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

Tracking the language of the wild

Lake Sasajewun

On a late August Friday afternoon I find myself with two friends on a journey north from the city I live in: driving through a series of highways that become progressively narrower, less busy and more winding; watching tall buildings gradually replaced by huge rocks and tall trees; then finally turning left off Highway 60 on to a secluded gravel road into the Wildlife Research Station (WRS) in Algonquin Park.

It’s a place I’ve been getting to know in the past four years or so, mostly in twice-a-year visits which swing wildly between the extremes of deep Ontario winter and its hot summer. Slipping out of the car among the tall pines and small wooden cabins brings all those memories back.

A half hour after we get out of our car we are sliding two canoes into the water of Lake Sasajewun, which I last crossed on snowshoes, and setting off into the late summer dusk.

We watch for wildlife along the edges, skirt around the deadfalls and rocks, alternate between boisterous laughter and silence. We cautiously navigate through the narrow channel in the lake and spend some time stilling our canoes together in the marshes on the northern end, breathing deeply, taking it all in, swatting the occasional mosquito, keeping our eyes open for the moose that Sue saw here last summer. As we turn back south to get through the rocks before darkness falls, I start to see the first stars appear in the still blue-gray sky. This is not like the city.

We’re here for a tracking weekend with Earth Tracks. Many of us – and others who join us that evening and later in the weekend – have completed an apprenticeship program (or two, or more…) with Alexis Burnett.

I’m here because although I love many things about my life in the city, there is this pull also to be out in the wild, to understand how the bigger pieces of my ecosystem work and how I fit into them, and also how I can help keep them as healthy as possible. And I’m here because tracking is something I have come to love intensely and want to keep cultivating, keep practicing myself and introducing to others.

I stumbled upon tracking in a one-thing-leading-to-another kind of way about four years ago, and I fell in love. I fell in love with many things about it, but mostly with the experience of paying attention. Alexis says a mentor once told him, “Tracking and awareness are the same thing.” There is a vocabulary to learn, but in many ways it’s not much more complicated than giving my attention fully. I used to walk through the woods simply enjoying the feeling of being there, and I often still do, but now I also know how to notice the little things that tell big stories.

There is that saying about not judging a person before walking a mile in their shoes. Walking following the trail of an animal, or even picking up a few of the clues it left behind, is similar. This is daily life that is unfolding before you: eating, sleeping, elimination, reproduction, play, fear. And death. Death is often spelled out very clearly. Giving our attention to all of it hones empathy and connection – with the creatures around us, with each other, and within ourselves – and brings our human lives into context.

The next morning, when we each talk about our intentions for the weekend, keeping eyes and ears open and paying attention to the little things is a common theme. There are also some shared questions about bear tracks and sign, and about learning how to find faint tracks in debris (pine duff, leaf litter). I am feeling drawn to bears this weekend, after having spent other visits here paying more attention to moose, wolves, and some of the mustelids: martens, fishers, otters. At this moment, I want to understand more about the life of black bears: their feeding strategies, their reproductive cycles, the ways they raise their cubs.

As we move out along the grounds of the WRS, Alexis points to broken branches, indentations where bear feet landed, scratches and bites on hydro poles, a few hairs caught in the wood. Some of us take turns acting out the bear turning its back on the pole and biting over its shoulder, each trying to figure out the placement of its teeth and claws. Acting things out is often the only way to really see them with our minds and feel them in our bodies. I’ve examined these particular hydro poles before – bears come back and mark the same spots year after year. But now I am starting to see how the pieces fit together. We talk about what the bears eat at each time of year; the huge number of calories they need per day, especially as they prepare for their winter sleep (not a “true” hibernation, as I’ve learned); how constantly they need to eat to make up those calorie needs. Right now they will be moving between berry season and mast season (acorns, beech nuts). We’re not seeing a lot of recent bear sign here, and we talk about the large range they need to move through to find their food, and where else they might have moved to in the park to find late crops of berries.

