Winnow to Essence

In recent seasons of being, I have had occasion to reflect on the utterly improbable trajectory of my life, plotted not by planning but by living.

We long to be given the next step and the route to the horizon, allaying our anxiety with the illusion of a destination somewhere beyond the vista of our present life…

And so the best we can do is walk step by next intuitively right step until one day, pausing to catch our breath, we turn around and gasp at a path. If we have been lucky enough, if we have been willing enough to face the uncertainty, it is our own singular path, unplotted by our anxious younger selves, untrodden by anyone else.

Maria Popova, The Marginalian, December 12, 2021

And so it goes. Learning to live my life by living, not by planning. Finding myself a couple of weeks ago, perhaps just as Maria Popova penned those words, at a crossroads in the trajectory of my life.

For years, November would find me going through calendar and files to track and complete my annual continuing competency record, a requirement for renewing my professional social work registration. Last year with the collapse of my consulting practice due to covid and budget cuts, I maintained my license under the “retired” category for a significantly lower fee, not quite ready to jump ship. This year that category was no longer available due to changes in provincial legislation. My only option would be to renew at the considerable annual fee or cancel my registration.

When I pay attention, it’s easier to discern that life has a way of pointing out the way. I’d been saying for the past year or so that I wanted to pursue writing as my next life chapter. I certainly didn’t need to be a social worker to do that. And so I said “NO” to the renewal, the finality of that chosen step arriving in my inbox the next day. A formal letter telling me that I had lost all the rights and privileges of a Social Worker, that I could no longer call myself Social Worker as it is a title protected by legislation, nor could I practice within the scope of social work practice in the province. Door slammed shut. That road closed.

Ironic that the following day, I had been invited to host a circle conversation for teachers dealing with the stress of working within the ever-shifting context of covid. As an established circle practitioner I didn’t need to be a social worker to do that.

But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing.  

Carl Jung, Selected Letters of C.G. Jung, 1909–1961 in The Marginalian, December 12, 2021

I found myself in a similar but more complicated quandary a few years ago when deciding whether to “relinquish” my American citizenship. Consulting with tax accountants and immigration lawyers, I had to weigh a potentially hefty consequence of shutting that door – being forbidden entry into the USA. I procrastinated for several years, retainer and accounting fees mounting. Finally, in conversation with a friend, decision and direction became apparent as I heard myself say I needed to “winnow to essence.”

I’d written about this way of being in my world, describing the simplicity I sought, which was necessary then:

These words have become a mantra for the gradual process of letting go of a lot of my life’s trappings, and committing to exchange things for experiences…
Winnowing to essence. Quite a bit of not a lot. Mirroring for each other an innate way of being, born of aging.

A way of being which is now even more important for the writer I am becoming. Who I am, what with a couple of honorable mentions for poems submitted to contests, being one of fourteen from a hundred invited to read another, and another published online this past weekend. Too, the enjoyable co-editing collaboration resulting in this month’s online publication of Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging, featuring submissions from several of my friends. Simplicity and solitude that have been paradoxical gifts from the pandemic. And yes, knowing loneliness as part of this creative process.

In this blur of being by ourselves, we learn to be ourselves. One measure of maturity might be how well we grow to transmute that elemental loneliness into the “fruitful monotony” Bertrand Russell placed at the heart of our flourishing, the “fertile solitude” Adam Phillips recognized as the pulse-beat of our creative power…

Rilke, contemplating the lonely patience of creative work that every artist knows in their marrow, captured this in his lamentation that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” — Rilke, who all his life celebrated solitude as the groundwater of love and creativity, and who so ardently believed that to devote yourself to art, you must not “let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge.”

Maria Popova, The Marginalian, December 19, 2021

A few weeks ago I reposted my piece on re-Wintering with its invitation to withdraw from the world to allow transformation within the gift of this season’s crucible. It’s a time when the poet doesn’t invent, rather she listens. As I write tonight, soon it will be Winter Solstice, in less than a week Christmas, and then the end of another year, the beginning of a new one. Here in the northern hemisphere, this holy season of darkness nudges me ever deeper towards the slow and simple. With a calendar free of social engagements, I walk Annie, cook, tend to our home and some emails.

In my meandering way I suddenly recalled, when referring above to Rilke, words from Joanna Macy, having listened to her last week in conversation with her writing companion Anita Barrows, and Krista Tippett, discussing their translation of Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet:

Well, it seems clear that we who are alive now are here for something and witnessing something for our planet that has not happened at any time before. And so we who are alive now and who are called to — who feel called, those of us who feel called to love our world — to love our world has been at the core of every faith tradition, to be grateful for it, to teach ourselves how to see beauty, how to treasure it, how to celebrate, how — if it must disappear, if there’s dying — how to be grateful. 

Joanna Macy, On Being with Krista Tippett, June 24, 2021

As the coming days grow darker, I wish for you time to slow down to see, treasure and celebrate beauty. May you open to the gifts of wintering. May you know gratitude in your life. May you love our world.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Thanksgiving

Last week I received a friend’s monthly newsletter update. GG and I met at my first ever writer’s retreat. She is also an artist who made the umber clay rattle stamped with the dragonfly I received at my first ever quest. If I lived closer, in the same country, I’d regularly visit her in her studio to partake of her wise and soulful classes, to bask in her warm and joyful spirit.

In preparation for her upcoming SoulCollage class, she’ll use this video of Joanna Macy as inspiration. As I watched and listened, I was struck by Joanna’s description our gladness for being alive – our thanks for life – as a politically subversive act. Too, for using our gratitude as the ground for being present with our suffering, our mourning, and our grief.

JOANNA MACY: Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path from Old Dog Documentaries on Vimeo.

So from my country of Canada, where we celebrate Thanksgiving today – again under a pandemic public health state of emergency – I share Joanna’s words, and those she has translated from the poet Rilke’s Book of Hours – with gratitude to GG. May we love it all, and let life through in the biggest doorway of our being.

With much love, kindest regards, and gratitude for your presence in my life, dear friends.

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