Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When Magic Happens

Years ago, I leased a wilderness campsite where my sons and I spent most of our summers. It was on a small lake in the midst of an eighty-square mile private forest and wildlife reserve in Northern Ontario. For me, there is nothing like lying on sun-warmed granite, breathing in the scent of towering pines and listening to the long mournful call of the loon echo across the clear water of a small lake. It heals all the places in me that have become bruised and broken.

But life changed. The site was hit with a tornado (while we were there- and I can say it is a surreal experience to be, even briefly, in the very centre of a tornado flinging hundred foot pines around you like tooth-picks) and my sons needed to be in the city for summer jobs. And then, I married Jeff and moved out of the city to a place in the country in Southern Ontario. Although our home was not on the metamorphic rock of the Canadian Shield it was beautiful and quiet and surrounded by a pine forest. I still longed for the northern rocks and water, but it didn’t seem sensible to maintain a second place outside the city.

Now, things have changed- again. Being back in the city full-time I have come to truly appreciate all that Toronto has to offer. But I also have a renewed need for a place outside the city. But spots like the one I had- affordable, remote, private, on a lake etc.- are few and far between. I went on the waiting list for a leased site at the forest reserve, but did not expect to hear back for several years.

Two nights ago, lying in bed listening to the helicopters sweeping over the city during the G20 meeting, I could feel my heart and body ache for the wilderness. But with all of the logistical and emotional work of my recent marital separation, I didn’t feel I had the energy (or the heart) to do a lengthy search to find some place that would meet my need for privacy and rock and water. Lying there, I suddenly remembered how the original site had come to me: I had been visiting a friend who had a spot at the wildlife reserve, and I’d taken her canoe out onto the lake. I’d lain down in the canoe and drifted with the wind, watching the sky and allowing my deep and desperate need for a place of healing to fill me. And I let my longing fuel my prayer: “Please, I need a place just like this, and I need it now. I have no energy to search, to look at places that don’t fit, to figure out how to do this. Please.” And in one week a site on the same lake became available.

Two nights ago, remembering this , I once again allowed my deep longing for the wilderness, for the healing of the grey and pink granite and clear waters, to fill me. And I prayed a similar prayer: “I do not have the energy to look. I need a place like this again. Please, help me.”

This morning I called the wildlife reserve to see if they had any temporary camp sites available for August. To my surprise, a woman I used to know when I had a long term spot there answered the phone (I thought she had moved on.) She told me the only short term sites they had were for two weeks and were on one of the busier lakes. “But,” she said, “as luck would have it, a seasonal site on the lake where you used to be just became available this morning. Do you want it?”

And I said, “YES!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

So, for some of July and hopefully most of August, I will be camping on a small quiet lake, surrounded by wilderness and lying on weather-smoothed rock. I will watch the herons, and listen to the loons and the wolves and the coyotes. I will sit by the fire and may even build a sweat lodge (used to have one at the old site.) I will take my heart and my body to the land that heals me. This might mean I miss a blog entry here and there (no electricity or internet) but I will see what kind of connection is available in the village nearby.

I feel. . . . so blessed, and so very grateful. And I also feel. . . . like I have been touched, not for the first time, by sacred magic. It’s not so much that I felt magic had left my life but that in my preoccupation with logistics and survival, with the grief of difficult change and intermittent anxiety about the shape of my future, I had lost my alignment with the magic that is always there. But pausing for a moment and allowing my heart’s longing to fill me I opened. And magic reached out and pulled me back into alignment with the sacred heart that holds us all. I am blessed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Where do you find your joy? Oh, I know- ideally, on a really good day, in a moment of Full Awareness and Spiritual Insight we can find and appreciate joy in every moment. But, I’m thinking here of the joy that can be found in a hope-I-can-get-the-kids-to-bed-before-I-collapse kind of human day. Because I am pretty sure that besides deep restorative sleep (which is so necessary) the other thing we need in order to meet the challenges of daily life and the news that oil geysers are blackening the ocean waters and the economy is wobbling unpredictably is joy.

