Instructions for loving the place you live in

(A guided meditation, a love letter, a poem. Imagine it spoken out loud.)

First, stop, close your eyes, and listen. You may be tempted to open your eyes, but you will hear more that is true if you first keep them closed. Breathe into your heart, your belly, all the way down to your feet. Stand still. Let the waves of sound crash over your head: the hum of traffic, the roar of airplanes thousands of miles above you, the shrieks of laughter, the sirens, your neighbours shouting, sparrows singing, small children’s tears. Keep listening. To love a place you must listen beneath what it pretends to be, listen to what hurts it and what makes it most alive.

Open your eyes slowly. Keep your ears open: to the whispered greeting beneath the noise and bluster, the first sigh of recognition, the soft hello.

To love a place, start walking. You can’t fall in love in a hurry, closed up in steel and glass, shutting out the seasons, blocking out what’s real. Each step is an offering of your presence, a necessary courtship, an invitation to a dance. Under your feet your aliveness meets the streets, it meets the skin underneath the rigid garments, it coaxes and teases and lays down your tracks. This isn’t possession, it’s a rite of celebration, a deep soul connection, a blessing. It’s your way to see and be seen.

To love a place, explore with slow urgency. This is not haste, it’s a courtship of delight. What will you find in the alleyways, between the spreading trees, in the unkempt fields of goldenrod and asters, deep down in the ravines, by the river’s edge? Don’t be afraid to open your senses – what you discover may enchant or alarm you: the rough bark of maples, the smell of the porous earth after a storm, bold green plants pushing through the sidewalk, trees heavy with fruit ripe for your picking, hawks wheeling wide above high-rises, rabbit tracks stretched out beside train tracks, nestlings cast cold to the ground by heavy rain, piles of cigarette butts and indestructible coffee cups, the stench and rot of last week’s compost spilled out by raccoons. It’s all real; it’s all true: both the pain and the beauty. You’re not perfect either.

To love a place, don’t distain, don’t turn up your nose, don’t turn away, don’t let others shame or disparage. You need to keep coming back. Listen to its stories, tend to its wounds, be mindful of its past, be kind. You can be a healer, a caretaker, a lover, a friend.

To love a place, you must keep showing up. You must map your joys and griefs slowly over its surface and its depths; you must weave through its wide and narrow spaces your own bittersweet life. If you are patient, the place you love will one day shake off its shyness. It will look you in the eye and share its secrets. It will pull back its hair, uncover its shoulders, uncross its arms and legs, let you in everywhere.

I tell you, I promise you: the place you love will love you back.

ravine

 

 

The web (a poem)

I lie awake at night,
spinning webs around people I love.
Each is a delicate construction
that requires all my heart.
I walk around my web in spirals, repair torn bits,
mend threads that have frayed. Many people
are relieved to be caught. Some
are spinning their own webs around me,
and I can rest for a while. Others thrash about,
tear the silk threads, fly away indefinitely.
I have learned that they will usually return
in their own time, once the first threads between us
have been laid.
I have frequently torn the web myself
(sometimes still do),
as I practice my skill as a weaver.
I am learning how to spin the threads
soft enough that they are barely felt,
but strong enough that they last forever.
The art is in making the web
invisible, felt only as a soft tug in the body,
one which gently, firmly, inevitably
pulls us together.

I have a small backlog of short pieces from the past month, a few of which I’d like to post. This is from today’s word in 100 Words: the Beauty of Brevity, “frequently.” I was woken up earlier than usual by a loud blue jay, looked at my phone on the way to the bathroom, saw this day’s prompt, and got back into bed for an hour, starting this poem in my head while half asleep.

Waiting (a poem)

I’ve been thinking about the “work in progress” feel I have towards poetry lately.  I think it’s like this: for a long time poetry and I had a fairly casual relationship. There was an easy companionship between us. The words came easily. Recently,  I think I’ve fallen in love with poetry in a bigger way, and when you fall in love, sometimes a self-consciousness develops. You seem to have too many limbs, and you’re convinced that your words are coming out all wrong, and you start comparing yourself to other people. So there’s that. This summer I’m also writing daily around word prompts instigated by someone else. And thus even more so, everything feels like an experiment: fluid, unfinished, like a puzzle, sometimes awkward, but also exciting. How do I use today’s random word as a jumping off point to understand my own voice? How do I turn this into something I want to write about? How do I unselfconsciously try things out that are new to me? And then there’s the question of whether to share things when they feel so provisional. But the truth is right now I want all poetry all the time. This is from the word “waiting.”

Waiting

The wistfulness of late summer
arrives earlier each year.
This year it came when the spring’s first shoots
rose up above the ground.
Later, you knew, there would be rain and sun,
and the wild riot of blooming,
then flowers fading, grass withering, leaves turning.

