Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Ups and Downs

The other day, I put some things down on the landing of our staircase. It’s a handy holding place if I don’t feel like running up and down the stairs every few minutes. When there’s enough stuff collected, or when I next go up, I fill my arms with the things I’ve left there and put those items in their proper storage space. (True confession: sometimes I step over those piles for a long time until I can no longer ignore them.)

It got me to noodling about stairs.

This lovely staircase leads to the booksellers at Rouen Cathedral in France. Worth a trip there just so I could peek in at the little door at the top of the stairs!

 I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life; some homes had an “upstairs” and some had a “downstairs” –  basement – and some had no stairs at all. One of the things I loved about the home we live in now when I first saw it, was that it had no basement, but it did have a lovely open staircase that led to two rooms and a bathroom above our living space. It’s where my studio is now, and almost every time I go up, I anticipate good things happening. It’s where I sew and write, and where I can get away from everything and everyone to do so.

On the other hand, I have mixed feeling about basement stairs. Perhaps it’s because my first memory of a basement is a scary one.

In the old farmhouse we called home in the 50s, our indoor pit toilet was hidden in the back corner of a dirt-floor cellar behind a curtain. There was another curtain behind the “throne” (a one-holer), obscuring the stairs that led to a little-used trap-door opening  to the outside.  Sure, we didn’t have to traipse out to the outhouse in the cold and dark,  but for a five-year old, it was another kind of cold and dark down there altogether. A cool draft from behind discouraged lingering if we might be so inclined, and I sure wasn’t. How could I be sure there was nobody lurking behind that curtain when I went down there by myself? And what if I fell into the hole? I did not like that shadowy, cobwebby staircase to the cellar at all, even though, obviously, I had to use it regularly.

During my teen years I slept in a basement bedroom. It was my private hideaway, where I did homework while listening to the radio, where I read books till late, late at night without my folks knowing about it, where I journaled and wondered and began my noodling habit, and realized that I needed my alone time. Later, after marriage, when the kids started coming,  we converted a room in the basement to an office, and I had a room of my own, far from the noisome crowd. Although I still didn’t like going down the stairs into the basement, I was willing to think of these steps as a necessary way of getting to a good space.

I’ve been told that stairways serve as symbols in our inner life. If you dream of stairways, pay attention. It means that you are in the middle of change. An ever-narrowing ascending staircase means that the change is hard. A beautiful staircase means you are excited about the change. A dark and gloomy stairs leading down (often, by the way, a great device in movies to build tension) means you’re afraid of what might be down there.  Makes sense to me.

It makes sense because, after all, life is about change. If you are not changing, you are not growing. So, whether we like it or not, up and down those stairways we must go as we travel through life. It’s not much fun going down – down, down to the depths of your inner self to do the work that needs to be done to change – to face hard truths about yourself, to confess faults, to find it in your heart to forgive someone. We go down to the depths when we experience grief, and anger. We may try to push it away, but eventually we have no choice but to go down. It’s a necessity if we want to get to a better place. Either we go down, or we make a mess, just as I sometimes discovered when I resisted going down to my cellar toilet as a child.

Going up is much more exciting – sometimes difficult, but the journey has its own rewards. We learn something, we achieve a goal, we’re on top of the world. Of course it takes energy, and we may linger on the main floor occasionally, just being couch potatoes. But life is so much more interesting if we make the effort to get up off the couch, to do what we need to do to grow.

This stairway has built in rewards all the way up! No reason to stay on the couch when you have something like this!

And sometimes, if we’re tired, or our hearts are hurting, we end up leaving “stuff” on the landing – a resting place –  until we’re ready to pick up that psychic baggage and put it where it belongs, either “upstairs” or “downstairs.” It may accumulate for a while, but we can’t navigate around the junk pile forever.

So, that’s the end result of my noodling. Not profound, but in this time of political uncertainty, fear and anxiety, maybe we’re just tired of heavy talk. I know I am. Maybe we need to turn our eyes away from politics and do a little self-care, a little gentle noodling to understand where we’re at in our personal journeys.

I wonder where you are on your own staircase – going up, or going down, or resting on the landing for a bit. Wherever you are, don't quit.  Via con dios, and may the journey reward you.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Art of Turtling

There was a bit of a cloud hanging over the Valley as 2016 moved on to 2017. Or maybe it was just hanging over me.

