You, fragmented by love (a poem)

Sometimes you wake at night

and feel the pulsing of love

in your heart.

You sort through your catalogue of love,

the many-coloured samples.

Sometimes you paint love with sweeping brushstrokes

into your dark corners

and it seeps deep down

to the places you thought

you had carefully sealed.

Your work is particular

but not always measured.

You linger, sometimes, over a detail,

something particularly fine;

but sometimes you are so saturated

with love,

it is like water seeping through your barricades,

slipping in and loosening the boards,

and finding its way even between

the cracks,

so that you are slowly pulled apart,

splintered, and then fragmented,

into a dusting of particles, like sand;

and you can no longer gather yourself


into the shape

of what you once were.

On giving birth

A few weeks ago my younger son celebrated his seventh birthday. As when my older son celebrated his tenth birthday a couple of months before that, my thoughts went back to vivid memories of his birth: the sensations of it, the pain, the moments of fear, the resources I found within me to get through that pain and fear, and everything else that I experienced through this physical passage into a transformed life.

I don’t think I sentimentalize being a mother. Until my late twenties I was fairly sure I didn’t want to have children. But at some point I changed my mind. And since pregnancy and birth and mothering are a significant part of my life experiences of the past decade, I find Truth (with a capital T) in those experiences. As you will, if you are paying attention, in whatever transformative experiences your life has given you.

Well before my first child was born I thought of birth every time I worked on a big piece of writing. At that time, that writing was often an academic paper or something that had been assigned to me for work. I told myself each time that writing was like giving birth, that it is hard to see the eventual outcome when you are in the midst of the pain and struggle, but when you are euphorically admiring the finished creation, there is no other way it could have turned out. It is real and it is perfect.

Unlike many other preconceptions I held about parenting, this birth analogy still rings true for me. It is true to my own experience. Birth is chaotic and messy and terrifying and painful, but when it is done, the euphoria of creation surpasses the memory of pain. I had both of my births at home, unmedicated. I include this detail as a fact, because it is an important part of my own experience, not as a judgement on anyone else’s story. Despite preparing through yoga, meditation and hypnobirthing classes; despite the excellent midwifery care that I received; despite the constant physical and emotional support of my husband, both births were chaotic, messy, terrifying and painful. Not because there was anything wrong; because that is simply what birth is.

What was different about giving birth from any other form of creation I’ve participated in were the uncontrollable physical waves that propelled the process. My willpower, my active participation weren’t required for birth to happen: it was happening.

My willpower was required, however, to prevent fear and pain from sabotaging the wild physical energy of creation that was moving through me and had taken control of my body. Sabotaging it through tension, resistance, holding on. Sabotaging the final stages, where I needed to become a more active participant.

Recently, I was thinking about fear; the kind of fear that is not about immediate physical threat, not fear of death, but our constant fears of the “little deaths”: loss of identity, loss of pride, loss of security, loss of self. The kind of fear that sabotages us from taking the risks we need to fully birth ourselves. I thought about moments that I’ve experienced recently – and probably in the past, but at that time I was unable to separate myself enough from them to see this – where my fear of vulnerability, of humiliation, of failure threatened to hold me back from taking necessary risks, from telling the truth to people, from staying fully open to the intense moments that every life, no matter how ordinary, holds.

And I thought suddenly back to a moment – the deciding moment, in a way – in my older son’s birth. Birth comes through several stages: the first where you need to let yourself lose control to the waves that are moving the baby into position, where you need to above all make sure you keep breathing and don’t panic; the second, the moment of transition, where you are exhausted and sure you can’t do it any more, but in fact have moved through the worst of it; the last, where you need to actively push, often just a little, but sometimes a lot, to get that baby through that narrow passageway to the outside of your body. With this birth, I pushed for an unusually long time. I thought I was pushing as hard as I could. I was exhausted, close to depletion.

Finally, one of my lovely but tough-when-they-needed-to-be midwives told me that, despite all the progress that was happening in other ways, if the baby’s head wasn’t fully out within the next half hour, we would need to go to the hospital.

In that moment, the part of me that sometimes surprises me, the warrior part that loves nothing more than being given an ultimatum, said to myself “There is no way I am leaving this room, going down the stairs, getting into a car, and going to the hospital right now.” And then I knew, that what I had thought of as pushing was a poor excuse for what I actually needed to do: push right straight deep into the pain and right through it.

