Stalking hope; small-scale visions; and stepping on and off the path

After the American election last November, in the bleakness of the weeks that followed, I found myself making tiny collages and drawings for myself and to send to friends. Three of us started a small reciprocal putting-things-in-the-mail project of assigning words to each other – courage, tenderness, delight, solace, trepidation, audacity – to illustrate on a tiny and highly intimate scale. We mailed them back and forth for months. Something about the miniature acts of creation centered me, kept my hands busy, kept my mind healthy, perhaps reminded me that small gestures can have large meaning, especially when they weave relationships together, especially when they keep us afloat in a storm.

More recently, I’ve become infatuated with poetry: reading it, writing it, reading about writing it. There is something about conciseness, an oblique perspective, and the need to speak through image instead of argument that is compelling to me. It feels like a particular kind of magic that I want to draw towards myself, that I want to take in and also to birth. It’s no less work than writing an essay, but it’s a very different kind of work. It’s a work of compression rather than expansion. It is a form of translation: of the language of the heart into the language of the intellect and then back again. It is also, for me, a small stone tossed into the enormous pool of human words, confessions, arguments, and opinions, a gesture that often feels more natural to my way of being than further filling up the pool itself. As Denise Levertov wrote, poetry is a way to “awaken the sleepers by means other than shock.” Or, as Jane Hirshfield so brilliantly puts it:

Not for poetry the head-on meeting of inquiry and object found in the essay, the debate, or the letter to the editor. A poem circles its content, calls to it from afar, looks for the hidden, tangential approach, the truth that grows apparent only by means of exile’s wanderings, cunning’s imagination, and a wide-cast, attentive silence. Poems do not make appointment with their subjects – they stalk them, keeping their distance, looking slightly off to one side. And when at last the leap comes, it is most often also from the side, the rear, an overhead perch, from some word-blind woven of brush or shadow or fire.

I think about this often, the large and the small, the direct and the tangential. I think about the idea, one I’ve heard proclaimed by several people as a personal vision, that we should each aim to make the biggest difference to the largest number of people possible. I can’t really argue with this goal, but the first time I heard it, I felt my heart sink. Clearly, as a mother with small children – albeit now larger – whom I had decided to homeschool  for an undetermined length of time, I had abdicated this kind of heroic vision for myself. My influence might arguably go deep, I thought, but it would not be cast wide.

As a voracious reader and follower of internal tangents, I recently became absorbed in reading fairy tales, fascinating maps of human development and age-old troves of insight. One thing I was reminded of – which in youth would have made me want to scream, but in early middle-age I find highly reassuring – is how often the individual path to heroic goals leads through a lot of very minute tasks: the separating of poppy seeds from sand, the plucking of a tail feather from every bird in the world. Or sometimes a commitment to years of repetitive work required in order to move on to the next stage of the journey. The heroic journey rarely looks heroic in the middle of things. It is ordinary, repetitive, slow: very much about showing up and doing the work, very much about patience.

And the repetitive tasks themselves, of course, can only be accomplished with help. Beware anyone on the heroic path who turns aside from the smallest request from the smallest creature – the ant, the bee, the bird, the fish. In the fairy tale world, stepping off the path to help is always the right choice. Without the turn off the path to answer the call for help, without the reciprocal relationships that are birthed from generosity, the impossible tasks encountered later on the path would remain impossible. The heroic journey so often emerges out of making a difference to one small creature at a time. It’s the reciprocity, the collaboration formed in those small connections, that makes room for creative and intuitive shortcuts that unlock the gates of the most impossible tasks.

I think about this when I attempt to be single-minded. “I’m going to be a writer. Seriously,” I say to myself, and so I cut down on outside commitments, I attempt to keep my focus, I disengage a little from the world. And I do increasingly believe that to be of service in the world comes not out of being always available to outside requests nor out of other people’s sometimes limited definitions of one’s abilities, but from a place of discernment deep within that knows what ignites us and what delights us and what is our own particular gift to share. In other words, good boundaries, clarity of vision, and abundant self-knowledge. And what is separating poppy seeds from sand all about if not discernment?

That doesn’t, however, account for the ongoing moral need to keep stepping off the path. Stepping off the path to stay engaged with what is needed in the wider world. Engaged and alert and responsive, but not obsessed, not so overwhelmed that we forget our path entirely. And yet stepping off the path is a crucial part of the story; without it the story would have no heart. Stepping off the path is in the end what makes the necessary discernment possible. It’s what brings us into the interdependence that will make the story whole, that will make us whole, that maybe – maybe – will make the world whole.

