Category: The Web of Life

Connected

Connected

Beaver Creek flows into the Saskatchewan River

Remembering my Relations

Everything has Spirit.  Everything is connected to everything else. I came to these understandings late in life—at the same time recognizing that in some reduced form, I had always known it. The strongest knowing of interconnection in my childhood was that my family members could hurt each other. This included me. I thought more about how we could avoid hurting each other’s feelings than I did about how we could affect each other’s happiness.

I have carried with me since childhood this understanding of how feelings are connected. This brought with it a sense of responsibility and attempts not to emotionally wound others. It was a very imperfect response to connectedness. I remember with regret that I could get drawn into the behaviours of friends and make fun of other children, not directly, but behind their back. I chose some friends and left others out–again, not directly, but the result was just that.  I don’t remember ever saying, “you can’t play with me.” I did understand that my actions could wound others and remorse was part of it too.

Just down the street from us was the Cowan family – a warm and jolly bunch that my sisters and I really liked. My parents also liked. But I had a slight sense of superiority over them and I intuited that my mother did too. It was something to do with the smells inside there house. And what seemed like their lesser intelligence. This due to them not doing too well at school. Yet, they were loyal and trustworthy friends. I think my reservations about the value of their friendship is really sad. They moved away before I started high school but I feel certain, if one of them had been my age, I wouldn’t have continued with her as a close friend.

After the challenges of childhood and the teenage years, I became more dedicated to not hurting others and more consistent in acting from the understanding of how we all share the same needs. My focus on injustice still causes me to feel great anger when people in positions of power disregard the well being of others and the environment.

My sense of connection to the Earth and all other living beings was not very strong in those years, yet I did like to walk to school by myself as a teenager, through a field rather than down the sidewalk. My mom and dad took us on picnics and wiener roasts and swimming in lakes and a small river and we were outdoors all summer playing with neighbour kids but I don’t remember ever thinking that I was part of the natural world and in relationship with other life forms. My daughter gave her daughter a sense of connection to the natural world at a young age and in a natural way — a rare gift. During walks, she drew her attention to birds, bugs, trees, shrubs, and flowers and always said, “Hello birds” or “Hello tree.” Often handing her a leaf or small flower to look at.

hello flower

In the last couple of decades, I have become immersed more frequently and gratefully in the beauties of the Earth. My understanding of interconnection with everything there is, is what I live with now. It brings me moments of deep feeling and moments when guilt or regret surface. More about that later, but first the satisfaction, the gratitude. I am quite an ordinary seeker of the spirit in trees, the herons in flight, the ocean, the people I encounter, and the solid rocks. Yet, growing within me is a new joy in being outside, and a stronger absorption when listening to piano sonatas in the early morning, or watching the light transform the furniture to glow with richer colours. The constriction of my heart is being stretched and smoothed, my feelings loosened and set free, and happiness and quiet more frequently settle upon me.

And, in the last few years I have gradually been able to be more at peace outdoors, less restless when sitting by the river or the ponds we visit. Just to sit and breathe and look is the greatest pleasure. I have an attachment to the birds that twitter away in the trees by the river or the waterfowl and shore birds at the ponds we visit. I have a life time attachment to trees and my spirit never tires of back-lit leaves.

I notice more and am moved in a deeper way by beauty in all its forms. A little more than a week ago, Dennis and I saw a Bittern by the shore of one of the ponds in a conservation area. It was standing still and quiet that first day – all soft brown and tawny as the reeds that enclosed him. And on that second day, the Bittern moved into the light and we were absorbed into the place of pond and bird and light and water and reeds. The Bittern had such certainty of being and of movement, utterly focused, yet easy in its world. These were moments when my spirit felt such a strong sense of being gifted by the sun, the Bittern, the pond waters; and of experiencing my own presence as no longer separate. The sun charged the body of this great bird with light, with fire. Its feathers turned to copper iridescence and the Bittern was given a luminous outline. I was in love.  I had been given a sense of the rightness of the world.

This was an experience that erased the sorrow of what we have done to our world. To live, to feel, to see, and join in the sacredness of being was enough for that time. The pull, the undertow of knowing that my connection to everything else brings responsibilities was absent. Yet being within the beauty, the pleasures of the day, is often where that ancient question of, “What then must I do?” arises.

Indigenous Elders and Wisdom Keepers use the phrase, “all my relations” to talk about the central understanding that we are connected in spirit with all other living things and with the Earth as a truth and a reminder that we have obligations to the living world of which we are a part.

Grasslands National Park

In the writing of William Mussell, an educator with the Sal’i’shan Institute, another expression of this central understanding. He describes what it means to be interrelated to all of life as understanding that we must be responsible to the impact of our behavior on all the others and emphasizes that each party in a relationship is equal in worth.

“In relationship, one must be willing to take responsibility for the impact of one’s behavior toward the other, as well as responsibility for managing and learning from one’s responses to the other’s behavior. Each party in the relationship is equal in worth to the other, regardless of difference in age, knowledge levels, insight or personal authority.” (Mussell, W., 2008)

How best to meet this responsibility is a constant question. When asked by environmental activists  what they could do to save the Earth, Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn, after a long pause responded by saying that they needed to,

“place their hands on the earth and listen to the cries of the world.”

