Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Just Two Words

Had a moment this week that made me smile. I was on Facebook and noticed a post asking folks what they would say to their younger self if they could. Now, I’ve done this kind of thing before, as both an imaginative exercise and a bit more literally when I spoke to a graduating class at my old high school a few years ago. In the end I basically said something like- From this point on, you have the power and responsibility to shape your life, to make your own choices. If you can recognize this and step into that power, you will be free to create a life that lets you discover and live who you truly are.  

Of course, I was thinking about myself at eighteen, still fettered by other people’s ideas about who I was and what I “should” do. If I could do it over, I would wander more in the world, would let myself try things, quit things, try other things. . . .

So, it was a surprise this week when, seeing the latest iteration of this thought experiment asking people to offer only two words that they would say to a younger self, the words that came were, “You’re okay.”

Yes, if I could only say two words to the person I was at seven or seventeen or twenty-seven, they would be “You’re okay.” It made my heart ache a little to realize I had not known this truth at any of those ages. 

Those words have two meanings for me: I am - we each are- okay, just the way we are, and okay is good enough to contribute to the world and have a full, deep life. And, we will be okay- which is to say that although at times the body knows pain, the heart does ache, and the mind reels in confusion, who and what we are in an essential way remains and is okay. It is possible that if I had known that I was and in some essential way always would be okay, perhaps some of the suffering I unwittingly created for myself and others might have been avoided or mitigated.

If I was speaking to that group of students graduating from my old high school today that’s what I’d want to communicate: You’re okay. I'd want to say those two words in a way that would root them in the minds, hearts and bodies of those listening, infuse them with the power of deeply loving our human lives. Because all the rest of it- giving power over to others to decide what we do, where we go, how we live; getting stuck in the fears and limitations that have nothing to do with who we really are- all of this is based on the fact that we don’t really know that who and what we are is and will be in a profound and deep way, truly okay. Oh, if we’ve lived even seventeen years we have no doubt been wounded by the well-meaning (or the not-so-well-meaning,) picked up some bad habits, and developed our own conscious and unconscious fears. But none of that changes the truth of what we are.

It made me smile to see how my answer to this question has changed over the years, reflecting some of what I’ve learned, what I’ve been able to let go, and the changes in how I hold myself in my own heart.

So those are my two words, words I sometimes still need to remember to say to myself: You’re okay. 

What about you? If you could say only two words to your younger self- what would they be? 

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Finding Our Particular Way

Part of my work in the world includes the privilege of receiving others' stories. In the last four years three of those stories have involved cancer. Each individual chose a different course of physical treatment and viewed the cancer differently. Joe saw the cancer as his body offering him an opportunity to clear out what was toxic in his life and made big changes around work, home and relationships. Catherine met the cancer by listening for the voices of unexpressed fear and anger and sorrow that she felt were beneath the cancer. Lucy saw it as a call to step into her warrior-self and draw clear boundaries about what she did not want in her life, her heart, her body. All three are cancer-free today.

During their healing process, each person had someone tell them in no uncertain terms that the way they were approaching the cancer was “wrong,” was either a waste of precious time or energy or explicitly dangerous (ie- would result in continued illness and/or death.)

Humans- yes, that’s us!- have a tendency to think that our way- consciously or unconsciously chosen practices or ways of seeing or speaking or acting- should and will work for everyone. It’s understandable really- on some level we know we are in this together, affecting each other, having similar experiences, co-creating the world we share.

And it’s not that we can’t learn from each other. We can, we do, we will! BUT- and this is a Big But- no two people have identical histories or experiences. When we forget this we may inadvertently cause suffering: tell someone how they are feeling instead of asking and listening; make predictions for others based on beliefs/knowledge of how things have been for us; dismiss others’ suffering as “their choice,” because they refuse to do what we are sure we “know” will work.

We all see things through filters based on our own experience. Given the power-over goals of a dominator culture I tend to at least theoretically lean away from fighting as a way to solve anything. But Lucy- who had never said or felt like she had a right to say a clear “NO!” to anything in her life- found her healing in the image of the warrior, the one who says no to protect life, the one who uses the sword of discernment to say, “Not here!”

These three people consider themselves “cured.” But here’s the thing- even if that wasn’t true, even if a cure had not taken place, it would not necessarily mean that the approach any one of them had taken was “wrong,” because each has found a deep and profound healing in the way they have dealt with the disease. Healing does not always involve a cure. After all, none of us are getting out of here alive, but we may or may not create and receive the healing we need before we go.

