Birth Story (a poem)

It started at midnight. Or the night before. It started with the movies, the long walk home, my aching back, the dripping mist, the glare of streetlights, cab drivers turning aside from my tautly rounded belly.

It started with a gush of water, with a catch of breath, with darkness, with pain.

In the middle my body turned inside out. I became elastic, bones came through me, my heart slipped outside my body. It was torment. And magic. And an everyday wonder. And the oldest story told for the first time.

And then there were your long limbs, your blinking eyes, your open mouth; your fragile, red, wriggly being slipping out into the afternoon light. You were more familiar and more alien than anything I had ever known.

I was exhilarated, enchanted, exhausted. All my borders became permeable. The truth is, for some time I only existed for your survival. My body flowed with food for you. I breathed with you, cried with you, laughed with you, slept your sleep, woke your waking, kept you alive.

On this day I was a doorway. I was a boat carrying you into this human life. The wild impossibility of birth brought the rumour of death with it too. One slipped out with the other to dance together through a complicated world.

I was born then too. There was no bridge back. I can’t remember who I was before this day.

Twelve years later.  It feels like a long time ago.  But I want to remember these details.

A writer’s manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

peony

Midlife, fairy tales, and the mentoring of books

I’ve taken a long hiatus from this blog again, and why? I’m not any busier than I have been since I started writing here. In truth, I am probably less busy. Perhaps I feel less able or simply less willing to juggle many balls at once, albeit many of them having been visible only to myself. I think that overall this is a good thing. In recent months I find myself consistently and unexpectedly getting eight hours of sleep every night. I find myself delighting in my own company. I even find myself saying no to many things that could bring me joy, because once there are too many things piled upon each other, the joy slips away.

The word that has been sitting with me recently is discernment. Discernment is often challenging for an enthusiast. Everything that approaches me seems equally exciting, equally possible, equally worthy of my attention. But if I spend my life responding to external invitations, however enticing, when do I sit still and listen for the quiet inner voice, the whisper of intuition, my internal truth?

Recently, I find myself asking these questions of everything that asks to find its way into my life: Is this necessary? Does this feed me? Is this truly using my gifts? Is this the best way to be of service? Is it wise to say yes to this? What do I need to give up in order to make this possible?

Because there is always something that I will need to give up.

I read recently that midlife starts when one begins counting down until the end of life instead of counting up from the beginning. The parts of life that seemed impossibly far away and perhaps not very interesting when I was in my twenties and thirties now loom huge and close and fascinating. Age has become more interesting than youth.

And it feels like time to worry much less about what to do and much more about who to be.

As I look towards the elders in my life for maps of the route ahead, I’m also recognizing how much I am soaking up the mentoring I find in books. Reading has often been a baseline for me, sometimes it’s been an escape, often it’s been an anchor, and sometimes it’s been pushed to the side for more active pursuits. But now I find myself reading voraciously again, in a way that feels like deep nourishment for my soul. I am ravenously hungry for wisdom.

A couple of years ago, I felt a bit unhinged. I found myself facing parts of myself that had long been lonely, self-critical, armoured, afraid. It was time to face them. I spilled a lot to a few people, spent a lot of time writing, re-established some good grounding and creative practices, learned to be much kinder to myself. But for some time I also found myself grabbing hold of certain books and carrying them around with me, feeling reassured by their physical presence, by what felt like the voices and stories of people wiser and kinder than myself reaching out to hold me.

That year, I spent a lot of time with Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow, David Whyte’s Consolations, anything by Brené Brown and Pema Chödrön.

After that I read everything I could find by Martin Shaw, Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted, and finally and slowly – after looking at its thick spine sitting on my desk for several years – Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves. I’m still working on that one.

In the midst of these – along with much poetry and some fiction – I’ve read many other books: on writing, art, love, community, spirituality, psychology, mythology. But only some of them stay with me as elders and mentors.

Right now, inspired by the Clarissa Pinkola Estés and by an online course with Sharon Blackie, The Mythic Imagination, I’m reading a lot of fairy tales and folk tales. I love this deceptively simple form, the richness of it, the symbolic motifs, the universal questions. It brings out the scholar in me, the long-ago English student, taking delight in finding patterns in puzzling places.

Looking to folk tales for mentoring, I’ve come across two books by Allen B. Chinen, one of stories for midlife, one for elderhood. It is both unsettling and reassuring to find that everything that has preoccupied me in recent years is a developmental stage of this moment of my life. I may have known this in theory, but reading the same themes repeated again and again in folk tales from around the world brings it into my heart: I am a small piece of the puzzle, an ordinary human with ordinary human problems, “a small detail on the landscape” as I heard someone recently say, a phrase that I continue to find oddly reassuring.

