“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.
“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.
(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.
Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.
Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.
Open the door, then close it behind you.
Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.
Give it back with gratitude.
If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back.
Acknowledge this earth who has cared for you since you were a dream planting itself precisely within your parents’ desire.
Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time, who will be there after time. They sit before the fire that has been there without time.
Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters.
Be respectful of the small insects, birds and animal people who accompany you. Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought down upon them.
Don’t worry. The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and those who will despise you because they despise themselves.
The journey might take you a few hours, a day, a year, a few years, a hundred, a thousand or even more.
Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.
Do not hold regrets.
When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.
You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.
Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.
Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.
Ask for forgiveness.
Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.
Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgment, and human abuse.
You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return.
Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.
Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.
Your spirit will need to sleep awhile after it is bathed and given clean clothes.
Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.
Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.
Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.
– Joy Harjo –
For the new year… May yours be filled with promise, good health, and joy with family and friends. May you find your way through the dark, and help another to do the same. Call upon and trust the ancients, ancestors and angels…those beings seen and unseen…and those more than human.
Even this late it happens: the coming of love, the coming of light. You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves, stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows, sending up warm bouquets of air. Even this late the bones of the body shine and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
– Mark Strand –
This poem’s beautiful simplicity touched me as an elegant “gift” for these Holydays of darkness and coming light.
Dear friends – near and far, known on the page or felt in the winds – thank you for companioning me as I write what it’s in my heart and on my mind, and share my photography and some fine poetry – all the bits of a wabi sabi life.
May the season’s days and nights bring you time to pause and notice and savor what brings you joy. May you rest in the knowing you are loved. May you have more of each – joy and love –as the light comes again andthe new year beckons.
In the dark depths of long winter nights, spirits slumber, too, and allow their stories to be told – these are the storytelling moons. Elders and storytellers who have been given tales to carry speak softly, reverentially, and the people hear them. The people do not merely listen – they hear. To hear is to have a spiritual, mental, emotional or physical reaction to the words. Sometimes, at very special times, you have all four reactions and are changed forever. Share stories, fill cold nights with the warmth of your connections, your relationships; hear each other and be made more. That is the power of storytelling.
– Richard Wagamese, Embers (2016)
A couple of nights ago I sat in virtual time and space in a fundraiser for The Circle Way. On the screen I saw with joy filling my heart, several of my mates from when I sat on the governance council. There, too, were our beloved founders, Ann and Christina, together with practitioners from around the continent. The bell rang once, twice, and once again I felt deep gratitude for such a simple, yet powerful practice and its invitation: to pause, breathe, shift from social to sacred space, and settle into presence. As our “start point” – an offering to align with the evening’s agenda – the above story from Richard Wagamese was read aloud.
In less than a week, the northern hemisphere will enter into the darkness of Winter Solstice. Its long nights, like that bell, invite pause and rest; a remembering of the shift from social to sacred; and a settling into presence with ourselves and in relationship with others, including those “more than human beings.” Stories read, and shared aloud, bring the gift of being made more by the telling and the hearing.
Sometimes, what’s important will be repeated three times, explains the old woman in Wagamese’s book:
“You listen the first time. You hear the second time. And you feel the third time… When you listen, you become aware. That’s for your head. When you hear, your awaken. That’s for your heart. When you feel, it becomes a part of you. That’s for your spirit. Three times. It’s so you learn to listen with your whole being. That’s how you learn.”
Wishing you time for stories, alone and together, during these long winter nights. May you be made more by the telling and hearing.
I notice that when the angel spoke to Mary she got news that God was pleased with her, and that she would bear a son destined for greatness, but no mention was made of torture and early death and the way her heart would break completely and irrevocably. The angel told her not to be afraid, but didn’t mention the need to take the baby and run from Herod or even giving birth in a stable. If the heavenly being hinted at a future seated at the right hand of God, it never acknowledged how different that feels than having him seated at the family table for supper, and the ache of an empty chair. Maybe she knew, and said yes anyway. Maybe the big ask is to open the door to suffering, which is the door marked Love.
– Lynn Ungar – December 16, 2021
Since returning to Italy in October, truly my heart’s home, or at least one of them, I splurged on a subscription to the weekly ITALY Magazine and follow its daily posts on language, culture, food – with beautiful photos – on Facebook and IG. Yesterday reading the current issue, I was reminded that December 8 is “la Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione,” the Feast of the Immaculate Conception when the Angel visited Mary, the day in many parts of Italy where trees are festooned with lights marking the beginning of the Christmas season. So this poem from Lynn Ungar, stored in the dark of my virtual file since last year, fit the bill for today’s post.
