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.

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Beauty and pain

Last night, as I watched my two daughters and their beloved cousins dancing around the living room to Michael Jackson, Queen, and Culture Club (our usual playlist), in amongst all the laughter and the silliness and the pure, innocent joy, I realised I felt a pang of sadness.  These four beautiful beings are getting so old!  Their independence grows as they move more and more into their own beings.  Where will these days and nights of endless talk and ridiculous giggles go?  How will things unfold for them?

Every day, in my meditation practice, I make the intention to “come back to the present moment”.  I have a huge tendency to imagine the future, to lay paths out in front of me, and to see myself walking those paths to some distant, imagined, future.  I am so good at this, in fact, I catch myself constantly daydreaming.  Children, for me,  are the very essence of living in the moment.  Yes, they hold memories of sad times, hurtful words, and painful moments, and yes they, too, at times worry about the future.  And yet, time and again, as a full-time parent I witness astonishing moments of acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go.  It humbles me, and it is a huge gift.

In fact, when I take a step back and really see just what my children have brought to my life over the past ten years, I feel quite overwhelmed.  I remember the feeling when I held our first daughter in my arms after she was born – “How am I to take responsibility for this?!”   And yet, every day for the past ten years, as a full-time mum and home educator, I have had to make decisions that affect both my daughters’ lives.  Not only their ‘presents’, but also, potentially, their ‘futures’.  Nowadays, we lack the precious and crucial roles of elders in our society, and so many of these decisions we, as parents, make alone.  And when we choose to take the less conventional roads, such as home educating, we again take on not only so much more of the decision making in our children’s lives, we also often have to forge our own ways with it too.

I feel so grateful for the path we have chosen up until this point.  Although many people see it as somehow ‘less’ than a full time job (because, after all, where’s the respect if you’re not getting paid for something?), the home educating journey is by no means an easy one.  I have met incredible people who walk this path.  The commitment and dedication that they show to their children often blows me away.  I find their deep rooted beliefs that this is the right path for them and their family humbling and, at times, awe inspiring.   They know what they believe, and they walk their talk.  And, for anyone that has ever stepped off the path of convention knows, this is NEVER the easy option.

In September, I will be starting full time study, and my daughters will go to school.  I have a whole range of emotions about this new trajectory.  Right now, what I’m sitting with is just how much I am going to miss these days I spend with my girls.  The last ten years have been hard and relentless and exhausting and challenging and, and, and….  And they have been wonderful.   To watch them grow, to see the developmental leaps that they take EVERY SINGLE DAY, to be such a close part of their daily experience of life – this is a precious thing.  As a result of having spent so much time together in their early years, our relationships are strong.  I have witnessed so much of their lives up until this point that I believe I truly know them.  They, too, have watched me navigating the rollercoaster ride of life, with all its ups and downs.  They have seen me giggle ridiculously and dance wildly.  And they have seen me cry with uncontrollable frustration too.  Many times.  This is not ‘sheltering them from the world’, as some critics of home education argue – on the contrary,  I believe this IS the world, and it has only served to make the bond between us and our children tighter.

I embrace the future, and I am excited beyond words about how it might unfold.  And, yes, I am mourning all that needs to change too.  I accept that this is a major part of parenting, this letting go.  Sometimes I see the joy in it, the openness… the freedom!  And sometimes I feel the loss and sadness that walks hand in hand with that joy, with a pain that is both emotional and physical.

I honour my daughters’ journeys, as I honour my own.  I trust in the decisions we have made so far, and all those decisions that are yet to come.  And, I see the beauty and pain that are sometimes so closely interwoven, some days it can be hard to distinguish between them.

Home is where the heart is


Crochet_heart

My friend made this crochet heart for me as a farewell gift when we set off on our travels earlier this year.  Little could she possibly know how much it has played an intrinsic part in my journey across oceans, through forests, round and around and back, always, to myself.  (Or maybe she did.  She’s quite clever.)

Home is where the heart is.

This, I know.  I really do.

And yet…

…as I start my long and winding journey back to my motherland after a not insignificant period of time away, I find myself asking where ‘home’ is for me now.

I’ve come to recognise many things about both myself and the nature of existence these past few months. Some bright days, much of this can feel quite positive! Other mornings, I can wake up and struggle to find much good about myself and I long for sleep to return me to the land of dreams where my living, breathing ego holds no power. Sadly, sleep evades me far more often than I’d like, and so, on these days, I remind myself that nothing is permanent; that this feeling, too, will pass.  And it does, always. Eventually.

One thing I have realised is this: having lived in someone else’s house for the majority of our time away, and then stayed in numerous other homes since we left Cape Breton, I realise how important living in a space that not only speaks to me, but speaks of me, is to my general sense of wellbeing.  I see that so much of my heart takes comfort in the living space around it – being surrounded by colours, shapes and materials that I can connect with becomes quite crucial to my state of mental health.

I love making home. I love creating beautiful space. And, me being me, I also often question whether this is a good use of my time – should I put so much effort into what things look like?  I remember school reports that said “100% for presentation, content could be better.”  Both a compliment and critique, then.  And, most likely, knowing how uninspiring I found the majority of my educational years, fair enough. I recognise that perhaps I do try to put a lot of effort into how things look – I guess a question I’ve recently found myself asking is: “Do I do this at the expense of developing a depth of understanding behind the presentation?” Am I thinking too much about the ‘home’ and not enough about the ‘heart’?  Perhaps.

