Summer

Hermitage Pond, Edmonton, Alberta

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

– Mary Oliver –

My Guest House

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi –
    translation by Coleman Barks

A Remarkable Resonance

Sorrow, it is not true that I know you;
you are the nostalgia for a good life,
and the aloneness of the soul in shadow,
the sailing ship without wreck and without guide.

Like an abandoned dog who cannot find
a smell or a track and roams
along the roads, with no road, like
the child who in a night of the fair

gets lost among the crowd,
and the air is dusty, and the candles
fluttering — astounded, his heart
weighed down by music and by pain;

that’s how I am, drunk, sad by nature,
a mad and lunar guitarist, a poet,
and an ordinary (wo)man lost in dreams,
searching constantly for God among the mists.

– Antonio Machado –

Words That Might Matter

I have none.

For the past few weeks I’ve struggled to find any words that might matter both inside and out there. A few weeks back, the words of others helped me find my way through to some of mine. But right now I need to admit, as I did in reply to a friend’s ever thoughtful and beautiful blog post, that I am feeling emptied of words that might matter.

Quite paradoxical, that with the bigness, muchness, fullness of everything in the world right now, for this past quarter year living in this Covid-19 pandemic, now doubled-down with as insidious and deadly a pandemic, racism, I am empty.

I read, I watch, I listen to people whose voices I need to hear and need to learn from. And in response, I have lost mine.

Perhaps it’s a matter of laying fallow, much as I have felt myself to be these past weeks, when I suddenly realized that for the first time in my five decades’ long working life, I am now without and see no “what next.” Again, the paradox that with the full blush and burst of spring, and now summer’s arrival, at least by the calendar’s indication, I feel myself more to be in the late fall, early winter. One of life’s many liminal spaces and places.

Or perhaps it’s like this. An excerpt from John O’Donohue’s blessing for a father, sent in reply to a long lost friend, and to my own father for today, Father’s Day.

“There are many thing
We could have said,
But words never wanted
To name them;
And perhaps a world
That is quietly sensed
Across the air
In another’s heart
Becomes the inner companion
To one’s own unknown.”

John O’Donohue, To Bless The Space Between Us, 2008

Wave After Wave

I heard it said last week that it’s never going back to the way it was. While said in the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings in our cities, communities, and consciousness, I think it could also be said of the other deadly pandemic, COVID-19. For both, in our news and conversations, on social media platforms and our minds, words and images of updates and opinions, reactions and responses feel like waves breaking on the shoreline. Constant, rhythmic, one after the other.  No sooner does one recede when another rolls in. Sometimes soothing me with optimism and hope. Sometimes pounding with a storm’s fury and rage.

“Your fidelity to love, that is all you need.
No day will then match your strength.

What was once a fear or problem will see
you coming, and step aside…or run.”

Daniel Ladinsky, A Year With Hafiz, 2011

At this moment, I’m on a live stream service from a church in my community. Centered on Pride Month, I watch the video story of how in 1999 it made the commitment to become an openly affirming congregation. Since the video’s production in 2006, I hear that while so much has changed, so much remains the same. Underscored is that protest is often the catalyst for change. That our ongoing attention, care and action is always needed. That the journey for justice never ends.

And so, we keep on.

One breath after another.

One foot after another.

One wave after another.

My Necessary Counterpoint

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

– Rumi –
translated by Coleman Barks in The Essential Rumi, 1995

Tender Mercy

I’m at a loss for words.

There is nothing I can write today that isn’t already being penned by those more astute, more qualified and more proximate to the rioting south of me in the United States, this time catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. To say the collective outrage is palpable would be a gross understatement. As I write, headlines appear on my screen reporting increased aggression and violence from police towards protesters. And all the while, the nation’s “leader” resorting to his m.o. – ironically one he tried to shut down this week – tweets with the effect of throwing gasoline on fire.  To say these already volatile scenarios in American cities are being intentionally and strategically inflamed by bands of out-of-state Neo Nazis and white supremacists, taking their lead from the one in charge, might be speculation bordering on truth.