What I see for myself as I chew over these questions is the need to take things step by step, to start with what and who is nearest to me and let those actions ripple outwards. I don’t believe that it is always easiest to be kind to those who are closest to you, to those who share your DNA, your home, your table, your neighbourhood. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing. And that small-scale kindness, if it is maintained with intention, context, and an outward eye into the world and its needs, has its impact. Compassion ripples outward.

There’s a balance that I am constantly looking for between the shouting of the online world, which I sometimes mistake for a required form of civic engagement, and withdrawal from it. Some balance which uses the tools of modern life in ways that are generative and meaningful. Some balance that allows me to continue to speak in my own elliptical voice with its own particular clarity, instead of requiring me to adopt the linear language of argument. Some balance that focuses on the good and the beautiful, but is not afraid to look the shadows of hate in the face and call them out by name. Some balance which attempts to locate itself in small, real-life encounters and relationships, in small-scale acts of creation, in loving gestures, in patience, in intentional conversations with strangers, in being available to friends and neighbours, in being deeply at home in the more-than-human world. In sum, in that foundational element of life which is mostly about showing up, wherever and whoever you are.

Our culture sometimes tries to tell us that only large gestures have meaning, that only large voices can be heard. This is a fallacy of individualism, but so is the idea that small gestures that we undertake divorced from context, community, and systemic change can make a difference in a world that is at its core all about interdependence. Small-scale gestures in relationship, repeated, multiplied, passed on, rippling outward, set down the stitches and repair the tears so that larger tapestries of healthy communities and cultures can emerge.

Perhaps it also helps to take an ecosystem view: what have we learned about the cascade effect of taking any element out of the system, out of the complex web of relationships that is tightly and perfectly woven, each piece depending on all of the others? I remind myself that whatever my small piece is – and humans have so much more trouble inhabiting this than other creatures – I need to root myself in it. That small piece is, in some way, absolutely necessary to the whole.

I insist on radical hope in myself, even when in my Eastern European moments of fatalism I wonder how long this can all last, everything our culture takes for granted. I try not to take any of it for granted. I try to be absolutely clear with myself where the privilege is in my life, where the gifts, what I need to heal to keep the ripples moving outward in ways that are generative and healthy to myself and others. The piece I hold is not too small; the piece you hold is not too small. But let’s keep connecting them. We need to keep trusting each other to love the world and everything in it, and to keep doing the things that need to be done, with discernment and generosity, courage and tenderness. That is the most and the least we can do.

 

word cards

Images by Malgosia Halliop, Camille Glodeck, Heather Wheldrake. Photo by Camille Glodeck.

 

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Photo by Camille Glodeck

Instructions for loving the place you live in

(A guided meditation, a love letter, a poem. Imagine it spoken out loud.)

First, stop, close your eyes, and listen. You may be tempted to open your eyes, but you will hear more that is true if you first keep them closed. Breathe into your heart, your belly, all the way down to your feet. Stand still. Let the waves of sound crash over your head: the hum of traffic, the roar of airplanes thousands of miles above you, the shrieks of laughter, the sirens, your neighbours shouting, sparrows singing, small children’s tears. Keep listening. To love a place you must listen beneath what it pretends to be, listen to what hurts it and what makes it most alive.

Open your eyes slowly. Keep your ears open: to the whispered greeting beneath the noise and bluster, the first sigh of recognition, the soft hello.

To love a place, start walking. You can’t fall in love in a hurry, closed up in steel and glass, shutting out the seasons, blocking out what’s real. Each step is an offering of your presence, a necessary courtship, an invitation to a dance. Under your feet your aliveness meets the streets, it meets the skin underneath the rigid garments, it coaxes and teases and lays down your tracks. This isn’t possession, it’s a rite of celebration, a deep soul connection, a blessing. It’s your way to see and be seen.

To love a place, explore with slow urgency. This is not haste, it’s a courtship of delight. What will you find in the alleyways, between the spreading trees, in the unkempt fields of goldenrod and asters, deep down in the ravines, by the river’s edge? Don’t be afraid to open your senses – what you discover may enchant or alarm you: the rough bark of maples, the smell of the porous earth after a storm, bold green plants pushing through the sidewalk, trees heavy with fruit ripe for your picking, hawks wheeling wide above high-rises, rabbit tracks stretched out beside train tracks, nestlings cast cold to the ground by heavy rain, piles of cigarette butts and indestructible coffee cups, the stench and rot of last week’s compost spilled out by raccoons. It’s all real; it’s all true: both the pain and the beauty. You’re not perfect either.

To love a place, don’t distain, don’t turn up your nose, don’t turn away, don’t let others shame or disparage. You need to keep coming back. Listen to its stories, tend to its wounds, be mindful of its past, be kind. You can be a healer, a caretaker, a lover, a friend.

