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.

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

On going underground

January is always a hard month. And somehow this always surprises me. Somehow I think I’ve braced myself against it, I’m ready, and then it hits me, and I feel myself going under. There are little things that help. I am learning to reach out in those moment to a few dear friends, to say “This is a hard day, can you sit beside me and hold my hand?” even if this holding sometimes happens over a distance. I am learning to write it out, to move, to give myself space to witness. I am learning to always let myself cry when I need to.

Someone once said to one of my children, “Why are you crying? Crying never helps.”

“Don’t listen to that,” I tell them and you and myself, “crying always helps.“

When I feel myself going under, there’s no way to rush through it. It takes patience, and compassion, and repeating each day the practice of things that normally bring me joy, until something catches me up again – something beautiful, something moving, something that makes me laugh out loud. I know I am coming back when I remember my sense of humour.

And I believe that sometimes we need to fall apart. We can hold ourselves together for only so long, and then it becomes too much work and we need to crumble, and then crumbling is a relief. Disintegrating is a relief. Because then the effort required to keep ourselves together, to present ourselves as intact and well-protected, can be dedicated to other things. Crumbling, in itself, becomes less something to fear.

And yet, sometimes it is hard to be around people in this crumbled state. Everything is exposed, and while the wounds may need to be aired, there is still the need to keep all the grit from getting in, the need to keep the wounds clean, if possible. The awareness that everything is sore and sensitive and needs to heal, even if healing is sometimes a lonely thing. Perhaps tears also help us clean the wounds, so that they don’t fester, so that they are simpler to tend to in the end.

I don’t think it’s possible to get through life without times of darkness, and what brings these on is not always obvious. I can love my husband and children, I can count my blessings, I can see that the world is beautiful, and I can still sometimes find it hard to get through the day. It is not always possible, or helpful, or necessary, to find a label for this, but sometimes it is. There is a deep descent, sometimes in stages; there is the knowledge of inner terrain that needs to be navigated and passed through; there is a period of separation. Sometimes we need help to come back out into the light, sometimes we reach it in our own time, with patience and awareness and presence.

A few weeks ago I woke up and I questioned why I was in this dark place. I felt like I was underwater. I was trying to hold my head above, but seeing that maybe it was time to dive deeper instead, that maybe I was wrong about what element I belonged to. I remembered something a friend had said the previous weekend, when I had sat in a circle with a group of women who I love, each of whom had in turn shared their own stories of transition, uncertainty and loss:

“We need to keep going back down into the underworld, and looking at what we find there, then coming back up again. The hero’s/heroine’s journey doesn’t happen once, it happens over and over again, in a circle. It never really ends.”

And when I woke up that morning, I felt the story she sketched out, the narrative arc of that journey, slowly pulling me up again. It took me out of the eternal present. It made me see that the darkness is one step on the journey, that it is part of the cycle, that there is a time of return to the light. It made me feel the possibilities of deep mining, the hope that there is some magic or some medicine to be found there, that there are always gifts to be found underground.

DSC06812

Be Ground

Be crumpled, so wildflowers

will come up where you are.

You’ve been stony for too many years.

Try something different.

Surrender.

 – Rumi –

Seal Woman (a poem)

When the waves crash over your head

and you brace yourself,

against that shock of darkness

seeping into eyes, nose, mouth, ears, skin,

so that you are gasping, blind, waterlogged,

dissolving,

fighting against that which envelops you,

afraid

that you cannot stand, breathe, swim,

or survive –

what if you, in that very moment,

know

that the dark water is in truth your element,

that you are actually a seal woman,

a selkie –

lured onto land by pride and promises,

and the beating of your all-too-human heart?

– know that you are truly, irrefutably,

a water creature,

a being who can live on land but briefly,

that you have overstayed your time here,

that in the harsh air you will eventually

dry out, wear out;

you will be parched, homesick;

you will be a mere shadow of your own soul’s self.

Then, by that alchemy of thought,

will you, instead of fighting,

dive deep down into the water that could be your grave

or your salvation?

Will you find yourself at home there –

lithe, graceful, saturated, satiated –

as you have never been on land?

Will you surrender to that unknown yet familiar

darkness?

Will you surrender then, and find yourself at home?

