You start dying slowly if you do not travel, if you do not read, if you do not listen to the sounds of life, if you do not appreciate yourself.
You start dying slowly When you kill your self-esteem; When you do not let others help you. You start dying slowly If you become a slave of your habits, Walking everyday on the same paths… If you do not change your routine, If you do not wear different colors Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.
You start dying slowly If you avoid to feel passion And their turbulent emotions; Those which make your eyes glisten And your heart beat fast.
You start dying slowly If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love, If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain, If you do not go after a dream, If you do not allow yourself, At least once in your lifetime, To run away from sensible advice.
– Martha Medeiros –
This says it all. Why I took five weeks to walk everyday on different paths. To travel, and be enthralled with the sounds of life. To remember, to embody, that life is short, energy is precious, and that it is up to me to go after my dream, and appreciate myself. To feel turbulent emotions which make my eyes glisten and break my heart. To ask for help and let others help me.
Not to delude myself that I won’t die, but to live my life well. And in this way, to prepare for a good death.
When you travel, you find yourself Alone in a different way, More attentive now To the self you bring along…
John O’Donohue, Blessing for The Traveler
A decade ago, I wrote a post about the Camino. Titled “Buen Camino”(the Spanish wish, above is the Portuguese), I described gathering with my friends to view “The Way,” a beautifully shot film about a bereaved father, played by Martin Sheen, trekking the Camino de Santiago, in devotion to his son who’d fallen to his death on the trail. I recalled meeting with two American hikers in Vernazza, Italy, where walking the trail high above the Ligurian coast towards Corniglia, they regaled me with their stories of having walked the Camino and shared a piece of wisdom I’ve held close and spoken forward on countless occasions. I wrote then “I know deep in my bones I’ll make that pilgrimage one day,” and so I am.
A week from today, I’ll be airborne for Lisbon, Portugal where, with a friend, I’ll settle and sightsee for a few days there and in Porto before a week later beginning my trek along the Portuguese Coastal Camino, returning home in early June. Last fall, walking my second local Camino de Edmonton, my twenty year dream of walking – one that has waxed and waned many times over many years – became re-ignited. In a more recent blog I wrote about that experience, what I had learned about myself, and how I’d need to apply it when making my dream come true:
“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.“
In response to that post, a friend told me about Portuguese Green Walks, a company specializing in designing treks through Portugal, including an “easy” coastal Camino. I loved that I’d be “living local with love,” investing in Portugal and her people, post pandemic. After several weeks corresponding with Paola, their customer service rep, despite being in our 5th Covid wave, in need of bringing the Christmas promise of joy into my life, I metaphorically struck the earth with my warrior-walker’s staff by making the 25% deposit, thus signaling to the gods and fates my commitment and requesting their support in helping me pull this through.
A customized 20 day itinerary, in contrast to the typical 12 or 14, with an average 10-12 km per stage, accommodations booked, bags portered, breakfast served, giving me ample time to take in the vistas and villages along the way. Meeting with people, savoring the food and culture, time for writing, photography, painting…walking alone and together with my friend who is “simpatico” in this way of wanting a more immersive, esthetic experience. And while I had weighed going solo, I am happy for her companionship, particularly as it will be our first time travelling internationally since the pandemic.
A journey can become a sacred thing: Make sure, before you go, To take the time To bless your going forth, To free your heart of ballast So that the compass of your soul Might direct you toward The territories of spirit Where you will discover More of your hidden life, And the urgencies That deserve to claim you.
John O’Donohue, Blessing for The Traveler
In the spirit of “freeing my heart of ballast,” I won’t blog and hold only lightly the possibility of posting on social media. Not from a desire or need to get away from it all, but rather to enter more deeply into what this is – admittedly not really knowing what this is – wanting instead to give myself over to “the urgencies that deserve to claim me.”
May you travel in an awakened way, Gathered wisely into your inner ground; That you may not waste the invitations Which wait along the way to transform you.
John O’Donohue, Blessing for The Traveler
What I know most of all is by taking flight next week to realize my twenty year dream, I am going to walk my Camino “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. I’ll be back here sometime in June.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Mary Oliver, Devotions (2017)
“There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.” Posted by a friend mere days before Russia invaded Ukraine, I saved this gem for its reminder, and the abundance of joy described, never imagining the mind-numbing poignancy of its prescience.
