Grieving the things we expected but didn’t receive: building and rebuilding the village

I love leaving and returning. I can see why people develop a habit of it, or of moving from place to place and floating on the emotional highs of goodbyes and hellos. Staying in place is hard work. In the past, even when I stayed in place, life was divided into periods of time that seldom overlapped. Now I can imagine all of my relationships stretching back into the past and forward into the future, ebbing and flowing, moving in cycles. It is a very different experience, the bird’s eye view of life – the lines moving away and back again, crisscrossing, narrowing, widening, crossing rivers and mountains and dark valleys, then returning. And me, tracing those paths over and over again, trying to understand where I belong.

We recently returned from a trip to England. I say I love returning, but on some level I didn’t want to return. After any amount of time where I have other adults around all day (or even one other adult, my husband, who often manages to make himself count as several people), I feel how impossible daily community feels in the culture I live in. I am permanently wavering between two extremes: what I am doing now, which is sometimes spending a lot of hours alone with two children (especially in the colder months); and the other alternative, which is putting the children into an age segregated group of thirty kids and one adult for many hours of each day, with all of the implications and expectations of that system.

I will keep choosing the first option, because I can’t currently reconcile myself to the second, but I am learning that homeschooling will always be a work in progress for us: building, deconstructing, and rebuilding; ebb and flow; love and fear; one foot in, one foot out; periods of connection, inspiration and flow and periods of confusion.

Shortly after we came back from England, I read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. He talks about five gates of grief, five ways of entering the sacred spaces that grief moves us through: grief at losing someone we love (generally the only grief acknowledged, even if inadequately, in our culture); sorrow for the world; ancestral grief; grief at the parts of ourselves that weren’t loved; and grief at the things we expected but didn’t receive. There is a lot to look at in each of them, but at this moment in my life, it was the last one that hit me hard.

The things we expected and didn’t receive, the things that are somewhere encoded deep in our genes and psyche as our birthright, are the elements of a village in its most ancient, most holistic sense: many hands to share the work; many arms to hold our children, to hold us; a deeply-rooted, unshakeable sense of belonging and trust; our gifts sought out, named, and celebrated; our passages honoured, from birth to death.

Our parents expected these things, and likely didn’t get them, and our grandparents too, and a long way back.

And I see how impossible it feels – despite knowing that I want these things for my children too – to provide them, because our community is never going to be intact and whole like a village; it will always be scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized, shifting; separated by distances, conflicting responsibilities and conflicting narratives. It will always be composed of people who also weren’t nurtured in the villages they expected, who – despite their best efforts – are also wounded, wary, unsure of where and how they belong, who are pulled by competing priorities and needs and the overwhelming daily demands of “making a living”.

It may seem strange to say that grief is a beautiful relief when contemplating what always seems to be out of reach. And this is a hard thing to articulate clearly, because at the same time that I speak of grief, I am also aware and grateful of how much richer and more honest and more passionate and more numerous the relationships that I am woven into now are then they have ever been in my life. And yet, as they become richer, it is like a doorway is opened to these deeply-hidden, deeply-encoded expectations, buried for so long, and they burst out with insatiable demands, impatiently wanting to be fed, howling out because they’ve had to wait for so long, wanting to live everything to the fullest now.

Or maybe I’ve reached a point in my life where a sense of urgency sometimes overwhelms me. And so gratitude and grief are entwined again, as they so often are: acknowledging both the beauty and the brevity of life; recognizing with tenderness that people are doing the best they can, that I am doing the best I can, that I need to be patient, that I can only take responsibility for myself.

Patience, my love, patience, I whisper to myself.

Grief is an antidote to cynicism and blame and disengagement. It is a necessary, ongoing ritual of clearing, of making space for reweaving the threads, of keeping my heart open to whatever comes next, of celebrating what is here.

