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.

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Homeschooling: ditching the routines

Someone I know recently posted on how short spring is in Canada, and how much he wants to appreciate it while it’s here. On one level, I get that. And yet, it reminded me that in my own psyche, I tend to favour the approach of the ancient Celts: there are only two seasons, winter and summer. November to May, and May to November. Not only two seasons, but two separate worlds, two ways of living, two ways of being in relation to myself and other people and the world. My lowest energy point always comes before the winter solstice, and the highest comes before the summer solstice. Midwinter and midsummer, as they were once sensibly called.

When our calendar says winter, my soul is already priming for the upswing of spring. On the longest day of the year, I start to see the bittersweet end of summer on the horizon.

Sometimes I resent the dark days, but I need those two parts of myself, and those two seasons, and those edges in between.

And so now, in the land of summer, we have been living a different life than we did a few months ago. Homeschooling makes this obvious. In winter, there is restlessness and not quite enough structure; the days are too short; going out takes a lot of energy, staying in is draining in its own way; socializing happens in crowded urban houses or in bursts of cold active outdoor time; everything seems to take a lot of effort. There are long dark evenings to fill.

Something switches in May. And this year, after trying to impose structure all through the fall and winter, I knew when it was time to throw it away. It started on our trip to England, after which I had two weeks of fighting with my kids about going back to this year’s homeschooling routines. Sometimes I make myself do things that don’t work for a while to prove to myself that they’re not working. School-at-home, even in a modified form, does not work for us. I see people for whom it does work. I’m realizing that I’m probably not going to be one of them.

So instead, we’re back to living on faith: that needing to communicate and co-exist with other humans; having books lying around every surface of our house; having regular access to great museums and art galleries and libraries; and most of all, having the whole REAL LIVING WORLD to explore is enough. Learning happens because humans are primed to learn, because they are curious and engaged and passionate, because they want to master things that they’re excited about or that they want to apply in real life. And even more so when there are supportive people, supportive mentors around – parents and others – to give a push when needed, but also to go along for the ride.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll throw our workbooks away forever. Maybe next fall the time will be right again for that kind of focus. Structured learning is a tool we can use again. Heck, actual school is always a potential option. But for the past two months we have been exploring the city; we have been camping with friends; we have been climbing trees and wading in rivers; we have been reading good books both together and separately; we have been designing games; we have been copying out favourite poems; we have been experimenting with culinary and art projects. And now we are looking forward to the full immersion of a couple of summer day camps.

As a homeschooling parent, or a parent in general, or simply as a person, I need to keep reminding myself to play to my strengths: curiosity and insatiable love of learning, openness to possibilities, creativity, good judgment, attunement to my kids’ needs, a certain kind of patience.

Yes, we also need to push against type, stretch our boundaries, challenge ourselves to do things that are hard. But equally, we need be ruthless about letting go of things that aren’t working, or aren’t working right now.

As I child I took piano lessons for many years. Three decades later, I guess I’m glad I did. But certainly, when I was allowed to quit, I happily quit. I didn’t regret not pushing myself to keep doing something I wasn’t at all passionate about at the time. Maybe if music had been taught in a way that inspired my creativity and enthusiasm. Maybe. And it’s not impossible that I’ll return to it some day. But right now I have no regrets.

When my children want try something new, something that I need to pay for – or when I convince them to – I generally require that they finish the initial commitment: the week of camp, one season of a class or program. This is usually enough to get through the hard parts. Sometimes after telling me that they never want to do it again, by the end they are begging to sign up again next season, or next year. Other times, they have no interest in going back, and I am learning to accept that. My role is to know when to coax them through the setbacks and when to let things go.

This also goes for relationships with other humans. We are all learning these lessons together.

There are a few things I regret not following through on in earlier years, but now I see that I will I pick them back up again when I’m ready. I will never be a specialist: there are too many things that I love, following every skill and subject that intrigues me being one of them. So I model learning to my children; I model curiosity; I model engagement.