I have friends who make truly heart-warmingly, soul-nourishingly beautiful homes. Homes that make me feel immediately welcome, loved, happy and inspired.  What I now realise, no, what I now know, is that wherever I may go from here, whatever land or place I may seek to call ‘home’ next, I, too, want to create a space where other people enter and feel welcome, loved, happy and inspired.  Of course I know that all this has more to do with the heart behind it than the home itself, and believe me, I’m working on that.

What I would MOST love to do in the world is to make our own home from scratch. To create something with our very own hands that is truly unique to us, that speaks of us and who we are in every board that is laid, every beam that is raised.  In many ways, it feels an essential part of being human to me – to raise our own dwelling. To find our own place on the land and build our home. On our journey these past months we have met so many people who have done or are doing this very thing, and there is something about it that feels just so right. To mould ourselves into the very place in which we reside, to create somewhere that allows parts of ourselves that are not always easy to find words for to come into being.  Surely, this is what we, as human beings, have always done?  Just because we have now created a world around us where it is both easier and cheaper not to do so, does not nor should not diminish that instinctual desire.

I know my heart sings when I am in spaces that inspire me.  And, I know how affected I am by being in environments that do not speak to me. Yes, yes, there’s that voice inside me that says “It shouldn’t matter where you are, your heart is always the same”, but actually, I disagree.  And I know I am not alone in this. We each seek out people and places that call to our souls, whether we are aware of it or not.  Some of us can not silence the condemning, critical, negative voices in our heads unless we stand, sit, sleep in places of (wild) beauty.  Our own very small island gets more full by the day, it seems. And yet, still I believe we can carve out our own tiny pieces of beauty and serenity in the places where we choose to call home.

So, my main realisation is this: a home is nothing without a heart.  And a happy, loving, inspired and open heart can created a happy, loving, inspired and open home.

This, I know.

 

 

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

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

Teachings

I’ve been aware for a while that I am looking for a teacher.  Teachers perhaps.  Guides.  Mentors.  People (women, if I’m honest) that can help me navigate my way through this sometimes calm, sometimes stormy ocean of life.  The thing is, I’ve never been very good at asking for what I need, nor necessarily always recognising things that are right there in front of me.

Pema Chodron

A good friend of mine introduced me to Pema Chrodron some time ago.  And, over the last couple of weeks I have been reading some of her books, which I am finding gentle, nurturing, enlightening and deeply inspiring.

Pema Chodron, born Deirdre Blomfeld-Brown, is an American Buddhist nun, author and teacher, and a mother.  Born in 1936, she married twice and had two children before immersing herself in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-30s, eventually becoming ordained as a novice nun in 1974.

So, not only is Pema Chodron a woman, but she has lived ‘in the world’, so to speak, and has birthed children.  She knows what it means to be married, to commit living her life alongside someone else, to raise young ones, and to live surrounded by concrete, noise, busyness and craziness in the reality of a Western world city.  As such, when I read her words, I feel like maybe she’s known some of what I have experienced in life.  Perhaps she has walked a little way in my shoes, and I in hers.  I can’t say the same about the Dalai Lama or, much as I love him, Eckhart Tolle, or indeed any of the other inspirational male spiritual ‘leaders’ that speak gentle truths of love, life and compassion.

Having been scarred by Catholic schooling for most of my youth, I am very resistant to organised religion.  I know there is rebellion in me in embracing one way of seeing the world, one way of understanding how it all works, one way of explaining what happens to us after we die.  Also, I’ve never been brilliant with rules.  I have a tendency to break them.  And, as a feminist, I know I can certainly never follow a faith system that has one male entity at its head.  It just does not work for me.  Not in this truly unbalanced world we live in, where women can still be stoned to death for having been raped, or shot at for daring to speak out about a girl’s right to education.

When people ask me “What do you believe in?” I find it hard to answer.  Quite simply, I believe in what I feel.  I believe in the beauty of the natural world and the mirrors that it constantly holds up to our faces.  I believe in the power of nature to not only show us what is going on in our lives, but to also hold a space for us to always walk into, to access the power of the land, the wind, the sea, in order that we can learn to heal ourselves.  I believe in stillness, in silence, and I believe in listening to the sound of our inner knowing.  I have experienced moments of what I can only describe as complete belonging; moments in which I know, with total assuredness, that all of us, all of this, is connected.  I believe in the power of the individual, and I believe in the power of community.  I believe in the power of sitting in circle, of talking and listening from the heart.  I believe in rites of passage to mark, honour and celebrate all the transitions we make throughout our lives.  I know I need these things in order that I can make sense of it all, and I know I am not alone in this.

Pema Chodron’s teachings have come to me at a time in my life when I feel ready to open to them.  I take great comfort in her words so full of simple wisdom that I find myself nodding, saying thank you, and wanting somehow to eat them up so that they can stay within my very core always.

And then, just a few weeks ago, our Canadian friend (and soon-to-be neighbour) pointed out that the abbey Pema Chodron is the resident teacher at, Gampo Abbey, is “just down the coast” from where we’ll be living in Cape Breton come mid-July.  For me, who trusts in the natural ebb and flow of life, who struggles when it feels like things are not moving along easily, that things are being forced into being, this discovery felt like nothing less than serendipity.  Her own words about the abbey only serve to strengthen my resolve to spend some time there if I possibly can:

Gampo Abbey is a vast place where the sea and sky melt into each other.  The horizon extends infinitely, and in this vast space float seagulls and ravens.  The setting is like a huge mirror that exaggerates the sense of there being nowhere to hide.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Over the last couple of weeks I have been meditating on the question “What or who are you resisting in your life right now?”  I know now that the “who” in this question is myself.  And, I feel ready to come out of hiding.

I also believe Pema Chodron may be one of the teachers I have been waiting for to help me do this.

 

 

 

 

 

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…