The depressing statistics: we had 750 mm. of rain in October and November – 3 times what’s normal for us. And then we fell into a snowy cold which left the roads icy and treacherous. Those conditions are still with us. I am ready to write to my member of parliament to complain that this is not what we signed up for when we moved to Canada’s banana belt.

Then also, 2016 was not one of those years that will go down in my books as being a grand experience. It had more than its share of stresses and anxieties and sadness, much of it coming home to roost during the Christmas season. I hustled the old year out the door and then I locked it. As one friend who had her unfair share of health issues said, “I gathered all our 2016 calendars and placed them by the fireplace to burn up as quick as possible. I don’t want another year like that.”

Then I did what many women of a certain age do after the Christmas season is over and the last dish is washed, the last leftovers put away, the last tree needles swept under the carpet, and the last box of forbidden candy is empty: I weighed myself and cried. Then I sat down in front of the fireplace, had a glass of sherry and some potato chips with a fruitcake chaser, and decided it was time to turtle before I tackled any other crisis.

I don’t think “to turtle” is actually a verb. But it should be. Think about it: turtles have these lovely, protective shells in which they can hide away from the world when the going gets tough. They retract their heads and legs and just hang out in the dark, blissfully and willfully ignorant of what is going on around them. I’m guessing that when they emerge from their shells eventually, they are stronger, more optimistic, and ready to tackle the world again. If it works for turtles, why not for overwhelmed women? And that was me.

So beginning January 1, I turtled. Oh sure, I stuck my head out once in a while to take a breath of fresh air, and exercise my limbs – after all, nobody does the laundry, cooks meals, grocery shops, or answers the doorbell for you while you are in your state of turtlation. You need to do a few rudimentary things to survive, but basically, when you turtle, you put yourself on hold. No meetings. No commitments that take energy. Don’t need to answer the phone or e-mails unless you feel like it. It’s like Lucy of Peanuts fame putting out her sign: The Doctor is NOT in. Be content with what is, and do not resist it.  Make yourself at home within your shell, and grow strong.

There are many ways of turtling: binge reading, for instance, can take you away for a good long time. So can going to bed early and sleeping in late. A holiday on a warm and sunny beach far from the phone and computer might do it for some. (That would have been nice, but it wasn’t in the cards for me.) Slow-stitching – whether it’s knitting, embroidery, crocheting –  is a great meditative turtling activity, especially when a big pot of slow-cooker soup is simmering in the background. Especially pea soup with a smoked pork hock adding its aroma. MMM. Speaking of which,  M&Ms are helpful, too.

Some people pull others into the turtle shell with them; that’s what revives them. But that’s not my way – I turtle mostly alone. I turtled in my favourite place: the studio. Every morning, after going through my wake-up routine of sudoku, spiritual reading, and journalling (with coffee, of course) I kissed the RS goodbye and trundled up the stairs. I had an art project in mind, one that was engrossing enough to take me away from everything else. Inside my cave, my turtle shell, I would conjure up a renewed vision. My inspiration was a painting by Edvard Munch called The Sun.

I’d seen it on the cover of a book and loved it. Looking at it, I could almost hear Cat Stevens singing “Morning has broken, like the first morning.” The sun looked almost like a Celtic cross. How lovely it would be to bathe myself in that light. Could I reproduce it?

As I worked – or rather, played – I found myself detached from the outcome. It might look awful when all was said and done, or, it might be great, but it really didn’t matter. The process gave me time and opportunity to reflect on what was happening in my life, especially the latest pain of losing our precious little grandchild Farrah Hope. I took my time, and it was good.

Sometimes I reached out to others for help and advice on my work, and that interaction also nourished my soul (thanks, Lorraine!). I shed some tears, laughed a little, listened to uplifting podcasts. I tried different things, struggled for a while, and then realized it was my own vision of a morning sun that I needed to portray, not someone else’s. This morning sun, the one that lives within, would be a beacon to me, lighting my way into 2017. The final epiphany came when I realized that the second line of “Morning has Broken”  was, “Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird!” How appropriate! The crow was speaking to me again, and would be included in this piece.

Here is the result. It’s not finished yet, but getting there. The tree, the bird, and the reflection on the water are just practices, and will be refined as it becomes revealed to me.

Once the turtle emerges from her shell, she goes off and does what she has to do. I think that I’m ready for that now, too, with a song in my heart: “Morning has broken...”

Saturday, 7 January 2017


What Would Jesus Craft?

