In the thickets of February

I’ve been long absent here, for unclear reasons. I’ve been writing more poetry than prose the past six months, not always daily, but in a way that needs incubation and editing and attention to craft. Still writing with my far-flung group of wonderful women to word prompts, but more often clustering several day’s worth into one piece. This was a rare long and rambling prose essay (long ago are the days of 100 word limits!) after months of short poetry. Prompts: thicket, longing, boundary, abundance. I decided it was shareable. I think every year I write some version of this piece in February, which through some strange and devious trickery is actually the longest month pretending to be the shortest. This stormy, slushy, icy February has been several months long already. 

I’ve read somewhere that there is no such thing as writer’s block, you just need to lower your standards. If this week I don’t have the mental space for poems, I can still write. I can write about longing, about boundaries, about pushing through the thicket of “life admin” I find myself in recently.

I long these days for clear skies, for clear sidewalks, for ease of transportation. I long for deep sleep. I long for energy reserves – which, for unclear reasons, I am currently lacking – that can take me through nights of long awakenings. Last night I slept deeply, without earplugs. I woke up feeling like I could throw a party to celebrate. My husband came into our office space to bring me my tea and I grinned widely at him and said I’d slept well. He laughed even before I said it, and hugged me. It was comic really, how exuberant I felt, how my face and body radiated joy. The way I taught myself to handle insomnia many years ago was to rewire my brain to make sleep less important. Over the years, I learned I could push through anything without having slept a wink the night before – large presentations, exams, meetings with intimidating books editors when I was a book publicist, work crises, sleeping in forests, all kinds of situations that were out of my comfort zone, because most things were. No, I didn’t let that stop me, but also no, it never actually got easier. So much anxiety, and no sense that I could ask for help, that it was even something worth voicing.

Putting less focus on sleep made insomnia hold less power over me. I once read that in pre-industrial cultures long periods of night waking were the norm because people went to bed much earlier without artificial lighting. It worked for a long time to simply accept this. The problem is that after years of highly interrupted sleep with babies and small kids, I know I’m a completely different person when I’m well-rested. It’s hard to pretend it doesn’t matter. But I keep muddling through, surrendering to the erratic monthly and seasonal patterns, teaching myself to get to bed a lot earlier and catch those early hours of deep sleep, learning to lie down for half an hour in the afternoon if I need it, trying not to get too attached to feeling energetic. February will end. The sun will come back. 

The daily minutiae of life. When I’m well rested I love my life, the flexibility of it, the room for constant exploration. When I’m not rested, I stumble through the day in a daze, snap at my kids, complain that I’m doing everything for everyone. I’m learning that so much of feeling over-responsible for things comes from being unwilling to relinquish control. It stings to recognize that. I made a decision yesterday to skip my women’s circle this Sunday. I have a slightly overlapping meeting with the LUNA (League of Urban Nature Artists) group that I finally decided to join. The meeting is an hour away by transit, far from where the circle is meeting, and I want to be there for the full meeting. I second-guess whether I have space for this. But the acronym: LUNA! A group of people to draw with outdoors! Bringing love and attention to Toronto’s ravines! I am amazed I was invited, really, although secretly afraid that I don’t have the energy or skill for it. So I am going to the meeting and missing the circle for the first time. My circle, that I started three years ago when I was struggling through winter, and which I’ve always lead, albeit in my low-key fashion.  Over those few years I’ve sometimes resented “doing all the work.” Aha, but if I give that work away to others, I also lose control!  Aye, there’s the rub, losing control is clearly challenging to me. What if the silent witnessing and respectful turn-taking I’ve worked on is replaced by cross-talk and advice-giving? I tell myself to let go of the reins, let go of managing these interactions. There will always be room to leave or to stay, for each of us. I can accept that no-one is irreplaceable, that groups form and change and eventually break. I can make decisions around what I need, and know that everything will work out as it needs to. 