My son was born very quickly after that.

I think a lot recently of one of my favourite lines from David Whyte: “All paths to authenticity lead through the doors of humiliation.” Birth is a humiliating experience. At the end, no matter, how pulled-together and in control you are in the rest of your life, when you give birth – in truth or in metaphor – you are naked, sweating, covered in blood and bodily fluids. You are fully exposed.

Early in my labour in the birth of my second son I thought I was further along that I actually was. I was in a moment of hubris, because I had been practicing hypnosis techniques for birth, and I was sure that this birth would be easy.  I remember thinking in that moment: “But I don’t want to be naked in front of everyone.”  Later, when the real, huge, terrifyingly fast contractions came – in the brief seconds where I was able to breathe in between – I could laugh at myself. When I had to give in to the humility of truly giving birth, being naked and exposed were the last things on my mind. My body was everything, but it was nothing. The experience was huge and wild and overwhelming and messy and so much bigger than my own ego and my own self.

After my first birth, after we were cleaned up, the sheets were changed, the midwives had left, and my exhausted husband and tiny newborn son slept nestled together on our bed, I stayed awake alone, euphoric.

I had passed through a doorway of fear and pain and had come out the other side. “Pain with a purpose,” as my midwives called it. The pain of creation. It was the closest thing to a true rite of passage that I had every experienced. I decided then that I would never be afraid of anything again.

I laugh remembering that promise. I am still afraid of things all of the time, much smaller things than giving birth. But once we set an intention like that, it is impossible to avoid returning to it, to avoid the responsibility of what that kind of promise means.

In truth, I realize that my promise was not about never being afraid. It was about forever holding on to that memory of breathing into the chaos and mess and hugeness of of creation: of life, or art, or of an authentic, integrated self. Pushing through the pain. Moving through the fear. Engaging with humiliation. To get through the doorway to the other side.

Advice to self


You heart tells you what you need.

Ignore the advice,

The words of men in books telling you to carve a separate path.

You are part of a thread,

That stretches into the infinite past,

The infinite future.

Your hands reach out to your ancestors,

To your descendants.

The world is not a battleground,

It is a garden.

It is an organism

Of which you are a necessary cell.

You do not need to cut the joy out of your life

To create.


Last week I skimmed through The War of Art in a bookstore, while in the midst of reading The Buddha’s Wife: The Path of Awakening Together. What a contrast in world-views. In that moment I resented the first (although I will take what I need and leave the rest behind) and was inspired by the second.

How do I create while always in relationship, when I choose not to take the path of shutting the door on the outside world, when I am not prepared to outsource any part of my life, when there are always multiple priorities in front of me?

Always in relationship, always in chaos, always in gratitude, I accept moments of serendipity that open up for me when I need them.

Dancing from the inside

I spent last weekend at a wonderful plant conference/gathering. The conference and all I learned will be a story for another day. One of the highlights of the weekend for me was a dance party Saturday evening. A great band, a group of people I felt very comfortable with, and my own current commitment to get more dancing back into my life – and, in the bigger sense, to throw myself into physical experiences fully, without self-consciousness – meant I was on the dance floor for every song, my energy only growing as the night went on.

A friend who didn’t dance that evening commented later that it was beautiful to watch so many people dancing who were comfortable in their bodies and in their skin. The way she phrased it grabbed me and it stayed on my mind all week. I was grateful to have it pointed out. It brought my awareness to something I had in that moment taken for granted: dancing, I was comfortable with my body and my skin. I was fully inside my body, experiencing music and movement and love for the people all around me.

It seems so simple. But how many years did I spend mostly looking at myself from the outside? How many years have you spent that way? Critiquing photographs and my image in the mirror. Self-conscious; not doing things; not taking the risk. I learned early on that I wasn’t athletic, and for a while I stopped trying new things with my body. I danced – except when I sat out even that – but I often restricted my movements. I danced as if I was being watched.

In my twenties, influenced by Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, and my own restlessness, I started walking for hours; I stumbled into yoga and pushed myself into an increasingly regular yoga practice. I did things that I had never though I could do. That, followed by giving birth and nursing my children brought me into a new alignment with my body. I sometimes became a little giddy with how powerful it felt to be able to do these things, how resilient my body was, how strong. I realized that, completely contradicting what I had believed about myself as a child, I needed a LOT of movement; in truth, my body was always hungry for it.

