Advice to self

Listen:

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.

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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.

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.

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In this city

There are rivers like veins

Buried deep

You can paddle

Drift

To the heart of things

To the wild, secret places

Where the deer sleep.

 

deer on Humber riverturtles on Humber

Dandelions, dragonflies, and falling in love

I fell in love with a dandelion last week. And when it died, I mourned it.

My children have been knocking the heads off dandelions a lot recently. It’s something I have mixed feelings about. Contrary to the perfect lawn culture I grew up in, I have a lot of respect for the resilient and versatile dandelion. But I also see that children help them spread their seeds around. And I see that the survival of the hardy dandelion isn’t threatened by children’s games. And I am always trying to strike a balance with nature – with nature and kids in particular – between joyful and immersed interaction and respect.

A few weeks ago, as part of some learning about plants I’m working on right now, I chose a dandelion plant in my backyard as a focal plant to observe over the next three seasons.

I knew that it would be hard to protect a dandelion in my backyard. But I had clearly voiced to my family my desire to protect this one. And I had decided as a method of observation to carefully sketch the plant every few days. I felt kind of blissful realizing that I could learn about this plant while doing something else that I loved and wanted to practice more often.DSC06270

In two days of lovingly sketching “my” dandelion and others, I already knew more about the stages of the plant’s development than I ever had before. I observed and admired the bright yellow ray of florets, the graceful curves and tapers of the toothed leaves, the translucent green of the elegant flower stalk. I watched the yellow flower close for a period of time to undergo a transformation, with the dried florets slowly pushed up out of the flower by the combined force of perhaps more than 150 tiny single-seeded fruit attached to silky pappi.

I was waiting, anticipating the bursting open of the delicate perfect sphere of the seed head, anticipating its daily dance with the wind and the gradual dispersal of its tiny floating seed progeny out into the world on their silken parachutes. Anticipating the slow wilting of the flower as the plant’s energy travelled underground to the deep taproots, digging down and breaking up the soil, aerating it for other plants to grow.

But as my family prepared for a late-spring dinner in our backyard one evening, I stepped out onto my back steps, looked at my son standing with a strange look beside the tomato bed, and instinctively said: “Remember not to touch that dandelion!” Right away, I knew by his stricken expression and hunched shoulders that it was too late. He burst out crying, I burst out crying.

It was so clear that he felt terrible already, but I had a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes and needed to speak my distress. Recently, I am often surprised by my intensity of emotion.

“Why would you do that? I don’t even understand why you need to keep hitting at dandelions! And I asked you specifically not to touch this one! I’m so disappointed!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I forgot!”

I went into the house and sat on the couch shaking. I had felt deep satisfaction imagining myself carefully watching the growth of this plant, imagining myself developing a relationship with it over many months, imagining the reciprocity of tending for the plant as I learned from it.

Was it futile to think that I could keep a dandelion alive for that long? Couldn’t I protect just one plant? Couldn’t I watch it move through its growth cycle in peace? Could I convince anyone of the value of a dandelion?

Was I upset because my plans were disrupted? Or was there an energy that flowed from me to the dandelion and back again, through my careful observation and loving attention that in those moments was a little like love?

Paying attention to anything or anyone so raptly plants the seeds of connection. Connection nurtures love; perhaps it’s the same thing. And love leads to caretaking, to protecting, to reciprocity. Connection, love and then caretaking: as my eyes are open wider to the world, I see this pattern, over and over again.

This is not to say that death doesn’t belong in this cycle; it’s inevitable and even necessary. I am not sentimental about this. To be human is to face the truth that we can’t live on sunshine and rain: we must kill other living beings to survive. But there is the cycle of life and death and rebirth, and then there is random destruction. There is the reciprocity of picking dandelions and cooking with them, of savouring the bitter young greens in a salad, of digging the root and using it for medicine, of feeling gratitude for what these things bring into your body. There is also the careful stewardship of a space, a healthy habitat, that sometimes requires choices about what will live and what will die.

And then there’s death or destruction without a purpose. A broken connection; a broken cycle. And that break brings mourning.

It’s easy to fall in love with the big and beautiful: moose, foxes, deer, sandhill cranes, owls, and I have done that too. But it’s the more humble beings, like dandelions, like dragonflies, that catch me by surprise.

Last fall, on the small farm in Poland where my father grew up, I sat under a mountain ash and read from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s a hard book to read; in many ways it’s a highly articulate anti-book, an ode to the primeval language of the pre-literate world and of all the communicating living beings with which we are in relationship. It’s a book that’s best read outdoors, in small bursts, with all senses open to what the world is saying.