Lately, I’m beginning to see that joy is predicated on a radical level of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It’s about giving up the struggle to be better or different than you are, about seeing what you have to work with (mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually etc.) and, accepting this, finding what feeds your heart so you can offer the best of what you are to the world. The “Green Bough” in the title of this blog is from the Chinese proverb: If I keep a green bough in my heart the singing bird will come. The singing bird is joy that gives us hope, cultivates faith and offers us renewed energy. The green bough is the holding of who and what we are (not what we think we should be or could be some day) in our hearts without reservation, with humour and deep self-acceptance.

I find joy in lots of places and activities but never more consistently than during my early morning hours. While the city is still quiet I rise and make a cup of tea and return to bed to write my dreams, do my prayers and read something that stirs my imagination (at the moment it is Jungian analyst James Hollis’ Swamplands of the Soul : New Life in Dismal Places, and Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter.) I read and take notes. I am moved to write and reflect and contemplate. And I delight in the learning, the exploration, the words on the page of the book I am reading or the journal I am writing. And almost every morning, at some point, I pause and feel the thrill of not wanting to be anywhere else, doing anything else, being anyone else. I let the moment sink in- the delight and the privilege of being who and where I am. And I whisper to the dawning light with an overflowing heart, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I know- not everyone’s idea of a good time and an image of me in bed reading and writing wouldn’t make a very effective good-time commercial. But that’s the thing about joy- because it’s predicated on self-acceptance it happens in the places where we are most ourselves and that’s different for each individual.

Joy is the giggle of delight that releases the tension we did not even know we were holding in our necks and shoulders and big toes. Joy is what we feel when a moment of prayer, a cup of tea or well written phrase returns us to a sense of connection to our inner selves when we weren’t aware that we had wandered away from our own centre. It’s the exhale of arriving at an inner home we thought we could never forget. It is sometimes bittersweet as we realize how long we have been driving on autopilot, disconnected, not really taking in the world or our day or our own soft animal body and human heart.

Sometimes we forget that joy is the point: the deep pleasure in all aspects of being that comes when we know we are exactly where we need, want and desire to be; when we need, want and desire to be exactly where we are and find ourselves spontaneously saying, “This is good. Thank you.”

Lately, as I read letters and do counselling sessions I listen carefully, asking myself, “Where does this person find joy?” Sometimes if the person is wandering in the deep woodlands of confusion or grief or weariness I have to watch carefully for the small white stones dropped by the soul on the dark forest floor as markers pointing to their particular path of joy. Because although we humans can live through long periods of hardship and illness, of uncertainty and suffering, we cannot live fully without joy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Remembering What I Ache For

I woke up this morning, my face wet with tears, hearing the opening lines of “The Invitation” echoing from my dreams: “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for.” I pressed my hand to the ache in my chest.

I know why this comes today. Last night I went to hear CBC radio’s Eleanor Wachtel interview Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve Been Silent about. Azar was inspiring- in the true meaning of that word- an in-breath of Spirit that lifts and reminds us of what we thought we could never forget: that the fostering of imagination and ensuring the free expression of our creative impulses are as necessary as bread and air and water to the life of human beings.

Caught up in the flotsam and jetsam of daily life, the painful story of separation, the wearisome details of getting information to lawyers, of sorting what to leave behind and what to gather for the next leg of the journey, I have wandered far away from the truth Azar speaks of and embodies with grace and elegance.

Azar lives in Washington DC and is from Iran. She told us stories about about men and women in Iran being jailed and killed for reading books we in North America could find on any library shelf. And she spoke with embodied passion about the power of literature, of story, of art to create and chronicle meaning, to stir the imagination for finding solutions in an increasingly complicated world, to ensure true democracy by educating citizens in different ways of perceiving and thinking and imagining the world.