To love a place, you must keep showing up. You must map your joys and griefs slowly over its surface and its depths; you must weave through its wide and narrow spaces your own bittersweet life. If you are patient, the place you love will one day shake off its shyness. It will look you in the eye and share its secrets. It will pull back its hair, uncover its shoulders, uncross its arms and legs, let you in everywhere.

I tell you, I promise you: the place you love will love you back.

ravine

 

 

Opening (a poem)

The clouds are threadbare today,
like a white shirt worn thin
with many washings. I see
the rumour of blue underneath,
a bright gap, an opening.

I wish I could tear away the edges,
ease them open with my fingers,
pull apart the thin strips of fibers
no longer needed.

I think I could slip the clouds
from your eyes too,
strip off your outworn garments,
unveil the bright clearing of your heart,
if you’d let me.

Pulling out a few more of these daily pieces from the past month-and-a-bit. This one is – no surprise – in response to the word prompt “opening.”

 

 

Weather (a poem)

I said to a friend once:
May is the one month no-one complains about the weather.
I too expected days of sunshine, cherry blossoms,
and eternal spring,
chastising the gods and my heart for not conforming.
When did I learn that I could no more set my soul to a perpetual May
than I could stay the seasons?
Now I give thanks for summer heat, ice-crusted trees, and dark Novembers,
for the wild wind howling, for the cold rains of spring, for snow.
I give thanks for it all,
and too for the clouds that scuttle across my own heart’s skies
and for the fierce heat that burns me, and the night-time tears,
and for those first few warm rays of spring sun upon my face,
and for the silent peace that comes after the storm.

From the word prompt “weather.”  Sticking with the poetry kick.

 

The web (a poem)

I lie awake at night,
spinning webs around people I love.
Each is a delicate construction
that requires all my heart.
I walk around my web in spirals, repair torn bits,
mend threads that have frayed. Many people
are relieved to be caught. Some
are spinning their own webs around me,
and I can rest for a while. Others thrash about,
tear the silk threads, fly away indefinitely.
I have learned that they will usually return
in their own time, once the first threads between us
have been laid.
I have frequently torn the web myself
(sometimes still do),
as I practice my skill as a weaver.
I am learning how to spin the threads
soft enough that they are barely felt,
but strong enough that they last forever.
The art is in making the web
invisible, felt only as a soft tug in the body,
one which gently, firmly, inevitably
pulls us together.

I have a small backlog of short pieces from the past month, a few of which I’d like to post. This is from today’s word in 100 Words: the Beauty of Brevity, “frequently.” I was woken up earlier than usual by a loud blue jay, looked at my phone on the way to the bathroom, saw this day’s prompt, and got back into bed for an hour, starting this poem in my head while half asleep.

Waiting (a poem)

I’ve been thinking about the “work in progress” feel I have towards poetry lately.  I think it’s like this: for a long time poetry and I had a fairly casual relationship. There was an easy companionship between us. The words came easily. Recently,  I think I’ve fallen in love with poetry in a bigger way, and when you fall in love, sometimes a self-consciousness develops. You seem to have too many limbs, and you’re convinced that your words are coming out all wrong, and you start comparing yourself to other people. So there’s that. This summer I’m also writing daily around word prompts instigated by someone else. And thus even more so, everything feels like an experiment: fluid, unfinished, like a puzzle, sometimes awkward, but also exciting. How do I use today’s random word as a jumping off point to understand my own voice? How do I turn this into something I want to write about? How do I unselfconsciously try things out that are new to me? And then there’s the question of whether to share things when they feel so provisional. But the truth is right now I want all poetry all the time. This is from the word “waiting.”

Waiting

The wistfulness of late summer
arrives earlier each year.
This year it came when the spring’s first shoots
rose up above the ground.
Later, you knew, there would be rain and sun,
and the wild riot of blooming,
then flowers fading, grass withering, leaves turning.

What you had waited for each day in winter,
the tightness of your body aching to release its tension,
would barely start before it ended:
you, a spring uncoiled in
summer’s high dive under the approving sky,
the lake’s blue eyes ringed with tall sweeping pines,
smiling at your graceful prowess.

Too soon the lake cloud-lidded,
the sun again turning its face from you,
now basking its love upon the leaves,
inflaming them, and then too, in fickleness,
discarding both you and the leaves,
now older and more over-ripe
with knowing than you once were.

And you retreat.
Sit quiet by your small fire, waiting,
curl back into yourself again, lovelorn,
aching again with a pained hope
– each year aching with your pained hope –
that the sun will turn its fierce and tender gaze to you once more,
next spring.