This was not the answer they expected. He wanted them to “reconnect with their original motivation: love for the earth.”  I think he wanted them to feel why they were doing the work they did first, as the foundation for thinking and action – feel their gratitude for the beauty and diversity and mystery of being.

To only feel guilt and pressure to do more for those who suffer, more for the burdened earth, is a disservice, to beauty, to life. A happy appreciation for diversity, for beauty, for being alive, must be there too. In the end, I feel there the best way I can respond to gifts of beauty, freshness, goodness is first with pleasure and gratitude, then with knowing that the only thing you can do is to show up; to be present as your singular, unrepeatable, self. Look, listen, quieten, be still, know that you are unique, that we are all extraordinary and enough. And that is our role always, to do what is our piece. Guard yourself from those who want us to be other than we are, stop your ears to any message that you are not enough, insufficient as you are, and go out into the world complete. Yes, we must do what we can. But I feel strongly that doing everything you can means most profoundly, what you can. That of course means knowing who you are – a life’s work in itself.

If we are fortunate, the work life we choose will be the life closest to our gifts and abilities. I felt becoming a compassionate and creative teacher was a way of giving back to the world – my way. Teaching and parenting were demanding and satisfying. When the contributions you make through your work life seem to end, they don’t really. You take what you have learned and it is part of you and can continue to heal others in perhaps, less direct but equally important ways. Our presence, the way we smile at a clerk or another person out walking can add to the store of good feelings in the world and perhaps make the other person feel good about  who they are in an almost imperceptible but nourishing way. I enjoy those encounters with the spirit of another. I am grateful for them. They contribute to feeling fresh and happy to be alive and here in this place – here with all the other people, the other living beings.

present, awake, alive

Gratitude that is felt through every bone, muscle, cell, will be compelling enough to remain with what your spirit tells you, and your soul compels you to be, yourself. Yourself to care for, love, and not overburden. Your responses then will be the ones only you can do –the ones you were always meant to do. Perhaps you are meant to be an appreciator. When accepted as your role, particularly later in life when energy starts to ebb, appreciating, enjoying, entering in, may be exactly what to do next, and ever.

“It is love that fuels us to make constructive change in our care for the natural world and of our fellow human beings.” (Coleman, M., p.11)

Three Poems

Three Poems

wild roses on the prairie

The wild roses grow

along the path I walk forever.

 

 

 

The Bittern at the pond

wrote me a letter.

It said, “Look!”

Saying Grace

It will not end when you die.

In the Cathedral the trees will still grow

and the mushrooms appear.

The cat will still sleep in the sunny window

and the unnamed insect will continue to crawl in and out.

The rose beside the alter will still have thorns and perfumed petals.

And when it all burns away,

a new cosmos will appear in the heavens,

complete and lively. And you will be somewhere in it too.

In the deep and fertile dark, a seed of light.

 

 

Beauty and We Don’t Know Why

Beauty and We Don’t Know Why

Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature. A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. (H. Beston, 1988 p. 218)

 

The Spiral Galaxy, source – Hubble website

There is so much to wonder about. So much to beauty to appreciate, so much destruction to mourn and power to be in awe of, so many questions and wonderful answers. Yet the question of “why the universe exists at all” has never been answered in a way that satisfies every human soul. We wonder why we here and who we are meant to become. We wonder why love seems to flow through life on earth, and try to understand human consciousness and how deep it can go in sensing hidden realities. I close my eyes and envision a chain of “why?’s” extending and fading into infinity.

In his book, A Briefer History of Time (2005) brilliant mathematician and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking,  describes how scientists are striving to create a complete theory  such as was intended by string theory. He says that up to this point most scientists have been too preoccupied with theories that describe what the universe is to ask why? Perhaps many feel that the “why” questions  of ultimate existence are impossible to answer and to attempt to is a pursuit with no particular value. In relation to this, Hawking concludes that theories of science should be accessible in some form to everyone including the pursuit of “Why?” . He says:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God. (p. 142) [my emphasis]

I feel Hawking is being rather playful here while at the same time serious in reminding us of what lies behind what we know now and possibly of the limits of what can be known. He uses metaphors as all physicists, mathematicians and other scientists do when it comes to theorizing about the infinitely large and infinitely small. To me, the “why” questions are infinitely interesting – mainly for their connections to meaning. They appear to me as questions of Spirit. And Mystery.

Poets, philosophers, and theologians use different words and images in pondering the ultimate questions of existence and some keep these ideas and questions separate from how they live their life. For Indigenous cultures across the world and throughout time, spirituality was contained in their lives and languages, all of a piece.

A Lakota ceremonialist, Don Coyhis, commented:

This is not a scientific or technological world. The world is first a world of spirituality. We must all come back to that spirituality. Then, after we have understood the role of spirituality in the world, maybe we can see what science and technology have to say. (quoted in Simonelli, 1994, p.11).

Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese (2008) describes this world of spirituality as a world where everything is energy that connects all beings. “We are all one being. We are all one soul,”  he tells us.

Chinese scholars called this energy “qi”. It has also been thought of in other traditions as “spirit”, “vac”, or “Word”. Gary Holthaus, in his book Learning Native Wisdom talks of ways the Mystery was described by human wisdom seekers. He says that for Nishida, an early-20th century philosopher, the mystery at the heart of Nature goes beyond “mere universes” and is pure experience – experience that lies behind or prior to planet earth. A sensibility that refers to ‘mere’ universes makes me smile – contemplating one universe seems like a life’s worth of awe to me. Nishida continues in describing what he means by pure experience in these words.

