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.

Love and Grief

I’ve been struck with the truth recently that the more people I connect to in my life, the more potential there is for grief. I wasn’t expecting this.

I’ve suspected for some time that the other side of love is grief; the other side of gratitude is grief; grief is present simmering under the surface of everything. Now, as I feel myself living in community with more people, opening my heart more, I am aware that each connection breaks me open in some way. Every time I love someone, however briefly or however long, loss is already mapped somewhere in our future. Sometimes birth and death, creation and destruction exist in the same short breath, in the same glance. Sometimes grief is a brief moment of heartache, sometimes it is weeks of wild railing against the impossibility of life.

And so the challenge is to have the courage to keep opening my heart and moving forward. Not to close up, not to retreat, not to steel myself against the potential for pain.

Right now I’m seeing three of my closest friends, three of a close community within a community, moving away within a few months of each other. Each departure or anticipation of it brings grief. There is no way around it. I see that each person has a part of their story that is pulling them away from here, from me. I need to let them go, to let our bonds stretch and trust that they will not break.

But I am not good at non-attachment. I am always attached to people, to experiences. I want to hold on. I stamp my feet and cry and don’t want beautiful things to end. Shouldn’t I have by this moment in my life learned to let go? And yet, there is no point arguing against the truth that I haven’t, not in my heart.

I want all of the people I love to live in a village around me so I can walk to each house every day to drink tea, knit, laugh, cry, plant seeds and harvest them, celebrate and mourn, hold babies and listen to the stories of elders. This is not actually going to happen. There are cars and phones and internet connections, but I want to look into people’s eyes and hold their hands. I crave their physical presence. And yet in the end, I will take whatever substitute is available. I will integrate the changes.

But every departure, every impossible possibility, every fleetingly perfect connection is in some way a small rehearsal for the bigger griefs that will inevitably come. I break apart over and over again, and then I put myself back together, and I think each time I’m better for it, but it hurts. It’s frightening to realize, although also blindingly obvious, that a good life will never mean a life free of pain.

I am blessed right now with many people I trust, many people I can confide in, many people who I can laugh and cry with, many people who I love. But loving more people doesn’t mean that I love any one of them less. Each person is in their own way irreplaceable. And the more love, the more potential for grief.

Last week my son Malcolm, a six-year-old philosopher, said to me “People think that love is great romances, but love is what happens when you die.” This stopped my breath for a minute, because it was bigger than I could understand. “But what if I say I love you? Isn’t that true?” I asked. “Yes” – he, impatiently – “you do love me, but you won’t understand the meaning of love until you’re dying.”

If you finally know love when you die, I thought, you begin to know death when you love.

On the threshold of forty


Next week, at the end of March, I’ll celebrate my fortieth birthday. Decades are obvious signposts in our culture, and I’ve been anticipating this one for a long while. I’m surprised at how much I’m looking forward to it.

I see now that twenty and thirty are scarier. There are so many choices to make about how to live. Laying the foundations for adult life was what those two decades were about. I did that: my foundations are solid. I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing then, but I didn’t hate it either. Not all of it. It was a necessary part of my story. It gave me something to stand on.

The work I did then, the careful spending, the little house we bought with its very low mortgage payments – along with years of training by frugal parents, just enough support to leave university without debt, and some moments of financial serendipity when we needed them most – all of those layers helped make it possible for us to live on one income over the past decade. We had two children; we settled in.

There was so much more detail there, of course, but now, looking back at midlife, I can paint it all with one broad brushstroke.

Now I’m surveying the terrain ahead. I’m seeing this new decade as a wide expanse of possibility. I see it stretching ahead of me and I love the uncertainty of it.

A few years ago, I was full of doubt. I looked around and saw all of my pre-motherhood friends committed to solid careers, to a certain future. Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. But I didn’t. I felt like the perpetual student, the dilettante, still trying to tune in to what made me hum. I felt like I was a child again, starting anew.

Either I had wasted my twenties or I was wasting my thirties. I was stuck thinking it had to be one or the other. I couldn’t see at first that both stages were necessary: both the building and the deconstruction.

Leaving my job when my first child was born was in many ways an excuse to get off the path I was on. But starting from the beginning again is terrifying.

