When you return from a long journey air sweet with lilac and unfurled green then you fall to your knees and become gratitude’s pilgrim. You were given the way at birth. Given blue fields and loam. Given an open throat, wild orchids, a path lit by milky stars. You were given desire, sweet darkness of the body, white hum in the bone.
It’s not the departure you long for, nor the finish, with its thick incense, tired feet and weeping. It is the quiet loneliness in between, When memory marries wind and you are pure light. Walking. One foot in front of the other. You cannot speak of this place. The way you cannot speak of grace or what holds you to this world. How at this moment you can only stand up and move toward the light of home.
– Rosemary Griebel – YES (2011)
Last week, listening to a past episode of The Road Home on my radio station CKUA, I heard my friend Rosemary recite three of her poems from this collection, YES. Her lovely voice, together with the background music selected by host Bob Chelmick made for several minutes of exquisite listening pleasure. I first met Rosemary virtually, and then in person when we both attended last November’s weekend workshop with our beloved Irish poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama. Knowing I’d see her, I brought my copy of her book for her to sign. It was there I learned how we are kin, not only in our shared love of words, but also in our both having walked the Camino de Santiago. It occurred to me while listening to Rosemary read last week, that I needed to feature here, in my Friday photo and poem post, some of the local poets whose love of words I share, to uplift those “prophets in my own land,” so to speak.
I’ve written here how the Camino does its work; on me, from the moment I made my decision and deposit a year ago December to walk, but more so upon my return. This past December I took some time to make the photo journal of my walk. Too, I wrote a short story, A Creative Walks the Portuguese Coastal Camino, drawing on my Camino blog posts, for both the Canadian Company of Pilgrims and Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging. And I had the lovely opportunity to talk about my walk and its impacts, both to support a fellow doing his Master degree in Tourism, exploring the transformative gifts walking a non religious Camino, and on the Ellipsis Thinking podcast, “Paying Attention,” hosted by my dear friend, Greg Dowler-Coltman.
Rosemary’s poem speaks to me of so much that was my Camino. That in the planning, the going and the return, I was “gratitude’s pilgrim”… how the “quiet loneliness” while walking became my necessary and bittersweet companion… my “tired feet and weeping” with relief at our safe arrival…and since home, remembering the light, the grace, the beauty. Thank you, Rosemary.
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.
“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, 1909–1961in 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.”
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.
“For years I had felt some kind of internal pressure to get going…However I had come to a point where I realized this intention was ego based and not what I wanted my creativity to be about. Letting go of old beliefs was painful and I grieved deeply, but I decided to let my dreams go. I let my ambitions go.”
Julie Elliot in Creative Aging: Stories from the pages of the journal Sage-ing with Creative Spirit, Grace and Gratitude, 2015
Every now and then, I feel the need to let go and release the trappings of what had been an earlier identity, pastime, or life experiment. A couple of decades ago I found a counselling agency that gladly received my collection of clinical social work texts and kindly gave me in exchange a charitable donation income tax receipt. Several years ago, under the guise of being the “librarian” for our community of practice, I passed on to a colleague the then iteration of my professional life, volumes dedicated to leadership, community development, conversation process, and group facilitation. A few summers ago, I gathered up the art supplies used for the intuitive painting sessions I had hosted and took them to our local “Hodge Podge” upcycle hut. My timing was perfect as there was an art teacher looking for supplies for her classroom in Fort McMurray, ravaged during the spring fires when the entire community had been evacuated. In the meantime, I regularly cull files, both paper and electronic, the former being easier to “erase” as I see them in the filing cabinet. Every time the act of letting go is guided by the maxim of making space for and trusting that something new is emerging.
