Homeschooling: ditching the routines

Someone I know recently posted on how short spring is in Canada, and how much he wants to appreciate it while it’s here. On one level, I get that. And yet, it reminded me that in my own psyche, I tend to favour the approach of the ancient Celts: there are only two seasons, winter and summer. November to May, and May to November. Not only two seasons, but two separate worlds, two ways of living, two ways of being in relation to myself and other people and the world. My lowest energy point always comes before the winter solstice, and the highest comes before the summer solstice. Midwinter and midsummer, as they were once sensibly called.

When our calendar says winter, my soul is already priming for the upswing of spring. On the longest day of the year, I start to see the bittersweet end of summer on the horizon.

Sometimes I resent the dark days, but I need those two parts of myself, and those two seasons, and those edges in between.

And so now, in the land of summer, we have been living a different life than we did a few months ago. Homeschooling makes this obvious. In winter, there is restlessness and not quite enough structure; the days are too short; going out takes a lot of energy, staying in is draining in its own way; socializing happens in crowded urban houses or in bursts of cold active outdoor time; everything seems to take a lot of effort. There are long dark evenings to fill.

Something switches in May. And this year, after trying to impose structure all through the fall and winter, I knew when it was time to throw it away. It started on our trip to England, after which I had two weeks of fighting with my kids about going back to this year’s homeschooling routines. Sometimes I make myself do things that don’t work for a while to prove to myself that they’re not working. School-at-home, even in a modified form, does not work for us. I see people for whom it does work. I’m realizing that I’m probably not going to be one of them.

So instead, we’re back to living on faith: that needing to communicate and co-exist with other humans; having books lying around every surface of our house; having regular access to great museums and art galleries and libraries; and most of all, having the whole REAL LIVING WORLD to explore is enough. Learning happens because humans are primed to learn, because they are curious and engaged and passionate, because they want to master things that they’re excited about or that they want to apply in real life. And even more so when there are supportive people, supportive mentors around – parents and others – to give a push when needed, but also to go along for the ride.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll throw our workbooks away forever. Maybe next fall the time will be right again for that kind of focus. Structured learning is a tool we can use again. Heck, actual school is always a potential option. But for the past two months we have been exploring the city; we have been camping with friends; we have been climbing trees and wading in rivers; we have been reading good books both together and separately; we have been designing games; we have been copying out favourite poems; we have been experimenting with culinary and art projects. And now we are looking forward to the full immersion of a couple of summer day camps.

As a homeschooling parent, or a parent in general, or simply as a person, I need to keep reminding myself to play to my strengths: curiosity and insatiable love of learning, openness to possibilities, creativity, good judgment, attunement to my kids’ needs, a certain kind of patience.

Yes, we also need to push against type, stretch our boundaries, challenge ourselves to do things that are hard. But equally, we need be ruthless about letting go of things that aren’t working, or aren’t working right now.

As I child I took piano lessons for many years. Three decades later, I guess I’m glad I did. But certainly, when I was allowed to quit, I happily quit. I didn’t regret not pushing myself to keep doing something I wasn’t at all passionate about at the time. Maybe if music had been taught in a way that inspired my creativity and enthusiasm. Maybe. And it’s not impossible that I’ll return to it some day. But right now I have no regrets.

When my children want try something new, something that I need to pay for – or when I convince them to – I generally require that they finish the initial commitment: the week of camp, one season of a class or program. This is usually enough to get through the hard parts. Sometimes after telling me that they never want to do it again, by the end they are begging to sign up again next season, or next year. Other times, they have no interest in going back, and I am learning to accept that. My role is to know when to coax them through the setbacks and when to let things go.

This also goes for relationships with other humans. We are all learning these lessons together.

There are a few things I regret not following through on in earlier years, but now I see that I will I pick them back up again when I’m ready. I will never be a specialist: there are too many things that I love, following every skill and subject that intrigues me being one of them. So I model learning to my children; I model curiosity; I model engagement.