What you had waited for each day in winter,
the tightness of your body aching to release its tension,
would barely start before it ended:
you, a spring uncoiled in
summer’s high dive under the approving sky,
the lake’s blue eyes ringed with tall sweeping pines,
smiling at your graceful prowess.

Too soon the lake cloud-lidded,
the sun again turning its face from you,
now basking its love upon the leaves,
inflaming them, and then too, in fickleness,
discarding both you and the leaves,
now older and more over-ripe
with knowing than you once were.

And you retreat.
Sit quiet by your small fire, waiting,
curl back into yourself again, lovelorn,
aching again with a pained hope
– each year aching with your pained hope –
that the sun will turn its fierce and tender gaze to you once more,
next spring.

 

 

Birth Story (a poem)

It started at midnight. Or the night before. It started with the movies, the long walk home, my aching back, the dripping mist, the glare of streetlights, cab drivers turning aside from my tautly rounded belly.

It started with a gush of water, with a catch of breath, with darkness, with pain.

In the middle my body turned inside out. I became elastic, bones came through me, my heart slipped outside my body. It was torment. And magic. And an everyday wonder. And the oldest story told for the first time.

And then there were your long limbs, your blinking eyes, your open mouth; your fragile, red, wriggly being slipping out into the afternoon light. You were more familiar and more alien than anything I had ever known.

I was exhilarated, enchanted, exhausted. All my borders became permeable. The truth is, for some time I only existed for your survival. My body flowed with food for you. I breathed with you, cried with you, laughed with you, slept your sleep, woke your waking, kept you alive.

On this day I was a doorway. I was a boat carrying you into this human life. The wild impossibility of birth brought the rumour of death with it too. One slipped out with the other to dance together through a complicated world.

I was born then too. There was no bridge back. I can’t remember who I was before this day.

Twelve years later.  It feels like a long time ago.  But I want to remember these details.

Midlife, fairy tales, and the mentoring of books

I’ve taken a long hiatus from this blog again, and why? I’m not any busier than I have been since I started writing here. In truth, I am probably less busy. Perhaps I feel less able or simply less willing to juggle many balls at once, albeit many of them having been visible only to myself. I think that overall this is a good thing. In recent months I find myself consistently and unexpectedly getting eight hours of sleep every night. I find myself delighting in my own company. I even find myself saying no to many things that could bring me joy, because once there are too many things piled upon each other, the joy slips away.

The word that has been sitting with me recently is discernment. Discernment is often challenging for an enthusiast. Everything that approaches me seems equally exciting, equally possible, equally worthy of my attention. But if I spend my life responding to external invitations, however enticing, when do I sit still and listen for the quiet inner voice, the whisper of intuition, my internal truth?

Recently, I find myself asking these questions of everything that asks to find its way into my life: Is this necessary? Does this feed me? Is this truly using my gifts? Is this the best way to be of service? Is it wise to say yes to this? What do I need to give up in order to make this possible?

Because there is always something that I will need to give up.

I read recently that midlife starts when one begins counting down until the end of life instead of counting up from the beginning. The parts of life that seemed impossibly far away and perhaps not very interesting when I was in my twenties and thirties now loom huge and close and fascinating. Age has become more interesting than youth.

And it feels like time to worry much less about what to do and much more about who to be.

As I look towards the elders in my life for maps of the route ahead, I’m also recognizing how much I am soaking up the mentoring I find in books. Reading has often been a baseline for me, sometimes it’s been an escape, often it’s been an anchor, and sometimes it’s been pushed to the side for more active pursuits. But now I find myself reading voraciously again, in a way that feels like deep nourishment for my soul. I am ravenously hungry for wisdom.

A couple of years ago, I felt a bit unhinged. I found myself facing parts of myself that had long been lonely, self-critical, armoured, afraid. It was time to face them. I spilled a lot to a few people, spent a lot of time writing, re-established some good grounding and creative practices, learned to be much kinder to myself. But for some time I also found myself grabbing hold of certain books and carrying them around with me, feeling reassured by their physical presence, by what felt like the voices and stories of people wiser and kinder than myself reaching out to hold me.

That year, I spent a lot of time with Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow, David Whyte’s Consolations, anything by Brené Brown and Pema Chödrön.

After that I read everything I could find by Martin Shaw, Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted, and finally and slowly – after looking at its thick spine sitting on my desk for several years – Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves. I’m still working on that one.

In the midst of these – along with much poetry and some fiction – I’ve read many other books: on writing, art, love, community, spirituality, psychology, mythology. But only some of them stay with me as elders and mentors.

Right now, inspired by the Clarissa Pinkola Estés and by an online course with Sharon Blackie, The Mythic Imagination, I’m reading a lot of fairy tales and folk tales. I love this deceptively simple form, the richness of it, the symbolic motifs, the universal questions. It brings out the scholar in me, the long-ago English student, taking delight in finding patterns in puzzling places.

