re-Wintering

“re-wintering” – what caught my eye as Annie and I walked this week

Every other week I circle up virtually with some dear woman friends. It’s been a way to feel connection and offer support to each other during these continued covid times. We begin, as is our way, following The Circle Way practice, with a reading of some kind to help us land and settle in with each other and ourselves. A bell rung once, twice and we begin to check in with each other, often in response to what has been evoked by the reading, or by whatever is personally stirring and needing to be spoken aloud to the centre.

Last week I as I walked past my bookshelves to fetch my bells, grabbed by the title on the spine, I grabbed “The Wild In You: Voices from the Forest and the Sea” (2015) by Canadian poet, Lorna Crozier. (Lovely synchronicity in that as I’m sitting here tapping away, in the background I hear The Road Home’s Bob Chelmick read from Lorna’s 2018 volume, The God of Shadows.) A beautiful compilation of poetry and Ian McAllister’s photography, I quickly flipped through the pages, arriving at “A Winter’s Sleep,” companioned by a magnificent wolf sleeping on the seaside sand.

A Winter’s Sleep

So much sleeping
in this place. Think of all
that lies beneath the snow, lake trout
below the ice, bears in their dens,
their warm snores drifting above
the treetops that are sleeping, too,
high above your own long sleep.

Even raven, with so much
to say and do, closes his eyes,
tucks his beak under his wing
and sinks into the season’s
dream-rich dark where all
his stories start.

Lorna Crozier, 2018

As is our way, we meander in a conversation punctuated that evening by long pauses and the shared recognition of how fatigue, grief and the need for Nature’s stillness were embroidering our days of late. One shared another poem, another mentioned a book, Wintering, the title of which evoked a memory that I’d written about it. When I read aloud from the post I’d written last February, I knew it was an idea worth repeating here. That even though my interior state has shifted from what I described then, today, as the winds blew a constant icy cold, the temperature plummeted, and too, the hours of daylight here on the Canadian prairies, it is wintering.

WINTERING, originally posted February 1, 2021

“Dashed and disheartened – again,” I emailed a friend. What with last week’s winds having blown in Arctic cold temperatures and flat light skies, reading up on my country’s vaccination rollout debacle and delays, virus variants that are proving to be highly contagious and perhaps more deadly than the original, and a speculated move to mandated mask wearing outside, this might be an understatement. Certainly enough to have been stalled again in writing here, having missed two of my usual Monday postings. Plumbing a bit deeper, what with my husband having celebrated his first “Covid” birthday two weeks ago, we realized with age, and life as we’ve known it “on hold,” we’re feeling quite wistful. Most apparent for me is missing traveling and all that it gives me, more fully appreciated now in its absence. I’m resigned to the probability that this will be another year, and most likely then some, of staying put. Too, the whisper of a question held this past year, “Will I – we – ever travel again as in the past?”

A few days ago, somewhat warmer with soft snowflakes fluttering down, Annie and I walked, she happy for her full-length coat, and NOT having to wear her fleece boots. I plugged into a recent On Being podcast, curious having read Krista’s weekend letter:

“Katherine May, in her book, Wintering – The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020), meditatively explores ‘wintering’ as a season of the natural world but also as a place our bodies and psyches need to go, a season that recurs again and again across a life. We cheat and dismiss this in life as we’ve been living it, but it has presented itself insistently in a pandemic year we might reimagine as one long communal wintering.

We can’t move forward without grieving all we’ve lost in the past year. Closer to the ground, this means we have to let in the fact of sadness — a precursor to pain and fear — with some reverence. If happiness is a skill, Katherine May says, so is unhappiness. Winter embodies the strange complexity of reality. It is the bitterest season, we blithely say. And all the while it manages not to be the death of the life cycle, as Katherine May reminds, but its crucible.”

Krista Tippet, The Pause, January 23, 2021

Wintering.

That would be the odd place in which I found myself last spring and summer. Whereas I’d used the words “fallow” and “lost”, as I listened to Katherine May, I recognized in her words a fuller, more accurate description of those several months lying cold and low, when all around me blushed and blossomed.

