For me, one of the best ways to find uninterrupted periods of immersion writing time is to go house-sitting. I have done it several times. Some of you may remember the sage, one-eyed dachshund-terrier Dougie who assisted me in a previous post.
This time I am in Ucluelet. Yup, you heard me. I am in one of the most beautiful places on the planet with nothing to distract me from my writing.
Well, almost nothing . . .
Cat #1 is Manny: Beautiful green eyes, little white tufts of hair sticking out of his velvety grey ears. He introduces himself to me as my new best friend and a few hours after my arrival, curls up on my stomach to watch Netflix with me.
Cat #2 is Boots: So far, she is a grey tail sticking out from under the bed.
Cat #3 is Callie: Invisible? Imaginary?
Cat #4 is an unnamed feral resident of the garden shed who is getting larger and more frightening by the minute (in my mind). Will visit him/her in the morning.
Writing goes well.
Manny: Proposes marriage.
Boots: Shy period ends abruptly. Inquires 87 times about sitting on the kitchen counter, by sitting on the kitchen counter. Looks shocked and appalled each time I shoo her off.
Callie: Apparently, a figment of the owner’s imagination.
Shed Kitty: Invisible? Not imaginary; there is poop. What kind of feral cat uses a litter box anyway? Perhaps Shed Kitty is a fugitive from the law. I will call him/her Richard Kimble.
On my walk, I attempt to say hello to several dogs and I am snubbed every single time. Coincidence? I think not.
I watch 15 ravens meet at the swimmin’ hole for a bath. A group of them walk toward each other until they are in a little clump, then bob their heads in unison several times and all make the same vocalization. They separate and fly off in various directions.
After a morning of writing and a long walk, my lower back is sore. The construction site next door is deserted and has been since I left for my walk. I think it will be safe to get in the hot tub naked even though it is still daytime. I am incorrect.
The furry kids get me up at 6:00 but I refuse to feed them until 8:00. In response, Boots pretends our counter battle never happened and initiates round two. (Speaking of Boots, how can a four-pound kitty require three quarters of a king size bed?)
Out in the garden shed, Richard Kimble sure poops a lot. Is he/she hosting after-hours poker games for his feral buddies? Or getting rid of the last squirrel consumed in freedom? Who knows? Richard is not talking.
The elusive Callie comes downstairs, but insists on no photos or interviews. By the end of the day, she consents to an audience and I sit quietly on the floor about a meter away from her as she pretends to look at something else. Then she returns to the loft. I will call her Greta Garbo.
My writing is going great. I am asking and attempting to answer a lot of questions. Some things require long periods of uninterrupted thinking time. The walks are great for this process. I’m having fun.
At the end of the day, after lots of work, a walk, a glorious soak in the hot tub, and a grill cheese sandwich, I put on Netflix and settle onto the couch. As soon as the TV comes on, Boots is up on the cabinet, sitting three inches from the screen, watching the action. Her head, whipping back and forth, is blocking part of the screen, so I ask her politely to move. She declines, and after getting bored with my program, starts exploring the top of the cabinet. She promptly falls off the back of it and is trapped between the wall and the cabinet. She swears at me and I help her out.
She spends the rest of the hour tunneling under my yoga mat.
I will call her Crazy.
Apart from waking once to find Crazy walking up my body like she’s hiking the Appalachians, I sleep well. I get up late and decide I better feed the kids first, even before coffee. Callie comes down and eats with the common folk. They are all back to sleep by 9:00.
I find it increasingly disturbing that I never see or even hear Richard Kimble.
I move a whole chapter this morning and come to update you while the new chapter order settles in my mind. Chances are, I will go straight back and change it again. But that’s the fun, isn’t it?
During my morning stretch, I think of the perfect thing for my character to say and yell, “That’s perfect!”
Crazy yells back. Something about catnip.
Not on my watch, I tell her.
Seriously, that would be like giving espresso to a toddler.
Having been warned about the slipperiness of the deck in the frosty mornings, I am very careful as I head out to feed Richard Kimble. Except for one tiny lapse in concentration. As my mother told me when she fell last month, ‘I can fly pretty good, but I have trouble with the landings.’
As I lay on my back catching my breath, I note that it is another clear sky. Good day for a longer hike.