Because it exists at the deepest heart of Nature, it is eternal. We can rely on pure experience, Nishida holds, because it is always available to us, always present. Further, in that depth there resides a unifying force that Nishida calls ‘spirit.’ He says, ‘I contend that reality comes into being through interrelationship.’ (pp. 192-193).

The Eagle Nebula, source – Hubble website

 Father Thomas Berry, scientist, environmentalist, cultural historian, and religious thinker speaks of the basic principles of the universe process in a way that also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life forms. He says the primordial intentions of the universe are towards differentiation, subjectivity, and communion and defines these in ways that give these intentions spiritual value and a form of beauty.

Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. No two things are completely alike. Subjectivity is the interior numinous component present in all reality, also called consciousness. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and things due to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another ( pp. 168-169).

I notice the similarities in which scholars from different countries and spiritual traditions talk about the great mystery. I love those similarities – the unity of interrelationships, the uniqueness of each individual life form, the different ways that spirit is approached, and how all come to rest on the same felt sense of an eternal force or original quality. Some philosophers and theologians feel that the fact that humans have always asked the large questions of existence suggests that there is something more – an eternal, unifying force of some kind behind the reality we see, hear, and touch. They feel that the deepest part of our inner life, our spirit, senses this “More”and creates a vision of what it is like. I ponder why it is that people from all cultures through time desire a personified force to pray to – or ask for help, or give thanks without knowing who or what they are addressing.

In my reflections over the years, I have come to feel that the greatest gift humans have received from what I call the Spirit of Life is freedom – freedom to choose how to live, freedom to question and appreciate what is in us and around us. We can choose what we look for in the universe and in life. I seek stories of human goodness, tolerance, generosity, and compassion. I find much beauty in the world and know it could be otherwise. For me, cruelty and destruction do not cancel out the beauty or the goodness in the world.

My just-turned-seven-year-old grandaughter  was sitting with her mother in an auditorium watching a video of the coral reefs and listening to the discussion with coral reef scientists that followed it. The audience were encouraged to ask them questions. My grandaughter whispered in her mother’s ear, “I have a question. Why is life so beautiful?”

Madeleine in Spring, courtesy J. Klenz

“Why?” indeed.

I know that for many, perhaps most humans, the answer is because God created it that way. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because Creator, Allah, God, or the eternal Tao brought the cosmos into being before time began. But, “Why?” and “How?” Other mysteries. Perhaps scientists will find answers they can accept to the “How?” question. Perhaps many people will continue to live in relationship with their God and feel no need to seek further.

I have written of this before but it matters so much, I will say it again. What matters is not what you believe in relation to the Mystery or God or Nothingness but rather how that belief shapes the way you live

  • Does how you answer the question of “Why there is something rather than nothing?” or how you envision the ultimate source of the universe make you kinder? more compassionate?
  • Does it make you feel more open to and appreciative of human and bio diversity?
  • Does your belief system in relation to the large questions of existence, make your more awake and aware of the life around you?
  • Does it leave you with more questions and an open mind?
  • Do your ultimate beliefs open your heart and strengthen your spirit?

 

 

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The Dark and the Whole

The Dark and the Whole

On Darkness and Oneness

the light within the storm  Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. Solnit, R. (2014), p.

Rebecca Solnit* is commenting on something that Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal on Jan. 18, 1915 as the First World War was leading to such affliction, suffering and heartbreak. She wrote, “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Solnit understands Woolf’s darkness as uncertainty of not being able to see what is ahead—a good thing to hold as fundamental to persons as well as futures. She says,

[Woolf] is calling for circumstances that do not compel the unity of identity that is a limitation or even repression. It’s often noted that she does this for her characters in her novels. Less often than, in her essays, she exemplifies it in the investigative, critical voice that celebrates and expands, and demands it in her insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.  (pp. 99-100).

Not knowing for sure, there are still possibilities–perhaps that something better is still achievable. The dark story may still hold moments of compassion or generosity; it may end in a different place. The horizon may shift. More will be seen.

Even when a life has been completed, the story of who the person was is not completed and never will be, and perhaps, never should be. My father was in the trenches in France during that First World War at the age of 17. He had a dark side. Perhaps as a result of his war experiences, perhaps as a result of the way these experiences affected who he was and his personhood as a whole. The suffering and scars went deep for him and affected those closest to him. He had an unpredictable temper, black moods, and a fatal flaw in his need for power, love, and admiration that no one could fulfill. While this was true for how we knew him, there was much more. He had great warmth, humour, and creativity. You could say his darkness was darker and his brightness brighter than most people.

Yet at the heart of his life was a passion for social justice, and a belief that we are indeed our brother’s keeper (he felt this as deeply as any Christian yet he was an agnostic and no lover of organized religions). He came to deplore wars and nationalistic pride and was a pacifist. My father accepted the responsibilities these convictions brought with them and fought for the rights of workers throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. He helped to organize unions and walked picket lines with striking workers. I remember one occasion where he stood with the women from Woolworth’s (a five and dime type of department store) in a strike he helped organize because he believed forming a union would bring them a living wage and job security—something few women had.