And I remembered why I have read and written all of my life. I remembered how much I ache to write. At one point Azar said, “We write to retrieve what is lost,” and I wanted to weep. When we write or paint or compose or dance (or do any other kind of creative work) we retrieve parts of ourselves we did not even know were lost- the stories and characters that have peopled our lives, the meaning that was waiting to be uncovered and co-created, meaning that sustains us and can sustain our people (and who are not our people?) Receiving others’ creative expressions we expand our own vision, stir our own imagination and open ourselves to a broader, deeper wisdom.

Totalitarian regimes know about the power of the imagination and creative work, which is why they respond with what Azar called “naked violence” in an effort to control and curtail both.

When I wrote a book about doing our creative work I titled it What We Ache For, because I know this to be the central ache in our lives: to participate in creation by allowing the imagination to move us, lift us and guide us in offering something to the world. Our lives offer us a wealth of experience- the raw material of daily life- that can be spun into the gold of the stories and images and songs and movements that guide us in co-creating a world birthed in the imagination of possibilities.

Loss, as Azar pointed out last night, presupposes possession. We cannot lose what we never had. And those who have lost what we take for granted- like the men and women in Iran risking their lives to read or write forbidden poetry and stories- help us remember, value and participate in what we have been given.

I ache to write: stories, books, poems. And I am grateful to remember that I must trust this longing, must set it at the centre of my life.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Facing an Unfamiliar Truth

I am not fine.

There. The truth is out. Sometimes the truth I cannot say seeps out through my finger tips and onto the keyboard. Then the small black letters sit there, staring at me from the computer screen, the flashing cursor and me just waiting to see what comes next.

How is it that the world continues? The sun is just coming up. A single ray breaks through the cloud cover and fills the apartment with liquid gold. Birds sing the light into being. City traffic starts to move over rain-soaked pavement.

I always say I’m fine. It’s a habit. A way of reassuring others that I don’t need much from them, that they don’t need to be afraid. A way of reassuring myself that things are not as bad as they seem, that I don’t need to be afraid.

A year ago, early one morning in the city- before I’d allowed the thought that my marriage was unravelling- I phoned the tele-nurse to see if she thought I should go to a hospital emergency ward. I hadn’t been able to take a full breath for over twelve hours. There was a constant and penetrating ache in my back, as if someone had slipped a dull knife blade between my ribs.

The night before, preparing to give a talk at a local venue, I’d had to lie down on the floor and wait for my wildly beating heart to slow down. Lying on the carpet, I’d put my hand on my chest. Like a trapped and frantic animal, my heart seemed to be throwing itself against my rib cage, seeking a way out or a way to knock itself out and find relief in unconsciousness. It was beating at six times its normal speed, skipping an occasional beat, shaking my body from head to toe.

Minutes before, on the phone, my husband had told me he was not going to keep a promise. He’d forgotten. Made another commitment. Something more important.

I told myself I was fine. My heart begged to differ. There was nothing to do but lie on the floor, breathe slowly and wait for it to pass. And it did. Suddenly the rapid fluttering stopped. There was a pause, a moment in between tachycardia and a normal pulse. Silence. I felt suspended, as if a decision was being made at a cellular level, beyond or behind or below consciousness, about whether or not to continue. I waited and watched, unsure of the outcome.

Then, my heart resumed beating at a normal if slightly irregular rhythm, like someone staggering away from the scene of a car crash. That’s when the ache in my back had started, like a kink from trying an impossible yoga posture, as if some part of me had stretched beyond its limits in order to continue.

The next morning, I still couldn’t take a full breath.

The nurse on the phone asked a few questions. Then told me she was dialling 911. She thought I might be having a heart attack.

Really? I said. I’m fine.

An impossibly short time later, two firefighters, a police officer and two paramedics were leaning over me.

Really, I said between small sips of air, I’m fine. It’s probably just stress.

The police officer shook his head and went into the hallway. A firefighter put an oxygen mask over my face. One of the paramedics said, You are aware that stress can cause a heart attack?

I lifted the oxygen mask and reassured them all. I’m fine.