“…wintering is a metaphor for those phases in our life when we feel frozen out or unable to make the next step, and that that can come at any time, in any season, in any weather; that it has nothing to do with the physical cold…”

Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021

Not bound to season as we know it, but a necessary and recurrent place to drop into when we appreciate the cyclical nature of our lives. Thinking back, during an actual winter fifteen years ago, I dropped into depression. Not major, but enough that I and others noticed I was not myself. Little energy and enthusiasm, waning concentration, major exertions of effort to get through a day of work and home chores. Enough that once on the other side that spring, I’d mentioned it to my family doctor, and upon closer examination, recognized its cyclical nature. Perhaps a bit of seasonal affective disorder with some inherited family predisposition towards the winter “blahs.” Never since as severe, though I have a letter I wrote to myself then, upon the suggestion of my doctor, “to be opened in the dark days, to remember.” I’ve never needed to, though I know it’s perched on my desk amidst a collection of mementos. And that brings reassurance enough.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021

I wonder if because we are mostly acculturated out of such natural rhythms and rituals, those embedded deep within our DNA and beneath our consciousness, we find ourselves in “winter” out of season? That if we heeded Nature’s signs and stirrings, we’d ready ourselves, with each other, for wintering’s alchemical invitation. I feel a growing love and appreciation for winter, the season, since being unfettered by work’s imposed schedule, demands, and need for driving. And as many of us have felt during the pandemic, in lives slowed and diminished of obligation, its paradoxical gifts.

“It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential.”

Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021

Recently I came upon these words from Toko-pa Turner’s book, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. They echo the hidden transformative gifts in this crucible of winter and wintering:

“Like the bowl that has yet to be filled, there is an emptiness that precedes creativity that is alive with potential. With ordinary eyes, it’s easy to mistake this emptiness for stagnancy. We may think, “I have nothing of substance to offer! I have no original ideas!” But down at the invisible base of things, there is a holy dance taking place. Though we may want to run from the tension, the polarities are in constant motion, readying themselves into harmony. Far from dormant, this dance is the active receptivity that calls things into form. We are such a vessel. These times of nothingness are actually busy with living into a new capacity.

Originality comes when you stay close to that emptiness, making it a welcoming place, adorning it with your divine longing, learning the shape of it, and filling it with your questions. Every great artist I know is obsessed with a question, and their artworks are less attempts to answer that question than they are exaltations of asking. As Jean Cocteau says, ‘The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.'”

I listened last summer as I wintered, lost and fallow. I remembered it as a familiar season of my life and followed its nudges to find my way through. Walking with Annie. Reading and writing. Photography and painting. Making love notes to friends. Cooking and circling up with women friends. And now in the fullness of its season, I sleep longer, nap more, give myself permission to pause the writing until I feel stirred. I let myself feel, once again, dashed and disheartened, trusting them to be worthy of these times. And I wonder.

“I recognized winter. I saw it coming a mile off, since you ask, and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started to feel the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child, with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and I made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself, what is this winter all about? I asked myself, what change is coming?”

Katherine May, Wintering – The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020)

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Self-Compassion

SELF-COMPASSION
My friend and I snickered the first time
we heard the meditation teacher, a grown man,
call himself honey, with a hand placed
over his heart to illustrate how we too 
might become more gentle with ourselves
and our runaway minds. It’s been years
since we sat with legs twisted on cushions,
holding back our laughter, but today
I found myself crouched on the floor again,
not meditating exactly, just agreeing
to be still, saying honey to myself each time
I thought about my husband splayed
on the couch with aching joints and fever
from a tick bite—what if he never gets better?—
or considered the threat of more wildfires,
the possible collapse of the Gulf Stream,
then remembered that in a few more minutes, 
I’d have to climb down to the cellar and empty
the bucket I placed beneath a leaky pipe
that can’t be fixed until next week. How long
do any of us really have before the body
begins to break down and empty its mysteries
into the air? Oh honey, I said—for once
without a trace of irony or blush of shame—
the touch of my own hand on my chest
like that of a stranger, oddly comforting
in spite of the facts.

– James Crews –

Every morning I’m greeted with two poems in my inbox: one from Canada’s League of Canadian Poets, and this one from The Academy of American Poets, “Poem-A-Day.” I think most of us need a daily dose of self-compassion, or at least to be reminded that gently placing our own hand on our own chest over our own heart is a kind and loving gesture we each deserve, and need.

Much love and kindest regards to you, dear friends.

Stitches Through Time

Last month I started a hand-making project I’d envisioned for over a year: to interpret a series of mandalas I’d drawn and painted by tracing their designs onto linen and embroidering with wool crewel yarn. That had been the original plan. But when it took many months for the yarn to arrive from England and to secure the right colour and weave of linen – all ordered online as this was in the thick of lockdowns and I’d seen how website color charts don’t translate well – a chance walk down an aisle at Michael’s (the national chain craft store) where I saw a wall full of cotton embroidery thread in a rainbow of colours, resulted in its rethinking to ‘plan B.’