My writing here has been episodic, due in part to Russia’s horrific war on Ukraine, for which I am at a loss for words. So as you may have read, I have relied on those from others (again, my plug for Mark Gonzales’ In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty – please consider buying and sharing it far and wide.)
Too, I’m quite full of my own words, preparing a manuscript of poetry for publication, riding the slipstream created at the start of the new year, when I submitted 22 pages for a chapbook contest. Both longshots. Both labors of my love. Both my ways of fighting back. Both my ways of saying,
Beauty made from love matters makes a difference during days of such madness.
“But this week, we entered yet another hard, shocking chapter in the life of the world.”
Krista Tippett, The Pause, March 5, 2022
Yes, here we are, the global community, again trying to keep our collective hearts open in the hell that is war. These weeks in Ukraine. Before that…and before that…and before that…In a recent poll close to 70% of Canadians believe we are poised for a third world war. (Global News, March 3, 2022) With the invading leader stating that all sanctions levied by the west are akin to a declaration of war (Reuters, March 5, 2022), anxieties, already exacting their cost during the pandemic, continue to manifest in myriad ways within and among us.
“Trauma isn’t limited to the mind or body of a singular person. It has the ability to have a cumulative impact on an entire people…When an entire society is desecrated, demonized, invaded or imprisoned, it reshapes the cultural gene pool of that entire generation. What is trauma then, but a collective and cumulative phenomenon.”
Mark Gonzales, In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty, 2014
Last week I wrote in my regular Friday photo and poem feature that I had been reminded by a friend with whom I had shared Mark Gonzales’ In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty. Selecting a piece for that post, I scanned other of his entries in preparation for my virtual women’s circle, wanting to offer into the centre a “start point” inviting us to each speak to the impact of the current world events:
“In this moment, an echo is occurring across the globe. It is the human spirit craving to be reminded one does not need permission to grow.
In this moment an echo is occurring across our hearts. It is the realization that love has its own logic.
Live. Love. Grow. Even if one cannot make life more beautiful, at least make it more bearable. This should be considered the base for being human.
May the passion continue. May the circle expand.”
Mark Gonzales, In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty, 2014
We felt deep resonance and relevance with Mark’s words as each of us took our turn speaking, passing our virtual talking pieces through several rounds of conversation. Our time together marked easefully with several substantial pauses for silence. One by one, we shared evoked images and memories, silent tears and fears, wisdom borne of dreams, intuition and lived experience. By the end of our two hours together, soothed and more settled. Life made more bearable.
In my imagination, I see copies of Mark’s book, translated so all can read, dropped from the skies into the hands of every person on earth, much like the millions of propaganda leaflets dropped from planes during World War II. Instead I’ll end with more of his good words, medicine to heal our aching souls and make life more bearable:
“What better way is there to shift a paradign than by speaking in ways that encourage dreams, laughter and imagination. For those acts of creativity are not luxury, short sighted or simplistic, they are essential.”
“In this collective environment, an isolated story transforms into a personalized submission into an anthology of shared experiences and unique memories. With each new telling, we cocoon to butterfly that sees each breath we have left in this life as an exercise in evolving our own narrative.”
“This is way for you who battle with self-doubt and hyper criticism, I remind you we are a generation experimenting with healing in public. Be fierce. Be forgiving. Hardcore is a façade and a trend.”
“Educate the human heart. Elevate the human mind. Grow the human soul. This will be our generation’s idea of a multi-taking model of learning.”
“One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light.”
James Baldwin, Nothing Personal (1964) cited in The Marginalian, February 6, 2022
For much of January, my internal weather has fluctuated as rapidly as the external. Feeling flux and flummoxed, with waves of inexplicable sadness, and flashes of rage, these are times when deep in the belly, I don’t have words to write, hence a couple of missed Monday posts. Time this week in my virtual women’s circle, listening and giving voice to my inner meanderings, together with the words of others arriving in the last twenty four hours, have helped prime mine.
