Tomorrow is Solstice. Here in the northern hemisphere, we mark Winter’s formal arrival with the longest, darkest night. In the past month, much has been written about the unusual planetary alignment between Jupiter and Saturn, apparently coming so close together as to give the impression of one large and most brilliant star. Making its first appearance in over eight hundred years, it’s being called the “Christmas Star,” even the “Star of Bethlehem.” I’m praying for clear skies around the world so we can each take in a bit of the magic and miraculous. God knows we’re in need of some…
As is my pattern, it’s Sunday night after dinner and I’m comfortably alone in our office tapping out my thoughts for this post. I’m listening to excerpts of Handel’s “Messiah,” truly one of the western Christian world’s most beloved Christmas oratorios. Every time I hear it, I wonder if Handel and librettist Charles Jennen had any idea of the timeless magnificence they created.
Yesterday I attended a Facebook live “sing along” hosted by the historic Bardavon Opera House and Hudson Valley Philharmonic. Close to 10,000 people from around the world watched and sang. How remarkable to read of the many people who have sung their part in choirs – large and small, community and professional – every Christmas for decades. My own memories evoked…including the time I missed that long rest in the Alleluia chorus and rather inadvertently, took my own solo! For 10,000 of us to have clicked and arrived, being “alone together” for an hour, sharing memories, joy, and even tears as we stood in unison for the Alleluia chorus, time and distance magically collapsed as our hearts rang open. Truly, one of the pandemic’s paradoxical gifts.
In keeping with tradition, once again I offer my annual Solstice blessing, this year reworked with words I wrote during the pandemic’s early days, during our first pervasive “lockdown.”
May this Holyday season bring time to cherish all that is good and true and beautiful.
May its dark days invite reflection and renewal.
May you be well, and safely tucked in with your beloveds at home.
May deep rest, fresh air, and sunshine restore you and be like the warm embrace of longed for family and friends.
May any moments of anxiety and sadness be held in tenderness, with the support of others.
May strength in body, mind, and spirit allow you to embrace life’s uncertainties.
May good health be your companion, relationships enliven and encourage, work and pastimes fulfill, serve, and affirm.
May good food nourish your body, favourite memories and meaningful conversations your heart and mind.
May Nature welcome you to its beauty, magic, and wisdom.
May gratitude, generosity, and grace be your friends.
May patience, love, and kindness – given and received – be yours in abundance.
“Look how calmly the trees abandon their autumn leaves, scattering jewels on the ground, soon to become mulch. These serene beings are apt teachers for us. Just see how they send their life-essence down into their roots as the days shorten and darken.”
Pir Zia Inayat Khan, The Zephyr Newsletter, December 2020
Last Monday, when I walked with Annie to centre myself and find my words, when I listened to the poem that released the floodgate of tears and cleared the way for the inchoate to become articulate, I found myself attracted to Nature’s images that evoked a “hanging on.” Despite all that gives way to a northern winter – daylight and warmth, green grass and foliage, garden fresh vegetables, robin song – still there is much that persists.
And I thought, how fitting a metaphor for this year’s Advent. Now in the third week, the one characterized by the rose-pink candle of joy, I wondered how do we hold the tension, no, how do we live and be in the tension of hanging on expectantly, when so much has let go? How do we negotiate our familiar and counted upon traditions of joy and celebration, in the face of myriad losses and uncertainties, persistent isolation and loneliness? How do we wait in joy for the promise inherent in this season, given so many shattering impacts of 2020? Not an intended pun, but truly a pandemic paradox, of pandemic proportion.
While I don’t have answers to my own questions, let alone any “sage” advice, I am reminded of Rilke’s wisdom to not strive for answers…to live the questions for now…though admittedly, not quite able to love them. But perhaps there are some hints from others, whose words have shimmered as they’ve crossed my screen this week, in remarkable resonance and synchronicity.
“I’m feeling a bone deep exhaustion now, yet I’m also feeling a resistance to the softness and rest that this season urges. There is too much to do to rest. And to be soft in the face of all that has happened in 2020 — that is a world of hurt I’m not sure I can bear. My experience of this season’s impulse to look back and take stock has a new intensity too. There is a great deal I long to recover about pre-pandemic life. But I don’t want to go back to a “normal” that would lose all that this year taught and gave us to live into.”
