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

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

Wandering

I’m doing it again: losing track of time. It’s been a month since I posted, despite my more-than-daily writing for myself, despite waking up and writing first thing every morning, despite never going anywhere without a notebook. I am in awe of people who share their writing regularly, weekly, daily, but I don’t think that is where I’m heading.

There is an ever-shifting balance that I am noting in my life between being accountable and being accepting of my own patterns and needs. Between setting goals and moving towards them, and living fully in the sensory and emotional experiences of my daily life. Between recognizing the truth that showing up and doing the work is what creates the road to move forward on, and constantly being tempted to go off-trail and explore the woods all around and simply forgetting about the road altogether in the joy of wandering.

This fall there was a lot of (figurative) wandering. I finished up a second-year plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks  – the fourth year in which I have been learning and working with this organization – and spent a weekend wrapping up by making salves, balms, tinctures, teas and other goodies with our group. I made some beautiful snowshoe moccasins in a weekend workshop with Lure of the North, which I am planning to use on future winter tracking adventures. I participated in a peacemaking workshop in Peterborough with some amazing people, and absorbed tools and stories which I am using in my family and community. I did some bird drawing classes with Alan Li and remembered once again how drawing something is such a beautiful form of close attention. I knit myself another sweater, a red one.

I cleared as much space as I could to simply be and to delve into some inner patterns and habits. I spent lots of time alone. I read and wrote and walked. I had many hours of conversation with friends, around fires, in cars, on the phone, on walks, drinking tea, drinking wine.

I made a personal altar in my home as a space for grounding and meditation. I claimed a work area, a “room of my own”, and piled it high with my books and notebooks and pictures, my sewing machine, my yarns and fabrics, my sketchbooks: the essentials. Then I started clearing away the clutter, editing the rest of my house and my life.

(But not excessively, because my life is full of small beautiful things that I love, both tangible and intangible.)

Most of all, I stayed present in my daily life. The kids and I spent way more time actually at home than we have in the past few years of homeschooling, more time sitting at the dining room table doing focused work – writing, math – more time drawing and making art, more time working on random projects, more time writing letters and drawing pictures to send to friends, more time having those enlightening and entertaining conversations one has with kids. Also more time walking and biking around our urban neighbourhood.

Our rhythms are slow, and right now everyone seems the happier for it.  I’m aiming for a quiet winter, a pause, time for integration.

Last spring I broke down at a weekend gathering about “all the things I need to work on.” Looking back, I see that the thing I most needed to work on was letting go of that critical voice that told me I was never doing enough, that there was always an external standard that I was failing to meet. And by extension, that other people often weren’t meeting this standard either. I’m seeing the truth that the more patience and compassion I have for myself, the more I have for others.

Since the summer I’ve started to get up early to journal and write down my dreams. It’s the first morning practice ever that I’ve held fast to and know that I will continue. Yoga, meditation, exercise, morning walks – none of those things can consistently drag me out of bed before my family on a cold winter morning. Writing can. Because it feels like a gift; because it feels like play; because it feels like my soul is being listened to in the most beautiful way; because it feels like how I want to spend every morning of my life. That’s what matters.

Digging up roots

This is the season for roots: plants digging their energy down deep into the soil, underground cellars stocked to sustain us through the cold months, the ghosts of our ancestors coming and asking us for remembrance and honour.

Last weekend, in the plants apprenticeship I’m currently involved in, we focused on roots, harvesting them to use as medicine and nourishment. Digging up roots takes gentleness and reverence – when you uproot a plant, you take responsibility for its life. It’s not something to do lightly.

As we dug up sarsaparilla, burdock, dandelion, plantain, false Solomon’s seal, and (very consciously and sparingly) blue cohosh, I marveled at the intricate shapes of roots, the tendrils and tubers and deep taproots. I meticulously and slowly pulled out one sarsaparilla root that was longer than me, eventually cutting it off from where it had branched from a thicker segment that connected it to a host of other plants of the same species. I never found the initial plant from which it grew. Someone else dug up a milkweed plant, and found that its root was unexpectedly connected to that of another milkweed plant, by a thick horizontal root, like a bridge.

What is going on down there, beneath the earth, beneath the surface of what we can see?

I imagined all the roots underground, intricately woven and plaited and intertwined together, like roads on a map connecting the underground landscape. Sarsaparilla, for one, grows from rhizomes into communities of plants. The roots are all connected underground. There sometimes isn’t any clear way to tell where one plant ends and the next one begins.

I have been feeling restless in recent years. This is what happens at midlife, I hear.

I ground other people in my life; I care and nurture and love; I honour my commitments, savour them even. But other parts of me have been unsettled, ungrounded, anxious, afraid that soon it will be too late – too late for what? There is the ongoing question of what is a true call for adventure, what is good risk-taking to push myself past the limits of who I have always believed myself to be, and what is, in some sense, running away. Running away mainly from myself, I suspect. Running that can sometimes be more about proving that I am accomplished and worthy, than about moving forward into possibility, at ease with who I am.

Right now, as I study plants, I am sometimes impatient with them, as with myself. A year or two ago, I focused on learning animal tracking: the movement, the adrenaline, the solving of puzzles. Plants just sit there. What am I to learn from them?

And so I make myself sit. And I ask the questions. I ask each plant: what can I learn from you? Yarrow: can you heal wounds of the heart as well as wounds of the flesh? Saint John’s wort: can you help me ease darkness of spirit in myself and others? Dandelion: what can you teach me about resilience?

And I ask the questions of all the plants and trees: what does it mean to put down roots, to be grounded? What does it mean for me to be grounded, like a tree, in a way that holds me deeply into the soil that I live in, connected underground, but also reaching up into the sky in a way that is particular only to myself?

As someone who was geographically and culturally transplanted at a young age, as many of us are in this world, I have been, after all these years, thinking a lot about what it means to put down roots. Thinking about what it means to be a non-native plant that naturalizes into a new environment, instead an invasive plant that displaces those who are already here.

I am playing with these metaphors, trying them out, recognizing that perhaps my role is to be a bridge for my children to find answers that are more satisfying than the questions that I am always asking myself.

But when I talk about being grounded, it is also much more personal. It is sometimes about the anxiety of what feels hidden, buried; about what lies underground and keeps me awake at night, about what I have not been wiling to bring to the light. There is something about really following those dark roots down into the soil and letting myself see them clearly that gives me the clarity of knowing who I am: who I am in relation to the people in my life, but not only in relation to them. Who I am in a way that is entire, that is inalienable, that is simply about being and not contingent on anything that I do or accomplish. That leaves room for longing and seeking, for learning and mastery, but is not dependent on them for a deeply-rooted sense of self.

I sat a couple of months ago in another wood and looked at the trees all around and the question that came up was this: “Can I say that a tree is not free simply because it is rooted in place?” And it seemed clear to me then, in an intuitive and not a rational way, that a tree is free.

And so I continue to sit with the question: what is it to be an individual in family and community; to be rooted, to be deeply connected, to be interdependent, while always having enough room to grow?