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

Grieving the things we expected but didn’t receive: building and rebuilding the village

I love leaving and returning. I can see why people develop a habit of it, or of moving from place to place and floating on the emotional highs of goodbyes and hellos. Staying in place is hard work. In the past, even when I stayed in place, life was divided into periods of time that seldom overlapped. Now I can imagine all of my relationships stretching back into the past and forward into the future, ebbing and flowing, moving in cycles. It is a very different experience, the bird’s eye view of life – the lines moving away and back again, crisscrossing, narrowing, widening, crossing rivers and mountains and dark valleys, then returning. And me, tracing those paths over and over again, trying to understand where I belong.

We recently returned from a trip to England. I say I love returning, but on some level I didn’t want to return. After any amount of time where I have other adults around all day (or even one other adult, my husband, who often manages to make himself count as several people), I feel how impossible daily community feels in the culture I live in. I am permanently wavering between two extremes: what I am doing now, which is sometimes spending a lot of hours alone with two children (especially in the colder months); and the other alternative, which is putting the children into an age segregated group of thirty kids and one adult for many hours of each day, with all of the implications and expectations of that system.

I will keep choosing the first option, because I can’t currently reconcile myself to the second, but I am learning that homeschooling will always be a work in progress for us: building, deconstructing, and rebuilding; ebb and flow; love and fear; one foot in, one foot out; periods of connection, inspiration and flow and periods of confusion.

Shortly after we came back from England, I read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. He talks about five gates of grief, five ways of entering the sacred spaces that grief moves us through: grief at losing someone we love (generally the only grief acknowledged, even if inadequately, in our culture); sorrow for the world; ancestral grief; grief at the parts of ourselves that weren’t loved; and grief at the things we expected but didn’t receive. There is a lot to look at in each of them, but at this moment in my life, it was the last one that hit me hard.

The things we expected and didn’t receive, the things that are somewhere encoded deep in our genes and psyche as our birthright, are the elements of a village in its most ancient, most holistic sense: many hands to share the work; many arms to hold our children, to hold us; a deeply-rooted, unshakeable sense of belonging and trust; our gifts sought out, named, and celebrated; our passages honoured, from birth to death.

Our parents expected these things, and likely didn’t get them, and our grandparents too, and a long way back.

And I see how impossible it feels – despite knowing that I want these things for my children too – to provide them, because our community is never going to be intact and whole like a village; it will always be scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized, shifting; separated by distances, conflicting responsibilities and conflicting narratives. It will always be composed of people who also weren’t nurtured in the villages they expected, who – despite their best efforts – are also wounded, wary, unsure of where and how they belong, who are pulled by competing priorities and needs and the overwhelming daily demands of “making a living”.

It may seem strange to say that grief is a beautiful relief when contemplating what always seems to be out of reach. And this is a hard thing to articulate clearly, because at the same time that I speak of grief, I am also aware and grateful of how much richer and more honest and more passionate and more numerous the relationships that I am woven into now are then they have ever been in my life. And yet, as they become richer, it is like a doorway is opened to these deeply-hidden, deeply-encoded expectations, buried for so long, and they burst out with insatiable demands, impatiently wanting to be fed, howling out because they’ve had to wait for so long, wanting to live everything to the fullest now.

Or maybe I’ve reached a point in my life where a sense of urgency sometimes overwhelms me. And so gratitude and grief are entwined again, as they so often are: acknowledging both the beauty and the brevity of life; recognizing with tenderness that people are doing the best they can, that I am doing the best I can, that I need to be patient, that I can only take responsibility for myself.

Patience, my love, patience, I whisper to myself.

Grief is an antidote to cynicism and blame and disengagement. It is a necessary, ongoing ritual of clearing, of making space for reweaving the threads, of keeping my heart open to whatever comes next, of celebrating what is here.

When I said that I didn’t want to return, it is also because it seemed for a moment that it would be easier to be the one leaving than one of the people staying behind and trying to keep holding things together. Easier than committing long-term to creating community where I am. Easier than trying to understand what my role is, what I am meant to give. Easier than staying present and open to relationships that sometimes confuse me and sometimes break my heart. Easier than showing up and engaging.

