Saturday, 23 April 2016

Onward and UPward

As I write this, Project UP (Unclog the Pipes) has been in operation for a week. I wrote last week that sometimes our spiritual growth stalls because we have blockages preventing the Spirit from flowing through us.

I’d like to say Project UP is an amazing success, and I am bursting with new ideas and insights, a fresh vision, etc. yadda yadda. That wouldn’t be true. Project UP is operating in fits and starts. I believe that may be true for most of life – our intentions are great, but putting the plans into action is another story. Still, the intention is important, and if we are kind to ourselves, we do find, eventually that we progress. So I stumble on.

I am working on another unfinished project –  a self-portrait of me at 67, which is a continuation of the self-portraits I did at 65 and 66.

#65: The Crow Talks

#66: Old Crow, Still Dancing

My birthday is in June so this unfinished project is 9 months behind schedule. However, in the spirit of “be kind to yourself”, I proceed, and WOW! I like what is happening. So maybe, sometimes, ideas need to ripen to their fullness before you can express them well. Here's a snippet of #67 Carrying the Thread – perhaps soon I can show you the whole thing – just before I have to get started on #68!

#67: Carrying the Thread
As well, I’ve started a new practice that I hope will also help unclog the pipes. I’ve always enjoyed walking in nature – I count it as a spiritual practice. But earlier this year, at an Elder College class I attended called “Dwelling in Nature”, I was introduced to the concept of Sit Spot. “A sit spot,” I was told, “is a place you go to often and regularly to sit so you can look, listen, feel, smell, and even taste the surrounding landscape. Sit spots improve mental and physical health as well as improve the participant's spiritual state.”

The idea in practice means that you find a place in nature close to home, which you will visit 3-4 times a week for a year, to sit quietly for at least 20 minutes, preferably longer. You will be still, and you will open your senses to what is going on. You will come to know this little piece of God’s green earth intimately, in all weathers and all seasons, and your connection to the earth and to the Creator of it will be stronger.  (For more information on Sit Spots, google the term. There are many websites offering advice on the best kinds of sit spots, and how to benefit from the practice.)

It’s possible to have a Sit Spot on your high-rise balcony or in a corner of your backyard; you might even choose a bus bench, observing clouds and sky, sparrows and bugs, weeds that grow in the sidewalk cracks. But for me, nature has always been first and foremost the woods across the street. In about 300 steps, I leave behind concrete and cars to enter the cathedral of trees with their soaring branches arching overhead.

I have many choices of Sit Spots here – sitting on a log beside the rushing Puntledge River, or on a bench right beside the pathway. Or, there’s spot in the middle of the woods where the trilliums and fawn lilies grow thick. I settle on a bench facing a quiet  side channel of the river, off the main path. This will be my Sit Spot home for the next year.

The view from the bench: can't beat it!
Experts say when you, the outsider, come to your Sit Spot, the little animals and birds run and hide. It takes at least 15 minutes for them to decide you are okay, hence the 20+ minute time slot. I don’t last more than 10 minutes the first day ... but even then, I’ve noticed things I didn’t see before, like a spider’s fine silk line strung from one tree to another, and interesting shadows shifting on the water. The second time I lasted 12 minutes. That's progress!

Will this discipline be worth it? Will I be able to maintain it? Will it help Project UP?  We shall see.After all, it's all about feeding the waiting heart.

A few days ago, we celebrated Earth Day. As well, all of April has been declared Poetry Month. So I'm celebrating both by sharing another poem, this time by ecologist, author, and farmer Wendell Berry.

Look it Over

I leave behind even
my walking stick. My knife
is in my pocket, but that
I have forgot. I bring
no car, no cell phone,
no computer, no camera,
no CD player, no fax, no
TV, not even a book. I go
into the woods. I sit on
a log provided at no cost.
It is the earth I’ve come to,
the earth itself, sadly
abused by the stupidity
only humans are capable of
but, as ever, itself. Free.
A bargain! Get it while it lasts.

(Taken from “Leavings” by Wendell Berry, 2010, Counterpoint Berkely.)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Pipe Cleaners

A few weeks back I wrote in this blog that I was undergoing an AAGH – Another Agonizing Growthspurt Happening. I was in the waiting mode – waiting for growth and change. Growth and change are not an option: all living things are either growing or dying, always changing one cell at a time.

But growth and change are uncomfortable, and do not appear on command, at the snap of a finger. Much of growth and change happen under the surface in our lives, while we sit and wait for a break-through, a new insight, or a different vision of the future.

Since it wasn't happening yet, I decided I would be working on unfinished projects.

It was then that my friend M reminded me that the process of working on the “to-do-and-to-finish” list is like  “unclogging the pipes.” (She tells me this idea is not original...but, as happens to people our age, the origins of the phrase escape her. Lost in the mists of time ... )

Aha! What I need is some Drano for my soul, some Ex-Lax for the mind to clear away the debris and gunk that impedes my growth. Unclogging the pipes means making room for  creativity and new visions to flow through me.