Then a comment to my mother, when we finally visited in September – she remarkably skilled in high counted cross stitch, our home graced by several of her creations – led to her gladly gifting me with her supply of needles, hoops, scissors, specially made wooden boxes, beads, and ‘signature’ well-organized collection of threads – hundreds of colours in a multitude of hues and metallics. For me who was enthralled with my childhood Christmas gift box of 64 Crayola crayons, I was in that same colour-smitten heaven. I paid an extra baggage fee to bring the entire collection safely home, spent an evening going through it all to understand Mom’s ‘system,’ finally broke the seal on the new tracing light board I’d purchased a year ago in anticipation, and began.

Initially, I thought I’d follow closely the colours in the original watercolour, but I soon realized that working with needle, thread and yarn, despite being close in colour, is not the same as brush and paint. So, I began to improvise within the spaces, using a variety of shades and stitch patterns. I discovered that “split stitch” is pleasing in its coverage, texture, ability to move back and forth between thread and yarn, and in actually making each stitch. It simply feels good to make that stitch.

I also discovered that where I began – sitting quietly in our living room after dinner, everything spread around me – I missed my ‘pack,’ and knew Annie missed me. She has her routine. Once we finish dinner and clean up the kitchen, it’s ‘pack time.’ She settles on ‘her’ love seat in the family room and waits for us to join her. Sometimes when we’re lingering over dinner, she can become quite impatient, pacing back and forth, showing her teeth in that non-aggressive, trying to talk to us way. It’s just not the same if I’m sitting in the living room, even when I cajole her into laying down on the carpet beside me. So I’ve shifted to where the light and companionship are better, often plugging in my earbuds to listen to a podcast as I stitch, while Sig watches a hockey game or aninvesting or horse training video, and Annie, utterly content on the sofa in between, soundly sleeps.

But the biggest discovery has been how soothing I find this act of handmaking. It goes slowly. Gradually I see the colours and textures resemble the painting that inspired the plan. Not an evening goes by when I don’t silently grok and or remark how soothed I feel doing this work. In part I know it comes from the deep appreciation I feel using my mother’s materials and supplies, that my hands are using what her hands had used for years to make beauty. And that given the amount of thread she’s given me, I will most likely have many more years than my mother life to bask in this gratitude.

“There is a juiciness to creativity, a succulence, or a sensuality which both produces and is soothed by creating something. I think that creativity is pleasing to women on a very deep level, whatever form it might take – whether it’s the feel of clay in our hands, the colours that work on us as we knit, the meaning that we find in the words that we write, or the energizing feel of movement as we dance and the music moves through our bodies.”

Lucy Pearce in Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted, 2019
quoted in “When Women Create,” A Wabi Sabi Life

As I look over my life, my mother always did handwork, as did many women of her generation and those before her. I remember many of the clothes she made for my sister and me until I began sewing my own in my early teens. After living in an apartment for my first thirteen years, my parents built their home and Mom poured herself into its decorating, needlepointing the backgrounds of eight dining room chairs – a meditation in monotony, same stitch, same colour for many months. From there she mastered every style of needlework, again gifting me with cushions, purses, and such. She knit beautifully, always challenging herself in ways I didn’t quite get nor fully appreciate. A brief foray into crewel work and then counted cross-stitch and cutaway, the finer and more intricate, the better. In the last few years, she’s found the strain on her eyes too much, regrettably as she has several half-finished projects and wishes to make each of her grandchildren and great-great grandchildren keepsakes. So she’s gone back to occasionally knitting, and now spends more time reading. It’s a pastime I’m happy she enjoys, as when younger she never did, believing herself to be a poor reader. So utterly untrue when I think about what she’s created with her hands – the patterns she had to read and interpret, the recipes she improvised, the books she kept for the business. A legacy of the hurtful, limiting stories we’re told, or tell ourselves.

“When you learn to make things with your hands, you begin to awaken an awareness of the beauty and value of things in your life. Handmaking teaches us about slowness: the antidote to brevity and efficiency. It shows us, through the patience of our own hands, what goes into a thing. When we put those long efforts into bringing beauty into the world, we are honouring that which made us by creating as we have been created. We are taught to respect the slow, attentive piecing together of the life we yearn for.”

