Transitions

My eldest daughter finished primary school yesterday.  She and my other daughter went back into school part-time last year after some years of full time home-educating,  when I myself went back into full-time study.  And what a year it’s been!  Big ups, even bigger downs, a massive roller coaster ride of emotions amidst an almost continual questioning of “Are we doing the right thing?”  (Finally, after more than 11 years of parenting, I realise, of course, that we can never truly know the answer to this question.  So much of this journey feels like one huge experiment.  Which feels frightening when what we’re talking about here is a person’s life.  The shaping of a person’s ‘person’ if you like.)

Anyway, it occurred to me over the past few days of heart-wrenching decisions and tearful farewells, that I do not actually know what my eldest daughter is going through right now.  Throughout my whole school life, I never experienced that sense of completion that comes when you finish one level of schooling alongside your peers.  Before the end of primary school, I was taken out and sent to a different school.  Before I was finished at that school, I moved to secondary school.  Between my A level years, I then left secondary school to go finish up (theoretically with more ‘success’) at college in London.   With each of these moves, though, alongside feeling sad and at times very, very alone, I also missed out on that shared ‘ending school’ rite of passage – something which, looking back, and also seeing what my daughter is going through now, feels crucial somehow.  Not to have experienced, alongside all my fellow travellers on that horribly mixed emotional journey of school, the final end to it all.  A sense of completion.  Of survival even.  Of witnessing each other as we both celebrated and grieved for what we were leaving behind, what we’d shared together, and what we were each stepping into in the next phase of our young lives.

(I’ve been wondering, too, these past few days how these missed experiences also feed into that sense I have of myself not fitting in.  Not belonging.  Not quite knowing where to put myself, because, well, actually, I’m not sure I really do fully understand what it means to be a ‘complete’ part of something.  Another piece to the puzzle at least…)

So, when my husband suggested the other day that he’d like for us to think about how we might honour and celebrate this rite of passage for our daughter, I felt, suddenly, like I’d missed something big.  How could I have almost let this moment pass me by? I know now, of course, that the significance of this moment did almost pass me by simply because of my own missed experiences.  (And so, I’ll gently forgive myself for that one.)

Transitions like these, that we go through from the day we are born, are huge.  And, I believe, we should not take them for granted.  Firstly, let us begin simply by acknowledging them!  Let us allow them into our psyche, and see them for what they are.  Then we must find ways of honouring and celebrating them.  Ways that are true and real to us as completely unique individuals and completely unique families – what works for one, after all, might not be relevant for another.  We need to hold our children’s hands through these massive changes, because yes, they are scary!  Those feelings of grief at having to leave behind friends and familiarity, that sense of unknowing and fear of what is to come, they are real and they are big. And, crucially, we will all continue to experience many endings and beginnings throughout our lives.   We can’t take those feelings away from our children, and, indeed, I believe we do them a great disservice by asking them to feel anything differently from what they do, even though, at times, these emotions can make us feel vulnerable ourselves.  I myself have felt confusion, sadness, guilt and a sense of loss of late.  Uncomfortable feelings indeed.  Yet, as I keep reminding my daughter, and myself: to grieve for something is to understand what it really means to care.  We honour where we have come from and what we have come through by remembering it and by grieving for it.

It is in those moments, too, when we feel guilt, shame, anger, sadness, where the true gold is to be found.  If only we could just let ourselves BE in those moments, and not continually strive to push them away.  We are always looking for joy, for happiness, for the ‘good’ emotions – in Buddhist teachings it is exactly this that is the cause of our suffering.  Not that we suffer difficult feelings, depression, loss, death even, but that we do not allow ourselves to really feel these things when they arise, nor accept them for what they are.

And so I say: Let us not let these times past unwitnessed!  Let us be truly mindful of what it is to feel sadness, loss, fear and anticipation.  We all grow through these experiences, but only if we can truly accept what is happening in the moment and to allow our bodies to FEEL it deeply too.  Also, importantly, let us remind ourselves that these difficult emotions do not mean that we have done something badly or made the wrong decision.  We need to learn to embrace them as we do all the happiness, excitement, wonder and joy that will also come our way.

I want to honour this first big transition in my daughter’s life.  I want her to know that I see her and I feel her.  This is one of many, many evolutions she will go through in her beautiful, precious life, and I really, really want to get it right.