He loved the outdoors, creating family rituals, and teaching all the neighbourhood kids games we could play with a few cans or a ball. He was a sentimental man who cried at weddings on television and a storyteller with a tendency to exaggeration and holding the floor for what could seem like forever. How I remember him and how I feel about him as a father and as a human being has continued to change as I change. I will never capture all of who he was and like Woolf, feel that is a good thing.

We can look at persons as wholes, as embodying singularity and a oneness that contains a world. Or as so inextricably connected to everyone, every event, and everything else that we are confounded in our attempts to know who they are with any certainty. How much we can bear is perhaps how much we can see or understand of a person close to us or of what it means to be human. It is not easy to recognize or accept all that is below the surface of someone you feel close to.

I find I need vision to see the good within all humans; a lot of moral courage to face what history tells of human destructiveness; and greater sensitivity to see the compassion of others as their beauty. To understand that the seemingly ordinary people I see on the street all have whole lives and hidden depths, unrealized talents and dreams takes heart, and willingness to forego judgements. It seems like a crucial understanding. I often fall short. I have found models of this openness and kindness in my life and in my reading and I continue to feel this is an essential life task for all of us.

In describing the nature of the world, naturalist Sigurd Olson talks of an attitude of facing, seeing all that life contains, it’s joys and sorrows, and being able to feel in accord with it, a part of that world.

Oneness is a sense of communion vital to a [hu]man’s mental well-being and to his [or her] survival. It does not come just by being called upon; far more than a point of view, a permanent attitude that colours all we do. . . . Oneness recognizes all things, the harsh with the benevolent, the cruel with the kind, violence with peace—all of it belonging to those who know it. Oneness can be felt anywhere on a city street, in a quiet pool, at home, or on some raging ocean coast. It does away with fear. (Sigurd Olson (1976/1997) Reflections from the North Country, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, p. 79)

Oh, to be able to feel and keep that sense of communion, to see the beggar and know he is also me. A soul that is part of the world’s soul. A sorrow that is part of the beauty and the anguish of the world, a part of the all that is in me and beyond me. Oneness, darkness, and light.

*In Solnit, ((2014), “Woolf;s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” pp. 85-106.

 

 

 

Intuitions and Illuminations

Intuitions and Illuminations

We explore the interior realm because it is what we humans are for—consciousness, the marvelous voyage. (Tarrant, J. 1998/1999, The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life, HarperCollins: New York, p.6)

A few days ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to write other than that I wished, hoped, to write some thoughts from some source that wasn’t the rational, logical mind. Perhaps, to hear the poetry of the soul— mine and of the cosmos. So I started this task with the tool closest to hand, the mind with its raven’s nest lined with ragged and worn memories, and once shiny thoughts. I hoped I would somehow drift out of the nest and into the voice of the heart, soul, or spirit. Those forces of the interior realm. What comes when we are truly awake. What is felt in the larger mind of the body, the heart.

It is hard for me to shift from the rational, doubting, logic-creating mind. Exploring the interior realm can take us very deep, leave us full of doubts or longings.

The heart, soul, spirit triad are believed by some to be three distinct archetypes that bring the same messages in different forms, shaped by different sources. The heart’s communications come from listening to our feelings and emotions; the soul brings ideas and sensed meanings from the quirks and puzzles of consciousness, often packaged in the happenings of the day, in what crosses our path. The spirit’s faint calls are heard in experiences of “the in between”, of sensing more than the eye that saw and the bird that sang, but some relationship of being to being; of somehow transcending our present consciousness and feeling life open wider.

Grasslands National Park
the wind through the grass, the immovable rock

It seems easiest for me to believe that the forces of nature call to us; awaken us to beauty, remind of us powers beyond our own. There is spirit in those forces. Soul in the old tree and the eyes of the wolf. Many voices, perhaps one truth. Offered to us in the silence of the mind or the roar of the wind – the depths of the dark and the bend of light.

And shouldn’t hearing and responding to the inner voice involve curiosity, imagination, humour, and desire; perhaps as much or more than intention, resolve, logic, and commitment? A life time of seeing, hearing, sensing, responding, and waiting to unearth, stumble over, or invent what happens next. The inner voice—a part of a very human life.

I have talked to a few people, more commonly, read from books of poetry or prose in which the author describes the experience of recognizing the heart, soul, or spirit voice. I think it is heard, because those same people believe it exists.

I want to believe that too. Hoping that in the belief that there is more to life than can be known directly, concretely; the invisible might become discernible; the murmur more distinct. Perhaps the spirit whispers too faintly and I am tuned to a louder volume. Perhaps, the soul’s desires are most often ignored, not felt by the heart region of my body. Or contradicted by my seemingly reasonable mind.

It is in the hours of the night that I ask the soul and spirit questions. “What’s wrong?” or “What should I do?” or, “What are the limits of love? Is love inherent in the cosmos—existing in all moments and places and beyond time and space?” No voices answer, or they do, but the responses seem so simple, or so crazy that I don’t believe in them being other than the usual machinations of my mind.

In poet and activist Gary Synder’s view, they might come from a trickster –one so gifted in upsetting everyday beliefs that they are either not heard or not believed. Kabat Zinn might say the messages are there and they come from the heart and the practice of being still and aware.