With last month’s passing of several luminaries – Archbishop Tutu, Thich Nhat Hahn, and even Betty White in her radiant, joy filled centurion way – I felt humanity had once again lost powerful visionaries who served to hold its centre. In response, I felt a deep wobbling, compounded here in my country by the ever-growing anger at our nearly two-year public health covid sanctions. Truck convoys, now being copied around the world, are barricading highways, border crossings, and downtown cores. As in many instances of late, here and elsewhere, what starts out as a demonstration of dissent becomes hijacked by far left and right agendas intent on spewing violence and hatred.
Paradoxically, within the relative quiet simplicity of my life – an ever-present gift of the pandemic – sometimes it’s challenging to block out the overwhelm from all of it. Not just anxious, frankly I’ve felt frightened with what’s continuing to unravel, exposing humanity’s underbelly. Perhaps more so because of the prolonged weariness with navigating the pandemic’s continued uncertainties, while revealing more of its impacts. Speaking virtually today to a dear friend a few streets away, I wondered how much at its root these are all the many manifestations of grief.
“The individual has to wake up to the fact that violence cannot end violence; that only understanding and compassion can neutralize violence, because with the practice of loving speech and compassionate listening we can begin to understand people and help people to remove the wrong perceptions in them, because these wrong perceptions are at the foundation of their anger, their fear, their violence, their hate.”
A hypothesis, not an excuse. A way to reframe, reconsider, and re-create space in my perceptions of myself and others. The means to a more tender response to myself and others.
FOR WARMTH by Thich Nhat Hanh
I hold my face between my hands. No, I am not crying. I hold my face between my hands to keep my loneliness warm — two hands protecting, two hands nourishing, two hands to prevent my soul from leaving me in anger.
Yesterday a chance scrolling through social media and I arrived at a lengthy post from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves. Reading, I remembered that like those luminaries who have since passed, “dr. e” continues to hold the centre. Excerpted from her post:
…feeling tired of the whirl and sway of the needful world, which has ever been with us, perhaps far away or up close, nonetheless, the remedio is often to withdraw from the energy of outrage and ‘latest horrible thing ‘they’ are doing now’ and instead rest with the peace Beings, which are Beauty, the natural world of plants and animals , trees and sky and clear water and air… and Love, unhindered Love.
…Walking with those who are just and who work for thus, are billions in our world. Billions…Rather, they work daily as good, in good, for good. I know so so many. They are right there before you also.
…That our children and our fur children are treasures is exactly right.
…We are born gifted and every day, can create even in small ways, from what we truly are. Indeed, one massive creative act is to be kind to oneself…
…Strive to be sure every word from you, every art from you, every step is steeped and considered deeply through the lenses of Love, Mercy and Vision…
Creating even in small ways: Working on my poetry collection. An extended call with Karen to finalize the twelve submissions for the spring issue of SAGE-ING. Walking Annie in the sunshine. Hearing a favourite poet recite her work while being in conversation with another. Catching up on podcasts while doing my needlework project. Connecting with friends. Sitting in circle.
Tender balms bringing me back to myself. Reminding me the light is always there, somewhere, waiting to be found.
“The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love — whether we call it friendship or family or romance — is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. Life-saving work in those moments when life and shame and sorrow occlude our own light from our view, but there is still a clear-eyed loving person to beam it back. In our best moments, we are that person for another.”
Maria Popova, The Marginalian, February 6, 2022
May your opportunities to mirror and magnify such light for others be many. Your opportunities to receive the same, tenfold.
First set the warp, the plain, stable threads that hold the pattern in place – the infrastructure of joy, the girders that hold up all we build of meaning, or justice, or peace. Use strong threads left by those who have gone before. Only then pick up the weft, the colored thread that you will use to weave accordingly to your plan. Choose carefully – this is what the world will see, each tiny act that builds the bright pattern of your life. Yes, the threads will tangle or knot or fray, and the flaws will show. Oh well. Tuck in the ends as best you can and start again. This is not the time to stop your weaving. So much is pulling at the great design.
WARP and WEFT An engaged community inspired by the virtues of beauty, hope and simplicity. Texture foretells of mystery and transformation. Beauty, the loom for creativity. Inspiration, the weft. We, the warp. Beginning.
