“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.
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.
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.
While a week late, and a post missed, I’ve kept my promise to myself to “stick to the knitting” and my writing practice here. During the interim, two rejections from the group where last year I’d been invited to read my submission to their ekphrastic poetry contest (beginner’s luck?) – I was sure I had a good one – and another written in the wee hours of Wednesday’s dawn to meet another contest deadline. Fingers crossed and regardless, I’ll get feedback from the judges. Always a boon.
Too, after a record-breaking long and warm and sunny August, September and October, wherein I was playing pickleball outside until Hallowe’en, winter – apparently fed up with waiting – suddenly, unequivocally barged in with November. Blowing and blustering throughout Alberta, it dropped nearly a foot of snow in a matter of days, wreaked highway havoc, and gave us the dubious distinction of being among the coldest spots on earth this week. Add Tuesday’s full moon lunar eclipse; peculiar and powerful planetary alignments wreaking their own astrological chaos; news from home that a high school chum has been seriously afflicted by dementia; another friend coping with pneumonia and two small children; a frozen vehicle; Annie down with a GI tract infection (she’s better now)…
Neither complaining nor making excuses, I’m simply noticing what now has the capacity to knock me sideways, crawl deeper into the covers, and, despite the sun and blue sky, colorfully renounce my gratitude for the seasons, especially this one. I refuse to call it a symptom of age…more the wisdom that comes with…a finer attunement to the nuanced…the paying with attention in my body, and not over-riding it with my thinking. Saturday’s Camino walk in the river valley with a reprieve in temperature, and later with Annie, restored my appreciation.
Last weekend I took the bus to Calgary to attend a Friday poetry evening and Saturday workshop with Pádraig Ó Tuama. Such a treat to physically sit in his presence and hear him do so brilliantly what I’d only ever heard him do through Zoom and podcast space…recite remarkable poetry and invite us into how to listen to its structure for its meanings. Thank God, I knew to book the bus when I’d made the arrangements during early September’s golden glory. (I have a kind of prescience when it comes to weather…that finer attunement thing.) Both of us walking alone as we approached the venue, I introduced myself, said a few words as we climbed the stairs to the entrance, and then made our separate ways. Pretty neat for this enthusiastic fan. Too, I was standing in line to purchase his “hot off the press” Poetry Unbound collection, only to recognize immediately behind me award-winning Calgary poet Rosemary Griebel. We have a virtual friendship initiated when she wrote me a lovely compliment on my blog. Knowing she’d be there, I’d brought my copy of YES, her most recent collection, for her signature. Again, pretty neat for this appreciative fan. And then at the Saturday workshop, of all the coincidences, by way of her friend, Peg, we discovered we share a birthday. How neat is that!?! A bit of kismet perhaps…especially as we talked about Camino walking and her interest in Portugal.
I had several takeaways from the weekend inspired by both Pádraig and Rosemary. With my own rejections fresh, I felt restored hearing Pádraig say how difficult it continues to be for him to find places and publishers for his poetry, still how many and often the rejections. Its antidote, he said, was finding a small, intimate group of writers with whom to share the work, so as to uplift each other in the efforts made, support each other through the process of editing, submitting, and receiving rejections and acceptances. In the acknowledgement of her book, Rosemary mentioned the friendship and support received from her regular local poetry writers’ group. Into my new vocation now for a couple of years, I know its solitary, often lonely nature. I returned home committed to putting a call out, both to the Universe (trusting my efforts are adding), and to some writers to ask if they’d meet me in the sandbox – virtual is fine – to support each other as we make our way with words.
And speaking of Camino, mid week I was invited to present “A Creative’s Way of Walking Her Camino” to the first, post covid, in person gathering of our local chapter of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims. Using a story I’d written for Portugal Green Walks and the upcoming issue of Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging – a synthesis of my blogs – I shared my way of traveling in general, and in particular how I had walked the Portuguese Coastal Camino – using journal, painting, photography and poetry to grok within the experience’s impressions and memories. I was delighted not only with the feedback from attendees and planning committee, but more so to have been “seen” in this way of my vocation, to be, as one of the members said, the chapter’s “resident artist-poet.” Now this is very neat!
