Now I Understand (in response to Pablo Neruda’s An Ode for Ironing)
Your house cleaned. Your floors swept. Your bed made. Your dishes washed. Your gardens tended. Your dog walked.
You, who has the means to purchase the hands’ work of others inherited, earned, dignified
Who would have thought my taking on the task of ironing your linens and your clothes as I pressed mine –
my small act of gratitude for your generous hospitality for opening your home to me giving me sanctuary of rest and routine while I, the novice, explored the world making true and real my heart’s desire –
would be taking away this small but necessary weekly Sunday evening pleasure bringing you back to your self giving you back the ground of your being?
Now I understand this ode’s essence to bring substance and harmony to give routine and resurrection to allow you to feel with your hands your way into a new week.
It’s Thanksgiving in Canada, the 12th of October, almost as late in the month as it comes. Remarkably, autumn’s colour abounds, with gold and burnished brown, red and aubergine still a vivid contrast against the cerulean sky and dark green conifers.
Yesterday a fierce wind blew from the north west. A kite hung high for an hour in the steel grey sky, its dragon-like features a foreboding of what’s to come. The scent and feel of winter waiting impatiently in the wings, typically impolite in timing its arrival. Like a takeover, one might even say “hostile”, or a coup overthrowing the trees before they’ve taken off their sovereign hued robes, and wreaking shock and havoc among the yet to depart migrating birds. This reminder of impermanence, life’s cycles, nature’s work. During a time when around the world most everyone feels fraught with uncertainty and complacent with pandemic protocol fatigue, I take comfort and find solace that yes, the days grow shorter, the sun rises lower, the trees will soon be stripped of their remaining leaves, the snow will fall, the temperatures plummet.
One morning last week, making breakfast for Annie and drip coffee for me, I heard Jill Scott sing her song, Golden. I wrote down the chorusknowing I could use it for today’s blog, because, well, it’s been so golden this past month. I’m in the sixth week of my latest Abbey of the Arts online course, “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” where I’m exploring these archetypes of contemplation and creativity, two deep affinities. In one of last week’s creative exercises, I learned about the French pantoum, a poetic form that can be quite revelatory in its play and placement of lines.
So in that spirit of unabashed experimentation, here’s my tribute to Thanksgiving, living golden, impermance, presence, winter – all riffing off Jill Scott.
Livin’ my life like it’s golden it’s that time of year. Shimmering brilliant leaves remind me to be here.
It’s that time of year, winds blow strong and sting remind me to be here. Winter’s in the wings.
Winds blow strong and sting. Shimmering brilliant leaves. Winter’s in the wings. Livin’ my life like it’s golden.
With abiding gratitude, love and kindest regards, dear friends.
“Outside the Met a man walks up sun tweaking the brim sticker on his Starter cap and he says pardon me Old School he says you know is this a wishing well? Yeah Son I say sideways over my shrug. Throw your bread on the water. I tighten my chest wheezy as Rockaway beach sand with a pull of faux smoke from my e-cig to cozy the truculence I hotbox alone and I am at the museum because it is not a bar. Because he appears not to have changed them in days I eye the heel-chewed hems of his pants and think probably he will ask me for fifty cents any minute now wait for it. A smoke or something. Central Park displays
the frisking transparency of autumn. Tracing paper sky, leaves like eraser crumbs gum the pavement. As if deciphering celestial script I squint and purse off toward the roof line of the museum aloof as he fists two pennies from his pockets mumbling and then aloud my man he says hey my man I’m going to make a wish for you too. I am laughing now so what you want me to sign a waiver? He laughs along ain’t say all that he says but you do have to hold my hand. And close your eyes. I make a starless night of my face before he asks are you ready. Yeah dawg I’m ready. Sure? Sure let’s do this his rough hand in mine inflates like a blood pressure cuff and I squeeze back as if we are about to step together from the sill of all resentment and timeless toward the dreamsource of un-needing the two of us hurtle sharing the cosmic breast of plenitude when I hear the coins blink against the surface and I cough up daylight like I’ve just been dragged ashore. See now you’ll never walk alone he jokes and is about to hand me back to the day he found me in like I was a rubber duck and he says you got to let go but I feel bottomless and I know he means well though I don’t believe and I feel myself shaking my head no when he means let go his hand.”
– by Gregory Pardlo –
I heard this poem walking with Annie earlier this week. Poetry Unbound, hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama, is one of my favourite podcasts. Now in its second season, each episode, featuring one poem, is a mere fifteen or so minutes. Yet while I listen, to Padraig’s recitation and then to his skillful, heartful invitations as to how I might hear into the poem, time stands still. I can listen to one episode several times in the course of our walk, and each time feel transfixed.
I share it here because it reminded me of the post I wrote several weeks ago on loneliness, a feeling state that continues to linger for many of us, as summer gives way to fall and the inevitable winter, as Covid-19 numbers continue to climb around the world. Click here to listen to the rather remarkable Pádraig’s reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as he and I do.