Krista Tippett, The Pause, December 15, 2020
In the past few days, I walked and listened to another of my favorite podcasts, Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us. In the most recent episode, she looked back over all she had learned from reading and prepping for two seasons worth of interviews, to more fully understand her very first episode on “FFT’s” (friggin’ first times) dropped in the early days of Covid-19. Her recent neuroscience “expert,” David Eagleman, confirmed Brené’s emergent hypothesis that our brains – and we – are exhausted with mapping so many new responses to this year’s unprecedented number of FFTs. The antidote to so much changing so fast is our attention, our acknowledgement, and rest, plenty of rest that restores us, and our brains. The image that comes to mind after today’s snow showers: clearing the walks and roads of snow that keeps falling. No sooner do you get it clear, then you need to do it again, and again, and again.
In this same episode, Brené shared a quote that succinctly sums up life as we know it now:
“‘History is the study of surprises.’ This line captures the world in which we live, we’re living history, surprise after surprise after surprise. And just when we think, we’ve had all the big surprises for a while, along comes another one. If the first two decades of the 21st century have taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty is chronic; instability is permanent; disruption is common; and we can neither predict nor govern events. There will be no ‘new normal’; there will only be a continuous series of ‘not normal’ episodes, defying prediction and unforeseen by most of us until they happen.”
Jim Collins, Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, 2020
Hmmm…grim news of foreboding, or the sudden, fresh wakening from somnambulant dis-illusion? Another paradox and invitation to find a middle way, perhaps?
I’ve lost track of the number of times this past year I’ve heard myself say aloud or think the wise words from a past, wise teacher: the trick to living paradox is knowing “it’s all true.” That both sides of the coin are the same coin. That 180 degrees is a straight line connecting what appear to be opposites. That the yin always contains a bit of yang and vice versa. And that there is a field between right doing and wrong doing where I will meet you.
“There is a time for stillness and empty-handedness, a time for holding vigil in the darkness. Winter keeps a secret that is vital to our soul’s knowledge of itself. Before long, the days will lengthen again. But now is the time to be rooted in the silent, patient earth as the planet heaves through the ebon emptiness of space.”
Pir Zia Inayat Khan, The Zephyr Newsletter, December 2020
Yes. This is so very true. And so too, for so many of us right now, is the isolation and loneliness that fills us with sorrow, worry, grief. That keeps us sleepless when we need rest for our bodies and brains and hearts, and to recover our resilience.
Last week, once again in my favorite Italian grocery store, as I maneuvered my cart into the checkout line, I looked up to see our dear friends. The last I saw them was a year ago, sitting at our cozy round table, enjoying a kitchen supper. Nothing fancy. Just simple Tuscan cooking, fine wine, and edifying conversation. It was a delicious evening, one we anticipated repeating sooner than later, upon our return from Andalusia last February. Sure, now we talk on the phone, exchange “love notes” in the mail or via text, but to lay eyes on each other, bundled and masked, brought tears to our eyes. There we stood, huddled among the pasta and olive oil – probably closer than two meters – impelled to express our love, our gratitude, the miraculous of our chance meeting, the angels that must have conspired for us then and there.
“…we need to accompany each other right now and beyond this season, in what none of us is called to bear and do alone. To honor the many losses we scarcely know what to do with. To dwell with reverence before our exhaustion and our resilience. To cultivate the expectant waiting that is the spirit of Advent. To ponder how we want to live once the virus releases us back to each other. “
Krista Tippett, The Pause, December 15, 2020
Since I last wrote, Covid-19 vaccinations are now being administered around the world. Here in Canada, the first to be inoculated was an elderly woman from Quebec. Here in Alberta, our health care workers are to be first in line. Touted as the light at the end of a long dark tunnel, it’s not lost on me that this hoped for miracle comes during our darkest hours, both literally and figuratively. Personally, I sit in another paradox: knowing it will be many months before I have access to this anticipated release from the virus’ silent, deadly grip and can let go of extraordinary vigilance and precaution, countered by the desire to hang on to the many subtle gifts of this time – a slowing down to savour simplicity and deepening stillness, noticing inner shifts and outer expressions, renewed appreciation and gratitude, a growing and steady contentment. Just as my love of winter’s darkness has grown over time, and I wince knowing that come next week, we’ll once again be on the upswing to more daylight, I hear a whisper of caution to not squander what has been so hard won, an invitation to make anew.
“We will not go back to normal, normal never was. Our pre-Corona existence was not normal, other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends, we are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.”
Sonya Renee Taylor
Now, I literally wait for the linen and yarn and needles to arrive to start stitching.