The Essence of Life

In the midst of a turbulent emotional time recently, I picked up Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart again.  It’s a book I keep coming back to when I feel like I can’t seem to step back from where I find myself.  When the ground disappears from underneath me and I don’t know where to find a foothold.

I, like almost everyone else I know, can feel too busy, too preoccupied, too frightened, quite frankly, to allow myself to really feel the true depth of my emotions sometimes.  I was not brought up understanding how to express myself clearly or cleanly.  There is so much that goes on in my body and mind that I am only just beginning to decipher.  And that is only after doing a lot of hard work, going through some dark times, sharing my story with some incredible people, having daughters of my own… and reading some amazing books.

“The essence of life is that it’s challenging.  Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter.  Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens.  Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 per cent healthy.  From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience.  There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die over and over again.  From the awakened point of view, that’s life.  Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.”

This passage resonated deeply with me, because what it does is give me permission to open up to those dark places.  In fact, not only does it allow me to go there, it says to me that actually I am not truly alive if I don’t!

Anger, grief, fear, all of these emotions that so many of us are taught to lock away, hide, not deal with, put a smile on, smooth on over, suppress… these are REAL emotions! They are a part of who I am, and I know I need to acknowledge them, accept them, welcome them, even, into being.  Without them I am incomplete.  Without them I am dead.

It is hard feeling angry, sad, scared, worried, confused, groundless.  In our busy, preoccupied lives it can feel almost impossible to find that space in which to allow those emotions to surface. And yet, I can truly now say I know that this is just the point at which we can all begin again.  Each and every time.  If we choose to.

I choose to do this for myself.  And I choose to do this for my daughters.  Because I see all that rage, fear, confusion and sadness in them sometimes and I know how they feel. However hard these emotions are to deal with in the moment, I will never ask them to suppress any of them.  Because to suppress is to die, and I am just not willing to let that happen.

A voice in the darkness

I have been thinking for some time “I must write my blog, I must write my blog, I WANT to write my blog!”  And so, last Thursday, at long, long last, I sat down to do just that.

And you know what?  NOT.  A. THING.  N O T H I N G.

I started writing a few different pieces, dragging the words out of myself and then deleting them all.  My mind was blank.  I literally had nothing to say.  I am not the greatest of thinkers or orators at the best of times – this I know – and yet, and YET..!  The emptiness and loneliness I felt in that moment was really painful.

Since we returned from Canada at the start of December last year, my mind has been in varying states of turmoil.  In many ways, I’d say (and have done, numerous times) that almost every aspect of our lives is in question.  Where are we going to live?  How are we going to earn money?  How are we going to continue educating our children?  How do we fit into the world?  Where is our place?

Lately, I’ve been experiencing a fine line between non-attachment, in the Buddhist sense – essentially practicing release from desire and therefore suffering – and disconnection.  Because that is what I have been feeling since our return – disconnected.  From everything, and (almost) everyone, myself included.  What I have come to realise is this: people like to have answers for things!  Where ARE you going to live?  How ARE you going to earn money? Etc..  And when I can’t answer these questions, not only can it make the person I’m talking to feel really uncomfortable (does it make them call into question their own life choices?), it can also throw me into a state of uncertainty and anxiety.  I can go from experiencing the openness in our lives as liberating, full of potential, exciting even, to being full of worries and concerns about all those limitless unknowns.  And so I feel myself detaching and going into myself more.  As if I were curling in and around my invisible core, to keep it protected somehow.

At times like these, I know I need to remember my Medicine Card for this year – Black Panther – and the words of wisdom that accompany its medicine of “Embracing the Unknown”.  And I take to heart, too, these words by Rilke, shared by Pip Bondy at a Way of Council workshop I attended this past weekend:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

These words came to me like a soothing balm, at a time when I was feeling particularly small, particularly vulnerable and particularly voiceless.  I was surprising even myself with the level of aloneness that I could experience, surrounded as I was by strong, safe, solid, open, loving and generous hearts.

These words allowed me, too, to open my own aching heart.  To pour forth what I have been keeping from view for so long.  To ride the waves of shame and fear that threatened to swallow me up, to raise my head and speak directly from my heart into the hearts of others there, waiting patiently and with compassion to witness me and my story.

This is profound work.  And it is painful.  And, I know I will go back time and again into these sacred circles to open myself up – not only because I know of the deep healing that resides in this space, but also because I know this is where I remember how to connect. With myself, yes of course; also, crucially, with others, and with Spirit too.  Way of Council is often described as a place where people find ‘home’.  I know what that means, without really being able to explain it.  It is like a resting place, where soul can settle, and spirit can breathe out.  A place to come back to in those moments of darkness that always return,  knocking us off our feet and taking away our breath.

