Blessed unrest

Every once in a while I come across a quote – in a book I’m reading, online, or somewhere else – that I sit with and ruminate over for days or weeks. That keeps coming back into my consciousness as a key to a puzzle.

Words come into my focus sometimes just when I need them, when I am wondering why I am feeling at odds with the world. As did these glorious words from Martha Graham:

Keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.

As I move more of my own processes into the light, it’s hard sometimes not to get overwhelmed by other people’s advice. Just to listen and hear what is right for me and what isn’t, to glean the bits of truth for my own life and leave the rest behind for someone else who might need it.

I tried recently to write a post about homeschooling, about the why and how of it, and I bored myself so much that I needed to discard it. So perhaps I will not be writing to instruct. What I’m happiest with is a mixture of observation and magic, some beauty and some shadow, looking at the world slightly askew.

I’ve been trying in the past few months to untangle some of the threads in my life, to give each thing that I love its due. There is some struggle in this untangling and maybe that’s what’s visible from the outside. How can I explain that when I struggle it’s from a place of deep gratitude for the bones of my life? It’s that blessed unrest, always moving me towards an ideal, an ideal of presence, which is not really an ideal of being but of becoming.

But to be present to any moment also means being present to the shifts that are happening: the storms, the shadows. How can it ever be otherwise? When we say out loud, “this isn’t working any more,” our observation changes something, inside or outside. Naming creates space for change.

I love that this unrest has led to some potent family conversations. We’re working together to articulate our common goals, our common vision. I love this digging. I love the storm that carves out the open place. I don’t always love the storm itself, but I love that it makes things happen.

I’ve made some practical changes over the last few weeks. In retrospect they seem obvious, but I’m learning that nothing is obvious until it is named. I’ve separated out specific lesson/work/focused time with the kids, and am holding firm in not allowing anything to intrude on those hours. I’ve also set clearer work times for myself, refusing to let the brief hours when I’m alone slip away from me. I’m setting boundaries around tasks, boundaries of time and attention, not allowing my impulse towards formlessness and permeability to consume all the pockets of time that actually are available. I’m telling more people what I need. I’m saying no, even sometimes to myself (this one’s the hardest). I’m recalibrating. I’m renegotiating. I’m taking each piece seriously: trying to move out of my eternal mode of messily cramming everything together, into a steady and gradual rhythm where there is time and space for everything. A steady pace like walking, step by step.

When I am overwhelmed by the noise of the world around me, and sometimes the noise within, it helps me also to return to this quote from Pema Chödrön:

The basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept – what opens up your world – and what to reject – what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery.

This is what I need to remember when I find myself wanting to explain, to justify, to apologize. I despair sometimes at my need to be understood. But maybe understanding isn’t even necessary. Maybe it’s only necessary to love what you love, to feel it in your blood, to commit yourself to following through.


The coldest month

I have to remind myself that in January no matter what I’m doing I wish I were doing something else. Is there any way to make January easier? Or is it a matter of pulling through the cold and darkness, the lack of motivation, that feeling of what’s the point? January comes every year, and every year it passes. The days will get longer. The light is returning. Slowly, week by week the cold will pass.

I’ve been getting out for a walk by myself every day this week, sometimes twice. These days of windchills in the -20s and no snow are the bleakest of winter days. But I need to be out, to walk. It’s one of the consistent threads in my life, something that I fall back on when I need to figure things out (when do I ever not need to figure things out?). Walking and reading and writing are the bones of my life.

The cold doesn’t bother me once I’m out. And even on a grey morning like today, when the garbage bins are cluttering the sidewalks, and it’s hard to see the beauty of anything at all, there are the stark silhouettes of trees, frost patterns on windows, bare skeletons of tall plants with deep roots stretching down underground.

This week I walked with a full moon one evening, clouds moving across the sky, a surprisingly slim raccoon trotting on the sidewalk opposite, keeping pace. That squeaky crunch of the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk under my boots. The pain of the wind against the bones of my face, carving me out.

I’m trying to use the time that I have efficiently, but I’m slow. I’d rather be reading a novel, curled up under a blanket with a cup of tea, soaking in a hot bath, sleeping. One of my deep fears about myself is of my innate laziness. How much of what I do is to fight against that fear?

But winter is the time for dreaming. I hardly remember more than the haze of my dreams, but each morning I wake up from another life: sprawling many-chambered buildings, dark hallways, underground passages. In my dreams, I’m passing through hotels, wandering through forests, trying to get somewhere that I can never seem to reach. And people, so many people: coming and going, talking, embracing, falling in love again and again. Like an enchantment.

There is the ordinariness of everything that January makes stark. You either learn to love it, savour that there is such a life, that you’re alive and able to feel everything that you feel. You put your hand on your child’s small chest and feel the heart beating there steadily, and marvel at how this is possible. Or perhaps you try to escape, try to find somewhere else to go that is brighter, newer, more surprising, more enchanted. But, as you know, you’re still there, wherever you are. Wandering or staying – it’s those same dark hallways and underground passages in your dreams. You always come back to yourself.

There’s a fairy tale I’ve read to the kids many times, about a princess who rebels against her father and goes out into the woods on the night of the full moon. She meets a handsome knight enchanted by the Queen of the Elves; she dances with him all night, and in the morning returns home. Month after month she lives for the full moon nights and in her daily life she fades, withers, loses all interest, is almost lost to Life. But one night, she meets an old woman who tells her how to free her prince and herself from the enchantment. The woman tells her to hold on to him, no matter what happens, no matter what form the Elf Queen gives him. So she does: he turns into ice, a clawing bear, a snake, a fire, and she runs to the lake and dips him in the water. And she’s held on long enough, it’s dawn, the Queen of the Elves has lost both of them. They return home and live happily in their ordinary non-enchanted life, inside a fairy tale nonetheless.

I love fairy tales. They’re so much more true than facts sometimes. What is this story about, I wonder, why does it entrance me so with the ring of a deep truth? When I read this to my kids, I think of all the adult possibilities: obsession, addiction, delusion, depression, mental illness. I keep coming back to it, pulled into the shadowy realms of its enchantment myself.

I wonder often, as a person who has vivid daydreams that sometimes feel like visions, what is the difference between vision and delusion? Where is the line?

What is the Elf Queen enchanting me into, you into? When do you hold on and when do you let go? What brings you closer to Life and what drains it out of you? How do you hold on to magic, to dreams without being consumed by them? Are these questions about fairy tales or life? I don’t know for certain.

About a year ago I sat in a café, briefly, while my kids were in a class; I sat and read a book that made my mind spin with wonder; I wrote in my notebook, drank a cup of tea. I looked up and saw myself five years ago, ten, twenty, sitting in cafés, reading, writing, drinking hot tea. My selves met and embraced; we saw and recognized and understood each other. It was a moment of homecoming. And then I walked out into the cold again.