I wake up among the treetops. I peek out the window near my head and I see the shadowy lake below, surrounded by the shadowy trees. Across the lake, I hear the train that was probably the reason for my waking. I close my eyes and a smile creeps across my face. I love the melancholy sound of a train passing through wild spaces. I don’t care for it much in the city, but out here, away from civilization, the clicking and clacking and screeching of metal on metal, especially in the middle of the night, sounds to me like kindness and sadness all mixed together.
I have to pee, of course, as a fifty-seven-year-old body does in the middle of the night, but I close my eyes and pretend otherwise, willing my body to hold off until morning. It would be too much work to grope around in the dark for my headlamp, climb down the ladder from my perch in the loft of this tiny off-grid cabin, and make my way up the dark path, made more treacherous by the exposed roots half-buried by Fall leaves, to the compost toilet in the dark little outhouse. Too much work and too much awakening. Luckily, my body cooperates and I fall back to sleep.
In the morning, I climb down the ladder, pull on a sweater, and make my way to the toilet. After grabbing breakfast from the cooler that feels less-than-cool and should probably be reloaded with ice from the freezer at the far end of the property, I wander down to the lake. I curl up in an Adirondack chair on the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. It’s mesmerizing to watch them, the way they shatter the reflection of the trees into thin strips of perpetual motion.
I wonder, on this windless morning, what is causing the ripples. There are no boats out on this small lake, and nobody else in the handful of cottages is stirring. There are no fish jumping or birds landing, so why the steady ripples?
I stare at them, deep in thought, and something else pops into my mind. “I wish I remembered how to pray.” It’s a thought that I’ve had only occasionally in the years since I stopped going to church and since my faith became so deconstructed I wasn’t sure it existed anymore. Not feeling very certain there’s a god to pray to anymore, I mostly gave up on any attempt at prayer, but sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I miss trusting that there is a higher power with whom I can entrust my worries.
I still think of myself as spiritual, still believe I have spiritual experiences in which I witness the presence of a force greater than me, but prayer feels much more elusive when “god/goddess/mystery” is a more nebulous thing than my former Christian beliefs held to be true. Without the belief that god is the benevolent, omnipotent father-figure I can bring my requests to, I don’t know where to direct my prayers.
This morning, though, I’m missing the simplicity and trust of the prayers of my earlier life. There are worries in my life that I want to entrust to a higher power. There are things going on in my daughters’ lives that I wish I could offer up to a god who might solve their problems for them (since I can’t solve them myself). “Find this daughter a job, give this daughter some friends so she doesn’t feel as lonely.” It’s a “god as vending machine” belief that I’m probably longing for most… drop a few prayers in the slot and out pops the solution, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
Unfortunately, even in my most fervently religious days, god never showed up as a vending machine, no matter how many prayers I dropped into the slot. At some point, I just couldn’t reconcile the randomness of it all, or the way that god became, for so many, a weapon for manipulation, power, abuse, and shame. That’s when prayer stopped making sense.
Still staring at the lake, I realize that the ripples have disappeared and the water is nearly flat. I’m puzzled for a moment, and then I realize that it was ME who created the ripples – not a boat, bird, or fish. When I stepped onto the dock, the ripples started, and they only stopped once I was still enough that the dock no longer moved.
Suddenly it occurs to me that this may be prayer – bringing my worries to the lake and then sitting so still that the lake responds to my stillness. Sitting so still that even the ripples in my mind are settling. Maybe this is the point – not to send my wishes to a benevolent being I hope will reshape the world in my favour, but to be in acceptance of the world as it is – in tune with the lake, in stillness, and in deep presence.
I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem…
Praying It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
Much later, after sitting by the fire for hours and reading by the light of my headlamp, I turn off my light to walk to the outhouse. The full moon offers enough light that I can safely navigate the path despite the roots. It helps that I am becoming familiar with this path, on my second day here, getting to know these woods around my tiny cabin. I look up to the moon, and for a moment, I stand in reverence of her beautiful glow. Perhaps this, too, is prayer.
I’m writing this post poolside, at a beach hotel in Costa Rica. I feel like I’m in one of those commercials from the early days of smartphones, when the busy mom wouldn’t have time to take her kids to the beach because she had a meeting, but then she’d realize she could multi-task and take the meeting at the beach.
I’m not multi-tasking from the middle of a busy life, though. I’ve slowed down my life and reorganized my priorities, my business and my lifestyle so that I can work (and play) from anywhere while I travel. (I also no longer have to centre my children’s needs and desires in my choices.)
Moments ago, I was floating in the pool, blissfully alone, watching a hawk and a few butterflies drift through the sky above me while the palm leaves danced beside the pool. Floating – in a pool, the ocean, a river, or a float tank – brings me pleasure and peacefulness. The sound of the world is muted in my ears while the sound of my own breath is amplified. Time becomes irrelevant and my body feels light and carefree. Once I finish writing this post (or when I get stuck), I’ll be back in the water, floating again.
