Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer Retreat

I will be away from July 28 until mid-August on retreat in a cabin in the woods, writing and doing ceremony in a place with no internet or phone connection. I will post again on Wednesday, August 15.  May we each find the rest and rejuvenation of sacred self-care that we may offer sustainable service.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fresh Breezes

Sometimes a window inside your chest unexpectedly opens, and a fresh breeze moves through you in a way that makes you wonder if you have really ever taken a full breath before. Last week, in the midst of a retreat, I arose one morning at five to write and meditate before the group session began, and something shifted. Suddenly the disparate threads of my life formed a coherent whole in a way they had not before. Something inside of me that I did not know was hanging on, let go.

But, it wasn’t only joy and celebration, wasn’t all elation and new found freedom. At the edge of the fresh wind I could hear a long low moan of recognition, a great grief cry for the one wound I had avoided knowing fully, the one soul injury I had not acknowledged needed tending.

Still, there was a great relief in finding myself in a new spaciousness between the rock of denial and the hard place of despair. I felt like my feet were planted on solid ground, and there was a new ease in my breathing, a glimpse of a bigger picture, a deeper knowing of my purpose.

When our noses are no longer pressed up against the tapestry, freed from preoccupation with the individual threads and the knots, the pattern can be seen, and the very particular purpose that has always been there in the fabric of one small life is revealed. And we realize that it all comes down to this: all the struggles and challenges, all the blessings and benefits have all been in the service of the task that is ours.

And the question changes. Once it was- what is my purpose? Now it becomes- how will I live the one word I have taken life to say? How will I deepen the one healing I have taken life to find and embody? How will I embody this so it may help alleviate suffering in myself, others and the world?

It’s not that I have not had this happen before. This discovery of purpose and healing happens again and again, each time at deeper levels of the spiral, each time opening a door to greater freedom and awareness, each time feeling like the first time. And I begin again.

Perhaps this is why I was attracted to a shamanic path- the shaman is always the wounded healer, the one who has been opened by the wound and has gained wisdom that can be shared from the healing journey. It’s not about identifying with our wounding, but identifying with and sharing the magic and meaning embodied in the healing.

When we move past our resistance to seeing what is, stop trying to avoid the truth of our lives, healing and truth-telling can happen on a deeper level of being. That’s when choosing life fully becomes possible. For me, that’s when the real writing begins.

Oriah (c) 2012

(I will be away on personal retreat at a cabin in the woods for the next two weeks. No phone, no internet, just writing. Hopefully I will have a few things to share when I return August  15.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Peripatetic Rumination

This week I am attending a meditation and writing retreat at the University of Toronto. This is a small piece I wrote after doing a walking meditation in The Philosopher's Walk, a small downtown park.

The sun hammers the pavement, and the hot city smells like an unwashed body- sour with sweat and decaying skin cells seeping into our hidden creases and private crevasses, a reminder that we are flesh, dying a little every day whether we live fully or not.

Under the broad-leafed trees the scent shifts to a thousand shades of green. Cool black mud gives way a little beneath my bare feet, a silent sigh offering a moist blessing to each sole. To walk without shoes on grass in the middle of the city reminds me that the earth here is the same earth I lie down upon in the wilderness by the lake where the loon calls. 

Here, away from the street, it is easier to breathe and remember that all death feeds life. The dark earth is made fertile with the bodies of old leaves and grass, and the bits of other barefoot walkers- rich food for the lawn. Freshly mown, the blades of grass are an impossible marriage of soft moisture and blunt endings, like a wet kiss cut short by somebody’s idea of “enough.”
Here, beneath the trees, it’s tempting to romanticize the non-human world, to feel dismay at what we do with the drab brush of busyness and productivity, to despair at how, when we move too quickly, a great sad certainty rises from our bodies like a dark mist.