I once read a long article about teachers working in the most challenging schools. The point that stuck with me from that piece is that the best teachers keep changing their strategy. They keep trying new things. They are ruthless about changing what doesn’t work. When I feel like I am a dilettante who can’t stick to any plan for long, I try to keep that in mind.

Trust versus fear. There is a lot of trust involved in homeschooling, or in raising kids under any circumstances. There are a lot of cultural messages telling me that I should choose fear instead, that whatever I do, my kids won’t be enough, won’t know enough, won’t be competitive, won’t be prepared. But I am going to trust: trust my intuition and my judgment, my children’s enthusiasm and their limits. Trust that they will find their way in the world when it is time.

Lachlan in Rouge river

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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Homeschooling: attempting to answer the “why” question

I have been homeschooling my kids for almost five years now. Someone asked me the other week why we’re homeschooling. “Because I’m too lazy to rush them to school every morning,” was my first, flippant response.

Of course, that’s not really it, especially now that they could walk to more than one local school on their own. But answering the question feels like diving into the cold water to take a look at the hugeness of the iceberg beneath the tip. Or like pulling on the end of string, and finding myself unraveling the whole garment of my life story. Or like a vague joke I remember from high school about the causes of the French Revolution, which requires moving backwards somewhere to the beginnings of time to find the starts of threads that later come together to create a historical event.

Why does anyone do anything? It’s always much more complicated than it seems. And so to tell a story, even to oneself, requires many false starts and mis-directions, and perhaps, even when the plot seems to come together, the conclusion will be false, because aren’t we all somewhat unreliable narrators when it comes to the motives that direct our lives?

School was a big deal in my family of origin. And so there is the story before the story, the prologue, which is the story of my grandparents, who were more-or-less subsistence farmers on one side, and a butcher and shop clerk on the other side. But my father’s family valued education: his mother had finished high school and so was qualified to be the village school-teacher, and his father made it most of the way through, and liked to recite Polish epic poetry as he baled hay in the fields. It is easy for me to romanticize their lives, and so I do, and yet they lived through world wars and through the absurdity and deprivations of Communist Poland; they raised five children in tight quarters without plumbing or running water; and there is no real way for me to step inside their shoes. But they had access to a largely free education system, and they wanted their children’s lives to be materially easier than their own, and so all of their children left home and completed some form of post-secondary education. And had the distinction of being the first people in their village to do so.

And so I fast-forward to my parents, who, through a window of coincidences that opened for a brief moment, made a sudden and spontaneous decision to take a job opportunity in far-off Canada, and then a more-drawn out decision to leave their families and histories behind and stay. There are things that often come with being an immigrant or a child of immigrants, without the safety net of extended family and social ties, and one of those things is a determined focus on education. Education and frugality and hard work.

School was always the most important thing when I was growing up. Not in a high pressure way, simply as an unshakeable baseline expectation. It was assumed that we would do well in school and we all did, although I had my moments of rebellion. But there was a clear script laid out for me that didn’t leave a lot of room for exploration or mistakes. And so after many years of preschool, school, university, graduate school and full-time work – and a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of creativity of my day-to-day life – having kids opened up some kind of release valve for me. Suddenly, I could see that all the things that seemed mandatory were in fact optional. I could step out of the boxes.

I am still reveling in – gleefully celebrating – being outside of the institutions that so fully shaped most of the first thirty years of my life.

But perhaps that had nothing to do with it. Perhaps I would have done exactly the same things with a completely different history behind me. Many people do. Maybe homeschooling simply suits my personality.

When it was time for my older son to go to school, we sent him to a local alternative school within walking distance of our house. I would hang out somewhere in the neighbourhood with his younger brother, who was then a toddler, waiting to pick him up at the end of the half day. At the end of the first week of kindergarten he asked “How long do I have to do this?”, and I couldn’t at the time bring myself to say “Probably at least another 14 years,” so I answered “Until June.”

And, it was okay. It wasn’t a terrible experience. But each day for the next two years he asked me, in his rational way, “Why do I have to go there every day?” and none of my answers ever satisfied him or myself. The whole school thing began to feel a bit surreal. And when it was time to start first grade, I imagined all the interesting real-world things I would be up to with his younger brother while he hung out in the same room all day, and at the end of August we decided not to go back.