As I was floating, I was thinking about this journey I’ve been on – which I’ve dubbed my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. Since August, I’ve been wandering around the world with only a small suitcase, connecting with people, teaching in a few locations, and opening myself to whatever comes next in my life now that my daughters have all left home.
One of the questions that I held for myself as I walked away from the house I’d owned for twenty-four years was: “What if I more intentionally seek out what brings me joy?” I’ve been doing just that, trying to orient myself toward joy in all of the choices I make this year. Joy led me around Europe, brought me back to Canada to spend Christmas with my family and then brought me to Costa Rica. Later this week, I’m following it to other places in Central America.
It’s been a meaningful exploration. What I’ve discovered so far is that when I am more intentionally oriented toward joy, I make better decisions, I’m more able to be generous with other people, I’m more resilient, and I’m more creative. This past week, for example, I’ve written far more blog posts than I normally write in a week and I think it’s because I’ve been feeling grounded and joyful and can create from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.
A new awareness arrived for me as I floated in the pool just moments ago, and that’s why this blog post is showing up (even though I told Krista I wouldn’t write anymore this week). What I realized is that my quest for joy needs to be a holistic pursuit. I need to orient myself toward joy with ALL of me – my mind, my heart, and my body.
It’s taken the longest to bring my body fully into the quest. For many reasons (trauma, religion, social conditioning), I’ve spent a large part of my life cut off from my body, not loving it, not caring for it, and not listening to its wisdom. Being more fully in my body has been a work in progress, and, while I’ve come a long way, there is still work to do.
Despite my head and heart’s efforts, my body still has some discomfort with joy. In fact, the more I consider it, the more I feel like there is joy trapped in my body from years of having it shut down by a religion that told me that my body was sinful and that I shouldn’t dance or be sensuous or dress in ways that drew attention to myself or have sex before marriage or do most of the things that might allow embodied joy to find full expression.
My trauma tells me that embodied joy is not safe, and my body is hanging onto the vestiges of that belief system longer than the rest of me. My head and heart have worked through this with my therapist, but my body is still catching up.
Sometimes, when my head and heart feel joyful, I notice my body respond with fear signals or dissociation, as though it’s trying to pull my head and heart away from a dangerous precipice. One of my most familiar remaining “tells” is a tightening in my throat, lips, or tongue – almost as though my body is afraid it won’t be able to breathe if I lean fully into joy. (One of my trauma incidents involves being nearly choked to death, so the fear of losing breath remains present in my body.)
Fortunately, my mindfulness practice and my tenderness practices have brought me to greater and greater awareness of what’s going on in these moments, and, although I haven’t fully resolved this in my body to the point where it no longer happens, I know that I have resources to witness it, soothe it and sometimes even transform it. Sometimes it takes time, but I can usually bring myself back to a feeling of safety and, ultimately, embodied joy.
With every bit of healing I do, I am getting better and better at floating in joy the way I float in water. Whenever I float in the water, I have to give myself over completely to the water, trusting the water to hold my body up so that I still have access to the air that will fill my lungs. Unless I become anxious to the point of stiffening my body, or waves threaten to topple me, the water is always trustworthy in holding me there.
I want to trust joy the way my body trusts the water. I want to lean into it, relax all of the muscles in my body, and trust that it will hold me close to the surface so that I can always take another effortless breath.
I was walking through the jungle this morning, as I do nearly every morning when I stay at my friend Mary’s farm in Costa Rica, and I was noticing the beauty and variety of what has dropped onto the jungle floor. A couple of weeks ago, I photographed the endless variety of patterns in jungle leaves and, this morning, I turned my attention to what has fallen to the ground.
It was beautiful to witness the leaves, branches, fallen trees, and flower petals in various stages of decay. Some leaves were still green, some had turned various shades of orange, red, and yellow, and some were shades of brown. Those that had been on the ground the longest had deteriorated in shape and colour and were about to become one with the forest floor.
All that has fallen will serve as nourishment for the trees that continue to thrive and for those that have not yet sprouted. On some of the rotting branches and tree trunks, there were already the shoots of new plants sprouting from the decay.
Nature invites us to witness the cycles of life, and to recognize that death is built into the design. We don’t have growth without death. We don’t have new shoots without the rot of old leaves and branches to root themselves in.
Within many of our cultures, though, there is a great fear of death and a resistance to recognizing its inevitability. Our beauty industry sells us “anti-aging” products so that we can live in denial that our bodies are becoming wrinkled and worn, like some of the leaves on the forest floor. We turn away from conversations about death because we’d rather pretend it’s not going to happen to us. We sterilize the dying process and, if the body is visible at all, it is only when it’s been preserved so that it looks like the person hasn’t died that it’s acceptable.
