. Each creature is a mentor.

I’m finding that hearing the stories of the Earth means listening carefully for the metaphors. Being able to hear the stories in a personal way creates personal relationships. When we believe that everything around us has the potential to speak to us, to tell us a story and to become part of our story, we are held in a web of relationships and of responsibility. This is not human-centered narcissism; it’s the most ancient way of connecting to the Earth in all of its intricacy, one which all of our ancestors at one point or another shared.

To open myself up to the possibility of dialogue with everything in the world has been transformative for me. It has helped me fit different parts of my life together that previously seemed disconnected. It has helped me see that each of our stories holds a richness of meaning way beyond the human details of our lives. I has helped me know that I am never alone.

I live half way between two rivers. They are real and specific. They have a history; they are part of a watershed; their health or lack of it is an indicator of the health of their ecosystem; their health foretells our health.

And I live between other rivers, less tangible, and equally full of possibilities.

The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part One)

In the middle of learning to use wordpress, I accidentally deleted this post. A friend was able to recover it for me. I was grateful to have the text back, but I also realized I was relieved at the erasure. I needed more time to sort out what I wanted to say here. I wrote this after my sister asked me whether “these rivers” were real or metaphorical, but I’ve been thinking about if for some time. My husband, who is always my “first reader,” was quite sure that this piece naturally breaks into two parts. So here is Part One, which is far shorter than Part Two.

I live half way between two rivers in Toronto, right inside the former shoreline of an ancient glacial lake. If you were to portage a canoe along Davenport Road from the Humber to the Don River – which would take you about four hours, and which is what the original inhabitants of this land might have done on this very route – you could stop at my house for lunch.

I’ve lived in this area for about fifteen years. First just north of the ancient shoreline, now south.

I like to know these stories of the landscape of the place I live in. It makes me feel part of the pattern, part of the stories that the land around me holds.

Years ago, I studied literature. What I was good at was reading texts closely and finding the hidden patterns: following clues to what wasn’t being said; reading between the lines; intuiting the subtext; tracking the story behind the story.

More recently, in the last three years or so, I’ve been learning about animal tracking, about plants, about the language of birds. I’m not as good at tracking as I was at interpreting human texts; not yet; not by a long shot. It’s an uphill battle in so many ways: I live in a big city; this learning is hard and sometimes feels infinite; my daily life holds many other roles and responsibilities; the world is immersed in pressing problems. How do I even make it fit?

And yet, I’m determined to keep working at it. Something about tracking keeps drawing me in. It feels worth struggling for. Because following tracks and signs of animals across a landscape is the oldest and deepest form of reading. Reading in a way that engages all of the senses and body. Reading in a language beyond the human. Reading which, until recently, was at the heart of human survival.

I want to understand the stories of the world around me. I don’t want to talk about ecology, from a distance. I’m tired of theory, of detachment. I want the story behind the story, straight from the source.

Town mouse, country mouse?

I came home on Monday from a week at my parents’ house. At their house I harvested wild plants; I picked vegetables from their large and tidy vegetable garden; I sat among the cedars; I saw a fox, rabbits, many chipmunks; I saw signs of deer and porcupines; I paddled on a lake; I heard the loons calling; I heard coyotes howling. My children roamed outside on their own. There was lots of space; specific spaces for specific needs – extravagant amounts of it really – both inside and out.

My house is so much smaller than my parents’ house. It’s in a big city. Every room is packed and has multiple functions. My backyard is a fraction of the size of my parents’ backyard, but I cherish it. I keep my vegetable garden tiny so I can reserve a patch of grass for my children to play on. So I can have a path open to get my bike out of the shed. When we want to roam outside, we walk or bike to a park or ravine. Sometimes in the city we see deer, coyotes, muskrats, mink. But not outside our back door. Outside our back door we see squirrels, raccoons, and the occasional, unwelcome Norway rat.