As I read, dragonflies flew all around, dozens of them, as well as maybe hundreds of European Peacock butterflies, dark orange with two purple eye spots on each wing. As I held my open book on my lap, a red dragonfly landed on the dazzlingly white page. It perched – if that is what a dragonfly does – and faced me. I raised the book higher and stared at the dragonfly. It stared back at me with its giant compound eyes. I understand that dragonflies have much clearer vision, in the human sense, than many other insects. But I don’t really know what it saw. What is the world-view of a dragonfly?

What it looked like to me, however, was that the dragonfly was watching me as I was watching it. It was a strangely astonishing display of mirroring. I looked quizzically at the dragonfly; it cocked its head to one side, then the other, and again, as if was looking at me with the same curiosity. Dragonflies, from a mammalian point of view, have remarkably appealing faces. Their compound eyes are huge and beautiful, and a raised section of the face in between those eyes, called the vertex, looks like a small round nose. A tiny earnest face stared unblinkingly at me as I stared carefully back. It was the most connecting moment I’ve ever shared with an insect.

When you look at something very closely, your perspective changes. When the dragonfly took off, I was almost thrown back with surprise. Its body swooped up huge towards my face, filling my field of vision, a giant prehistoric winged creature, iridescent and magical, communicating with me from another world.

That moment was also a little like love.

DSC06273I have mourned my dandelion flower, and with my son’s help found another plant to study in a more sheltered spot. I have watched the metamorphosis of its flower parts, drawn it, and learned from it. The first dandelion has not produced any further flowers, but in truth, its leaves and root are still alive; there is still more to be observed, now that I have regained my perspective.

I have not since locked eyes with a dragonfly. But each moment of connection to dandelion, to dragonfly, creates a relationship that opens space in my heart for other strange and surprising encounters. In some way, it means that I have friends in the world that I didn’t once have, perhaps an infinite number, both curious and familiar; that as I pay attention, as I take care, I am cared for in turn.

The world is full of remarkable beings, of beauty, of curiosity, of connection, of love. My work – our work – is to recognize all these beings as part of our community, part of our family, and to treat them honourably and with care. Our work is allow our selfhood to be a little more permeable than we once believed – not only to other humans, not only to our familiar domesticated creatures, but to all of the wild. To all of the beings that seem nothing like us, that we think we can’t possibly understand, that have gifts and abilities well beyond the scope of the human, but that are our relations nonetheless.

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.

Kids on trains: travelling with kids and why it was easier than I expected

Before we took our trip to Poland last month, I didn’t give a lot of thought about how much time we would spend travelling from place to place. My parents organized the trip, and my mother had some strong opinions on driving in Poland and was quite sure that she didn’t want to rent a car. So each time we moved from city to city, we dropped by the train station and bought tickets, usually the day before departure. Having spent very little time thinking about our itinerary beforehand, I hadn’t realized how long some of our train trips would be. Perhaps if I had I would have been a little nervous.

Six hours from Warsaw to Gdańsk, seven from Gdańsk to Lublin (which, because of mechanical failures and other mishaps, turned into ten), a five-hour bus trip from Lublin to Kraków, and another five (or was it six?) hours on a train from Kraków to Siedlce, our last stop before flying out from Warsaw (an insignificant one-hour train trip away). A few short train trips, bus rides and car rides (with my uncle) interspersed the longer one.

When I thought about it afterwards, I was impressed that we had spent at least 30 hours in transit, not counting our two flights.

I love trains, especially in Europe, where it’s possible to walk around from one wagon to another, stand in the corridor with the window down, feel the wind in your hair, and even occasionally find a dining car.  But how does that work with kids under the age of 10?

It worked beautifully.

We don’t own any tablet-type devices, and while we have smartphones at home, I don’t have any interest in giving them to the kids to play with. Plus there’s the loud frugal voice in my head looking on in alarm: “But they could BREAK that!” When I’ve travelled on trains with my kids in Canada, which we used to do regularly, this has put me very much in the minority. We had a few trying train trips when Malcolm was a (very vocal) baby and toddler, when people would stare at us and elderly ladies would inquire with concern whether we had misplaced his pacifier. But we persisted, read books out loud, made up stories, played old-fashioned road games like I Spy, had lots of drawing supplies and snacks on hand. We worked at it. And it became fun.

