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.

Creative Sage-ing

“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.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

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