Finding the words for this blog has not come easy. I gave in to tiredness and wanting to spend “pack time” with my husband and our Annie dog on Sunday night when I usually sit in our office, tapping out my musings for Monday’s posting, music in the background. Monday, still stalled, I walked with Annie, and caught up listening to several episodes from my favourite poetry podcast, spiraling through several times, the dozen or so minutes of brilliance, both in the poet’s words, but also in host Pádraig Ó’Tuama’s commentary. One moved me to tears every time I heard it.
Maybe it’s the time of year. The coming of winter – though of late, ours has been remarkably warm, sunny, with snow and cold enough for chunky cross-country skiing and ice skating – can be unsettling for some. Personally, I grow each year in my love of the growing darkness…the stillness at dawn…the quiet muffling that a snowfall brings…the restful flat light and monochromatic colour exterior scheme.
So, it’s probably the month. December and all it evokes. Dreams of “Christmas Pasts” that can run the gambit emotionally, that for some us, can be anything but the Hallmark happily ever after. And this year, made all more so by a pandemic that is worsening world-wide as we grow more fatigued, complacent, desensitized and doubting. Just yesterday my province implemented a month-long lock down, including no social gathering, indoor and out, beyond family members living in the same home. And I wonder with a renewed and deepened empathy, how does one navigate when you know this will be your last Christmas with an ailing family member? Or you’re already neck, or even knee, deep in grief now most certainly unabated without the physical support and presence of those who care for you, those you trust?
“While your faces on the screen have to be enough, I miss you in my bones and by my body.”
Since December’s arrival, it’s as if a switch goes on and I feel myself grow tense and tired and tearful. It doesn’t take much to trigger a “Christmas Past” memory and mood. Today a Christmas carol brought a near flood of tears as I wheeled the cart down the aisle of my favourite Italian grocery store, thankful for being only one of a handful of customers at that early hour. And then I take a deep breath and I remind myself of the guidance I’d offer every December to my colleagues working in schools. That in those ready-made relational fields, ripe to bursting with the emotional charge of personal narratives – known and unknown, lived and inherited – feelings and reactions, seemingly unapparent, become amplified with the resonance and echoing to our own stories.
So, it’s important – critical really – to be tender and kind. Especially to oneself. Especially now when there’s so much out there, unabated, for so long.
If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
That poem that brought me to tears, each and every time I heard Pádraig recite and interpret it – “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed – is about forgiving oneself. In it she spells out a litany of things she’s done, big and small, that she’s held against herself. And she writes, “I forgive you.”
“The really interesting thing in this poem is that the word “forgive” occurs 13 times. And then that phrase, “I forgive you,” occurs six times. The first time, it appears just as a single sentence. It occurs just by itself, those three words, “I forgive you.” And then the next time it appears, it occurs twice, “I forgive you. I forgive you.” And then the final time it appears, it’s three times: “I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.” It’s like this poem is trying to learn a mantra to say to itself, and in the hope that a life can learn a mantra to say to itself, knowing that saying it once isn’t enough and, also, that forgiveness is something that we return to over and over again, even self-forgiveness — that it needs to be a mantra.”
Listening, I felt that resonance and echoing with my own harboured sins and shortcomings. But it was this that pierced my heart, that brought my tears:
“…I forgive you. I forgive
you. I forgive you. For growing a capacity for love that is great but matched only, perhaps, by your loneliness. For being unable
to forgive yourself first so you could then forgive others and at last find a way to become the love that you want in this world.”
Dilruba Ahmed, “Phase One”
My husband and I are practiced in the art of celebrating Christmas on our own and so can do this one easefully, though missing the joy of being with our friends. While we want for nothing, we are intent for good health to be our life long companion, relationships to enliven and encourage us, work and pastimes to fulfill and affirm us. And I, to become the love I want in this world, I give myself, over and over, the gift of forgiveness.
“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.”
May this be yours, with, too, the gift of self-forgiveness.
It’s Thanksgiving in Canada, the 12th of October, almost as late in the month as it comes. Remarkably, autumn’s colour abounds, with gold and burnished brown, red and aubergine still a vivid contrast against the cerulean sky and dark green conifers.
Yesterday a fierce wind blew from the north west. A kite hung high for an hour in the steel grey sky, its dragon-like features a foreboding of what’s to come. The scent and feel of winter waiting impatiently in the wings, typically impolite in timing its arrival. Like a takeover, one might even say “hostile”, or a coup overthrowing the trees before they’ve taken off their sovereign hued robes, and wreaking shock and havoc among the yet to depart migrating birds. This reminder of impermanence, life’s cycles, nature’s work. During a time when around the world most everyone feels fraught with uncertainty and complacent with pandemic protocol fatigue, I take comfort and find solace that yes, the days grow shorter, the sun rises lower, the trees will soon be stripped of their remaining leaves, the snow will fall, the temperatures plummet.