When I said that I didn’t want to return, it is also because it seemed for a moment that it would be easier to be the one leaving than one of the people staying behind and trying to keep holding things together. Easier than committing long-term to creating community where I am. Easier than trying to understand what my role is, what I am meant to give. Easier than staying present and open to relationships that sometimes confuse me and sometimes break my heart. Easier than showing up and engaging.

Easier for a little while anyway. But if there is ever a time in my life for building, this is it. And so I return and re-engage. Passionately re-engage.

I meditate on an interview I recently read with Martin Prechtel, where he refers to the Mayan spiritual tradition of making  things (“our houses, our language, our relationships”) fragile enough that the need for constant repair and rebuilding creates an urgent condition for community to keep renewing itself:

It’s a fine balance, making something that is not so flimsy that it falls apart too soon, yet not so solid that it is permanent. It requires a sort of grace. We all want to make something that’s going to live beyond us, but that thing shouldn’t be a house, or some other physical object. It should be a village that can continue to maintain itself. That sort of constant renewal is the only permanence we should wish to attain.

Connection, disconnection, renewal; building, disintegration, rebuilding: it is taking things apart and putting them back together that makes us strong.

Since we’ve returned, I’ve found myself in tension with all the good habits I had been trying to create in the past year – around homeschooling, around writing on this blog, about making art – but this has also been a relief. Maybe that was what I needed in the fall and winter, to create structure as a way to anchor the introspection and drifting away that I feel in the colder months, as a way to anchor the restlessness that I felt last summer.

But structure and I have always been had an uneasy relationship. And now, as I start to slip already into my summer self, structure again feels oppressive, and I need most of all to get out of the house, be with people, spend hours of each day outdoors, celebrate and grieve, take off for small adventures, follow my children’s lead, follow my heart.

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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!

 

 

 

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.

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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.)

Kids on trains: travelling with kids and why it was easier than I expected

Before we took our trip to Poland last month, I didn’t give a lot of thought about how much time we would spend travelling from place to place. My parents organized the trip, and my mother had some strong opinions on driving in Poland and was quite sure that she didn’t want to rent a car. So each time we moved from city to city, we dropped by the train station and bought tickets, usually the day before departure. Having spent very little time thinking about our itinerary beforehand, I hadn’t realized how long some of our train trips would be. Perhaps if I had I would have been a little nervous.

Six hours from Warsaw to Gdańsk, seven from Gdańsk to Lublin (which, because of mechanical failures and other mishaps, turned into ten), a five-hour bus trip from Lublin to Kraków, and another five (or was it six?) hours on a train from Kraków to Siedlce, our last stop before flying out from Warsaw (an insignificant one-hour train trip away). A few short train trips, bus rides and car rides (with my uncle) interspersed the longer one.

When I thought about it afterwards, I was impressed that we had spent at least 30 hours in transit, not counting our two flights.

I love trains, especially in Europe, where it’s possible to walk around from one wagon to another, stand in the corridor with the window down, feel the wind in your hair, and even occasionally find a dining car.  But how does that work with kids under the age of 10?

It worked beautifully.

We don’t own any tablet-type devices, and while we have smartphones at home, I don’t have any interest in giving them to the kids to play with. Plus there’s the loud frugal voice in my head looking on in alarm: “But they could BREAK that!” When I’ve travelled on trains with my kids in Canada, which we used to do regularly, this has put me very much in the minority. We had a few trying train trips when Malcolm was a (very vocal) baby and toddler, when people would stare at us and elderly ladies would inquire with concern whether we had misplaced his pacifier. But we persisted, read books out loud, made up stories, played old-fashioned road games like I Spy, had lots of drawing supplies and snacks on hand. We worked at it. And it became fun.

The last few years we’ve been doing more driving, and that’s a bit harder. Harder to interact with the kids safely, impossible to move around, requiring total concentration from at least one of the adults (and intense and focused knitting from the other… ahem). But in Canada, driving makes it easier to be spontaneous, and it’s the only way to get to most places outside of a major centre.