In our circle, I heard myself speak and I witnessed myself being heard.  And I was welcome.  It brought home to me that when we really, truly, deeply, honestly, openly speak from our hearts, and we really, truly, deeply, honestly, openly hear from our hearts, profound things happen.  We are all capable of this.  All we need to do is listen.  Our voice is always there, and we always have something to say.

Medicine_wheel

Samhain medicine

Today is Samhain, beginning and end of the Celtic New Year.  A time where the veil between the “seen world of matter and the unseen world of spirit” (Glennie Kindred) is at its thinnest.   It is a time for our Ancestors to step forward from the land of shadows and sit with us once again in the circle of light; a time to honour all those who have gone before us – those that once were here in body and now are gone beyond our Earthly reach.  We name them and we remember them, for it is in this naming and remembering that they remain alive to us always.

As has been tradition in our home for a few years now, it is also the time where we all choose new Medicine Cards.  Medicine for us to muse on for the coming year.  Medicine that may help to shine a light on those places that may be hiding from us in our own shadows.

For me, this year is for the Black Panther, whose medicine is Embracing The Unknown.

If the Black Panther has appeared today, it may be telling you not to worry about the future.  Trust that you are not supposed to mentally “figure it out” at this time.  You may need to confront fears of the unknown, of being less than you truly are, or an inability to simply BE.  Let go of fears that appear as obstacles or barriers.  Embrace the unknown and flow with the mystery that is unfolding in your life.  The next step may be leaping empty-handed into the void with implicit trust.

Medicine Cards, The Discovery of Power Through The Ways of Animals Jamie Sams & David Carson

In many ways, Black Panther tells me nothing I do not already know.  And… the words I read today allow me to peel back yet another layer of the mystery that continues to unfold before me.  Indeed, Black Panther’s medicine speaks to me LOUD and CLEAR.  This Entering the Stillness and Embracing the Unknown are journeys I am very familiar with.  Words such as ‘trust’, ‘acceptance’, ‘void’, ‘stillness’ are ones that echo around and around me with faithful repetition on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

And so… on I go…

Knowing that the Black Panther is just there behind me, though, waiting patiently in the shadows, gives me comfort beyond words and a new found confidence in my ongoing journey…

Bridge_WildRiver

On the edge…

Boots_sea

I have been thinking a lot about edges over the past few months.

From a permaculture perspective, special things happen at edges.  Permaculture Principle number 11 states: ‘Use edges and value the marginal’:

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place.  These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
David Holmgren
 

Edges can often seem blurred, unclear, impenetrable.  They can be places of mystery, places where we put things and forget about them.  And so, they can also become places that we fear.

Light_sea

What I’ve realised is that I put myself on the edges of things a lot.  A LOT.   Whether it’s finding a task to take me away from the intensity of a group gathering, seeking ‘my place’ on the mountain at the furthest extreme, always choosing to lay my mat at the side and back of a yoga class, or heading for the public toilet cubicle at the end of the row, I recognise I often feel more comfortable when I’m on the edge, or outer side, of things.

So why do I do this?  I could say it’s because I like space around me, to move, stretch, lean into.  I could say it’s because I like to watch over things – like an eagle sitting still in a tree, I can take the wider view, take it all in, oversee everything (not public toilets, honestly).  I could say it’s because, unlike conventional readings of my zodiac sign, Leo, profess, I like to stand back and let others take centre stage.  I could even say that it’s because I know that the most interesting things happen at the edges.  All of these things are even true.

And, I could say it’s because of fear.  Fear of taking up ‘too much space’.  Fear of being seen.  Fear of being heard.  Fear of ‘showing up’.   Fear of being ‘found out’ for who I really am.  Fear of not knowing what to say.  Fear of not ‘fitting in’.  Fear of not being ‘enough’.

And all of these things, too, are true.

Indian_Brook

Edges are always there.  They are easy to see, and they are easy to ignore, because often we are standing over here and looking to over there, and we forget to notice all the change that has to happen in order for here and this to actually become there and that. We are often so intent on looking at the horizon, at the next thing, that we can miss all the wild and wonderful things between now and then.