I wonder if “unclogging the pipes” should be a regular maintenance feature for all of us periodically so that growth and change can happen in our lives. I wondered if  there are ways to “be” and things to do that encourage our growth? I noodled around with that idea, and came up with a few. These ideas are not prescriptions to be followed so you can live happily ever after; rather, they are invitations to consider, just a bunch of noodling thoughts coming from a waiting heart.

Working on unfinished projects is a good start to unclogging the pipes. I finished two projects that have been hanging around since last spring. “Done” is better than “to do”. Done takes a load off your heart and conscience. It is one less piece of “stuff” to carry around, stuff that can impede your AAGH*#@ experience. It’s not just projects, however, that need to be tackled. Perhaps there are relationships that need fixing, or unsaid words to be spoken. Perhaps your unfinished project is to open some doors to the past, long closed, that need to be opened so the sun can shine in.

Done: two baby quilts started about a year ago. They're destined for the nursery at St. Joseph's Hospital. Feels oh so good!
Work is good, but it needs to be balanced by rest. Joy, a fellow-blogger, has been sharing her excitement about allowing herself to ring the bell for “recess” every day. Recess is a break from work, and it could mean play time, nap time, yoga-stretch time, colouring book time – whatever it is that tells your mind to take a break and just have fun. Her research has shown that while there’s lots of evidence that recess is good for kids, very little has been done to show that it works just as well for adults. But it’s working for her, and I think she’s on to a good thing. Ring the Bell for Recess – RBR for RNR.

You can find a link to Joy's blog "Life by the Swake" to the right.
And because creativity is a spiritual journey – at least it is for me – it’s good to polish up our spiritual practices, whatever they may be. I’m no theologian, but to my way of thinking, any activity that opens up your mind and your heart to the Creator can be a spiritual practice: walking in nature, journalling, working in the garden, singing in a choir, prayer, long lovely conversations with friends where hearts are open to each other deeply; reading and study, meditation and more. These are activities that feature connections – connecting to the earth, to the Divine, and to others all around us. Connections help me realize that it’s not all about me – that I belong to a huge community that includes everything from the tiny bugs and  bees to the vast universe in which I -- and we all -- exist. When we reach that realization, we gain a new perspective on our place in the grand scheme of things. We realize that we need to get out of our own way. Sometimes, the big “I” is the block that prevents new growth from happening.

Sometimes, of course, unclogging the pipes calls for drastic action, drilling away at the unyielding mass that is causing the block to growth. Drastic action for me is to give up some part of my life that is not working anymore: bowing out of programs, giving up a habit that does nothing for me (AAGH! Surely not coffee or chocolate? Computer games?). It also means admitting that there are projects I will never finish, and it is time to pare down, clean out the closets, give stuff away. I came across this poem by Mary Oliver which captures the idea so well:
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took everything.
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.

~ excerpt from the poem "Storage" by Mary Oliver

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Of Copula and Complexifying

This blog post started with a question and a challenge. I play an on-line crossword game with a friend on the other side of the country. At one point, she asked, “Do you actually use any of these weird words you’re putting down on the board –  mem, cavy, mage, fe? I dare you to use them in a blog sometime.”

The answer to the question is, no, I don’t use those words frequently, except in crossword puzzles. As to the challenge, well, now that I’ve written them down, I’ve already used them in a blog! Sorry, Riekie, that was way too cheap and easy.

FYI, mem is a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; cavy describes an animal family that includes the guinea pig:

Patagonian Cavy

Weight lifter cavy
A mage is a magician, and fe is the chemical formula for iron. I’ve used other weird words lately – thaler (German money), corf (a basket or container used in mining), and biryani (an Indian rice dish), for instance. It’s fun to form your letters into weird words, enter them into the Lexulous dictionary, and find out they actually exist.

I understand why some people read the dictionary for fun. I've been known to do that. This love affair with words has been going on for a long, long time. My dad used to tell the story of how, as a two-year-old, I knew words for pigs in three different languages, and knew the appropriate times to use them. When I was with our Canadian farmer boss, I called a pig a pig; when I was with mom and dad, who spoke Frisian to each other, I named the sow a “barg”. But when I was with Dutch-speakers, I called it a “varken”. In a letter my mom wrote to Holland, at about the same time, she said she was at her wits end because I kept pulling all the good books out of the bookcase, then “reading” make-believe words and stories to my baby sister.

Words: what’s not to love about them? And speaking of love, that word is a beauty, isn’t it?

So is Grace. Mercy. Gratitude. They’re just letters strung together, but they glow with hidden meanings. At least they do to me.

I’m not the only one who loves words. Enter the term “favourite word lists” into the google browser, and you will get 4,370,000 results. Merriam-Webster’s list of 10 favourite words includes kerfuffle, defenestration, sesquipedalian (a long word for a love of long words), and callipygian (drum roll, please) “having shapely buttocks.” Just try to drop that word casually into your next conversation.

It’s fun encountering new words you’ve never heard before – gives you a little jolt of effervescence. This week, I met two new words that put a spring in my step: “copula” (not to be confused with “cupola”, an architectural feature) and “complexifying.”

