Fox-child (a poem)

Vultures stirring the cloud cauldron
Catharsis from the sky
Wheeling over the spot where a month ago
I found a small dead fox at the side of the road
How delicate it was
Rusty and small-pawed, fine colt legs
Maybe a child-fox, fox-child
Only lately slipped out into the world
Stepping the woods in a soft line,
a curved string trail weaving in widening arcs
Marking its passage at the roots of trees
Scent-mementos
The letters of a lost love, crumbled and faded
Or a note on the kitchen table saying, “I’ve gone out for milk.”
But this time I won’t come back.
I went back the next day, quietly stood and spoke a blessing
A shy and awkward protocol tuned to the flies’ humming dirge
Dropped cedar, red clover, yarrow to cover its soft sides
Left it for sky burial.

 

I’m in love with poetry lately, reading it, reading about it, trying to inhabit it, writing it.  It’s an infatuation, a game, a practice of awareness, an awakening commitment.  Something that I currently always want to post with disclaimers (“work in progress”).  Why is that? 

Salt fermentation (a poem)

You always crave sweetness when it’s salt you need:
the warm salt of tears,
the sour tang of sweat,
the shock of immersion
in a cool saline ocean
soothing your heat.

But sometimes you’re drowned in salt sorrows,
your patience tried by a strange
fermentation, wholly unwelcome,
waiting for some deep sea change
to relieve you, for a rich curing agent to turn you
back to yourself.

I know you’d prefer sweet yeasts on your tongue,
their musk on your skin, their amorous softness,
but your salt struggle is
the brine that transforms you,
your grief’s complex cultures
are food for your bloom.

I know you think you’re dissolving,
but, oh love, your salt is like sweetness,
balm to my heart, tender with flavour.
Oh love, you’re bursting with comfort,
softened with yearning
you melt on my tongue.

Since the beginning of July I’ve been participating in an online course with Maya Stein called 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. It’s a course only loosely; mostly it’s a one-word prompt each day, a few helpful comments from Maya and other participants, and the challenge to write daily and keep things brief. This is from the prompt “salt.” Poetry always feels like a work in progress lately. This is about 140 words, in case you’re counting.

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.

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

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

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.