I knew I needed practices to help me flourish with fall’s arrival, its shorter days, and the inevitable snows and cold of winter. No escaping it, even though we here in the parklands of Alberta have had a stellar September and first week of October with no frost nor flakes. I posted on Facebook last week how remarkable that the geraniums and marigolds in their pots looked more beautiful and abundant now than in the peak of summer.
Early in this pandemic, while making photo books from my last trips to Morocco and Andalusia, I saw the hundreds of photos I’d taken over the past decade and decided to sort into a collection those I’d like to use on the cover of note cards. A few years ago, before the advent of the terrific e-cards I now habitually send, I’d make a photo card to celebrate a family member or friend’s birthday, anniversary, wedding or other life transition. A photo, hand- written or stamped greeting, postage stamp and off it’d go in the mail. I chose to resurrect that practice this fall – my version of a non-Zoom hug or love note – to stay connected with friends.
“…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
Times have changed. It used to be that I had a paper address book with friends’ contact information. As I composed my list of names, I realized for many I had only email addresses. And so, without tipping my hand too much, I asked, via email, for their “old fashioned snail mail” postal address.
“Over the course of just a couple of hundred years in the so-called developed world, we have become passive consumers of products, services, and information rather than active makers, fixers and even thinkers. Most of the time what we buy is made somewhere else, by a machine or by people we’ll never meet…”
Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019
Every week since early September, a few days a week, a couple of names on my list, I’d make a card, with a hand written note, maybe include a well-loved verse of poetry or a quote, a specially chosen photo evoking something for me about that person. Affixed a stamp and return address label and slipped it in the community mailbox.
“I gradually came to the conclusion that in its most simple sense, art (as a verbal noun that I now call “artifying” or “artification”) is the act of making ordinary things extraordinary. It is a uniquely human impulse.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
After the first week’s batch, I remembered that the cards I use are good quality water colour stock. I remembered how in that earlier iteration I might rubber stamp the inside with a greeting, and occasionally paint a dash of colour over. So now I’ve taken to embellishing the envelope with rubber stamp image and light water colour wash. “Now that’s an envelop worth keeping!” remarked a friend’s husband upon retrieving her card from their post box.
“Joie de faire – an inherent joy in making: There is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something that didn’t exist before, of using one’s own agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold, craft physical materials, apart from anticipating the fact of its eventual beauty, uniqueness, or usefulness.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
I’m crystal clear within myself that I make and send these cards with no expectation of hearing back from anyone. And yet I’ve been delighted to read about how surprised or touched by, or perfect the card. Another friend reminisced about days gone by when letters and notes were the way we maintained our relationships and connections, saying she’d been inspired to follow my lead, and that perhaps this was fulfilling my purpose.
“I think a lot of modern people’s ennui, or feelings of depression or meaninglessness, comes from the fact that although our physical and material needs are met, we are not satisfying those psychological and emotional needs of our hunter-gatherer nature.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
While I was touched with her suggestion, I’m not sure this is my purpose, per se, but it is satisfying that yearning to make, to make something beautiful, to share that beauty with people I cherish, and to invite them – for a moment or longer- to feel they are cherished by me. It is responding to my inner need to flourish when I’d felt so fallow and forlorn during the early months of Covid-19.
“…active making, and making special, contributes to satisfactions (fulfillment of basic emotional needs) that cannot come any other way.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
It is activating my slogan: The power of prayer and the making of beauty are HOLY ALCHEMY for social change.
Meditation I was sitting cross-legged one morning in our sunny new meditation room wondering if it would be okay to invite our out-of-town guest to Frank’s dinner party next weekend when it occurred to me that I wasn’t really meditating at all.
In fact, I had never meditated in our sunny new meditation room. I had just sat cross-legged now and then for 15 or 20 minutes worrying about one thing or another, how the world will endor what to get Alice for her birthday.
It would make more sense to rename the meditation room our new exercise room and to replace all the candles, incense holders, and the little statues with two ten-pound hand weights and a towel in case I broke a sweat.
Then I pictured the new room with nothing in it but a folded white towel, and a pair of numbered hand weights –an image of such simplicity that the sustaining of it as I sat cross-legged under a tall window, my palms open weightlessly on my bare knees,
made me wonder if I wasn’t actually, meditating for a moment then and therein our former meditation room, where the sun seemed to be brightening as it suffused with light the grain in the planks of that room’s gleaming floor.
It’s happened. In the last two days I’ve learned of people I know having their lives impacted by COVID-19. Up until now it’s been something “out there.” Now it’s landed on my doorstep, making these past six months less surreal.
