Life Instructions 1.0

INSTRUCTIONS

Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God.
Find god in rhododendrons and rocks,
passers-by, your cat.
Pare your beliefs, your absolutes.
Make it simple; make it clean.
No carry-on luggage allowed.
Examine all you have
with a loving and critical eye, then
throw away some more.
Repeat. Repeat.
Keep this and only this:
what your heart beats loudly for
what feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
things you will keep,
and they will fit lightly
in your pocket.

– Sheri Hostetler –
(A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry)

Alchemy

“Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones;
just pay attention, then patch a few words together
and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

Mary Oliver

I pray. Not so often in that formal, elaborate, church going way. But when I think of Anne Lamott’s two best prayers, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I’m devout.

Too, when I sit during my favourite time of day, in the still and quiet morning, before sunrise – which comes earlier now – and look out onto the trees, now still full of leaves, but soon, soon, bare limbed and yes, snow covered. Or when I’m beside Annie on “her” sofa, my hand resting on her head, her front paw resting on my arm. Those count too, I think.

I’ve written about more consciously living my life as prayer since the pandemic, one of its gifts. Though when I posted about getting lost during my medicine walk, how I’d managed to manifest into the 3D physical, my interior lostness, I now admit to having felt shy to say that I’d prayed as I’d been taught, it being part of the preparation for a medicine walk and fasting quest. To offer thanks, to ask for guidance and protection at the threshold between one’s urban, more mundane life and the wilder, nature bound, sacred space beyond. Anne Lamott’s “thank you, help me” kind of prayer. And I chanted on the trail for hundreds of steps, the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum,” to keep myself company, and let anyone out there, hidden in the woods, know I was around. My vocal version of a bear bell.

Truth be told, I absolutely believe those prayers helped me get found, safe and sound. Helped me avoid any wildlife encounters beyond bird song, dragonflies, and scat. Like when I realized I’d lost the diamond stud earring, a cherished gift from my husband, and prayed for its return. Three days later, after retracing all my steps and stops, I took a chance to revisit the gym where I’d played pickleball. Earlier when I’d called to ask if it had been found, I’d been told they’d taken down the nets, swept the floors, and installed equipment and inflatables for children coming to play during spring break, but I persisted. Walking carefully, head bent, l traced the room’s periphery, breaking the rule to cross beyond the “stay away” sign to where the inflatable was plugged in. There it was, on the floor, inches away from the socket. How it had not been spotted by anyone plugging in and pulling out that cord for several days, was my answered prayer. Admittedly trivial in the scheme of life, with its tragedy, so much going seemingly from bad to worse every day, especially this year, but for me a vivid, visceral reminder.

When I somewhat sheepishly shared my lost on the Lost Lake trail story with my friends who had served as my quest guides last year, they said that what shone through was my recognition of prayer and its power. That yes, I had been held safe by an ancient benevolent wisdom found in nature. That I had surrendered to it when I knew I didn’t have the balance to cross the fallen tree across the “how deep” stream. Had I, I would have become even further astray. That I had remembered a line of poetry to tell me to stand still in the forest when I knew I was lost. That I had a phone and service. That I’d taken the map with emergency contact numbers. That the warden was back from vacation just that very day. That she was in that particular park, given her area of responsibility is all the public spaces spanning hundreds of kilometres to the west. That she could come and get me with her truck. That I hadn’t been stalked by the coyotes that had stalked another woman and her dogs on the same trail. That the sun shone and breeze blew comfortably. That the shots I heard fired by hunters were well beyond into another neck of the woods. That I had water, food, and time. Yes, I had prepared, and yes, I had been heard.

In that same conversation, we talked about the world, about their country, its upcoming presidential election, the pandemic impacts of COVID-19 and racism. It was before the forest fires burned into three states, leaving death and destruction, orange skies and zero visibility in their wake. I shared feeling that tension of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what. I emailed to them the next day:

… I realized I have felt “spellbound” by thinking I must do something, and not knowing what TO DO. But knowing, I do know how to pray. 

Many times I’m sense my thinking is foggy and lazy, that it isn’t “cogent” or coherent, that I can’t put together a compelling argument of defense. And then it came to me, this is the feminine way – to feel my way through a depth of complexity that is dark and foggy, that isn’t necessarily, yet, cogent nor coherent.