And then abundance. As I clean years of accumulated clutter from my basement, I remind myself that I am fortunate to live in a time and place of abundance. That so much of what I want to clear out came from other people, from impulses of generousity.  I can still clear this stuff out of my house! But my kids have involved and loving grandparents, who buy them books and Lego and board games. Who give us ancestral pieces of furniture and china and tablecloths and silverware. And I can make boundaries about what comes in for me, but I can’t make them for the other three people who live in my house. My kids have direct relationships with their grandparents, and love the gifts they receive. Things trickle into the house and never leave. The more I want to control what comes in and how we tend the space, the more I become responsible for everything. It’s hard to extricate myself from that bind.

I don’t know where this is all going, this piece of writing, or my life, or the world as we know it, which is certainly not in good shape. Some days I feel I’m drowning in noise and clutter and other people’s opinions on the internet. And sometimes fear. I don’t know if I’ve made good choices in my life or poor ones. I think I see beautiful paths opening ahead of me, but on bad days they seem like mirages, or like I am on a rickety boardwalk through murky swamps, where my feet keep slipping into the muck.  David Whyte says heartbreak comes from learning that anything we care about will disappoint us, will eventually break us, and that is the honourable price of caring deeply. I am paraphrasing, and I don’t want it to be true, but I am sure that it is.

I’ve devoted a lot of energy to my children. It wasn’t intended that way exactly, but my brief experiments with the world of daycare and preschool and school, with rushing from one place to another, with quick transitions and tight schedules and bureaucracy, made me quite convinced that that life wasn’t for me. Now that we are talking about big changes, about school, about getting into the same rhythms as the rest of the world, will I look back and find it was worth it? Will they remember all our adventures and deep and hilarious conversations, or the many times I yelled at them, my frequent frustration, all the times I tried to get them out of my hair? Will they remember anything I tried to teach them? What will they carry into the world? I can’t control those outcomes. I can’t control what other people hold on to or remember, only what I do, and let’s be honest, that is hard enough. It’s really all letting go and more letting go. It’s trying to stay compassionate when the inevitable disappointments and heartbreaks come, keep my eyes wide open for the mountain peaks and forest clearings. It’s knowing that there will be hills and valleys and hills and valleys until the end, that nothing is ever stagnant, for good or for ill.

I can only keep muddling through, squinting my eyes to try to make out the path ahead, trying to find my footing, waiting for the sun to return, believing that it will. Where all my writing ends: the next small step, trusting in the wisdom of placing one foot in front of the other.

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Rampant: words in brief

My older son, at five, spoke the language of heraldry. Sable, azure, purpure, argent, he would tell me. Rampant, passant, sejant, couchant. Hypothetical coats of arms now drove his conversations. What would the crest be? The supporters? The field? Mummy, what is your motto? He pored over books of flags, small vivid shapes and colours marching in tightly-packed formations along each page. He acquired two large banners, the Scottish lion rampant and the cross of St. Andrew, slick bright rectangles of fabric draped over our furniture. A wooden flagpole was gifted to him by family friends, and we flew the Royal Banner of Scotland in our small backyard for his pleasure and our amusement. Our neighbour two doors south, suspicious, asked me about the flag’s provenance. Soon afterwards, a large Italian flag appeared in his backyard: a challenge. We took our flag down shortly after, childhood obsessions retreating as quickly as they once advanced. But each morning, sipping tea at my back window, I gaze out at the red, white and green of Italy, wind-tattered and faded, but firmly, insistently planted.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: rampant.