The last few years we’ve been doing more driving, and that’s a bit harder. Harder to interact with the kids safely, impossible to move around, requiring total concentration from at least one of the adults (and intense and focused knitting from the other… ahem). But in Canada, driving makes it easier to be spontaneous, and it’s the only way to get to most places outside of a major centre.

So I was happy to rediscover train travel. Since trains (and buses and private mini-buses) were available to every nook and cranny of Poland, it seemed. And with kids ages nine and six, there was so much less effort required than in the past. I learned that six or seven hours on a train are exponentially easier than the same number in a car. And for most of the trips in helped (but perhaps just a little) that there were four adults to two children.

Lachlan, at nine, required very little interaction at all as long as he had a book to read. We’d brought two, Eragon (Christopher Paolini) and The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan). He devoured both of these in our first week of travel. A short hiatus of peaceful boredom followed, interspersed with looking out the window, card-playing, and Conan reading out loud to the kids from an old battered paperback edition of Tolkien’s Return of the King, which they had begun reading in a beautiful hardbound edition at home. In Kraków, my cousin, Ola, gave Lachlan a book of legends about the city, with stories in both Polish and English. This he also devoured.

And in an English-language bookstore in Kraków we picked up a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. One of my favourite childhood books, so it thrilled my heart to see him immersed in it for the last few days of our trip.

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As for Malcolm, the six-year-old, who until the 11th hour insisted he wasn’t going on the trip…  He proved himself to be a champion traveller. I learned last year that Malcolm can power his way through workbook exercises for the sheer joy of problem-solving and completion. We brought him a first grade math workbook and a Star Wars writing workbook. The kind of thing his older brother would have disdained and isn’t totally my style either, but is definitely part of Malcolm’s learning strategy. He set to work, and that kept him engaged for our first two train trips, until he decided that trains are too bumpy for writing.

After that we spent time:

  • Playing cards. Oh, how Malcolm loves card-playing! I can’t possibly count the number of times we each played Crazy Eights with Malcolm. Counting; sorting; learning how to deal with losing, pick oneself up, and try again….
  • Reading out loud from Return of the King and a book of five-minute mysteries we had picked up before we left.
  • Eating snacks and meals. We packed LOTS of food. Mostly fresh and simple things we could buy at any deli or tiny grocery story: fresh bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, raw veggies.  The occasional szarlotka (apple cake) or pastry.
  • Looking out the window at the world outside and marvelling at both its similarly to and difference from the landscape in Canada. I was amazed once when Malcolm did this quietly for an hour or more while everyone else read their own books.
  • Standing in the corridor looking out the window. This required me lifting Malcolm up (and he’s getting heavy!), so only happened in short instalments with the kids. Otherwise it was usually me and my dad.
  • Having our fortunes told by the kids: Lachlan was inspired by something he read to make fortune-telling cards. These featured symbols that apparently represented things like: “You will meet a very wise person who will teach you many things about the world” (an owl) and “You will go on many journeys” (a boot). Of course then Malcolm was inspired to do the same. His were a little more specific and a little more random: “You will find a lost civilization” (underwater ruin) and “You will go on a plane to a different country” (not surprising, a plane). At the time, it was all pretty hilarious.
  • Malcolm asking me math questions, and then me sneaking in a few for him. It’s interesting how both kids have learned a lot of math simply by asking questions and having conversations about things like odd and even numbers, temperatures, measurements, distances, currency. I’ve enjoyed tracking that curiosity in both of them. When they ask me math questions I usually slow down my process out loud to model what I’m doing and they eventually imitate that or find their own process.
  • Just hanging out and talking. Especially in the compartment-style trains, where we would often have other people in a compartment with us. It was fascinating to see my parents engaging everyone in conversation. I was especially impressed through the whole trip with how my father asks questions about everything and then remembers all those details later on.
  • Ignoring the children and reading our own books, writing in a notebook (that one was just me), or being mesmerized by the landscape ourselves. I also brought some – very tiny and portable – knitting.

Lots of these activities carried over to times when we weren’t on trains. Sometimes writing, drawing, and playing card games that needed more space were better done in hotel rooms and in the homes we stayed in.

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This on top of all the museums, art galleries, castles, medieval cities, picturesque villages, local flora and fauna, traditional foods, family history and genealogy, discussions of cultural differences, and of course, the regular language practice…

Well, I fell a little bit in love with both the richness and the simplicity of learning and living on the road.

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?

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