But back on the hot sidewalk, my ambivalence for what we are gives way to an involuntary tenderness as I pass one small boy walking with his mother, asking his questions and holding her hand, his head full of auburn curls and curiosity. His navy t-shirt is emblazoned with a tease in tall letters: “WHAT HAPPENS AT GRANDMA’S, STAYS AT GRANDMA’S!”

I laugh out loud, and he looks up, his face tipped toward the blazing sun. Without stopping I call out as we pass each other, “I’d love to know what happens at Grandma’s.”

His mother smiles.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Receiving The Men in Our Lives

This week’s drive to and visit at the facility where my father is being well cared for has left me too tired to write. So, I offer a story that comes to mind, one lived and written years ago that lifts me and honours the spirit of the sacred masculine that has been in my life most vividly through my two wonderful sons, (now 29 and 32) and my father, now stumbling in the haze of advanced Alzheimer's. It’s from the book, The Dance, and it’s a story that never fails to make me smile. I offer it here that we may recognize and honour the need and desire of the masculine to be of service by fully receiving the men in our lives.

Brendan and Nathan, now sixteen and nineteen, are clearly excited about their father's wedding. They come over to my place to show me their new suits. Shoulder-shrugging boys are transformed into handsome, responsible young men by dark blue wool, starched white collars and crimson neckties. Nathan asks me to help him practice his duties as usher for the ceremony. I instruct him to step forward, introduce himself with a simple, “Hi. I’m Nathan, Des’ son,” and hold out his arm asking, “May I show you to your seat?”

In his nervousness he cannot get it right. “Hi, I’m Nathanson,” he stumbles, jutting his arm out in front of me as if he is directing traffic or holding back an angry mob at a demonstration. His older brother’s burst of laughter does not help. He eyes widen in panic. “What am I going to do?” he wails. “Help me, Mom.”
“Just relax,” I say, trying to sound calm and supportive while biting my bottom lip to stop from laughing. “You’re the host. All you have to do is focus on the people coming in, on putting them at ease.”
“But what if a woman doesn’t take my arm, doesn’t know what to do or gets mad?”
“Just push her up against the wall and tell her, ‘Hey baby, take this arm or no seat for you!’ ” his brother suggests helpfully. I give Brendan a warning look even as I laugh.

"Nathan, don’t worry. If a woman ignores your arm and marches through, just let her go or walk along side. You don’t have to give her a nose bleed with your elbow.”

“Just grab her and pull her down the aisle, whether she wants to go or not,” Brendan quips. . . . .

. . . . Nathan understands his role is ceremonial, one of greeting and escorting women who are  capable of finding and walking to their seats on their own. He understands the effects of five thousand years of patriarchy, knows about misogynist culture and does not want to impede women’s movement toward liberation. 

But mostly, like all sixteen year old boys- like all of us- he just wants to do a good job, offer something of value, and avoid public humiliation.
So we practice ushering over and over.
Later, when he and Brendan come home, stumbling in at midnight full of stories and intoxicated by having been so close to the center of attention and sharing in the celebratory toasts, Nathan will tell me the ushering went fine. 

“There was,” he will tell me in a tone of shared confidences, “one girl about fourteen who was really nervous. She said to me, ‘I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do.’ But I just told her, ‘That’s OK. I do, I’ll show you’ and I put her hand in my arm and took her to her seat.”
He will be glowing with a quiet pride, his confidence in his ability to do what most men want to do- to offer something of value and meaning to the women around them- having grown this evening."

~Oriah Mountain Dreamer (c) 2001 The Dance published by HarperONE, San Francisco

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Leaving Normal

Each time I cross the threshold, I know I must leave behind my ideas of “normal,” but it takes me a few minutes to let go, to relinquish the familiar in an effort to avoid emotional vertigo. Resistance is futile and painful, like muscle being pulled from bone.

Someone has painted the inside walls of the dayroom to look like the outside of a log cabin- a two dimensional porch, bright green grass and ambivalent flowers depicted close to the floor. Initially I find it garish, jarring, but with the natural light coming in through several windows in the room and the mental confusion of the residents, I can see how they might actually be comforted by the illusion of being outside, in front of a cottage, on a warm summer day.