So I was happy to rediscover train travel. Since trains (and buses and private mini-buses) were available to every nook and cranny of Poland, it seemed. And with kids ages nine and six, there was so much less effort required than in the past. I learned that six or seven hours on a train are exponentially easier than the same number in a car. And for most of the trips in helped (but perhaps just a little) that there were four adults to two children.

Lachlan, at nine, required very little interaction at all as long as he had a book to read. We’d brought two, Eragon (Christopher Paolini) and The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan). He devoured both of these in our first week of travel. A short hiatus of peaceful boredom followed, interspersed with looking out the window, card-playing, and Conan reading out loud to the kids from an old battered paperback edition of Tolkien’s Return of the King, which they had begun reading in a beautiful hardbound edition at home. In Kraków, my cousin, Ola, gave Lachlan a book of legends about the city, with stories in both Polish and English. This he also devoured.

And in an English-language bookstore in Kraków we picked up a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. One of my favourite childhood books, so it thrilled my heart to see him immersed in it for the last few days of our trip.

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As for Malcolm, the six-year-old, who until the 11th hour insisted he wasn’t going on the trip…  He proved himself to be a champion traveller. I learned last year that Malcolm can power his way through workbook exercises for the sheer joy of problem-solving and completion. We brought him a first grade math workbook and a Star Wars writing workbook. The kind of thing his older brother would have disdained and isn’t totally my style either, but is definitely part of Malcolm’s learning strategy. He set to work, and that kept him engaged for our first two train trips, until he decided that trains are too bumpy for writing.

After that we spent time:

  • Playing cards. Oh, how Malcolm loves card-playing! I can’t possibly count the number of times we each played Crazy Eights with Malcolm. Counting; sorting; learning how to deal with losing, pick oneself up, and try again….
  • Reading out loud from Return of the King and a book of five-minute mysteries we had picked up before we left.
  • Eating snacks and meals. We packed LOTS of food. Mostly fresh and simple things we could buy at any deli or tiny grocery story: fresh bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, raw veggies.  The occasional szarlotka (apple cake) or pastry.
  • Looking out the window at the world outside and marvelling at both its similarly to and difference from the landscape in Canada. I was amazed once when Malcolm did this quietly for an hour or more while everyone else read their own books.
  • Standing in the corridor looking out the window. This required me lifting Malcolm up (and he’s getting heavy!), so only happened in short instalments with the kids. Otherwise it was usually me and my dad.
  • Having our fortunes told by the kids: Lachlan was inspired by something he read to make fortune-telling cards. These featured symbols that apparently represented things like: “You will meet a very wise person who will teach you many things about the world” (an owl) and “You will go on many journeys” (a boot). Of course then Malcolm was inspired to do the same. His were a little more specific and a little more random: “You will find a lost civilization” (underwater ruin) and “You will go on a plane to a different country” (not surprising, a plane). At the time, it was all pretty hilarious.
  • Malcolm asking me math questions, and then me sneaking in a few for him. It’s interesting how both kids have learned a lot of math simply by asking questions and having conversations about things like odd and even numbers, temperatures, measurements, distances, currency. I’ve enjoyed tracking that curiosity in both of them. When they ask me math questions I usually slow down my process out loud to model what I’m doing and they eventually imitate that or find their own process.
  • Just hanging out and talking. Especially in the compartment-style trains, where we would often have other people in a compartment with us. It was fascinating to see my parents engaging everyone in conversation. I was especially impressed through the whole trip with how my father asks questions about everything and then remembers all those details later on.
  • Ignoring the children and reading our own books, writing in a notebook (that one was just me), or being mesmerized by the landscape ourselves. I also brought some – very tiny and portable – knitting.

Lots of these activities carried over to times when we weren’t on trains. Sometimes writing, drawing, and playing card games that needed more space were better done in hotel rooms and in the homes we stayed in.

