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 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.
This week, school is back in session. One of my daughters started today and the other two start tomorrow. Two are now in university and one is in grade 8, her last year before high school.
I can say all of the clichéd things, and mean them… My how time flies! Wasn’t it just yesterday I was changing their diapers? How did it all rush past in the blink of an eye?
The return to school always reminds me of the relentless and dependable forward motion of time. Tick, tick, tick goes the clock. Flip, flip, flip go the pages of the calendar.
Today I was rushing out for last minute school supplies, haircut appointments, musical instrument rental, etc., and in the middle of it all, I wanted to hit the pause button. I wanted to slow down the pace of time, enjoy a few more summer days, and cling to my daughters’ fleeting childhood before it all disappears.
From my daughters’ perspective, still in their formative years, this is the way life is supposed to be lived – growing each year, advancing one grade after the other, stepping always forward on the straight line of time guided by the clock and the calendar. It’s the way we’re all raised – to believe that there is always meant to be forward movement. That’s not a bad thing – we want growth to happen.
But that’s only part of the truth and there’s something else I really want my daughters to learn that they probably won’t be taught in school.
Life is to be lived along the spiral and not simply the straight line.
When I was at the beach this summer, working on my book, I spent a lot of time watching pelicans. One of the things I love about pelicans is that, often, they fly across the sky in giant spirals, round and round, adjusting the arc of the spiral just enough each time so that they end at the far side of the sky from where they started.
They do this to conserve energy, riding thermals (updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground into the air), so they don’t have to flap their wings as often. They look so content and relaxed up there, circling round and round with very little effort on their part. High in the sky, they look like mythical creatures, as if they’d climbed out of ancient legends of magicians and shamans. Their shape and the way they move holds both mystery and myth.
That’s the path that I have come to believe is the most true way of seeing our lives. We go round and round, coming back each time to nearly the same place we’ve been, but always with enough of a difference to help us progress forward over time.
How many times have you been in this place you’re at right now? Like the seasons, our lives come back again and again to the harvest of Fall, the dormancy of Winter, the rebirth of Spring, and the growth of Summer. And, like the seasons, we live through the long dark spells, the slow sunny days, the rain, the wind, and the snow. We cycle through grief, through growth, through joy, through surrender, and through ease.
None of the seasons lasts forever. All of them change us a little before we begin the spiral again.
If you are in a place you feel like you’ve been before – whether it’s another cycle through grief, restlessness, waiting, or fear – don’t despair. You’re simply spiralling through the sky, learning what you need to from this trip around the circle, and moving a little further each time.
If you were traveling up a mountain, you’d be best to take the spiralling path, adjusting to the altitude, not tiring yourself out too quickly. Like the pelicans floating on the thermal air, you conserve your energy by not rushing straight ahead. You also learn more and see more that way. This is the way life is meant to be lived.
Don’t rush through, even though the path might seem hard right now. Take what you need from this time, and let it unfold in the fullness of time.
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~Maya Angelou
Last night I went for a walk in my favourite neighbourhood park, Henteleff Park, a long narrow strip of native grasslands and forest along the Red River. Just after entering the park, a movement at the edge of the woods caught my attention. I glanced over to see a dark animal, and because I could only see the top of its back and because I am mostly accustomed to seeing deer in that park, I thought it was an unusually dark deer.
I stepped off the path I was on and ducked through the trees to get a closer look and it was only then that I discovered that it was a bear. A BEAR! Within city limits! Just 5 minutes from my home! Just 20 feet from where I was walking!
Now, for many people, that would have been a rather terrifying discovery that would have sent them quickly back home. For me, though, it was quite exciting. I wanted more! Though I stepped back onto the path and didn’t go directly into the woods were I saw it disappear, I wandered the park for another half hour, hoping I might spot it again. I never did.
What occurred to me after wandering through the woods by myself (there are rarely other people in that park), slightly nervous but not overly concerned for my safety, is this…
Courage looks different for each of us.
After reading my story of bear-seeking, your thought might be “Wow! She is really courageous!” But the truth is, it didn’t take a lot of courage for me to keep walking in the park. I grew up wandering in the woods by myself, and I have always been a camper and hiker, so it didn’t feel like foreign territory for me. It felt familiar, with just a touch of adrenaline. Black bears are not particularly dangerous unless you provoke them.
You may never wander in the woods where you suspect a bear might be found, but there are probably things that you do quite naturally that would seem extremely courageous to me. Maybe you’ve grown up in a place where there are rattle snakes or tarantulas and they hardly phase you but would terrify me. Or maybe you’re way more comfortable wading into situations where there is conflict than I am. (I am admittedly rather conflict-averse.) Or maybe you’d go spelunking in a dark cave where I wouldn’t be caught dead. (Dark claustrophobic spaces are my version of hell.)
There are no universal yardsticks for courage.
There has been much hubbub lately about Caitlyn Jenner being awarded ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award after making her first public appearance as a woman. There is at least one meme floating around social media where her Vanity Fair cover photo is seen alongside a photo of soldiers in battle, suggesting that REAL courage can be found on the battlefield, not on the pages of a fashion magazine. Now, I’m not interested in arguing whether or not she was the right choice for the award, but I do want to say that it is a false construct to try to compare one version of courage with another.
What looks like courage for one person may not be courage for another person.
Sometimes, in fact, what we interpret as courage may in fact be the lesser of two evils for a person. A soldier, for example, may be on the battlefield because he is running away from something that really scares him at home. Gunfire may feel less risky than shame, rejection, or family conflict.
For some, it may take more courage to come out as transgendered or gay than it takes to join the army.
For others, the most courageous act might be to take a leap of faith and leave a job in a toxic workplace.
For still others, it might take years to work up the courage to speak their truth in front of people who disagree with them.
Courage is a very individual thing and nobody can define it in your life except you.
If you try to measure your courage on someone else’s yardstick, you will never learn to be true to your own life.
Only you can decide what courageous step you need to take in order to be true to yourself.
Don’t try to take someone else’s step – take your own.
And don’t sell yourself short when you take that courageous step. Celebrate it!
We’ve found a rhythm, he and I. On beautiful Fall Saturdays, he says “let’s go fishing”, and I say “sure”. He grabs his fishing rod and tackle box, I grab my book, camera, and journal, we pack a lunch and drive to his favourite lake.
When we get there, he heads toward the dock, and I head into the woods. At some point, we meet for a shore lunch, but most of the day we enjoy our separate solitudes.
Today after wandering as far as the path would take me, I found myself drawn into the shadows.
First it was a ladder of light climbing the moss on the side of a rock that pulled me away from the shore. Then it was the lichen on a decaying branch. Like a tiny white forest perched precariously on a cliff.
The closer I looked, the more I marveled at the intricate beauty growing in the shadows.
My curiosity drew me further into the woods.
Crouching down in the moss, a whole world unfolded under my gaze.
There were mushrooms that must certainly house mythical creatures at dusk when humans have gone home.
There were mosses in a thousand shades of green.
Each a tiny tree, dwarfed in the shadows of the giant trees all around it.
My knees were soon green and moist with reverence.
There was no end to the beauty, no end to the shadows.
And as I marveled, I knew that I had opened an doorway into a universal truth.
I knew that it wasn’t only in the woods that wonder waits in the shadows.
Once again, the woods were teaching me, tapping me on the shoulder and saying “Pay attention. This is important.
“There is beauty in the shadows. Things grow there that you don’t expect.”
In the darkest of days, the unexpected shows up and offers grace.
Like mushrooms and lichens and moss, there is wonder and beauty and wholehearted life that is available to us when we open ourselves to growth in the midst of shadows.