Bruise: words in brief

I wonder if what sets the artist apart is a fascination with bruises, prodding at them to test their tenderness, obsessively studying the colours of impact blooming on sensitive skin. I once watched an interview with Louise Bourgeois in which she traces decades of fertile art practice to the pain of discovering her father’s infidelity as a small child. Again and again she re-creates the moment of revelation, the shattering of her world. There is not much of a story in letting go. Narrative survives through obsession, through ever fingering the same moments, the same questions, the same wounds, like beach-worn pebbles, made unnaturally beautiful by constant handling. Art is a forest of meaning grown from the smallest seed of experience. The skill is in the tending, in knowing how to be both gardener and garden, in knowing how and when and how much to share the yield.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: bruise.

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

Drawing from nature: on seeing, recording, and reclaiming

DSC06925I am feeling grateful and excited recently to have resumed a semi-regular drawing practice. When I was a child, art was the thing that I did. Art and reading. Writing came much later, and writing was for a long time functional and obligatory – I wrote because it was something that had to be done, for school, for work, and sometimes for myself. I was a “good writer” and so I was asked to write and I wrote; and as I wrote, I learned to love writing.

My personal writing in my teens and twenties was sporadic and unsatisfying. I would start a new journal, write in it for a while, lose patience with the self that emerged in my writing, and discard the notebook. Simply put it away in a closet. And then a year or two later I would find a new notebook, the beautiful blankness of which would lure me into trying again.

It was only in my early thirties, when I was working on an education degree, that I started to recognize that the self who I recorded in my journals was incomplete. I had the epiphany that I should stop separating out personal writing from all the other parts of my life. Personal reflection, class and workshop and meeting notes, outlines for papers and presentations, quotes that inspired me – all went into the same notebook. It would be my “everything book.” This was the only way I could integrate. It was what worked for me. It meant that I would no longer lend out my notes to classmates, that I was more conscious of where my notebook was when I was out in the world, but it also meant that there were useful things in it that I wasn’t prepared to discard, so I pushed on. I didn’t hide the parts of myself that I didn’t like. I allowed all of me to stay in one place, and kept on writing.

DSC06928It seems strange now, having for the past eight years or so developed a more and more regular writing practice, to think back on a time when I would journal once or twice a year, in times of extreme emotion. Now I watch my notebooks pile up. I remember the first time I filled one in six months, I was pleased. Then in four months. Now I’m down to two. I wonder what I was doing all of those years that I wasn’t writing, how I managed to process and observe and spill out everything that needed to be spilled, record everything that needed to be recorded.

I wonder when something moves from a sporadic choice to an indispensable and life-sustaining habit. Where is the tipping point?

When I was a child and into my mid teens, I spent a lot of time drawing. It’s not that I ever fully stopped, and there was no-one who forbade me to further pursue art, but there was a point in my late teens when there was a rueful sense that it was not something that had a future. My family were all scientists, practicality was valued over creativity and risk, and there wasn’t a mentor, in that particular moment, who could have pulled me through that disconnection between the things I loved and what the world seemed to demand of me. It is something I often wonder about, how that happened, why I agreed to it, what would have been different if I hadn’t. Whether I was also in part afraid of being seen, of creating work that would have to be shared, which would force me to emerge from a protective armour that I was then diligently constructing. Whether I was afraid of making mistakes, of not being able to compete in the way I felt I was required to. All of that.

DSC06926I don’t want to linger on the reasons and regrets right now. Looking at the past or the future, of course, creates a heavy burden of meaning on something that I simply enjoy. Something that focuses my awareness and attention, takes me out of the discursive realm and into the parts of my brain that aren’t constantly needing to explain themselves with words. Something that brings me joy in the moment. And that helps me observe and integrate things that I want to be more present with, that I want to see more clearly.

My sporadic sketchbooks over the years were like my sporadic written notebooks – a burst of enthusiasm and then frustration and rejection. And maybe years later, trying again. And so now that I am keeping everything in place, not ripping out pages or putting my writing or art into dark boxes and closets, what happens? Where do I go next? Can I sustain this?

In the past couple of years, because of the naturalist learning I have been doing, I found myself drawing more often again: plants, animals, tracks. It was a place of integration for me, to find a way to use my attention and record something that I could look back at, both for learning and pleasure. A way for my eye and heart to take in and savour the details that I might otherwise pass by.