One morning last week, making breakfast for Annie and drip coffee for me, I heard Jill Scott sing her song, Golden. I wrote down the chorusknowing I could use it for today’s blog, because, well, it’s been so golden this past month. I’m in the sixth week of my latest Abbey of the Arts online course, “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” where I’m exploring these archetypes of contemplation and creativity, two deep affinities. In one of last week’s creative exercises, I learned about the French pantoum, a poetic form that can be quite revelatory in its play and placement of lines.
So in that spirit of unabashed experimentation, here’s my tribute to Thanksgiving, living golden, impermance, presence, winter – all riffing off Jill Scott.
Livin’ my life like it’s golden it’s that time of year. Shimmering brilliant leaves remind me to be here.
It’s that time of year, winds blow strong and sting remind me to be here. Winter’s in the wings.
Winds blow strong and sting. Shimmering brilliant leaves. Winter’s in the wings. Livin’ my life like it’s golden.
With abiding gratitude, love and kindest regards, dear friends.
I knew I needed practices to help me flourish with fall’s arrival, its shorter days, and the inevitable snows and cold of winter. No escaping it, even though we here in the parklands of Alberta have had a stellar September and first week of October with no frost nor flakes. I posted on Facebook last week how remarkable that the geraniums and marigolds in their pots looked more beautiful and abundant now than in the peak of summer.
Early in this pandemic, while making photo books from my last trips to Morocco and Andalusia, I saw the hundreds of photos I’d taken over the past decade and decided to sort into a collection those I’d like to use on the cover of note cards. A few years ago, before the advent of the terrific e-cards I now habitually send, I’d make a photo card to celebrate a family member or friend’s birthday, anniversary, wedding or other life transition. A photo, hand- written or stamped greeting, postage stamp and off it’d go in the mail. I chose to resurrect that practice this fall – my version of a non-Zoom hug or love note – to stay connected with friends.
“…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…”
Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019
Times have changed. It used to be that I had a paper address book with friends’ contact information. As I composed my list of names, I realized for many I had only email addresses. And so, without tipping my hand too much, I asked, via email, for their “old fashioned snail mail” postal address.
“Over the course of just a couple of hundred years in the so-called developed world, we have become passive consumers of products, services, and information rather than active makers, fixers and even thinkers. Most of the time what we buy is made somewhere else, by a machine or by people we’ll never meet…”
Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019
Every week since early September, a few days a week, a couple of names on my list, I’d make a card, with a hand written note, maybe include a well-loved verse of poetry or a quote, a specially chosen photo evoking something for me about that person. Affixed a stamp and return address label and slipped it in the community mailbox.
“I gradually came to the conclusion that in its most simple sense, art (as a verbal noun that I now call “artifying” or “artification”) is the act of making ordinary things extraordinary. It is a uniquely human impulse.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
After the first week’s batch, I remembered that the cards I use are good quality water colour stock. I remembered how in that earlier iteration I might rubber stamp the inside with a greeting, and occasionally paint a dash of colour over. So now I’ve taken to embellishing the envelope with rubber stamp image and light water colour wash. “Now that’s an envelop worth keeping!” remarked a friend’s husband upon retrieving her card from their post box.
“Joie de faire – an inherent joy in making: There is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something that didn’t exist before, of using one’s own agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold, craft physical materials, apart from anticipating the fact of its eventual beauty, uniqueness, or usefulness.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
I’m crystal clear within myself that I make and send these cards with no expectation of hearing back from anyone. And yet I’ve been delighted to read about how surprised or touched by, or perfect the card. Another friend reminisced about days gone by when letters and notes were the way we maintained our relationships and connections, saying she’d been inspired to follow my lead, and that perhaps this was fulfilling my purpose.
“I think a lot of modern people’s ennui, or feelings of depression or meaninglessness, comes from the fact that although our physical and material needs are met, we are not satisfying those psychological and emotional needs of our hunter-gatherer nature.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
While I was touched with her suggestion, I’m not sure this is my purpose, per se, but it is satisfying that yearning to make, to make something beautiful, to share that beauty with people I cherish, and to invite them – for a moment or longer- to feel they are cherished by me. It is responding to my inner need to flourish when I’d felt so fallow and forlorn during the early months of Covid-19.
“…active making, and making special, contributes to satisfactions (fulfillment of basic emotional needs) that cannot come any other way.”
Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019
It is activating my slogan: The power of prayer and the making of beauty are HOLY ALCHEMY for social change.
