Saturday, 30 November 2013

More about the Big Q

Writing last week about “what it’s all about” (the Big Q) reminded me of a few more things, so this is a continuation of last week’s post. 

In particular I wanted to share this: I have found the best way to get hints about the answer to the Big Q is to connect with the Divine, or the Creator, or the Higher Power...whatever name you give to God.

Ah, but how do you do that? When I was much younger, I thought, as I’d been taught, that the way was through words. You prayed words, you listened to words, you read words, you sang word-prayers, and somehow, this was supposed to connect you to your Maker. Sometimes it did. More often, it didn’t. Oh, sure, I talked to God all day in my head: “Nice day, today – thanks for that. Oh, and by the way, I’m really worried about X, could you take care of that, please? And I’m feeling  blue today ...”) But mostly it was me doing all the talking. I thought maybe I was missing the antenna to hear what God was saying to me. It was supposed to be a two-way relationship, wasn’t it?

Later, I learned, to my relief, that there are many other ways to commune with the Divine. In Fifty Ways to Pray – Practices from Many Traditions and Times, I learned about meditation, about reflection, about using imagination, about experiencing nature, and about body prayers.  All these are prayers that don’t necessarily use words but allow us to listen and engage with God in new ways.
Body Prayers – using our body through dance, drumming, running, walking – especially appealed to me. When I used my body – when I worked with my hands, creating quilts or art pieces or journalling about ideas, or when I took walks alone, or moved to music, I would receive insights and revelations even when I wasn’t necessarily looking for answers. That was a big !AHA! moment for me: when I activated it through movement, the Divine Spark’s energy flowed through me.

That’s a long introduction to a story about a winter walk and a hint of an answer to the Big Q. The story starts in 2004 in Texas, where Al and I were vacationing at Big Bend National Park, right across the Rio Grande River from the village of Boquillas, Mexico. For years, the villagers of Boquillas  had supplemented their meager incomes by ferrying park visitors across the river in boats and offering them the food and handicrafts of another culture. This was technically illegal  –  nobody was checking passports – but officials turned a blind eye to the practice. Then came 9-11, and suddenly the borders were shut down. With armed guards patrolling the watery border, the residents of Boquillas were cut off from a supplementary income that fed and educated their children.

What to do? The Rio Grande was a very shallow river at this point, so while one person remained on the Mexican side as a lookout, others would wade across the Rio Grande and invite walkers on the trail to buy their handicrafts. I was buying a walking stick when a piercing whistle sounded – the lookout had spotted a  guard on the other side. The Mexican men grabbed my money, rolled up their handicrafts in a blanket, and rushed back across the river to safety.

 Five  years later, in Courtenay BC, I grabbed that Boquillas stick to go walking on a wintry January morning.  Down to the woods I went, where the trails were icy.
This is a quilt square I made to celebrate the walk.
The stick was a great support as I navigated the bumps and hazards. I breathed the crisp cold air, felt alive and refreshed. I wasn’t really thinking about much else, but when I got back to my computer, this is what I wrote:


March, 2004: Big Bend National Park, Texas
On the banks of the Rio Grande
squatting beside their secret wares,
Mexican men:
“Psst! Would you like to buy?
Hand-carved walking sticks,
cheap, Senora, cheap!”
We buy a walking stick.
Then comes a warning whistle:
the men pack their wares,
dash across the river,
to home and safety,
ahead of the gun-toting border guard.
$10 has bought them security:
their children will have food for another day.

January, 2009:
On the banks of the Puntledge River,
on icy Vancouver Island,
I pick my way along the path,
into the rain-spattered wind,
leaning hard upon my walking stick.
Eagles, fungi, roaring river
replenish and refresh.
$10 has bought me security, and
my spirit has been nourished for another day.

The tiny inkling of awareness on my walk was in the connections I experienced: the connection between terrorists and innocent citizens in a far off country; a connection to nature; a connection to strangers who, like me, were looking for safety and security; and a connection to the Creator.

Our very big world is so very small, and in the grand scheme of things, not very much separates us from each other. Drawing strength from the Creator of it all, we can take care of one another and the world we live in ... or not. Whatever we choose will have consequences.

It’s not the whole answer to the Big Q, but it’s part of it, I’m sure.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

What’s it all about, anyway?

The crow is pondering the Big Q, too.
On her Facebook page, Anne Lamott writes about a talk she gave to launch her latest book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair.

