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?

 

A few things I’m learning about trust

In every yoga class I do, the teacher tells me to put my shoulders back and open my chest, lead with my heart. And I am sometimes amazed at how hard this is, even at forty. How much the long-ingrained habits of my body still fight against this. How at some point, three decades or so ago, I started to hunch my shoulders forward, to protect the soft female parts of me that were emerging. Which is probably around the same time that I learned to protect my heart.

I’ve been trying to understand what trust means, and every time I think I’ve got it, it turns out to be one step ahead of me and I can’t catch up.

Brene Brown, in her most recent book, Rising Strong, defines trust simply as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”

In the past, I would have defined those things of value in terms of physical safety, agreements, boundaries, keeping one’s word, keeping a confidence. All of those things are true. I have mistrusted people with those things in the past. There was a time when I would have – and did – cut off friendships over a broken agreement. My sense of being loved was very precarious then – I defended myself over any perceived threat.

But I have been recognizing lately how often people misuse or misunderstand words like trust or safety. Trust and safety aren’t necessarily about worrying that other people will deliberately hurt us. They are often about not believing that the most fragile parts of ourselves will be handled with compassion.

This may be even more true when we are not treating those parts with compassion ourselves.

When I feel myself shutting off my trust, it’s usually because I am afraid that something of emotional value to me, something that is dear to me – something that feels sensitive, or raw, or hurt, or sometimes beautiful, or sometimes not fully formed – will be mishandled or misunderstood or dismissed. That if I make it vulnerable to another person’s actions, it won’t be in safe hands.

I fear that the world is an abrasive place and there is no room for fragility. I don’t think this is an unfounded fear; it’s based on old experiences and wounds, and so the temptation is to hold the things that are fragile or precious really close, and build walls and barriers and boxes around them.

Sometimes it feels like everything that is most authentic and true is also fragile and precious and I am tempted to guard it all with my life.

And I do think we need to have awareness of when we need to protect ourselves in the world, but perhaps the only way to find out is to keep opening small doors into those boxes and letting people look inside. And even if they stumble and make mistakes in their response, to know that these other people are also usually hurt in some way, to know that we all constantly circle around each other in this dance of defensiveness. That every one of our human interactions is implicated in some way. And that we may need to stop, take a deep breath and try again.

There is also truth in knowing that there are people who will hurt us, and I guess that once we are hurt we are so sensitized to that stimulus that we respond the same way to a small pinprick as we do to being stabbed with a knife. This is what trauma is. I hesitate to use the word, because it’s not necessarily trauma that is measurable on a big scale, not always trauma that can be diagnosed as such.

We are all born vulnerable and honest and then at some point most of us learn – slowly or suddenly – that that is not the right way to be, that we are putting ourselves in danger. And so we find ways to prevent other people from seeing who we really are. We hold close what is most dear to us.

When I put up armour – even in subtle ways – expecting people will hurt me, where does that come from? How can I isolate the causes? Is it from being a child who was easily hurt: was it learning early to keep thick armour over those sensitive parts? Perhaps it is simply growing up in a toxic culture: the cruelty of the schoolyard, the ugliness of the media we consume. We are so many of us wounded from that.

Last week I cut out some words from a magazine article about Thich Nhat Hanh to add to a collage to inspire me for the year ahead. They read: “Each of us must ask ourselves, how large is my heart? How can I help my heart grow bigger and bigger every day?”

A few days later I read these words again, and felt a rush of panic. Can I actually do this? How much will it hurt?

An addendum to Brown’s definition of trust – and what I have been repeating to myself almost as a mantra lately – is to “extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” Allowing myself this possibility has changed my view of the world, a little bit at a time. Because it is exactly the opposite of the scenario that I acted on – the worst-case scenario – for years and decades.