Toko-pa Turner, Belonging, 2017
quoted in “A Homemade, Handmade Life,” A Wabi Sabi Life

And looking further back, her grandmother, my Gramma, was always sewing – spectacular fashions inspired by the turn of the century Edwardian era. Plumed and netted hats, velvet coats. No wonder I was so taken by Downton Abbey for its costume design, as I have old sepia tint photos of Gramma looking just like those women. Too, I have one hundred year old samples of her silk embroidery, and I wore for my wedding the white cotton lawn embroidered dress she’d made for her own – fine hand sewn tucked bodice, tiny mother of pearl buttons.

My paternal grandmother, Oma, too, was a very skillful seamstress, though in the pre and post world war periods of Germany, her talents were out of necessity directed to the functional, utilitarian, to get more wear from what was worn. Emigrating to North America in the 1950s, she became a pieceworker on the assembly line making glass cases for Bausch and Lomb. An accident on the sewing machine nearly severed her middle finger, left its nail permanently clawed over. Her dowager’s hump the price for countless hours bent over those grinding machines.

Before my mother’s second birthday, her mother died. Eleanor, my grandmother, was adopted as a young child. Family dynamics and bureaucratic policy were such that we grew up knowing very little about her. Did she like to sew? Was she a hand maker? Did she embroider or like cooking? We don’t know. We have very few pictures of her, but one as a young girl shocked us all in the resemblance I share with her.

Early this morning I woke having dreamt of her. A young boy hand-delivered a painting or photograph of a young girl child, now restored and framed. Stretching, I had to reach up high and retrieve the parcel from its precarious perch. I unwrapped its golden Klimt-like heavy wrapping paper to see a little girl at sitting at a table outside, surrounded by little glass pots of paint, flowering bushes beside her, blue sky above. I knew immediately it was Eleanor. I felt a whisper in my heart murmuring that this is how I am connected to my grandmother, in little paint pots of colour – the timeless iteration of the 64 box of crayons – in a yard warm with flowers and a blue sky.

“…I needed that bond to feel whole, competent and grounded, connected to my heart and soul, to my community, to my ancestors, and to the natural world around me…”

Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019,
quoted in “Joie de Faire,” A Wabi Sabi Life

In the still dark this morning, I sensed this is how I am connected to the lineage of women – through the shimmering cotton threads, warm hued woolen yarns, fabrics woven on looms and sewn into garments and furnishings. That my ancestors whisper to me in dreams and in the stitches we make through time.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

It’s For the Animals

It’s for the animals
I weep.

Every time I read about another disaster –

this time the massive flooding and landslides
a province away
how a “river bomb” dropped a month of rain
in two days on a landscape
already battered and burned by
last summer’s fires in
a “heat dome” of hell
weather descriptions I’ve never heard before

– yes, I think about people
my kith and kin
stuck in cars between mountains of mud
swept over the edge covered like quick sand
their homes and lives and livelihoods destroyed
light a candle, say a prayer

I think about towns evacuated and flooded
tossed like a child’s play blocks when the earth heaves
decimated by flames stoked to a frenzy by raging winds

I wonder about the already fragile “supply chains”
when the country’s largest seaport is held captive
by a collapsed infrastructure
cross country corridors for truck and train
are broken

I remember this is today, here and now
that yesterday it was someplace else
and tomorrow
there will be a tomorrow –

But it’s when I read about
the thousands of animals drowning
see farmers defying evacuation orders in
attempts to save them
imagine their terror as
water submerges
mud entombs
fires incinerate

that my heart shatters and
I howl.



This Thing

THIS THING

There is this thing called choice
that we value so highly.
Free will, some call it,
all our decisions
left to ourselves.

There is this thing call freedom
that we value so highly.
Live free or die trying,
all our purposes
set by our own hand.

There is this thing call rights
that we value to highly.
The right to decide, to protect.
Everything sits upon it.

There is this thing called us
that we struggle to value.
Us eclipses my choices,
my freedom,
my rights.

Us means it’s harder, more complex, unknown.

– Gretta Vosper –
Take a Deep Breath, 2019

I first met Gretta Vosper in autumn of 2019 when she keynoted an event at which I facilitated a session on creativity. An ordained minister of the United Church of Canada, Gretta is, paradoxically, a self-professed atheist. Unlike most in the gathering that weekend, I was completely unfamiliar with her and her reputation for a radical, fierce commitment to justice. But like most present when she spoke, I was deeply moved, to tears actually.