Easier for a little while anyway. But if there is ever a time in my life for building, this is it. And so I return and re-engage. Passionately re-engage.

I meditate on an interview I recently read with Martin Prechtel, where he refers to the Mayan spiritual tradition of making  things (“our houses, our language, our relationships”) fragile enough that the need for constant repair and rebuilding creates an urgent condition for community to keep renewing itself:

It’s a fine balance, making something that is not so flimsy that it falls apart too soon, yet not so solid that it is permanent. It requires a sort of grace. We all want to make something that’s going to live beyond us, but that thing shouldn’t be a house, or some other physical object. It should be a village that can continue to maintain itself. That sort of constant renewal is the only permanence we should wish to attain.

Connection, disconnection, renewal; building, disintegration, rebuilding: it is taking things apart and putting them back together that makes us strong.

Since we’ve returned, I’ve found myself in tension with all the good habits I had been trying to create in the past year – around homeschooling, around writing on this blog, about making art – but this has also been a relief. Maybe that was what I needed in the fall and winter, to create structure as a way to anchor the introspection and drifting away that I feel in the colder months, as a way to anchor the restlessness that I felt last summer.

But structure and I have always been had an uneasy relationship. And now, as I start to slip already into my summer self, structure again feels oppressive, and I need most of all to get out of the house, be with people, spend hours of each day outdoors, celebrate and grieve, take off for small adventures, follow my children’s lead, follow my heart.

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Turning the wheel

Last week I once again decided to unravel a large part of a sweater that I have been knitting for the past two months. I made stone spirals on a beach and watched them wash away. I tried again and again to light fires with damp wood, patiently, sometimes blowing on coals until they finally burst into flame and I could imagine that the flames had come out of my lungs, from the inner fire of my spirit, lurking deep inside me like a dragon ready to spring forth. And sometimes the fire went out, and I did it all over again.

I was caught by jealousy one day and wrote my way out of it, pen on paper, until it withered and dissolved, and I found myself instead gently tending a seed of compassion. I made a beautiful pair of snowshoe moccasins at a workshop, and daydreamed of travelling over the snow for days at a time, of camping in the winter, of the infinite possibilities of adventure. I considered making a pair of wooden snowshoes to go with the moccasins. But not now: next year, next November, when the time is again right.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s amazing book Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I read a story about Ariadne and the labyrinth, about life, death, and rebirth; about the gradual and patient threading and rethreading of the inner labyrinth that we need to undertake over and over again, to peel away at the layers of ourselves, to slowly and carefully slough off the things we no longer need, to die and be reborn over and over again.

There are things that wind around my life like spirals. I have lived with circles, medicine wheels, compasses central to my life for a number of years now. I’ve worked and discussed and shared in circles; I’ve observed my own cycles of learning and creativity; I’ve tracked the waxing and waning of the moon; I’ve followed the cyclical rhythms of the day; I’ve honoured the seasons.

But part of my mind has always been trapped in linearity. A linear world view superimposed by a cyclical world view is doubly exhausting. There is the deep ancient knowledge that there should be periods of rest, but modern life seems unceasing, like a rushing river: moving fast, moving forward. There is momentum, always momentum. There are goals – there is progress. There is the fear that once something is past, it is past; that there is only forward or back. Or nothing.

I layer on new things in my life. And I let go of other things. But sometimes, I am learning, it is not an ending, just a rest, just a turn in the wheel to a place where there is more space to breathe. Sometimes years go by before I return to the same place. Sometimes years go by before a passion is reignited. Sometimes years go by before I return to a friendship that I thought I had lost. But I am learning, truly, that life goes around in circles.

A few weeks ago I was feeling discouraged at how I let my garden go wild by the end of each summer. I wondered if I should keep planting things. I felt guilt that I hadn’t planted garlic yet, the one thing that takes no effort at all to grow in my backyard. I thought, “Here are all of these things I was recently passionate about. Am I letting them go? Is that the end?”