Beaver_lodge

Each and every one of us has edges too.  Places we can either take ourselves to, or places where other people or events can nudge us into.  They are the places we deny in ourselves, the places we fear, the places we don’t want to talk about, places that, at times, feel so difficult to move past.  They are the places that ask too much of us, places that make us want to shrink back into our older, more comfortable, more familiar, safer selves.

And, this safety net can serve as a natural protection at times too.  Sometimes we are not quite ready to go to the next place.  Sometimes we need to sit awhile, absorbing all that is here, all that is familiar, all that is us, just as we know it, before we move through the edge and into the other.  We need to honour those edges – they are not to be taken lightly!  Yes, there are deep pots of gold there, buried in all the undergrowth, but sometimes we must dig gently, respectfully, cautious of what else resides there, seen and unseen.

In The Wisdom of No Escape: And the Path of Loving Kindness, Pema Chodron writes that “Life is a whole journey of meeting your edge again and again” and I know that she is right.  Where I’ve come to myself, with all this musing, is that I need to really recognise and respect edges, both in the natural world, and within myself, for what they are.  The whens, wheres, whys, and hows of them all.   I need to make sure I’m using these edges wisely, that I am neither overlooking them nor spending too much time in them.  What I realise is that they can be tempting places, these dark and mysterious edges, when I start to investigate them in detail, and I can easily lose myself in them.

Sandals_fire

Into the woods

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness

John Muir

In the past, T and I have discussed the question “Are you a plains person or a forest person?”  So, if you had to choose, would you live on the top of a hill with wide views all around, open space in abundance, or would you choose the closer confines of a woodland environment, surrounded by trees?  He’s always said forest.  I’ve been plains.

Here, in Cape Breton, we are surrounded by trees.  Everywhere we go… trees.  It is only when we’re on the beach, looking out on to the Gulf of St Lawrence, that there is not forest as far as the eye can see.  Other than the Daintree Rainforest in Northern Queensland, I have never before spent so much time in and amongst so many trees.  And it’s interesting what it’s doing to my psyche.

Intellectually, I feel excited.  All the reading I’ve been doing over the last year or so, about ‘wilderness’ and the impact of the loss of our native large fauna on our natural world, tells me that this landscape is how our own small and terribly overcrowded island would have looked before the forests disappeared.  This is what projects like Trees For Life, who’s aim it is to restore the Caledonian Forest up in Scotland, are envisioning.  A land literally COVERED in trees.  In fact, before we left home, someone said to me “Nova Scotia is just like Scotland, before they cut down all the trees”.  While this is true in some sense – there are huge numbers of lakes, some vast, some small, there are hills , there are blackflies aplenty (midgie equivalent), there is even a man playing the bagpipes just outside the cafe where I’m sitting right now – I don’t feel the immensity of space that I do when I’m in Scotland.   This is because not only are the ‘mountains’ here that much smaller, but in Scotland the bare and open landscape, devoid of trees in many parts, gives me much more a sense of expansiveness somehow.  And, although the Gaelic music also floats around in abundance here, what I hear around me are Canadian accents, and so I feel very, very far away from my own ‘culture’ and, most importantly, my own land.

But what is “my own land” (by that I mean the land of my birth)?  What does it really look like?  I know WHAT it looks like in present times, of course, but now I also have a sense of what it must have looked like way back when (and perhaps what it ‘should’ look like now?)  And it’s pretty radically different.  While humans have clearly made their mark here – dirt tracks disappear off main roads, marking out thoroughfares used by people living in the near and far reaches of the forest – because of the impenetrable nature of this forest, it feels like there are large areas where no human foot can ever have stepped.  Up there in the hills reside bears, coyotes, moose, and lynx.  The kinds of animals that conjure up feelings of fear, excitement and WILDNESS in me.

So, it’s interesting.  As I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with those ecologists that lament the loss of our native wildscapes, those who campaign for the return of our vast forests, for the reintroduction of our lost megafauna, I also find myself questioning just how I personally would cope living in and amongst so many trees again.  I say “again” because once upon a long time ago all of our ancestors walked these forests. These tree-covered lands are in our blood, in the ancient memories stored in our very bones.  Their roots grow deep within our souls.  We are of the forest and we are one with the forest.  It is only because we cut the vast majority of them down so very long ago that we have lost that conscious knowing of the wild woods cape.  Not only that, but we have also, tragically, become afraid of it.