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This on top of all the museums, art galleries, castles, medieval cities, picturesque villages, local flora and fauna, traditional foods, family history and genealogy, discussions of cultural differences, and of course, the regular language practice…

Well, I fell a little bit in love with both the richness and the simplicity of learning and living on the road.

Returning

Some day, I’ll have the technological sophistication to blog on the road. Maybe. Then I won’t disappear for weeks at a time. But for now, I have a notebook and paper and a point-and-shoot camera, and my thoughts and reflections gather and weave together for weeks, until the strands that felt clear and precise in the moment are hard to pull apart from the whole. I jot down rough notes and immediate emotions, and I tell myself that I like having the time to experience and then reflect. But in that moment between immediate experience and the distance of time, a single story can be hard to pull out of of what feels like a million impressions. “At least a million,” as my six-year-old would say.

On a park bench in Warsaw.

On a park bench in Warsaw.

In our three-week trip to Poland last month, we visited Warsaw, Gdańsk, Kraków and Lublin (where I was born); spent a weekend at a family wedding on my mother’s side; and then most of a week in the country, in the small village where my father grew up, in the house where he was born. We saw all of my father’s siblings (three brothers and a sister), some of my cousins, and some of their children (all of whom have been born since I last visited 11 years ago). We visited my great-aunt and uncle, now in their eighties and so little changed from how I always remember them. We spent between 25 and 30 hours on trains and buses, with two kids and no electronics (more on that another day). We visited four castles. We wandered through cities that had been 90 percent destroyed during World War II and then meticulously rebuilt by the incredibly resilient inhabitants. We visited many churches, as tourists and not worshippers, in a country where the Catholic Church is omnipresent and religious observance is strong and sometimes inflexible.

Lion fountain in Gdańsk,

Lion fountain in Gdańsk,

We spent most of that time as three generations travelling together: my parents, my husband and I, and our two children – nine and six. This meant – although there were many child-endorsed visits to medieval castles – that the adults had some time for activities without kids. Conan and I, without the kids, visited some intense and moving museums, some of the best museums I’ve ever encountered, all recently built. Interactive and multimedia are overused buzzwords, but I saw them fully realized when applied to telling the story of the Warsaw Uprising, or the Nazi occupation of Kraków, or the months before and after the strikes in the Gdańsk shipyard that eventually led to the fall of communism in Poland. Architecture, installations, artifacts, day-by-day narration of events leading visitors through the space, film footage, interviews with survivors, written testimonies, music, sometimes even items to handle and smell – this was museum curating at its most creative, dynamic and relevant.

Lachlan cracking fresh hazelnuts by the beehives in Dratów.

Lachlan cracking fresh hazelnuts by the beehives in Dratów.

There was a lot about Poland that drew me in, that always seems like part of me: the old farm in Dratów, which holds some of my earliest sensory memories (more on that another day as well); Kraków, the first place that felt like home when I first went back to Poland when I was 18, a city that puts me under a spell, where I never feel like a tourist even when walking in a throng of other visitors; the countryside we drove through on trains and buses, watching small and diverse plots passing in beautiful succession: potatoes, corn, apples, hops, hazelnuts, tobacco, strawberries. Books on herbal medicine and on wild food seemed to be everywhere – homes of relatives, even small bookstores in train stations. We ate homemade preserves and drank homemade fruit liquers, ate freshly-picked mushrooms and freshly grown fruit and vegetables.  We bought freshly-baked bread every morning in tiny urban markets. Even down 100 meters under the ground in the Wieliczka salt mine, the food was fresh, seasonal and traditional.

Sometimes I stood for what seemed like hours in train hallways – as one can in Europe – with the window down, leaning my arms on the sill, wind whipping my hair, the countryside flashing by, asking my dad questions about the trees and plants sailing past. Lulled by the rocking of the train, while puzzling over botanical names in Polish, English, Latin. Those were perfect moments.

Inspecting propaganda posters at the Gallery of Socialist Realist Art at Kozłówka Palace.

