Any Small, Calm Thing

“Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people…”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

I’m not sure where this post is going. I only know the starting place is one of a vague worry, discontent and gnawing frustration, riding the surface of a deeper, less articulate grief. All mixed with genuine awe and appreciation for the remarkable autumn weather – still colour, still sunny, still without snow.

It is Hallowe’en evening as I write. Samhain in the Celtic tradition, it is the time of thinning veils between the worlds of living and dying. A threshold into the liminal, poised on the cusp of seasons changing from the fullness of harvest to hibernation’s cold and dark.

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own…

David Whyte, Sweet Darkness, excerpt

My husband just got off the phone. His friend from southern Alberta, a long time, multi-generational beef rancher, said his calves sold for a ridiculously low price, despite beef selling in our grocery stores for a king’s ransom. The $87,000 he and his son just spent on hay to feed the cattle over the winter, because they couldn’t grow any due to a record-breaking drought – yes, the one that persists, giving us, paradoxically, this remarkable weather – might not be enough if the forecasted La Nina hard, cold prairie winter comes to be.

This week’s news was featured headlines on the backlogged and broken supply chain – container ships on fire, hundreds of containers lost in the sea off the west coast when a storm bomb hit, extreme staffing shortages compounded by inconsistent vaccination policies – soaring inflation rates, something any of us shopping for anything knew months ago. Perhaps more of Covid’s unintended consequences. Too, Facebook’s announced its rebranding as “Meta,” a potentially ominous Orwellian empire.

Last week we returned to live theatre to see the award winning, evocative, and masterfully written, produced and acted production, BEARS, “the story about a Metis oil sands worker and his perilous and transformational quest through the Rockies.” (The Citadel playbill notes)

Last night I finished reading Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (2019), a first-hand description of navigating domestic abuse, poverty and its numerous Catch-22 ‘support’ services, single parenting without familial support, undergirded by her unrelenting need for an education and to write.

Sent by a dear friend, yesterday I watched a two minute video, Don’t Choose Extinction, produced by the United Nations Development Program – an organization fighting to end the injustice of poverty, inequality, and climate change – to precede the current UN climate summit in Scotland.

“You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

Like those disparate chips of color in a kaleidoscope, a slight shift brings into focus, in my pattern seeking way of being, an image that, as Dr. Estes writes, evokes jaw-dropping astonishment and righteous rage.

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts — adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…

Like persisting with fiddling to remove my earbuds to say hello to the neighbor I’d met last winter as we both walked our beloved aging dogs on the golf course. I’d seen her and “Sunny” a couple of times over the summer as Annie and I walked down her street. I always stopped to say hello and catch up a bit. Last week as I approached her house and saw her talking to another couple, I held Annie in, persisted and fiddled when it might have been easier to wave and walk on by. The couple asked if I wanted to pass them, all of us still Covid cautious, and I said no, that I wanted to say hello to my neighbor. Finished with their conversation, thanks and farewells expressed, they graciously moved on. Looking at my neighbor I asked how she was, and then I heard her story: that her Sunny dog had been put down Thanksgiving weekend, the outcome of a sudden visit to the emergency clinic after taking a turn for the worse and not eating. Too, her mother had died a few weeks earlier, but she was sadder about Sunny. Was that awful of her, she asked. I assured her it wasn’t, that Sunny had been her constant companion, her mother aged. Had they made a mistake because in that last hour at the clinic, Sunny had rallied, full of energy, eating handfuls of the “chocolate kisses” in the quiet room where the final injection would be administered.

It was another of those glorious autumn days, brilliant blue sky, trees full of colour, her gardens still beautiful in their waning. I invited her to look around and consider how it is that autumn pulls out all the stops, gives us such glory and colour, rallies before all dies for the winter’s rest. Her eyes filled with tears of understanding. That, she said, was something she could hold on to when doubt returned and sadness threatened.

In hindsight I knew why I had persisted and fiddled, how it was that I had responded to soul’s subtle signal to help another.

And again, today walking the golf course with Annie and my husband, as we passed by the bench at the first tee, I spotted a woman sitting with beverage. Ushering them ahead to wait, I quietly approached and asked if she regularly sat here. Would she be the same woman who had helped me last winter, when sitting there she’d seen me slip on the ice and fall smack on my keester, Annie startled by the suddenness? That during the time I heeded her advice to sit still and rest, make sure I hadn’t injured myself, she told me that her husband had passed two months earlier and that she came most days to sit on the bench with her tea, they being devoted golfers? Yes, it was her. Yes, her husband had died a year ago this month. Yes, it was still, after a year, a tender time, I had offered.