Henry Miller wrote: “You observe your children or your children’s children, making the same absurd mistakes, heart-rending mistakes often, which you made at their age. And there is nothing you can say or do to prevent it. It’s by observing the young, indeed, that you eventually understand the sort of idiot you yourself were once upon a time — and perhaps still are.” I can see where I would like get to as a human, but I can’t get there any faster than my human capacity will allow.

Now, at midlife I have one foot in the ambition of youth and one in the generosity of the elder, stuck between expecting always to be rescued by magic and knowing enough to rely on my own practical wisdom, caught in between believing that the treasure and the prince are always mine to win and learning that, eventually, everything precious is meant to be given away.

desk june 2017

Building ships into the future, or thinking like a tree

Last week, I read this line in a New Yorker essay by Alan Burdick, maybe one of the most beautiful and accurate images of parenting I have come across: “As I grew into the role of a parent, I sometimes felt as if I were taking apart a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. I was building a ship across time, out of my time”.

I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve taken myself apart in my eleven years as a parent. Certainly other things could have triggered that in my life, will continue to trigger it. I think in a healthy culture we would all take ourselves apart, consciously and carefully, or sometimes wildly and impetuously, to build those ships to the future. The ships I feel my planks building are not only my children, not only for my children. But it reassured me in some way, to know that the deconstruction of self I’ve felt over the past ten years, my questions of “What am I doing? What is it for?” might have this answer: I’m taking myself apart to build ships to the future. It’s as it should be. It means I can’t give up on the world, no matter how chaotic and scary it seems.

Earlier this week I went out of town for a few days to visit a dear friend in the country. She and her family have recently moved into a house that they are renting from another friend. The owner grew up in it and lived there for many decades and has now moved into a smaller cottage on the same property. Outside the back door are a more than a hundred acres of woods and trails, with a clean, beautiful creek winding through and mature forests of mixed hardwood and conifers – beech, maple, birch, hemlock, pine.

On the second morning of our visit, I went snowshoeing with my friend and her partner, leaving the kids together at home for a bit. The previous day, as we had driven up, my kids and I had listened to the seventh CD (the North-West shield) of the Seeing Through Native Eyes series. In it Jon Young talks about that moment of finding a spring in the forest and knowing through it that some time in the past someone had loved you, because of this spring that had been tended and kept healthy for the future.

And as my friends and I tromped along through the woods on our snowshoes that morning, we came across a little flowing stream, and above it hung a hand-painted sign: “The Well Spring.” On a branch hung a little plastic cup. There it was: a coincidence, a sign. A sign that someone in the past had loved us, had loved me! My friend bent down and drew some water in the cup for us, and we passed it around, drinking in its icy cleanness, feeling in some way blessed.

The next day my friend and I went for a longer snowshoe hike with the woman whose parents had built the house and who had grown up on this land. She pointed out huge mature trees that she remembered first meeting in her early childhood as spindly saplings. She pointed out a huge dead tree with many thick branches that – when it was very much alive – had been a favourite childhood climbing tree. She commented on how disorienting it sometimes was, to see time passing in such a concrete way, in the growth of trees. I thought about something Jon says in the talk we’d listened to on our drive, about showing that you trust in the future by planting an oak tree, knowing you will never swing from its branches.

We moved along quickly on our snowshoes against the brisk wind, warming up fast, and when we reached a clearing we all threw ourselves on the ground, looking up at the clouds, with the dog running circles around us and shaking snow onto our faces. I closed my eyes for a few minutes and when I opened them the clouds had whisked away and the sky was blue. I closed them again, and when I opened them, the sky was gray again. Time passing. So quickly.

Several times as we walked, we noticed huge trees that had partially fallen, propped up by other tall trees, stoically supporting the weight of the dying until they were ready to fall. I thought about dead fallen trees that catch seeds blowing in the wind, creating nurseries for other trees to grow tiny seedlings stretching to the sun, the nurse log slowly decomposing and feeding the future. I thought about trees and their communities, about tree nurseries, about bridges, about building ships into the future. I thought about composting our sorrows – and our joys – to create healthy soil for those who will come after.

Last year I had a realization about freedom, that freedom could just as well look like a tree as like a bird. I looked at a tree and asked: “Because this tree is rooted, does that mean it isn’t free?” and I found I could not doubt that a tree was free, even though it was rooted. And so I try to think like a tree, digging my roots deep into the soil and my branches high into the sky.

Rootedness has been on my mind a lot in the past year, but even before that, and maybe I am coming to some conclusions. Rootedness can mean many things: it can mean place, it can mean relationship, it can mean community, it can mean vocation. But it means sacrificing some variety of choice for the challenge and the privilege of tending something deeply and for a long time.