She says, “A woman in her late twenties raised her hand and asked, "What is the big picture? I do a lot of things that I love and value, but don't have a clue what it all means." Anne’s reply: “Welcome to the monkey house! ... We ALL think we missed school the day that the visiting specialists stopped by our 2nd grade classroom to distribute the pamphlets on what is true, who we are, how we are to live with the great mystery of life, how to come through dark times, how to awaken.”

What’s it all about, anyway? That is the Big Question (henceforth know as Big Q). If we are people of “a certain age” we should, by now, for goodness sakes, know the answer  – shouldn’t we? But no, in the last few weeks the Big Q has posed itself a number of times, as though the Universe is shaking me by the shoulders and saying, “Hey! Wake up! Got the answer yet?” Nope. (But I’m getting some hints.)

The Big Q came up in a conversation with a friend over lunch – she said she’d been “broodily pondering” about the meaning of life.  (“Broodily pondering” is a great phrase, isn’t it? Like a broody hen sitting on her nest, she’s expecting something, sometime, to hatch. Living in expectation is a good way to live, I think.)

Then, when I was cleaning out a drawer, I came across Seeking the Sacred, a book of talks given at a Seeker’s Dialogue in Toronto in 2006. These are the first lines of the introduction: “Over the course of our adult lives, most of us eventually choose, or are forced by events, to answer the questions ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose?’ ”

Even our national radio CBC got into the act on its comedy show This is That. With tongue firmly placed in cheek, the interviewer talked to a fellow – I’ll call him Bud. Bud said,  “Yeah, ya know, I’d had a horrible, terrible, painful break-up with my girlfriend of four months, and I just hit rock bottom and I was wondering what life was all about anyway. I just went outside and fired up the snow-blower and began clearing my driveway, and ya know, that gave me time to think, and I had an amazing revelation: I needed to go on a vision quest across Canada with my snow-blower. Maybe somewhere on the walk, blowing snow, the answer will come to me.” So off he went. For Bud, the answer came in Dryden where he met up with a most delightful woman who is fulfilling all his dreams.

The easy cheesy way out for me at this point in this post would be the Monty Python way. At the end of the movie The Meaning of Life, a character opens an envelope that supposedly answers the Big Q,  and reads, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

However, I am beginning to believe that there is no definitive answer that will fit every person, and that answers change as we grow and mature. For some people – Monty Python? –  it’s pretty simple – you figure it out, and after that you carry on. Or we read something that makes sense, and use it to help us along. The Westminster Catechism tells us that “the chief aim of man (and woman) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In Seeking the Sacred, author Martin Rutte suggests that all the world’s great religious traditions teach that we are here to bring heaven – or little bits of heaven, as far as it is in our power – to earth. Anne Lamott shared some ideas on her Facebook post that are worth considering, as well. ( – Nov. 15 post.)

For me – and for you too? –  these answers are just a start. Looking for answers to the Big Q is a lifelong quest, and the quest leads us on a great journey from which we will return home, from time to time, a changed person. It’s a lifetime of wondering and “broodily pondering” – in hopeful expectation.
These days of my Sabbatical, writing and creating art, bring to mind the following poem by Hafiz, a 13th century Persian mystic. It feels -- for today, at least, like the answer to the Big Q.

"I am
a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath
moves through.
Listen to this

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Life Happens...

This has been the kind of week that brings to mind the quote, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” The quote has been attributed to John Lennon, but my guess is that most folks have come up with this discovery more than once in life.

On Monday, I planned to get my CrowDayOne post written early, since we had a busy weekend planned. (You know where this is going, don’t you?) I actually did get my piece written. I even had a piece of quilting to illustrate it.  But overnight, the Muse appeared in my dreams and said, aghast, “You really aren’t going to post that sermon, are you?”  I re-read it and realized that, like some sermons, there were some nuggets of good stuff but you’d have to sift through a lot of mud to get there. As Miss Manners would say, “You deserve better, dear readers.”

The next morning I began again. I was done at noon and feeling mighty good. “I’ll edit it later in the week – it won’t take long,” I told myself. Uh-huh. That afternoon, I’d been invited to visit a woman who has made banners for our church. She thought I could use some of her leftover silks in my art. I thought I had enough fabric to last a hundred years. I only planned to have a nice visit and a cup of tea with her, but you probably know what happened to my plans. Yes, now I have enough fabric for 150 years.