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my new gig as co-editor of SAGE-ING: The Journal of Creative Aging. I mentioned that while I was thrilled to have a ready platform to publish my poetry and pieces of contemplative, non-fiction impressions, what especially delighted me was the opportunity to invite others to submit their stories of creativity’s impacts and influences. Writing to a friend who accepted my invitation and submitted several of his poems for consideration:

“What was most lovely for me about receiving your email yesterday was that it helped coalesce and give words to something that’s been cooking inside – the moving through loss and grief I’ve felt this past year with not working to “feeling” this as a beauty-filled opportunity with SAGE-ING to be of service in another way – by inviting others to submit their stories. It means I can offer the gift of “seeing” another – and I know how deeply valuable that is for each of us. So thank you! I feel as if I have come through the eye of the needle so to speak…”

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…and be helped in so doing.

“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires … causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Close In

Start Close In

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To find
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
listening
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

– David Whyte –
 River Flow: New and Selected Poems

Loneliness

Today’s blog is late.  Moved to write, I got up at four, and while I finished before my usual 7 am posting time, I needed to sit awhile with this before pressing “publish.”

I’m lonely.

I think this might be, in part, why I’ve been having a hard time finding words, why I’ve been feeling fallow of late. Realizing this, admitting this, to myself, here, feels vulnerable. Yet it’s absolutely true. And perhaps in doing so, words might now come easier for me. I don’t know.

I do know, that when I walked Annie last week and I listened to Brene Brown’s podcast with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States and author of Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, I felt a big penny drop deep inside. In mid-April, a month into the global COVID-19 lockdown, they talked about loneliness and its huge physical and emotional toll on social connection. Three months later and I’m feeling its price.

The early days of COVID-19, when winter hung on with its snow and cold, the days had not yet appeared significantly lighter and longer, I enjoyed the prolonged cocooning it invited. While odd to see few cars on the streets, and even fewer folks around, I felt comfortable and at home in the stillness and quiet that would only come during those occasional holydays or snow days when everyone stayed home. But now, four months later, into summer with its longer days, and our staged re-entry, I find it harder to navigate. Each week it becomes more apparent that life as I have come to know it, with its felt rhythms and routines, conversations and connections, is no longer, at least not yet. Too, the utter uncertainty as to what I might next conjure in the way of work baffles and confounds.

Grief. I’ve spoken of it here on this platform over the months.

But when I heard Dr. Murthy define loneliness as the gap between the connections that you need and the social connections that you currently have, I knew “I am lonely.”

Murthy describes three dimensions of loneliness to reflect the particular type of relationship we might be missing:

  1. Emotional loneliness is missing that close confidant or intimate partner with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust.
  2. Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support.
  3. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.

“Loneliness is not a concept, it is the body constellating,
attempting to become proximate and even join with other bodies, through physical touch, through conversation or
the mediation of the intellect and the imagination.”

David Whyte, “Loneliness, ” in Consolations:
The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, 2015

So despite, blessedly, having a loving, steadfast husband of forty years, and family including my healthy, alert, fully engaged parents, I feel lonely.

I have dear friends, near and far. We stay in touch. Yet, I feel lonely for the in person, physical, face to face, exchange of energy and ideas and feelings and smiles and tears and embraces. For that “mediation of the intellect and the imagination.”

Now living into a different age and stage of life, my felt sense of community has shifted. Those ready-made places and affiliations, conveniently arrived at through work, are no longer. So how to create new connections? And how to do so under these peculiar circumstances induced by the pandemic?

As I’m writing this, I feel my body sigh in relief, with recognition. And, too, the toll. Anxiety that hurts. Insomnia, most often for me early morning waking at two or three. Lethargy. Lack of focus. Aimlessness.

In the last few days, I’ve begun to talk about this.

I’m reaching out to friends to find ways to “safely” meet together, in real time, in our real bodies.  

I have “professional” support. When I arrived home from three months living in Europe, culture shocked, rattled to the bone by family upheavals, destabilized with the news my position at work had been “abolished,” grieving the passing of our Lady dog, I sank. And from that place I reached out to make an appointment with a therapist I’d once recommended to friend. I knew I needed to take my own advice. I’ve been seeing her ever since. Ten times a year. Like a zen sitting – calming, soothing, regulating. Having myself worked as a therapist, and years ago been involved in analytic process work, I recognize how the practice has changed, now informed by research in trauma and its neuro-physiological-emotional impacts. That hour, with me and her, helps me show up well in this world. I smile imagining I’ll maintain this part of my self-care practice for the rest of my days.

