Fencing: words in brief

I argue with the fencing every year, and every year it wins. Low wire-mesh edges our narrow backyard, the house facing off against the sturdy cement shed at the rear. In the summer, we eat dinners on the roughed-in patio, chatting with our neighbour to the north as he stands over his barbeque, steps away. Two doors north a small table is arrayed with bright cloth and long-stemmed glasses; from our back steps we compare rat-trapping tips. South, we are gifted pears and grapes and marvel at the roses. Further south, a surly watcher sits, appraising us, smoke drifting. I long for privacy, a shady outdoor room with tall cedar fences, instead of these crowded cubicles. But each spring the flowers bloom, and I sit back and leave it be.

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

Resistance: words in brief

Pushing back against dissatisfaction is a form of resistance. It’s a fine note to hit at times, gratitude that is clear and simple and recognizes everything that sustains us, from the primal four elements to the most complex modern systems. I don’t want your bucket lists, your weekly goals, your pushing of edges. I want to live my life as it is, day-by-day, in unhurried relationship, in deliberate practice, in defiant presence. I want my influence to ripple in the slowest way possible, fighting back in the ways that matter to me most.

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

Spider: words in brief

For a while I believed that community was a container, a basket dexterously woven with tools of connection, and that once inside, I would be held in the comfort and safety of belonging, ideally forever. Now I think of community as a web. Each of us stands at a spoke, a meeting point, holding onto the threads radiating outward from our particular position. We can maintain our threads or let them fray. A few tattered threads won’t break the web, but too many will tear apart our section of it, and the damage will perhaps cast us loose, by accident or by choice. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it has been a useful one when I find myself bitter that no-one is holding the basket I had imagined myself in. If there is a spider, an ultimate weaver, she stands at a distance, shaped out of different matter, on a wholly different plane, making repairs only when it suits her.

Or perhaps I need to learn to trust the spider… I can hold my own threads – usually – but the pattern is well beyond me. 

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

 

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

Building ships into the future, or thinking like a tree

Last week, I read this line in a New Yorker essay by Alan Burdick, maybe one of the most beautiful and accurate images of parenting I have come across: “As I grew into the role of a parent, I sometimes felt as if I were taking apart a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. I was building a ship across time, out of my time”.

I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve taken myself apart in my eleven years as a parent. Certainly other things could have triggered that in my life, will continue to trigger it. I think in a healthy culture we would all take ourselves apart, consciously and carefully, or sometimes wildly and impetuously, to build those ships to the future. The ships I feel my planks building are not only my children, not only for my children. But it reassured me in some way, to know that the deconstruction of self I’ve felt over the past ten years, my questions of “What am I doing? What is it for?” might have this answer: I’m taking myself apart to build ships to the future. It’s as it should be. It means I can’t give up on the world, no matter how chaotic and scary it seems.

Earlier this week I went out of town for a few days to visit a dear friend in the country. She and her family have recently moved into a house that they are renting from another friend. The owner grew up in it and lived there for many decades and has now moved into a smaller cottage on the same property. Outside the back door are a more than a hundred acres of woods and trails, with a clean, beautiful creek winding through and mature forests of mixed hardwood and conifers – beech, maple, birch, hemlock, pine.

On the second morning of our visit, I went snowshoeing with my friend and her partner, leaving the kids together at home for a bit. The previous day, as we had driven up, my kids and I had listened to the seventh CD (the North-West shield) of the Seeing Through Native Eyes series. In it Jon Young talks about that moment of finding a spring in the forest and knowing through it that some time in the past someone had loved you, because of this spring that had been tended and kept healthy for the future.

And as my friends and I tromped along through the woods on our snowshoes that morning, we came across a little flowing stream, and above it hung a hand-painted sign: “The Well Spring.” On a branch hung a little plastic cup. There it was: a coincidence, a sign. A sign that someone in the past had loved us, had loved me! My friend bent down and drew some water in the cup for us, and we passed it around, drinking in its icy cleanness, feeling in some way blessed.

The next day my friend and I went for a longer snowshoe hike with the woman whose parents had built the house and who had grown up on this land. She pointed out huge mature trees that she remembered first meeting in her early childhood as spindly saplings. She pointed out a huge dead tree with many thick branches that – when it was very much alive – had been a favourite childhood climbing tree. She commented on how disorienting it sometimes was, to see time passing in such a concrete way, in the growth of trees. I thought about something Jon says in the talk we’d listened to on our drive, about showing that you trust in the future by planting an oak tree, knowing you will never swing from its branches.