In the same area we find moose tracks, and branches pulled down by moose to get closer access to tasty foliage. We have a discussion about the identity of a particular shrub. I know it as hobblebush, but Christina tells me it’s viburnum. Later on we realize that we are both right – score! We look at miniscule incisor marks on an old plywood shed and wonder about what is in the plywood (salt, glue?) that appeals to rodents of various sizes.

We ask a LOT of questions, many of which we may not ever find answers to in books, even though later in the evening we’ll spend some time excitedly reading out loud to each other from field guides Alexis brought.

The afternoon brings another paddle across the lake, where some of our group elects to follow a moose trail for a short while. Our canoes lie overturned amidst sweet gale, leatherleaf, steeplebush, wintergreen, mint, and some stunning indigo-blue gentian flowers. I nibble on a wintergreen leaf as Kaleigh searches through a plant guide to identify the gentian. Moving into the trees, I spot an ideal giant rock to sit on for an after-lunch meditation: watching for birds and being watched by a curious red squirrel, smelling the air around me, listening to mysterious splashes in the lake. An hour later we paddle back – my canoe still smells like mint – and make time for a pre-dinner swim and some research on pressing questions from the day. Dinner is delicious and also rather riotous.

There is a lot of teasing and banter that happens when tracking. Maybe it’s all the time spent looking at animal scats and talking about mating strategies, trying to viscerally understand the ways animals move. People get a bit goofy at times. That evening we read technical terms in a glossary and try to figure out how to incorporate them into our vocabularies, with varying degrees of seriousness. “Crepuscular” seems to win out in its usefulness – not nocturnal, not diurnal, but active at dawn and dusk, a word applying to many creatures we track. Victor repeats it over and over again, planning to introduce the word to the primary school students he will be teaching in the fall.

After dinner, we get further wound up in silliness and debate, until Alexis gracefully shifts our energy to a walk out to the swim spot on the lake to try out some owl and wolf calls. Sending these sounds out onto the darkening lake is a powerful thing, and while we don’t get any responses this time, we can feel the change in the movement and sound of the birds around us, responding to the threat of a potential predator (the barred owl). We sit silently by the lake for a while. I feel a quiet intimacy between us growing in the falling darkness and silence here. When we get up, we can barely see the slope behind us. We challenge ourselves to walk back up the hill and along the paths without artificial light, feeling how easily our other senses kick in when our dominant sense is hampered. As we reach our cabins again, I break into a run, feeling the exhilaration of the dark night around me, celebrating how good I feel at that moment

The next day we compare dog and fox tracks on the road on the way to the lake, we find a fox scat with an entire shed snakeskin within its twists (wow!), we find the remains of a turtle egg, we speculate on the identities of particular plants. Paddling again across the lake we see beaver scent mounds and muskrat latrines. We talk about castoreum, the beaver secretion once used in perfume manufacture. We put our canoes up in a new spot, and make our way along a long trail, stopping to look at trees drilled by pileated woodpeckers, giant bear scratches on conifers dripping with sticky sap, deer antler rubs, and moose tracks. Marten scats appear periodically along the trail. We take our rain jackets on and off as gentle rain alternates with bright sun.

Before we turn around to go back, we do an intuitive tracking exercise, trying to really feel the energy of an animal from a single track and predict with intuition, empathetic understanding, and maybe with experience, where it might have gone next and where we will find more tracks. As we gather up to dip our feet in a cool creek that crosses the trail, we talk about intuition, empathy, imagination, storytelling, vision. About why we care so much about what we are doing. About what it teaches us. We walk more quickly back along the trail to our canoes. I feel satiated and also inspired.

