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.

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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.

On passions, distractions, and living your life

I sit outside my parents’ house on an August morning, watching a red squirrel race through the branches of a white cedar at the back of the house. It’s exhilarating to watch the effortlessness of this small creature’s means of moving through the world, never hesitating, never losing its footing. Really, it’s almost as if there is no footing to speak of. The impression I have when I watch squirrels in trees, especially the tiny red ones, is of a motion as fluid as swimming. I could swear to you that they are swimming through the branches, swimming from one tree to the next.

Swimming is not something I have ever myself done particularly well. After all the swimming lessons I did as I child, I never did figure out how to get the breathing right. For years I avoided bodies of water entirely.

This seems a wild omission to me right now, knowing the effect that immersion in water has on me. A few years ago I decided – in the interest of saying yes to the widest range of sensory experiences – that if there was water to get into, I would get into it, at least from May to the end of October, the full span of summer.

Now, spending this early August week outside the city, with several lakes to choose from, each day’s immersion resets the chatter of my brain to neutral. My mental lists, my internal rehearsals of conversations and emails, my sense of trying to anticipate the next steps – they are silence and stilled. The cold water shocks me out of my preoccupations; it cools the intensity of my inner fires; it soaks into my skin and bones so that I carry its memory in my body for hours.

I practice breathing out, touching the bottom and coming back up; I jump off small docks with my children; I float on my back and watch the clouds. I am soothed into quiet, into stillness.

I imagine being as transparent and light and spacious as water, but also as wild and powerful and fierce.

It is perhaps a sign of the age I live in – or a product of my own span of enthusiasms – that whatever I am doing I usually feel like I should be doing something else. The internet world wages a stubborn battle between manifestos on productivity and quieter voices suggesting that productivity isn’t all that we are here on this Earth to manifest. A battle between the rallying cry of sculpting life entirely with your own hands, damned be the obstacles; and the quieter whisper of recognizing that the life that IS is – if we can see it fully – often more beautiful than we are willing to acknowledge.

I balance on the fence between one view and the other, as I do with so many things. I scan articles on following your passion, on efficiency, on setting goals. I find myself having passing conversations with single-minded people who tell me that they are looking for a hobby, and then I realize I’m not even sure what a hobby is. Everything in my life is maybe a hobby or maybe a passion or maybe a calling, or maybe a distraction from something else. I am drawn both to simplicity and to multiplicity, aware of both the allure and the dangers of each.

Sometimes, I want to strip everything down to its bones. I want to find the truths behind the walls; I want to open the curtains and go backstage and see what is hiding there. And at the same time, I love the abundance, the riotous celebration and interdependence of the non-minimalist life. I often wonder why it is only the women in my life who are wooed by the gospels of de-cluttering, eliminating, fasting. Why do we believe that we always need to be smaller and sparser and less complex than we actually are?

And then, how does one cut the distractions out of life? A while ago I read an interview with a writer who was asked how he managed to spend weeks at his desk writing on beautiful, clear and sunny days. He said that he uses blackout blinds and plays recordings of rain sounds to convince his body and mind that staying inside is all that he wants to do.

I loved reading this. It gave me a huge and powerful jolt of clarity: this man’s discipline awes me, but I am never going to be that person. When the sun shines and the sky is blue and a light breeze beckons, I will do everything I can to make sure that I am out in the world.

I can admire single-minded people, and yet not envy them. I can move between each of my passions, weaving pieces of a larger tapestry. I can create my own mental maps of the connections between things, finding the small ways in which each piece fits. I can swim between the trees, never losing my footing. This way, nothing that I love needs to be rejected.

You can do this too. Your life as you are living it is not a distraction from something else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What is the brave action?”

I went to a Solstice women’s circle in December dedicated to the energy of silence and waiting, and the pause of the darkest time of year. As part of the process, I drew a card from a deck of question cards meant to stimulate reflection and intuition. It read: “What is the brave action?” As soon as I saw it I laughed. I turned to a friend sitting in the circle and said, “Didn’t I ask you this same question yesterday? Didn’t we just talk about this for hours?”

When I’ve thought about courage lately, I’ve thought about it not on the large scale, but in the context of the small and seemingly insignificant interactions and choices that make up the ordinary moments of my life.

For many years, I tried to push myself to be more brave. This worked up to a point. It slowly gave me access to experiences that I hadn’t had before. In many ways, it stretched my sense of what was possible, in myself and in the world. But the perspective this left me with was that courage was all in one direction, always in the direction of more exposure, always dictated by an external standard.

And in many ways this didn’t seem like a new perspective. How many times through my life had I pushed myself to do things that weren’t comfortable, that were kind of agonizing, without feeling that the experience helped stretch my capacity any further but actually made me retreat? What was the type of risk that would actually help me grow in the ways that I wanted?

There are infinite numbers of small personal risks any of us can take to change our perceptions of our limits, to change our patterns and ways of being in the world. How do we choose where good boundaries are for ourselves in any given moment? How do we listen to what we actually want and need? How do we know what the situation warrants? How do we listen to the truth within ourselves?

I’ve been involved a number of times in recent years with group experiences that culminate in an evening of celebration and performance, with participants invited to share their passions and talents. I’m blown away at these moments by the range and depth of people’s talents, at what people are willing to share, at the vulnerability and creativity I see.

I have also been envious at the risks people are willing to take in performing, and of the applause that comes to them afterwards. After an evening of listening to people sing and recite around a campfire last summer, I came home and told my husband that I wished I could be more brave, that I wished I could more easily let my voice be heard.