“Allow your loneliness time
To dissolve the shell of dross
That had closed around you;
Choose in this severe silence
To hear the one true voice
Your rushed life fears:
Cradle yourself like a child
Learning to trust what emerges,
So that gradually
You may come to know
That deep in that black hole
You will find the blue flower
That holds the mystical light
Which will illuminate in you
The glimmer of springtime.”

John O’Donohue, “For Loneliness,” an excerpt in
To Bless the Space Between Us, 2008

Loneliness.
One of the hidden, insidious impacts of life during this pandemic.
Even more so. Because of it.

Paradoxically, I know I’m not alone with loneliness.
So, let’s not suffer this one alone. Talk about it. Reach out. Get help.

With love and kindest regards.

Beauty in a Hard Place

My Life My Prayer

I love our Annie dog for her daily nudging to get outside and walk – her, me, us. Like clockwork, come early afternoon she’ll fetch me. Typically finds me sitting at my computer so it’s easy to put the full weight of her head on my arm to signal, COME. She is patient and knows it might take a minute or several, and I have a commitment to her, to come.

We’ve had a cold start to spring, with lots of snow, and this week, temperatures well below freezing, and well below that with wind chill. Frankly, oddly perhaps, I’m grateful. Because this prolonged winter with its invitation to cocoon, might help us all “stay home” and do our personal best to contain this, as yet, incessant spread of COVID-19. Yesterday afternoon, another brilliant blue sky sunny cold day, Annie and I were the only ones on the path through our bit of urban nature, the golf course five minutes from home. It’s spacious, lined with trees – cottonwood and aspen, mayday and spruce. It’s quiet enough to hear waxwings twitter, sparrows chirp, and now the returning geese honk. And it’s open enough to see wide expanses of sky and clouds floating overhead.

Lately, with the sun higher in the sky, we’ve taken to sitting on a bench at one of the tee-offs. I help Annie up and nestled in the crook of my side, with my arm holding her warm, we sit together and take in the view, breathe in the scent.

Lately, I find myself praying – to the sun and the moon, and the stars and clouds, to the sky and the trees and the wind and the birds, to the god of my being and beyond. Sometimes silent, but often out loud, with Annie as my witness, I say “thank you” for as much and as many as I can remember in the moment. I speak my worries. I ask for guidance and help to stay present with the “bigness, muchness, fullness”of these unraveling times. And I ask that my life be my prayer.

“It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.”

Mary Oliver, Redwing, 2008

“And I pray….my life is a prayer more conscientiously now.” I first spoke these words in an email to a dear friend a few weeks back. It just came, in the moment, fingers pecking at the keyboard. I paused. True, and what does this mean? How does one live one’s life as prayer? 

In a first draft of this post, I had a list of things that I’m doing. But when I “winnow to essence,” the simplest, truest response is notice, name and thank people being and bringing their best to the world. Be kindness. Be.

“It is a great gift to yourself and also to the world…
to get settled inside yourself,
to know what it is to befriend reality,
to figure out how to stay soft.”

Krista Tippett, On Being, 2020

There are moments when this hardly feels enough. When I hear of friends living on the brink, doing all they can, moment by moment, to recreate business plans to stay afloat. Or those who have been laid off as community services shutter. Or learn it’s a distant family member stuck on the cruise ship no port had permitted safe harbour until now, wondering if her spouse, diagnosed positive, will make it home, alive. Or read the text from my “sister” in Germany, she in self isolation with a chronic respiratory condition, but on the phone day and night with her team of pharmacists to ensure the best care for their community, while frantically sourcing medicines that are fast running out.

Then a wave of sadness.

Then a deep breath to remember this is my offering. It comes from my deepest regard and kindness. With the highest intention, for the good of all. 

It has to be enough. 

“Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
until now.
Until now.”

 

David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet, 1990

 

Recalibrating to a New Now

Today, sitting around our home, still in my robe and slippers at nearly noon, with not a thing needing to get done, I realized how much my interior state is still one of having to do something to feel purposeful. Just sitting there (oh the judgment with typing “just” and what that connotes), looking out the window, sipping a coffee, and I’m feeling this pressure, this nagging urgency to get going, get doing.

To do something to feel purposeful.

As a kid, it was always about staying one step ahead so as not to get in trouble. Hyper-vigilance became my m.o. and like most qualities, it has its double edge. On one hand, an ability to quickly scan and sense into the field, to notice, to decide, and act, or not. Very helpful in lots of places. On the other, an ever-present heightened awareness that can quickly become anxiety. Not so helpful when it takes over and leaves me lagged and jagged in its wake.