Being a high-achieving immigrant child, I had had a lot of expectations of myself. A lot to prove; a lot to live up to. I had developed lots of pride and ego to shield myself from the wounds of feeling ever a stranger, of being sure for the longest time that I didn’t belong. I see now how much energy I spent on protecting myself; how hard I found it to trust people deeply; how much anxiety I suffered; how seldom I asked for help.

Pregnancy, birth, nursing… All those experiences made my ego more permeable. It’s harder to keep those walls up when your body is so intertwined in someone else’s survival; when your heart has opened wide; when you need to choose how you present the world to someone with no prior experience of it; when you see what you don’t want to pass on to your children.

I look back now and I see that in those early years of being a mother, having stepped out of certainty, given up my salary, cashed in my RRSPs; when I was wasting my education on the continuation of life and the simplification of my needs, when I was re-creating my life from the inside out, I felt that I could barely speak. I knew that what I was doing was different from what it looked like from the outside; I couldn’t muster the energy or the words to explain. I knew that for myself these choices were radical: getting at the root of things. I dug in deep; I sunk into experience. I watched and listened, and slowly collected the knowledge and skills and awareness that I needed to move back out into the world.

It was hard not to see it as wasting time, as a fallow period, despite the huge work it took to make and nurture the lives that joined me on the way, despite all of the intense learning and unpaid work and projects I kept taking on over the decade of my thirties. None of this had been in my plans. What was I doing and why?

But I also had a memory of my first year of full-time work after university. I remember dragging myself out of bed one morning and saying bleakly to my husband: “Is this what every day is going to look like for the rest of our lives?

I no longer worry about that. Each year is a surprise. I don’t know what’s happening next. It’s scary, but I’m much happier.

I’m immersed in relationships. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think of all of the people I love, think of all of the human and non-human entities who I am in relationship with. My heart often feels like it’s bursting, and this is sometimes painful, but that opening is worth more to me than anything else.

Finding a place for myself in the world has been much more complicated than I ever imagined. What feels to me like doing good work and like moving in the world with integrity has little to do with my preconceived notions of success, however flexible even those seemed to be at the time. What feeds my soul and engages me and keeps me waking up each morning with the joy of being alive continues to surprise me and knock me off balance.

My ego has taken a beating, but my confidence is growing.

There is so much about being an adult that is about shutting down the “shoulds”, the inner and outer voices that tell us that we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to be, that we aren’t doing things right. Tearing up the plan. Shutting down pride and expectations. And instead listening to what makes us giddy with excitement and curiosity and just the right kind of fear.

Living in the moment vs seizing your dreams: do I have to choose one or the other?

I find there are two prevailing strands of life advice that both seem to get me in the gut, and I can’t figure out how to reconcile them.

One is about living in the moment: being present to the beauty of the ordinary and every-day, ceding the illusion of control, and letting the future take care of itself.

The second is about seizing your dreams now: making the time to follow your passions, honour your gifts, and not let creative opportunities slip by. Not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.

I’ve yet to figure out how to do both of these things at once, but, being a committed idealist, I’m trying.

At the moment, I swing my life on a pendulum: first one way, then the other. One month I’m a zen master, smug about how beautifully I’ve slowed down to enjoy the moment; the next month I’m frantic, feeling like I’ve dug myself into a hole and can’t find any way out. Then the tears flow.

The balance tips very quickly. There’s so little time cushion. My husband is away for work one weekend and out several evenings in a row, I give away my one child-free morning in the week to help a friend with a greater need, and suddenly between the amount of my own work I’d like to be doing and what I can actually accomplish yawns a huge gap of impossibility.

There’s a puzzle to be solved. And in my optimism, I want to believe there’s some way to solve it.

What I’m seeing, truly seeing and accepting right now, is that shutting down my own creative and intellectual processes, stalling them, putting them off for later is not an option I can live with. That was never my intention.

What I’m seeing is that not carving out focused work time for myself means that when I’m with my kids I’m always half thinking about something else. That is not going to go away.

The truth is that when I decided to homeschool my kids, when I talked my husband into agreeing, when I talked our extended family into accepting it, when I committed to sucking up the financial consequences of that choice, I never really thought I’d do it all on my own. In many ways I don’t – we spend lots of time with other families and other kids in both casual and organized ways; my kids take part in an outdoor program once a week; they do a weekly yoga class; they spend one morning a week with their grandparents. I often go away on weekends for the naturalist programs that I’ve been involved with for the past few years. A couple of times – when grandparents have taken the kids out of town – I’ve been away for a week at a time for more immersive experiences. And last summer, we had a few delightful weeks where each child pursued their interests at full-day summer camps while I worked on other things at home. And yet I want more.