“What’s a copula?” you ask. I did not know – it sounded vaguely risque, and for sure, when I entered it into a google search, one of the suggested links was about, ahem, sexual reproduction. But its meaning is much more pedestrian: it’s a connecting link between subject and predicate, mostly in the form of the verb “to be.” Check it out in the illustration below, and you’ll see what I mean.

For a writer, overuse of copulas is a big no-no, resulting in “flaccid and uninteresting writing.” Now I should go through this blog with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I did not use too many copulas.

Upon first reading the word “complexifying”, I thought to myself, “Oh, no, not another “utilize” in the making!” I have a hate-on for utilize. It’s a gold-plated fancy-dress word that means exactly the same as the much simpler word “use.” (That’s my opinion, and you can have it for free.) Surely a simpler word that means the same as “complexify” exists? The author used “complexifying” when he explained the way the universe was unfolding – from simple particles joining together to form bonded structures like atoms, from atoms bonding together into compounds, from compounds joining together to form structures, and on and on, right up to the complex workings of the galaxies that make up our universe. Mind boggling!

This process he calls “complexifying,” and after pondering on that for a while, I decided maybe no other word expresses it as well. If you beg to differ, let me know. (BTW, the book where I first found this word is The Story of the Universe by Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker ... Highly recommended – but it has complexified my concept of the universe.)

I could write many more words about the beauty of words, but I do believe that can wait for another blog post. After all, the eminent teacher of wisdom, King Solomon, “searched to find just the right words” (Ecclesiastes 12:10), then concluded, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Maybe short but sweet is better.

Saturday, 2 April 2016


The last few months have not been productive. As you’ve perhaps noticed, I haven’t blogged very regularly. No great piece of textile art is in the offing.

I seem to be stuck in neutral these days. I go about doing a little of this, a little of that, but nothing is grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, “Whee-haw! Here’s the thing you’ve been waiting for!”

“Not good, not good,” my head and heart are nattering at me. “Don’t just sit there, do something.”

Rule of thumb: when stalling, check Facebook. There I find a meme, one of those posts that consists of a lovely photo with words superimposed on it, words that are supposed to make you sit up and take notice. The meme goes viral – apparently it’s hit a nerve.  This one says :

The post is by Elizabeth Gilbert, she of Eat Pray Love book fame. She’s quoting her mother, who bemoans the fact that too many of her friends seem to be shutting down, acting as though their life is almost over. These older men and women are just putting in time until the final bell rings.  Don’t they know that adventures await around the corner, if they’d just stop sitting around?  “If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done yet. Get your butt in gear and DO something.”

It occurs to me that our society likes this message. It meshes nicely with “You’re only as old as you feel.” “60 is the new 40.”  Ads show grandpas playing football with their grandkids, omas climbing mountains. If we keep moving, keep doing – well, that’s proof, isn’t it, that we are still alive and well?

I have no quarrel with the idea that “If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done yet.” In fact, I think it’s wonderful and inspirational. I’ve always been a restless person, eager to find out what’s around the next corner. To have a fire burning in your heart for something that is fulfilling, stretching, and growth-inducing is a feeling like no other. It gives energy and focus to your day, purpose and meaning to your life.

But sometimes, the fire dies down to a flicker, producing hardly any light or warmth. Programmed to believe that if you’re not productive, you’re not worth much, you might be tempted to do anything, just anything, to see if there’s a smouldering spark that will ignite if you stir the ashes.

I’ve been in that space lately. Some people might call it a depression, but I don’t think so. I have many blessings to celebrate, much joy to feel and love to savour. Life still has colour and vibrancy. I still want to stomp in the puddles with my grandgirl Gracie.

Yet something is missing, and from past experience, I know that what I’m going through is an AAGH!*#@.   AAGH – Another Agonizing Growthspurt Happening.

An AAGH*#@ experience is when your soul tells you it’s time for change. The nice little life you’re enjoying is too small, it doesn’t quite fit. Take the next step– stretch! If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done, yet. AAGH*#@ is a normal part of life. All living things go through their stages of dormancy. The cycle of life includes times of quietness and rest, and times of activity and growth.

But a growth spurt in your spiritual and emotional life hurts. It’s uncomfortable, and it takes patience and waiting to grow. Imagine a dormant seed in the cold wet earth, splitting its skin to let out new life, pushing down to form roots in the soil, and pushing up through obstacles like pebbles and grit. There’s a lot of tough slogging that happens before something green and beautiful appears above the soil.

What do you do when an AAGH!*#@ creeps up on you? Like a hamster in a revolving wheel, I could keep running – and I will, just to get  things done that need doing, to keep the fabric of life unfurling smoothly. And I enjoy that -- working on unfinished projects, digging in the garden, getting together with friends. But in truth, continuously running in a revolving wheel will get you nowhere – at least, nowhere that you’d like to be. You also need to take time to get off the wheel and wait. It’s the equivalent of hunkering down in the dark soil until the conditions are right to sprout with new life. Who knows what happens down there in the dark? I don’t. It’s a miracle, for sure.

But I have faith that in the AAGH*#@, there will come an AHA! There’s a spark of new life, a new direction, that is waiting, just for me.