It’s not just that we each have a right to decide how we will deal with big things that affect us in a primary way. It’s that we really are the only people who can discover what it is we need to do. That doesn’t make us infallible- we can and do make mistakes, misjudge what we need, take actions that cause suffering. . . . Maybe that’s why we start “telling” others what they need to do: we are launching an offensive against the scary knowledge that there is a great deal we do not know, even about things that affect us directly.

Working with these three wonderful humans I was reminded again and again of how much I do not know, of how each person is taking their own journey. We can support, assist, facilitate each other’s exploration, but ultimately we cannot “know” the path another needs to take. I've also been reminded that the wisdom to take our next step- whatever that may be- is within all of us.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stitching Up Old Wounds With Words

When you’re a writer who says she is working on a new book, people understandably ask how the writing is going, particularly people like your agent and other writers. For over two years, I've been saying two seemingly contradictory things: I am working on a new book AND I’m not writing.

The truth is that it’s never really accurate to say that I’m not writing. I fill pages by hand before the sun comes up in the morning- recording dreams, mulling thoughts, wandering and wondering on the page. I post regularly on Facebook and I post a blog of fresh (as in new- I’m not making any claim of brilliant originality of thought) writing weekly. In between this, I write notes about books I'm reading and emails to friends and readers. And I have what may be a half-written first draft of a novel on my laptop and more than several chapters that may or may not end up aforementioned book I am “working on.”

If the Inuit, the First Nation people who live in the far north, have one hundred names for snow, it seems I should have at least a couple of dozen for the different types of writing I do. One of these would be for the writing I love best, the writing I do when I can say, “I am writing a new book.” Until a few weeks ago I was trying to write a new book, planning on writing a new book, working my way into writing a new book.

Now, I am writing a new book.

And my heart is glad in a way I can hardly hope to describe.

This is writing that takes me the way a passionate lover does. I interrupt postures in yoga class to scribble in a small notepad as ideas about the morning’s writing and what is next flood in; I walk around with a smile on my face simply because another three thousand words spilled from my fingers and onto the screen this morning; I forget to pay bills on time, miss appointments and decline social gatherings; I am obsessed, possessed, consumed and enthralled.

It has been a long time since I have felt that in every moment when I am not focused on the writing I am whispering a constant prayer for the writing, a mantra of-  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Which is not to say I am not also, at moments (and particularly before I get started in the morning) terrified.

For those of you who have read my other books, it may be hard to believe me when I say that this one is different- this one is personal. After all, I've shared many personal stories. I've tried to paint with words the colour and shape of one woman’s inner world and shared stories of my interaction with the outer world.

But this book is. . . . a healing for me. It shatters denial that has kept the illusion of safety alive. It opens the door to new ways of being with myself and the world.

I am writing my way to the wholeness that I am, that you are, that we all are.

I am writing my way into the healing I took life for.

I am stitching up old wounds with words and images, and stories.

I am making meaning of what has happened, of what is happening with the truth of my own life.

And I am overwhelmingly grateful in every moment for the blessings of this writing.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Accused of Softness

Last week I received an email from someone who had learned and participated in shamanic ceremonies with me many years ago. She said she’d been reading my blog and Facebook page and wanted to know what had happened to me, wondered if I had gone a little “soft in the head” with all my writing about tenderness toward our struggles and opening inner doors with curiosity. She wanted to know what had happened to Oriah the Warrior Woman. She was not pleased.

I have to admit, my reaction was one of delight. Truly. And that reaction thrilled me because I thought it might reflect at least a smidgen of progress in the not-caring-what-others-think area of development. But I took her questions as genuine, as prompts to have a look at how and why I might have changed, may have softened (in the head or in the heart?)

As I sat with her questions, I realized that the truth is that almost everything in the world breaks my heart open these days. Someone on Facebook writes that she hates herself for not being stronger, and I write a response with tears blurring my vision of the screen, aching a little for her- for me- for the parts of us that meet our own struggles, losses and pain without mercy, with judgement and criticism heaping suffering on top of pain.

Someone tells me of a friend who is working to set up community gardens in a city, a man who starts conversations with neighbours with the observations that since vegetable gardens grow vegetables and flower gardens grow flowers, they need to decide together how they want their community garden to grow community (instead of just assuming that dividing the land into small private plots is the only way to go) and my heart breaks open with hope for the infinite ways we can create the world right where we are.