Concerned that my middle-age body might seize up after my fall, I have a morning spa treatment in the hot tub, decide to take the day off of writing since it is Sunday, and plan a hike to the Lighthouse Loop.
These are the most amazing trails I have ever seen. For the first time ever on a solo hike, I do not get lost. Although, I must admit, I am surprised to find the parking lot has been moved to the other side of the road while I’ve been hiking.
I go for coffee and chat with Kevin, the owner. Ucluelet is dealing with low and mid-income housing shortages. Air B&B seems to be a threat to communities everywhere. Kevin tells me that the Eagle’s Nest Pub has cheap burgers on Sundays and I decide to go.
On the way there, I hear sea lions barking not very far away. In the pub that overlooks a dock, I sit between two TV’s and swivel my head happily between a hockey game, the Academy Awards, and the view. I enjoy a local beer, an excellent burger, and a familiar, home-like atmosphere as the patrons greet each other with hugs, play musical chairs at the tables, and gossip with the servers.
Continuing with today’s theme of not heeding the owner’s warnings, I decide not to put Handsome Manny in the sun room where I have deposited him guiltily every night at bedtime, according to my instructions. I have a talk with him about my expectations around his behavior as it pertains to his sister, Crazy, in particular. We strike a deal: he assures me there will be no goofing around, and I leave him to sleep where he is.
I read in bed until I am sleepy, turn out the light, and then . . . the game begins. Crazy and Handsome are chasing each other at breakneck speed through the house; up and down the stairs, spinning out on the corners, sliding across the kitchen. I turn on the light and grumpily join the game - which immediately becomes hide and seek. In the dim light, Greta Garbo and Handsome look quite similar and at one point I almost grab Greta by mistake. She pulls back from me with an expression of utter disgust. I suspect there will be consequences for my blunder. I search each of the seven sleeping spots that Manny uses. Several times. I am beginning to think that maybe cats, like Klingons, have cloaking devices. I give up my search and go back into the throne room to apologize to Greta one more time, and there he is, sitting on the windowsill, smoking a cigarette in a long filter. I tiptoe past Her Highness, and pick him up. He protests loudly all the way to the sun room.
I return to bed at 1:00 am, completely cured of my guilt.
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To the person who robbed me,
I can’t stop thinking about you.
When I went to get my hat and realized it wasn’t there, I thought of you. I can’t replace it, I’m afraid. I bought it on Maui when we went there to celebrate Shan’s 50th birthday. She requested that trip from her hospital bed, awaiting her transplant, so her wish was more of an If than a When. It’s a cool hat, so I’m sure it will get some use.
My leather jacket will as well. Even though I got it at a Thrift shop, it’s a good coat. If you wear it with that heavy sweater in the bag, you will stay warm through this cold snap.
I’m ticked off about the sunglasses. They were my birthday present a few years back. I allowed Shan to spend a ridiculous amount on them and I took such good care of them.
But I can get new sunglasses.
I can’t replace the letter from my sister that I have carried in my wallet for years. Nor can I replace the little book I made. Or the journal I was using for my next project.
I’m a writer, you see, and I keep wondering about your backstory. In my stories, I always hint at how my villains became who they are. I think it’s because I used to teach at-risk youth and I know perfectly well why some people end up in trouble.
What is your back story?
Are you like the boy I knew who was locked in his bedroom by his abusive father? Or the one who had his hair set on fire? Maybe you were like the many children I knew who were foster kids in homes that didn’t care about them. Perhaps you were one of those who basically raised yourself. I saw a lot of pain in that job. And pain creates pain.
Whatever your story is, I doubt it’s good. I’m sorry about that.
I wish you had just taken the warm clothes, the cash and credit card, and left the rest.
I wish I could write you a happy ending.
I wish we lived in a world where you could ask for help, and get it.
The zipper on the sweater sticks a little. Just be gentle, and you’ll be okay.
Picture the planet.
The beautiful blue marble, mostly ocean. Find the Pacific and let your imagination wander south to the west coast of Mexico. Azure water and sapphire sky. Zoom in until you see some dots in the water just off the beach. One is waving. Squint a little, now. Can you see the ecstatic grin? That’s me!