So I borrow from the words of others to help me find my own.

And a perspective I heard yesterday in a zoom conversation.

“We need to connect the demand for justice –
which is an outpouring of love –
with tenderness.”

Omid Safi
Islamic scholar and teacher of The Heart of Rumi, May 30, 2020

Over the years at summer folk festivals across my province, I’ve heard American songwriter Mary Gauthier sing one of her most memorable songs, Mercy Now. Released in 2005, its relevancy persists as a poignant anthem for these times. Reading the lyrics over at her website for an excerpt here, I realized, with a heavy heart, that every word is as pertinent today as then. Maybe because her gift is to write with a sparse honesty about our human condition.

“…My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom
He’s shackled to his fears and doubts
The pain that he lives in is
Almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, and he could use some mercy now

…Yea, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now…”

Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now, 2005

I’ve completed the seventh week in The Soul of a Pilgrim with its practice of “embracing the unknown.” This, too, a reality of the human condition, despite our best efforts and delusions to think we know one moment beyond this one.  An early morning practicing the art of contemplative photography, framed by this theme, bore these ephemeral gifts of tender mercy in image and word.

Please, can I have a God who
within me
beyond me
enboldens, encourages, enthuses
me and we

to be better
to do better


for self and kin of
every tribe and colour
every love and gender


so that me and we
may always love, live and breathe


free.

(inspired by “Please, Can I Have a God,” by Christine Valters Paintner, in The Soul of a Pilgrim, 2015)

Too Much, Too Fast, Too Soon

Photo from Dr. Eileen Villa, Twitter, May 23, 2020, Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park

In a Dark Time

Do not rush to make meaning.
When you smile and say what purpose
this all serves, you deny grief
a room inside you,
you turn from thousands who cross
into the Great Night alone,
from mourners aching to press
one last time against the warm
flesh of their beloved,
from the wailing that echoes
in the empty room.

When you proclaim who caused this,
I say pause, rest in the dark silence
first before you contort your words
to fill the hollowed out cave,
remember the soil will one day
receive you back too.
Sit where sense has vanished,
control has slipped away,
with futures unravelled,
where every drink tastes bitter
despite our thirst.

When you wish to give a name
to that which haunts us,
you refuse to sit
with the woman who walks
the hospital hallway, hears
the beeping stop again and again,
with the man perched on a bridge
over the rushing river.
Do not let your handful of light
sting the eyes of those
who have bathed in darkness.

– Christine Valters Paintner –
2020

Way Closed, Way Open

The Quakers have a saying “the way will open.” I first encountered it when reading Let Your Life Speak (too, a Quaker quote) by a favourite writer, Parker J. Palmer. I first “met” Parker when I read his book The Courage to Teach, for me, the quintessential description of teaching. Meaningful because it focused on the inner life of a teacher, being premised on the idea that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (10)

“Way will open.” Parker described a time in his life when he struggled with “what next” in his career. Perplexed and frustrated, he believed in the notion of career as vocation, that to live a meaningful life, he needed work which aligned with an inner calling, where, as Frederick Buechner says, “your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Taking his growing angst to his friends in the Quaker community, Parker learned that while many see the “way open,” others are guided by “way closed,” all the ways that do not and cannot happen in one’s life.

During these “49 million days” of self-distancing (thanks, Glennon Doyle), I watch this dynamic play out in the pandemic: “way closed” in family, community, city, country, global lock downs – with the obvious and yet to be understood impacts, costs, deaths, endings, gifts and blessings – and “way opening” as we, at every scale around the world, cautiously, more or less, engage in re-opening strategies. Right now, most apparent, the relief and happiness to be let out of our rooms and back in to life as we’ve known it, wearing masks – or not, keeping our safe two meter distance – or not, planning our next vacations – or not, get back to work – or not. Still so many “nots.”