The task of hearing the soul’s voice seems to be one of going deeper—it arrives as a voice that might easily contradict what we think we know. What we feel pressured to do. The spirit’s voice is perhaps heard as a call to fly higher. What do I know other than I need to be silent, I need to be calm, I need to be outside. Perhaps equally, I need to be in turmoil, or utterly foolish, or enraptured. Willing to live in the extremes life brings and also able to stop and be still whether inside or out.

Once, I heard a voice that did not seem to be my own, say, “Sandra, you are loved.” I did hear it, but not because it was spoken out loud. I immediately called on the inner skeptic to discredit the source and the message. Perhaps, other messages have been missed which means I didn’t or couldn’t shift from the analytic, logical dominance of brain mode to the possibilities of the heart and imagination.

Freeing the imagination is so difficult for me most times. I trod on. It isn’t so much that I need more poetry, more music, more stories, more light and dark, more trees and tiny bugs; as I need to hear, see, feel, with a sense of possibility. A sense that there is a message in their somewhere.  Always a message. And more messages.  And let the answers be riddles. And flashes of light. And sudden darkness.

I am nervous of people who think they know. I want a life with so many meanings it makes me dizzy and a life with moments of respite that feel anointed by something other and benevolent. Blessed times when in returning, I feel renewed. If the holy is anywhere it is in the everyday. Breathe, walk, look, ask questions, believe in everything you can. Oh to voyage far, wide, and deep.

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

does the river need the duck?

Everything has Spirit – Everything is Connected to Everything Else.

I came to these understandings late in life—at the same time recognizing that in some reduced form, I had always known it. The strongest knowing of interconnection in my childhood was that my family members could hurt each other. This included me. I thought more about how we could avoid hurting each other’s feelings than I did about how we could affect each other’s happiness.

I have carried with me since childhood this understanding of how feelings are connected. This brought with it a sense of responsibility and attempts not to emotionally wound others. It was a very imperfect response to connectedness. I remember with regret that I could get drawn into the behaviours of friends and make fun of other children, not directly, but behind their back. I chose some friends and left others out–again, not directly, but the result was just that. I did understand that my actions could wound others and remorse was part of it too. At the same time, I tried to be kind, and would not use my humour or quick tongue against those I saw as less fortunate than me.

After the turmoil and challenges of childhood and the teenage years, I became more dedicated to not hurting others and more consistent in acting from the understanding of how we all share the same needs. My focus on injustice still causes me to feel great anger when people in positions of power disregard the well being of others and the environment.

My sense of connection to the Earth and all other living beings was not very strong in those years, yet I did like to walk to school by myself as a teenager, through a field rather than down the sidewalk. My mom and dad took us on picnics and wiener roasts and swimming in lakes and a small river and we were outdoors all summer playing with neighbour kids but I don’t remember ever thinking that I was part of the natural world and in relationship with other life forms. My daughter gave her daughter a sense of connection to the natural world at a young age and in a natural way — a rare gift. During walks, she drew her attention to birds, bugs, trees, shrubs, and flowers and always said, “Hello birds” or “Hello tree.”

connecting – courtesy of JEK

In the last couple of decades, I have become immersed more frequently and gratefully in the beauties of the Earth. My understanding of  my interconnection with everything there is, is what I live with now. It brings me moments of deep feeling and moments when guilt or regret surface. More about that  later, but first the satisfaction, the gratitude. I am quite an ordinary seeker of the spirit in trees, the herons in the pond, the ocean, the people I encounter, the solid rocks. Yet, growing within me is a new joy in being outside, and a stronger absorption when listening to piano sonatas in the early morning, or watching the light transform the furniture to glow with richer colours. The constriction of my heart is being stretched and smoothed, my feelings loosened and set free, and happiness and quiet more frequently settle upon me.

And, in the last few years I have gradually been able to be more at peace outdoors, less restless when sitting by the river or the ponds we visit. Just to sit and breathe and look is the greatest pleasure. I have an attachment to the birds that twitter away in the trees by the river or the waterfowl and shore birds at the ponds we visit. I have a life time attachment to trees and my spirit never tires of back-lit leaves.

the spirits of the watcher, the heron, and the ocean

I notice more and am moved in a deeper way by beauty in all its forms. A little more than a week ago, Dennis and I saw a Bittern by the shore of one of the ponds in a conservation area. It was standing still and quiet that first day – all soft brown and tawny as the reeds that enclosed  him. And on that second day, the Bittern moved into the light and we were absorbed into the place of pond and bird and light and water and reeds. The Bittern had such certainty of being and of movement, utterly focused, yet easy in its world . These were moments when my spirit felt such a strong sense of being gifted by the sun, the Bittern, the pond waters; and of my own presence being no longer separate. The sun charged the body of this great bird with light, with fire. Its feathers turned to copper iridescence and the Bittern was given a luminous outline. I was in love.  I had been given a sense of the rightness of the world.

This was an experience that erased the sorrow of what we have done to our world. To live, to feel, to see, and join in the sacredness of being was enough for that time. The pull, the  undertow of knowing that my connection to everything else brings responsibilities was absent. Yet being within the beauty, the pleasures of the day, is often where that ancient question of, “What then must I do?” arises.

Indigenous Elders and Wisdom Keepers use the phrase, “all my relations” to talk about the central understanding that we are connected in spirit with all other living things and with the Earth and sky and water as a truth and a reminder that we have obligations to the living world of which we are a part.

