Packing up for a weekend away, the stark pleasure of compartments. A miniature version of my life.
It is never photographed so my great-grandchildren will never know it but this just-before time of folding and stuffing and zipping it all up is as delectable as the trip itself.
When I backpacked around Europe and India I was asked, don’t I feel vulnerable with everything I own on my back?
Goodness no, I replied, with no stuff to anchor me. I am free, which is the safest feeling of all.
-bentlily by Samantha Reynolds –
As some of you know I’ve been travelling this month. I returned to Morocco, a destination that captured my heart when I first visited in September, 2019. I’d made a deposit to return in 2020, then the world stopped and I needed to apply it this year before it expired. Given I was touring with the same small group, women only company, its itinerary evoked the comfort of familiarity with enough change brought by our remarkable local guide, Mariam, to keep it fresh and as enthralling.
A week ago, I enjoyed my final dinner at the riad in Marrakech sated by not only the varied collection of fresh Moroccan salads and flaky “briouats,” but also with the multitude of sensory impressions newly etched and deepened from my first visit. Morocco does that. In the surrounding silence, as dusk descended through the open roof, the first stars flickering, the only sound was the water tumbling into the pool below from where I sat. The following day would begin the journey home. Once returned, I came across Samantha’s poem on IG where she regularly posts. From Vancouver, Samantha is known for writing a poem a day, a practice she began as a first-time mother over ten years ago.
Struck particularly by Samantha’s last stanza – as one who travels light, able to curate clothing for three seasons for numerous weeks in a lightweight carry-on and messenger pack (in contrast to the huge pieces of luggage I saw on countless airport carousels, and in the back of our tour van, everyday portered by men at our various accommodations, and lifted and arranged twice a day by our driverHakim) – I responded, “The freedom in traveling light is practical and a powerful metaphor for life.“
Determined to shop very little this trip, and increasingly finding it is my way, as weighing heavy with time passing is wondering what I’ll do with and to whom I’ll give what I’ve gathered over the years. Yes, the carpets with their rich colours, textures and patterns are always my temptation, and offered the opportunity to practice non-attachment, albeit with much silent self-talk and a few tears of regret. Yet I did well… until that last day in Marrakech, when my guide casually walked me into a 12th C caravanserai, now restored and converted for local artisans. Immediately recognizable were paintings by an artist whose work I’d first purchased in Essaouira in 2019. I’d heard he lived in Marrakech, and there he wasat Galerie le coeur blanc, the studio shared with his better known brother, Hamid Khantour. Smitten again with his soft yet vivid palette and Moroccan subject matter, I caved and came way with two more pieces, confident they’d fit in my suitcase. Hah! Two inches too long, posing a packing up challenge.
Admittedly, a step backward in traveling light! But I loved supporting a local artist and making memories of my return to Morocco, soon to beseen every day on my walls.
Happy to be home. Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.
“You can’t measure your success by the number of people who follow you. You measure it by how true you are to path. Because if you aren’t true to path, no amount of societal success will ever gratify you. And if you are true to path, the way that the world receives you is of little significance because you have already found your way home.”
Jeff Brown, Hearticulations: on friendship, love and healing, 2020
Hmmmm…ideally, in principle, I know this to be true and appreciate Jeff’s reminder. Though right now, during the cinematic and music awards season, witnessing the unabashed joy, honor, respect, humility, and bewilderment experienced by winners, and too, by those who didn’t win (let’s step away from the binary), I do think such acknowledgement of one’s being “true to path” is important. Perhaps even vital. I sampled such sweetness when after several submissions over the past two years, and a couple of honourable mentions, I received the email this week announcing my poem had been chosen by the judges of Off Topic Publishing’s poetry contest. Last week another publisher wrote back in response to a submission that my three poems were “fabulous.” Had I not erred in submitting them simultaneously, often an acceptable practice but in this case forbidden, they’d be published this spring. A trifecta of success when the Edmonton Stroll of Poets selected one of my photos for the cover of its 2023 annual anthology, and too, a poem. A bit more remote, though nonetheless rewarding, is that my editor secured an international publisher for the education anthology she oversaw, for which I wrote the foreward and poetry for each section.