I am now inside the season’s cocoon, wintering. Despite the initial shock, I am surrendered to the inevitable, ready to savor having designed time for writing, studying Italian and “rewilding,” walking, cooking, hand work, seeing friends, sharing time with my “pack,” playing pickleball. Feeling life full in the midst of its fallow.
It’s early Sunday night and I’m sitting in my usual space for writing. Hot cup of tea to the side. My radio station playing low in the background. The space heater blowing warm, taking off the foreboding chill. Last week I read that here in Edmonton we were having the longest run of October +20 C degree days since 1944, and today tied the record for the latest first frost. But this weekend, winter made its arrival in other parts of the province and I know it’s simply a matter of time. The wheel turns…
It’s been nearly three months since my last post, one wherein I’d announced the need for a pause…to settle into my breath, body and bones after my month long Camino, to prepare for traveling to Italy with my husband, to re-centre to purpose. Since returning from Spain in early June, I’ve had the felt sense of standing yet again on a cusp. It was an atypical summer, late in coming, the hottest August on record giving us warm, sultry, bug free evenings, and one of illness: my lengthy recovery from Covid; then my husband developing a viral infection – non Covid but with a similar symptom pattern leaving him fatigued and coughing for weeks; and I succumbing to the same a few weeks later. Our Annie dog sustained sprains and pulled muscles. My elderly father’s ever robust and vital presence began to dim.
“I’ve lost my edge,” is how my husband put it, and for the first time I saw glimpses of a wavering frailty that comes with aging. While we’ve both recovered, and are feeling well having enjoyed our unstructured time sauntering in Rome, and then touring the exquisite landscapes of Puglia (albeit in overcast skies and rain), 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.
In readying myself to write tonight and to return to it as my vocation, I spent a couple of hours today catching up on the myriad of e-newsletters in my inbox, a cursory glance telling me they held a pearl or several. Below are some of the more salient bits holding my attention:
“I have this belief that an internal monoculture of peace and clarity and smooth sailing is what normal people experience, so it’s what I should experience. And if I don’t feel peaceful and clear and focused, then there’s something that needs fixing inside me… I want to reframe messiness as holy. I want to slide down and immerse myself in the murky waters of my messy heart.”
Barb Morris, “a messy mind is a healthy mind,” e-letter, September 29, 2022
“I’m curious to know if you have a line you repeat to yourself when you’re trying to sink into that necessary solitude that is at the heart of every human relationship: the relationship of yourself to yourself.”
Padraig O’Tuama, “the solitude at the heart of human relationship,” Poetry Unbound Newsletter, October 2, 2022
“We reach for hope as the antidote to despair, but actually hope is the cause of despair. The problem with hope is that it’s bipolar. Every time we rely on hope, we always bring in fear. Buddhist wisdom teaches that hope and fear are two sides of the same dynamic.”
Margaret Wheatley, “We Have to Talk About Hope,” October 19, 2022
“The rhythms of the seasons play a significant role in my own discernment. Honoring the flowering of spring and the fruitfulness of summer, alongside the release of autumn and the stillness of winter, cultivates a way of being in the world that feels deeply reverential of my body and soul’s own natural cycles. We live in a culture that glorifies spring and summer energies, but autumn and winter are just as essential for rhythms of release, rest, and incubation. When we allow the soul’s slow ripening, we honor that we need to come into the fullness of our own sweetness before we pluck the fruit. This takes time and patience.”
Christine Valters Paintner, Love Notes, Abbey of the Arts newsletter, October 22, 2022
My synthesis, in poem…
the necessary solitude that is my messy heart and mind that I sink into as an antidote to the bipolarity of hope and fear
seasons’ rhythms a discernment where now autumn’s release and soon winter’s stillness allow my soul’s ripening
I took time and patience the needed pause to recover and reveal life’s holy starkly beautiful truths
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends. It’s good to be back.