Spanish: words in brief

Evenings around the woodstove at my parents’ house this holiday week have been accompanied by an electronic soundtrack of arbitrary phrases voiced in four languages – Polish, French, Spanish, Russian – punctuated by happy pings of reward and more occasional buzzings of error. My sister, amused, last night: “Am I the only person here who owns earphones?” My children and I are on a month-long Polish streak on Duolingo, me finally determined to teach them my first language after years of feeling tongue-tied trying to translate the English that colonized my brain more than 35 years ago. My dad and sisters, on hearing our lessons, each dive in too, and now we are all daily practicing every language that we know in this new and addictive format. I don’t know how much Polish my children will take away, but there are other truths they are starting to glean: that we must take care in our communication, but also take risks; that the way we construct our language shapes the way we construct our world; that some things, important things, will never be translated.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: Spanish. Day 96 of 100. 

I’ve tried out various things with this daily writing practice over the past three months. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve challenged and entertained myself by finding my brief story within the day’s events. It has been surprisingly easy to find the connection points. As times goes on, however, I am increasingly lax with the word count.

Register: words in brief

Long-legged, four-footed mammals usually move in a direct register walk or trot, hind feet stepping perfectly in the tracks left by the front, imprinting a long, almost straight line that thrills me every time I see it, especially on a wide expanse of clean snow. I’ve learned that it’s important to respect the tracks of animals, that these hold a piece of their spirit, and sometimes, if we’re trailing close behind, a little of their living warmth. I love finding squirrel, raccoon and pigeon tracks in city sidewalks, set in concrete: a gift, a reminder of what can’t be tamed. My younger son and I, rushing somewhere the other day, step directly in a patched square of sidewalk, still setting, leaving our boot prints firmly behind. The next day snow covers our tracks, but I know we’ll encounter them again in spring: I somewhat embarrassed by our carelessness, he beyond thrilled to be thus memorialized.

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

Surgery: words in brief

He was in his sixties when he was hospitalized with lung cancer, but adamant that he was too old for surgery. “I don’t want to die under the knife.” His words were tossed heavily between my mother and grandmother, and sunk down deep in my small psyche, filed under “how to boldly meet death as it approaches”. I was six and we were leaving to join my father in Canada. I imagine my grandmother alone two months later, hope that she found some consolation in observing the customary rituals, in her daily visits to bring flowers and candles to his grave. Her gravestone was ready next to his, carved and waiting only for an end-date. They expected life to be hard, death to come when God called them; peace and comfort were surprising, like unexpected gifts.

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

 

 

Three: words in brief

I told my kids the other day: “I should have had one more son. Then he could be the good youngest brother, who inherits everything, and you could be the two wicked older brothers who torment him until he leaves on his quest.” In fairy tales, there must be three or seven siblings, although only the youngest one counts. Fairy tales seem to prefer prime numbers. My younger son points out that two is also a prime number, and so perhaps it is magical enough, despite being prosaically even. We decide that two is perfect for our family. I tell them that after some thought, I have also decided that neither of them has to be all good or all wicked. They can both be regular mixed-up complex humans, sometimes tormented and sometimes tormenting, sometimes leaving and sometimes left behind.

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

Durable: word in brief

I arrived with a rabbit fur coat, worth several month’s salary in a country where there was so little to buy that all consumption was conspicuous. The coat was all wrong, and my mother conceded to buying us Canadian snowsuits, likely wincing at the flimsiness of the fabric, running her hands over it appraisingly as her seamstress mother had done. Those snowsuits are long gone, but the long leather coat my mother brought with her still hangs in her closet, as does her father’s leather jacket and her mother’s fur. And the cotton sheets we brought in our suitcases, my childhood sheets, are still crisp and intact, while year after year the newer ones wear and tear and are discarded.

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

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