 

Leave-taking, 1981 (a poem, a story)

There was the airport in Warsaw,

my baby sister crying,

my grandmother, who did not understand why

anyone would cross an ocean,

saying goodbye.

There was the flight, with cigarette smoke and candy,

landing in Montreal,

driving some distance in the dark.

There was the townhouse my father had rented;

it was bigger than any home I had seen,

and I got lost in the basement, yelling

for my mother to find me.

My father had filled a shopping cart with

bananas for us, because

there were so many,

and in the world he knew,

we stood in line for everything

and everything could be bartered.

There was my first day at school,

crying at my desk, alone in the midst of

incomprehensible sounds,

my name changed,

harsh and unfamiliar.

A week later, a peculiar thing,

children knocking on our door,

asking for candy;

we hid inside with our lights off,

my mother tense with irritation

and worried about money for food.

There was the news

that my grandfather had died,

and there was no way for us to go back;

we knelt by our beds, I remember,

and prayed for him;

and I remember my fear of death then,

of being eaten by worms.

Slowly I started to understand and speak,

but words are only the surface of things,

and I had a new friend,

with darker hair and skin than

anyone I had known,

who told me that Jesus was a prophet

among many,

and not the son of God;

I was stunned then by her ignorance

and argued with her,

and only years later did it

become an amusing story,

of two children

and the totality of the world views

they had been taught.

Here, in this place, I shed the world-view,

I shed the skin that I had been born into,

I shed the certainty of anything.

There is an exile in being changed,

home doesn’t exist anymore;

there is no way to return.

————————————————————————————————————————————–

My father often recites a nineteenth-century Polish poem, Smutno mi Boże (I am Sad, God), in which Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki, in political exile from his home, speaks of his sorrow and his longing for the land that he has left behind. It made me wonder about the idea of exile, what it means in the twenty-first century, what it means to anyone who has left the land of their birth and their ancestors. And thirty-four years after emigrating, these childhood memories came flooding back.

What do you need to leave behind when you reshape your life, shed your world-view, undergo transformation?

(On a technical side note, I can’t figure out how to get any control over verse breaks in this particular WordPress theme. Double spacing doesn’t work.)

Dandelions, dragonflies, and falling in love

I fell in love with a dandelion last week. And when it died, I mourned it.

My children have been knocking the heads off dandelions a lot recently. It’s something I have mixed feelings about. Contrary to the perfect lawn culture I grew up in, I have a lot of respect for the resilient and versatile dandelion. But I also see that children help them spread their seeds around. And I see that the survival of the hardy dandelion isn’t threatened by children’s games. And I am always trying to strike a balance with nature – with nature and kids in particular – between joyful and immersed interaction and respect.

A few weeks ago, as part of some learning about plants I’m working on right now, I chose a dandelion plant in my backyard as a focal plant to observe over the next three seasons.

I knew that it would be hard to protect a dandelion in my backyard. But I had clearly voiced to my family my desire to protect this one. And I had decided as a method of observation to carefully sketch the plant every few days. I felt kind of blissful realizing that I could learn about this plant while doing something else that I loved and wanted to practice more often.DSC06270

In two days of lovingly sketching “my” dandelion and others, I already knew more about the stages of the plant’s development than I ever had before. I observed and admired the bright yellow ray of florets, the graceful curves and tapers of the toothed leaves, the translucent green of the elegant flower stalk. I watched the yellow flower close for a period of time to undergo a transformation, with the dried florets slowly pushed up out of the flower by the combined force of perhaps more than 150 tiny single-seeded fruit attached to silky pappi.

I was waiting, anticipating the bursting open of the delicate perfect sphere of the seed head, anticipating its daily dance with the wind and the gradual dispersal of its tiny floating seed progeny out into the world on their silken parachutes. Anticipating the slow wilting of the flower as the plant’s energy travelled underground to the deep taproots, digging down and breaking up the soil, aerating it for other plants to grow.

But as my family prepared for a late-spring dinner in our backyard one evening, I stepped out onto my back steps, looked at my son standing with a strange look beside the tomato bed, and instinctively said: “Remember not to touch that dandelion!” Right away, I knew by his stricken expression and hunched shoulders that it was too late. He burst out crying, I burst out crying.