I once read a long article about teachers working in the most challenging schools. The point that stuck with me from that piece is that the best teachers keep changing their strategy. They keep trying new things. They are ruthless about changing what doesn’t work. When I feel like I am a dilettante who can’t stick to any plan for long, I try to keep that in mind.

Trust versus fear. There is a lot of trust involved in homeschooling, or in raising kids under any circumstances. There are a lot of cultural messages telling me that I should choose fear instead, that whatever I do, my kids won’t be enough, won’t know enough, won’t be competitive, won’t be prepared. But I am going to trust: trust my intuition and my judgment, my children’s enthusiasm and their limits. Trust that they will find their way in the world when it is time.

Lachlan in Rouge river

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!

 

 

 

Homeschooling: attempting to answer the “why” question

I have been homeschooling my kids for almost five years now. Someone asked me the other week why we’re homeschooling. “Because I’m too lazy to rush them to school every morning,” was my first, flippant response.

Of course, that’s not really it, especially now that they could walk to more than one local school on their own. But answering the question feels like diving into the cold water to take a look at the hugeness of the iceberg beneath the tip. Or like pulling on the end of string, and finding myself unraveling the whole garment of my life story. Or like a vague joke I remember from high school about the causes of the French Revolution, which requires moving backwards somewhere to the beginnings of time to find the starts of threads that later come together to create a historical event.

Why does anyone do anything? It’s always much more complicated than it seems. And so to tell a story, even to oneself, requires many false starts and mis-directions, and perhaps, even when the plot seems to come together, the conclusion will be false, because aren’t we all somewhat unreliable narrators when it comes to the motives that direct our lives?

School was a big deal in my family of origin. And so there is the story before the story, the prologue, which is the story of my grandparents, who were more-or-less subsistence farmers on one side, and a butcher and shop clerk on the other side. But my father’s family valued education: his mother had finished high school and so was qualified to be the village school-teacher, and his father made it most of the way through, and liked to recite Polish epic poetry as he baled hay in the fields. It is easy for me to romanticize their lives, and so I do, and yet they lived through world wars and through the absurdity and deprivations of Communist Poland; they raised five children in tight quarters without plumbing or running water; and there is no real way for me to step inside their shoes. But they had access to a largely free education system, and they wanted their children’s lives to be materially easier than their own, and so all of their children left home and completed some form of post-secondary education. And had the distinction of being the first people in their village to do so.

And so I fast-forward to my parents, who, through a window of coincidences that opened for a brief moment, made a sudden and spontaneous decision to take a job opportunity in far-off Canada, and then a more-drawn out decision to leave their families and histories behind and stay. There are things that often come with being an immigrant or a child of immigrants, without the safety net of extended family and social ties, and one of those things is a determined focus on education. Education and frugality and hard work.

School was always the most important thing when I was growing up. Not in a high pressure way, simply as an unshakeable baseline expectation. It was assumed that we would do well in school and we all did, although I had my moments of rebellion. But there was a clear script laid out for me that didn’t leave a lot of room for exploration or mistakes. And so after many years of preschool, school, university, graduate school and full-time work – and a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of creativity of my day-to-day life – having kids opened up some kind of release valve for me. Suddenly, I could see that all the things that seemed mandatory were in fact optional. I could step out of the boxes.

I am still reveling in – gleefully celebrating – being outside of the institutions that so fully shaped most of the first thirty years of my life.

But perhaps that had nothing to do with it. Perhaps I would have done exactly the same things with a completely different history behind me. Many people do. Maybe homeschooling simply suits my personality.

When it was time for my older son to go to school, we sent him to a local alternative school within walking distance of our house. I would hang out somewhere in the neighbourhood with his younger brother, who was then a toddler, waiting to pick him up at the end of the half day. At the end of the first week of kindergarten he asked “How long do I have to do this?”, and I couldn’t at the time bring myself to say “Probably at least another 14 years,” so I answered “Until June.”

And, it was okay. It wasn’t a terrible experience. But each day for the next two years he asked me, in his rational way, “Why do I have to go there every day?” and none of my answers ever satisfied him or myself. The whole school thing began to feel a bit surreal. And when it was time to start first grade, I imagined all the interesting real-world things I would be up to with his younger brother while he hung out in the same room all day, and at the end of August we decided not to go back.