It’s happened. In the last two days I’ve learned of people I know having their lives impacted by COVID-19. Up until now it’s been something “out there.” Now it’s landed on my doorstep, making these past six months less surreal.
A few weeks ago, while walking Annie, I listened to the second season opener of Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcasts. Titled “Day 2” she describes how now, six months into the pandemic, it’s not getting any easier for us. In fact, in a counter-intuitive way, it’s harder. We tell ourselves we should be getting the hang of it, but no. Like the Day 2 of her three-day training events, or what in my profession’s parlance we call the “groan zone”: when, after settling in and getting to know each other, playing around with new concepts and ideas with everything “out there”, the rubber hits the road when we realize, often with resistance, that for any traction and way forward to occur, we need to do a lot of internal pushing, shifting, and changing. We feel awkward, anxious, angry. Tired. Doubting. We want to turn around, get out, and dust ourselves off.
“…let me tell you, day two of these three-day trainings sucked. I mean sucked. So not only in terms of the curriculum, day two meant that we were moving into some of the really tough content, like shame and worthiness, but people were also kind of feeling raw. The first day of anything like the first day of school, the first day of a training, the first day of your work, you’re like, I get the badge and everything’s shiny, and everything feels like a new undertaking, and there’s this sparkle of possibility. By day two, this is dulled. And now you’re kind of in this dense fog where you don’t have the shiny possibility of day one or the running toward the finish line of day three. It’s like hitting the wall.”
I’d been feeling and saying pretty much the same thing this summer. And while I didn’t think I had a timeline for this thing, knew enough to cancel a September return to Morocco way back in March, heard about the “second wave”, in all honesty, in some deep place, I was holding out hope we’d be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel by now, driving towards it. Instead it feels as messy as ever. But now, since yesterday, much more real.
“…we’re in the dark, the doors close behind us, we’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light…”
Yesterday I went to the store to fetch groceries for my friend, and I swear to God, as I put the mask on my face, my brain fell out. I couldn’t make sense of the store aisle arrows, of how close or far I was to the next person. My glasses kept fogging up. When I finally got ready to checkout, I started placing my items on the conveyor belt before the customer ahead had finished. Yes, I was safely distanced, but the clerk kindly asked me to wait until she had sprayed and wiped the entire belt making it safe and ready for me. Of course, I should have known that. Then I told her I needed two receipts, different bags – theirs they’d pack, mine I needed bag myself – where was my store card? my credit card? Flustered, I finally confessed, “I’m usually pretty competent, but today, I can’t multitask worth a damn.” She laughed with me. Grateful for her kindness, I muddled through, got outside, whipped off my mask, and breathing deep while sitting in my car, realized how rattled I was and why. COVID-19 had arrived on my doorstep.
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-Corona existence was not normal, other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.”
Sonya Renee Taylor
Today is a better day. In fact, the whole of last week was grand, even yesterday, grocery shopping aside, or maybe, paradoxically, because of it. September on the prairies can be a glorious month, and after our second wet, cold summer, she’s pulling out all the stops for us. And October is looking pretty good, too. Every day I walk, I’m enthralled with what I see around me. My basic, single lens phone camera is working a surprising magic.
And those plans I’d put in place – in anticipation of this messy middle, to help me flourish after having felt fallow for months – are panning out beautifully. I’ll write more about that in weeks to come. But for now, I’ll give Brene the last word:
“The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens. If we believe in ourselves, if we reach out together, and if we lean into a little bit of that grace that says, ‘We can get through this.'”
“Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
I pray. Not so often in that formal, elaborate, church going way. But when I think of Anne Lamott’s two best prayers, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I’m devout.
Too, when I sit during my favourite time of day, in the still and quiet morning, before sunrise – which comes earlier now – and look out onto the trees, now still full of leaves, but soon, soon, bare limbed and yes, snow covered. Or when I’m beside Annie on “her” sofa, my hand resting on her head, her front paw resting on my arm. Those count too, I think.
I’ve written about more consciously living my life as prayer since the pandemic, one of its gifts. Though when I posted about getting lost during my medicine walk, how I’d managed to manifest into the 3D physical, my interior lostness, I now admit to having felt shy to say that I’d prayed as I’d been taught, it being part of the preparation for a medicine walk and fasting quest. To offer thanks, to ask for guidance and protection at the threshold between one’s urban, more mundane life and the wilder, nature bound, sacred space beyond. Anne Lamott’s “thank you, help me” kind of prayer. And I chanted on the trail for hundreds of steps, the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum,” to keep myself company, and let anyone out there, hidden in the woods, know I was around. My vocal version of a bear bell.
