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

 

 

Weather (a poem)

I said to a friend once:
May is the one month no-one complains about the weather.
I too expected days of sunshine, cherry blossoms,
and eternal spring,
chastising the gods and my heart for not conforming.
When did I learn that I could no more set my soul to a perpetual May
than I could stay the seasons?
Now I give thanks for summer heat, ice-crusted trees, and dark Novembers,
for the wild wind howling, for the cold rains of spring, for snow.
I give thanks for it all,
and too for the clouds that scuttle across my own heart’s skies
and for the fierce heat that burns me, and the night-time tears,
and for those first few warm rays of spring sun upon my face,
and for the silent peace that comes after the storm.

From the word prompt “weather.”  Sticking with the poetry kick.

 

A writer’s manifesto

This came out of an exercise in a class, the first “creative writing” class I’ve taken, after years of practicing writing in every other context. It came out out of a conversation about voice, and out of the prompt “I want to write in a way that…” It also perhaps came out of a question I pulled the other day in a deck of question cards I sometimes use for inspiration and insight: “What delights me?” What I find fascinating and useful in writing in a context where speed and spontaneity is prioritized (ie. timed free-writing prompts) is that for better or worse you start to learn what your own voice sounds like.

I want to write in way that marries observation and magic, that speaks with awareness of the world as it is – the bark of trees, the flight of birds, the exact blue of the bluest sky, the way the tracks of wolves trotting make a straight line in the snow – but also shifts sideways into other realms, maybe not quite crossing the threshold into fantasy, but hinting always at its existence, giving glimpses through a foggy window into a world that is also possible. I want to write from my heart, with poignancy and truth and openness. But sometimes I also want to be clever, to play with words and ideas, make them leap over each other like dragonflies, changing direction in mid-air, gliding backwards, diving straight down into the water, ethereal and predatory at once.

I want to write in a way that is honest but a little sly, that always leaves room for mystery. I want to catch the unexpected details: the man walking across from me last week – so ordinary with his runners and earphones – who raised his arms wide to the sky in a momentary gesture that opened my heart with expansiveness and praise; this morning, the startling sense, as I parted the petals of a peony and caught a glimpse of the erect flushed pistils, that I was trespassing into a private erotic realm.

I want to keep being surprised at the world. I want to engage the heart and brain and body, warm the blood, wrestle with imagination. I want to soar with my words – I can’t help it, I am in love with flight. But I want to let myself sink down deeply into the earth as well, feeling her warmth, hearing the imperceptible sighing of tiny creatures under the soil, smelling the moisture of the rain-soaked grass. I want to watch humans out of the corners of my eyes, keep my ears always open, notice what we each try to keep hidden and obscured. I want to record glimpses of conversations I overhear on the bus in languages I don’t understand, tracing the shapes of bodies leaning towards and away, catching fleeting smiles in the eyes and at the mouth’s corners.

I want to find words to sketch the shape of the non-verbal. I want to wonder and tease, seduce and celebrate.

peony

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

There are bright clearings in your tangled forest: a poem

I’ve stayed out of this space for a few months.  I’ve felt ambivalent about it and my energies have been directed elsewhere. But here is a peace-offering, a small toe dipped back into the water of these rivers, a little seed that will perhaps grow. And also a glimpse of the energy of this time of year, not unlike last year’s Solstice Poem.

Let yourself curl up into a loose spiral, a small parenthesis around ideas, a comma in between phrases.

You are the fox at the forest’s edge, the dragonfly come winter, the owl’s silent flight – sometimes you disappear.

There is no need to shout yourself from the rooftops. Sometimes it is more seemly to shift into the shadows, to don the slate-gray cloak of invisibility, to slip between the cracks, to listen.

Your warmth lies coiled, a spring gathering a supple tension. Sometimes glimmers of fire flash through your eyes or at the tips of your fingers. You keep contained, collect the sparks and bank them inward, keep the ashes hot.

Your fire warms your self, that space stretching wide within, hidden from view. You linger there in the old stories, smile secretly at memories, breathe in the longing that simmers beneath your skin’s surface; dream; plant seeds.

This is the place where you belong: within and without; hiding everything, hiding nothing.

Subtlety is a circle cast to keep your magic in this ancient grove, an honouring of the inner deep.