They attached electrodes to my skin, while I wondered if someone would put that on my gravestone: She said she was fine.

When I was growing up, my parents were worried about my brother- unhappy and sullen, smoking dope, drinking beer, skipping school to hang out in the small town pool hall. My mother told me they never worried about me. They knew I’d be fine. I’m sure she meant it in gratitude- one offspring they did not need to be concerned about. I’m sure she meant it as a compliment- a testament to my strength and common sense. I heard it as a job description. My job was to be fine, even when I wasn’t. So, I have very little talent for not being fine, for recognizing when I am not fine. Once in a while, I wonder: Am I fine? Who should I ask?

The firefighters left. Forty-five minutes later the paramedics told me they didn’t think I was having a heart attack, although they recommended seeing a doctor.

So now here I am, a year later. My marriage is ending. My husband and I are separated. Could I say I didn’t see it coming? My heart did. After a decade together, I am not fine with the loss of my home, marriage, husband and dreams of deep intimacy and a shared life.

There is some relief in being able to lay down the burden of always been fine.

I am not fine.

And that’s okay.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Disappointing Others

The stanza in the poem “The Invitation” that's raised the most questions is the one that asks if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. Simple but not easy.

Last week I received an email from a man who said the poem had been helpful to him during his (happily successful) battle with cancer. He was writing however, not to thank me, but to berate me for doing what he saw as turning the poem into “an industry.” (I assume he meant writing books, having a website and teaching etc.) Of course, he did not realize I had done all of these things for many years before the poem had been written and shared, and he had not read any of the books. Still he told me that “Oprah would be proud,” and he was “disappointed.”

The week before, a woman in Australia also named Oriah emailed. When I responded with a couple of comments about how I came to have the name she replied that she had already read this information on my website and was “disappointed” that I had only given what she assumed was a cut and paste reply.

Assuming we are not living in a hermitage, disappointing the expectations of others is something we all experience. Others- spouses, off-spring, co-workers, neighbours, friends and family- can and will have ideas about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do. An even slightly more public life expands the opportunity for expectations and inevitable disappointments. I find it useful to notice my reactions to the disappointment of those who only know me through my work in the world, if I want to get a sense of how I am affected by the disappointments of those who are closer to me.

My first response to the above emails was a kind of who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are moment. Then, after I calmed down, I realized (of course) that their disappointments, like their expectations, are theirs and have little or nothing to do with me.

But I don’t want to dismiss how difficult it can be to disappoint others. Because developing the willingness and ability to disappoint others (not deliberately but just by being ourselves) is really a key factor if we are to have any hope of living true to our deepest selves. If I try endlessly to keep everyone else happy (ie- fulfilling their expectations of me) I will truly not be able to tell what my body, heart, mind and soul need or desire.

I have no magic formula for being able to disappoint others to be true to ourselves, but a crucial first step is to bring to consciousness our own fears about and difficulties with disappointing others. Do we feel we have to avoid disappointing others to earn love, and our place on the planet? (Two things that cannot and do not have to be earned.) If these fears are running us unconsciously it will be pretty hard to counteract them. If, on the other hand, we have some awareness of how hard it is to disappoint others, we can watch for that twinge of guilt or rage or fear and keep walking toward what calls us anyway.

When the people we love are disappointed in us it is harder than it is with relative strangers. As Jeff and I separate I am aware of how disappointed we each have been in the other and are in ourselves. I have failed to be who he thought, hoped, and believed I was. Some of this has nothing to do with me. His thoughts, hopes and beliefs were his, based on his needs, his projections, his unlived life. (Just as my thoughts, hopes and beliefs about him are mine.) But, of course, when we love another we cannot help but ache when the other is hurt and even, sometimes, wish (or try) to be who they want and think they need us to be. It just doesn’t work.

Because, in the end we are just ourselves, and it's not healthy to be where being who we are is not enough for someone else. In turn, we each have to acknowledge and take back our expectations and consider what aspect of our unlived life is speaking to us (about us) through our own disappointments.