“Women are spinners and weavers; we are the ones who spin the threads and weave them into meaning and pattern. Like silkworms, we create those threads out of our own substance, pulling the strong fine fibres, out of our own hearts and wombs.”
Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted, 2016
Gently teasing threads to weave together this week’s post, most vivid are my impressions from the deeply soulful virtual spaces in which I’ve been sitting this month. To name a few:
The monthly Poets Corner Sunday gathering featured Ellen Goldsmith and Lynne Ellis reading several of their poems for healing;
A brief exploration of the wisdom of Mary and the sacred feminine presented by a favourite teacher-writer, Christine Valters Paintner, over at the Wild Luminaries series from Seminary of the Wild.
Spinning together these threads, the pattern emerging is my noticing how, in each gathering, women figured predominantly as sources of inspiration and wisdom – either in founding and-or hosting the groups and conversations, or in presenting, writing, teaching, sharing. Noticing how they, their process, and their offerings to the world, reflect and embody qualities of the sacred feminine as described by Christine Valters Paintner:
attending to synchronicity
listening deeply to the natural world
trusting the wisdom of underworld of shadow
honouring vulnerability as strength
embracing slowness and spaciousness
valuing being over doing
Struck by the conversation between Sue Monk Kidd and Terry Helwig – long-time friends and supports to each other’s writing – each described how shedding what no longer matters, simplicity, and literally driving in the slow lane to avoid the felt obligation of rush, make it easier to see, hear and embrace what matters now. How women make each other braver to follow their intuition, honour their vulnerability, do their inner shadow work.
“I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
‘I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.’
Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think.”
In her words written and spoken, Robin Wall Kimmerer poetically teaches students and her readers how to listen deeply to the natural world, to appreciate indigenous world views and the truth in “all my relations.” Echoed in our book salon conversation, rich in individual perspectives, impressions, and associations, I came away with deepened regard and much deeper regret for all that had been taken away and lost through the colonization and residential schooling of our First Peoples.
“It’s time to make some new threads; time to strengthen the frayed wild edges of our own being, and then weave ourselves back into the fabric of our culture. Once we knew the patterns for weaving the world; we can piece them together again.”
Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted, 2016
On Saturday I woke to an email announcing that my ekphrastic poem written in response to a track from an electronic music album had been accepted for its anthology. For payment! With a contract coming! The feedback and edits from my writer-in-residence were terrific, just what I need to help this self-taught poet-in-process develop, and realize my innovative contribution to the leadership anthology: “poetic” process observation-recordings of our meetings, and synthesizing chapters into poetic “pauses” to introduce or close chapter sections.
Right about now, two years ago, we were getting ready to leave for a winter sojourn in southern Spain. A couple of weeks, mid to late February, travelling by bus and train through Andalusia – Sevilla, Aracena, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga and then back to Sevilla. And then upon our return home, the world would change. Today, nearly two years later, unprecedented impacts from the pandemic continue to roll out like an endless line of falling dominoes.
In response to a friend’s blog last week, I wrote “this seems to be the time and the place where the art, the poem, the story, the prayer, the silence, the conversation, the thank you, the kiss, the embrace may comfort, soothe, sustain and help us find our way.”
“Women can heal the Wasteland. We can remake the world. This is what women do. This is our work.”
It’s Sunday evening, the time I usually sit down in my office to tap out Monday’s post, stringing together impressions from the last week, often inspired by something I’ve read or heard. Classical choral music, hosted by one of the stellar announcers on my radio station, CKUA, and the purr of the space heater create an aural ambiance, and some needed warmth.
I’d thought I’d write my more-or-less annual “word for the year” post, wherein I sing the praises of having been introduced to the notion by a dear friend several years ago, then more recently shored up by a twelve-day discernment process hosted by Abbey of the Arts. Last year, in hindsight, I wrote about the prescience of having had HOME “arrive” as my 2020 word, given the onset of COVID which had all of us everywhere staying put for months on end. And that I’d arrived at NATURE as being most apt for 2021, given how much solace and settling I had found being in nature during these past nearly two years of Covid’s continued destabilization. This year FAITH came, inspired by reading something in my friend Shawna Lemay’s recently published wondrous novel, EVERYTHING AFFECTS EVERYONE. Already primed for signs and shimmers, I was alert when one of her characters, quoting Alan Watts, said:
“We must make here a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.”