But then, as I was talking to a friend, I said, “But what if I don’t plant anything this year? What if I don’t plant the garlic? That doesn’t mean I’ll never plant anything again. Sometimes it’s time for the ground to lie fallow. Sometimes that’s what the soil needs.”

As I said this, I felt a deep spacious breath in my lungs. There are seasons; there are cycles. There is usually another chance, when the time is right.

Sometimes my mind judges that I should let go of things, let go of strong feelings, but I don’t. Nothing in life is that linear. Instead my thoughts move in a circle; I thread and rethread the labyrinth in my heart. I find my way in and out, back in and back out, until each time the journey is smoother, less painful, less arduous. Until the letting go comes, in its own time, when I am ready, when I have wrung out everything I can learn, when the jagged edges are smooth and gentle.

Sometimes a fire goes out, and I relight it. Sometimes I unravel a bit, and then create something better. I forgive myself. I forgive other people.

This is how balance comes: not through sameness, not through remaining always in a neutral state, but through seasons of wild abundance and seasons of quiet sparseness.

I want my children to learn this: that it’s possible to put things aside and come back to them when the time is right; that sometimes the only way through is by trial and error; that what seems like an ending usually makes space for something new; that so often we need darkness and quiet for the seeds to grow.

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The spell of loneliness

Recently, I have needed to pause a little, to pare things down. In part that is the archetypal energy of the fall: after the abundance of the harvest comes the shedding of what we don’t need. But more so, I am realizing that although I have been in a long transition for the past ten years, I have never given myself the time to just be in transition, without goals or expectations, or internal pressure to prove my productivity and worth. And so I find myself right now in a process that is intense and sometimes scary, to simply allow myself be in that space of waiting and uncertainty, to deliberately make room for it: I say no, I turn off my phone, I ignore all of the things I have promised to other people, and I simply listen and watch, reflect and wait. I honour a commitment to myself.

But sometimes, when I take this time in the periphery of other people’s productive lives, I feel a dark cloud of loneliness descending over me. Sometimes it creeps in slowly; sometimes it descends rapidly and takes me fully by surprise. My internal weather system is tumultuous and unpredictable in these moments.

I have been thinking of something I read a while ago about emotions. How one emotion often triggers another, and how as we map them, we can see that our entire world-view can shift when we are in the midst of a particular feeling: “that when we’re sad, for example, it’s hard to remember that the world itself hasn’t become a sad place, even though that’s exactly what it feels like.”

I have been mapping the clouds of emotion in myself, and I am learning that sometimes when I choose to be alone – particularly when I choose to be alone among other people – dark feelings begin to creep in through the associations my brain and heart and body have with that experience. I can feel everything around me turning to shadow, and if I restrain the urge to numb or fix it, I have to pass through that shadow to get to where my true self waits.

And I feel myself separate into two parts in those moments, one that is overcome with intense loneliness and disconnection, and the other part that is aware that I am in the middle of a storm, and that I need to hold on tight until it passes.

A dark cloud descended on me the other day. Several hours intentionally alone in the woods, a disconnecting communication with a friend, my mind and heart holding on to another interaction that I couldn’t seem to unravel, and the darkness started to fall. And as it crept upon me – and I was aware of it creeping – I could feel a cloud of disconnection and mistrust threatening to spread. The darkness infected me; it reframed everything; it distorted my thoughts and my perceptions of the human connections in my life.

The watcher part of myself, which I have worked hard to nurture over the years, tried to keep the cloud at bay, to keep space around myself where it couldn’t get in, to know with my rational mind that I couldn’t trust what I was feeling.

Several hours later, as the internal storm continued to rage, I found myself at home reading aloud a book to my younger son, a novel in the fantasy tradition where good and evil are in battle. I read of a young boy – not yet aware of his supernatural powers – who is left alone in a small mountain cabin, waiting for a friend to return with a magical item that will help ward off the Dark that is all around them in that place. He is warned that the spot he is waiting in is a stronghold of the Dark, and that he will need to fight off that evil until help comes.

And the attack, when it happens, takes no physical form. It takes the form of thoughts, cast into his mind, that threaten to turn him against those he loves. Thoughts that are suspicious, cynical, mistrusting, guided by fear. And in his mind he fights back, holding on to his reason and the truth he knows of love.