Do I feel joy, thankful, affirmed for my efforts? You bet I do. Emailing a friend, I wrote that the angels had given me just enough to nudge me on in this new calling. While I’d already lived the lesson of leaning into rejection and mustering perseverance – one I know will come again and again – after hiding in a cave for a couple of months upon taking way too seriously an off hand remark from an established local poet, I somehow found my way back to path by editing, writing and preparing over twenty submissions, including another send out of my collection, during the first two months of this year.
Now to wait and see…and finish packing for my return to Morocco, where for three weeks I’ll revisit a land that enchanted, enthralled, and inspired one of those “honorably mentioned” poems. I won’t be posting here this month. And while I’ll be photographing, I’m uncertain about posting on my Facebook and or Instagram accounts.
In the meantime, I wish you, dear friends, the uplifting joy in spring’s arrival together with much love and kindest regards.
When you return from a long journey air sweet with lilac and unfurled green then you fall to your knees and become gratitude’s pilgrim. You were given the way at birth. Given blue fields and loam. Given an open throat, wild orchids, a path lit by milky stars. You were given desire, sweet darkness of the body, white hum in the bone.
It’s not the departure you long for, nor the finish, with its thick incense, tired feet and weeping. It is the quiet loneliness in between, When memory marries wind and you are pure light. Walking. One foot in front of the other. You cannot speak of this place. The way you cannot speak of grace or what holds you to this world. How at this moment you can only stand up and move toward the light of home.
– Rosemary Griebel – YES (2011)
Last week, listening to a past episode of The Road Home on my radio station CKUA, I heard my friend Rosemary recite three of her poems from this collection, YES. Her lovely voice, together with the background music selected by host Bob Chelmick made for several minutes of exquisite listening pleasure. I first met Rosemary virtually, and then in person when we both attended last November’s weekend workshop with our beloved Irish poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama. Knowing I’d see her, I brought my copy of her book for her to sign. It was there I learned how we are kin, not only in our shared love of words, but also in our both having walked the Camino de Santiago. It occurred to me while listening to Rosemary read last week, that I needed to feature here, in my Friday photo and poem post, some of the local poets whose love of words I share, to uplift those “prophets in my own land,” so to speak.
I’ve written here how the Camino does its work; on me, from the moment I made my decision and deposit a year ago December to walk, but more so upon my return. This past December I took some time to make the photo journal of my walk. Too, I wrote a short story, A Creative Walks the Portuguese Coastal Camino, drawing on my Camino blog posts, for both the Canadian Company of Pilgrims and Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging. And I had the lovely opportunity to talk about my walk and its impacts, both to support a fellow doing his Master degree in Tourism, exploring the transformative gifts walking a non religious Camino, and on the Ellipsis Thinking podcast, “Paying Attention,” hosted by my dear friend, Greg Dowler-Coltman.
Rosemary’s poem speaks to me of so much that was my Camino. That in the planning, the going and the return, I was “gratitude’s pilgrim”… how the “quiet loneliness” while walking became my necessary and bittersweet companion… my “tired feet and weeping” with relief at our safe arrival…and since home, remembering the light, the grace, the beauty. Thank you, Rosemary.
Agenda in a time of fear: Be not afraid. When things go wrong, do right. Set out by the half-light of the seeker. For the well-lit problem begins to heal.
Learn tropism toward the difficult. We have not arrived to explain, but to sing. Young idealism ripens into an ethical life. Prune back regret to let faith grow.
When you hit rock bottom, dig farther down. Grief is the seed of singing, shame the seed of song. Keep seeing what you are not saying. Plunder your reticence.
Songbird guards a twig, its only weapon a song.
As I type out this week’s poem, I’m listening to a podcast with Sarah Polley (the link is to the You Tube video), writer-director of the tour de force, Oscar nominated film, Women Talking. On the recommendation of a friend, I invited two other friends and we watched, riveted, from the comfort of our reclining theatre seats. On my social media feed I wrote about the film:
“Beautifully shot. Remarkably understated acting. A brilliant soundscape. With my lens as a practitioner of The Circle Way, I was moved by the potential of circle conversation – with scribe, elder host and guardian – to create the brave space for personal transformation, community governance, and deeply discerned wise action. Too, how this story, based on fact, demonstrates the profound, far-reaching and insidious impacts of unchecked patriarchal power – the acting out of generational trauma, and the tragic consequences of the Mother Wound. No one is left unscathed.”