So what am I looking for exactly? Regular, focused time alone that I can depend on. And not at an hour where I am fighting the need to sleep.

When I go away for a weekend of learning and get wildly inspired to follow up on my experiences, I come home and stop short. There’s no time to integrate, to work through the research and writing that are right on the tip of my mind and fingers, to let productive work take shape. I can pretend to relax and be in the moment, but my mind and heart are spinning. Not unproductive spinning, not worrying, not busy thoughts that I want to quiet down. Awesome, inspired spinning. Spinning that I don’t want to suppress or delay. Spinning that feels like flying, soaring above the world in great leaps.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of inspiration in my life in recent years. My dreams – sleeping and waking – are full of images, of stories I want to tell, of art projects I’m conjuring up. But so little of it is possible to do in small, infinitely interruptable moments with small people – no matter how dear – talking loudly in my ear. It all takes time and focus.

This fall has been intense. Yes, we had a fantastic family trip, where my husband, kids and I AND my parents all hung out together connecting, exploring and learning for three full weeks, and I’m supremely grateful for that. But the contrast between that and the return to regular life is always painful. Especially since for so many adults working a full-time professional job – including my husband – taking time away means a huge increase of pressure and creeping increase in working hours trying to catch up on the return. And three weeks of integration segue into three months of extreme imbalance.

Right now, we’re at my parents’ house for a week for the Christmas holidays. Intergenerational family life. People cooking meals, people reading, people chasing the kids around the backyard, my father working on bits of a building project. The kids bounce around between adults, playing, reading, helping with small tasks. Six adults available to do what I normally do on my own. I can sit in the middle of the living room all day ignoring the children and writing, and no one even notices me. It’s blissful.

When people present arguments against one parent being at home with the kids, or against homeschooling, the case is made is that one person can’t meet all of a child’s developmental and educational needs. Even the nuclear family is a fairly recent invention. Humans have always lived and worked and learned in groups, in communities. Mothers and fathers have always done productive work. So now, in this historical moment, the accepted answer to this dilemma is to have everyone go off to their separate silos – separate offices, separate institutions, separate classrooms segregated by age, for the majority of their waking hours. We claim that’s the only answer possible. We claim that the only possible alternative is isolation for children and martyrdom for parents. And I concede that those can be real dangers. And I concede that currently, for so many structural reasons, it can be almost impossible to conceive of any other option.

But neither of these things – separation or isolation – is what I want for my family or for myself. I want a village. I want people engaged in meaningful pursuits, with children, babies, teens, elders woven into the fabric of daily life. The perfect scenario would be if we were doing exactly what we’re doing now except with ten other families with kids of various ages living all around us and available to play and learn and work with us even on weekdays, and maybe – please, let me indulge my unrealistic dreams for a moment – a huge open field surrounded by woods all around our homes, where the kids would go off and roam for hours at a time.

But, okay, I’d settle for a few more homeschooling families within walking distance of our urban house, my husband working shorter hours and taking more of a stake in homeschooling as a family project, and maybe some time for my kids with a teen or adult mentor once a week.

When I see my friends who are homeschooling their kids, I don’t see martyrs. I see writers, artists, educators, activists, healers, culturally creative people, all of whom are trying to shape an alternative to the dominant world of silos and specialization, of outsourcing, of separation. All of whom are trying to find integration of head, heart and hands; integration of generations; integration of learning and work and creativity and domestic responsibilities. People who are trying to do something different, to take risks.

I see people who are trying to find balance in a system where it’s very difficult to create a family income out of two adults with part-time work. Even in a family who somehow find ways to live on one full-time income, the balance usually tips to one adult working long hours (because that’s the way most jobs work in our culture) and one adult crazily trying to hold down the fort alone.

So that’s the problem. There are bigger problems in the world. But I would argue that finding time and space to develop our own gifts is something each of us has a responsibility to address in our own way, in our own circumstances.