It felt strikingly familiar.

Disconnection, in that moment, was like a spell that had been cast upon me, like a test that had been waiting for me on my journey. And all I could to do was stand fast and ward it off.

A couple of hours later, I had succeeded in pushing the darkness aside. Or perhaps the storm had just taken its course, and I had weathered it. I was in peace. I hadn’t said anything hurtful to anyone, or even to myself. My internal relationships were intact. I had come back to myself and come back to trust.

When it’s over, I can hardly remember what the storm felt like.

I remind myself that the shadow moments are an integral part of my life. If I choose calm presence and steady rhythms, loneliness is one of the specters that comes to haunt. The shadows are a consequence of the choices that I have made; an occupational hazard of moving parts of my life outside of the mainstream structures that I grew up expecting to mold myself to. They are the side-effect of a web of relationships that are not geographically bound. They are my grief at not living in a village with all those I love.

They are my payment for swimming in Georgian Bay on a Friday in September, for last-minute camping with friends mid-week in October, for all the rainy mornings spent curled up on the couch reading with my kids instead of rushing to be somewhere else.

They are the shadow side of the freedom I have carved out to choose what to do with my own time; the shadow side of following internal rather than external rhythms and motivations. They are the shadow that emerges when I clear away busyness and aspiration and look at what is underneath, when I ask “what do I – what do we – really need in this moment?”

They are also the residue of having judged myself so long through accomplishment, through doing instead of being. Judged my life through the cultural belief in scarcity that so quickly bring me –bring all of us – to ask “what is missing?” instead of “what can I celebrate?”

And they are a reminder of what I once learned from Joanna Macy: “Everybody’s lonely.” Whatever form it takes, however we learn to handle it, whether it’s in solitude or in a crowd, loneliness will come. And we need to remember that loneliness isn’t real. It’s an illusion, a shadow, a spell.

Advice to self

Listen:

You heart tells you what you need.

Ignore the advice,

The words of men in books telling you to carve a separate path.

You are part of a thread,

That stretches into the infinite past,

The infinite future.

Your hands reach out to your ancestors,

To your descendants.

The world is not a battleground,

It is a garden.

It is an organism

Of which you are a necessary cell.

You do not need to cut the joy out of your life

To create.

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Last week I skimmed through The War of Art in a bookstore, while in the midst of reading The Buddha’s Wife: The Path of Awakening Together. What a contrast in world-views. In that moment I resented the first (although I will take what I need and leave the rest behind) and was inspired by the second.

How do I create while always in relationship, when I choose not to take the path of shutting the door on the outside world, when I am not prepared to outsource any part of my life, when there are always multiple priorities in front of me?

Always in relationship, always in chaos, always in gratitude, I accept moments of serendipity that open up for me when I need them.

Journeys into the soul of the city

The city I’ve lived in for most of twenty years now is a city threaded through by ravines and river valleys.  Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in some of them: walking, biking, exploring, tracking animals, playing games with kids, listening, wading, watching, thinking, grounding myself, writing.

I love that the wildest places in this city are under the level of streets and sidewalks and tall buildings. I love being in the depths of the ravines and not being able to see the city above me. I love going down into this network of rivers, creeks and paths, especially on a quiet summer evening, and feeling a mystery and wildness nestled deep down in the abundant greenness of it.

Other cities have mountains, Toronto has valleys. There’s something about ravines that makes me think of Bill Plotkin’s definition of soul versus spirit in his book Soulcraft. 

By soul I mean the vital, mysterious, and wild core of our individual selves, an essence unique to each person, qualities found in layers of the self much deeper than our personalities. By spirit I mean the single, great, and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all.”

Ravines are to soul what mountains are to spirit. We ascend a mountain and see all around us; see how we are small in relation to the hugeness of the world, and how we are a tiny element connected to the vast mystery around us. At the top of a mountain we move towards transcendence and unity. We descend into a valley and find the wild, secret core of the place we live in and of ourselves; find ourselves on a journey into the recesses of our own heart and soul, strange and particular. We discover our own specific gifts to bring back to the world. We need to descend into soul before we can ascend into spirit.