It was so clear that he felt terrible already, but I had a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes and needed to speak my distress. Recently, I am often surprised by my intensity of emotion.

“Why would you do that? I don’t even understand why you need to keep hitting at dandelions! And I asked you specifically not to touch this one! I’m so disappointed!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I forgot!”

I went into the house and sat on the couch shaking. I had felt deep satisfaction imagining myself carefully watching the growth of this plant, imagining myself developing a relationship with it over many months, imagining the reciprocity of tending for the plant as I learned from it.

Was it futile to think that I could keep a dandelion alive for that long? Couldn’t I protect just one plant? Couldn’t I watch it move through its growth cycle in peace? Could I convince anyone of the value of a dandelion?

Was I upset because my plans were disrupted? Or was there an energy that flowed from me to the dandelion and back again, through my careful observation and loving attention that in those moments was a little like love?

Paying attention to anything or anyone so raptly plants the seeds of connection. Connection nurtures love; perhaps it’s the same thing. And love leads to caretaking, to protecting, to reciprocity. Connection, love and then caretaking: as my eyes are open wider to the world, I see this pattern, over and over again.

This is not to say that death doesn’t belong in this cycle; it’s inevitable and even necessary. I am not sentimental about this. To be human is to face the truth that we can’t live on sunshine and rain: we must kill other living beings to survive. But there is the cycle of life and death and rebirth, and then there is random destruction. There is the reciprocity of picking dandelions and cooking with them, of savouring the bitter young greens in a salad, of digging the root and using it for medicine, of feeling gratitude for what these things bring into your body. There is also the careful stewardship of a space, a healthy habitat, that sometimes requires choices about what will live and what will die.

And then there’s death or destruction without a purpose. A broken connection; a broken cycle. And that break brings mourning.

It’s easy to fall in love with the big and beautiful: moose, foxes, deer, sandhill cranes, owls, and I have done that too. But it’s the more humble beings, like dandelions, like dragonflies, that catch me by surprise.

Last fall, on the small farm in Poland where my father grew up, I sat under a mountain ash and read from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s a hard book to read; in many ways it’s a highly articulate anti-book, an ode to the primeval language of the pre-literate world and of all the communicating living beings with which we are in relationship. It’s a book that’s best read outdoors, in small bursts, with all senses open to what the world is saying.

As I read, dragonflies flew all around, dozens of them, as well as maybe hundreds of European Peacock butterflies, dark orange with two purple eye spots on each wing. As I held my open book on my lap, a red dragonfly landed on the dazzlingly white page. It perched – if that is what a dragonfly does – and faced me. I raised the book higher and stared at the dragonfly. It stared back at me with its giant compound eyes. I understand that dragonflies have much clearer vision, in the human sense, than many other insects. But I don’t really know what it saw. What is the world-view of a dragonfly?

What it looked like to me, however, was that the dragonfly was watching me as I was watching it. It was a strangely astonishing display of mirroring. I looked quizzically at the dragonfly; it cocked its head to one side, then the other, and again, as if was looking at me with the same curiosity. Dragonflies, from a mammalian point of view, have remarkably appealing faces. Their compound eyes are huge and beautiful, and a raised section of the face in between those eyes, called the vertex, looks like a small round nose. A tiny earnest face stared unblinkingly at me as I stared carefully back. It was the most connecting moment I’ve ever shared with an insect.

When you look at something very closely, your perspective changes. When the dragonfly took off, I was almost thrown back with surprise. Its body swooped up huge towards my face, filling my field of vision, a giant prehistoric winged creature, iridescent and magical, communicating with me from another world.

That moment was also a little like love.

DSC06273I have mourned my dandelion flower, and with my son’s help found another plant to study in a more sheltered spot. I have watched the metamorphosis of its flower parts, drawn it, and learned from it. The first dandelion has not produced any further flowers, but in truth, its leaves and root are still alive; there is still more to be observed, now that I have regained my perspective.

I have not since locked eyes with a dragonfly. But each moment of connection to dandelion, to dragonfly, creates a relationship that opens space in my heart for other strange and surprising encounters. In some way, it means that I have friends in the world that I didn’t once have, perhaps an infinite number, both curious and familiar; that as I pay attention, as I take care, I am cared for in turn.