Tracking is like visiting a country where I can speak a different language. It takes practice, and the practice helps me build on what I already know, but in the practice is also the cultivation of relationships. My attention honours that which is around me; it honours both the reality of all the life that tells its own stories separately from mine, but also the connections between my self and all of these stories. It is a form of deep listening with all my senses. It is a form of empathy for all the creatures around me. I can practice this anywhere, but some experiences are more immersive than others. Here, I am on the land of these animals, the land of all of the humans that came here before me; I am this in my own city home as well, but here I aware of this in each moment.

I feel the grace and gratitude of being a visitor, a relation, a friend.

Thanks to Christina Yu, Sue Gulley and Lianna Vargas for photos!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

March is time for roaming

March is the month in which I was born, and March is always the month when I feel I am fully coming back to life after the darkness and inwardness of winter. It is an ongoing puzzle to me how much my perception of the world changes with the seasons, although I am learning to accept these shifts, if not always to embrace them.

And perhaps  there were things that were troubling me over the fall and winter that have lifted away or dissolved or eased, or that I have finally accepted and absorbed into myself. It was a winter of sinking deep down and peeling some layers away; consciously questioning and tearing up a few old beliefs about myself and the world; and engaging in some “radical self care” – as I’ve recently heard it called – which is quite a powerful thing when it involves treating oneself with tenderness at both the body and the soul level.

Now I feel a buzzing and humming and unfolding of limbs as the days get longer and the birds sing all the old love songs made new again. I feel a surge of energy and excitement about new possibilities and connections and creativity. I feel a new electricity in my body and heart.

Oh, it is almost truly spring! And before the spring-time fully sweeps us up in its magic, we are off on a small family adventure.

When we had two incomes and no kids, my husband and I used to travel somewhere together every year. Since we transitioned to one income and two kids, I have been immersing myself in nurturing a deeper connection to the place we live in, and we have mostly stayed close to home. A trip to Poland, my birthplace, two years ago was organized and financed by my parents. But now, finally, we have felt a surge of inspiration, saved up a bit of cash, and are heading overseas again for a holiday.

There are many places in the world to go, and yet we keep going to Europe. My husband and I were both born there, and those roots keep pulling us back. So this time we are heading to England for a few weeks, earlier in the spring than we had originally planned because of the availability of some free accommodation in London until the Easter weekend – and how could we pass that up?

We are heading into a holiday of “patchy rain” and “fleeting showers,” as described in a recent London forecast, in the vaguely poetic English way of distinguishing all the constant – but slightly different – ways water can fall from the sky. A holiday of daytime temperatures hovering around 10°C. A holiday of rubber boots and raincoats, wool sweaters, and windy walks along the coast.

But that is as we like it, both having a taste for a slightly rugged climate. I’m excited to be in the bustle of London again, to glut myself on museums and art and history and theatre. I’m excited to roam around Devon by foot and car, looking for links to my husband’s family history, tracking down stories and myths, staying open to unexpected discoveries. I’m excited to look for hedgehogs, and badgers, and red deer, and those urbane London foxes I keep hearing about. I’m excited to stay within the same cycle of seasons, but get a little jump start on spring. I’m excited to wander around on moors, climb on cliffs, sit in a cottage by a wood stove in an unfamiliar countryside, and be inspired for a little while by all the big and small differences of being away from home.

After a slightly wild and anxious week of kids who were healthy all winter coming down with flu, we are all recovered (I sincerely hope), packed, and heading off to the airport early tomorrow morning!

 

 

 

Drawing from nature: on seeing, recording, and reclaiming

DSC06925I am feeling grateful and excited recently to have resumed a semi-regular drawing practice. When I was a child, art was the thing that I did. Art and reading. Writing came much later, and writing was for a long time functional and obligatory – I wrote because it was something that had to be done, for school, for work, and sometimes for myself. I was a “good writer” and so I was asked to write and I wrote; and as I wrote, I learned to love writing.

My personal writing in my teens and twenties was sporadic and unsatisfying. I would start a new journal, write in it for a while, lose patience with the self that emerged in my writing, and discard the notebook. Simply put it away in a closet. And then a year or two later I would find a new notebook, the beautiful blankness of which would lure me into trying again.