I’m bobbing in the warm waves, feeling so grateful, my heart could burst wide open. The late afternoon sun is on my face and the water is holding me gently while I float in a perfect moment of peace. I am fully in the Now. The air is sweet and soft and I am gazing like a new lover at the palm trees wiggling their fronds at me and blowing kisses on the breeze.
Now, picture the Rogue Wave. It’s big. Really big. Do you see it coming?
And suddenly, I am tumbling. So this is how my laundry feels.
I try to relax so that I will float to the top, having no idea which way that is. When my head breaks the surface, I take the biggest breath I can, just in case. I am just getting my hand to my eyes to try and clear away the salt water when the next wave hits. Not as big, but the first one has pushed me into shallower water and so the second smacks me onto the bottom of the ocean. I push off with my hands and stretch toward the surface. Breathe. I can hear the next one roaring in and cover my head as best I can. I feel the sand and gravel scraping me, but must concentrate on finding the surface and getting a breath. I have time to find my feet, so I try to take a step toward shore when the next one hits and throws me forward. At least I’m heading in the right direction.
I stand up and the next wave knocks me down from behind, the undertow dragging me back into the deep water so I can’t reach the bottom. I turn and see another one coming, dive down under it and avoid the tumble. I face the beach, get oriented, and plan my escape. But I’m already tired and just when I get onto my feet, another wave knocks me down and drags me back.
Rinse and repeat.
I’m getting worried by how tired I am, unable to get up the steep incline of the beach. With one final surge of energy, I crawl out on my hands and knees.
Way past the boundaries of dignity, I stand under the open shower on the beach and dig sand and gravel out of my bathing suit. There has to be a half-gallon.
Slowly, my shock wears off and I begin to see the humour. Especially when I realize my pockets seem to have spontaneously refilled with sand, as though my bathing suit has issued an evacuation order and the granules and pebbles are still making their way towards the escape hatch pockets.
I go up to the room and shower thoroughly, examine the emerging bruises and road rash and apply bandages where necessary. All in all, I am fine, although I have to buy flip flops as my sandals rub on open sores.
I go back to the beach and lay in the sunshine, eyeing the ocean warily. No-one else is having any difficulty and there are people in the water right where I was. Inexperience? Unusual wave at just the wrong time? Who knows? And although in the moment, I’m not sure I will want to swim in the ocean again, I am back in the next morning. (But not late afternoon, when the rollers get bigger.) I go to the area further down the beach that is marked with swimming buoys, where the grade of the beach is not as steep.
As it is my nature to reflect, I wonder if there is a lesson here.
Was I foolish? I made sure there were other people swimming nearby. I chose a spot far from rocks. I had a friend on the beach who knew I was swimming. Those are reasonable precautions, I think. I suppose I could have done better, but sheesh, people, sometimes you just gotta go for it.
Life is the ocean. One minute you’re bobbing along full of gratitude and bliss and the next you’re spitting up sand. You can spend your time and energy on safety precautions, or you can just get in and enjoy the water. Regardless of how careful you are, how prepared you are, there will be a few rogue waves, a few poor choices, some bruises and scrapes due to inexperience.
I was talking with my sister, Cindy, on the phone the other day and she said her New Year’s resolution is to make some big mistakes. I love that! You have to take some risks in this life; you gotta dive in when you’re not 100% sure. Life is going to knock you around whether you embrace the unknown or not, so you may as well live while you’re alive. Cindy sent me a quote from author Neil Gaiman that I have to share with you. It is his wish for the New Year:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.
So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.
Susan Gibson wrote the perfect song for my sister’s New Year’s Resolution. Although she wrote it in that first yearning for freedom as a young woman, the need for wide open spaces never leaves us. If we are really living, we will always need room to make the big mistakes. The Dixie Chicks made it famous, but here is Susan, with her wonderful humour, telling the story of the song that I may adopt for my anthem this year.
This one’s for Cindy:
The end of September was warm and sunny here on Cortes Island. After a week of rain, the sun returned for an encore and she saved the best for last.
I took Jedidiah Wiggle-bottom to the lake for his swim on a warm Monday afternoon and as I watched the old boy limp into the water, I offered up a prayer for our dear friend Denise whose days were drawing to a close. Then, I whispered into that bright blue sky, Jed is ready to go, too, Denise. If you want a travel companion, come and get him on your way.