Last weekend I paddled on the Humber River for the first time in all of the years I’ve lived here. An urban river, contradictory: beautiful and full of life, but also polluted and carrying death. Not the river it once was, before the European settlers came.

On the river on a warm summer morning, the city is hardly visible. There are egrets, herons, kingfishers and lots of water and shore birds all around, basking turtles by the dozen, muskrats swimming; and turning a corner, a still and silent and beautiful buck, watching us with his soft brown eyes. There are cattail marshes and islands, and lots of answers to questions I’ve had about this river and its inhabitants over the years, and lots of new questions and mysteries to engage me.

I’m learning – perhaps later in life than some do – that paddling on rivers has a rightness to it for me, like snowshoeing all day in deep snow, that meets an urgent need in my own soul.  This particular river journey was brief, like and also completely unlike paddling on a wilder river away from the city.  But paddling on a river in a valley that is part of the deep core of this city that I love – despite its flaws – is part of an ongoing conversation between my own core and that of the city, part of an engagement and commitment to grounding myself in the place where I live.

In that way, it brought me closer to the soul of the city and closer to my own soul.

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In this city

There are rivers like veins

Buried deep

You can paddle

Drift

To the heart of things

To the wild, secret places

Where the deer sleep.

 

deer on Humber riverturtles on Humber

Dandelions, dragonflies, and falling in love

I fell in love with a dandelion last week. And when it died, I mourned it.

My children have been knocking the heads off dandelions a lot recently. It’s something I have mixed feelings about. Contrary to the perfect lawn culture I grew up in, I have a lot of respect for the resilient and versatile dandelion. But I also see that children help them spread their seeds around. And I see that the survival of the hardy dandelion isn’t threatened by children’s games. And I am always trying to strike a balance with nature – with nature and kids in particular – between joyful and immersed interaction and respect.

A few weeks ago, as part of some learning about plants I’m working on right now, I chose a dandelion plant in my backyard as a focal plant to observe over the next three seasons.

I knew that it would be hard to protect a dandelion in my backyard. But I had clearly voiced to my family my desire to protect this one. And I had decided as a method of observation to carefully sketch the plant every few days. I felt kind of blissful realizing that I could learn about this plant while doing something else that I loved and wanted to practice more often.DSC06270

In two days of lovingly sketching “my” dandelion and others, I already knew more about the stages of the plant’s development than I ever had before. I observed and admired the bright yellow ray of florets, the graceful curves and tapers of the toothed leaves, the translucent green of the elegant flower stalk. I watched the yellow flower close for a period of time to undergo a transformation, with the dried florets slowly pushed up out of the flower by the combined force of perhaps more than 150 tiny single-seeded fruit attached to silky pappi.

I was waiting, anticipating the bursting open of the delicate perfect sphere of the seed head, anticipating its daily dance with the wind and the gradual dispersal of its tiny floating seed progeny out into the world on their silken parachutes. Anticipating the slow wilting of the flower as the plant’s energy travelled underground to the deep taproots, digging down and breaking up the soil, aerating it for other plants to grow.

But as my family prepared for a late-spring dinner in our backyard one evening, I stepped out onto my back steps, looked at my son standing with a strange look beside the tomato bed, and instinctively said: “Remember not to touch that dandelion!” Right away, I knew by his stricken expression and hunched shoulders that it was too late. He burst out crying, I burst out crying.

It was so clear that he felt terrible already, but I had a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes and needed to speak my distress. Recently, I am often surprised by my intensity of emotion.

“Why would you do that? I don’t even understand why you need to keep hitting at dandelions! And I asked you specifically not to touch this one! I’m so disappointed!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I forgot!”

I went into the house and sat on the couch shaking. I had felt deep satisfaction imagining myself carefully watching the growth of this plant, imagining myself developing a relationship with it over many months, imagining the reciprocity of tending for the plant as I learned from it.

Was it futile to think that I could keep a dandelion alive for that long? Couldn’t I protect just one plant? Couldn’t I watch it move through its growth cycle in peace? Could I convince anyone of the value of a dandelion?