It was only in my early thirties, when I was working on an education degree, that I started to recognize that the self who I recorded in my journals was incomplete. I had the epiphany that I should stop separating out personal writing from all the other parts of my life. Personal reflection, class and workshop and meeting notes, outlines for papers and presentations, quotes that inspired me – all went into the same notebook. It would be my “everything book.” This was the only way I could integrate. It was what worked for me. It meant that I would no longer lend out my notes to classmates, that I was more conscious of where my notebook was when I was out in the world, but it also meant that there were useful things in it that I wasn’t prepared to discard, so I pushed on. I didn’t hide the parts of myself that I didn’t like. I allowed all of me to stay in one place, and kept on writing.

DSC06928It seems strange now, having for the past eight years or so developed a more and more regular writing practice, to think back on a time when I would journal once or twice a year, in times of extreme emotion. Now I watch my notebooks pile up. I remember the first time I filled one in six months, I was pleased. Then in four months. Now I’m down to two. I wonder what I was doing all of those years that I wasn’t writing, how I managed to process and observe and spill out everything that needed to be spilled, record everything that needed to be recorded.

I wonder when something moves from a sporadic choice to an indispensable and life-sustaining habit. Where is the tipping point?

When I was a child and into my mid teens, I spent a lot of time drawing. It’s not that I ever fully stopped, and there was no-one who forbade me to further pursue art, but there was a point in my late teens when there was a rueful sense that it was not something that had a future. My family were all scientists, practicality was valued over creativity and risk, and there wasn’t a mentor, in that particular moment, who could have pulled me through that disconnection between the things I loved and what the world seemed to demand of me. It is something I often wonder about, how that happened, why I agreed to it, what would have been different if I hadn’t. Whether I was also in part afraid of being seen, of creating work that would have to be shared, which would force me to emerge from a protective armour that I was then diligently constructing. Whether I was afraid of making mistakes, of not being able to compete in the way I felt I was required to. All of that.

DSC06926I don’t want to linger on the reasons and regrets right now. Looking at the past or the future, of course, creates a heavy burden of meaning on something that I simply enjoy. Something that focuses my awareness and attention, takes me out of the discursive realm and into the parts of my brain that aren’t constantly needing to explain themselves with words. Something that brings me joy in the moment. And that helps me observe and integrate things that I want to be more present with, that I want to see more clearly.

My sporadic sketchbooks over the years were like my sporadic written notebooks – a burst of enthusiasm and then frustration and rejection. And maybe years later, trying again. And so now that I am keeping everything in place, not ripping out pages or putting my writing or art into dark boxes and closets, what happens? Where do I go next? Can I sustain this?

In the past couple of years, because of the naturalist learning I have been doing, I found myself drawing more often again: plants, animals, tracks. It was a place of integration for me, to find a way to use my attention and record something that I could look back at, both for learning and pleasure. A way for my eye and heart to take in and savour the details that I might otherwise pass by.

I saw this quote from Thoreau written on a wall the other day: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

DSC06927Recently, I have found myself taking some classes with a wildlife artist, and have found a friend to meet for regular drawing sessions of animal specimens at the local museum. And the past couple of months, I have been drawing/painting/collaging something for inspiration every day. I’m finding this very satisfying right now. And I don’t know where it’s going, if it’s going anywhere at all. I am staying present to following the threads, watching them weave together to see what continues to emerge.

Do we all have those secret childhood passions? Who puts them aside and who doesn’t?  How do we make sure our children hold on to theirs? Why does it sometimes feel harder and riskier to reclaim the deepest, oldest passions? And how long do we need to beat ourselves up about the things we loved and left behind before we can simply put those regrets aside and start doing all the things we love, day by day, even if only in the spare moments?

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I am not finding this free wordpress format super satisfying for placing photos in the way I want.  Apologies for the slight clunkiness of the formatting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.