Recently, I had the honour of walking alongside my friend Randy on his journey toward death. ALS was taking away his bodily functions and, in the end, he chose to leave his earthly body through medically assisted dying. In the year that I walked alongside him, I learned so much that I hope to someday write a book that contains the wisdom of that year. Randy was at peace with his dying and didn’t shy away from talking about it. Like the dying things on the forest floor, what Randy left behind will continue to nourish what can grow in me (and in others who were touched by his life) in the future.
This fear of death is not only a personal fear, it’s a collective fear, and we have embedded that fear into the systems we’ve developed and help to perpetuate. Within capitalism, for example, there is embedded a great denial that the system will ever need to die in order to serve as compost for the next system. We close our eyes to the destruction of a system that has completed its purpose and we pretend that it can continue to thrive and grow, because that seems safer for us to imagine. The death of capitalism seems too chaotic for us to consider, so we tolerate the harm it causes out of the fear of what is unknown.
As we all know, though, the kind of growth required to support our capitalist system is wreaking havoc on our planet and destroying many lives. It’s become a monster, swallowing up living beings in its hunger for perpetual growth.
I wonder what it would be like for us to lean into the wisdom that living systems need to die in order for new life to begin. I wonder how it would change us if we treated our systems like the trees in the forest, accepting death and decay as part of the process. I wonder what might grow if we stopped hanging onto the destructive, growth-hungry monsters that threaten to destroy us even as we feed them.
Perhaps, like Randy, we could even accept some form of “medically assisted dying” when we recognize that the purpose has been served, there has been joy in the lifetime of the system, and it’s time to let go. I don’t know what the future holds once we have allowed capitalism to die. Like everyone else, I am afraid of the chaos of the deconstruction process, and so I notice my own resistance rising up even as I write this.
Here’s what I do know, though… we are creative, resilient beings, living in a creative, regenerative world. We are not separate from that world. We are not set apart, better than, or worse than. We are in nature and nature is in us.
I also know that we have gained gifts from capitalism (just as I gained gifts from Randy) that will nourish us even as the system decays. It was not designed as an evil system, but as a system that sustained humans for many years. It was simply doing the job it was designed for.
AND I know that we need to resource ourselves so that we have the courage, strength and creativity needed for this great transition we’re entering. That’s why I’m committed to teaching people to hold space for discomfort, and why I have created the course Know Yourself, Free Yourself; self-exploration as a path to liberation and love (which starts in early March). I believe that embracing tenderness and liberation will help us find the resources we need in order to live through what could be a chaotic time.
It’s time for us all to imagine and co-create better ways of living together. I don’t know what those designs look like yet, but I know that we have the resources we need when we lean into our collective wisdom and courage. And I believe that there are clues on the jungle floor.
“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
– William Martin
Often we get caught up in seeking only that which is extraordinary, assuming that our lives have less meaning if we’re not experiencing exciting, magical things. But real life is full of ordinary moments that hold their own simple beauty. Paying attention to those moments is what gives life meaning and contentment.
I’ve set an intention to be more mindful this summer, and so I am celebrating the ordinary. It might be my children’s laughter, a campfire, the sound of rain, or the pot my mom used to cook our meals in.
I invite you to celebrate with me. Pay attention to the little things that give your life meaning. When you witness them, pause for a moment and simply celebrate the simple gift you’ve been given. If you wish, share your celebration on social media and tag it with #celebratetheordinary so we can celebrate with you.
Here’s a sample of what I’ve been celebrating so far.
This big beautiful tree stands in front of my house. When we were looking for a home, “mature trees” was high on my wish list. I got my wish.
There is nothing extraordinary about this pot. Nothing that makes it worthy of Instagram. Nothing that would make you look twice if you saw it at a garage sale. And yet… It holds so much more than the rice I’m cooking for supper. It holds the memories of my childhood meals, of fresh potatoes from Mom’s garden, of the many ears of corn she put up for winter, of cabbage borscht and waffle sauce. It holds the faint etchings of that first burnt meal I scraped off when I was still learning to cook. It holds a mother’s nourishing and a daughter’s remembering.
I complain sometimes about having to mark students’ assignments, but it’s really not that much of a hardship, especially with a chai latte at hand. In four years, I’ve had the privilege of touching a lot of lives, and being touched by them in return. Their ideas, stories, passion, hopes, and interests show up on the page and I get to bear witness.
Just tie up your running shoes and begin again. And again. As many times as it takes.
The fridge is clean! There are no unidentifiable science experiments growing in the back of it!
I have a special fondness for my painting apron and all it represents.
Wild roses always bring me back to the farm. They were plentiful along raspberry lane, the narrow tree-lined dirt road that felt like a magic portal into the unknown. On summer afternoons, we’d ride our bikes past the wild roses, bringing lunch and iced coffee to dad on the tractor.