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

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

 

 

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

On going underground

January is always a hard month. And somehow this always surprises me. Somehow I think I’ve braced myself against it, I’m ready, and then it hits me, and I feel myself going under. There are little things that help. I am learning to reach out in those moment to a few dear friends, to say “This is a hard day, can you sit beside me and hold my hand?” even if this holding sometimes happens over a distance. I am learning to write it out, to move, to give myself space to witness. I am learning to always let myself cry when I need to.

Someone once said to one of my children, “Why are you crying? Crying never helps.”

“Don’t listen to that,” I tell them and you and myself, “crying always helps.“

When I feel myself going under, there’s no way to rush through it. It takes patience, and compassion, and repeating each day the practice of things that normally bring me joy, until something catches me up again – something beautiful, something moving, something that makes me laugh out loud. I know I am coming back when I remember my sense of humour.

And I believe that sometimes we need to fall apart. We can hold ourselves together for only so long, and then it becomes too much work and we need to crumble, and then crumbling is a relief. Disintegrating is a relief. Because then the effort required to keep ourselves together, to present ourselves as intact and well-protected, can be dedicated to other things. Crumbling, in itself, becomes less something to fear.

And yet, sometimes it is hard to be around people in this crumbled state. Everything is exposed, and while the wounds may need to be aired, there is still the need to keep all the grit from getting in, the need to keep the wounds clean, if possible. The awareness that everything is sore and sensitive and needs to heal, even if healing is sometimes a lonely thing. Perhaps tears also help us clean the wounds, so that they don’t fester, so that they are simpler to tend to in the end.

I don’t think it’s possible to get through life without times of darkness, and what brings these on is not always obvious. I can love my husband and children, I can count my blessings, I can see that the world is beautiful, and I can still sometimes find it hard to get through the day. It is not always possible, or helpful, or necessary, to find a label for this, but sometimes it is. There is a deep descent, sometimes in stages; there is the knowledge of inner terrain that needs to be navigated and passed through; there is a period of separation. Sometimes we need help to come back out into the light, sometimes we reach it in our own time, with patience and awareness and presence.

A few weeks ago I woke up and I questioned why I was in this dark place. I felt like I was underwater. I was trying to hold my head above, but seeing that maybe it was time to dive deeper instead, that maybe I was wrong about what element I belonged to. I remembered something a friend had said the previous weekend, when I had sat in a circle with a group of women who I love, each of whom had in turn shared their own stories of transition, uncertainty and loss:

“We need to keep going back down into the underworld, and looking at what we find there, then coming back up again. The hero’s/heroine’s journey doesn’t happen once, it happens over and over again, in a circle. It never really ends.”

And when I woke up that morning, I felt the story she sketched out, the narrative arc of that journey, slowly pulling me up again. It took me out of the eternal present. It made me see that the darkness is one step on the journey, that it is part of the cycle, that there is a time of return to the light. It made me feel the possibilities of deep mining, the hope that there is some magic or some medicine to be found there, that there are always gifts to be found underground.

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Be Ground

Be crumpled, so wildflowers

will come up where you are.

You’ve been stony for too many years.

Try something different.

Surrender.

 – Rumi –

Seal Woman (a poem)

When the waves crash over your head

and you brace yourself,

against that shock of darkness

seeping into eyes, nose, mouth, ears, skin,

so that you are gasping, blind, waterlogged,

dissolving,

fighting against that which envelops you,

afraid

that you cannot stand, breathe, swim,

or survive –

what if you, in that very moment,

know

that the dark water is in truth your element,

that you are actually a seal woman,

a selkie –

lured onto land by pride and promises,

and the beating of your all-too-human heart?

– know that you are truly, irrefutably,

a water creature,

a being who can live on land but briefly,

that you have overstayed your time here,

that in the harsh air you will eventually

dry out, wear out;

you will be parched, homesick;

you will be a mere shadow of your own soul’s self.

Then, by that alchemy of thought,

will you, instead of fighting,

dive deep down into the water that could be your grave

or your salvation?

Will you find yourself at home there –

lithe, graceful, saturated, satiated –

as you have never been on land?

Will you surrender to that unknown yet familiar

darkness?

Will you surrender then, and find yourself at home?

 

Leave-taking, 1981 (a poem, a story)

There was the airport in Warsaw,

my baby sister crying,

my grandmother, who did not understand why

anyone would cross an ocean,

saying goodbye.

There was the flight, with cigarette smoke and candy,

landing in Montreal,

driving some distance in the dark.

There was the townhouse my father had rented;

it was bigger than any home I had seen,

and I got lost in the basement, yelling

for my mother to find me.

My father had filled a shopping cart with

bananas for us, because

there were so many,

and in the world he knew,

we stood in line for everything

and everything could be bartered.

There was my first day at school,

crying at my desk, alone in the midst of

incomprehensible sounds,

my name changed,

harsh and unfamiliar.

A week later, a peculiar thing,

children knocking on our door,

asking for candy;

we hid inside with our lights off,

my mother tense with irritation

and worried about money for food.

There was the news

that my grandfather had died,

and there was no way for us to go back;

we knelt by our beds, I remember,

and prayed for him;

and I remember my fear of death then,

of being eaten by worms.

Slowly I started to understand and speak,

but words are only the surface of things,

and I had a new friend,

with darker hair and skin than

anyone I had known,

who told me that Jesus was a prophet

among many,

and not the son of God;

I was stunned then by her ignorance

and argued with her,

and only years later did it

become an amusing story,

of two children

and the totality of the world views

they had been taught.

Here, in this place, I shed the world-view,

I shed the skin that I had been born into,

I shed the certainty of anything.

There is an exile in being changed,

home doesn’t exist anymore;

there is no way to return.

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My father often recites a nineteenth-century Polish poem, Smutno mi Boże (I am Sad, God), in which Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki, in political exile from his home, speaks of his sorrow and his longing for the land that he has left behind. It made me wonder about the idea of exile, what it means in the twenty-first century, what it means to anyone who has left the land of their birth and their ancestors. And thirty-four years after emigrating, these childhood memories came flooding back.

What do you need to leave behind when you reshape your life, shed your world-view, undergo transformation?

(On a technical side note, I can’t figure out how to get any control over verse breaks in this particular WordPress theme. Double spacing doesn’t work.)