But here, I am surrounded by community. I don’t need a car to get to the places I want to go; my family of four takes up a small footprint of land; my sister lives around the corner; my in-laws are a short bike ride away; my young children can walk to friends’ houses by themselves. My nine-year-old, with great pride, now walks to the library solo. He bikes with me across the city using his own strong legs, never complaining, sometimes singing loudly along the way. In the next few years, his independence will grow. He won’t spend his early teen years dreaming of a driver’s license. The thought probably won’t even occur to him.

I don’t know how to weigh these two ways of living in the balance.  

Until recently, there was no question. For the first fifteen years of living in this city, I mapped its streets with my body, mostly on foot, later by bicycle. I went to the theatre, obscure movies, operas (those made me very sleepy). I scoured through bookstores and thrift shops, went to art exhibits and book launches, walked home at night alone past bustling patios and through quiet residential streets. I knew the storekeepers on my way home from work. I shopped daily, on foot – like a European, I liked to think. When I could, I travelled to Europe, where I was born, and where something always pulled me back. Explored its cities on foot; rode on trains, which took me everywhere, even to the smallest towns; hiked mountains.

Not much of that has changed. But, so much has changed in me. Two children. And, over the past decade an increasing interest in gardening, food, permaculture, gleaning, foraging, naturalist skills. A pull to be grounded, rooted in the Earth, to know the ecology of the place I live in. A call to connect my children to the natural world; to give them unstructured time and free play; to allow them opportunities to take risks and follow their own passions. And to find the same for myself.

My relationship to nature has blossomed. It’s wide open, attentive, alert, increasingly aware. I’m learning about plants, wildcrafting, birds, animal tracking, wilderness skills. I am deeply in love with all of these pursuits. I am deeply in love with the people who pursue these pursuits. I look back at all of the years I walked to school and to work, watching and hearing the seasons change (never with headphones – I couldn’t bear to miss anything); ate lunches outside to escape enclosed offices; hiked and cross-country skied. I see that person was always there in me.

Friends talk about moving out of the city; they dream of farms and large wooded properties, of being off the grid. And yet I continue to love this city. I am, if anything, deeply loyal. But now to my chagrin I drive more regularly. To get out of the city. To find some time in the wild. 

It’s a false dichotomy, really. My parent’s place is not wilderness: it’s outside town; it’s close to a lake. They garden and plant fruit trees, cultivate mushrooms. Most of their neighbours don’t. 

And yet, even if it were more wild, would I trade that for what I have here? Do I need to?

A few weeks ago, I told my husband – once again – that I couldn’t figure out my place, that I would never be a true bushcraft girl, and what was the point of all of this anyway. He scoffed (as only a truly patient, gentle and kind person can scoff): “You don’t need to make yourself into any one kind of person. You don’t need to fit into anyone else’s place. You can love tracking AND love film noir. You can love what you love. This is who you are.”

I keep looking for a pre-existing niche to fill; a clearer map to tell me where to go; a plan. I envy those who KNOW. But each day I can only try to fit the bits and pieces together of my own particular puzzle.

In which I see mentors everywhere

I woke up this morning at my parents’ house to the sound of my older son patiently coaching his younger brother in archery techniques. On the stairs. With a plastic bow and suction arrows. They practiced for at least an hour, standing on a high ledge “cliff” under the living room windows, shooting down at some furs they had placed in the stairwell. Some were fake, some real – probably brought from Poland years ago. Later they fought about the bow, and other things. But it’s the patience that I’ll remember.

Tonight as we ate dinner on the back deck, a red fox trotted across the backyard. I was the only one looking in its direction, but at my urgent whisper everyone turned. The fox sauntered by, looking over at us in that nonchalantly foxy way, as if waiting for someone to take its picture. We didn’t. We didn’t have any phones or cameras at the table. The fox dropped down and rolled over once, then trotted behind the cedars towards the south. My father told us they’d seen a fox already this year, maybe this one, after many years without foxes here. I looked at the kids with wide eyes and open mouth and they returned the expression to me: “Wasn’t that AMAZING? ” I wanted to make sure they would remember.

I took a walk after dinner to find some yarrow to harvest and dry. My father came out and joined me. He showed me where he had planted elderberries this year, where the poison ivy patch has migrated, where the blackberries are going strong. He pointed out his young but thriving bur oaks and sugar maples. “Do you know this one?” he asked. No, I didn’t. “Shagbark hickory.” We looked at the way the leaves grew on the branch and I described it out loud, to remember.