Inspecting propaganda posters at the Gallery of Socialist Realist Art at Kozłówka Palace.

And then there were the ghosts, of all different sorts. The past is so present for me in Poland. Ghosts in the cities that had been destroyed and rebuilt, ghosts of people who gave their lives to visions of national independence and personal freedom, ghosts in the streets where Jewish ghettoes had been places of imprisonment and horror during the war. The latter visited me in dreams and in waking, and sometimes it seemed that they gripped me and held me down so I could hardly breathe. And kinder ghosts, those of my grandparents, especially my two grandmothers, who were still alive the last time I visited, whose voices I could hear in my head, the touch of whose hands – elderly hands, at once both rough and soft – I could feel on my skin. Whose physical presence was missing for the first time.

Street art in Kraków.

Street art in Kraków.

Instead, there was a new generation of children to meet. Children of my cousins. What was amazing and beautiful was the way children communicate when they don’t speak the same language. Malcolm and his five-year-old second cousin spent a couple of hours stringing together random words in Polish and English, giggling madly, chasing and tickling each other, taking pictures with their mother’s cameras. Malcolm said at the end: “I think I am very good at communicating without words,” and I laughed and agreed. In another home, my kids bounced around for an hour with four other cousins they were meeting for the first time: jumping, wrestling, laughing, wild energy. Then they hugged goodbye and the cousins were on their way. Seeds of relationship planted for the future.

Malcolm's picture of Milenka and her picture of the wallpaper in my parents' hotel room in Kraków.

Malcolm’s picture of Milenka and her picture of the wallpaper in my parents’ hotel room in Kraków.

And then there are the things that are wholly strange to me. That’s always the difficult part. I’ve lived for most of my life in a country of many religions, many ethnic origins, many belief systems. I believe that there are many ways to truth. I can’t know who I would be if I hadn’t moved here, what I would believe. But the certainty – about values, about other cultures – that I often encounter in Poland, and sometimes in other parts of Europe, can make dialogue difficult. Where does one even start in the face of such certainty? It’s hard to find a way into the conversation. It shuts me down, and I have to work at speaking when something needs to be said. Even at home I can find it hard to explain myself. In a language that sometimes ties my tongue up in knots, with the vocabulary of a child, well, it’s hard to say much more than “I disagree”. There is such powerlessness in being able to understand clearly words that you don’t agree with, but being unable to articulate a response. I never stay in the country long enough to get to the nuances. But I sometimes feel a disconnect between the thoughtful analysis of the museum exhibits and the conversations I overhear on the street or in people’s homes. Perhaps that would be the case in Canada too, if I stepped outside the bubble of the big city I live in and the open-minded community around me.

A traditional paper-cutting of the Lublin region, part of an exhibit of Polish folk art at Lublin castle.  This was my favourite, because of the storks.

A traditional paper-cutting of the Lublin region, part of an exhibit of Polish folk art at Lublin castle. This was my favourite, because of the storks.

The tension between connection on one hand and claustrophobia on the other is always there when I travel to Poland. I pine for the cobbled city streets, the heart-stirring history, the ancestral farmlands, the family resemblances, and then breathe some relief when I return to the wider open spaces and perspectives of my adopted home. Every country has such a different personality. It’s partly the weight of its particular history, but it’s also the daily influence of the place itself. The landscape, the architecture, the weather, the way the towns fit together, the historical monuments, the flora and fauna, the density of the population. The day-to-day sensory perceptions that make up a reality, the context for a worldview.

Once you leave a place, you can’t ever truly go back.  Everything is different. You see everything differently.

Which doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying. To figure out where I fit; to feel the comforting presence of my ancestors; to revel in what I love about the land and the culture; to relish the relationships that just are, that pick up over distances of kilometres and years, with a long embrace and a warm smile. And now, also to show my children the roots of my story, of their stories. To trace back their threads of ancestry and influence. To spin a thread for them, however tentatively, into the future.