That comes as a huge sense of loss, for me.  When I was in the Daintree I felt fear of ‘what is out there’.  At times, I couldn’t fully enjoy where I was because I was worried about what I couldn’t see.  And here it is the same.  What is out there IS unknown and unseen.  We, as humans, do not fare well when we do not know and can not see what is coming towards us.  Or, indeed, as my own small family takes its first tentative footsteps out into the world, far away from the comfort, safety and loving arms of our home, family and friends, when we do not know what we, ourselves, are heading towards.

So, I take these forests as a fine metaphor for where I find myself in life right now.  I literally CAN NOT see what is out there.   I must let go of knowing, and trust that, step by tiny step, we will find our way.

When I first read John Muir’s quote above, I thought “Ha, not for me!”  Clearly, I have much to learn.  Or re-learn perhaps…

Forest

Threshold

tree_threshold

You will go with your guide to a wilderness place.  All you have will be the pack on your back.  A base camp will be established on the perimeter of the threshold area.  Now you are at the border of a land without borders.  You are about to enter the hallowed cathedral of the Great Mother.

The last night, by the firelight, the faces of people in the group have never seemed more honest.  Defenses are down.  Conversation is real and full of truth.  Like the others, you have come to the end of a trail littered with old spoor.  Soon you will walk away from it.  You are one sleepless night away from liberation…

For the next three or four days and nights you will see no one.  In the silence of your separateness you will seek a vision… This is the time to forget time, to remember what it is you are seeking, and to take it into your heart.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

It is almost a year to the day that I came down from a mountain in North Wales, having spent four days and four nights up there, alone, fasting, praying for a vision.  And, as I make my preparations to return to that same mountain, to ‘complete’ the ceremony, if you like, the memories of that time come flooding back to me in wild and unbidden ways.

The fear, the doubts, the hunger, the dreams, the seemingly endless passage of the sun through the sky overhead.  Then the clarity, the knowing, the feeling that my heart would burst open with the love and connection that I felt for everyone and everything around me.  An openness that I have not felt anywhere before or since.  A deep, earth-reverberating, soul-aching belonging to the world that made me want to laugh and cry in equal measure.

In any rite of passage ceremony, there are three identifiable phases which must be gone through by the initiate: Severence (where we separate literally from our former worlds), Threshold (where we enter the ‘sacred world’ and so begins the time of testing), and Reincorporation (where we return to our ‘village’, our people, carrying our vision before us).  Each stage is as elemental to the whole as each other.  Each one is unique, intense, and full of medicine that keeps showing itself in wild and mysterious ways.  Each one takes an enormous amount of courage that at times can feel insurmountable.

One definition in the Oxford English Dictionary describes threshold as “a point of entry or beginning”.  Indeed, threshold marks a place between here and there, now and then.  It allows us a point in space and time to step through, shedding all that we have been carrying up to then – the point at which “(We) may face deep truths, extreme weakness and strength that (we) never knew (we) had; in order to stand in (our) naked truth and surrender into (our) uniqueness” (Pip Bondy, http://www.ancienthealingways.co.uk/vision-quest/).  We can, indeed we MUST, ask ourselves: What are we leaving behind in order to step through, past and beyond ourselves at this juncture?

Marking threshold is potent.  It can be a physical location in space, or it can be a point in our lives when we know we have reached the end of one thing, one way of being, and now we need to step into something else.  Another, different part of ourselves that we know is in there, buried deep beneath years of sorrow or pain perhaps, or simply a lack of recognition of seeing something for what it is.

sea_threshold

Now you stand alone at the gates of sacred time.  Before you lie the features of eternity.  By your own efforts you have become a worthy candidate.  Now the cord binding you to your former life must be severed.  You will cut the cord by actually entering the passage.  This is an auspicious and powerful moment.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

As I stand at that edge and ask myself “What am I willing to leave behind so that I can fully step through, in and beyond?” I feel fear, anticipation, excitement AND a deep knowing that this is where I have been coming to since I walked down that mountain a year ago yesterday, my bag heavy on my back, my vision light in my heart.

I have laughed, cried, worried, questioned,  stumbled and walked gracefully through reincorporation. I unconsciously re-entered severance during this time, and once again I find myself standing at the doorway that leads from here to there.

And I laugh too, because after two years of doing some intense self work, I promised myself that I would have a ‘year off’ this year.  Little did I know that by choosing to step up to this journey all those many months ago, all I really did was open a door.  One of many doors.

And, of course, with each new door comes a new threshold…