You wrote to me, gifted me, once with the invocation that I recognize with increasing vividness that I know what I know, that find myself less and less inclined to self-doubt, meekness and hesitation.

So, yes, I know the power of prayer.

I know too, the making of beauty.

Let the beauty that you love be what you do.

Rumi

I know the power of prayer and the making of beauty are my offerings for social action, for social change.

And this I know is alchemy.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Praise Song for the Pandemic

Season's End, Perspectives with Panache, 2019

PRAISE SONG FOR THE PANDEMIC

Praise be the nurses and doctors, every medical staff bent over flesh to offer care, for lives saved and lives lost, for showing up either way,

Praise for the farmers, tilling soil, planting seeds so food can grow, an act of hope if ever there was,

Praise be the janitors and garbage collectors, the grocery store clerks, and the truck drivers barreling through long quiet nights,

Give thanks for bus drivers, delivery persons, postal workers, and all those keeping an eye on water, gas, and electricity,

Blessings on our leaders, making hard choices for the common good, offering words of assurance,

Celebrate the scientists, working away to understand the thing that plagues us, to find an antidote, all the medicine makers, praise be the journalists keeping us informed,

Praise be the teachers, finding new ways to educate children from afar, and blessings on parents holding it together for them,

Blessed are the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, all those who worry for their health, praise for those who stay at home to protect them,

Blessed are the domestic violence victims, on lock down with abusers, the homeless and refugees,

Praise for the poets and artists, the singers and storytellers, all those who nourish with words and sound and color,

Blessed are the ministers and therapists of every kind, bringing words of comfort,

Blessed are the ones whose jobs are lost, who have no savings, who feel fear of the unknown gnawing,

Blessed are those in grief, especially who mourn alone, blessed are those who have passed into the Great Night,

Praise for police and firefighters, paramedics, and all who work to keep us safe, praise for all the workers and caregivers of every kind,

Praise for the sound of notifications, messages from friends reaching across the distance, give thanks for laughter and kindness,

Praise be our four-footed companions, with no forethought or anxiety, responding only in love,

Praise for the seas and rivers, forests and stones who teach us to endure,

Give thanks for your ancestors, for the wars and plagues they endured and survived, their resilience is in your bones, your blood,

Blessed is the water that flows over our hands and the soap that helps keep them clean, each time a baptism,

Praise every moment of stillness and silence, so new voices can be heard, praise the chance at slowness,

Praise be the birds who continue to sing the sky awake each day, praise for the primrose poking yellow petals from dark earth, blessed is the air clearing overhead so one day we can breathe deeply again,

And when this has passed may we say that love spread more quickly than any virus ever could, may we say this was not just an ending but also a place to begin.

– Christine Valters Paintner –
Abbey of the Arts
2020

As we head into our 7th month of living in the pandemic, I wanted to share this poem, now making special mention of all the teachers around the world, who as another lovely poet wrote this week: “To All the Teachers, we see you turning your hearts into classrooms where not even masks can block out your love.” bentlily by Samantha Reynolds

Praise be the teachers.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Lost, Again


LOST

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

– David Wagoner –
1999

Echoing Back

The wind has been blowing for a solid twelve hours, bringing in a new month and season. Suddenly it feels cold despite the sun shining. Donning a wool jacket, I sat outside to read and sip a summertime cocktail. Tonight, near freezing temperatures are forecast, and I feel the urge to snuggle into sweaters and let sandals give way to boots. So soon, so fast. And still a world living with Covid-19 and its continued uncertainties, wondering what this next season will bring to us all.

“We all lose our bearing from time to time.
Whether precipitated by a major event, or a gradual becoming lost, this is when the horizon you had been following disappears –
and in its place, a persistent anxiety searches
for the new direction of our lives.”

Toko-pa Turner

Feeling lost. Being lost. It’s a state I’ve felt more or less for months. Checked back and sure enough, I’d written about it in May, prompted by a lesson in The Soul of a Pilgrim course I’d been taking. A week ago, on a heavy, overcast day, not yet ready for the day to begin, I returned to bed and wrapped in the comforter, looking out into the trees, I gave myself over to that lostness.

What became apparent is that I needed a dose of alone time in Nature, I needed the peace of wild things to make peace with myself that I was no longer working; that the identity I’d had through work was no longer; that my feeling of belonging in community cultivated by that work, too, had now vanished. I needed to reframe my notion of retirement because like it or not, here I was, so soon, so fast. Though admittedly, it was a place of my own co-creation. I’d take a medicine walk on, yes, the Lost Lake trail in the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Park, thirty minutes east from home.