My friend told me she saw this book title on the shelf at our library. “What were they thinking?” she asked me, befuddled by the thought of Jesus surrounded by bottles of glue and glitter, popsicle sticks, and scrapbooking supplies.

I was intrigued. What would Jesus craft? Not ashtrays or beer steins, was my immediate thought. After I quit giggling,  I began noodling about it.

Using the words Jesus and Crafts in the same sentence doesn’t feel all that incongruous to me. If you have any kind of background in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and Bible Camp, the two words probably go together quite well for you, too. In fact, Sunday School and VBS without crafts, in my childhood eyes, was boring.

And I’ve had experience with boring. In a previous blog I wrote about the church that I grew up in having very little in the way of sensory stimulation for children. My only memory of Sunday School is of sitting around the edge of a room  with about 20 other kids, trying not to wiggle or whisper while a gentleman with no concept of child development principles read verbatim from the lesson book – a mini-sermon for us children who had already sat through a long church service. This felt like punishment for wiggling and whispering in the church service, while our fortunate parents, who knew how to sit still and keep their mouths shut, got let out early for good behaviour and  stood outside gossiping and catching up with the news. Every now and then our teacher, a parent probably pressed into service by the pastor,  looked up and told us to stop wiggling or whispering. Sometimes his face got red and he was mad. Sometimes he even threw kids out because they were misbehaving. (This was not a good thing; the poor kids so ejected probably got a double dose of punishment from their parents.) Mercifully, after about 20 minutes we were released. The room emptied faster than you can say Boring. Everyone meant well, but...

But what an eye-opener when we attended Vacation Bible School at a different church. These people didn't seem to mind whispering, wiggling and noisy kids. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the stories exciting and taught with drama, and there was singing and contests. Best of all, they did crafts! I made a hot pad and embroidered on it an airplane. What the airplane had to do with Jesus remains a mystery to this day (was it an illustration for the lesson about the “flight to Egypt” which Jesus and his parents had to make to escape danger  in his infancy?) At another Bible Club, we made a little pioneer wagon out of a block of wood, some wheels, and a covering stitched together out of birch bark. A light inserted under the covering turned this into a lamp. Wow! I believe the Scripture passage this craft illustrated was from the Psalms: “Your Word is a light unto my path.” When news got out to other kids about the cool craft you could do at this club, the attendance more than doubled.

This is a fancier version of my Wagon lamp, but it sure makes me nostalgic to view it. 

In one of her columns,  writer Erma Bombeck wrote about the legend which says when a gift of love is put on the altar, the Christmas chimes ring. She writes,  “I heard them the year one of my sons gave me a tattered piece of construction paper on which he had crayoned two hands folded in prayer and a moving message, OH COME HOLY SPIT!” She celebrates the years of the lace doilies fashioned into snowflakes,  the hands traced in plaster of paris, the Christmas trees of pipe cleaners, the thread spools that held small candles,  crafted by little hands as the ultimate gifts of love.

Hokey? Well, maybe. Some people frown on crafts in church – after all, what lesson is the child learning except how to make the craft? Isn’t Sunday School about more than that? Isn’t it about learning eternal lessons of good and evil, sin and salvation, about God’s love for his children? Well, yep. Of course.

But the lessons I took away with me from so long ago were these: church could be fun; men and women were concrete examples of loving servants who gave time and energy and patience to us without any certainty of a reward. (And that includes the teachers in the church of my childhood.) I learned that faith formation wasn’t all about head knowledge, it could involve all your senses. You could sing, create, whisper, wiggle, chat with your friends, think outside the box. You could make crafts. You could switch on your Pioneer Wagon night light and remember to read a few verses from the Bible before you went to sleep, and you grew to love that time of quietness, where you took responsibility for your own spiritual growth.

So what would Jesus craft? I have no idea. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he filled in some of his downtime skipping stones on the Sea of Galilee, or building inukshuks on the shore to say that he’d been there. Maybe he strung together beads to wear around his neck as a sort of rosary that helped him say his prayers. Perhaps he turned a hanky into a puppet and played with the children who came to visit him even though his stern disciples frowned on such foolishness.

I’m going out on a limb and saying Jesus never did lose touch with his inner child. Because after all, wasn’t it Jesus who said that if we want to be part of the kingdom of heaven, we should become as children?