It was an easy choice in some ways because we already knew so many people in the city who homeschooled who we could immediately slip into some form of community with. I had been drawn to the idea for a long time, and had done some reading and was already convinced it was a pretty awesome educational option. I didn’t really know where I was heading career-wise, having quit my job after two years of leave, and having no desire to go back to anything similar. And my husband had found work that he was committed to and that could financially sustain us.

Also, somewhat ironically, my graduate degree in adult education had convinced me – if I wasn’t convinced already – that the best learning is self-directed and self-motivated, based on passions and life experiences, and completely possible outside of formal educational structures. And possibly my many years of learning had made me very aware of how much of learning comes from within.

And so now we are in our fifth year of homeschooling. My younger son has never been to school.

Homeschooling has meant time to really get to know how my kids learn, what they are passionate about, and what their challenges are. It has meant time to work out conflicts slowly and with patience, sitting and talking in circles, asking each person what they need to feel better and how they could approach the situation differently next time. It has meant finding a balance that suits us between keeping up with the basics and doing whatever we are excited about. It has meant going tobogganing when the snow is fresh, snuggling at home reading in the rain, spending hours outside with friends in the spring and fall. It has meant much time spent outside the city, visiting my parents, camping with friends, going on field trips, travelling. It has meant that the kids get to spend one afternoon a week with their grandparents; it has meant that they are also very close with each other, and with me. It has meant that I have been able to go away for many weekends for my own learning and adventures and not worry about losing out on time with my kids. It has given us a huge amount of flexibility and freedom.

It has also meant being out of step with most of the culture around us. It has meant going against everything that I was taught about the importance of formal education. It has meant trying to find non-teacher mentors and non-classroom social opportunities for my kids out in the world. It has meant trying to figure out how to keep up my motivation about guiding my kids through things that are hard for them. Because while I love to facilitate, discuss, explore, and question, I have a decided aversion to transmitting information and a loathing for artificial “learning activities.”

Homeschooling has looked like fighting with myself each day to try to create the bones of daily and weekly structures that will hold us up and also reflect our own values. It has looked like questioning all of my preconceptions about what productivity and success look like, for myself and for my kids. It has looked like squeezing all my own activities and projects into small bits of time. It has looked like me sometimes feeling lonely, disconnected, not fully a grown-up. It has looked like weeks where I desperately miss having adult colleagues to talk to every day, to solve problems with, to collaborate with, to validate the reality of my existence. It has looked like moments of wondering whether we are doing the right thing. It has meant being open to the possibility of changing our minds.

It has meant imagining the world as we would like it to be, while keeping a foot in the world as it is now.

It has been very much about taking the long view. And having the perspective to recognize that none of us really know what the hell we’re doing.

People make choices based on their own experiences and needs, and based on how much access to choice they have at all. A lot of unrelated things fell in line for us – personally, financially, socially – to be able to make the choice to homeschool and to want to make it at the moment that we did. And the foundation of all of that earlier stability certainly helped.

In everything we do, even when we have chosen it, there are parts that are hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You follow your instincts, do your research, and then jump. You keep checking in regularly to make sure you are still satisfied with where you are. You go through moments of doubt and moments of certainty. You keep your eyes open as new possibilities emerge. You don’t argue with anyone else about whether what you are doing is better or worse than what they are doing. You steer your own ship and let them steer theirs. That’s the best any of us can do.

The promise of spring

I have been feeling a fire lighting in my belly again, or perhaps simply an ember which will grow into a fire with tending. Last year at this time someone told me that early February is the pre-ovulation phase of the earth. The world looks and feels like winter, but there are hints of life starting to stir below the surface: the sap is beginning to move, there is quickening underground, there is a rumour in the air of the fertility and abundance to come.

Last year, on the coldest day in February, when the temperature had dropped into the -20s (Celsius) and heavy snow covered the ground, I stood at the bottom of a Toronto ravine and heard the courting song of the cardinal. It was my first sign of spring, and now I know it will come again soon.