I’m not sure why or how, but reading those words on that brilliantly sunny but brutally cold morning between Christmas and New Year’s Day, while Annie napped beside me on “her” loveseat, grokked my word for 2022. I let go of sense making, meaning making, and trusted the thud of certainty that landed inside, having faith that FAITH it was, and FAITH it would be for 2022.
I have just finished preparing an early dinner for us – veal marsala, pasta with a mixed wild mushroom cream sauce, sautéed carrots, perfectly matched with the Amarone gifted from friends for Christmas – the ingredients purchased and menu heavily influenced by pranzo yesterday at the Italian Centre, where we again enjoyed our vino rosso with porchetta panino only served Saturdays. While sitting in the café sipping and chewing, watching a steady stream of folks order their espressos e dolces, I talked about what I most missed about this, hard to believe nearly two years’ living a covid-curtailed life: travelling abroad. That while I occasionally miss being out and about town with friends, I most deeply yearn for the new impressions that travelling brings me.
“A great traveler…is a kind of introspective; as she covers the ground outwardly, so she advances fresh interpretations of herself inwardly.”
Lawrence Durell describing Freya Stark in Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
I know I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping fresh those self interpretations here at home – walking with Annie, or during the Saturday Camino walks in the river valley, noticing the ever changing, ever constant beauty around me, and making photos and poetry from what shimmers; chronicling those impressions in my now second photo-journal of Covid life – my pre-determined final volume because at the rate we’re going, this could be another never ending story! Immersing in contemplative online learning programs and engaging in online poetry readings that inspire creative expression. Reading. My recent experiments in needle and hand work. Cooking. My biweekly circle gathering. Yes, through it all, even with grieving the loss of my professional life, and now nurturing a new one, as I reflect, I have navigated this time well. Still, I miss travelling.
And so I reminisced with him about the first time I ate a porchetta panino, at the little café in the piazzetta around the block from L’Accademia in Florence, as I waited my turn to see Michelangelo’s David. And then in Siena when we toured Tuscany and Rome together. Weaving up and down the cobblestoned streets, we suddenly found ourselves in front of the shop with the tell-tale pig sign and proscuitto legs, and scent of garlic and rosemary beckoning us in. Taking one to go, with a slice of panforte, it became a signature Sienese dinner that night in our room at the villa.
Waxing on, I told him that while there are vistas yet unseen I wished to experience – hopefully some with him, a less enthusiastic traveler – maybe due to my European roots and inexplicable fascination with Moorish design and culture, returning to countries I’ve already visited – Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Morocco – held the most allure, to deepen those already etched impressions.
“the need for sacred beauty…we can only discover the real thing though deep observation, by the slow accretion of details”
Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
Earlier this week my friend from Germany called, she with whom I lived the three months I travelled solo in Europe in 2011. “Come and stay with me for a few months,” she, recently retired and finding her footing, implored. If only it were that easy. And maybe it is, or soon will be, albeit with safeguards and precautions.
Perhaps that’s where faith comes in. Rings its bell quietly to remind me that one day, I’ll return to and visit anew, those places of my heart’s desire, to delve deeper into myself, by way of the world.
“Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.”
Richard R. Niebuhr in Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
“In recent seasons of being, I have had occasion to reflect on the utterly improbable trajectory of my life, plotted not by planning but by living.
We long to be given the next step and the route to the horizon, allaying our anxiety with the illusion of a destination somewhere beyond the vista of our present life…
And so the best we can do is walk step by next intuitively right step until one day, pausing to catch our breath, we turn around and gasp at a path. If we have been lucky enough, if we have been willing enough to face the uncertainty, it is our own singular path, unplotted by our anxious younger selves, untrodden by anyone else.“
Maria Popova, The Marginalian, December 12, 2021
And so it goes. Learning to live my life by living, not by planning. Finding myself a couple of weeks ago, perhaps just as Maria Popova penned those words, at a crossroads in the trajectory of my life.