The idea of extending the most generous interpretation possible has been liberating. It frees my heart. As does reminding myself over and over again that people are doing the best they can in any given moment. That, like my own actions, other people’s actions are influenced by all kinds of factors: their own emotional baggage and anxieties, their own awkwardness. Their own distractions. Their own assumptions. Their own stories. Their own habits. Their own armour. Their own numbing behaviours. Their own pain.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt frees me to keep loving them regardless. It keeps me curious. It keeps that space open. Recognizing other people’s vulnerability gives me compassion for my own. It allows me to lead with my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Six intentions for 2016

This is a time for setting and sharing intentions for the year, and I’ve got some that have been brewing that I want to put down in writing. Not for the sake of strictly adhering to them, but so I can look back a year from now with curiosity about where my path has led: my inner path as much, if not more, than my outer path.

Intentions are in no way resolutions; they are not even goals that are measurable, or timely, or particularly specific. I think of them as shifts in perspective, in attention, that allow us a frame of reference to steer ourselves towards. Or simply to keep with us in the back of our minds as we follow the current of life.

I think it is something like I learned when I was taking driving lessons more than two decades ago: “Eyes before wheels.” Whether you plan it or not, the direction that your attention is set is the direction that your body will steer towards, the direction that your vehicle will move into.

Intentions are so much the opposite of the kinds of goals we are normally told to make, but I love them. They fit me much better. They help me ask the intimate and big-picture questions: what do I want my life to look like? How do I want to feel within this life? What do I want to spend my time doing each day to feel this way as much as I can? I’m not interested in this context in imposing end results on my intentions, or in stating concrete goals out loud – instead, I want to focus on the processes I need to put in place in my daily life to feel grounded, engaged, and connected.

This year, I want to make more internal commitments, fewer external ones. And set up loose agreements with core anchoring people, who can help keep me accountable to those commitments. Not only because I need a bit of outside help to keep me accountable, but also because of my ongoing tension between introversion and extroversion. Between needing a lot of time within my own inner world, and also regular opportunities for processing and dialogue and collaboration and voicing.

I commit to continuing to work on creating good daily and weekly habits for myself and my family, better internal structures and rhythms that eliminate time wasted and small daily decisions, so that there is more room for creativity and freedom within the time that is open.

I commit to refocusing more of my attention this year to tending my home: de-cluttering, reconfiguring, repainting, tending the garden. I like homes to be very personal – fully of books, pictures, projects. And as a family that homeschools and does many daily hands-on things in a small space, minimalism is not even a goal. But my attention has been on so many external things the past few years, and I have spend so many weekends away from home, that I have much less of a handle on the objects and spaces within my home than I would like to. My children are older; we have been homeschooling for a few years now; we have different goals for the spaces in our house than we once did; and our house is feeling small. This is a big project that will take many hours of sorting and many months to reach any sort of completion.

I commit to making more space in my life for creativity. For writing and art and making beautiful things, for producing instead of consuming. For all of those things that so much defined who I was as a child that didn’t always make the cut as I navigated becoming an adult and then becoming a parent. This year, I want to choose creative practice over external commitments, both alone and with my family, and integrate these into other areas of my life. I want to inspire my family to do the same. As my kids get older, it is easier and easier to integrate my own projects into our weekly homeschooling rhythms.

I commit myself to regular movement, the kind of movement I need to nourish my body and bring my soul into presence. In recent months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to grounding myself, and have been recognizing how much that entails living fully in my body and bringing every physical and emotional sensation back to my body. Really deeply listening to what it tells me. Scanning where things are stuck and where they are hurting, and bringing love and compassion to those places, so that I can move out into the world with more ease.

And so, I want more room for movement that is intentional, disciplined and strong; but also movement that is celebratory, playful and sensuous. Not movement that feels like pushing (although cycling and walking will never drop off the radar!), but movement that feels like listening. In practical terms this means more yoga and more dancing. And specifically, right now it means Iyengar yoga, which with all of its props and meticulousness drove me crazy when I was engaged in a more vigorous yoga practice in my twenties, but now is exactly what my body needs. And it means any dancing that is ecstatic and unstructured enough to allow full self-expression. Two completely different manifestations of the need for deep listening to my body, and for the embodied practice that comes out of it.