Recently re-reading her self published chapbook, Take a Deep Breath: A Poetic Pursuit of Justice (2019), I came across this poem which shimmered with remarkable prescience and current relevancy.

Trees

I’ve posted it before and its beauty continues to awe

“A tree is a light-catcher that grows life from air.”

Maria Popova, “Why Leaves Change Color,” The Marginalian, October 26, 2021

That line stopped me for its simple truth and eloquent beauty.

This morning, basking in the “fall back” gift of an extra hour’s sleep, lingering over coffee with Annie beside me on “her” aptly named loveseat, I started to read Maria Popova’s wondrous words in her weekly newsletter, The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). A click back to last week’s issue, an essay on the process – both scientific and philosophic – of photosynthesis and the colour of autumn leaves. “Could anyone write more beautifully about the magic of this process, this season, and its connotations?” I whispered to myself.

“Autumn is the season of ambivalence and reconciliation, soft-carpeted training ground for the dissolution that awaits us all, low-lit chamber for hearing more intimately the syncopation of grief and gladness that scores our improbable and finite lives — each yellow burst in the canopy a reminder that everything beautiful is perishable, each falling leaf at once a requiem for our own mortality and a rhapsody for the unbidden gift of having lived at all. That dual awareness, after all, betokens the luckiness of death.”

Maria Popova

Every Saturday morning has found me walking in the autumn splendor of Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River Valley. Having just completed the ninth of twelve weekly stages, I continue to be in awe of the season’s vibrant colours. Too, with the exceptional lack of snow, though this week saw a skin of ice on a large pond, and a patch of thick frozen runoff. Every week, I make photographs from what I see, from what especially shimmers and shines. And without fail, most of those photos are of trees in their golden, vermillion, russet, and bronze glory. Of their transition from fully “dressed” to bare limbed. Some resplendent with red, black, and purple berries; some with tight portending buds. Yesterday I remarked to my husband that no one can say we don’t have colourful autumns here on the prairies. He reminded me it’s that we don’t typically have the massive globes of colour from the towering hardwood oaks and maples. Yes, here one must look closer in, not quite so high up, nearer to the ground for such treasures.

“As daylight begins fading in autumn and the air cools, deciduous trees prepare for wintering and stop making food — an energy expenditure too metabolically expensive in the dearth of sunlight. Enzymes begin breaking down the decommissioned chlorophyll, allowing the other pigments that had been there invisibly all along to come aflame. And because we humans so readily see in trees metaphors for our emotional lives, how can this not be a living reminder that every loss reveals what we are made of — an affirmation of the value of a breakdown?”

Maria Popova

As I’ve written before, my earliest memory is of laying in my baby buggy, looking into trees – the new green maple leaves and the spaces in between onto the sky. The fluttering and swaying, in the growing warmth of spring, caught my budding curiosity, creating a life-long affinity for their beauty and recognition of their healing balm and wisdom.

So it is that I appreciate Popova’s naming other, perhaps less ‘attractive’ metaphoric connections between ourselves and trees – death and breakdowns. And why this poem of Mary Oliver rings so deeply true:

WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

,

Note to Self When Walking (Because I Forget)

Note to Self When Walking (Because I Forget)

When walking in the woods,
Or on a path,
Or down the street,
In a store,
Or just upstairs,
When you are intent on going,
Where ever it is you are going,
Stop.
Stand still.

Notice how the mind can chatter,
Like purple finches in the trees,
Endlessly clicking and warbling,
Rising and falling and rising again.
Notice all your plans and longings,
All the things you got, but didn’t want,
All you wanted, and didn’t get,
All the circular conversations aimed at changing,
What was already said or unsaid.
Notice all the losses you are carrying,
With as much grace as you can muster.

Notice the sky, the feel of the air on your skin,
The sounds or what hangs in the silence,
The hard knot in your throat.
Notice all these things and more,
Because there is always more.
Then let your heart open,
Even just a crack,
A dribble or a dam break,
It doesn’t matter.
Because it is in that opening,
You’ll find a clear space
The one you keep finding
And losing
And finding again.

Remember to love it all,
All of it.
Hold hands and high five
With what’s easy and dear,
Ephemeral and brilliantly ordinary.
Wrap compassion like a blanket
The kind we place tenderly,
Around other people’s shoulders,
When the disaster is done and the worst is over.
Love it all,
Without looking for any way out,
Not condoning, just allowing,
For it all to just live,
Where it lives.
Love everything that broke your heart open
That changed you forever,
That made you softer,
And helped you understand,
What you could not have understood otherwise.
Love what you’ve endured,
Love what you are still enduring.
Love the purple finches and the sidewalk,
The view from the upstairs window,
The brambles and wild asters,
And the click of the keyboard.