What Would Jesus Craft? is a real book written by Ross MacDonald. It's a tongue-in-cheek look at crafts based on Bible themes and verses for the irreverantly devout. They're real crafts complete with instructions. So if you are hankering for Keep the Faith Flip Flops or Time-to-Obey-the-Lord Clock, check to see if your library is carrying it.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Journey

It has been my habit for the last 10 years or more to claim the first Sunday in January as a retreat day which I spend at home in my studio. I use the time to reflect on the past year, think about the future, connect with my Higher Power in a meaningful way. The resident sweetie cooperates by staying out of my way and not being noisy. (He really is a sweetie.)

After all these years of practice, you’d think I’d be good at this. Equipped with a pen and a journal, a comfortable chair, some candles, Celtic music playing softly in the background,  I’d spend several hours meditating, praying, thinking, evaluating. And at the end of my retreat, I would emerge from my studio with a beatific smile on my face, serene and enlightened, loving and patient and kind ... a better person, in other words.

The reality is that I am not a very good retreatant. Restless at heart, I often can’t seem to get into the zone – the quiet, meditative posture that allows you to access your own deeper, truer self, where you are open to new insights and revelations. All these things seem to happen to other people in retreat settings, but not so much to me. I’m usually itching to get out of that chair at the 15 minute mark. Nothing’s happening, I tell myself. Move on, move on, there’s other stuff you can do.

This is what happened a few months ago when I went on retreat.  The setting was gorgeous: a home on the ocean, beauty inside and out.

I was looking forward to three days of bliss. So I packed big time for the journey: all the things I thought I just might need to make this a valuable time. A journal and books, of course, but also my current quilting challenge, the materials I might want to use to create an art piece based on the theme of “Journey.” Making art, after all, is a spiritual practice for me.  I had in my mind what this art piece would look like: a picture of my first home, where I began my life’s journey. I was orchestrating this retreat so that it would yield big results.

But by the end of the second day, I had no serene, beatific smile, just a heart full of frustration. Nothing was going the way it should. I packed away my supplies in disgust.

But then again, maybe everything WAS happening the way it should. Sometimes revelations and insights happen not when you prepare yourself for them in lovely retreat settings,  but when you, in distress, say, “I give up!” This too is a way of retreating: going backwards to gather  strength so you can go forward.

In distress, I abandoned my artistic plans, took a long walk, pondered and listened, and gained access to that deeper, truer self beyond the ego, the self which was truly open. When I got home a few days later, I went into the studio and in a matter of hours created this:

This little person is stepping into an unknown future, as are we all. No backpack of supplies will take care of all the things that might happen. What lies ahead? Will it be good or hard to bear? Where is the trail to follow?

What lies beyond the woods? What storms might pass, and what light is there to give guidance? Are there companions on the way?

So many questions, so few sure answers. And yet, the child steps forward in anticipation, mixed with a little anxiety, perhaps ... as must we all. The journey is a gift we’ve been given, a very precious gift that we are privileged to walk every day that we are here on earth.

As I look back at my journey through 2016, I see times of great happiness. You’ve shared in that journey if you’ve been reading my blogs. When I take the time to count my blessings, they roll out in a never-ending stream, it seems. Counting your blessings puts you in a mood to clap your hands and sing and dance.

But there have been many tough times, too, in the journey that was 2016. I haven’t shared all those times, but some of them. The latest instance happened just the week before Christmas, when a grandchild we were joyfully expecting was stillborn at 6 months. Little Farrah Hope, beautifully formed, 2 pounds: we will never hold her in our arms, watch her grow and rejoice in her gifts. Her parents are bereft, speechless, and we suffer along with them. In times like this, our laughter turns to sackcloth and ashes, our eyes are filled with tears, not joy.

This journey, this gift, that we call life is such a mixture of joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, sobs and smiles. I have leaky eyes and a lump in my throat even as I laugh and play with friends and family. We can’t pack everything we need to prepare for the waves of agony and the waves of bliss that catch us broadside. That’s how the journey was in 2016, and how it will be in 2017, too.

But if there’s anything my retreat this morning has done, it has reminded me to trust that there will be help on the way as we walk this journey. Although I must walk my own journey, I do not walk alone. I am walking into 2017 with my hands stretched out to family, friends, and community, who have been there for me in the past, and I trust will be there for me in the future. I hold out my hands and my heart, as well, to support and encircle family, friends and community in their times of need. We do not walk alone.  

And I open my arms and my heart to my Creator who I trust is walking beside me, laughing and crying with me on the journey. Thank God, we do not walk alone.