Earlier in the week, Stafford’s poem (son of William) appeared in my feed. I’m struck with how his words and images aligned with my perceptions of the film, how song became a way through at critical points, faith the ground.
“Plunder your reticience” and see this film. As Polley said, it’s an allegory, made for us all to ponder and know its implications extend far beyond this particular community.
“Some of us don’t want to be tough alpha leaders. Some of us just want to write and wander the garden and breathe in the sky and nourish and nurture and quietly create new pathways and live our lives as our art. To know the earth as poetry.”
Victoria Erickson Rhythms and Roads
A few weeks ago, lunching with a friend, and then in conversation with another, I realized again how differences in our ages and life stages ebb and flow. Sometimes barely noticeable in how we find companionship journeying through life. Sometimes the gap more apparent, like a chasm requiring fancy footwork to bridge, or, as I discovered, simply noticing and letting be.
Finding myself more fully in that place beyond career and the professional aspirations that held my attention and directed my days, I realize, too, how that focus gave me many gratifying and validating dimensions of identity, regard and respect. How it helped me know that my gifts and talents, cultivated over decades, were being well used. I had always said, to quote Kahlil Gibran, that my work was my love made visible, and how wonderful it had been to have worked with people I cherished and who I knew cherished me.
Landing with the deep thud of truth in my body, I no longer have the energy, nor the desire to be – not that I ever was – “a tough alpha leader.” I am giving myself over to writing (having made eight poetry submissions in January), living into the slogan I created a few years ago: my life as poem and prayer. I am learning, repeatedly, how an aspect of an artist’s “stock in trade” is the often lonely leaning into rejection, and digging deep within for the valuing, regard and respect that had once so readily come from outside. Chuckling with my friend, I said somedays I hit pay dirt, other days it’s rock bottom.
I’m not complaining. It is what so many of the wise elders on whose words I’ve rested and relied have said about the second half of life: when some of us, brave and taking heart, deciphering the signs and listening to the truth in and of our bodies, find ourselves in that more nuanced landscape marked by light and shadow. Lonely perhaps. Messy even. Occasionally bereft of the familiar. But always of earth and its ways. And it is from this place and our relationship to it, that we make our way.
Meanwhile, flowers still bloom. The moon rises, and the sun. Babies smile and somewhere, Against all the odds, Two people are falling in love.
Strangers share cigarettes and jokes. Light plays on the surface of water. Grace occurs on unlikely streets And we hold each other fast| Against entropy, the fires and the flood.
Life leans towards living And, while death claims all things at the end, There were such precious times between, In which everything was radiant And we loved, again, this world.
His self described “written-during-breakfast” poem, has garnered viral attention on social media. I first learned of Tom there, and then heard him speak at the Rewilding Mythology course I participated in last fall. From my notes, his words:
What happens when we speak truth with natural skill, craft and grace?
Spoken language allows the fibres of reality to shimmer and vibrate and resonate making many things possible – healing, transformation, journeying.
“And we loved, again, this world.” Such shimmering I simply love.
“When you reach a stage when you can have a very dark and difficult experience, without having to look on the “bright side,” then you know that you have made progress on your healing journey. Because one significant measure of our emotional health, is our capacity to tolerate all of our experiences without jumping to reactive reframes. You reach a stage where you can stretch to accommodate the truth of your lived experience. You have enough light inside, to own the shadow. And enough shadow inside, to own the light.”
Jeff Brown, Hearticulations: on friendship, love and healing, 2020
Taking a step sideways from my usual posting of a Friday poem, I found this quote scrolling on my Facebook feed this week, something I’m doing only occasionally these days (that might be a story for another time). Posted on a friend’s timeline, after reading the comments I was reminded that decades ago I had read something Shakti Gawain of creative visualization fame, wrote about positively thinking herself into a psychosis. At a time when a heavy theme within the new age thought movement was espousing “think positive and manifest thus,” her words left an indelible mark. In that same era, I read Ken Wilber in an issue of the New Age Journal calling out this same tendency, particularly with reference to blaming those suffering with life threatening illness, as his wife at the time was dying of cancer. (Wilber, having created the brilliantly deep and expansive Intergral Theory, is who Fr. Richard Rohr describes in a recent podcast with Brene Brown, “the wisest philosopher of religion on the American scene.”)