Looking to folk tales for mentoring, I’ve come across two books by Allen B. Chinen, one of stories for midlife, one for elderhood. It is both unsettling and reassuring to find that everything that has preoccupied me in recent years is a developmental stage of this moment of my life. I may have known this in theory, but reading the same themes repeated again and again in folk tales from around the world brings it into my heart: I am a small piece of the puzzle, an ordinary human with ordinary human problems, “a small detail on the landscape” as I heard someone recently say, a phrase that I continue to find oddly reassuring.

Henry Miller wrote: “You observe your children or your children’s children, making the same absurd mistakes, heart-rending mistakes often, which you made at their age. And there is nothing you can say or do to prevent it. It’s by observing the young, indeed, that you eventually understand the sort of idiot you yourself were once upon a time — and perhaps still are.” I can see where I would like get to as a human, but I can’t get there any faster than my human capacity will allow.

Now, at midlife I have one foot in the ambition of youth and one in the generosity of the elder, stuck between expecting always to be rescued by magic and knowing enough to rely on my own practical wisdom, caught in between believing that the treasure and the prince are always mine to win and learning that, eventually, everything precious is meant to be given away.

desk june 2017

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

On passions, distractions, and living your life

I sit outside my parents’ house on an August morning, watching a red squirrel race through the branches of a white cedar at the back of the house. It’s exhilarating to watch the effortlessness of this small creature’s means of moving through the world, never hesitating, never losing its footing. Really, it’s almost as if there is no footing to speak of. The impression I have when I watch squirrels in trees, especially the tiny red ones, is of a motion as fluid as swimming. I could swear to you that they are swimming through the branches, swimming from one tree to the next.

Swimming is not something I have ever myself done particularly well. After all the swimming lessons I did as I child, I never did figure out how to get the breathing right. For years I avoided bodies of water entirely.

This seems a wild omission to me right now, knowing the effect that immersion in water has on me. A few years ago I decided – in the interest of saying yes to the widest range of sensory experiences – that if there was water to get into, I would get into it, at least from May to the end of October, the full span of summer.

Now, spending this early August week outside the city, with several lakes to choose from, each day’s immersion resets the chatter of my brain to neutral. My mental lists, my internal rehearsals of conversations and emails, my sense of trying to anticipate the next steps – they are silence and stilled. The cold water shocks me out of my preoccupations; it cools the intensity of my inner fires; it soaks into my skin and bones so that I carry its memory in my body for hours.

I practice breathing out, touching the bottom and coming back up; I jump off small docks with my children; I float on my back and watch the clouds. I am soothed into quiet, into stillness.

I imagine being as transparent and light and spacious as water, but also as wild and powerful and fierce.

It is perhaps a sign of the age I live in – or a product of my own span of enthusiasms – that whatever I am doing I usually feel like I should be doing something else. The internet world wages a stubborn battle between manifestos on productivity and quieter voices suggesting that productivity isn’t all that we are here on this Earth to manifest. A battle between the rallying cry of sculpting life entirely with your own hands, damned be the obstacles; and the quieter whisper of recognizing that the life that IS is – if we can see it fully – often more beautiful than we are willing to acknowledge.

I balance on the fence between one view and the other, as I do with so many things. I scan articles on following your passion, on efficiency, on setting goals. I find myself having passing conversations with single-minded people who tell me that they are looking for a hobby, and then I realize I’m not even sure what a hobby is. Everything in my life is maybe a hobby or maybe a passion or maybe a calling, or maybe a distraction from something else. I am drawn both to simplicity and to multiplicity, aware of both the allure and the dangers of each.

Sometimes, I want to strip everything down to its bones. I want to find the truths behind the walls; I want to open the curtains and go backstage and see what is hiding there. And at the same time, I love the abundance, the riotous celebration and interdependence of the non-minimalist life. I often wonder why it is only the women in my life who are wooed by the gospels of de-cluttering, eliminating, fasting. Why do we believe that we always need to be smaller and sparser and less complex than we actually are?

And then, how does one cut the distractions out of life? A while ago I read an interview with a writer who was asked how he managed to spend weeks at his desk writing on beautiful, clear and sunny days. He said that he uses blackout blinds and plays recordings of rain sounds to convince his body and mind that staying inside is all that he wants to do.

I loved reading this. It gave me a huge and powerful jolt of clarity: this man’s discipline awes me, but I am never going to be that person. When the sun shines and the sky is blue and a light breeze beckons, I will do everything I can to make sure that I am out in the world.

I can admire single-minded people, and yet not envy them. I can move between each of my passions, weaving pieces of a larger tapestry. I can create my own mental maps of the connections between things, finding the small ways in which each piece fits. I can swim between the trees, never losing my footing. This way, nothing that I love needs to be rejected.

You can do this too. Your life as you are living it is not a distraction from something else.