Love all of this
Small and fragile,
Big and beautiful,
Life.

Then take the next step.

– Carrie Newcomer –

As I wrote in my post Walking, I like to meander and saunter. I like to pause to listen, to look up into the sky, into the trees, onto the expanse of river or field. Yes, to find the image that shimmers, but also to empty myself of all the clutter and clatter so I can take in a bit of what surrounds me, let it envelope me, inside and out.

When Annie and I walk, she is patient with me, as I pause, as I focus my camera, as I stop to talk with a neighbor. Just one of the many things I love about her.

This poem arrived in the monthly “Growing Edge” newsletter by Carrie Newcomer and Parker Palmer. Evoking David Wagoner’s “Lost,” and David Whyte’s “Start Close In,” I love Carrie’s grace-filled noticing and wise counsel to love everything that breaks our hearts open…makes us softer…that we’ve endured and are still enduring, while encouraging us always to take the next step.

Dear friends, may you, too, love it all and take the next step.

Any Small, Calm Thing

“Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people…”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

I’m not sure where this post is going. I only know the starting place is one of a vague worry, discontent and gnawing frustration, riding the surface of a deeper, less articulate grief. All mixed with genuine awe and appreciation for the remarkable autumn weather – still colour, still sunny, still without snow.

It is Hallowe’en evening as I write. Samhain in the Celtic tradition, it is the time of thinning veils between the worlds of living and dying. A threshold into the liminal, poised on the cusp of seasons changing from the fullness of harvest to hibernation’s cold and dark.

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own…

David Whyte, Sweet Darkness, excerpt

My husband just got off the phone. His friend from southern Alberta, a long time, multi-generational beef rancher, said his calves sold for a ridiculously low price, despite beef selling in our grocery stores for a king’s ransom. The $87,000 he and his son just spent on hay to feed the cattle over the winter, because they couldn’t grow any due to a record-breaking drought – yes, the one that persists, giving us, paradoxically, this remarkable weather – might not be enough if the forecasted La Nina hard, cold prairie winter comes to be.

This week’s news was featured headlines on the backlogged and broken supply chain – container ships on fire, hundreds of containers lost in the sea off the west coast when a storm bomb hit, extreme staffing shortages compounded by inconsistent vaccination policies – soaring inflation rates, something any of us shopping for anything knew months ago. Perhaps more of Covid’s unintended consequences. Too, Facebook’s announced its rebranding as “Meta,” a potentially ominous Orwellian empire.

Last week we returned to live theatre to see the award winning, evocative, and masterfully written, produced and acted production, BEARS, “the story about a Metis oil sands worker and his perilous and transformational quest through the Rockies.” (The Citadel playbill notes)

Last night I finished reading Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (2019), a first-hand description of navigating domestic abuse, poverty and its numerous Catch-22 ‘support’ services, single parenting without familial support, undergirded by her unrelenting need for an education and to write.

Sent by a dear friend, yesterday I watched a two minute video, Don’t Choose Extinction, produced by the United Nations Development Program – an organization fighting to end the injustice of poverty, inequality, and climate change – to precede the current UN climate summit in Scotland.

“You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

Like those disparate chips of color in a kaleidoscope, a slight shift brings into focus, in my pattern seeking way of being, an image that, as Dr. Estes writes, evokes jaw-dropping astonishment and righteous rage.

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts — adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…

Like persisting with fiddling to remove my earbuds to say hello to the neighbor I’d met last winter as we both walked our beloved aging dogs on the golf course. I’d seen her and “Sunny” a couple of times over the summer as Annie and I walked down her street. I always stopped to say hello and catch up a bit. Last week as I approached her house and saw her talking to another couple, I held Annie in, persisted and fiddled when it might have been easier to wave and walk on by. The couple asked if I wanted to pass them, all of us still Covid cautious, and I said no, that I wanted to say hello to my neighbor. Finished with their conversation, thanks and farewells expressed, they graciously moved on. Looking at my neighbor I asked how she was, and then I heard her story: that her Sunny dog had been put down Thanksgiving weekend, the outcome of a sudden visit to the emergency clinic after taking a turn for the worse and not eating. Too, her mother had died a few weeks earlier, but she was sadder about Sunny. Was that awful of her, she asked. I assured her it wasn’t, that Sunny had been her constant companion, her mother aged. Had they made a mistake because in that last hour at the clinic, Sunny had rallied, full of energy, eating handfuls of the “chocolate kisses” in the quiet room where the final injection would be administered.