I saw this quote from Thoreau written on a wall the other day: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

DSC06927Recently, I have found myself taking some classes with a wildlife artist, and have found a friend to meet for regular drawing sessions of animal specimens at the local museum. And the past couple of months, I have been drawing/painting/collaging something for inspiration every day. I’m finding this very satisfying right now. And I don’t know where it’s going, if it’s going anywhere at all. I am staying present to following the threads, watching them weave together to see what continues to emerge.

Do we all have those secret childhood passions? Who puts them aside and who doesn’t?  How do we make sure our children hold on to theirs? Why does it sometimes feel harder and riskier to reclaim the deepest, oldest passions? And how long do we need to beat ourselves up about the things we loved and left behind before we can simply put those regrets aside and start doing all the things we love, day by day, even if only in the spare moments?

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I am not finding this free wordpress format super satisfying for placing photos in the way I want.  Apologies for the slight clunkiness of the formatting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six intentions for 2016

This is a time for setting and sharing intentions for the year, and I’ve got some that have been brewing that I want to put down in writing. Not for the sake of strictly adhering to them, but so I can look back a year from now with curiosity about where my path has led: my inner path as much, if not more, than my outer path.

Intentions are in no way resolutions; they are not even goals that are measurable, or timely, or particularly specific. I think of them as shifts in perspective, in attention, that allow us a frame of reference to steer ourselves towards. Or simply to keep with us in the back of our minds as we follow the current of life.

I think it is something like I learned when I was taking driving lessons more than two decades ago: “Eyes before wheels.” Whether you plan it or not, the direction that your attention is set is the direction that your body will steer towards, the direction that your vehicle will move into.

Intentions are so much the opposite of the kinds of goals we are normally told to make, but I love them. They fit me much better. They help me ask the intimate and big-picture questions: what do I want my life to look like? How do I want to feel within this life? What do I want to spend my time doing each day to feel this way as much as I can? I’m not interested in this context in imposing end results on my intentions, or in stating concrete goals out loud – instead, I want to focus on the processes I need to put in place in my daily life to feel grounded, engaged, and connected.

This year, I want to make more internal commitments, fewer external ones. And set up loose agreements with core anchoring people, who can help keep me accountable to those commitments. Not only because I need a bit of outside help to keep me accountable, but also because of my ongoing tension between introversion and extroversion. Between needing a lot of time within my own inner world, and also regular opportunities for processing and dialogue and collaboration and voicing.

I commit to continuing to work on creating good daily and weekly habits for myself and my family, better internal structures and rhythms that eliminate time wasted and small daily decisions, so that there is more room for creativity and freedom within the time that is open.

I commit to refocusing more of my attention this year to tending my home: de-cluttering, reconfiguring, repainting, tending the garden. I like homes to be very personal – fully of books, pictures, projects. And as a family that homeschools and does many daily hands-on things in a small space, minimalism is not even a goal. But my attention has been on so many external things the past few years, and I have spend so many weekends away from home, that I have much less of a handle on the objects and spaces within my home than I would like to. My children are older; we have been homeschooling for a few years now; we have different goals for the spaces in our house than we once did; and our house is feeling small. This is a big project that will take many hours of sorting and many months to reach any sort of completion.

I commit to making more space in my life for creativity. For writing and art and making beautiful things, for producing instead of consuming. For all of those things that so much defined who I was as a child that didn’t always make the cut as I navigated becoming an adult and then becoming a parent. This year, I want to choose creative practice over external commitments, both alone and with my family, and integrate these into other areas of my life. I want to inspire my family to do the same. As my kids get older, it is easier and easier to integrate my own projects into our weekly homeschooling rhythms.

I commit myself to regular movement, the kind of movement I need to nourish my body and bring my soul into presence. In recent months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to grounding myself, and have been recognizing how much that entails living fully in my body and bringing every physical and emotional sensation back to my body. Really deeply listening to what it tells me. Scanning where things are stuck and where they are hurting, and bringing love and compassion to those places, so that I can move out into the world with more ease.

And so, I want more room for movement that is intentional, disciplined and strong; but also movement that is celebratory, playful and sensuous. Not movement that feels like pushing (although cycling and walking will never drop off the radar!), but movement that feels like listening. In practical terms this means more yoga and more dancing. And specifically, right now it means Iyengar yoga, which with all of its props and meticulousness drove me crazy when I was engaged in a more vigorous yoga practice in my twenties, but now is exactly what my body needs. And it means any dancing that is ecstatic and unstructured enough to allow full self-expression. Two completely different manifestations of the need for deep listening to my body, and for the embodied practice that comes out of it.