We moved along quickly on our snowshoes against the brisk wind, warming up fast, and when we reached a clearing we all threw ourselves on the ground, looking up at the clouds, with the dog running circles around us and shaking snow onto our faces. I closed my eyes for a few minutes and when I opened them the clouds had whisked away and the sky was blue. I closed them again, and when I opened them, the sky was gray again. Time passing. So quickly.

Several times as we walked, we noticed huge trees that had partially fallen, propped up by other tall trees, stoically supporting the weight of the dying until they were ready to fall. I thought about dead fallen trees that catch seeds blowing in the wind, creating nurseries for other trees to grow tiny seedlings stretching to the sun, the nurse log slowly decomposing and feeding the future. I thought about trees and their communities, about tree nurseries, about bridges, about building ships into the future. I thought about composting our sorrows – and our joys – to create healthy soil for those who will come after.

Last year I had a realization about freedom, that freedom could just as well look like a tree as like a bird. I looked at a tree and asked: “Because this tree is rooted, does that mean it isn’t free?” and I found I could not doubt that a tree was free, even though it was rooted. And so I try to think like a tree, digging my roots deep into the soil and my branches high into the sky.

Rootedness has been on my mind a lot in the past year, but even before that, and maybe I am coming to some conclusions. Rootedness can mean many things: it can mean place, it can mean relationship, it can mean community, it can mean vocation. But it means sacrificing some variety of choice for the challenge and the privilege of tending something deeply and for a long time.

Sometimes I like to pick up random books off of bookshelves and ask them questions, in a kind of divination by the wisdom of written words. At my friend’s house, the first title that drew me was by Jean Vanier: Community and Growth. And as I flipped through its pages, one of the things it told me was this:

“Some people flee from commitment because they are frightened that if they put down roots in one soil they will curtail their freedom and never be able to look elsewhere… But freedom doesn’t grow in the abstract; it grows in a particular soil with particular people. Inner growth is only possible when we commit ourselves with and to others.  We all have to pass through a certain death and time of grief when we make choices and become rooted.”

So there’s that. There is also the clearing in the woods. Thinking about what I am trying to tend in myself in the midst of deconstruction and fear for the world and the ordinary gradual decays of life, I often meditate on spaciousness. If I can just find a space inside myself, a space that is clear and warm and secluded, but also connected to all beings, then I can find the peace I need to draw on to be the way I want to be in the world. That is the clearing in the tangled forest, where I tend the fire within my heart. It is a place I can find refuge when I am in a bigger time of retreat, but also a place I can find refuge in brief moments on a windy day, when the clouds in my mind are busy skittering across the sky, and I am too rattled, too taken up by the urgency of things.

snowshoeing-with-ulrike

Homeschooling: ditching the routines

Someone I know recently posted on how short spring is in Canada, and how much he wants to appreciate it while it’s here. On one level, I get that. And yet, it reminded me that in my own psyche, I tend to favour the approach of the ancient Celts: there are only two seasons, winter and summer. November to May, and May to November. Not only two seasons, but two separate worlds, two ways of living, two ways of being in relation to myself and other people and the world. My lowest energy point always comes before the winter solstice, and the highest comes before the summer solstice. Midwinter and midsummer, as they were once sensibly called.

When our calendar says winter, my soul is already priming for the upswing of spring. On the longest day of the year, I start to see the bittersweet end of summer on the horizon.

Sometimes I resent the dark days, but I need those two parts of myself, and those two seasons, and those edges in between.

And so now, in the land of summer, we have been living a different life than we did a few months ago. Homeschooling makes this obvious. In winter, there is restlessness and not quite enough structure; the days are too short; going out takes a lot of energy, staying in is draining in its own way; socializing happens in crowded urban houses or in bursts of cold active outdoor time; everything seems to take a lot of effort. There are long dark evenings to fill.

Something switches in May. And this year, after trying to impose structure all through the fall and winter, I knew when it was time to throw it away. It started on our trip to England, after which I had two weeks of fighting with my kids about going back to this year’s homeschooling routines. Sometimes I make myself do things that don’t work for a while to prove to myself that they’re not working. School-at-home, even in a modified form, does not work for us. I see people for whom it does work. I’m realizing that I’m probably not going to be one of them.