Sometimes I like to pick up random books off of bookshelves and ask them questions, in a kind of divination by the wisdom of written words. At my friend’s house, the first title that drew me was by Jean Vanier: Community and Growth. And as I flipped through its pages, one of the things it told me was this:

“Some people flee from commitment because they are frightened that if they put down roots in one soil they will curtail their freedom and never be able to look elsewhere… But freedom doesn’t grow in the abstract; it grows in a particular soil with particular people. Inner growth is only possible when we commit ourselves with and to others.  We all have to pass through a certain death and time of grief when we make choices and become rooted.”

So there’s that. There is also the clearing in the woods. Thinking about what I am trying to tend in myself in the midst of deconstruction and fear for the world and the ordinary gradual decays of life, I often meditate on spaciousness. If I can just find a space inside myself, a space that is clear and warm and secluded, but also connected to all beings, then I can find the peace I need to draw on to be the way I want to be in the world. That is the clearing in the tangled forest, where I tend the fire within my heart. It is a place I can find refuge when I am in a bigger time of retreat, but also a place I can find refuge in brief moments on a windy day, when the clouds in my mind are busy skittering across the sky, and I am too rattled, too taken up by the urgency of things.

snowshoeing-with-ulrike

There are bright clearings in your tangled forest: a poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On passions, distractions, and living your life

I sit outside my parents’ house on an August morning, watching a red squirrel race through the branches of a white cedar at the back of the house. It’s exhilarating to watch the effortlessness of this small creature’s means of moving through the world, never hesitating, never losing its footing. Really, it’s almost as if there is no footing to speak of. The impression I have when I watch squirrels in trees, especially the tiny red ones, is of a motion as fluid as swimming. I could swear to you that they are swimming through the branches, swimming from one tree to the next.

Swimming is not something I have ever myself done particularly well. After all the swimming lessons I did as I child, I never did figure out how to get the breathing right. For years I avoided bodies of water entirely.

This seems a wild omission to me right now, knowing the effect that immersion in water has on me. A few years ago I decided – in the interest of saying yes to the widest range of sensory experiences – that if there was water to get into, I would get into it, at least from May to the end of October, the full span of summer.

Now, spending this early August week outside the city, with several lakes to choose from, each day’s immersion resets the chatter of my brain to neutral. My mental lists, my internal rehearsals of conversations and emails, my sense of trying to anticipate the next steps – they are silence and stilled. The cold water shocks me out of my preoccupations; it cools the intensity of my inner fires; it soaks into my skin and bones so that I carry its memory in my body for hours.

I practice breathing out, touching the bottom and coming back up; I jump off small docks with my children; I float on my back and watch the clouds. I am soothed into quiet, into stillness.

I imagine being as transparent and light and spacious as water, but also as wild and powerful and fierce.

It is perhaps a sign of the age I live in – or a product of my own span of enthusiasms – that whatever I am doing I usually feel like I should be doing something else. The internet world wages a stubborn battle between manifestos on productivity and quieter voices suggesting that productivity isn’t all that we are here on this Earth to manifest. A battle between the rallying cry of sculpting life entirely with your own hands, damned be the obstacles; and the quieter whisper of recognizing that the life that IS is – if we can see it fully – often more beautiful than we are willing to acknowledge.

I balance on the fence between one view and the other, as I do with so many things. I scan articles on following your passion, on efficiency, on setting goals. I find myself having passing conversations with single-minded people who tell me that they are looking for a hobby, and then I realize I’m not even sure what a hobby is. Everything in my life is maybe a hobby or maybe a passion or maybe a calling, or maybe a distraction from something else. I am drawn both to simplicity and to multiplicity, aware of both the allure and the dangers of each.

Sometimes, I want to strip everything down to its bones. I want to find the truths behind the walls; I want to open the curtains and go backstage and see what is hiding there. And at the same time, I love the abundance, the riotous celebration and interdependence of the non-minimalist life. I often wonder why it is only the women in my life who are wooed by the gospels of de-cluttering, eliminating, fasting. Why do we believe that we always need to be smaller and sparser and less complex than we actually are?

And then, how does one cut the distractions out of life? A while ago I read an interview with a writer who was asked how he managed to spend weeks at his desk writing on beautiful, clear and sunny days. He said that he uses blackout blinds and plays recordings of rain sounds to convince his body and mind that staying inside is all that he wants to do.

I loved reading this. It gave me a huge and powerful jolt of clarity: this man’s discipline awes me, but I am never going to be that person. When the sun shines and the sky is blue and a light breeze beckons, I will do everything I can to make sure that I am out in the world.

I can admire single-minded people, and yet not envy them. I can move between each of my passions, weaving pieces of a larger tapestry. I can create my own mental maps of the connections between things, finding the small ways in which each piece fits. I can swim between the trees, never losing my footing. This way, nothing that I love needs to be rejected.

You can do this too. Your life as you are living it is not a distraction from something else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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