We examined how he had pruned the apple and pear trees. We talked about protecting the plum trees from porcupines. We talked about the rabbits, how in the spring they had made a burrow in the vegetable garden, next to the dill. Did I smell the musky smell of fox pee near the garden? I tried to describe it to my dad.

I showed him yarrow, red clover, catnip, and St. John’s wort growing at the back of the property. He told me the Polish name for St. John’s wort: dziurawiec. “Does it really have holes?” he asked. I showed him the perforations, like little pinpricks, on the leaves.

We walked back towards the house. My mother intercepted us with a basket and a request to pick vegetables. “This is a very good willow basket,” my father commented. He told me his younger brother in Poland had given it to him after he admired it once. My father showed me how well made it was, with the handle coming full circle to the base of the basket in a flat, almost seamless join; how tightly woven the willow was. He told me that his uncle, my great-uncle Jan, when younger had been a skilled basket maker in their village. “So many baskets now aren’t well-made,” he said, “But a good basket is important; it should be able to carry potatoes for fifty years!”


We enlisted Lachlan to help pick the vegetables – zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers – and sent them inside. Malcolm came out with his plastic bow again and said he wanted to practice hunting. I told him he should look for rabbits to sneak up on, like a fox. I reminded him to walk silently and carefully with his bare feet, to use his wide-angle vision to see movement, to be aware of the birds. The rabbits must have picked up on his intentions, because none were to be found. But we snuck around the backyard for a while, shooting the arrows here and there, talking about the fox and how handsome it was.

In the last light, just before bedtime, my father came outside again to play a vigorous chasing game with his grandsons, until they were all ready to collapse.

Mentoring moments. I’m sometimes amazed when they show up so casually in my life: moments of gently directed attention; of patient practice; of shared enthusiasm and play; of connection to the land; of skills invoked and applied across generations. The moments I noticed today could have happened a hundred years ago or a thousand. Not didactic – I wouldn’t call it teaching – but emerging from presence and shared attention.

In the midst of other days that are NOT always like this, I try to imagine a time when all learning was this seamless, this grounded in place and relationship and care. I’ve looked elsewhere for this kind of learning, for myself and for my children, and I have found it elsewhere, with gratitude. I’ve thought and talked a lot about mentoring, about mentoring cultures – out there, not here. But now I see what is right under my nose.

Why is it so hard to see what’s closest to us? I don’t know. But I know that once you see you don’t stop seeing.

I can see mentoring in every relationship my kids have with their grandparents, aunts and uncles; in their relationships with family friends and neighbours; in the way they relate to children older and younger than themselves. I grew up far from my grandparents and extended family; my children’s experiences will be different from mine. Like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Rabbit, they are blessed with “friends and relations” all around.

Like a long row of gift-bearers, each person brings something: something particular; sometimes eccentric; always – with some encouragement – passionately shared. When there is time and space for ages and generations to mix, this organic sharing of knowledge thrives. People have skills I never expected. They have experiences they had never thought to mention. When I look for the gifts people bring – instead the flaws I sometimes used to see – I feel the urgency of cultivating and supporting these relationships. Most people in our culture don’t mentor instinctively – most need to be encouraged. Sometimes I’m overt in my encouragement; sometimes sneaky.

I need mentors just as much as my kids do. And I too have a lot I want to share.

For a while I was captivated by the story of the mentor who comes and tells you what your gifts are, scoops you up and finds a place for you.  That might happen to some people, sometimes. But it hadn’t happened to me, not that clearly and effortlessly.  That led to a lot of sadness. But I see now that more often than not YOU have to find the mentors yourself, maybe because the practice of mentoring has been so broken in our culture.  You have to search for your mentors and identify them and court them and be open to what they have to teach.  You have to let many mentors pass through your life, and you have to make the effort of holding on to some of them. You have to be willing to see the mentors who are right in front of you.  Sometimes you have to gently prod them into revealing what they know. And mostly, you have to be willing to listen.