The very next day, Jed got up off his bed and his knee, repaired with surgery eight years ago, gave out for good. We kept him comfortable and made an appointment for his last visit to the vet for Wednesday. But on that difficult day, we encountered a double over-load for the Quadra ferry and missed our appointment. We took Jed back home.
This was when we learned that Denise had died. She’d been called away by the wolves at 3:00 a.m. the night before. Well, 2:59 to be precise – I guess she was ready to go.
We got up before dawn on Thursday and sat vigil with Denise in her art studio for a couple of hours as she began her journey. I sat in the soft candlelight and noticed all the layers of my discomfort falling away one by one as I gazed at Denise laying in the amazing hand-crafted vessel made by her friend and her grandsons. I watched the light of sunrise enter her studio and slowly illuminate the art work she had chosen for this final show. My mind revisited the first time I’d seen many of those pieces, and warm memories wrapped ‘round me like a soft blanket against the chill of grief.
I experienced a profound peace sitting with Denise; a deep acceptance that death is natural, and in many ways, quite beautiful.
Shanny and I took that peace with us as we went home, gathered up our beloved pet and took him to town for his last day. He ate his first and last ice cream cone. Lick? Bite? What is this wonderful stuff? And once again our little goofball brought us smiles, the last of countless smiles, countless laughs, so much joy.
The doctor at Coastal was very kind. In a softly-lit room, we fed Jeddy treats and whispered final instructions for “going to college”; find Grandma Denise first, then help her find her grand-doggy, Chelsea, then look for your brothers Thai and Bro, your friend Hassli . . . We held him close while he slipped off to his final nap.
Despite my sadness, I felt such comfort in my imaginings of that little pack of happy dogs, all free from arthritis, romping with the joy only dogs convey perfectly. I saw Denise in the midst of them, giggling, and pulling treats out of the magical pockets that will never be empty.
Shanny and I returned home, both of us growing quiet in the dread of entering our dog-less home for the first time. But a trail of carefully-placed autumn leaves led up our path to the steps where we found flowers, food, and a card. Love softens every blow.
The next day we prepared to say our final farewell to the body that Denise’s spirit had inhabited with such grace and beauty. We stood among her family who so generously shared her ending with us. I stood in the warm sun, thinking that the best teachers in this life are those who have no idea that they are teachers. I learned so much from Denise’s life of generosity, kindness and extraordinary empathy.
And I have learned from her death. I watched the process from a distance and can’t presume to know what is involved in coming to terms with death – your own or a loved one’s – but what I saw touched me deeply. I have included (with permission) a picture of Denise sitting with the vessel as she is told its story by the three men who built it. A story about all the people who offered wood, including the very sacred yellow cedar donated by the local Klahoose band; why it looks a bit like a boat; how they incorporated her spirit animal; all the love that brought her vessel into being. The memory of watching that beautiful piece of art as it carried, and was carried, will be etched in my mind forever.
So, my summer of endings has ended. Now the days shorten and cool, and winter peaks over the horizon to announce her arrival. Ready or not, here I come.
And I am ready. Ready for the quiet nights by the fire to contemplate what I have experienced this summer, this fall. I have only just begun to process the lessons of this journey, but I feel their import. And when I feel my grief rising in me, I strive to embrace it, knowing this place, so dark and cold right now, is where seeds take hold.
I wonder what tiny green shoots will push through when this cold soil finally starts to warm. What treasures will I find in the garden of my heart?
I will strive to embrace my sadness and my gratitude through this long, dark winter.
Mark Nepo said it so well in his poem, Adrift, so I’ll leave you with his words:
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief. The light spraying
through the lace of the fern is as delicate
as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat. The breeze
makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost
in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh
of the next stranger. In the very center, under
it all, what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
For any of you who know Cortes Island, you will already be aware of what a vibrant arts scene we have here. Case in point: the image above is a ceramic platter made by Ester Strijbos. It is currently being shown at The Old Schoolhouse Gallery in Whaletown in a show called Layers. Ester's ceramics and Janny Thompson's mono-prints blend beautifully, as you can see for yourself:
Adding another layer to the show, the artists invited me to write a story connected to the tugboat image to read at the show, which I did. Last night, I was very pleased to be part of an amazing art show. If you are interested, the story is HERE.
Thanks so much to everyone who came out to hear me read last night. I LOVE reading to you.