For years, November would find me going through calendar and files to track and complete my annual continuing competency record, a requirement for renewing my professional social work registration. Last year with the collapse of my consulting practice due to covid and budget cuts, I maintained my license under the “retired” category for a significantly lower fee, not quite ready to jump ship. This year that category was no longer available due to changes in provincial legislation. My only option would be to renew at the considerable annual fee or cancel my registration.
When I pay attention, it’s easier to discern that life has a way of pointing out the way. I’d been saying for the past year or so that I wanted to pursue writing as my next life chapter. I certainly didn’t need to be a social worker to do that. And so I said “NO” to the renewal, the finality of that chosen step arriving in my inbox the next day. A formal letter telling me that I had lost all the rights and privileges of a Social Worker, that I could no longer call myself Social Worker as it is a title protected by legislation, nor could I practice within the scope of social work practice in the province. Door slammed shut. That road closed.
Ironic that the following day, I had been invited to host a circle conversation for teachers dealing with the stress of working within the ever-shifting context of covid. As an established circle practitioner I didn’t need to be a social worker to do that.
But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing.
Carl Jung, Selected Letters of C.G. Jung, 1909–1961in The Marginalian, December 12, 2021
I found myself in a similar but more complicated quandary a few years ago when deciding whether to “relinquish” my American citizenship. Consulting with tax accountants and immigration lawyers, I had to weigh a potentially hefty consequence of shutting that door – being forbidden entry into the USA. I procrastinated for several years, retainer and accounting fees mounting. Finally, in conversation with a friend, decision and direction became apparent as I heard myself say I needed to “winnow to essence.”
These words have become a mantra for the gradual process of letting go of a lot of my life’s trappings, and committing to exchange things for experiences… Winnowing to essence. Quite a bit of not a lot. Mirroring for each other an innate way of being, born of aging.
A way of being which is now even more important for the writer I am becoming. Who I am, what with a couple of honorable mentions for poems submitted to contests, being one of fourteen from a hundred invited to read another, and another published online this past weekend. Too, the enjoyable co-editing collaboration resulting in this month’s online publication of Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging, featuring submissions from several of my friends. Simplicity and solitude that have been paradoxical gifts from the pandemic. And yes, knowing loneliness as part of this creative process.
In this blur of being by ourselves, we learn to be ourselves. One measure of maturity might be how well we grow to transmute that elemental loneliness into the “fruitful monotony” Bertrand Russell placed at the heart of our flourishing, the “fertile solitude” Adam Phillips recognized as the pulse-beat of our creative power…
Rilke, contemplating the lonely patience of creative work that every artist knows in their marrow, captured this in his lamentation that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” — Rilke, who all his life celebrated solitude as the groundwater of love and creativity, and who so ardently believed that to devote yourself to art, you must not “let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge.”
Maria Popova, The Marginalian, December 19, 2021
A few weeks ago I reposted my piece on re-Wintering with its invitation to withdraw from the world to allow transformation within the gift of this season’s crucible. It’s a time when the poet doesn’t invent, rather she listens. As I write tonight, soon it will be Winter Solstice, in less than a week Christmas, and then the end of another year, the beginning of a new one. Here in the northern hemisphere, this holy season of darkness nudges me ever deeper towards the slow and simple. With a calendar free of social engagements, I walk Annie, cook, tend to our home and some emails.
In my meandering way I suddenly recalled, when referring above to Rilke, words from Joanna Macy, having listened to her last week in conversation with her writing companion Anita Barrows, and Krista Tippett, discussing their translation of Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet:
Well, it seems clear that we who are alive now are here for something and witnessing something for our planet that has not happened at any time before. And so we who are alive now and who are called to — who feel called, those of us who feel called to love our world — to love our world has been at the core of every faith tradition, to be grateful for it, to teach ourselves how to see beauty, how to treasure it, how to celebrate, how — if it must disappear, if there’s dying — how to be grateful.
Joanna Macy, On Being with Krista Tippett, June 24, 2021
As the coming days grow darker, I wish for you time to slow down to see, treasure and celebrate beauty. May you open to the gifts of wintering. May you know gratitude in your life. May you love our world.
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 an investing 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.”
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 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 ofthe 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 creatingas we have been created.We are taught to respect the slow, attentive piecing togetherof the life we yearn for.”
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…”
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.