Earlier this week, I read an essay by Perdita Finn, wherein she gave an alternate interpretation to the feast day: that of Mary being immaculate, born without sin, free from karma. That she symbolizes the universe’s womb, the dark matter out of which all life emerges on earth. “This is why so many of the old Madonnas were depicted as black, as black as the original mothers, as the soil, as the space between the stars.”
Aligning with the Celtic celebration of Solstice and its honouring of the wisdom of the dark, when what is planted, resting fallow hidden in the depths, can decay or gestate, renew, transform. Mary becomes the the earthly embodiment of the divine feminine and its creative-destructive cycles of life and death.
Or as Lynn offers, the suffering that is Love.
Much love and kindest regards dear friends as you enter the ever growing darkness of December.
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
– Joy Harjo –
One of several, this poem by past Poet Laureate of the United States, was a gift to its subscribers from the Poetry Foundation in celebration of American Thanksgiving. Today is the day after, the formal kick-off to the holiday season, and Black Friday, another American invention, where for the lastmany weeks social media has run rampant with ads boasting big savings on just about everything imaginable. Curious that what comes to my mind as I type is remembering within days of 9-11, then President Bush telling Americans to go shopping to deal with their unspeakable shock and yet to be processed, still processing, grief.
A couple of days ago I made an “artist’s date” with a friend before going out to lunch together. We visited the Alberta Council for the Ukrainian Arts, recently relocated on the edges of our downtown core – desperate for post-pandemic revitalization – due to the demolition of its previous home in a sweet, enlivening neighborhood strip mall. Home, too, for a cozy family friendly café; a corner store “famous” city-wide for its fried chicken; a chic furniture and home décor shop; the place to go for small appliance repairs and replacement parts; a Buddhist bookstore…the lifeblood of a community soon to be bled and bulldozed for urban “development.” Yes, I feel grief about this.
I wanted to go to the centre to see Ruslan Kurt‘s “DOORS“, an art installation of doors taken from Ukrainian homes bombed, torched, and shot at by invading Russian soldiers.
February 24, 2022. Nine months to the day of this American Thanksgiving. Then the day the world, as the people of Ukraine and beyond knew it, ended perhaps at their kitchen tables. Most certainly at their front doors.
Eating lunch at a café table with my friend, she of Ukrainian descent on her mother’s side, I remarked on the juxtaposition of these battered doors within the art centre’s maker space – women chatting as they embroidered, and stitched quilts, sewed at machines set for creating, surrounded by walls hung with colourful Ukrainian art. How symbolic of life: on one hand, its cycles of creation and destruction, on the other, how in the space of these nine unimaginable months, so much has filled in and taken over and away my attention from this invasion and its deepening catastrophic impacts now come winter. Taken over and away by a continuous barrage of catastrophe, terror, trauma, and grief.
Too, remembering the ethical conundrum of Thanksgiving in North America with itshistory of colonization, enslavement and displacement. A history of catastrophe, terror, trauma, and grief that persists.
So this post – post Thanksgiving and pre the advent of the holyday season with its cross cultural celebrations of light returning – is an invitation to pause…to remember…to return my attention…to imagine the tables where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.”
THE PILGRIM 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 the 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 –
In Monday’s post I mentioned meeting in person Calgary poet, Rosemary Griebel. All week, during my morning ritual of sitting with Annie sipping my americano (now laced with a half pump of eggnog syrup, tis the season and all), I’ve been re-reading her poetry collection YES. Last night I texted to her:
“Rosemary, it truly is a beautiful collection…so grounded in your intimate, lived experience of the prairies, one I came to know only a bit when my husband, Sig, and I moved here from ON in 1981 and when I learned to appreciate them accompanying him many weekends in the spring and late summer on field trials – horses with bird dogs like Annie, our English setter. The Pilgrim…yes, what an evocative and deeply resonant beauty…and the several I heard you recite on The Road Home, how I first learned of it, you. And some “hard” ones…all so beautifully, deftly composed. Hard but light filled…”
And so to share here one of hers with you, together with my photo walking one rainy day from Viana do Castelo to Vila Praia de Ancora along the Portuguese Coastal Camino. “A day of quiet loneliness in between. A day when memory marrie[d] the wind and [I felt like] pure light. Walking. One foot in front of the other.”
I’ve written several times of the lesson shared with me in 2011, when walking along the path, high on the cliffs of Italy’s Ligurian coast, from the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza to its Corniglia, with a couple who had walked the Camino Frances a year earlier: the Camino is what happens once home. After preparing for last week’s presentation on my walk; talking this week with a friend about curiosity, creativity, and wisdom for his podcast; and lunching with a friend who, having walked the Camino Frances several years ago, wanted to hear some of my story; once again I feel Camino making its presence known deep within as I prepare for my next writing project.
I feel myself hesitate. Find myself distracted. Yet I know it’s simply a matter of placing my stake in the ground, and saying YES. Then Camino begins once again to work with me.