And if you haven't seen the show yet, hurry over to Whaletown right now--you have today and tomorrow, September 2 and 3, from 2:00 - 6:00 p.m.
The artists: Janny Thompson and Ester Strijbos
Every morning for almost three weeks, I have started and abandoned this blog post.
Every day, I sit here on the deck and look across the purple lobelia and pink geraniums in the flower boxes, over the infinite shades of green that sweep down the hillside to the sun-sparkled lake. I watch the sun rise, listen to the birds greet the day, whisper hello to the hummingbirds who keep checking to see if my red hat has turned into a flower, wave to the loons, and laugh at the ravens trying to solve the problem of thin fruit tree branches that can’t hold their weight.
I sit here with sage carrying my prayers into the blue; with my heart nearly bursting with gratitude and awe, and I start this letter to you.
And every single day, my thoughts turn to death. I try to write what I’m wondering about and then I watch as my words wander away from my heart into the safety of my intellect. I have swaths of paper filled with writing that all fizzles out in convoluted attempts to think my way through the greatest mystery of being human.
So. Not today.
Today I will sit with my heavy heart. I will think about the friends who are dealing with illness and death. This summer, it seems that so many people in my life are in treatment or struggling with illness, others have lost loved ones. A couple of friends are focussing on being well enough to enjoy these halcyon days of what will likely be their last summer.
In my own home, our 14-year-old dog has been getting less mobile every day as his arthritic hind legs fail him more and more frequently. We have been talking about Jed “going to college” for a while now, trying to prepare ourselves and each other for what we know will be a difficult loss.
Yesterday morning, for the first time, he was too stiff and sore to walk the 200 metres to the lake for his swim, so we drove him. My partner and I both cried as we talked about the “college plans”. We swam with Jed and watched as he limbered up and his tail began to wag. The sun sparkled off the water, the loons conducted their morning concert, and my two best friends swam with me in my favourite spot on this whole beautiful planet. My tears kept coming and I let them – no better place for a mermaid to have a cry. This lake has enfolded many of my tears over the years.
Jed and I stood on shore at one point while my partner swam. A loon swam toward her and so she lifted her head, treading water and watching quietly. The loon swam right up to her, stopped a few metres away and sang directly at her. Then the loon turned and swam away. Goosebumps rose all over me.
“What did she say?” I asked my partner through my tears.
“She said, ‘It’s just the way of things,’” my partner replied without hesitation.
Later, after a few hours of work, with Jed asleep in his comfy bed in the cool house, my partner and I snuck back down to the lake. We paddled our kayaks out to the island, away from the beach noise. We left the boats pulled up on the rocks and dove into the clear, cool water. We swam around the island and returned to the wonderful sensation of sun-warmed cotton over lake-cooled skin. We sat in the sunshine and talked about the catharsis of the morning’s encounter with the loon. Neither of us knows what we are to do about Jed’s weakening state, but we agree that we can proceed in peace now, rather than angst.
I see peace in my friends who are struggling with their health, even those who are facing the possibility of death. I see grace and love and maybe even an embracing of the mystery.
I am in a state of wonder as I move through this bright, warm summer of endings. I am alert and awake, enjoying each day of my abundant life with a fierce determination to feel every precious moment with all of my senses and with all of my heart.
Recently, I was standing in the kitchen with a spoonful of tahini in my hand when I became conscious of my last thought; just in case.
Frowning, I replayed the tape in my head. Better not put the tahini in yet, just in case.
My partner Shannon was at the clinic on a foggy Tuesday morning and I was making hummus, my mind wandering around aimlessly, when that thought jabbed through the fog in my head.
I asked myself, Just in case of what?
And then I realized, that the extension of that thought was, just in case Shan gets bad news.
She was due back from the clinic any minute, and I didn’t want to be up to my elbows in the food processor if she needed a hug when she came home. Or if she had news. Or if our lives were going to be thrown back into chaos.
Wow! It has been almost eight years of positive check-ups since Shan’s transplant, and I still have an unconscious emotional “ready-stance” whenever she is at a clinic or hospital, regardless of the benign and unrelated nature of her visit.