I commit to honouring and celebrating more fully the relationships with the women in my life. Those reciprocal relationships that sustain me, that allow me both to cry and to comfort, that allow me to be fully honest about my shadows and processes, that are both gentle and powerful, that inspire and nurture me and hold me accountable. I want to integrate my love of feminine archetypes with feminist action. And again that means listening to inner knowledge and inner authority and being truthful about my needs and boundaries. It means speaking when it is time to speak and acting when it is time to act, but also waiting when it is time to wait.

I commit to more nature time alone and with my family and friends. This means fewer structured programs, and more personal application of skills and knowledge learned over the past few years. I want more family adventures, more family exploration, more family trips; more spontaneous camping and evenings around fires with my dearest friends; more long walks with my husband whenever and wherever we can manage it. I want more solo time in the wild, both days and overnights. This all means being creative on a limited budget; and celebrating the resources of flexibility and freedom that we have instead.

Yesterday, I convinced my husband to hang out all afternoon cutting up magazines and making vision board-type collages. I was curious about what would come out of it. I approached mine in an intuitive way, choosing images and words that spoke to what I want to focus my energy on right now. It will remind me of things I want to keep my eyes and heart on this year. I also love the one my husband made, and I am curious to see how he recalibrates his life to keep this vision in mind.

It’s time to fully integrate the things I’ve learned over the past half-decade of my life. Time to bring them home. Time to celebrate where I am right now.

I want the calligraphied quote – another by Thich Nhat Hanh – which I stuck prominently in my collage, to remind me of this every day: “I have arrived. I am home.”

 

“What is the brave action?”

I went to a Solstice women’s circle in December dedicated to the energy of silence and waiting, and the pause of the darkest time of year. As part of the process, I drew a card from a deck of question cards meant to stimulate reflection and intuition. It read: “What is the brave action?” As soon as I saw it I laughed. I turned to a friend sitting in the circle and said, “Didn’t I ask you this same question yesterday? Didn’t we just talk about this for hours?”

When I’ve thought about courage lately, I’ve thought about it not on the large scale, but in the context of the small and seemingly insignificant interactions and choices that make up the ordinary moments of my life.

For many years, I tried to push myself to be more brave. This worked up to a point. It slowly gave me access to experiences that I hadn’t had before. In many ways, it stretched my sense of what was possible, in myself and in the world. But the perspective this left me with was that courage was all in one direction, always in the direction of more exposure, always dictated by an external standard.

And in many ways this didn’t seem like a new perspective. How many times through my life had I pushed myself to do things that weren’t comfortable, that were kind of agonizing, without feeling that the experience helped stretch my capacity any further but actually made me retreat? What was the type of risk that would actually help me grow in the ways that I wanted?

There are infinite numbers of small personal risks any of us can take to change our perceptions of our limits, to change our patterns and ways of being in the world. How do we choose where good boundaries are for ourselves in any given moment? How do we listen to what we actually want and need? How do we know what the situation warrants? How do we listen to the truth within ourselves?

I’ve been involved a number of times in recent years with group experiences that culminate in an evening of celebration and performance, with participants invited to share their passions and talents. I’m blown away at these moments by the range and depth of people’s talents, at what people are willing to share, at the vulnerability and creativity I see.

I have also been envious at the risks people are willing to take in performing, and of the applause that comes to them afterwards. After an evening of listening to people sing and recite around a campfire last summer, I came home and told my husband that I wished I could be more brave, that I wished I could more easily let my voice be heard.

Part of his response surprised me, and I thought about it a lot afterwards: “I’ve spent decades singing in choirs,” he said, “where the point is for my voice to blend in and, in a way, disappear, to become part of a sound that is much bigger than myself.” There is a different courage, I recognized then, in sometimes stepping back, in quieting one’s ego, in contributing one’s voice to a collective experience. There are different ways to be seen and heard.

At the end of the summer, I came up against an opportunity for performance again, in front of a large group at the end of an intense week of immersive nature experience and group process. I was prepared – kind of. I had started experimenting with writing poetry that summer in part because I felt that I should have something to share in these moments. Despite what my husband had said, I felt that it was the inevitable next step.