Last weekend, I trailed two moose with a group in Algonquin Park: huge frozen lakes, tall trees, deep snow, the crunch of snowshoes, hand signals and hushed laughter; an hour sitting and watching one female moose closely across a small stream as it relaxed into our presence, with her calf moving in silhouette on a slope in the distance. It was my only opportunity for real tracking this winter, and it was like a blast of warmth to feel the return of the joyful, boisterous, alive, and profoundly connecting energy that came with it.

The new moon, the lunar new year, the lengthening days, Imbolc – I am open to tapping whatever influences are available, real or metaphorical. One way or another, I have felt myself emerging from winter’s dark, at first gradually, and then with a jolt.

As I stumble through my internal swamp, I see in a moment of clarity that meaning is something I will need to create, that it won’t offer itself up to me on one of the heavy brown plates passed down to me with my mother-in-law’s wedding china. I will need to find the will to mold it out of the clay of my life. It will have to be a choice.

I can pause, I can rest, I can mourn; but every day, I need to make the choice to re-engage with the world, both as it is and as I wish it to be.

I am sometimes tripped up by the cultural pressure to be happy. And this is a hard one to unravel – I am grateful for everything that the Earth provides; I feel awe and wonder and love and the electricity of being alive. I am often deeply joyful. But not to see the grief that is also always present in the world, to brush it aside, that seems to me a profound dishonouring of the fullness of living experience. Being fully present both to celebration and to grief – that is part of what it means to be a spiritually healthy human being. It means being able to hold that tension.

Grief is the awareness that our time here is short, that we are all broken in some way, that there is great pain in the world we live in, that so much has been destroyed, that we are clinging to a life raft and may never make it to shore. But in that grief, we can also see the beauty of the everyday, because in this moment we are alive.

Gratitude and grief are two sides of the same coin. Here we are: so much has been lost and continues to be, and we are committed to a lifetime of mourning. But here we are: we are alive, we have the fierceness and tenderness of love, we have sunshine and water to drink and the crunch of the snow under our feet and our hearts which beat day and night without stopping. We can laugh. We can reach for each other.

I have been thinking about how in the first half of life we gather and accumulate: things, accomplishments, energy, love, people, our own gifts. And for a long time we might feel that there will always be more. But, if it hasn’t happened earlier, there is a moment at midlife when we will look around us and sharply catch our breath, because we see that every mortal thing will one day be taken away. And it’s like that moment in late August, when we become of aware of the setting sun while still eating dinner under the trees, and  feel that bittersweet turn between summer and fall, and anticipate the harshness of winter.

And now, it’s February, the month of the Hunger Moon. We’ve made it through the darkest nights, but there is still some danger. In an earlier time, in this northern climate, we would now be living at the limit of our stored resources and our body’s reserves. We would need to look out for ourselves and for each other. Perhaps we would start to feel the quickening in the air and in our bodies, but we would need community and compassion and resilience and faith to believe that the world would come back to life for us once more.

After I wrote that it had been a hard January, some people said “I know exactly what you mean,” and a few people said they were sorry to hear it. But I don’t think there’s a need to be sorry, only to be present. The darkness doesn’t feel good, but it feels necessary. It is part of being human. It’s not the last time it will come. I can come through darkness with a renewed sense of strength and purpose; a renewed sense of what is possible and what isn’t; a renewed sense of what to hold on to and what to let go of in my life.

And I have kept my commitment, over the winter months, to be gentle with myself.

Now, I am grateful for the lengthening days, I am grateful for newfound energy, I am grateful for the physical and spiritual nourishment around me, I am grateful for compassion, I am grateful to see others emerging from the dark: I am grateful for the promise of spring.

 

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Pema Chödrön on self-compassion and compassion towards others. Over the past few weeks I have started working on a daily Book of Hours – an illustrated book compiling  quotes, poetry, meditations, and other wisdom – inspired by a workshop with my friend Rozanne Lopez.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

“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.