So instead, we’re back to living on faith: that needing to communicate and co-exist with other humans; having books lying around every surface of our house; having regular access to great museums and art galleries and libraries; and most of all, having the whole REAL LIVING WORLD to explore is enough. Learning happens because humans are primed to learn, because they are curious and engaged and passionate, because they want to master things that they’re excited about or that they want to apply in real life. And even more so when there are supportive people, supportive mentors around – parents and others – to give a push when needed, but also to go along for the ride.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll throw our workbooks away forever. Maybe next fall the time will be right again for that kind of focus. Structured learning is a tool we can use again. Heck, actual school is always a potential option. But for the past two months we have been exploring the city; we have been camping with friends; we have been climbing trees and wading in rivers; we have been reading good books both together and separately; we have been designing games; we have been copying out favourite poems; we have been experimenting with culinary and art projects. And now we are looking forward to the full immersion of a couple of summer day camps.

As a homeschooling parent, or a parent in general, or simply as a person, I need to keep reminding myself to play to my strengths: curiosity and insatiable love of learning, openness to possibilities, creativity, good judgment, attunement to my kids’ needs, a certain kind of patience.

Yes, we also need to push against type, stretch our boundaries, challenge ourselves to do things that are hard. But equally, we need be ruthless about letting go of things that aren’t working, or aren’t working right now.

As I child I took piano lessons for many years. Three decades later, I guess I’m glad I did. But certainly, when I was allowed to quit, I happily quit. I didn’t regret not pushing myself to keep doing something I wasn’t at all passionate about at the time. Maybe if music had been taught in a way that inspired my creativity and enthusiasm. Maybe. And it’s not impossible that I’ll return to it some day. But right now I have no regrets.

When my children want try something new, something that I need to pay for – or when I convince them to – I generally require that they finish the initial commitment: the week of camp, one season of a class or program. This is usually enough to get through the hard parts. Sometimes after telling me that they never want to do it again, by the end they are begging to sign up again next season, or next year. Other times, they have no interest in going back, and I am learning to accept that. My role is to know when to coax them through the setbacks and when to let things go.

This also goes for relationships with other humans. We are all learning these lessons together.

There are a few things I regret not following through on in earlier years, but now I see that I will I pick them back up again when I’m ready. I will never be a specialist: there are too many things that I love, following every skill and subject that intrigues me being one of them. So I model learning to my children; I model curiosity; I model engagement.

I once read a long article about teachers working in the most challenging schools. The point that stuck with me from that piece is that the best teachers keep changing their strategy. They keep trying new things. They are ruthless about changing what doesn’t work. When I feel like I am a dilettante who can’t stick to any plan for long, I try to keep that in mind.

Trust versus fear. There is a lot of trust involved in homeschooling, or in raising kids under any circumstances. There are a lot of cultural messages telling me that I should choose fear instead, that whatever I do, my kids won’t be enough, won’t know enough, won’t be competitive, won’t be prepared. But I am going to trust: trust my intuition and my judgment, my children’s enthusiasm and their limits. Trust that they will find their way in the world when it is time.

Lachlan in Rouge river

Grieving the things we expected but didn’t receive: building and rebuilding the village

I love leaving and returning. I can see why people develop a habit of it, or of moving from place to place and floating on the emotional highs of goodbyes and hellos. Staying in place is hard work. In the past, even when I stayed in place, life was divided into periods of time that seldom overlapped. Now I can imagine all of my relationships stretching back into the past and forward into the future, ebbing and flowing, moving in cycles. It is a very different experience, the bird’s eye view of life – the lines moving away and back again, crisscrossing, narrowing, widening, crossing rivers and mountains and dark valleys, then returning. And me, tracing those paths over and over again, trying to understand where I belong.

We recently returned from a trip to England. I say I love returning, but on some level I didn’t want to return. After any amount of time where I have other adults around all day (or even one other adult, my husband, who often manages to make himself count as several people), I feel how impossible daily community feels in the culture I live in. I am permanently wavering between two extremes: what I am doing now, which is sometimes spending a lot of hours alone with two children (especially in the colder months); and the other alternative, which is putting the children into an age segregated group of thirty kids and one adult for many hours of each day, with all of the implications and expectations of that system.