And then, for a while, restricted by the demands of child care, I didn’t get the amount of movement I needed. I was tired. I got stuck in my head again. I stepped back again, shocked to see from the outside how much I had aged.

I wondered then what it would have been like to age in a time and place where there were no mirrors and no photographs. I thought about what that would mean. I didn’t think I could do away with them altogether. But could I minimize their influence on my self-perception?

Now, in my body at forty, I feel more energy, more vitality than I did in my twenties. I feel a strong core of physical confidence that I didn’t have before. And yet, when I look at myself from the outside – with critical eyes – I am sometimes surprised at the disconnect I feel between inner and outer.

Living from inside my body, instead of perceiving it from the outside, is the only way I can integrate aging. As I get older, must I learn the truth of every cliche? Yes, dance like nobody’s watching. That’s the only way to do it.

And the cultural truth that women become invisible after a certain age? That in-between age, the age of mothers and women busily going about their daily work, between the beauty of youth and the presence of the elder. I wonder now if there is some power in that invisibility. The power of skirting around the edge of things, aware but not always seen. The power to fully embody yourself, for your own pleasure. The power of living life from the inside out.

I am alive; I am healthy and strong; my senses are fully engaged; I am grateful for what my body can do.

Journeys into the soul of the city

The city I’ve lived in for most of twenty years now is a city threaded through by ravines and river valleys.  Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in some of them: walking, biking, exploring, tracking animals, playing games with kids, listening, wading, watching, thinking, grounding myself, writing.

I love that the wildest places in this city are under the level of streets and sidewalks and tall buildings. I love being in the depths of the ravines and not being able to see the city above me. I love going down into this network of rivers, creeks and paths, especially on a quiet summer evening, and feeling a mystery and wildness nestled deep down in the abundant greenness of it.

Other cities have mountains, Toronto has valleys. There’s something about ravines that makes me think of Bill Plotkin’s definition of soul versus spirit in his book Soulcraft. 

By soul I mean the vital, mysterious, and wild core of our individual selves, an essence unique to each person, qualities found in layers of the self much deeper than our personalities. By spirit I mean the single, great, and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all.”

Ravines are to soul what mountains are to spirit. We ascend a mountain and see all around us; see how we are small in relation to the hugeness of the world, and how we are a tiny element connected to the vast mystery around us. At the top of a mountain we move towards transcendence and unity. We descend into a valley and find the wild, secret core of the place we live in and of ourselves; find ourselves on a journey into the recesses of our own heart and soul, strange and particular. We discover our own specific gifts to bring back to the world. We need to descend into soul before we can ascend into spirit.

Last weekend I paddled on the Humber River for the first time in all of the years I’ve lived here. An urban river, contradictory: beautiful and full of life, but also polluted and carrying death. Not the river it once was, before the European settlers came.

On the river on a warm summer morning, the city is hardly visible. There are egrets, herons, kingfishers and lots of water and shore birds all around, basking turtles by the dozen, muskrats swimming; and turning a corner, a still and silent and beautiful buck, watching us with his soft brown eyes. There are cattail marshes and islands, and lots of answers to questions I’ve had about this river and its inhabitants over the years, and lots of new questions and mysteries to engage me.

I’m learning – perhaps later in life than some do – that paddling on rivers has a rightness to it for me, like snowshoeing all day in deep snow, that meets an urgent need in my own soul.  This particular river journey was brief, like and also completely unlike paddling on a wilder river away from the city.  But paddling on a river in a valley that is part of the deep core of this city that I love – despite its flaws – is part of an ongoing conversation between my own core and that of the city, part of an engagement and commitment to grounding myself in the place where I live.

In that way, it brought me closer to the soul of the city and closer to my own soul.


In this city

There are rivers like veins

Buried deep

You can paddle


To the heart of things

To the wild, secret places

Where the deer sleep.


deer on Humber riverturtles on Humber

The language of birds

Recently I spent a weekend at a workshop on bird language led by Jon Young, a deeply inspiring naturalist, tracker, and mentor; and author of What the Robin Knows. The language of birds – I always love the way it sounds, secret and mysterious.