Thinking about this question almost every day recently, I’m still fairly sure that the easiest course – taking advantage of the free child-care provided by public school – is not the answer I’m looking for right now. I’m not ruling it out as a some-day possibility, but there’s still so much that tips the scales for me towards homeschooling, unschooling, real-life mentoring, learning in the eclectic and self-directed ways that adults are usually allowed to but children generally are not. I want to keep this experiment running. I’m looking for smaller changes, significant tweaking, not a total reversal of where we currently are.

I’m happy that I’ve been able to articulate what I need more clearly within the pressure of the last few weeks. Now that I’m taking myself more seriously, I’m slowly seeing more possibilities as to how these needs can be met.

And so I’m changing metaphors. Last year, my metaphor, my mantra, was the river. I had changed course so severely in the past decade and I saw that I was pushing too hard – paddling too hard – to figure out where I was going. I wanted to let myself follow the flow, without concern for destination, trusting that the current of the river would continue to move me forward. Because really, that is all any of us can ever do. Right now, I’m flowing; I’m no longer worried – for the most part – about where and when exactly I’ll land.

My current metaphor seems to have something to do with carving. The word keeps coming up when I speak of what I need. Intentionally carving out space and time for my own work. Carving out more clearly the shape I need my life to take right now. Not a final product, just the next best step, the next stroke. The little pieces of life that I might have within my control.

What’s that image I’ve heard described by so many sculptors and carvers? Carving is finding the pieces that need to fall away to uncover the shape that’s already underneath, waiting to be brought into the light.

Routes Home

My children spent the past two weeks in a village on Lake Huron with their paternal grandparents and two cousins. Others came and went – their dad, more cousins, aunts and uncles. I joined them towards the end. All summer, Lachlan had been anxious that time was passing too quickly. We’re leaving for Poland the first week of September, a trip my parents have been planning for two years, and the first time I’ll be taking my children to my birth country. Lachlan refused to talk about it. “If you talk about fall, you’ll make the summer go by too fast. First it’ll be fall, then I’ll be ten”. So much angst at childhood passing. He won’t be ten until next May. But the end of the decade is looming large before him.

When I came to meet them last week, he was finally ready to talk about Poland. Two weeks of playing in the garden, biking around the village, roaming on the beach; waking up every morning to play board games with cousins, sharing Marx Brothers movies (the cousins have also caught that particular bug this summer). It gave him the sense of timelessness he had been craving. My son, so much like me in wanting time to slow down, just a little. A play was developed over the past week and performed on our last evening together. An extended family effort – costumes sewn, props created or found. My husband taking the tangle of children’s ideas in hand and bringing it together into a coherent narrative: directing, encouraging. These cousins. How sweet their familiarity and closeness, their collaboration.


The cousins left yesterday morning. Then it was time for us to leave too. Many good wishes were given for our trip. Malcolm, however, is adamant that he’s not going to Poland. The rest of us might be, but not he. It’s not unusual for him to say this. He resists things in advance, then embraces them in the moment. His feelings are big and always in the open. I tease him a little.  What is he going to do on his own? Is he going to shop for food, make his own meals? He laughs briefly, then is serious again: “Still, you can’t make me go.” Unexpectedly, I feel myself close to tears.  “Yes, I can make you go.”  Memory floods me. I’m startled by the intensity of it. “Do you know, that when I was exactly the same age as you – when I was six – I left my home and my grandparents and cousins and moved to a whole new country? Where everyone spoke a language I didn’t understand? And didn’t go back again for twelve years? When you’re a child, you don’t choose where to go!”

I can’t put myself into my child self to remember how that felt. There was anticipation, I remember, and certainly no premonition of what a monumental break there would be between the old life and the new. No understanding that it was a forever move. We were going to meet my father, who had already been working in Canada for six months and who we missed a lot. We had a brand new baby sister to introduce him to. We’d had to wait until she was born to be allowed a visa to join him. 

first passport photo

When I imagine cutting Malcolm out of the web of relationships that he’s so tightly woven into, I feel the certain trauma of it. It’s putting him in my place that floors me. Emigration, being uprooted, was the defining narrative of my childhood. It took me years to feel at home, to feel any sense of belonging. But I no longer belonged in my old home either. The classic story of emigration, that in-betweenness. We feel our beings hovering, not sure if we have finally landed. Some people I’ve met emigrated and then visited their homeland every year. That was not our story.