Gloves: words in brief

Going for walks at my parents’ house usually involves a large loop, twenty minutes each time along a quiet road. This used to bother me, now I find it meditative and simple, easy to add up. My mother and I went out for a walk each morning of last week’s visit. The south-east corner of the loop is wooded, mostly private property, but connecting to a marshland on the nearby small lake, where my dad and I sometimes paddle. Heading towards that corner one morning with my mother and kids, we saw a dark low shape on the road. Moving, but so very slightly we though it might be a living thing injured. We approached it with trepidation. As we neared, we made out the low, slow shape of a snapping turtle crossing the road. A car approached behind us. I waved frantically, flagged it down. It swerved around the turtle. A man and child got out and told us the snappers had been laying eggs on the north side of that corner. They sped off. Tentatively, we approached the turtle. My older son immediately volunteered to relocate her. I instructed him to hold the shell on both sides of the tail, keep a firm grip, as I had seen others do. He tried, found her much squirmy than he had expected, asked for gloves. Gardening gloves retrieved from the house as we guarded the corner from cars, he tried again. He lifted her over the pavement carefully, placed her down on the grass on the other side. A moment later, a huge truck heaved around the loop, taking up both narrow lanes. We walked home, my son skipping a little. I said to him, “You are often nervous about small things, often worry unnecessarily. But when action is needed, you are decisive. You are the first to act.” He walked home even taller than his now two inches taller than his mother.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: gloves. We moved the turtle one more time that morning, this time crossing back towards the marsh.

 

Darkness: words in brief

This morning, slightly melancholy, groping in the darkness, I thought: maybe life is random and sad and fragmentary, but the answer is to get together and sing. Maybe that really is what community is for. Not for deep reciprocity. Not to grant vision and meaning. Not for day-to-day sustenance and support. Just an occasional reprieve from the loneliness of being mortal. Something simple, a momentary unity, a momentary joy. Maybe that is what I couldn’t see. The problem was that so often loneliness was harder after the unity than before. Finally it seemed wiser to simplify, to rely more on myself, to engage more deeply with that foundational relationship. As Marianne Moore wrote, “the cure for loneliness is solitude.” It’s not so simple, of course. I live with people who love me, and that may be what tips the balance. But I’ve learned that when I choose intentional solitude, when I choose to turn my energies inward, I learn to trust that my own company is of value. I trust my own resources. My needs and motives become clearer to me. Out of that trust – I hope – my engagement with the world becomes healthier. It becomes less compulsive, lighter, more whole.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: darkness.

 

Folded: words in brief

I folded myself around my son at the end of the day. Late: 11:15. He still tells me cuddling helps him sleep. Last night, our popular city counselor of many years was hosting one of his movie nights at the tiny park at the bottom of our street. A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favourite books in my pre-teen years. My name is translated as Margaret in English. Meg, the name of every bookish, over-sensitive, but secretly very brave literary heroine of my childhood. I can’t bring myself to watch the movie. The boys went down to watch with friends. My husband and I, so desperate for any time alone, are now efficient about using it, like teens. Earlier in the afternoon, he left work early to join us for the closing of the kids beloved outdoor program. Me, now, always: “Is this the last time?” I look around the small clearing in the ravine, every family at a crossroads of one sort or another. The kids are lean, gangly, a few taller than the adults. My younger son still reaches only to my chin, although he claims to be taller. He says, “Can you cuddle with me until I’m as tall as you?” How can I rush this? That day will come too soon.

From my daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: folded.

On burning things

Taking a short break from my recent daily writing prompts this month, I find myself rereading things I wrote prior to starting up that daily practice. Longer pieces, poems, essays. Sometimes I am moved, sometimes confused. A year or two passes and it’s easy to forget the intensities of any one moment, and also the wisdom that comes out of those intensities. Some things I read make me wince a little, or smile wryly: “Who is this person? Maybe I should listen to what she says.”

There’s an expansiveness in what I read that is not part of how I feel right now.

This past winter, a winter of daily practice, of discipline, of retreat, I wondered where my fire had gone. I missed it, but also didn’t. I missed the connectivity and expansiveness and energy of a few years ago. I missed the vision. But it no longer nourished me. I could finally articulate it plainly to myself and others: I was burnt out.

A few days ago, I said some of this to a friend, with nostalgia but also with an emerging gratitude. She reminded me that when we met two or three years ago, I told her I wished I could write more, but I couldn’t find the time. I was organizing, collaborating, learning, scheduling, planning, supporting others, driving here and there, expending emotional energy and labour. My labour was rewarded in intangible ways, but certainly not renumerated. I was saying yes to everything, on an energy high, not mindful of the costs.