Truth be told, I absolutely believe those prayers helped me get found, safe and sound. Helped me avoid any wildlife encounters beyond bird song, dragonflies, and scat. Like when I realized I’d lost the diamond stud earring, a cherished gift from my husband, and prayed for its return. Three days later, after retracing all my steps and stops, I took a chance to revisit the gym where I’d played pickleball. Earlier when I’d called to ask if it had been found, I’d been told they’d taken down the nets, swept the floors, and installed equipment and inflatables for children coming to play during spring break, but I persisted. Walking carefully, head bent, l traced the room’s periphery, breaking the rule to cross beyond the “stay away” sign to where the inflatable was plugged in. There it was, on the floor, inches away from the socket. How it had not been spotted by anyone plugging in and pulling out that cord for several days, was my answered prayer. Admittedly trivial in the scheme of life, with its tragedy, so much going seemingly from bad to worse every day, especially this year, but for me a vivid, visceral reminder.
When I somewhat sheepishly shared my lost on the Lost Lake trail story with my friends who had served as my quest guides last year, they said that what shone through was my recognition of prayer and its power. That yes, I had been held safe by an ancient benevolent wisdom found in nature. That I had surrendered to it when I knew I didn’t have the balance to cross the fallen tree across the “how deep” stream. Had I, I would have become even further astray. That I had remembered a line of poetry to tell me to stand still in the forest when I knew I was lost. That I had a phone and service. That I’d taken the map with emergency contact numbers. That the warden was back from vacation just that very day. That she was in that particular park, given her area of responsibility is all the public spaces spanning hundreds of kilometres to the west. That she could come and get me with her truck. That I hadn’t been stalked by the coyotes that had stalked another woman and her dogs on the same trail. That the sun shone and breeze blew comfortably. That the shots I heard fired by hunters were well beyond into another neck of the woods. That I had water, food, and time. Yes, I had prepared, and yes, I had been heard.
In that same conversation, we talked about the world, about their country, its upcoming presidential election, the pandemic impacts of COVID-19 and racism. It was before the forest fires burned into three states, leaving death and destruction, orange skies and zero visibility in their wake. I shared feeling that tension of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what. I emailed to them the next day:
… I realized I have felt “spellbound” by thinking I must do something, and not knowing what TO DO. But knowing, I do know how to pray.
Many times it seems my thinking is foggy and lazy, that it isn’t “cogent” or coherent, that I can’t put together a compelling argument of defense. And then it came to me, this is the feminine way – to feel my way through a depth of complexity that is dark and foggy, that isn’t necessarily, yet, cogent nor coherent.
You wrote to me, gifted me, once with the invocation that I recognize with increasing vividness that I know what I know, that find myself less and less inclined to self-doubt, meekness and hesitation.
So, yes, I know the power of prayer.
I know too, the making of beauty.
Let the beauty that you love be what you do.
I know the power of prayer and the making of beauty are my offerings for social action, for social change.
Praise be the nurses and doctors, every medical staff bent over flesh to offer care, for lives saved and lives lost, for showing up either way,
Praise for the farmers, tilling soil, planting seeds so food can grow, an act of hope if ever there was,
Praise be the janitors and garbage collectors, the grocery store clerks, and the truck drivers barreling through long quiet nights,
Give thanks for bus drivers, delivery persons, postal workers, and all those keeping an eye on water, gas, and electricity,
Blessings on our leaders, making hard choices for the common good, offering words of assurance,
Celebrate the scientists, working away to understand the thing that plagues us, to find an antidote, all the medicine makers, praise be the journalists keeping us informed,
Praise be the teachers, finding new ways to educate children from afar, and blessings on parents holding it together for them,
Blessed are the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, all those who worry for their health, praise for those who stay at home to protect them,
Blessed are the domestic violence victims, on lock down with abusers, the homeless and refugees,
Praise for the poets and artists, the singers and storytellers, all those who nourish with words and sound and color,
Blessed are the ministers and therapists of every kind, bringing words of comfort,
Blessed are the ones whose jobs are lost, who have no savings, who feel fear of the unknown gnawing,
Blessed are those in grief, especially who mourn alone, blessed are those who have passed into the Great Night,
Praise for police and firefighters, paramedics, and all who work to keep us safe, praise for all the workers and caregivers of every kind,
Praise for the sound of notifications, messages from friends reaching across the distance, give thanks for laughter and kindness,
Praise be our four-footed companions, with no forethought or anxiety, responding only in love,
Praise for the seas and rivers, forests and stones who teach us to endure,
Give thanks for your ancestors, for the wars and plagues they endured and survived, their resilience is in your bones, your blood,
Blessed is the water that flows over our hands and the soap that helps keep them clean, each time a baptism,
Praise every moment of stillness and silence, so new voices can be heard, praise the chance at slowness,
Praise be the birds who continue to sing the sky awake each day, praise for the primrose poking yellow petals from dark earth, blessed is the air clearing overhead so one day we can breathe deeply again,
And when this has passed may we say that love spread more quickly than any virus ever could, may we say this was not just an ending but also a place to begin.