I commit to honouring and celebrating more fully the relationships with the women in my life. Those reciprocal relationships that sustain me, that allow me both to cry and to comfort, that allow me to be fully honest about my shadows and processes, that are both gentle and powerful, that inspire and nurture me and hold me accountable. I want to integrate my love of feminine archetypes with feminist action. And again that means listening to inner knowledge and inner authority and being truthful about my needs and boundaries. It means speaking when it is time to speak and acting when it is time to act, but also waiting when it is time to wait.

I commit to more nature time alone and with my family and friends. This means fewer structured programs, and more personal application of skills and knowledge learned over the past few years. I want more family adventures, more family exploration, more family trips; more spontaneous camping and evenings around fires with my dearest friends; more long walks with my husband whenever and wherever we can manage it. I want more solo time in the wild, both days and overnights. This all means being creative on a limited budget; and celebrating the resources of flexibility and freedom that we have instead.

Yesterday, I convinced my husband to hang out all afternoon cutting up magazines and making vision board-type collages. I was curious about what would come out of it. I approached mine in an intuitive way, choosing images and words that spoke to what I want to focus my energy on right now. It will remind me of things I want to keep my eyes and heart on this year. I also love the one my husband made, and I am curious to see how he recalibrates his life to keep this vision in mind.

It’s time to fully integrate the things I’ve learned over the past half-decade of my life. Time to bring them home. Time to celebrate where I am right now.

I want the calligraphied quote – another by Thich Nhat Hanh – which I stuck prominently in my collage, to remind me of this every day: “I have arrived. I am home.”

 

Wandering

I’m doing it again: losing track of time. It’s been a month since I posted, despite my more-than-daily writing for myself, despite waking up and writing first thing every morning, despite never going anywhere without a notebook. I am in awe of people who share their writing regularly, weekly, daily, but I don’t think that is where I’m heading.

There is an ever-shifting balance that I am noting in my life between being accountable and being accepting of my own patterns and needs. Between setting goals and moving towards them, and living fully in the sensory and emotional experiences of my daily life. Between recognizing the truth that showing up and doing the work is what creates the road to move forward on, and constantly being tempted to go off-trail and explore the woods all around and simply forgetting about the road altogether in the joy of wandering.

This fall there was a lot of (figurative) wandering. I finished up a second-year plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks  – the fourth year in which I have been learning and working with this organization – and spent a weekend wrapping up by making salves, balms, tinctures, teas and other goodies with our group. I made some beautiful snowshoe moccasins in a weekend workshop with Lure of the North, which I am planning to use on future winter tracking adventures. I participated in a peacemaking workshop in Peterborough with some amazing people, and absorbed tools and stories which I am using in my family and community. I did some bird drawing classes with Alan Li and remembered once again how drawing something is such a beautiful form of close attention. I knit myself another sweater, a red one.

I cleared as much space as I could to simply be and to delve into some inner patterns and habits. I spent lots of time alone. I read and wrote and walked. I had many hours of conversation with friends, around fires, in cars, on the phone, on walks, drinking tea, drinking wine.

I made a personal altar in my home as a space for grounding and meditation. I claimed a work area, a “room of my own”, and piled it high with my books and notebooks and pictures, my sewing machine, my yarns and fabrics, my sketchbooks: the essentials. Then I started clearing away the clutter, editing the rest of my house and my life.

(But not excessively, because my life is full of small beautiful things that I love, both tangible and intangible.)

Most of all, I stayed present in my daily life. The kids and I spent way more time actually at home than we have in the past few years of homeschooling, more time sitting at the dining room table doing focused work – writing, math – more time drawing and making art, more time working on random projects, more time writing letters and drawing pictures to send to friends, more time having those enlightening and entertaining conversations one has with kids. Also more time walking and biking around our urban neighbourhood.

Our rhythms are slow, and right now everyone seems the happier for it.  I’m aiming for a quiet winter, a pause, time for integration.