I received the gift of insight a few weeks ago, during an interview with a fellow doing a Masters degree in Tourism, studying the transformations experienced by we who walk “secular,” non-religious inspired caminos. In response to his final question, “What in 3 or 4 sentences would I describe as the main lessons learned from my camino?” and as I wrote here last week, after several moments of quiet consideration, searching for the most accurate words, I said that I am developing an embodied, visceral familiarity with what it means to live in Life’s messy, inchoate middle, engaging with, partnering with, Life living itself.
Bravo to we who are so fiercely tender and tenderly fierce in our refusal to only live on the bright side of life, ignoring its necessary, organic, abundant mess. Life needs us to be so.
You tell me to live each day as if it were my last. This is in the kitchen where before coffee I complain of the day ahead—that obstacle race of minutes and hours, grocery stores and doctors.
But why the last? I ask. Why not live each day as if it were the first— all raw astonishment, Eve rubbing her eyes awake that first morning, the sun coming up like an ingénue in the east?
You grind the coffee with the small roar of a mind trying to clear itself. I set the table, glance out the window where dew has baptized every living surface.
– Linda Pasten, Insomnia, 2015 –
While this poem takes place in a different season, when dew “baptizes every living surface,” its subject – making the morning coffee and living each day fully as the first – and the collection title – Insomnia – strike chords making music fitting for this near mid January morn. Awake at 3:30 (this becoming a too frequent occurrence that left unchecked can leave me feeling brittle) I look out the window and notice in the night before dawn a luminescence from dew frosting every living and non living surface. Humidity has been over 90% these days, unusual for what we here on the prairies brag is a dry cold, supposedly feeling less cold. I turn up the thermostat, fill the kettle and let it boil while I take my seat in the dark living room to try to silence “the small roar of a mind trying to clear itself.” None too successfully at first. But the non-effort effort eventually shifts something inside, so that when I rub my eyes open and gaze again outside, unnamed anxiety gives way to nuanced astonishment.
Once again, it’s apparent to me that the stuff of my wabi sabi life is swirling inside, needing its time to sort and settle. After my new year’s post wherein I realized – the result of another episode of early morning insomnia – that I simply didn’t know much about how I stood on this threshold, I didn’t post my Monday blog last week, and am not inclined to push myself to produce one for this Monday, or beyond. For the time being, it’s my own inner “imaginary conversation” to which I will pay my attention, not yet to be mined for here.
I rest easier knowing I’m not one to procrastinate, but rather am becoming more familiar, in an embodied way, with living in the messy inchoate middle. That place I have named “before, beneath and beyond words.” That place where I become a conscious partner engaged with Life living itself.
(If I could strike over this blog’s original title, Opening to the Bittersweet, as I have in a paragraph below, I would. Instead I’ve simply re-titled it.)
“This world is radiant with beauty. This world is also capable of bone-chilling brutality and the small, corrosive daily cruelties that salt our days with sorrow. For a sensitive person to live with the duality, to keep the light aflame without turning away from the darkness that needs illumination, may be the most difficult thing in life — and the most rewarding.”
Maria Popova, The Marginalian, Sunday, January 1, 2023
And so began the theme that echoed across several “love letters” waiting in my inbox on New Year’s Day. With an americano steaming in a cherished hand-thrown cup made by Italian potter Giulia Sbernini – one that brings joy every time I hold it and that naturally makes my espresso, or vino rosso taste better – and Annie waiting patiently for me to take my place by her on our loveseat (true in every sense), I begin scrolling and reading in the still dark dawn of this first day of this new year.
Echoed, too, in the Joy Harjo poem I shared on Friday, wherein she commands us to “help the next person find their way through /the dark,” just as we have been helped by – I offered – the ancients, ancestors and angels, all the beings seen and unseen, and those more than human.
“Finding our way through the dark.” “Living with the duality of beauty and brutality.” “Keeping death daily before your eyes.” (St. Benedict)
Back in August, when I announced my need and knowing to take a pause from writing, I concluded that post with a Facebook find which eloquently described me and how I show up in the world. Later, having borrowed from the library, read, returned, and then purchased Susan Cain’s Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole (2022), I felt quietly affirmed in that way of being. From her epigraph:
“Gregory the Great (ca.540-604) spoke of compunctio, the holy pain[,] the grief somebody feels when faced with that which is most beautiful…The bittersweet experience stems from human homelessness in an imperfect world, human consciousness of, and at the same time, a desire for perfection. This inner spiritual void becomes painfully real when faced with beauty. There, between the lost and the desired, the holy tears are formed.”