In the writing of William Mussell, an educator with the Sal’i’shan Institute, another expression of this central understanding:

“In relationship, one must be willing to take responsibility for the impact of one’s behavior toward the other, as well as responsibility for managing and learning from one’s responses to the other’s behavior. Each party in the relationship is equal in worth to the other, regardless of difference in age, knowledge levels, insight or personal authority.” (Mussell, W., 2008)

How best to meet this responsibility is a constant question. When asked by environmental activists  what they could do to save the Earth, Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn, after a long pause responded by saying that they needed to,

“place their hands on the earth and listen to the cries of the world.” 

This was not the answer they expected. He wanted them to “reconnect with their original motivation: love for the earth.”  I think he wanted them to feel why they were doing the work they did first, as the foundation for thinking and action – feel their gratitude for the beauty and diversity and mystery of being.

To only feel guilt and pressure to do more for those who suffer, more for the burdened earth, is a disservice, to beauty, to life. A happy appreciation for diversity, for beauty, for being alive, must be there too. In the end, I feel there is only one way to respond to gifts of beauty,freshness, goodness, -first with pleasure and gratitude, then with knowing that the only thing you can do is to show up, to be present as your singular, unrepeatable, self. Look, listen, quieten, be still, know that you are unique, that we are all extraordinary and enough. And that is our role always, to do what is our piece. Guard yourself from those who want us to be other than we are, stop your ears to any message that you are not enough, insufficient as you are, and go out into the world complete. Yes, we must do what we can, little things like using less hot water, signing petitions to stop a pipe line, supporting a homeless shelter, voting for leaders and MP’s who care about social, economic, and environmental justice, buying smaller cars, building small houses, growing your own produce–all worthy actions. But I feel strongly that doing everything you can means most profoundly, what you can. That of course means knowing who you are – a life’s work in itself.

If we are fortunate, the work life we choose will be the life closest to our gifts and abilities. I felt becoming a compassionate and creative teacher was a way of giving back to the world – my way. Teaching and parenting were demanding and satisfying. When the contributions you make through your work life seem to end, they don’t really. You take what you have  learned and it is part of you and can continue to heal others in perhaps, less direct but equally important ways. Our presence, the way we smile at a clerk or another person out walking can add to the store of good feelings in the world and perhaps make the other person feel good about  who they are in an almost imperceptible but nourishing way. I enjoy those encounters with the spirit of another. I am grateful for them. They contribute to feeling fresh and happy to be alive and here in this place – here with all the other people, the other living beings.

present

Gratitude that is felt through every bone, muscle, cell, will be compelling enough to remain with what your spirit tells you, and your soul compels you to be, yourself. Yourself to care for, love, and not overburden. Your responses then will be the ones only you can do –the ones you were always meant to do. Perhaps you are meant to be an appreciator. When accepted as your role, particularly later in life when energy starts to ebb, appreciating, enjoying, entering in, may be exactly what to do next, and ever.

“It is love that fuels us to make constructive change in our care for the natural world and of our fellow human beings.” (Coleman, M., p.11)

 

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

sculpture created by my son

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects

One of the sources of meaning in my life is creating relationships between things we own and have in our home and connecting them to a narrative through creativity or memory. I suspect we all do that in ways particular to us.

On an alter-like table in our living room sits an eloquent sculpture of an old man –an improbable man with legs out of proportion to the rest of his body. I often think of my father when I look at him—the many lines carved in his face and, although my father’s legs were like the rest of him, thin and sinewy; they were strong. He was full of energy well into his early 80’s, walked quickly, took up curling, and stood for long hours in his workshop creating bows and arrows, and repairing things.

I also see this strength in my son’s sculpture which was created in a university art class as part of an installation. It had quite a different meaning for him at the time but such diversity of intention or impact is the potential of art.

This year, my husband’s daughter gave him the little boat carved by an old man she met in China. Can you see the old man of the sculpture gazing pensively at the little boat, perhaps wishing to sail away one last time?

My father always wanted to sail and did build a catamaran in his late 70’s. So, the relationships and meanings evoked by this little scene contain layers of meaning.

It interests me how these associations come about. Perhaps via the affection I feel for the old man on the table and for some fond and entertaining memories of my father. He was a creator, a maker, a man of passions that regularly exploded into the atmosphere of our small home. He had a temper that we liked to avoid and nightmares and other effects and behaviours resulting from his time as a 17 year old in the trenches in France during WWI. I am glad that in his last years one of the ways he found respite from the war and other difficult memories was in his workshop.

dad in his workshop, creating a bow – photo by Paige Finney

I am aware that I am summarizing the detail and complexity of his life but I am conscious of the “more” that his life and relationships were about and of their importance for him and to me.

To return to the beginning, the ability of art and other objects to evoke ideas, feelings, and memories and add another layer to daily life seems very human to me. Sometimes they can startle us into larger perspectives and sometimes this happens gradually as the object asserts its presence until finally you notice some way your thinking has changed. I don’t know precisely why the sculpture of the  old man came to be my father but the relationship is not so much thought as felt. And that seems an important distinction.

As I thought about this business of objects, memories, and meaning, I decided it is, most simply, a part of being human. Why do we keep what we keep? display what we display? Why do we pick up that pebble or shell on the beach and put it in our pocket and later perhaps in a drawer?