A few weeks ago, while walking Annie, I listened to the second season opener of Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcasts. Titled “Day 2” she describes how now, six months into the pandemic, it’s not getting any easier for us. In fact, in a counter-intuitive way, it’s harder. We tell ourselves we should be getting the hang of it, but no. Like the Day 2 of her three-day training events, or what in my profession’s parlance we call the “groan zone”: when, after settling in and getting to know each other, playing around with new concepts and ideas with everything “out there”, the rubber hits the road when we realize, often with resistance, that for any traction and way forward to occur, we need to do a lot of internal pushing, shifting, and changing. We feel awkward, anxious, angry. Tired. Doubting. We want to turn around, get out, and dust ourselves off.
“…let me tell you, day two of these three-day trainings sucked. I mean sucked. So not only in terms of the curriculum, day two meant that we were moving into some of the really tough content, like shame and worthiness, but people were also kind of feeling raw. The first day of anything like the first day of school, the first day of a training, the first day of your work, you’re like, I get the badge and everything’s shiny, and everything feels like a new undertaking, and there’s this sparkle of possibility. By day two, this is dulled. And now you’re kind of in this dense fog where you don’t have the shiny possibility of day one or the running toward the finish line of day three. It’s like hitting the wall.”
I’d been feeling and saying pretty much the same thing this summer. And while I didn’t think I had a timeline for this thing, knew enough to cancel a September return to Morocco way back in March, heard about the “second wave”, in all honesty, in some deep place, I was holding out hope we’d be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel by now, driving towards it. Instead it feels as messy as ever. But now, since yesterday, much more real.
“…we’re in the dark, the doors close behind us, we’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light…”
Yesterday I went to the store to fetch groceries for my friend, and I swear to God, as I put the mask on my face, my brain fell out. I couldn’t make sense of the store aisle arrows, of how close or far I was to the next person. My glasses kept fogging up. When I finally got ready to checkout, I started placing my items on the conveyor belt before the customer ahead had finished. Yes, I was safely distanced, but the clerk kindly asked me to wait until she had sprayed and wiped the entire belt making it safe and ready for me. Of course, I should have known that. Then I told her I needed two receipts, different bags – theirs they’d pack, mine I needed bag myself – where was my store card? my credit card? Flustered, I finally confessed, “I’m usually pretty competent, but today, I can’t multitask worth a damn.” She laughed with me. Grateful for her kindness, I muddled through, got outside, whipped off my mask, and breathing deep while sitting in my car, realized how rattled I was and why. COVID-19 had arrived on my doorstep.
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-Corona existence was not normal, other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.”
Sonya Renee Taylor
Today is a better day. In fact, the whole of last week was grand, even yesterday, grocery shopping aside, or maybe, paradoxically, because of it. September on the prairies can be a glorious month, and after our second wet, cold summer, she’s pulling out all the stops for us. And October is looking pretty good, too. Every day I walk, I’m enthralled with what I see around me. My basic, single lens phone camera is working a surprising magic.
And those plans I’d put in place – in anticipation of this messy middle, to help me flourish after having felt fallow for months – are panning out beautifully. I’ll write more about that in weeks to come. But for now, I’ll give Brene the last word:
“The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens. If we believe in ourselves, if we reach out together, and if we lean into a little bit of that grace that says, ‘We can get through this.'”
Fall, falling, fallen. That’s the way the season Changes its tense in the long-haired maples That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition With the final remaining cardinals) and then Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground. At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance, A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything Changes and moves in the split second between summer’s Sprawling past and winter’s hard revision, one moment Pulling out of the station according to schedule, Another moment arriving on the next platform. It Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away From their branches and gather slowly at our feet, Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving Around us even as its colorful weather moves us, Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets. And every year there is a brief, startling moment When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air: It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies; It is the changing light of fall falling on us.
– Edward Hirsch –
Hearing this poem recited early yesterday morning, I thought given the gloriousness of this past week, another ode to autumn was just the thing.
Here in Alberta, September is often our most consistently glorious month. Albeit, days grow shorter and the sun shines lower in the sky, but the colours. Oh, the colours! The golds against that brilliant blue sky. Amur maples glowing scarlet and orange, reminiscent of hardwoods in my hometown of Niagara. Ruby-like crab apples waiting to be plucked.
So today, in honour of the northern hemisphere’s autumnal equinox, here’s a lovely one from Mary Oliver.
SONG FOR AUTUMN
Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now how comfortable it will be to touch the earth instead of the nothingness of the air and the endless freshets of wind? And don’t you think the trees, especially those with mossy hollows, are beginning to look for
the fires that will come—six, a dozen—to sleep inside their bodies? And don’t you hear the goldenrod whispering goodbye, the everlasting being crowned with the first tuffets of snow? The pond stiffens and the white field over which the fox runs so quickly brings out its long blue shadows. The wind wags its many tails. And in the evening the piled firewood shifts a little, longing to be on its way.
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)
“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.”
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.
I know the power of prayer and the making of beauty are my offerings for social action, for social change.