In practice, the format involves covering a piece of land with quiet listeners; each person individually recording the tone of the voices of the birds around them (relaxed song, alarm, companion calls to check in, etc.); bringing it all together in a series of expanding maps of the territory; and slowly watching a story emerge. And then doing it over and over again until you become fluent.

Songbirds comment on everything. They have to. It’s how they survive, and all of the other animals know how to interpret what they’re saying. The language of birds is the language of the forest, the field, the swamp, even of your backyard. Learning to listen in on this is an amazing naturalist skill. You start to anticipate what is going to happen – the hawk swooping in, the bobcat slowly walking through the forest, the erratic movements of the weasel. You know where the predators are. You read the forest as a constantly communicating organism. Seeing people interpret the subtleties of this blows my mind.

I have a long way to go on this. Really a very long way. But I am learning that tuning in to what the birds are saying is a form of meditation. Their constant vulnerability, their constant communication moves me; it teaches me to be present; it teaches me to listen; it teaches me empathy.

Companion Voices

I stood under the trees

Rain dripping

I swayed like a tree myself

Rustled my branches, my leaves

Shifted my weight gently

Rooted myself into that place

If only for a while.

I heard above me the small metallic sound

Of a bird speaking to its mate:

Red throat, white breast, black wings

Its mate a soft brown,

Holding each other

In this voiced embrace.

For a moment, a tiny tanager joined them,

A gift of red and black

My first

Then gone.

The pair persisted

Soft and insistent

Never letting go.

I wondered

How can we speak to those we love

As birds call to their mates, their flock?

This is the trust

Of reciprocity

Its even rhythm

Its intimacy

Its commitment.

This morning the forest voiced interdependence to me

In a pair of birds.


Why I keep choosing my journal over my blog and what I mean to do about it

I suspect that I am underusing this blog. From posting once a week when I started last summer, I’m down to posting once a month. I wait for inspiration; I get through the rest of my to-do list first; I edit things slowly. It takes me up to a week of loitering to post anything after I’ve written it. The process seems full of obstacles, real and imaginary.

And in the meantime – in my real, everyday life – I write copious amounts in my notebook/journal every week. I love writing for myself – it’s like speaking to a dear friend. Unconditional listening with no judgement. Some occasional heartfelt advice. Words of wisdom gleaned from greater writers and thinkers than myself. To-do lists and notes from meetings and conference calls. Intricate doodles from those same long calls. And then moments of poetry. DSC06359

Rereading my journals sustains me through challenging moments – I can step away and recognize my emotions and processes as waves that pass over me, clouds moving across the sky. When I am absorbed in feeling I am often surprised at how differently I felt a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. I start to see the patterns and cycles, and know that this too shall pass.

If I could save one thing in my house from a fire – apart from the people – it would be my stack of notebooks. Even the thought of that loss clenches a knot in my stomach.

A public forum is not a natural fit for me. A deep conversation with a friend or two or three is. But I’m learning that the trick to being a highly relational, sociable introvert – which I am – is to make every relationship  as personal, particular, and intimate as possible, and then gather all of those beloved people together often.

I want to keep stretching myself to share writing with people who are not yet in that safe space with me. Because as I keep telling my kids, as I encourage them into new situations, every dear friend, everyone I now love, was once someone I didn’t know. And I had to take a risk to welcome them into my life. And so I will choose to continue to take those risks both privately and publicly. Because the potential rewards are huge.

But to write anything to public consumption requires me to give myself a big push, every time.

And so perhaps it is time for some quicker sketches. Conversations starters. Experiments. I am inspired by Rozanne’s and Brooke’s 100 Scribbles. I am not committing myself to a daily post right now (perhaps never!) – I’m away from internet contact intermittently at various times of year, and I like it that way. But I will up the volume, and focus on economy of words. Loosen up. Reduce the stakes. Let go of the curse of professionalism. Just create and share something. And so I believe this is the perfect time to experiment with poetry, which I have been doing the past couple of months. Because why write an essay when it’s so often one simple image that I am trying to carve out. I will start with this one.

A map of the world

I learned once in a dream

That the answer is to dance

To dance across the intricate

Patterns of life

Its forms and permutations

Lift off



In my dream

My body caught celebration

Radiated into wholeness

Hummed with the hum of the spinning universe

Every creature, every tree and plant and micro-organism

Was mapped

Under the loving rhythms of my feet.