It was another of those glorious autumn days, brilliant blue sky, trees full of colour, her gardens still beautiful in their waning. I invited her to look around and consider how it is that autumn pulls out all the stops, gives us such glory and colour, rallies before all dies for the winter’s rest. Her eyes filled with tears of understanding. That, she said, was something she could hold on to when doubt returned and sadness threatened.

In hindsight I knew why I had persisted and fiddled, how it was that I had responded to soul’s subtle signal to help another.

And again, today walking the golf course with Annie and my husband, as we passed by the bench at the first tee, I spotted a woman sitting with beverage. Ushering them ahead to wait, I quietly approached and asked if she regularly sat here. Would she be the same woman who had helped me last winter, when sitting there she’d seen me slip on the ice and fall smack on my keester, Annie startled by the suddenness? That during the time I heeded her advice to sit still and rest, make sure I hadn’t injured myself, she told me that her husband had passed two months earlier and that she came most days to sit on the bench with her tea, they being devoted golfers? Yes, it was her. Yes, her husband had died a year ago this month. Yes, it was still, after a year, a tender time, I had offered.

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my new gig as co-editor of SAGE-ING: The Journal of Creative Aging. I mentioned that while I was thrilled to have a ready platform to publish my poetry and pieces of contemplative, non-fiction impressions, what especially delighted me was the opportunity to invite others to submit their stories of creativity’s impacts and influences. Writing to a friend who accepted my invitation and submitted several of his poems for consideration:

“What was most lovely for me about receiving your email yesterday was that it helped coalesce and give words to something that’s been cooking inside – the moving through loss and grief I’ve felt this past year with not working to “feeling” this as a beauty-filled opportunity with SAGE-ING to be of service in another way – by inviting others to submit their stories. It means I can offer the gift of “seeing” another – and I know how deeply valuable that is for each of us. So thank you! I feel as if I have come through the eye of the needle so to speak…”

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…and be helped in so doing.

“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires … causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

I sometimes forget

this I remember…dancing with Bellathea for her birthday

I sometimes forget
that I was created for Joy.

My mind is too busy.
My Heart is too heavy
for me to remember
that I have been
called to dance
the Sacred dance of life.

I was created to smile
To Love
To be lifted up
And to lift others up.

O’ Sacred One
Untangle my feet
from all that ensnares.
Free my soul.
That we might
Dance
and that our dancing
might be contagious.

– Hafiz –

One of my great joys is dancing outside, barefoot on the grass, during warm summer days at live music events – Edmonton’s and more recently Canmore’s folk festivals. So these past two COVID summers, I’ve missed dancing. I danced before I walked, or so goes the story told by my mother…she relieved for the Mickey Mouse tunes on TV that got my attention so that I pulled myself up in the playpen and bounced while she cooked dinner. Now I kitchen dance mornings listening to my radio station, CKUA, and often when I’m cooking dinner. My feet “untangled” from so much that had “ensnared” me, there’s a freedom and lightness that reminds me of my call and my joy.

Walking

“I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, 2001

Text on Friday night from my friend: Are you planning on walking tomorrow? It’s supposed to be raining all day.

Me: Yes, I saw the forecast, and yes, I plan to walk. I made the commitment to myself to walk every stage, come rain, sun, sleet or snow. So, yes, I’ll be walking.

Friend: Thumbs up emoji

Text on Saturday morning – well before dawn – to my friend: Hmmmm, I’m reconsidering walking. It’s been raining all night, the forecast is for rain all day. I don’t want to get chilled and cold and sick. What about you?

Friend: I’m up and already dressed.

Me: Well, then…

Friend: We can always go, see if anyone else comes, and what’s happening.

Me: Good idea. Thumbs up emoji

“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”

Maira Kalman, My Favorite Things, 2014

So at 7:35 am I drove the short distance to the park for the 8:00 am rendezvous for Stage 7 of the local Camino de Edmonton, amazed at how much darker it was from a week ago, due to heavy cloud cover and the shortened days.  We’re now past the midway point, with twelve stages in total, ending the last Saturday in November at the city’s west end of the river valley, when my drive will be much further. A repeat of last year’s camino, now with the stages in reverse order, we’ve had glorious fall weather every weekend until now.