– Christine Valters Paintner – Abbey of the Arts 2020
As we head into our 7th month of living in the pandemic, I wanted to share this poem, now making special mention of all the teachers around the world, who as another lovely poet wrote this week: “To All the Teachers, we see you turning your hearts into classrooms where not even masks can block out your love.” bentlily by Samantha Reynolds
Mid August has come and gone and with it, most of summer. I used to say that August felt like one long Sunday night, especially for those of us in education. That mix of anticipation, apprehension, excitement and trepidation with September and the start of a new school year. All the stuff that can keep one awake, tossing and turning on a Sunday night, wondering what the new week will bring.
For the first time, this isn’t my felt sense. Maybe enough years out and away from the day to day. Too, knowing my work with schools has ceased, at least for the time being. Not wanting to be insensitive, I admit it’s hardly a year I’d want to be returning given so much continued uncertainty and real apprehension about the safety and well-being of staff and students as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise here and around the world with school resuming.
Despite another run this week of hot, sunny weather and cloudless skies (only the second this summer!) there are signs of what’s to come. Sitting by the local pond late last week I wrote:
The change in weather weighed heavy today. Every bone in my body ached. My jaw clenched as my third eye pulsed. Indelible and subtle, this signaling of the season to come. Tell-tale morning chill. Golden haze on aspen, ash and farmers’ fields. Sun that sets earlier, rises later. Geese gathered on the cat-tail bordered pond, leisurely swim in the same V formation as they fly. And for a moment I hear in my head the opening lines to a favourite Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese. Try to speak aloud from memory. Give up but remember its essence, remember the world announcing my place in the family of things.
Look up into that blue sky, heavy with lead bottomed clouds. Beseech the wind who is my guardian, “Where is it I’m meant to be?”
Like a squirrel gathering nuts, the geese and crows gathering to migrate south, I’m beginning to prepare myself for fall. Like its predecessors, spring and summer of 2020, I imagine it, too, will be the likes of which none of us has ever experienced. More pronounced again have been those waves of grief as I realize all too soon the ease with which we’ve been able to safely see friends will pass as colder temperatures and shorter days become the norm. And still, though curiously more acute, the sur-reality of living in this pandemic, every day continuing to learn more and more its impacts. Something I felt in the spring, but was able to hold lightly, off to the side during summer.
“… it is in those moments that we must remember the difference between despair and grief. While despair traps us in the bog of despondency, grief carries us into life. Grief calls us into a deeper engagement with those things that we love. And even as we are losing them, grief wants to exalt their beauty. If we let grief move us into expression, it will sing the blood into our songs, colour the vividness into our paintings, and slip the poetry between our words.
Toko-pa Turner, Facebook post, August 14, 2020
So thoroughly engaged in the first programs I took under their hosting this spring, in the pandemic’s novel, early days, I signed on to another self study with the Abbey of the Arts. Starting in September for twelve weeks, “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” promises to be an equally deep, communal dive into creative expression. I’m lightly researching how and what I need to begin a project based on some mandala paintings I’ve made over the years, and today I signed on for a self-paced study in abstract creative painting. Lonely for community, I’ve decided to resume my weekly Saturday river valley walks with the local Camino group.
It’s a delicate balancing act, like the pattern I’ve noticed when I’ve been out and about a bit, around more people than usual. Without much conscious thought, I find myself laying low for the following several days, staying home, and only going out to walk Annie. I hear friends and family acknowledge their loneliness, while others live with the millstone of chronic illness and the deaths of their beloveds. My heart aches for my sister, recently moved to the States, where as the crow flies only fifteen minutes from her children, grandchildren and our parents, but with the border closed, now for another month, now an eternity away. I prudently expect more of our traditional celebrations – Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year’s – will continue to be severely curtailed by Covid-19.
“Rumi says, ‘All medicine wants is pain to cure.’ And so we must cry out in our weakness, our ineptitude, our beautiful inadequacy and make of it an invitation that medicine might reach through and towards us.”
