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

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You, fragmented by love (a poem)

Sometimes you wake at night

and feel the pulsing of love

in your heart.

You sort through your catalogue of love,

the many-coloured samples.

Sometimes you paint love with sweeping brushstrokes

into your dark corners

and it seeps deep down

to the places you thought

you had carefully sealed.

Your work is particular

but not always measured.

You linger, sometimes, over a detail,

something particularly fine;

but sometimes you are so saturated

with love,

it is like water seeping through your barricades,

slipping in and loosening the boards,

and finding its way even between

the cracks,

so that you are slowly pulled apart,

splintered, and then fragmented,

into a dusting of particles, like sand;

and you can no longer gather yourself

together

into the shape

of what you once were.

Advice to self

Listen:

You heart tells you what you need.

Ignore the advice,

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

You are part of a thread,

That stretches into the infinite past,

The infinite future.

Your hands reach out to your ancestors,

To your descendants.

The world is not a battleground,

It is a garden.

It is an organism

Of which you are a necessary cell.

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

To create.

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

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

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

Journeys into the soul of the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In this city

There are rivers like veins

Buried deep

You can paddle

Drift

To the heart of things

To the wild, secret places

Where the deer sleep.

 

deer on Humber riverturtles on Humber

The language of birds

Recently I spent a weekend at a workshop on bird language led by Jon Young, a deeply inspiring naturalist, tracker, and mentor; and author of What the Robin Knows. The language of birds – I always love the way it sounds, secret and mysterious.

In practice, the format involves covering a piece of land with quiet listeners; each person individually recording the tone of the voices of the birds around them (relaxed song, alarm, companion calls to check in, etc.); bringing it all together in a series of expanding maps of the territory; and slowly watching a story emerge. And then doing it over and over again until you become fluent.

Songbirds comment on everything. They have to. It’s how they survive, and all of the other animals know how to interpret what they’re saying. The language of birds is the language of the forest, the field, the swamp, even of your backyard. Learning to listen in on this is an amazing naturalist skill. You start to anticipate what is going to happen – the hawk swooping in, the bobcat slowly walking through the forest, the erratic movements of the weasel. You know where the predators are. You read the forest as a constantly communicating organism. Seeing people interpret the subtleties of this blows my mind.

I have a long way to go on this. Really a very long way. But I am learning that tuning in to what the birds are saying is a form of meditation. Their constant vulnerability, their constant communication moves me; it teaches me to be present; it teaches me to listen; it teaches me empathy.

Companion Voices

I stood under the trees

Rain dripping

I swayed like a tree myself

Rustled my branches, my leaves

Shifted my weight gently

Rooted myself into that place

If only for a while.

I heard above me the small metallic sound

Of a bird speaking to its mate:

Red throat, white breast, black wings

Its mate a soft brown,

Holding each other

In this voiced embrace.

For a moment, a tiny tanager joined them,

A gift of red and black

My first

Then gone.

The pair persisted

Soft and insistent

Never letting go.

I wondered

How can we speak to those we love

As birds call to their mates, their flock?

This is the trust

Of reciprocity

Its even rhythm

Its intimacy

Its commitment.

This morning the forest voiced interdependence to me

In a pair of birds.