I will keep choosing the first option, because I can’t currently reconcile myself to the second, but I am learning that homeschooling will always be a work in progress for us: building, deconstructing, and rebuilding; ebb and flow; love and fear; one foot in, one foot out; periods of connection, inspiration and flow and periods of confusion.

Shortly after we came back from England, I read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. He talks about five gates of grief, five ways of entering the sacred spaces that grief moves us through: grief at losing someone we love (generally the only grief acknowledged, even if inadequately, in our culture); sorrow for the world; ancestral grief; grief at the parts of ourselves that weren’t loved; and grief at the things we expected but didn’t receive. There is a lot to look at in each of them, but at this moment in my life, it was the last one that hit me hard.

The things we expected and didn’t receive, the things that are somewhere encoded deep in our genes and psyche as our birthright, are the elements of a village in its most ancient, most holistic sense: many hands to share the work; many arms to hold our children, to hold us; a deeply-rooted, unshakeable sense of belonging and trust; our gifts sought out, named, and celebrated; our passages honoured, from birth to death.

Our parents expected these things, and likely didn’t get them, and our grandparents too, and a long way back.

And I see how impossible it feels – despite knowing that I want these things for my children too – to provide them, because our community is never going to be intact and whole like a village; it will always be scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized, shifting; separated by distances, conflicting responsibilities and conflicting narratives. It will always be composed of people who also weren’t nurtured in the villages they expected, who – despite their best efforts – are also wounded, wary, unsure of where and how they belong, who are pulled by competing priorities and needs and the overwhelming daily demands of “making a living”.

It may seem strange to say that grief is a beautiful relief when contemplating what always seems to be out of reach. And this is a hard thing to articulate clearly, because at the same time that I speak of grief, I am also aware and grateful of how much richer and more honest and more passionate and more numerous the relationships that I am woven into now are then they have ever been in my life. And yet, as they become richer, it is like a doorway is opened to these deeply-hidden, deeply-encoded expectations, buried for so long, and they burst out with insatiable demands, impatiently wanting to be fed, howling out because they’ve had to wait for so long, wanting to live everything to the fullest now.

Or maybe I’ve reached a point in my life where a sense of urgency sometimes overwhelms me. And so gratitude and grief are entwined again, as they so often are: acknowledging both the beauty and the brevity of life; recognizing with tenderness that people are doing the best they can, that I am doing the best I can, that I need to be patient, that I can only take responsibility for myself.

Patience, my love, patience, I whisper to myself.

Grief is an antidote to cynicism and blame and disengagement. It is a necessary, ongoing ritual of clearing, of making space for reweaving the threads, of keeping my heart open to whatever comes next, of celebrating what is here.

When I said that I didn’t want to return, it is also because it seemed for a moment that it would be easier to be the one leaving than one of the people staying behind and trying to keep holding things together. Easier than committing long-term to creating community where I am. Easier than trying to understand what my role is, what I am meant to give. Easier than staying present and open to relationships that sometimes confuse me and sometimes break my heart. Easier than showing up and engaging.

Easier for a little while anyway. But if there is ever a time in my life for building, this is it. And so I return and re-engage. Passionately re-engage.

I meditate on an interview I recently read with Martin Prechtel, where he refers to the Mayan spiritual tradition of making  things (“our houses, our language, our relationships”) fragile enough that the need for constant repair and rebuilding creates an urgent condition for community to keep renewing itself:

It’s a fine balance, making something that is not so flimsy that it falls apart too soon, yet not so solid that it is permanent. It requires a sort of grace. We all want to make something that’s going to live beyond us, but that thing shouldn’t be a house, or some other physical object. It should be a village that can continue to maintain itself. That sort of constant renewal is the only permanence we should wish to attain.

Connection, disconnection, renewal; building, disintegration, rebuilding: it is taking things apart and putting them back together that makes us strong.

Since we’ve returned, I’ve found myself in tension with all the good habits I had been trying to create in the past year – around homeschooling, around writing on this blog, about making art – but this has also been a relief. Maybe that was what I needed in the fall and winter, to create structure as a way to anchor the introspection and drifting away that I feel in the colder months, as a way to anchor the restlessness that I felt last summer.

But structure and I have always been had an uneasy relationship. And now, as I start to slip already into my summer self, structure again feels oppressive, and I need most of all to get out of the house, be with people, spend hours of each day outdoors, celebrate and grieve, take off for small adventures, follow my children’s lead, follow my heart.

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