Penelope Lively has something interesting to say about this tendency in her memoir written at 80. In her book Dancing Fish and Ammonites (2013) she comments,

I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can  see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

She goes on to describe her books and objects as this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to . . .” (p. 4).

Objects can evoke memories we didn’t know we have and feelings we can’t always describe and perhaps, it is not too much to claim that objects can heal.

Sometimes Beauty is Simply Waiting to be Understood

Sometimes Beauty is Simply Waiting to be Understood

cultivated rose in rose garden – photograph courtesy of M. McCreath

I have been thinking about the concept of beauty for many years.

A friend took this picture of a cultivated rose in a Portland rose garden. I appreciate everything about this image, — its shapes, colours, the meanings it carries for me. I am grateful for wild roses as well, with their more modest beauty and their distinctive yet gentle scent.

I find I turn to the natural world for the beauty I crave in my life more often than any artifact, human face or body, architecture, or film although all of these can give me pleasure or heighten my day as well. There are a few constants for me in the natural world that feed my soul—sunlight on water, back-lit leaves on deciduous trees, and the shapes of tree limbs in all their particularities.

wild roses on the prairie – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I like looking at rocks, stones, shells, wild flowers, tree roots, and barks. My mother loved clouds and the skies in her paintings were often wonderful. She used to say that sometimes skies are so beautiful that if she painted them, people would think she was embellishing scenes that were actually less dramatic or less beautiful than what her paintings revealed. Recently, I have taken to cloud watching as a kind of morning meditation. I miss having our acreage, and former yards and all the hours spent looking at the changing light and the affect of back lighting. Now that we live in a downtown condo, I feed my soul by sky- gazing from our floor to ceiling windows and walking the river trails close to our home.

Only music can come close to equaling the natural world for its place in my days. I used to listen to a CBC classical music show first thing every morning—one hosted by Eric Friesen and later others. And Dennis and I had a classical music program we loved that was part of our dinner hour.  Music for Awhile aired classical pieces rarely played on other shows. It introduced us to new music. Other CBC and American Public Radio programming, both jazz and classical, also shape our music tastes. They sharpen my listening abilities, teach me new things, and generally play a central role in both our lives. For me, this is another quality of the beautiful – it can draw me in and help me to grow as a human, expanding my ideas of the beautiful, the sublime, and their relationship to the contradictory and sharp edges of life.

Perhaps, I could say that sometimes an image or set of sounds is beautiful because it is arresting or startling—shaking me out of living in my head. I think beauty also has a role in destroying stereotypes.

Sometimes my feelings seem to have a certain kind of beauty. This experience might be because a documentary tells a story of human courage, endurance and compassion. I listen to the voice and watch the face of the speaker and feel moved to respond with some courage and compassion of my own, even in if it is fleeting, it reminds me of what is of real worth in life.

snake pit, Grasslands National Park- Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I’m glad that not everyone finds the same things beautiful. We need beauty in our lives and we need to expand our sense of what is beautiful lest we are drawn to judgments that diminish and destroy our care for each other and the planet. I read a chapter about vultures recently and really appreciated this paragraph for its suggestion that there are other points of view in relation to the beautiful.

“The vultures of Asia have all but disappeared while few people were paying attention and the vultures of Africa are in trouble as well. The fate of these birds, and the fate of the ecosystem they are essential to, and which is in turn essential to many people, still hangs in the balance. It is a teachable moment in how we need to understand the world around us: not only those things that are beautiful and give us pleasure, but even those that seem, as Charles Darwin said of the vulture, disgusting. Sometimes beauty is simply waiting to be understood.(from, The Wonder of Birds, by Jim Robbins, 2017).

I love that. Once again we are reminded that everything is connected to everything else and everything is needed for its unique self.

  • What seems beautiful to you?
  • What role does beauty have in your life?
  • Have you been damaged by other people’s notions of beauty and ugliness?
  • Do any of your own notions of beauty diminish you or your relationships to other living things?
  • Can you find beauty everywhere?
Inside the Practice of Hope

Inside the Practice of Hope

solstice sunrise – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

“The hopeful spirit transcends limitations.”

The life I want to live is a life in which I care for myself, I care for others, I care for the Earth. For this, I need to retain the hope that it is possible. A vision of the good. Having big questions is part of it. Always loving the mystery. Feeding my curiosity – freeing my imagination. Laughing and crying.

And here is the hard part. Pain, discouragement, despair are real. So hopefulness is a life’s work. The large hill to climb before the picnic , and then the next hill appears. And sometimes I feel I might not make it to the place where the water is –the place where of the full life resides and the day that Thoreau says will dawn to the soul that is awake. And that is a funny thing. I am too often awake, but in that other sense of not being asleep.

Hopefulness begins with a belief about myself. I learn this over and over. For example, insomnia is a experience that plagues me and many women I know. When the night of short sleeps pile up, I can feel despair. The need to overcome that sense of feeling helpless in the cycle of almost sleepless nights grows in me until finally I can say to myself, “I can handle this.” I know that this is the start of the practice of hopefulness–the belief that I will find a way to live with the experience of tiredness and the feelings that pervade the long, dark hours of the night.

To say, “I can handle this.” shifts the experience for me. My feelings become a little lighter. I am then more prepared to see symbols of hope in my present life. Walking to our biggest windows when I can’t sleep, I see the moon and, for some reason, this cheers me up. Sometimes I turn to the tall sturdy spruces to remember that life endures.