And there we were, ten of us hardy “peregrinos” ready to embrace the day, stepping through puddles, agreeing it would be a good day to test our gears’ waterproofness. Mine – boots, pants and jacket – failed miserably by the end of the 13.5 km circuit, my feet and quads wet to the skin. Once home, showered and dried, wet clothes laundered, boots aired, I began researching remedies and replacements. Several pairs of boots ordered, a couple of jacket styles eyed and waiting, hopefully, for a Black Friday sale (yup, those Arc’teryx jackets are an “investment” to quote my friend ), and waterproofing wash and spray purchased to renew the life of my pants.

“The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.
Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? To live among things that make you gasp with delight?”

Maira Kalman, My Favorite Things, 2014

Every week I post pictures of the week’s walk on social media. Last week in response, another friend asked if I ever wrote about my “camino” experience, relaying how my posts brought to her mind the hauntingly beautiful composition, “camino,” by the late Canadian violinist, Oliver Schroer, created in May and June, 2004, as he walked one thousand kilometers of the Camino Frances, with his partner Elena, and two friends, Peter Coffman and Diane Laundy.

“In my back pack, I carried my violin like a wooden chalice, like my own precious relic, carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear and waiting to work a miracle. My pack also contained a portable recording studio. When I found a church or cathedral that was acoustically enticing…and open…I played my violin and recorded in those spaces. I played some of my older fractal and spiritual pieces. I improvised a lot. Walking for weeks, new pieces came to me – one hill, one valley at a time. In two months, I played and recorded in twenty-five different churches…

…The music still sings on these recordings. The sense of place is strong here – pilgrims praying, children playing, birds, bells, footsteps, passing snatches of conversation, the sounds of the buildings themselves. Each space has it sown distinct character and resonance.”

Oliver Schroer, “camino” journal notes, 2005

My photographs are glimpses into the sense of place I encounter as I walk – “that magical stuff of ‘the moments inside the moments inside the moments.’” (Maira Kalman). What shimmers – audaciously or subtly – and has me gasp with delight, or stop and turn around to really take in the moment? What is different or the same this year, from when I walked the same stage last year? What memories are evoked, impressions stirred, conversations silently replayed, or spoken anew now?

“With the utmost love and attention the person who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.”

Henry Thoreau, The Walk, 1861

Last year walking, it was a friend’s question about what I did with my photos – having watched me pause many times that glorious Saturday, to frame the image and focus my camera, fall behind the group and then catch up – that planted the seed for creating a photo journal of how I experienced my life during the pandemic. The first volume of one hundred pages, from March to December, 2020, and now a second volume almost at capacity with three months of this year still to enter. Too, my husband suggested I make a photo book exclusively of my Camino photos in appreciation for the co-ordinator’s efforts in planning and hosting all thirteen stages last year. As our host didn’t follow along on social media, it was the first time he saw in its entirety the beauty of what he had envisioned and coordinated for us, through the beauty I had captured and created for him.

“…the genius of walking lies not in mechanically putting one foot in front of the other en route to a destination but in mastering the art of sauntering – which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. “

Henry Thoreau, The Walk, 1861

Since 2000 I’ve waxed and waned with the dream of walking a camino, ever since I read Shirley MacLaine’s memoir. She brought to mainstream consciousness the ancient pilgrimage through France and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, today known as The Way, or Camino Frances, the same one walked by Oliver Schroer. There are many camino routes, ending at Santiago, or Italy’s Vatican, or through the forests and shrines of Japan. Last year, walking the Camino de Edmonton I learned that my way of walking is to saunter. I need to take my time to notice, to observe, to photograph, to hum a tune, sing a made-in-the-moment, soon-to-be-forgotten lyric. I enjoy conversation, and have had some delightful, edifying ones. And then what I notice – the shiny and the shimmer, the magic that suddenly catches my eye and speaks to my heart – shifts my attention.

And so, thinking more intentionally about a long distance “saunter” to Santiago, through Portugal, next year, the “easy walk” – taking several more days than the typical two week allocation – with ample time to rest and appreciate the ambiance of local villages, having my accommodations with breakfasts pre-booked, and luggage transferred, viscerally has me gasp with delight and settle my covid concerns. New impressions…the moments inside the moments…the magical stuff…the glory of life.

And hearing inside my heart, Oliver Schroer’s homage to the Camino de Santiago, “Field of Stars.” (Click the link to listen.)

“I went because I knew others who had gone, and the experience filled them with wonder.”

Peter Coffman, Camino, 2017

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

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