It was an easy choice in some ways because we already knew so many people in the city who homeschooled who we could immediately slip into some form of community with. I had been drawn to the idea for a long time, and had done some reading and was already convinced it was a pretty awesome educational option. I didn’t really know where I was heading career-wise, having quit my job after two years of leave, and having no desire to go back to anything similar. And my husband had found work that he was committed to and that could financially sustain us.

Also, somewhat ironically, my graduate degree in adult education had convinced me – if I wasn’t convinced already – that the best learning is self-directed and self-motivated, based on passions and life experiences, and completely possible outside of formal educational structures. And possibly my many years of learning had made me very aware of how much of learning comes from within.

And so now we are in our fifth year of homeschooling. My younger son has never been to school.

Homeschooling has meant time to really get to know how my kids learn, what they are passionate about, and what their challenges are. It has meant time to work out conflicts slowly and with patience, sitting and talking in circles, asking each person what they need to feel better and how they could approach the situation differently next time. It has meant finding a balance that suits us between keeping up with the basics and doing whatever we are excited about. It has meant going tobogganing when the snow is fresh, snuggling at home reading in the rain, spending hours outside with friends in the spring and fall. It has meant much time spent outside the city, visiting my parents, camping with friends, going on field trips, travelling. It has meant that the kids get to spend one afternoon a week with their grandparents; it has meant that they are also very close with each other, and with me. It has meant that I have been able to go away for many weekends for my own learning and adventures and not worry about losing out on time with my kids. It has given us a huge amount of flexibility and freedom.

It has also meant being out of step with most of the culture around us. It has meant going against everything that I was taught about the importance of formal education. It has meant trying to find non-teacher mentors and non-classroom social opportunities for my kids out in the world. It has meant trying to figure out how to keep up my motivation about guiding my kids through things that are hard for them. Because while I love to facilitate, discuss, explore, and question, I have a decided aversion to transmitting information and a loathing for artificial “learning activities.”

Homeschooling has looked like fighting with myself each day to try to create the bones of daily and weekly structures that will hold us up and also reflect our own values. It has looked like questioning all of my preconceptions about what productivity and success look like, for myself and for my kids. It has looked like squeezing all my own activities and projects into small bits of time. It has looked like me sometimes feeling lonely, disconnected, not fully a grown-up. It has looked like weeks where I desperately miss having adult colleagues to talk to every day, to solve problems with, to collaborate with, to validate the reality of my existence. It has looked like moments of wondering whether we are doing the right thing. It has meant being open to the possibility of changing our minds.

It has meant imagining the world as we would like it to be, while keeping a foot in the world as it is now.

It has been very much about taking the long view. And having the perspective to recognize that none of us really know what the hell we’re doing.

People make choices based on their own experiences and needs, and based on how much access to choice they have at all. A lot of unrelated things fell in line for us – personally, financially, socially – to be able to make the choice to homeschool and to want to make it at the moment that we did. And the foundation of all of that earlier stability certainly helped.

In everything we do, even when we have chosen it, there are parts that are hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You follow your instincts, do your research, and then jump. You keep checking in regularly to make sure you are still satisfied with where you are. You go through moments of doubt and moments of certainty. You keep your eyes open as new possibilities emerge. You don’t argue with anyone else about whether what you are doing is better or worse than what they are doing. You steer your own ship and let them steer theirs. That’s the best any of us can do.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The promise of spring

I have been feeling a fire lighting in my belly again, or perhaps simply an ember which will grow into a fire with tending. Last year at this time someone told me that early February is the pre-ovulation phase of the earth. The world looks and feels like winter, but there are hints of life starting to stir below the surface: the sap is beginning to move, there is quickening underground, there is a rumour in the air of the fertility and abundance to come.

Last year, on the coldest day in February, when the temperature had dropped into the -20s (Celsius) and heavy snow covered the ground, I stood at the bottom of a Toronto ravine and heard the courting song of the cardinal. It was my first sign of spring, and now I know it will come again soon.