Raw material for future crows...
Think it might be the Muse talking?
On Wednesday, a friend and I took off for an overnight “Two Chicks Road Trip” – something we’d done several years ago and enjoyed so much, we had promised ourselves we’d do it again soon. But you know, life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans, and so we kept postponing it. Now was the time; my post was written, and my cousin wasn’t coming for the weekend till Friday afternoon. What better time to get out of Dodge?

We had a lovely time in Victoria – hitting the fabric shops, the art supply store, even a T-shirt shop, eating out, and talking, talking, talking all the way. But something was nagging at me. “Oh, please, dear Muse, go away,” I begged.  But she wouldn’t. “This time, your post sounds like something you should be spouting about to your shrink,” she told me. “Really? But it’s such an important discovery I made about myself,” I whined. “Exactly,” she said. “You think it’s all about you?” Yikes, that hurt.

By the time I got home on Thursday evening, I was too tired to deal with the situation. “Tomorrow is another day. I’ll have time to write a post and clean the house before my cousin comes later in the afternoon,” I decided.  That should work.  (Did I ever tell you that I’m a slow learner?)

Friday morning by 9 a.m. I was sitting down at the computer, ready to begin yet another piece, but first I checked Facebook. Cousin Rika had posted, “I’m in Nanaimo now ...”  Nanaimo? Nanaimo??? Already? Wow, she could be here in an hour! I couldn’t do both, so it was time to choose: clean the house, or write the blog. Then the doorbell rang. It was a quilting friend I hadn’t chatted with for ages. “Come on in and have a coffee,” I suggested.

It would be neither the house, nor the blog, nor any other carefully laid plans that interfered with life. It would be living in the here and now, enjoying the moments in this crazy, messy life with its random happenings and unplanned joys. And I would hope and trust that there would still be time for everything else that was necessary.

And as you can tell, there was! Life happened -- not according to plan ... and it was good.

The house got cleaned, the post got written, and Rika got to feed the birds at Lazo Marsh. That's life in a nutshell!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Meet You at the Roost

The crows have begun to do their fly-over on their way to their roosting site somewhere west of town. Flock after flock wing their way high above us, hundreds and hundreds of them, just as the sun is beginning to set. Somewhere out there in the woods is a grove of trees which will become their hotel for the night. The next morning, just as the sun is rising, they will leave their roosts and fly away, off to do their groceries and see what’s up in the world.

This nightly roosting activity begins in the fall, when the nestlings, now fully grown, no longer need mom and dad to feed them. Released from their parental duties, the adults are ready for some social time. They’re tired of listening to little “peeps”, and need to hear some adult news. “Time to hit The Roost,” they tell each other. (Aren’t some pubs named The Roost? How appropriate.) The kids are welcome to come along, and many do. Older single crows, not ready to mate, may want to hang out in town with the guys, but the gang will probably drop in to the Roost every few days. When all the crows have arrived, there’s an ungodly racket of cawing, screeching, chuckling and other undecipherable crow language. And just as it happens in hotels, at a certain point, suddenly all is quiet as they bed down for the night. Researchers aren’t sure exactly what these birds chat about in their crowlogues at the Roost, but it may be about good places to get food, which dumpster is overflowing, who’s dating who, and news about the latest sighting of their arch-enemy, The Great Horned Owl. They may spend a bit of time broadcasting news about who’s died, who’s behaving badly and needs some discipline, and whether any strangers have arrived in town. Young crows listen in and learn. Once winter is over and a new nesting season begins, the Roost’s regulars head for the summer cottage, where they’ll begin their family cycle anew. The roost will be deserted until fall arrives.

Crows love to be in community. Adult crows never kick their babies out of the nest – they’re welcome to hang around and help with the housekeeping. Some hang around for years (it’s the opposite of “empty nest syndrome”, I’m thinking.) Family groupings can get quite large in these situations, and each member of the group looks out for everyone else in the group. They also teach each other an enormous amount of crow wisdom to help the youngsters thrive and survive when they strike out on their own.

I created this small wall hanging of crows hanging out at the Roost. It would be fun to add word balloons above the crows’ heads!
I thought about this Crow phenomenon on Halloween afternoon, about the time the sun was beginning to set. I was driving home from Cumberland, a small town known for its funkiness and community spirit. It wasn’t crows I saw, however. Crossing guards at every corner of main street directed traffic, and the sidewalks swarmed with costumed revelers big and small. Children and their parents – in some cases, grandparents – teens in groups, even adults without kids, were strolling along, obviously enjoying themselves immensely as they paraded up one side of main street and down the other. The children were skipping and dancing, the adults were chatting and visiting, and the treats the local businesses were doling out were secondary to the fun everyone was having. They were gathering in community to chat and exchange news, to catch up on who’s dating who, who died, who’s been sent to jail, what Ottawa has been up to, and whether the coal mine should go ahead or not.