Keep your tenderness, keep your wild imaginings. There are bright clearings in your tangled forest. There is both light and darkness. Sometimes it is all you need.

Tracking the language of the wild

Lake Sasajewun

On a late August Friday afternoon I find myself with two friends on a journey north from the city I live in: driving through a series of highways that become progressively narrower, less busy and more winding; watching tall buildings gradually replaced by huge rocks and tall trees; then finally turning left off Highway 60 on to a secluded gravel road into the Wildlife Research Station (WRS) in Algonquin Park.

It’s a place I’ve been getting to know in the past four years or so, mostly in twice-a-year visits which swing wildly between the extremes of deep Ontario winter and its hot summer. Slipping out of the car among the tall pines and small wooden cabins brings all those memories back.

A half hour after we get out of our car we are sliding two canoes into the water of Lake Sasajewun, which I last crossed on snowshoes, and setting off into the late summer dusk.

We watch for wildlife along the edges, skirt around the deadfalls and rocks, alternate between boisterous laughter and silence. We cautiously navigate through the narrow channel in the lake and spend some time stilling our canoes together in the marshes on the northern end, breathing deeply, taking it all in, swatting the occasional mosquito, keeping our eyes open for the moose that Sue saw here last summer. As we turn back south to get through the rocks before darkness falls, I start to see the first stars appear in the still blue-gray sky. This is not like the city.

We’re here for a tracking weekend with Earth Tracks. Many of us – and others who join us that evening and later in the weekend – have completed an apprenticeship program (or two, or more…) with Alexis Burnett.

I’m here because although I love many things about my life in the city, there is this pull also to be out in the wild, to understand how the bigger pieces of my ecosystem work and how I fit into them, and also how I can help keep them as healthy as possible. And I’m here because tracking is something I have come to love intensely and want to keep cultivating, keep practicing myself and introducing to others.

I stumbled upon tracking in a one-thing-leading-to-another kind of way about four years ago, and I fell in love. I fell in love with many things about it, but mostly with the experience of paying attention. Alexis says a mentor once told him, “Tracking and awareness are the same thing.” There is a vocabulary to learn, but in many ways it’s not much more complicated than giving my attention fully. I used to walk through the woods simply enjoying the feeling of being there, and I often still do, but now I also know how to notice the little things that tell big stories.

There is that saying about not judging a person before walking a mile in their shoes. Walking following the trail of an animal, or even picking up a few of the clues it left behind, is similar. This is daily life that is unfolding before you: eating, sleeping, elimination, reproduction, play, fear. And death. Death is often spelled out very clearly. Giving our attention to all of it hones empathy and connection – with the creatures around us, with each other, and within ourselves – and brings our human lives into context.

The next morning, when we each talk about our intentions for the weekend, keeping eyes and ears open and paying attention to the little things is a common theme. There are also some shared questions about bear tracks and sign, and about learning how to find faint tracks in debris (pine duff, leaf litter). I am feeling drawn to bears this weekend, after having spent other visits here paying more attention to moose, wolves, and some of the mustelids: martens, fishers, otters. At this moment, I want to understand more about the life of black bears: their feeding strategies, their reproductive cycles, the ways they raise their cubs.

As we move out along the grounds of the WRS, Alexis points to broken branches, indentations where bear feet landed, scratches and bites on hydro poles, a few hairs caught in the wood. Some of us take turns acting out the bear turning its back on the pole and biting over its shoulder, each trying to figure out the placement of its teeth and claws. Acting things out is often the only way to really see them with our minds and feel them in our bodies. I’ve examined these particular hydro poles before – bears come back and mark the same spots year after year. But now I am starting to see how the pieces fit together. We talk about what the bears eat at each time of year; the huge number of calories they need per day, especially as they prepare for their winter sleep (not a “true” hibernation, as I’ve learned); how constantly they need to eat to make up those calorie needs. Right now they will be moving between berry season and mast season (acorns, beech nuts). We’re not seeing a lot of recent bear sign here, and we talk about the large range they need to move through to find their food, and where else they might have moved to in the park to find late crops of berries.