Immediately following our return to Cortes after the six months in Vancouver for the transplant, my alert response to check-ups was strong – emotionally, mentally, and physically. It was also understandable, given the possibility of rejection issues. When she goes for her annual oncology check-up now, I am unaware of worry until the all-clear sounds and I note, yet again, the depth of my relief. That, I understand.
But this? A little visit with the doctor over nothing, comparatively speaking, and I am on red alert.
What’s the lesson, I wonder?
Trauma leaves residue, and fear is a big part of that light film that covers our days, whether we see it or not.
The friend who introduced me to meditation would say this: take it to the cushion. Sit there and let the fear come and then acknowledge it. This feeling is my fear for Shan’s health.
Things without names, without acknowledgement, have a tendency to get bigger and bigger, don’t they? (This is why we say there is an elephant in the living room rather than a poodle or a hedgehog.)
Now, to be clear, when there is a present danger or threat to our safety, fear is important. But I’m not talking about that innate fear response that helps to keep us safe, I’m talking about the fear we conjure up – apparently without even knowing it – when our minds wander into the landscape of our soul that is shadowed by past trauma.
Yesterday, Shannon and I went for a bike ride. We were riding on a trail close to the community hall where people were preparing for a Celebration of Life for Paul, a man who passed away recently. He was part of our ambulance service and we knew him only through that; when he came to our house one day to help after I fell off a ladder. Stitches and concussion; not such a big deal in the end but at the time, I was knocked out, wasn’t breathing at first, then took a gasping breath, convulsed a bit and regained consciousness but not awareness. I remember nothing. Shannon remembers it all. She watched the whole scary thing.
As we rode our bikes close to the hall yesterday, she suddenly pulled up. I stopped beside her and was surprised to find her crying softly.
She’d been thinking about Paul, which reminded her of the accident and suddenly, she was experiencing that traumatic day all over again.
What I’m wondering is this: how do we deal with the normal traumas of life? We have accidents and sometimes they are scary. We all experience illness and sometimes that is scary. How do we best heal from those traumas we all carry with us?
Me? I write. Even when I can’t remember what I need to write about – and I still can’t remember my accident – I write anyway. I write to explore it, feel it and put it away again. Every time I take my traumas out for a spin, whether I am talking or writing, I am keeping them a manageable size. (Who can carry an elephant?)
I can see the beginning and end if I tell or write the story. This is how I heal.
But then again, there are as many ways to heal as there are people in this world. I hope you’re finding yours.
Click below to read a piece I wrote about the accident while attending a writing/meditation workshop. (Molting was originally published in The Chaos Journal of Personal Narrative in the Winter, 2017 edition.)
We know, theoretically, that a happy life requires a balance in physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Our culture, it seems to me, is a little imbalanced in what it promotes. We are reminded constantly to care for our physical selves. We are talking more and more about our emotional well-being and at long last, mental health is an acceptable topic of conversation. But there is no “spiritual health” month and if you ask someone how they are doing, they are unlikely to tell you about the current status of their spiritual life.
I imagine lots of people get out of bed a little stiffly and remind themselves they are due for a stretch or a swim or a trip to the gym. Many people may get out of bed and think about the things they do to maintain their emotional and mental health. But what does spiritual health even mean? While we can acknowledge the mind-body connection in terms of mental and emotional well-being, do we think about the connection between our physical and spiritual vitality? And even if we are willing to acknowledge the reality of that connection, again, what does spiritual health mean?
Richard Wagamese said this about spirituality:
It seems to me the act of being spiritual is simply the act of allowing myself to feel my spirit move.
The Dalai Lama says this about spirituality:
Spirituality, I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others.
But for those of us who don’t find our spirituality in any of the pre-fab forms (religion), where do we begin?
Here is my basic philosophy on religion: Figure out what works for you and don’t tell anybody! As soon as people start grouping together around religious ideology, we get into trouble! We laugh, but I’m not really joking.
I think this is partly because none of us know how to develop and maintain our own spiritual fitness. Education about spiritual health is not readily available and as a result, we tend to look to religion. And that works for millions of people. Good on ya!
However, what about those of us for whom it does not work? I was raised as a Christian and I may have been able to maintain my spiritual health using that particular “gym”, but I had my membership revoked when I broke one of the club rules. (The gay one.)
Now, membership requirements are different and I could easily find a Christian church that would grant me membership, but the exercise of being booted to the outside made me take a closer look at my spiritual health club and it turns out, it doesn’t meet my needs.