Come, even if you have broken
your vow a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.”

Rumi

The past week’s focus in The Soul of a Pilgrim is “beginning again,” the sixth of eight practices. A curious synchronicity that the arbitrary start date for this program would now coincide with these local and global re-opening plans. This practice of beginning again understands that one’s commitment waxes and wanes. Within the context of this pandemic, we might hear the call to embark on pilgrimage (practice #1, hearing the call and responding), using this time for inner house cleaning, soul work. We might make the choice to heed, not knowing the destination nor even what the journey entails, or simply find ourselves on the path as a matter of circumstance, not by choice. And then, we wonder how the hell we got here and how the hell do we get off (practice #6 beginning again).

We do our best with what we have, perhaps even discarding what no longer serves (practice # 2, packing lightly). We might try to find or make meaning of these odd, “fft” (f’ing first times, thanks Brene Brown) experiences (practice #3, crossing the threshold; practice #4, making the way by walking). We’re numb with disbelief that something invisible to the human eye has the capacity, without exception or distinction, to render millions sick and many thousands dead. It continues to perplex the most skilled and wisest among us, keeping steps ahead, leaving us weary with vigilance, wanting simply for it to be gone, or us immune, so we can get back to living our lives, praying somehow we’ll escape a second, even third wave. (practice #5, being uncomfortable).

This week I had a temper tantrum. Getting ready for an appointment with my chiropractor, I was running late. (How that can be, when I have nothing that pressing going on in my life, only pages and pages of empty space in my daytimer, is beyond me!) Appreciating their rigorous safety protocols, thought I’d do my part by wearing my mask. Couldn’t get the damned thing to stay up on the back of my head, with my glasses, them now steamed up as much as I. Realized wearing earrings was a stupid choice, getting stuck in the elastic. Gave up lipstick weeks ago as it only smeared. Took more time than dressing for 40 below. And when it was all done, so was I. Quite ready to bust out, go to Costco, among the imagined throngs of people, no mask, no gloves, wandering the aisles, taking my time, mindlessly looking at stuff, tasting stuff. The more time the better. No bleeping arrows telling me which aisle to go up and down, no red tape marking off my space. No one asking me the same stupid screening questions I’d just answered at the last place. I’d f#*!&ing had it with Covid-19. I’d already broken the rule last week when I hugged a friend (first time other than my husband in four months) and walked with her, hardly keeping our safe distance. And my husband stopped by his local version of “Cheers” to enjoy a pint with the only four folks there, all safely distanced. Our first big blow-up during these 49 million days as we’d not talked about the implications for each other, and ourselves in doing so.

No sense to be made. No meaning to come. Yes, reconciliation. But way had definitely closed.

Too, I realized I’m feeling out of step with the “way open” of a new season. After two days of much needed rain, spring is full out blooming, blossoming, greening and growing. A riot of colour decks doorsteps and gardens. Birds amorously announce dawn’s four o’clock arrival.

But I’m feeling fallow.  The threshold space between way closed, way open. I know this might sound whiney. I know this is a wee fingernail experience. And I know, it’s all true. That perhaps, you, too, dear reader, have had your own meltdown(s).

So how to practice beginning again, to see “way open?”
How to begin again making my life my prayer?

“Open your eyes and see there
are no more words…
but only the shimmering presence of your
own attention to life.

Only one great miracle unfolding and
only one sacred word which is 
yes.”

Christine Valters Paintner, “How to Feel the Sap Rising, “
excerpt, in The Soul of a Pilgrim, 2015

I wake early.
The old cuckoo calls three. By four I rise quietly.
Tie my robe close, softly pad downstairs, put on the kettle for tea.
After an hour scanning the morning paper, emails, social media,
I notice the light changing, the day breaking.
Step into my sitting space and see shimmering
our last old mayday tree draped with white lacy blossoms, 
tall stalks of purple pink bergenia bells,
this sudden lush and verdant backyard life after two days’ soaking rain.