In the same area we find moose tracks, and branches pulled down by moose to get closer access to tasty foliage. We have a discussion about the identity of a particular shrub. I know it as hobblebush, but Christina tells me it’s viburnum. Later on we realize that we are both right – score! We look at miniscule incisor marks on an old plywood shed and wonder about what is in the plywood (salt, glue?) that appeals to rodents of various sizes.

We ask a LOT of questions, many of which we may not ever find answers to in books, even though later in the evening we’ll spend some time excitedly reading out loud to each other from field guides Alexis brought.

The afternoon brings another paddle across the lake, where some of our group elects to follow a moose trail for a short while. Our canoes lie overturned amidst sweet gale, leatherleaf, steeplebush, wintergreen, mint, and some stunning indigo-blue gentian flowers. I nibble on a wintergreen leaf as Kaleigh searches through a plant guide to identify the gentian. Moving into the trees, I spot an ideal giant rock to sit on for an after-lunch meditation: watching for birds and being watched by a curious red squirrel, smelling the air around me, listening to mysterious splashes in the lake. An hour later we paddle back – my canoe still smells like mint – and make time for a pre-dinner swim and some research on pressing questions from the day. Dinner is delicious and also rather riotous.

There is a lot of teasing and banter that happens when tracking. Maybe it’s all the time spent looking at animal scats and talking about mating strategies, trying to viscerally understand the ways animals move. People get a bit goofy at times. That evening we read technical terms in a glossary and try to figure out how to incorporate them into our vocabularies, with varying degrees of seriousness. “Crepuscular” seems to win out in its usefulness – not nocturnal, not diurnal, but active at dawn and dusk, a word applying to many creatures we track. Victor repeats it over and over again, planning to introduce the word to the primary school students he will be teaching in the fall.

After dinner, we get further wound up in silliness and debate, until Alexis gracefully shifts our energy to a walk out to the swim spot on the lake to try out some owl and wolf calls. Sending these sounds out onto the darkening lake is a powerful thing, and while we don’t get any responses this time, we can feel the change in the movement and sound of the birds around us, responding to the threat of a potential predator (the barred owl). We sit silently by the lake for a while. I feel a quiet intimacy between us growing in the falling darkness and silence here. When we get up, we can barely see the slope behind us. We challenge ourselves to walk back up the hill and along the paths without artificial light, feeling how easily our other senses kick in when our dominant sense is hampered. As we reach our cabins again, I break into a run, feeling the exhilaration of the dark night around me, celebrating how good I feel at that moment

The next day we compare dog and fox tracks on the road on the way to the lake, we find a fox scat with an entire shed snakeskin within its twists (wow!), we find the remains of a turtle egg, we speculate on the identities of particular plants. Paddling again across the lake we see beaver scent mounds and muskrat latrines. We talk about castoreum, the beaver secretion once used in perfume manufacture. We put our canoes up in a new spot, and make our way along a long trail, stopping to look at trees drilled by pileated woodpeckers, giant bear scratches on conifers dripping with sticky sap, deer antler rubs, and moose tracks. Marten scats appear periodically along the trail. We take our rain jackets on and off as gentle rain alternates with bright sun.

Before we turn around to go back, we do an intuitive tracking exercise, trying to really feel the energy of an animal from a single track and predict with intuition, empathetic understanding, and maybe with experience, where it might have gone next and where we will find more tracks. As we gather up to dip our feet in a cool creek that crosses the trail, we talk about intuition, empathy, imagination, storytelling, vision. About why we care so much about what we are doing. About what it teaches us. We walk more quickly back along the trail to our canoes. I feel satiated and also inspired.

Tracking is like visiting a country where I can speak a different language. It takes practice, and the practice helps me build on what I already know, but in the practice is also the cultivation of relationships. My attention honours that which is around me; it honours both the reality of all the life that tells its own stories separately from mine, but also the connections between my self and all of these stories. It is a form of deep listening with all my senses. It is a form of empathy for all the creatures around me. I can practice this anywhere, but some experiences are more immersive than others. Here, I am on the land of these animals, the land of all of the humans that came here before me; I am this in my own city home as well, but here I aware of this in each moment.

I feel the grace and gratitude of being a visitor, a relation, a friend.

Thanks to Christina Yu, Sue Gulley and Lianna Vargas for photos!

 

 

 

 

 

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.