So, where do we start to find support for our spiritual growth? If we are starting from scratch, maybe the thing to do would be to treat it like our physical health. We know we need to rest, nourish and exercise our bodies. So maybe that’s a good place to start with our spiritual self.
I wonder if spiritual rest is built into sleep? That seems like a good design thing, doesn’t it?
I have often felt that I was working out emotional issues in my dreams. I don’t necessarily need to understand what every dream means or be able to articulate “the lesson”. I just trust that my soul is doing some spiritual good work while I’m sleeping.
And what about conscious rest? If Richard is right and spirituality is the act of allowing myself to feel my spirit move, then I must spend some time everyday paying attention to the things in my daily life that move me; the kindness of my friends, the joy of my pet, the love of my partner, the beauty of my surroundings. As a writer, I have finally learned to understand and acknowledge the importance of time to daydream. We know our children need time to play and imagine; to have vast quantities of unstructured time. Why do we deny our adult selves this important part of our rest?
When I moved to Cortes Island, I finally learned about food. My first lesson was picking up “greens” for a friend from the store. She looked into the bag I handed her, saw iceberg lettuce and shoved it back at me, refusing to eat it. She didn’t know anyone who ate iceberg lettuce. I didn’t know there were other kinds. Thus began my education about nutrition.
What I give my body for sustenance is no more important than what I give my spirit for sustenance. Physically, I need more protein and have to stay away from carbs, while you may need to avoid dairy and can get by with very little protein. So also, we both need to find out, through trial and error, what works best for us spiritually. I am learning what spiritual practices give me sustenance. I like the meditation of Buddhism. I like the nature connection of First Nations spirituality. These things feed me and with the right balance of these as well as swimming and art and all the little things that move my spirit, I find the optimum performance of my spiritual health.
Daily exercise. Everyday, I have to exercise my spirituality; love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others. (Dalai Lama)
Again, your exercise program is a very individual thing. Some of us need to work out vigorously to stay fit, others just need to walk the dog every day. My physical body needs a good workout every day and so does my spiritual body. If I don’t work the bod, I gain weight and if I don’t work the spirit, I get judgmental. That’s me. We’re all different. I have to work harder at certain aspects of those things that “bring happiness to both self and others” and you might have to focus on different aspects, but self-awareness is the key.
When I get up in the morning, I can generally tell if I should focus on stretching and flexibility or if I need a good, sweaty workout. I am getting better at knowing if I need a new challenge in my life to stimulate my mind. I can tell if I’m feeling blue and need to get some sunlight in my eyes or if I need a hug.
And one day, I hope to wake up, rub my eyes and know exactly what my spirit needs. Until then, I will stick with what I know; rest, nourishment, exercise.
Although I have never really been completely “in the closet,” I recently realized that I have never actually come out publicly. I’m tired of watching what I say; scanning the room for people who might react negatively. So, at the tender age of 52, let me say once and for all, that I am a Toronto Maple Leaf’s fan.
This will not come as news to my family and friends. They have known for a long time and while it has caused some tension, for the most part, everyone accepts this part of who I am.
For those of you who are shocked by this revelation, let me suggest that you probably know lots of Leaf fans. Your boss, your cousin, maybe even someone in your immediate family. We are everywhere. And while we have been silent for a long time, we are finding our voices. We are standing up and declaring with pride that we will love who we love.
And we love the Leafs.
Yes, I can hear you cynics out there. Sure, now you come out. Now that they have a good team and are headed for the playoffs.
Admittedly, it’s easier to be a fan these days. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t pay my dues. We had some tough times. I remember the days when we sought each other out furtively to whisper about Palmateer’s twelfth knee surgery; to trash-talk Harold Ballard; to relive Sittler’s ten-point-game.
People ask me when I knew for sure that I was a Leaf’s fan. I guess, on some level, I have always known. I remember watching games when I was just a little girl. There was something about that blue maple leaf that spoke to me like nothing else. I have tried to do what was expected of me; I cheered for the local team as I moved from province to province. But I knew it wasn’t real. Somewhere deep inside me, a whisper chanted softly, Go Leafs, go.