Yes, to this attention to life.
Yes, to this miracle unfolding.

But truthfully, in the stillness of this early morning,
my inner yes to the all of life right now is
reluctant, doubting, hesitant, scared.

And while my habit would be to
push, fix, deny, admonish,
the best I can do is to
open my arms,
receive and say welcome.

Yes, you are home.

Lost

Last week’s spoken weariness persists. Now with another soupçon of sadness. I think of Rumi and his guest house, welcoming all these sensations and feelings as guides from beyond. I continue to practice the art of sitting in the void of uncertainty, in the tension of it all, of it all being true.

Too, I continue my participation in The Soul of a Pilgrim. It’s become a way to chronicle my reactions and response to the pandemic within the context of these eight practices. Last week, the fifth, the practice of being uncomfortable, particularly with being lost.

In the week’s online conversation, and in anticipation of how I’d create a scenario walking in my neighborhood where I’d feel lost, get lost, be lost, I posted this favourite poem, Lost, as a guide for me and others.

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

David Wagoner, 1999

The evening I set out, was initially along the familiar route, with our Annie dog leading the way. With each step, I recalled those times I’ve been lost, or more significantly, worked to not get lost. With each step, I felt the discomfort of my body tightening, butterflies in my gut, my head straining to figure it out, find my way.

Travelling solo in Europe in my fifth decade. Late to the party, I never did the university gap year, backpack, Eurail pass thing. I finally made that long held dream come true, thanks to a deferred salary leave which allowed me to travel for three months. I remembered arriving in Venice at the beginning of Carnavale, disembarking from the train, stepping down onto the platform to catch a water ferry, and find my way to my apartment. Almost a decade ago, the borrowed cellphone didn’t work. Wifi was sketchy at best. But constant as a northern star, the kindness of strangers helped me arrive and make a quick email connection with my husband to let him know I’d arrived safely, the one and only
during that leg of the trip.

I’d always considered myself poor with directions, but that trip, those three months, taught me otherwise. Perhaps I erred on the side of over-vigilance, but travelling alone, in low season winter and spring, when the days were short, I did what I needed to stay “found”, using my paper map, practicing walking routes to train stations to estimate time, asking for help, photographing landmarks to get me “home.” It was all about self-care, managing my anxiety, not getting too overwhelmed with the “bigness, muchness, fullness” of it all that was new, alluring, exciting, different. For me, travelling alone, getting lost would not add to the experience.

Those memories and visceral feelings walked with me and Annie as we approached the school playground. I was struck by the oddness, the “wrongness” of not seeing any children playing on the equipment, not seeing their parents watching them, on this sunny early evening. I felt lost in this pandemic scenario.

Even though Annie and I walked along different streets that evening, some, for all the years I’ve lived here, I’d never walked nor driven down before, the lost I felt was an interior one, grieving so much which is no longer, and wondering, will it ever be again.

This lost has weighed heavy these past days. Here in Canada, it’s our first long weekend of the summer. It’s been unseasonably cold across the country, with snow falling, oddly even, in more temperate locations. While it makes easier not getting together with friends for barbeques or going to the greenhouses for bedding plants, it’s not supposed to be this way. And yet it is.

Last night over dinner, I wept. Then a chance viewing one of our iconic folk-rock bands, Blue Rodeo, sing their anthem song, We Are Lost Together, with Canadians at home, I wept some more.

Of among hundreds in this global online community, one woman responded to my writing with this lovely insight:

I appreciate your reflection on the inner experience of ‘lostness’ – how brave of you to do Europe like that, ‘late to the party’ as you called it.  And the irony that for all its challenges and your self-belief about your poor sense of direction you were not once lost.  And yet something of this time and its strangeness in the midst of your familiar surroundings can induce the sense of lostness and one that ‘weighs heavy’.   I find myself identifying with you, thank you Katharine.”    

I felt seen. The lost that had weighed heavy became lighter with connection.