Part of his response surprised me, and I thought about it a lot afterwards: “I’ve spent decades singing in choirs,” he said, “where the point is for my voice to blend in and, in a way, disappear, to become part of a sound that is much bigger than myself.” There is a different courage, I recognized then, in sometimes stepping back, in quieting one’s ego, in contributing one’s voice to a collective experience. There are different ways to be seen and heard.

At the end of the summer, I came up against an opportunity for performance again, in front of a large group at the end of an intense week of immersive nature experience and group process. I was prepared – kind of. I had started experimenting with writing poetry that summer in part because I felt that I should have something to share in these moments. Despite what my husband had said, I felt that it was the inevitable next step.

And yet I hesitated. I was tired. I had worked hard in some new roles that week. I had taken other risks, risks that had stretched me in exhilarating ways.

As well, I had been posting my writing on the internet for more than a year, in an act that felt scary every time. Writing my small bits of poetry and prose and sharing them publicly felt like a good way to express myself. It felt, in that moment, like enough. Did I need to get up on the stage just because it was there? What did performing actually have to do with me?

I posed this question in that moment to a small group of friends. One replied, “What if I say, ‘I don’t think you should do it. It’s been a challenging week for you. You’ve pushed yourself in different ways this week. You feel great right now. You don’t need to make yourself do anything else. How would that feel to you?”

I laughed, as I felt that sink in: “That would feel exactly right. Thank you.”

So I sat back and watched the rich feast of talent and was satisfied with that choice in that moment. Honouring that limit in myself without judgement felt like I was listening to my own truth in a way that stretched, instead of constraining, my sense of who I was.

In the conversation about courage the day before the Solstice circle, I had asked my friend some of these questions, in a particular but also in a general way: “Is it braver to step forward and speak, to initiate, to take action; or to step back, to know that I don’t have to control everything, to set quiet intentions, to wait and trust that things will play themselves out as they need to?”

In response, she told me a story, one that I have been thinking about a lot since. It was a story of her own experience of swimming on a lake towards a high ledge, a popular jumping-off point, with the clear goal of taking a big risk. In this story, she climbs up to the top of the ledge, trying to push herself to jump off, then thinks “why am I doing this?” climbs down and swims away.

“Ah!” I think, when she tells me, “that’s a good analogy.” I think I know where it is going.

But then comes another turn. She starts to swim away, thinks again, “No, this isn’t it either,” swims back and finds the smallest rock she can find. And jumps off that. Then the next rock, then the next one, then the next, until she is ready to take the big leap.

Which is a pretty great series of metaphors, I think, for all of the different ways that it’s possible to approach risk.

I think back on one of the biggest personal risks of my life: getting married in my early twenties. This felt very much to me at the time like taking a giant leap off a rocky ledge in the dark, in a way that I found impossible to articulate in the midst of the popular discourses of risk around me, which were very different from that one. I could have taken smaller jumps off smaller rocks, as people often do in their personal relationships, but I didn’t. Choosing to have children felt like the same kind of risk. I found it hard to find the right words for the risk of commitment until a friend spoke about her own marriage – albeit at a later age – as an experiment in “radical hope” in the face of cynicism, and I thought “Yes, that is exactly it.” Radical hope is what I want in my life.

Yet, the giant leap is not always the best choice. So often, those small jumps that test the water will better get us where we ultimately want to go without terrifying us into paralysis or retreat. And sometimes swimming away is exactly what we need to do.

As my rock-jumping friend also reminds me: “Timing is everything.”

As someone who seems to slide around a lot on the continuum between introvert and extrovert, I wonder if these are the challenges my introverted self poses to my extroverted self and to the larger extroverted world: “Can you sometimes take the risk of stepping back? Of watching and listening and waiting? Of not being seen? Can you continue to know that you are still contributing? That you are still loved? That you still exist?”

I am finding it useful to experiment with this continuum, in many different parts in my life. To sometimes lean forward and other times lean back.  To sometimes speak and sometimes listen without speaking. And, above all, to recognize that it is all an experiment.

When I perceive opportunities for my own growth as acts of play, of creativity, of experimentation – instead of intensely imposed mandates for character-building and self-improvement – I awaken my curiosity instead of my resistance. I am less attached to the outcome of my actions. I keep my sense of humour, whilst accepting the full range of my other more intense or tender emotions. I am drawn to try new things, small things, so I can know what will happen next. To find out how the story will unfold. Or sometimes I choose instead to watch and listen and wait.

As I listen in each moment to what I need, I am reminded that it’s not ever possible to know what is a big risk or small risk – or what is a brave action – for someone else.

 

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.

Spell of protection (a poem)

These words are a spell of protection.

They come from deep in the Earth.

They fill me with the grace I need

to make my way in this perilous world.

They come from the the stars,

from my ancestors,

from the deep fires at the Earth’s core,

from the rushing waters out of which I was born.

They come from the spreading roots of the low plants,

whose green life sustains my own;

from the searching roots of the tall trees,

whose branches reach and twist upwards,

whose strength is always at my back.

They come from the sure-footed creatures,

and the soft-winged creatures,

who travel the forest’s edge,

who whisper to me in ancient voices,

when my ears are ready to listen.

They come from those who walk beside me,

human and more than human,

those who shift their shape with ease,

at home in water, in sky,

in the tangled forest undergrowth,

and in the soft welcoming darkness of the warm Earth.

They come from my heart’s sure knowledge of love,

from the fires banked within my body,

from the simple and complex truths,

of skin and flesh and bone.

They come from passion,

and also kindness,

and from my trust in the truth of my own soul’s song.

They come from my fierce commitments

to those who accompany me on this journey,

and to Creation,

and to Mystery,

and to Love.