Then as an adult, both in my professional work, and spiritually seeking nature, I read and espoused tomes on finding the elusive work-life balance of purpose, meaning, values aligned engagement, so on and so forth. Titles, many of which remain on the book shelf, and which continue to attest to its selling and seductive power. Still doing something to feel purposeful.

Now, it seems those very words, phrases, steps and stages to which I aspired are backfiring as I sit in this new now place of having an expanse of wide open time and space in which to do, to be anything I wish to do, to be. I realize it’s always a matter of interpretation, and I’ve truly appreciated the authors and thought leaders from whose books and words I’ve gleaned much, but I’m wondering, yet again, the extent to which this too, is conditioning premised on a core belief of being flawed, and not enough, just as I am? Of not trusting a deep inner balance beyond myself? I wonder how much this is a ruse we’ve all bought into, the striving that becomes driven, the discipline that shapeshifts to bullying. The way we keep ourselves and others in line making, doing, getting and growing.

“All day long you do this, and then even in your
sleep…pan for gold.

We are looking to find something to celebrate
with great enthusiasm,

wanting all our battles and toil and our life to make sense.

‘I found it, I found it, I found it!’ a hermit once
began to shout, after having spent years in solitude, meditating.

‘Where?’ a young shepherd boy near by asked.
‘Where?’

And the hermit replied, ‘It may take a while,
but I will show you. For now, just sit near to me.’

All day long we do this with our movements
and our thoughts…pan for gold.”

Hafiz in Daniel Ladinsky, A Year With Hafiz, 2011

It’s been over seven years since I “retired.” Never was and still not comfortable with the word, I didn’t miss a beat before quickly launching myself into a consulting practice. I admit my drive was in part fear driven. Within two weeks I’d designed my professional web presence and had contracts. While still the fall to early summer rhythm I’d been used to for twenty-five plus years, it was more spacious, and seldom was I driving in lousy weather. I continued working with people I loved, offering myself from the place of vocation, best described to me by Frederick Buechner and John O’Donohue:

“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” ―

Frederick Buechner

“That edge where the individual gift fits the outer hunger and where the outer gift fits the inner hunger.”

John O’Donohue in Angeles Arrien, The Second Half of Life, 2005

If taxes are an indication, 2018 was my best year ever. And then with provincial budget cuts, contracts suddenly weren’t, and others were curtailed, so that by late last fall, work as I had known it came to a sudden halt. While not surprising, even feeling an almost secret deep gladness, I realized this seven-year cycle of work post “retirement” had come to completion, and would look different here on in. I wouldn’t be “hunting” for work. I’d be content with what came my way, trusting in enough. I’d use that refined ability to scan, sense into, notice and follow the energy to God knows where, even if it was to nowhere and nothing.

While my head was making sense of it all, in December, my body responded with a month plus systemic virus, infecting my physical senses, sinuses and lungs. “Perhaps I was detoxing?” offered a wise friend. Yes, and resting.

“In the first state of rest is the sense of stopping, of giving up on what we have been doing or how we have been being. In the second, is the sense of slowly coming home, the physical journey into the body’s uncoerced, un-bullied self, as if trying to remember the way or even the destination itself. In the third state is a sense of healing and self-forgiveness and of arrival. In the fourth state, deep in the primal exchange of the breath, is the give and take, the blessing and being blessed and the ability to delight in both. The fifth stage is a sense of absolute readiness and presence, a delight in and an anticipation of the world and all its forms; a sense of being the meeting itself between the inner and outer, and that receiving and responding occur in one spontaneous movement.”

David Whyte, “Rest” in Consolations, 2015

Hesitant to give over completely to Whyte’s synthesis, I know intimately the truth of his first and second stages. Resonating with “slowly coming home” given my 2020 word. Reclaiming myself from the bullied over-riding of my body’s need and knowing. Rediscovering trust. Restoring faith. *Recalibrating, again, into this new now. But first, to pause and rest.

*Recalibrating – In 2011, friend gifted me this word to describe my inner process when I returned home after three months in Europe. It’s a recurrent life theme about which I’ve written or referenced over the course of those years since:

 

A Gift from Winter

Perspectives with Panache, 2006

The Winter of Listening

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,

what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
forgetting
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
forgetting
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
difficulty
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
otherness.
Silence and winter
has led me to that
otherness.

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

– David Whyte –
The House of Belonging, 1997

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