I packed my essentials and set out as I’d been taught in preparation for last year’s fasting quest. It was a beautiful morning, cool and quiet, though in the distance, I could still hear the faint drone of cars and the occasional train whistle. The trail was quite wet in spots, quickly soaking my trail runners (why didn’t I wear the waterproof ones?) and requiring some agile traversing on top of beaver dams (thankful I had my trekking pole). I carefully followed the trail map and signage as years ago, when cross country skiing, I zigged when I should have zagged and became lost on the same trail. I’ve walked it since, a year ago early spring and summer, but not enough to feel familiar and at home. And every season, every week even, it looks different with Life doing its work.

“So drop your maps and listen to your lostness like a sacred calling into presence. Here, where you may be tempted to take up false belonging, ask instead for an introduction to that which endures.
This place without a foothold is the province of grace.”

Toko-pa Turner

Arriving at the shelter, my half-way point, I briefly rested and watered, took my bearings and headed off to complete the circuit, or so I thought. A yellow tape and sign indicated the trail was closed, but there was another sign pointing the way, or so I thought. Walking further I encountered unfamiliar trail names, but confirmed I was still on the Lost Lake trail.

The sun, now high in the sky, was on my right, when I knew it needed to be to my back to be going the right way. I saw a marker for the Lost Lake shelter, and wondered, which one, as there are two on the map? Now I wondered, was I coming or going? All the while I noticed the trail had been freshly mowed, giving assurance I was on a well-travelled trail, and yet the sun was still not where it was supposed to be.

Then I arrived at small clearing, a three-way junction with a Lost Lake trail sign pointing down the trail, another pointing back up where I’d just walked, and the shelter sign and arrow pointing down the middle. Hmmmm…

I was lost.

I immediately recalled the wise words from David Wagoner’s wise poem Lost, “Stand still.”

So I did.

I took off my pack. I sat down. I retrieved my cell phone – thank god for service – and called one, then another emergency number. I gave my number and within minutes was called back by the local conservation officer who was in the area. In giving her my location, I turned over the map and found where I had made my mistake, taken my many mis-steps. And while I was pretty confident I could find my way back, I acknowledged I was tired, and so accepted her kind offer to get me, and followed her instruction to walk to and wait at the shelter.

“It is the questing field, most responsive to magic and fluent in myth. Here, where there is nothing left to lose, sing out of necessity that your ragged heart be heard. Send out your holy signal and listen for the echo back.”

Toko-pa Turner

Walking, stopping, resting, waiting. Echoed back to me was:

Hearing the clear and quiet acceptance of not returning to work as I have known it.

Remembering that I’d been in this place of uncertainty many, many times before and that it had always turned out OK.


Feeling the beginning stirrings of energy and seedlings of enthusiasm for something new.


Having the realization that I had manifested “out there” my own inner lostness, and in doing so had learned lessons and received gifts – the need for preparation, for knowing when to turn back, when to stand still and stay put, when to ask for help, and how to receive it.

Driving back with Karen, the conservation officer, she told me she’d been delayed because another woman called for assistance after she and her dogs were stalked by coyotes, a real concern because of this unusual display of persistent brazenness. She mentioned the resident though reclusive black bear, and, of course, moose, elk, deer, wolves, and beaver.

Hmmmmm…walking with a buddy would be a good medicine for next time.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

There’s a Space

There’s A Space

There’s a space I look into most mornings,
through the tall strong limbs and lacy leather leaves of
the graceful laurel willow.
The one our neighbor detests for its size and heft,
fearing a limb will snap in the wind that makes it
twist and bend to its will.
The one we love for those very reasons,
which is why we invest our time and money in its trimming
to safeguard its
health and aging glory.

This space past rooftops and beyond neighboring trees,
a keyhole into world beyond my backyard,
a periscope onto the weather.
Right now, fog hangs wet and heavy,
making for a monotone blanket of dark and light.
Yesterday, pale grey with rain cloud.
And the day before that, clear summer blue shimmering against
a emerald border.
Sooner than later, a more fragile edge, as leaves give way to bare branches,
then to be softened with snow.