Last week again the mood struck. Learning that a friend is intent to shift the focus of her consulting, I asked if she’d like my facilitator “tool kit” consisting of all those items that helped me engage groups in meaningful dialogue and purposeful activity. As she sorted and asked me questions about how I’d used the bits and pieces, it was a way of looking back over a skill set and expertise I’d cultivated for several decades. It became an opportunity to “pass it forward” and do a bit of mentoring. While she offered me a bottle of wine in exchange for the lot she took, what I really need are opportunities to share the stories, the bits and pieces of that skill set and my life that were meaningful, valued, where I’d been of use and in service.
For nearly two years I have been letting go of old beliefs, ways of being, professional identity. It has been painful, and I have grieved deeply, albeit a grief that ebbs and flows. I’ve come to realize that what I particularly miss are the connections and relationships I had because of my work. I cherished those people and the work we did. In a way it was effortless, the result of my own inner work and integration, and of the trust we shared. Of course, the pandemic with lockdowns, physical distancing, social isolation has exacerbated this loss and loneliness, accentuated the grief.
And so, in letting my dreams and ambitions go, my intention is now about learning to listen into what is being asked of me from someplace and someone other than me.
“This world needs us more than ever. It needs our skills, our caring, our perseverance. We still want to contribute. We still want our contribution to be meaningful. But who gets to define meaning? It is the world, not us. Meaning is defined by the situation, the person, the moment. To discover what is meaningful, we need only ask this simple question:
What is needed here? Am I the right person to contribute to this need?
This is a huge shift. We stop asking the world to give us opportunities to fulfill our purpose. Instead, we look to the world to tell us what it needs from us. Such a profound shift requires our deep attention. This Contemplative Journey offers you the time to go deeply into yourself—past, present and future—to discern where you are needed. And then determine where you can best contribute.”
Margaret J. Wheatley
A few months ago, I sent a story off to Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging. A writer friend shared she’d had a poem and some of her photography published by them. I felt my story, one that had been invited by another online journal and then rejected, might be suitable. Not only did I receive a wonderfully affirming “YES” from the founder, Karen Close, but it sparked what has now become a meaningful new relationship as I accepted her invitation to meander together in conversation, to help her co-imagine the journal’s next decade, and to eventually land as her co-editor. Having given a decade to this labour of love, a manifestation of her commitment to honour the transformational power of creativity, especially as we age, Karen sees in me someone while a decade younger, kindred in valuing the journal’s motto: Know Yourself. Be Yourself. Love Yourself. Share Yourself. And I recognize in Karen a deeply self-aware, elder creative who lives life to the brim with unabashed curiosity and compassion, someone to inspire in me the same.
While the journal offers me a place to write, as importantly I am seeking out and inviting stories that depict how the creative process shows up in, informs, and enhances one’s life – not merely in the typical ways of making art – but in how we live our lives fully, meaningfully. By encouraging first person anecdotes, insights, questions, wonderings, experiences these stories illustrate a principle and value of Sage-ing – that of how we grow into and feel more comfortable sharing our personal vulnerabilities. It becomes more about how we “show up” in our lives as told through our stories – and less about the “wisdom” we directly impart – that inspires others, cultivates wisdom, and nurtures our inner sage.
This is a shift – looking to the world and listening to what it needs from me. I asked and Karen said yes. She asked and I said yes. I recognize this is an opportunity where my past and present are coming together to be of use, in meaningful service, where I am needed. And I trust the future will take care of itself.
“It is from this place that one can allow the magic of creative spirit to indeed create you. Allowing creative spirit to expand your wisdom invites deep personal scrutiny and challenges one to act from a place of honouring and sharing one’s self.”
Karen Close in Creative Aging: Stories from the pages of the journal Sage-ing with Creative Spirit, Grace and Gratitude, 2015
We’d love to receive your stories. Please contact me via comments, including your email, so I can send you our submission invitation and guidelines. And here’s the link to our September issue – we publish quarterly, on the solstices and equinoxes – where my story – “Aging with Grit and Grace” – was published. It was a lovely way for me to celebrate the arrival of autumn, and this new life direction.