Both the Roosting and the Halloween experience remind me of the importance of intergenerational communities that include folks of all ages. In intergenerational communities, children learn from older folks, hear the stories, catch the values embedded in the opinions we speak and the sermons we preach – but probably, most of all, in the actions we take. Older people enjoy the fresh insights of the younger folk. We hear each others' stories, and are nudged to think about a bigger world than the small insular outpost we call home. We learn that someone is in trouble and we hatch plans to provide support. We talk to each other, and we are better together than we are alone.

You can find these intergenerational communities in extended family gatherings, in mixed-age neighbourhoods, at potluck suppers with friends and strangers, in events such as country fairs and community celebrations, in churches and school concerts, even in soup kitchens where parents down on their luck bring their children to sup with the homeless. And it is good.

Because we all need a branch to roost on.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A Backyard Parable

We’ve had two weeks of cool and foggy weather, a harbinger of the winter rains to come. But this week, the sun graced us for several days with its swan song, bathing everything in a golden light.

It was a good week to clean out the garden. We chopped back the last of the flowers, popped the squash vines into the yard waste container, and took down the sunflower stalks. (I can sense the resident sweetie reading this over my shoulder and commenting, “We? You said WE?”  I’ll gratefully admit he did the lion’s share of the work.)

This annual clean-up is part of the gardening year that Margaret Roach writes about in Backyard Parables.  She describes the cycle in human terms, beginning with Conception – ordering seeds and planning for your “baby”. Birth happens when the first green shoots poke through the ground, offering signs of life and new beginnings. Such joy and excitement!

When everything begins growing fast, you know the season of Youth has arrived. Like children, the plants outgrow the space you allotted them, and every time you turn around, they’re testing the boundaries. Thank goodness that is followed by Adulthood, when full potential is reached. Flowers bloom brilliantly, vegetables produce abundantly, and the bees and butterflies flit from plant to plant.  This is what it’s all about, you think, as you admire the fruits of your labour and bask in reflected glory. Oh, if only we could just freeze this moment in time.

But you can’t. The adult garden turns into an old lady. It has entered Senescence, (in biology, the process of deterioration that comes with age). “It’s the start of the downhill slope, the winding down,” says Roach.

And that’s where we are at with our garden. She may be old, but the lady is still beautiful. The leaves of the blueberry, the dogwood, and the oregon grape are turning red, orange and gold. The Japanese maple has dropped her leaves, and her lovely drooping limbs are showing through. The overwintering birds, perky juncos and sparrows, have arrived, along with a towhee, a grosbeak and a flicker, pecking at the seeds on the ground and on the feeders. The last of the roses have burst into beautiful reds and pinks. The plants have finished their work of producing seeds, so now this old lady can just “be” in the autumn sunshine. And in being, she brings much pleasure.

But then, in her garden year description, Roach barges right on like a runaway car tooting its horn to get our attention. Hey! Listen up! This isn’t just about the garden. Senescence, she writes, is “a wise, rich, and also unsettling moment of letting go in our lives and backyards as we witness and hopefully start to embrace the inevitable.”

Senescence is happening to all of us at a certain age: cells quit reproducing, and our bodies don’t work quite as well anymore. Collagen doesn’t get replaced, so skin begins to wrinkle and sag. The hair turns grey because the pigments go into retirement. We are faced with ... and asked to embrace ... the inevitable. Winter’s coming, don’t you know?

And yet, as my garden has taught me, this season in our life has the potential for its own beauty. When we clear away the debris of previous seasons in our life, when we let go and dump the garbage, we uncover many gifts we still have time to give. Love, wisdom, service, joy, practical help, friendship, a listening ear ... senescence only clarifies and focuses these possibilities. And just by being our older selves, we can enrich the world.

Roach concludes her six seasons of the garden with Death and the Afterlife. “Parts of the garden go into hiding,” she says. “But life will rise again, dust to dust, from the compost heap.”

And will resurrection happen in our lives, too? Oh, yes indeed, I do believe so. 

Margaret Roach, author of Backyard Parables, has a website at  
This is a work in progress, trying to capture our fall garden. "All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today."