Depending on where I sit, inside or out,
and the time of day I take to notice,
the perspective shifts.

But always the same
my gratitude for this opening
onto another moment of the day,
into a life that is mine to claim.

– KW –

Wild Geese

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver –

In the Family of Things

Mid August has come and gone and with it, most of summer. I used to say that August felt like one long Sunday night, especially for those of us in education. That mix of anticipation, apprehension, excitement and trepidation with September and the start of a new school year. All the stuff that can keep one awake, tossing and turning on a Sunday night, wondering what the new week will bring.

For the first time, this isn’t my felt sense. Maybe enough years out and away from the day to day. Too, knowing my work with schools has ceased, at least for the time being. Not wanting to be insensitive, I admit it’s hardly a year I’d want to be returning given so much continued uncertainty and real apprehension about the safety and well-being of staff and students as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise here and around the world with school resuming.

Despite another run this week of hot, sunny weather and cloudless skies (only the second this summer!) there are signs of what’s to come. Sitting by the local pond late last week I wrote:

The change in weather weighed heavy today. Every bone in my body ached.
My jaw clenched as my third eye pulsed.
Indelible and subtle, this signaling of the season to come.
Tell-tale morning chill.
Golden haze on aspen, ash and farmers’ fields.
Sun that sets earlier, rises later.

Geese gathered on the cat-tail bordered pond, leisurely swim in the same V formation as they fly.
And for a moment I hear in my head the opening lines to a favourite Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese.
Try to speak aloud from memory. Give up but remember its essence,

remember the world announcing my place in the family of things.

Look up into that blue sky, heavy with lead bottomed clouds.
Beseech the wind who is my guardian,
“Where is it I’m meant to be?”

Like a squirrel gathering nuts, the geese and crows gathering to migrate south, I’m beginning to prepare myself for fall. Like its predecessors, spring and summer of 2020, I imagine it, too, will be the likes of which none of us has ever experienced. More pronounced again have been those waves of grief as I realize all too soon the ease with which we’ve been able to safely see friends will pass as colder temperatures and shorter days become the norm. And still, though curiously more acute, the sur-reality of living in this pandemic, every day continuing to learn more and more its impacts. Something I felt in the spring, but was able to hold lightly, off to the side during summer.

“… it is in those moments that we must remember the difference between despair and grief.
While despair traps us in the bog of despondency,

grief carries us into life.
Grief calls us into a deeper engagement with those things that we love. And even as we are losing them, grief wants to exalt their beauty.
If we let grief move us into expression, it will sing the blood into our songs, colour the vividness into our paintings,

and slip the poetry between our words.

Toko-pa Turner,
Facebook post, August 14, 2020

So thoroughly engaged in the first programs I took under their hosting this spring, in the pandemic’s novel, early days, I signed on to another self study with the Abbey of the Arts. Starting in September for twelve weeks, “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” promises to be an equally deep, communal dive into creative expression. I’m lightly researching how and what I need to begin a project based on some mandala paintings I’ve made over the years, and today I signed on for a self-paced study in abstract creative painting. Lonely for community, I’ve decided to resume my weekly Saturday river valley walks with the local Camino group.

It’s a delicate balancing act, like the pattern I’ve noticed when I’ve been out and about a bit, around more people than usual. Without much conscious thought, I find myself laying low for the following several days, staying home, and only going out to walk Annie. I hear friends and family acknowledge their loneliness, while others live with the millstone of chronic illness and the deaths of their beloveds. My heart aches for my sister, recently moved to the States, where as the crow flies only fifteen minutes from her children, grandchildren and our parents, but with the border closed, now for another month, now an eternity away. I prudently expect more of our traditional celebrations – Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year’s – will continue to be severely curtailed by Covid-19.

“Rumi says, ‘All medicine wants is pain to cure.’
And so we must cry out in our weakness, our ineptitude,
our beautiful inadequacy and make of it an invitation
that medicine might reach through and towards us.”

Toko-pa Turner,
Facebook post, August 14, 2020

Sitting by the pond, in response to my question, the wind whispers:

Right here, dear daughter.
Resting in the still warm sun. Breathing in the fresh northern air.
Your hair like the green rushes, swaying, dipping and dancing

in rhythm to my silent song.
Right here. Right now. This
.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Close In

Start Close In

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To find
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
listening
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

– David Whyte –
 River Flow: New and Selected Poems

Closer to Home

Thinking about this week’s post came from a few rambling experiences finally resting on the need and practicality of being closer to home.