Last weekend, I trailed two moose with a group in Algonquin Park: huge frozen lakes, tall trees, deep snow, the crunch of snowshoes, hand signals and hushed laughter; an hour sitting and watching one female moose closely across a small stream as it relaxed into our presence, with her calf moving in silhouette on a slope in the distance. It was my only opportunity for real tracking this winter, and it was like a blast of warmth to feel the return of the joyful, boisterous, alive, and profoundly connecting energy that came with it.

The new moon, the lunar new year, the lengthening days, Imbolc – I am open to tapping whatever influences are available, real or metaphorical. One way or another, I have felt myself emerging from winter’s dark, at first gradually, and then with a jolt.

As I stumble through my internal swamp, I see in a moment of clarity that meaning is something I will need to create, that it won’t offer itself up to me on one of the heavy brown plates passed down to me with my mother-in-law’s wedding china. I will need to find the will to mold it out of the clay of my life. It will have to be a choice.

I can pause, I can rest, I can mourn; but every day, I need to make the choice to re-engage with the world, both as it is and as I wish it to be.

I am sometimes tripped up by the cultural pressure to be happy. And this is a hard one to unravel – I am grateful for everything that the Earth provides; I feel awe and wonder and love and the electricity of being alive. I am often deeply joyful. But not to see the grief that is also always present in the world, to brush it aside, that seems to me a profound dishonouring of the fullness of living experience. Being fully present both to celebration and to grief – that is part of what it means to be a spiritually healthy human being. It means being able to hold that tension.

Grief is the awareness that our time here is short, that we are all broken in some way, that there is great pain in the world we live in, that so much has been destroyed, that we are clinging to a life raft and may never make it to shore. But in that grief, we can also see the beauty of the everyday, because in this moment we are alive.

Gratitude and grief are two sides of the same coin. Here we are: so much has been lost and continues to be, and we are committed to a lifetime of mourning. But here we are: we are alive, we have the fierceness and tenderness of love, we have sunshine and water to drink and the crunch of the snow under our feet and our hearts which beat day and night without stopping. We can laugh. We can reach for each other.

I have been thinking about how in the first half of life we gather and accumulate: things, accomplishments, energy, love, people, our own gifts. And for a long time we might feel that there will always be more. But, if it hasn’t happened earlier, there is a moment at midlife when we will look around us and sharply catch our breath, because we see that every mortal thing will one day be taken away. And it’s like that moment in late August, when we become of aware of the setting sun while still eating dinner under the trees, and  feel that bittersweet turn between summer and fall, and anticipate the harshness of winter.

And now, it’s February, the month of the Hunger Moon. We’ve made it through the darkest nights, but there is still some danger. In an earlier time, in this northern climate, we would now be living at the limit of our stored resources and our body’s reserves. We would need to look out for ourselves and for each other. Perhaps we would start to feel the quickening in the air and in our bodies, but we would need community and compassion and resilience and faith to believe that the world would come back to life for us once more.

After I wrote that it had been a hard January, some people said “I know exactly what you mean,” and a few people said they were sorry to hear it. But I don’t think there’s a need to be sorry, only to be present. The darkness doesn’t feel good, but it feels necessary. It is part of being human. It’s not the last time it will come. I can come through darkness with a renewed sense of strength and purpose; a renewed sense of what is possible and what isn’t; a renewed sense of what to hold on to and what to let go of in my life.

And I have kept my commitment, over the winter months, to be gentle with myself.

Now, I am grateful for the lengthening days, I am grateful for newfound energy, I am grateful for the physical and spiritual nourishment around me, I am grateful for compassion, I am grateful to see others emerging from the dark: I am grateful for the promise of spring.

 

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Pema Chödrön on self-compassion and compassion towards others. Over the past few weeks I have started working on a daily Book of Hours – an illustrated book compiling  quotes, poetry, meditations, and other wisdom – inspired by a workshop with my friend Rozanne Lopez.

 

 

 

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.

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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 –