I don’t anticipate a backlash. Except maybe from the far right (Montreal), but I have confidence it will be okay. When I came out about that other thing in my twenties, I was happily surprised to find most people were supportive.
So here I am. I can cheer for all Canadian teams, really. But my hockey truth is blue and white. My heart is with my Maple Buds.
WE’RE HERE. WE CHEER. GET USED TO IT.
Does everyone else see object lessons everywhere or is that just me? Maybe it’s just those of us who went to Sunday School.
If you're new to the concept, an example of an object lesson would be the recently revived one about how to fill the jar (which is your time) with important things first. For those of you who haven’t seen this object lesson and would like to, here you go: rocks, pebbles, sand: object lesson.
I remember seeing a LOT of object lessons at church. In fact, I seem to recall my own mom delivering many of them. I liked them. For me, the connection between a concept and a visual representation of that concept was an ideal learning tool. I think that's why I love metaphor in writing, and why I can’t plan a lesson for students without some kind of visual or hands-on component. Or just a good old-fashioned object lesson.
The problem with object lessons is that once you have that medium in your head, you can’t stop seeing object lessons everywhere.
This line-up at the grocery store represents my life journey; I rushed around filling my basket with everything I want and now I’m sitting here, weighed down by the burden of my materialism and greed, knowing that I will have to pay for it in the end. (rainy day version)
This line-up at the grocery store represents my life journey; I have filled my basket with things that nourish me and now wait patiently to take my gifts out into the world. (sunny day version)
Shoveling up dog poop in the backyard represents life; some tasks are not fun or enriching, but if you don’t take care of them regularly, they can really start to pile up. (There is no sunny day version of poop-scooping. Just FYI.)
I bet I could think of one right now. I’m sitting in front of the woodstove. Give me a minute. Go have some toast. No, you stay here and read. I’ll go have toast.
Okay, I’m back. (By the way, toast is like writing; you take some boring bread (story), make it into something more appealing by toasting it (a tiny exaggeration or two), then jazz it up with peanut butter (a whopper of a lie), and voila, you have something everybody loves. See? Easy.)
Anyway, back to the woodstove. Let’s go with an obvious metaphor; the fire is my power source - as a writer. It represents all the things my soul requires to feel safe and balanced and ready to work. It is the heart of my creativity.
On top of the stove, we always have a kettle and a fan. The fan is one of those that is powered by heat energy. No motor. When the fire gets going, the fan starts whirring; when the fire gets going, the kettle gets warm. The fan circulates the warm air into the room, and the kettle adds moisture to that air.
This morning, the sun was glinting off the flying blades of the fan and getting in my eyes. Also, it was making a slight ticking noise that was annoying me. So, I took it off the stove and put it on the floor. Of course, it stopped working. It is four inches away from its power source and it is just sitting there doing nothing.
The kettle on the other hand, never annoys me. It isn’t the whistling type. Just sits there day after day doing its job. An important job, mind you. Wood heat is dry and our little humidifier tea pot is necessary. As long as you fill it with water every now and again, it will consistently do what we need it to do.
Hmm. Me thinks I am the fan. I have been discouraged in my writing life lately. And, aside from complaining to you, I am doing a lot of fan-impersonating during my Spring Break – just sitting here doing nothing. How did I get away from my inspiration? What moved me those crucial few inches from my source of power?
Sometimes I wish I was the kettle. Never annoying anyone, just sitting there inconspicuously, doing my job quietly and consistently. Everyday.
Got it! Be the fan and the kettle!
Do my job every day: write. Use my writing to figure out why I have lost touch with my creativity. Then get my flashy fan-self, back up onto the stove and start annoying people again.
You know, Richard Wagamese said, To be creative, you have to get in touch with the creator.
I will start there. I have my ways of trying to touch base with Creator. They are probably not the same as yours, but I will find my source again. I can and I will.
Spooky p.s. (*goose bump warning)
When I closed my computer, I went to smudge and sit and I opened Embers (Richard Wagamese) to this:
Question: How do I find Creator?
Answer: You decide what Creator is. If you decide She is peace, love, humility, and non-judgment, you decide to work toward embodying those qualities in your walkabout world. The closer you get to that, the closer you are to finding Creator. That’s what our ceremonies are for. To teach you that Creator is in you, that She always was and always will be. (p.122)
Monica Nawrocki -