Was I upset because my plans were disrupted? Or was there an energy that flowed from me to the dandelion and back again, through my careful observation and loving attention that in those moments was a little like love?

Paying attention to anything or anyone so raptly plants the seeds of connection. Connection nurtures love; perhaps it’s the same thing. And love leads to caretaking, to protecting, to reciprocity. Connection, love and then caretaking: as my eyes are open wider to the world, I see this pattern, over and over again.

This is not to say that death doesn’t belong in this cycle; it’s inevitable and even necessary. I am not sentimental about this. To be human is to face the truth that we can’t live on sunshine and rain: we must kill other living beings to survive. But there is the cycle of life and death and rebirth, and then there is random destruction. There is the reciprocity of picking dandelions and cooking with them, of savouring the bitter young greens in a salad, of digging the root and using it for medicine, of feeling gratitude for what these things bring into your body. There is also the careful stewardship of a space, a healthy habitat, that sometimes requires choices about what will live and what will die.

And then there’s death or destruction without a purpose. A broken connection; a broken cycle. And that break brings mourning.

It’s easy to fall in love with the big and beautiful: moose, foxes, deer, sandhill cranes, owls, and I have done that too. But it’s the more humble beings, like dandelions, like dragonflies, that catch me by surprise.

Last fall, on the small farm in Poland where my father grew up, I sat under a mountain ash and read from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s a hard book to read; in many ways it’s a highly articulate anti-book, an ode to the primeval language of the pre-literate world and of all the communicating living beings with which we are in relationship. It’s a book that’s best read outdoors, in small bursts, with all senses open to what the world is saying.

As I read, dragonflies flew all around, dozens of them, as well as maybe hundreds of European Peacock butterflies, dark orange with two purple eye spots on each wing. As I held my open book on my lap, a red dragonfly landed on the dazzlingly white page. It perched – if that is what a dragonfly does – and faced me. I raised the book higher and stared at the dragonfly. It stared back at me with its giant compound eyes. I understand that dragonflies have much clearer vision, in the human sense, than many other insects. But I don’t really know what it saw. What is the world-view of a dragonfly?

What it looked like to me, however, was that the dragonfly was watching me as I was watching it. It was a strangely astonishing display of mirroring. I looked quizzically at the dragonfly; it cocked its head to one side, then the other, and again, as if was looking at me with the same curiosity. Dragonflies, from a mammalian point of view, have remarkably appealing faces. Their compound eyes are huge and beautiful, and a raised section of the face in between those eyes, called the vertex, looks like a small round nose. A tiny earnest face stared unblinkingly at me as I stared carefully back. It was the most connecting moment I’ve ever shared with an insect.

When you look at something very closely, your perspective changes. When the dragonfly took off, I was almost thrown back with surprise. Its body swooped up huge towards my face, filling my field of vision, a giant prehistoric winged creature, iridescent and magical, communicating with me from another world.

That moment was also a little like love.

DSC06273I have mourned my dandelion flower, and with my son’s help found another plant to study in a more sheltered spot. I have watched the metamorphosis of its flower parts, drawn it, and learned from it. The first dandelion has not produced any further flowers, but in truth, its leaves and root are still alive; there is still more to be observed, now that I have regained my perspective.

I have not since locked eyes with a dragonfly. But each moment of connection to dandelion, to dragonfly, creates a relationship that opens space in my heart for other strange and surprising encounters. In some way, it means that I have friends in the world that I didn’t once have, perhaps an infinite number, both curious and familiar; that as I pay attention, as I take care, I am cared for in turn.

The world is full of remarkable beings, of beauty, of curiosity, of connection, of love. My work – our work – is to recognize all these beings as part of our community, part of our family, and to treat them honourably and with care. Our work is allow our selfhood to be a little more permeable than we once believed – not only to other humans, not only to our familiar domesticated creatures, but to all of the wild. To all of the beings that seem nothing like us, that we think we can’t possibly understand, that have gifts and abilities well beyond the scope of the human, but that are our relations nonetheless.