And yet I hesitated. I was tired. I had worked hard in some new roles that week. I had taken other risks, risks that had stretched me in exhilarating ways.

As well, I had been posting my writing on the internet for more than a year, in an act that felt scary every time. Writing my small bits of poetry and prose and sharing them publicly felt like a good way to express myself. It felt, in that moment, like enough. Did I need to get up on the stage just because it was there? What did performing actually have to do with me?

I posed this question in that moment to a small group of friends. One replied, “What if I say, ‘I don’t think you should do it. It’s been a challenging week for you. You’ve pushed yourself in different ways this week. You feel great right now. You don’t need to make yourself do anything else. How would that feel to you?”

I laughed, as I felt that sink in: “That would feel exactly right. Thank you.”

So I sat back and watched the rich feast of talent and was satisfied with that choice in that moment. Honouring that limit in myself without judgement felt like I was listening to my own truth in a way that stretched, instead of constraining, my sense of who I was.

In the conversation about courage the day before the Solstice circle, I had asked my friend some of these questions, in a particular but also in a general way: “Is it braver to step forward and speak, to initiate, to take action; or to step back, to know that I don’t have to control everything, to set quiet intentions, to wait and trust that things will play themselves out as they need to?”

In response, she told me a story, one that I have been thinking about a lot since. It was a story of her own experience of swimming on a lake towards a high ledge, a popular jumping-off point, with the clear goal of taking a big risk. In this story, she climbs up to the top of the ledge, trying to push herself to jump off, then thinks “why am I doing this?” climbs down and swims away.

“Ah!” I think, when she tells me, “that’s a good analogy.” I think I know where it is going.

But then comes another turn. She starts to swim away, thinks again, “No, this isn’t it either,” swims back and finds the smallest rock she can find. And jumps off that. Then the next rock, then the next one, then the next, until she is ready to take the big leap.

Which is a pretty great series of metaphors, I think, for all of the different ways that it’s possible to approach risk.

I think back on one of the biggest personal risks of my life: getting married in my early twenties. This felt very much to me at the time like taking a giant leap off a rocky ledge in the dark, in a way that I found impossible to articulate in the midst of the popular discourses of risk around me, which were very different from that one. I could have taken smaller jumps off smaller rocks, as people often do in their personal relationships, but I didn’t. Choosing to have children felt like the same kind of risk. I found it hard to find the right words for the risk of commitment until a friend spoke about her own marriage – albeit at a later age – as an experiment in “radical hope” in the face of cynicism, and I thought “Yes, that is exactly it.” Radical hope is what I want in my life.

Yet, the giant leap is not always the best choice. So often, those small jumps that test the water will better get us where we ultimately want to go without terrifying us into paralysis or retreat. And sometimes swimming away is exactly what we need to do.

As my rock-jumping friend also reminds me: “Timing is everything.”

As someone who seems to slide around a lot on the continuum between introvert and extrovert, I wonder if these are the challenges my introverted self poses to my extroverted self and to the larger extroverted world: “Can you sometimes take the risk of stepping back? Of watching and listening and waiting? Of not being seen? Can you continue to know that you are still contributing? That you are still loved? That you still exist?”

I am finding it useful to experiment with this continuum, in many different parts in my life. To sometimes lean forward and other times lean back.  To sometimes speak and sometimes listen without speaking. And, above all, to recognize that it is all an experiment.

When I perceive opportunities for my own growth as acts of play, of creativity, of experimentation – instead of intensely imposed mandates for character-building and self-improvement – I awaken my curiosity instead of my resistance. I am less attached to the outcome of my actions. I keep my sense of humour, whilst accepting the full range of my other more intense or tender emotions. I am drawn to try new things, small things, so I can know what will happen next. To find out how the story will unfold. Or sometimes I choose instead to watch and listen and wait.

As I listen in each moment to what I need, I am reminded that it’s not ever possible to know what is a big risk or small risk – or what is a brave action – for someone else.