And now I want to be rooted in place. I want to fully belong to this land and it to me. This country has been my home for many years, but that deeper desire has been the defining narrative of my thirties. I spin strands of family and community around my children, holding them close to family and friends, making them feel at home. Do we all try to heal our own wounds through our children?

This place is exactly where I want to be; there is nothing to feel sorry about any more. This is just my story, among many others.

And now close to another twelve-year gap since I’ve been to Poland. My cousins, most of whom I now barely know, all have children of their own. My remaining grandparents, my two grandmothers who I saw only a few times as an adult, have died. Despite how little time I had with them in my life, I feel their influence and love strong within me. I see traces of family characteristics in my children. I want them to know my history, their ancestry, in a tangible way.

I’m not sure if Malcolm is ready for this trip; but I know he’ll adapt, as children do. Whatever seeds it plants in him will be watered over the years. He’ll step outside his daily life, see the world from a different perspective – as much as a six-year-old can. Then he’ll return home.

My story is only where his story begins. 



Building the village, from the inside out

I came home three nights ago exhausted after a week of community and hard work at the Ontario Art of Mentoring. The next day, I wrote many notes of gratitude and love, and lay around on my couch dozing and dreaming and finding some space to rest after a week of little sleep. Yesterday, I had a mini reunion with some of the people I spent all of last week with (because we just can’t get enough!) and canned peach salsa in my kitchen all afternoon. 

What happened last week? After two years of being a participant at AOM, this year I spent the week volunteering in a kitchen with two chefs and half a dozen other volunteers feeding between 150 and 200 people three meals a day, snacks, sometimes packed food for overnights, and various other special requests. Around us were groups of adults, children, elders, parents/grandparents with babies and toddlers, all connecting to the land and to each other. Teens immersed in a separate nature experience out on the land all week. A “village hearth” of elders; people working on traditional skills; people offering spaces to rest and heal, have a massage, and stay grounded. Community meals, heart-opening singing, powerful group processes, talking circles, people feeling a space of safety in which they could open up.

One evening I sat resting on the steps of the main building we were in and looked out at tents where families were staying, a central fire with groups singing around it, people chopping wood for the fire, others hoisting up posts for a tepee, others cleaning up after dinner, children playing a hilarious game of racing down a hill in a wagon, babies being passed around,  people sitting and lying on the ground in deep conversation. A panorama of the village in action.

Today I picked up a magazine, and in a critical article about something else entirely found a line which I’ll paraphrase as “Those who romanticize village life have never lived in a village.” This made me pause. It’s easy to scoff, to take things apart; harder to create something that transforms people’s lives. Years ago, in university, I learned many tools of deconstruction and no tools for building. Critical analysis in a vacuum with no way to get out. Years later, transformative life experiences and transformative educational experiences helped me make some big shifts in myself. Today, I focus on looking for best practices. Right now, when I see tools for building, I grab them. The more tools for change I already hold, the more I can see all around me.

This is all to say that the village I experienced was not a product, it was a process. It wasn’t static. It was fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving. It was a regenerative, continual feedback loop. It wasn’t a romantic vision of the past; it was real and in the moment. It was full of mud and mosquitoes and challenges and discomfort and room to grow.

And so here are some of the things – by no means a definitive list – that I am grateful for from my experience last week:

  • Starting with some total honesty… I’m grateful for the process of working through my initial ambivalence about being asked to be in such an intense service role. This experience reminded me that most of my favourite jobs from the time I was a teen had some service/hospitality component to them. It’s something I’m good it. It made me really chew over why I devalue that, why our culture devalues it. Pushing through my resistance and throwing myself into the role was really good for me. It made me think about what it takes to make everyone feel welcome and cared for in any context.  It made me tremendously grateful to all of the people around me who do that so beautifully. It made me think about what I can actually offer to people. 
  • Grateful that every participant at some point had a turn helping in the kitchen: serving, washing hundreds of dishes, mopping floors. This made me think once again about the ways work is segregated in our culture, in so many cultures. And what it tells me about someone who can move gracefully from large group facilitation to large-scale dishwashing all in one evening. Or someone who can throw themselves with purpose into whatever job needs to be done.
  • Having said that, grateful also for the ongoing recognition that every job and action and gesture and effort needs to be appreciated and thanked. Over and over and over again. As a wise friend affirmed yesterday, after I had sent a note that I wasn’t sure would get a response, “you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
  • Grateful for the dance of working collaboratively with a committed group of people: the graceful verbal and non-verbal communication needed to smoothly plan, cook and serve meals for such a big group, and to know what needs to be done and when. Grateful for the presence, competence, warmth and playfulness of the kitchen team.
  • Grateful for the actual dancing and singing that went on all day in the kitchen. Wow, music and dance. That’s what we need to make every experience transformative. That’s what I need to get me out of my head and fully into my body. Grateful for the musicians who came in to serenade us a few times; and for the amazingly talented musicians on our team who sometimes stopped chopping and played a guitar or mandolin. And for the people on our team who turned everything into a song. The best parties always end up in the kitchen!
  • Grateful for good practices and how they transform any working culture. Daily gratitudes at the start of each day; good feedback and communication protocols established from the start; good modelling by leaders of getting things done effectively while always maintaining respect and warmth; a culture of hospitality and accommodation. 
  • Grateful for the intuitive and flexible schedule we kept, with breaks each day to swim in the expanse of Georgian Bay or in the winding, silty river surrounded by cattails and tall pines. Or to lie down in the relaxation tent for a massage or chat. Or to lie among the pines until the red squirrel scolded me away. 
  • Grateful for the openness and vulnerability I saw all around me. People taking risks in performing, risks in facing physical discomfort, risks in relating to each other. 
  • Grateful for glowing smiles, long hugs, deep conversations.
  • Grateful for being part of a powerful ceremony of staff stepping into their roles on the first day, using the 8 shields model that underpins the AOM process. Feeling the power of ritual and ceremony to help each of us channel what we want in our lives, to tune into energies that are all around us or inside us waiting to get out. Feeling my understanding deepening of what it means to step in and out of a role. Not performance, but channeling something that is already there in the collective unconscious or deep in my core. Something that will look different with each person who steps into it.
  • Grateful for children running around freely among groups of adults, muddy and happy. And for many arms to hold all of the babies being passed around.
  • Grateful for the words of the teens returning from a week-long nature immersion. Each teen spoke so simply and powerfully, and I wondered why I, in my late thirties, feel like I’m just now learning the same lessons they are already working through. Gratitude mixed with grief at not having had such an experience in my own teens. Feeling how gratitude and grief are all part of the same picture.
  • Grateful to witness a process through which a friend unexpectedly recalling earlier trauma was held and supported by a group of elders in the village, able to move her healing forward, and reintegrate when she was ready. 
  • Grateful to leave my tent every morning and not return until late in the evening. Grateful to walk comfortably through the dark woods each night, in a way that still astonishes me after being so scared of the dark as a child and teen. Grateful to return to find my tent cozy and dry after a day of heavy rain. Grateful how sleeping in a tent for a week really makes me appreciate the concept of shelter and how little I really need.
  • Grateful at the end on the second day, when heavy rain had kept the whole group inside for dinner, everyone needed so much attention, and our nerves were all a little frayed, for the realization that it was not time to reflect on my experiences yet. It was time to ride out the wave, get some sleep, stay in the moment, and do the work that needed to be done.
  • Grateful, after that same heavy rain, for the huge full rainbow spanning the sky.
  • Grateful for the insight, in a brief moment of envy at someone else’s skills and talents, that I am only ever going to be myself, with all my own particular gifts and flaws. And so I had better stop wasting time on envy and do the work of being myself with as much presence, intention and grace as I can muster in each moment.
  • Grateful for people who speak their truth in the face of discomfort; who hold others to agreements and question injustices. People who question processes with love, in the goal of improvement. People who keep trying, always.
  • Grateful to openly share words of love and appreciation with people around me and to accept those of others. Reflecting on how often we don’t speak our hearts for fear of how our words will be received. Grateful for people who can accept words of appreciation gracefully, fully honouring the spirit behind them. 
  • Grateful to return home and feel ripples of my experience moving into those around me. Grateful for my bed and my home. Most grateful to my husband who listens patiently to my stories, asks the good questions, makes sure our children are well cared for while I’m away, and anchors me always.
  • Grateful to the vision of regenerative culture and the work of so many who created this experience for me and others. Grateful for people who don’t get stuck in cynicism and despair, but keep doing the work that needs to be done to heal individuals, communities, and cultures.
  • Grateful for all of the possibilities the future holds.
  • Grateful to feel my tribe and extended family ever-growing.