Even after all this time, I look for the man I knew- the one with a ready smile, and quick, sure, energetic movements; the one who, just two years ago, would hug me so tight when I arrived at or left my parents’ home that all the air would be expelled from my lungs; the one who was always moving and doing, chopping wood, cutting grass, tending the garden, clearing snow from the driveway. . . .

I see him now, my father- smaller and greyer than he was, slowly making his way around the room in an oversized mismatched sweat suit and someone else’s shoes. He will no longer tolerate hearing aids or glasses. I approach slowly, not wanting to startle, struggling to leave my impossible hopes behind.

I touch his arm and he looks into my face. Recognition and confusion pass over his features like clouds crossing the sun. I speak quietly, deliberately relaxing my body to fit into the pace of his world. He does not understand my words but responds to my tone and body language. Realizing that I am not asking something of him that he may not be able to understand, he relaxes. I walk with him, following his lead, sitting when he does, stroking his arm, touching his face.

My soothing tone and movements are not just for him. Inside, a part of me is screaming in protest. This younger self arises each time I visit this place, filled with grief and rage at the cruelty of the disease (Alzheimer’s) that is shaping my father’s life. Part of me is having a hard time accepting that there is nothing more to be done, that this is beyond our control. I softly touch the skin on the back of his hand- fragile, translucent parchment- to say to myself and to my father- “It’s okay. This is what is. We can be with what is. We can love in the midst of all of the conditions over which we have no control. Breathe.”

And slowly, as I find a calm centre, I slip across the border from the world's ideas of “normal” to being with what is. Here, now, a smile,or a moment of connection and tenderness outweighs all other priorities or plans, all the "normal" measurements of accomplishment.

Other residents come up to me. Some try to talk, others just sit close. One woman moves continually, incessantly calling out random syllables- “La, la, la, la, ya, ya, ya, ya . . .” Suddenly she stops in the middle of the room and, looking at the rest of us with a surprising and momentary gaze of clarity, says emphatically, “THIS is NOT working!” Soft laughter ripples around the room. One of the staff gently takes her arm to walk with her and says, “No Gladys, it’s not. But it’s okay.”

And I think about all the groups of people thought of as being outside “normal,” somehow less a part of the world or daily life: those who are physically or mentally ill or injured (my chronic illness has often put me outside “normal;”) the very old or very young (and I think of being home with babies and feeling disconnected from the hustle and bustle of “normal” life;) in an affluent society- the poor and homeless; those whose beliefs are radically different than ones expressed in the media; those whose colour, size, appearance or sexual identity does not fit the dominant cultures’ mould. . . . . 

And I realize just how much life is happening outside “normal,” and I wonder how our notion of “normal”- what is seen as ideal- could be expanded, gently stretched to include the real, to hold all that is alive, breathing, feeling, sensing.

Or perhaps there really is no “normal” against which we need to measure ourselves or our lives- a process that too often results in shame and disappointment.

Because the truth is, there are no conditions that put us outside love. And that’s a reality I am willing to embrace in every moment.

~Oriah (c) 2012

(Note: for those who do not know- my father has advanced stage Alzheimer's and is a small ward in a mental health facility for those with dementia who have become too violent to be safely cared for elsewhere. My father was never a violent man, but in the latter stages of the disease he has injured several people. Most folks stay there for a few months so the staff can discern triggers for aggressive behaviour and residents can return to being cared for closer to their families. Dad has been here for a year. His violent outbursts follow no discernable pattern and often appear to have no external trigger. The care is truly wonderful, although I admit I wondered on my first visit if the staff were all on valium. They were so relaxed, consistently moving and speaking very slowly. Of course, what they know is that folks who are not able to understand much in their environment are hyper-alert to and potentially triggered by the slightest tension in others. I am deeply grateful for the tender care they offer my father. They are truly earth angels.)