The world is full of remarkable beings, of beauty, of curiosity, of connection, of love. My work – our work – is to recognize all these beings as part of our community, part of our family, and to treat them honourably and with care. Our work is allow our selfhood to be a little more permeable than we once believed – not only to other humans, not only to our familiar domesticated creatures, but to all of the wild. To all of the beings that seem nothing like us, that we think we can’t possibly understand, that have gifts and abilities well beyond the scope of the human, but that are our relations nonetheless.

Can you live as the person you wish you were?

The weekend before my fortieth birthday – as a kind of present to myself – I spent several days at a workshop with a group of women: sharing personal stories, listening deeply, tracking our patterns, talking about fears and shame, releasing things that were no longer working. At the end of the weekend, we were asked to set goals to create a new habit around something we had worked on over the weekend. I, mind racing, thought of All the Things I Need to Work On.

When my turn came around the circle, I tried to cram half a dozen of these into one small timely measurable goal to accomplish the following week. And failed miserably. The facilitators gently prodded me on my intentions and tried to pare down the whole mess into something more specific. I said I would pass until the rest of the circle was done. By the time it came around to me again, I was weeping: “I’m so overwhelmed.”

I blurted out a couple of very small goals, as I should have done in the first place: to sit on my back steps for a few moments each day in quiet and awareness, and to create a moment of ceremony each morning to offer some gratitude and prayers and set intentions for the day. Then proceeded to cry through all of the closing. The weekend was almost done. There wasn’t much time left to dig any deeper.

I certainly wasn’t the first to break down that weekend. In many ways, that’s the point: to let down those defenses of the tender places in your heart, and let people in, knowing that your story is always in some way their story too, sinking into the trust that’s been built through talking in a circle. Through carefully and lovingly watching the faces around you, through honouring confidences, through watching each person struggling to express vulnerable truths about themselves.

In the hour before we packed up, someone hugged me and told me I didn’t need to push myself so hard. “What does that even mean?” I wondered, as I always do, because it’s not the first time I’d heard it.

I cried again when I got home; I cried again when I woke up the next morning, my birthday. A week before I had been almost smug with confidence about moving into a new decade of my life. I tried to pull apart the overwhelm of that moment: too many commitments, too many expectations of myself? That wasn’t quite it.

But then I saw that the question that had flooded me was this: “Will I ever be the person I want to be?”

Once I could hear this clearly, something inside me was still. And another voice, a curious and quiet one, responded:

“What if you were willing to believe that you are that person already?”

“No, I’m not. I can’t be. Someday. There’s still so much to do. So much to work on. Once I learn this and this and change that and that other thing about myself…. maybe then.”

Right, I get it. It’s a moving target. Something to aspire to and never reach. Something to motivate me to keep moving.

“But let’s just say,” the calm watcher part of my brain pressed on, “let’s just say you had to be that person right now. What would that mean?”

It was a scary thought. I watched myself recoil from it.

What would it mean? It would mean that I need to be accountable. That I can’t sulk. That I need to respond instead of reacting. That I need to say what has to be said, instead of withdrawing. That I need to stay open. That if I make a mistake, if I fall into an old pattern – as I surely will – I need to go back and own it. That I need to be aware of the impact of each word and action. That if I see that something needs to be done, I need to step forward and do it. That in every moment, I need to draw on my best self.

It feels so much easier to keep putting it off.

Maybe growth comes not of looking to the elusive self-improvements of the future, but of intentionally tending the seeds of each moment now and slowly unfurling our leaves and buds out of them until we burst into flower. Maybe. I might be willing to believe it.

The frustrating but beautiful thing about truisms, I’ve found, is that I can fight against them for years until one day a voice inside me offers me the same advice: you can only live in the present moment. It takes me a long time to get the message. It’s hard to learn things like that from the outside.

Can I move through each moment as if I’m already the person I wish I was?

There is a tightrope, I think, that we need to walk on as our best selves, while compassionately picking ourselves up again when we stumble and fall, because even our best selves will always be imperfect.

Can you live as the person you wish you were? Not as a mandate, but as an experiment: a thought experiment, an experiment of intention, an experiment of action?