Lifting a page from the books of some friends, we’ve taken a couple of day trips to see some local sights, obscure and otherwise. Like most folks these days, we’ve opted for the “staycation,” sticking closer to home, not yet venturing far enough for an overnight accommodation. While the mountains call, from what we hear people are flocking in droves to Jasper, Banff and Canmore, so we’ll hold off until…. Plus, we didn’t want to kennel Annie. She’s been such a stalwart companion these months, relying on us as much as we her for a steady supply of love and attention. We just didn’t have the heart to leave her cooped up with strangers. And being on leash, the only way in the mountains, gets pretty frustrating with so much wild scent around. After all, she’s a bird dog. Scenting, hunting, stalking and pointing are her nature.

So a drive east down a prairie highway to Viking, a right turn south across the rolling pastures and freshly cut hay fields, up the hill to a white fence enclosing the two Viking Ribstones. An ancient aboriginal site, now adorned with colourful prayer cloths, these large quarzite boulders were carved thousands of years ago to resemble the ribcages of the revered bison, the main source of sustenance for the plains people.

Last week, north and east to Metis Crossing, we spent another few hot, sunny hours enjoying the quiet of this cultural interpretative centre along the shores of the North Saskatchewan River. Bison sausage with saskatoon relish, bannock with fresh rhubarb jelly and saskatoon lemonade were in keeping with history and today’s garden harvest. Flowers grew in abundance.

A stop en route at the Skaro Grotto.

I’d like for us to make a further trek south towards Rosebud and Blackfoot Crossing. That landscape of treeless, golden high prairie cut by deep coulees green with willow and cottonwood, set against an endless horizon of blue begs acknowledgement that it, too, is as magnificent as the mountains. An acknowledgement I’m only too willing to give, though it would be a long day.

This weekend would have been the 40th anniversary of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It, like every other festival in Alberta and large gatherings around the world, was cancelled due to the pandemic. Here, every summer weekend we watch rodeos, listen to music of every genre, see theatre at the famous Fringe festival, revel in parades and gatherings celebrating culture and heritage. We mark our all too short summer with one or several of these “must attends.” It’s helps us get through winters that go on and on. All weekend my radio station, CKUA, an ardent supporter of Alberta culture, featured music and interviews from past years’ performers, while the Festival commissioned a full-length film feature, The Hill, to stream and hosted over fifty videos of past performances. As beautiful the efforts to be on “the hill at home,” as I drove past the festival site early Saturday morning, a time when any other year I’d see orange vested volunteers managing traffic, I felt a bit bereft and wondered, when, if ever, would, what has been called North America’s finest folk festival, return. I recalled having had my first pandemic meltdown, weeping the morning I heard it, and my go to, the Canmore Folk Festival, had been cancelled. The ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning of grief. That day it came closer to home and landed on my doorstep.

Yesterday I zoomed in on a conversation hosted by Melanie Falik, author of the recently published Making A Life: Working By Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live. A few hundred people from around the world, mostly knitters, listened along. As a kind of checkout, we were invited to type in the chat box one project we’d start this week. I got to thinking that for the past week or so I’d been saying out loud that I needed a project. Something I could sink my teeth into. Something on which to focus my ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning energy. Something besides cooking that would engage my curiosity and creativity.

The photo books from this past year’s trips are done. I’m writing a bit. I’m still committed to not learning how to bake sourdough bread, nor grow a garden (hell, I’m having enough of a time picking slugs off my flowers, and we love the bounty from our bi-weekly CSA, thank you). Like most knitters, though I blush to call myself such, I have a started sweater in a bag and a few patterns and skeins waiting in the bin. But I hardly need more sweaters, or scarves, or shawls, even if Friday’s sudden cold weather reminds me what’s coming.

No, what I realized, as I knitted together these recent bits of my life, was that the dreams I’d been keeping, hoping to sustain me through these days of uncertainty and change, were too far out of reach. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath as long as it would take, if ever, to return to the folk festival as I had known it, or to Morocco as I’d planned for this September. I realized I needed to dream closer to home.

I have no idea what dream or project. Not yet.
But I feel a smile inside and out as I begin to wonder and feel those energies shimmer, swirl and coalesce.

With love and kindest regards.