Now, she pointed out, I am no longer doing all those things, but I am writing every day. I am tending much that I neglected then. I’ve found the time.

Earlier this week I said no to something, as I so often do right now, and I wrote to my closest friend, my constant witness: “I feel like I am going around burning things and then being sad that they are gone, but needing to keep on burning anyways.” This is not a new feeling. It’s been with me since at least since last summer, when I stepped away from a big group commitment that I had worked towards for years. It had been creeping up for some time before that, in departures and unravellings of various kinds. I’ve written before about spirals. But it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been able to fully name the sense of ending. Slowly, gently, to lose my paralyzing fear of it and find the freedom instead.

What confused me for a long time was that I thought I’d already done this, when my kids were born, when I left my job, when I turned away from who I had always expected myself to be. But perhaps I simply found new expectations to impose upon myself.

Or perhaps it’s those cycles again, the cycles I keep finding everywhere I look.

Waldorf educators write a lot about seven year cycles. In adulthood as well as childhood. Clarissa Pinkola Estes does the same in Women Who Run with the Wolves. Death and rebirth is a constant in our lives, if we look at them with awareness. Not linear progress. Cycles of death and rebirth. Seasons. Non-linear, non-Western, non-modern time. Last year, at forty-two, I realized that perhaps a cycle was ending.

Cycles of course don’t need to mean full severance. I have been with the same partner for close to twenty-five years now. Our relationship has moved through many cycles. Encompassed joy and grief. Falling in love, taking each other for granted, periods of disconnection, falling in love again, deepening. It has been several different relationships already, and will be several more before we are done. Like an organism bigger than the sum of our two selves, it’s something we need to tend and feed regularly. I am reminded of this often, of how easy it is to disconnect in small ways, to go our separate ways, to not talk about difficult things, to find emotional sustenance elsewhere. Connection is easy to find, but this big project of a marriage of almost two decades, of co-creating a family, of co-creating a home, it’s hard but deeply satisfying. It nourishes my soul and teaches me the biggest lessons.

In the same way, everything I’ve learned and experienced in every part of my life is still mine to keep. As is each connection, each collaboration. It’s all absorbed into the whole, one thread of many, one piece of a puzzle which some day I may be able to see more clearly than I do now, although at each new turn of the wheel it already becomes a little clearer.

I read a book last month called The Joy of Missing Out. It was mainly about technology, and about the exhausting connectivity of the online world. It was about fasting, taking breaks, learning how to moderate our constant contact. But I imagine it also as a bigger choice. At some point in life, we discover we can’t Do All the Things. The cost is too big. Right now, as I have sometimes in the past, I find myself closing doors to make space in myself for whatever needs to happen next. I find myself curious again.

Or as my friend replied, when I spoke – tired, but certain – of burning: “Burning makes fertile ground. Just remember that.” Another kind of fire, with another purpose.

Hospitality: words in brief

Most of today we spent on the Leslie Spit, a human-made piece of land jutting out into Lake Ontario. Built mid-last-century for vague harbour-related purposes out of sand, silt and stone, it’s now a hybrid of ongoing filling operations, wildlife conservation, and educational programs. Thousands of migrating birds stop here in the spring and fall, are caught by careful means, weighed, banded and recorded. It’s an odd bit of hospitality: a mist net, a small cloth bag, upside-down weighing in a narrow tube, a tiny metal band clipped to one thin leg.

Each child in turn is shown how to put out their hand, how to gently contain a bird with the other, how to release it into startled flight. Warblers, thrushes, red-winged blackbirds, a cowbird, a grackle. There’s one left for me, a tiny yellow-rumped warbler, a small bright bit of fluff and feathers nestled in my palm. The sky is blue and clear, white birches rise pale against red dogwood stems and spindly green horsetails. The city skyline looms across the water, airplane traffic bustles overhead. I love these stark contrasts, this complex urban co-existence.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: hospitality.