I have learned that my insomnia comes in cycles. I also sleep well for many weeks at a time. The hopeful spirit knows that change is a constant of life. The way things are can shift suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside. These shifts that we didn’t foresee are part of the reality that everything is connected to everything else. They mean that we don’t know what will happen next and that we are not in complete control. I find it heartening to know that change will happen. Sometimes I find out that what I was thinking of as bad turns out to be a good. My labels are most often not helpful.

And less this get too solemn or earnest, a tendency I have, humour brings hope. And feelings of gratitude cannot be forced – it’s hard to feel despair and gratitude at the same time. If someone can make me laugh, I am mightily blessed.If I can make myself laugh, or someone else laugh, I am doubly blessed. A crack in the wall where the light breaks through.

When my sources of meaning dim, I can usually just get outside, go for a walk along the river or around the block, deadhead a few flowers in the bed outside our condo building, and my spirits lighten. Getting outside is my most dependable source of renewal.

To say, “This happened to me” is a way to affirm experiences from my past as a step towards letting them go. To say, “This is happening to me” is a way to acknowledge an experience that is discouraging me.  Accepting my present circumstances — not to give up on them, but accepting them because they already exist, has been for me the first step in viewing my life more positively . Gratitude also grows from this seed. Fighting our present reality saps precious energy. To regain hopefulness, my experience has been that first I have to believe in myself, my strengths, creativity, ability to persevere. I remind myself I overcame challenges in the past. I remember that I have a support network.

I know that everyone on earth does not have the support system that I have.  When I am able to feel grateful for my own strengths , the support I receive, and for all that my life holds my soul feels more grounded and my spirit expands.

It helps me to be aware that any personal difficulties I face are part of a much larger source of pain which I call World Sorrow and Earth Lament. To find hopefulness in the midst of the cruelty and destructiveness of humans is the most difficult of all for me and I want to turn away from it. But I can’t. It seems to be there always as an almost imperceptible weight on my chest or in my heart. It is at the times when I feel like I can’t watch or listen to the news that I try to remember the courage of millions of people the world over.

the place of prayer beads – photograph, Jane Thurgood Sagal

I find hope in other people’s stories.  The ways that people under the most discouraging, dangerous, or pain-filled situations carry on with their lives moves me deeply.  The ways people maintain their sense of humour within a painful moment or repetitive days of struggle inspires me. The moral and physical courage of others can be a source of renewed hopefulness about the state of our world and an inspiration for my own actions when grayness descends. I have learned to remember the stories or the faces of courageous and compassionate others but not to use them to compare and criticize myself.

Hope comes from believing that small actions matter. John Tarrant wrote of this with tenderness.

The movements of compassion can be big enough to save rain forests, but intimacy also appears in the small acts that open infinitely large doors. Modest act of courage reverse evils before they grow great; small generosities welcome children to the world. Those who recognize their connection with others serve quietly, like members of a secret order. Then the small acts and the large coalesce (pp 139-140)

Throughout my teaching life I was inspired by the children I taught. I think of Laurie, a bright-eyed little girl in my grade one class who told me she was so happy that she was going to learn to tell time and understand clocks because then she could get herself to school on time. Laurie often come to school later in the morning when her struggling, single-parent mother did not wake up. Laurie told me that she would be able to get her little sisters up too and feed them before she came to school. All this, she said with a beaming face. Imagine.

Hope is real and necessary and for me it is foundational to creating a better life and a better world.

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

light sparkles on water

Aesthetics have an integrative role which connects us to the whole – the web of relationships which is life. The aesthetic is an open concept that attracts diverse perspectives and eludes any final definition. Yet, it is an essential part of human life, an aspect of our experiences which deepens their potential for meaning.

I think of aesthetics as having to do with the life of the senses, with beauty, and the sublime. It encompasses art but is much more than art. Kant believed that the aesthetic domain offers the promise of reconciliation between Nature and humanity.[1] This potential is realized through feelings and sensory experiences and is shaped further by the mind but is rarely a matter of the mind alone.

One of the central elements of the aesthetic is that it offers autonomy. Each person has the freedom to find and assert what they experience as beautiful, appealing, or powerful in its impact. Free to explore the world and develop our own aesthetic sensibilities, we change ourselves and our world.

Light sparkling on water whiles waves splash on shore never fails to bring me pleasure and deepen the quality of my day. The sights and sounds connect me to a world that humans didn’t create and brings wholeness. The harmony of mind, senses, and spirit which is aesthetic pleasure is at times sublime.

Life has diminished meaning, is almost impossible to sustain, without some of what the aesthetic dimension of life can offer the human soul.

Aesthetic experiences also come from the creative process whether it takes place within the arts or in every day life. The feeling of unity with self and materials that is possible within creative processes means we are fully ourselves in those moments. We can see our ideas materialize and take other forms. Within aesthetic experiences we may understand our selves more fully or feel greater compassion for others. We can express our feelings whether positive or not, happy or hurting. We often gain empowerment in their expression.

with sand and water we create worlds-Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I have just scratched the surface of the positive elements & potential for feeling connected to all of life that the aesthetic dimension can offer. I will be continuing this focus in future posts.

Do you notice when the aesthetic dimension of life enriches your day?

[1] Eagelton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990/1995) discusses this idea and Kant’s aesthetic philosophy in detail.