Three months later, when I resumed this blog, I wrote in a post called Starkly Beautiful Truths, after experiencing an unusual season of illness, one that has persisted into the new year, “there’s the indelible realization we have entered a new life stage. Grief with facing the endings of ways of living and being, we are staring – starkly, undeniably -at our mortality and that of those we love and cherish.”
“…we all have our vulnerable seasons, and our contemplative practice is not a shield against struggle. It can certainly help in coping and enduring and discovering the grace at the heart of it all, but it will never exempt us from our humanity…
…The Underworld journey – sometimes called the Dark Night of the soul – comes for each of us and is ultimately in service of stripping away our old attachments and coming to greater clarity about what is ours to do in this world and how we are to be.”
Christine Valters Paintner, Abbey of the Arts Love Letter, Sunday, January 1, 2023
Of course, this echoing back and forth, within and across me and my love letter writers, is not a coincidence. I gravitate towards and seek out those whose radical takes on living I find utterly refreshing and a much needed counterpoint to the “just think positive and be happy” binary. Holding ourselves in the mess of it all is – to my way of thinking – living, taking fierce tenderness, tender fierceness and much love. But I had to laugh when even in my horoscope, penned by Vancouver’s saucy, yet remarkably prescient Georgia Nicols, I’m told I’ll be entering a two-three year period of giving up what is holding me back, and letting go to streamline my life for new beginnings, losing for lightening.
All this by way of saying I’m becoming more skillful in hearing the echo and seeing the synchronicities. Much as I have during this recent holyday season, where more than ever I heard many more voices across all platforms disclose the grief, disappointment, pain and disillusion with the decades’ long deafening “Hallmark Christmas,” happily ever after, consumer campaign. Finally a shift to naming and living the mess of it all.
Having long abandoned goal and resolution making for a new year, instead I love the process of discerning a shimmering word or phrase to serve as my north star for the year. Thanks to a break in the weather, walking in nature these past two days, reading, and writing this post have helped me arrive at “opening to the bittersweet.” Yes, like appreciating my wabi sabi life, the key here is in the opening to…and trusting in.
It’s now nearly 5 am, two hours before this post is scheduled to drop into your inboxes and onto my social media platforms. Awake at 4, I nestled under the covers musing on a dream and knowing I simply have no idea about my shimmering word, phrase, or much of anything about this new year. I kept coming back to something I read by Toko-pa Turner in her Solstice letter, Return to the Way:
“While it may feel like a lack of progress, return is always developmental. When we have grown too distant from our true nature, we have to stop, retrace our steps, and reconnect with the essence of who we are. The ancient Confucion philosopher Zhou Dunyi described this kind of progress as a “slow return to original sincerity.” Like drawing down into the stem of one’s character, return pulls us into our origins…
…If Solstice were a question, it might ask, ‘“’From what have I strayed too far?’”’ In the haste of activity and progress, what essential values have I left behind? What did an earlier version of me know better than I? As we transition from the active, outward life to an inner opening, we may discover a disconnect between our aims in the world and the way our soul longs to sing.”
There is something about returning – re-turning – in this way that speaks deeply to me. The question, while uncomfortable, begs of my time, and Winter’s invitation of to nestle into its darkness to discover. Perhaps it is the opening to the bittersweet. The giving in, once again, to what Life is asking of me. Trusting as I am, right in this moment, in its mystery. Admitting to myself, once again, and again, I simply don’t know. Yet. Or ever.
The paradox of this practice of living, especially as the stakes grow steeper as I grow older.
“May you be guided and held and may you come to know the great Friend who is alive inside you, longing to walk with you into the inner chambers of the Heart. Not only the heart that is open and filled with joy, but also the one that is tender and shattered with grief. For it is inside the shattered pieces a new world is born.”
Matt Licata, New Year’s Greetings, Sunday, January 1, 2023
Always, with much love and kindest regards, dear friends.