I do a telephone session with someone and she confesses that her daily practise has not been going well- that the meditation she is doing feels boring and painful, that she spends her time wanting to be anywhere else. And my heart breaks open to our human struggle to live up to some kind of ideal- spiritual or otherwise- and our genuine desire to live fully present. Together we explore ways to remain true to her intent to centre and listen deeply without hurling herself mercilessly against methods that are just not working for her.

It doesn’t take much to break my heart these days: the way the sun lights the sky as it crests the horizon at dawn, the promise of another day given to us; the way strangers stop to help a woman whose grocery bags have broken, men and women scurrying to gather runaway oranges, to scoop up foil-wrapped butter and packages of spaghetti where they have fallen on dark pavement; the thrill of slipping into the quiet of a university library to write for a few hours away from my seductive internet connection, and the way the words spill out of me like living things, telling stories I had not noticed before; the courage of human beings facing loss- of homes, of loved ones, of health, of partnerships- to take another breath, another step. . .  

The woman is right- I didn’t used to be so easily broken open. But some of the certainties I held when I was younger have crumbled in the face of life’s unpredictability. And other certainties- of the beauty of the human spirit and of the gift of having one small human life- have taken root.

I feel I cannot explain it all, so I just write one line back to her. My heart is very full as write: “Your wonderful questions have made me aware of changes that have happened so gradually I hardly noticed them- I am deeply grateful. Thank you.”

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Unnecessary Judgements

I don’t take photographs. I always feel a little guilty about this. On my recent trip to the wilderness I love I took my camera and dutifully carried it in my bag on drives and hikes. The leaves had just begun to change colour. Everywhere I looked amidst the dark evergreens and pink granite, leaves were turning to crimson and gold. Over and over I paused to take in a scene, occasionally thinking, “That would make a great photo.” But I didn’t take a single picture.

I’ve wondered about my resistance to taking pictures. My youngest son, several close friends, and the most recent wasband, Jeff, all have a great eye for seeing and taking good pictures, and I love looking at the pictures others take, particularly appreciating the ones of trips we have shared.

Jeff bought me a camera when we were together, hoping I think to cultivate a common interest. We took walks together through the conservation forest that surrounded our home. He almost always  took dozens of pictures, which often left me waiting on the trail, sometimes being eaten by pesky mosquitoes. Eventually, when he’d suggest we “take a walk,” I’d ask if we were going to walk or take pictures. He got defensive, reacting in part to the edge of judgement that had no doubt entered my tone. Instead of just sticking with how it can be somewhat understandably frustrating to spend more time waiting than walking on one of his suggested “walks,” I was semi-consciously building a case for why taking so many pictures was somehow not “as good as" simply taking a walk. When he urged me to take my camera I replied that I was more interested in “just being present” than in taking pictures.

Ah yes, the human ability to endlessly build a case of moral (in my case usually spiritual) superiority for what are simply our preferences. Sigh. I had a little aha moment about this on my recent trip north.

Toward the end of my time away I returned to a place I had visited twenty-eight years ago- a huge outcropping of white quartz granite, several hundred feet high. You can see for miles from the top. 

For reasons too complex to describe here (stay tuned for the book,) the trip down from this peak was. . . . an ordeal- difficult, frightening and potentially very dangerous. When I finally got back to my car, I realized something: the way I had managed to stay calm and continue without injury was by “writing” a story in my head about what was happening. And doing this- puzzling over how to describe the lichen that was particularly slippery as a dark purpled brown, the colour of packaged dulse- brought me more fully into the moment, made me more present to the world around and within me, allowed me to see more clearly how to proceed.

And suddenly I got it: that’s what taking pictures does for Jeff- it makes him more present to the world around him, gives him a way in to see more clearly, a way to fame what he sees so that he is not just an observer but a participant.

Taking pictures does not do this for me. I marvel at how all visual artists seem to see and depict luminosity and colour, shading and shape with pigment or carved stone. That’s their way. Mine is to feel for the words that hold the arc of the story that is unfolding in the moment. Storytelling with words deepens my experiencet, helps me stay present when distracted thoughts could take me elsewhere. 

Just different ways of seeing, of being here. No need to judge someone else’s way, or my own, as better or less than.

Nothing like a little humility mixed with the pleasure of deepening self-awareness.

Oriah (c) 2013