Last spring I broke down at a weekend gathering about “all the things I need to work on.” Looking back, I see that the thing I most needed to work on was letting go of that critical voice that told me I was never doing enough, that there was always an external standard that I was failing to meet. And by extension, that other people often weren’t meeting this standard either. I’m seeing the truth that the more patience and compassion I have for myself, the more I have for others.

Since the summer I’ve started to get up early to journal and write down my dreams. It’s the first morning practice ever that I’ve held fast to and know that I will continue. Yoga, meditation, exercise, morning walks – none of those things can consistently drag me out of bed before my family on a cold winter morning. Writing can. Because it feels like a gift; because it feels like play; because it feels like my soul is being listened to in the most beautiful way; because it feels like how I want to spend every morning of my life. That’s what matters.

Assembling the pieces of a life

These days, when people ask me what I do, I stumble through an answer.

“Well… right now I homeschool my kids… and for the past five years I’ve been working intensely on learning naturalist skills… and I’m involved in community-building and mentoring… and sometimes organizing events… and I write a lot… although, you know, mostly a blog.  And I feel very busy, all of the time.” It never comes out smoothly.

Recently, I was thrilled when a friend referred to me in a group as a naturalist. I was equally happy – and surprised – when another friend, in response to my comment that before my mid-teens I would have identified myself as an artist, replied, “I still think of you as an artist.”

I reported these two conversations to a third friend, who asked “Well, how DO you identify yourself?”  I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.

Another young friend once said that he never found career counseling useful because it was always trying to narrow him down, and he felt that becoming an adult was an ongoing processed of broadening, of expansion. I admired his maturity in recognizing that, so many years before I did.

When I was working on my Master’s in Education, seven or so years ago, I wrote a paper that was initially about my learning, but became in many ways about my identity in the world. Recently I thought back to it, and it helped me to realize that what I have now – what is emerging now – is what I asked for then. And to see that uncertainty and self-doubt are the flip side of having the freedom to step back and re-design these parts of my life.

The paper was for a course on adult learning, which was different from any course I had taken before, and possibly the academic course that has had the deepest influence on me, in my own life and in my vision for educating my kids.

We started the course diving into sensory experiences. For the first month, we were asked to conduct an “inquiry” or experiment each week, journal on it, and share our reflections with the class: literary inquiry, musical/sound inquiry, performance/movement inquiry, and visual art inquiry. The goal was to experiment with whatever each of these themes meant to us. Out of this, we committed to choosing an area of inquiry, learning something new – anything – and documenting that learning. And only after we had reflected on our own processes and started working on our own project, did we layer in readings on adult learning theory, much of which is about learning through life events, relationship, community, and personal transformation.

I decided to pursue a visual art project, and after considering art classes of various kinds (oh, the joy!), I came upon a weekend workshop on creating shadow boxes or “mixed media assemblages”, which are something like three-dimensional collages framed inside a small shallow box, often using found objects and images. My first small shadow-box I completed that weekend; I started a second; and as I completed that one and also created a third, I realized that my three pieces could be put together to represent stages in my learning cycle. I decided one stage was missing and created one more piece. Together these little pieces spoke to my experiences of inspiration, influence, community, reflection, introspection, transformation.

A few years later, when I was learning about natural cycles and cycles of learning in another context, it was interesting to look back at my own earlier reflections on this and wonder how I would now reconsider and re-order the stages I came up with then. But what also strikes me now, looking back at the very personal paper I wrote, which was about learning, but also about identity, was how much it helps me now to remember one of my conclusions:

“I think the medium – assemblage – I used for my project aptly represents what I am moving towards. What I want is not a single profession, or title, or job, but a hybrid identity, something assembled or brought together out of the many parts of my previous and current experiences: “writer/ educator/ editor/ artist/ activist/ counselor.”

I might change some of the parts now; in fact, I would add even more of them. But assembling them all together in the same frame is what this picture is about.

And every time someone tells me that in order to pursue what I want I need to commit myself to it fully, I wonder: “Which part?”

Can I break it down into percentages?  Can I give each identity its own day of the week? Take on a different one each month?

No. Life does not work that way at all.

These parts have meaning in relation to each other; together they form a picture of my life. The picture is being assembled, being created, emerging.

It helps me to remember that, whatever our primary occupation(s), we can resist these pressures to narrow ourselves; we can embrace constant learning, multiplicity, and expansion. We can continue to assemble and reassemble all the pieces of ourselves together to create our own particular works of art.

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