Toko-pa Turner, Facebook post, August 14, 2020
Sitting by the pond, in response to my question, the wind whispers:
Right here, dear daughter. Resting in the still warm sun. Breathing in the fresh northern air. Your hair like the green rushes, swaying, dipping and dancing in rhythm to my silent song. Right here. Right now. This.
Thinking about this week’s post came from a few rambling experiences finally resting on the need and practicality of being closer to home.
Lifting a page from the books of some friends, we’ve taken a couple of day trips to see some local sights, obscure and otherwise. Like most folks these days, we’ve opted for the “staycation,” sticking closer to home, not yet venturing far enough for an overnight accommodation. While the mountains call, from what we hear people are flocking in droves to Jasper, Banff and Canmore, so we’ll hold off until…. Plus, we didn’t want to kennel Annie. She’s been such a stalwart companion these months, relying on us as much as we her for a steady supply of love and attention. We just didn’t have the heart to leave her cooped up with strangers. And being on leash, the only way in the mountains, gets pretty frustrating with so much wild scent around. After all, she’s a bird dog. Scenting, hunting, stalking and pointing are her nature.
So a drive east down a prairie highway to Viking, a right turn south across the rolling pastures and freshly cut hay fields, up the hill to a white fence enclosing the two Viking Ribstones. An ancient aboriginal site, now adorned with colourful prayer cloths, these large quarzite boulders were carved thousands of years ago to resemble the ribcages of the revered bison, the main source of sustenance for the plains people.
Last week, north and east to Metis Crossing, we spent another few hot, sunny hours enjoying the quiet of this cultural interpretative centre along the shores of the North Saskatchewan River. Bison sausage with saskatoon relish, bannock with fresh rhubarb jelly and saskatoon lemonade were in keeping with history and today’s garden harvest. Flowers grew in abundance.
I’d like for us to make a further trek south towards Rosebud and Blackfoot Crossing. That landscape of treeless, golden high prairie cut by deep coulees green with willow and cottonwood, set against an endless horizon of blue begs acknowledgement that it, too, is as magnificent as the mountains. An acknowledgement I’m only too willing to give, though it would be a long day.
This weekend would have been the 40th anniversary of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It, like every other festival in Alberta and large gatherings around the world, was cancelled due to the pandemic. Here, every summer weekend we watch rodeos, listen to music of every genre, see theatre at the famous Fringe festival, revel in parades and gatherings celebrating culture and heritage. We mark our all too short summer with one or several of these “must attends.” It’s helps us get through winters that go on and on. All weekend my radio station, CKUA, an ardent supporter of Alberta culture, featured music and interviews from past years’ performers, while the Festival commissioned a full-length film feature, The Hill, to stream and hosted over fifty videos of past performances. As beautiful the efforts to be on “the hill at home,” as I drove past the festival site early Saturday morning, a time when any other year I’d see orange vested volunteers managing traffic, I felt a bit bereft and wondered, when, if ever, would, what has been called North America’s finest folk festival, return. I recalled having had my first pandemic meltdown, weeping the morning I heard it, and my go to, the Canmore Folk Festival, had been cancelled. The ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning of grief. That day it came closer to home and landed on my doorstep.
Yesterday I zoomed in on a conversation hosted by Melanie Falik, author of the recently published Making A Life: Working By Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live. A few hundred people from around the world, mostly knitters, listened along. As a kind of checkout, we were invited to type in the chat box one project we’d start this week. I got to thinking that for the past week or so I’d been saying out loud that I needed a project. Something I could sink my teeth into. Something on which to focus my ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning energy. Something besides cooking that would engage my curiosity and creativity.
The photo books from this past year’s trips are done. I’m writing a bit. I’m still committed to not learning how to bake sourdough bread, nor grow a garden (hell, I’m having enough of a time picking slugs off my flowers, and we love the bounty from our bi-weekly CSA, thank you). Like most knitters, though I blush to call myself such, I have a started sweater in a bag and a few patterns and skeins waiting in the bin. But I hardly need more sweaters, or scarves, or shawls, even if Friday’s sudden cold weather reminds me what’s coming.
No, what I realized, as I knitted together these recent bits of my life, was that the dreams I’d been keeping, hoping to sustain me through these days of uncertainty and change, were too far out of reach. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath as long as it would take, if ever, to return to the folk festival as I had known it, or to Morocco as I’d planned for this September. I realized I needed to dream closer to home.
I have no idea what dream or project. Not yet. But I feel a smile inside and out as I begin to wonder and feel those energies shimmer, swirl and coalesce.