On spiritual food
I have less than 15 minutes in which to write this blog post, so necessity will determine its structure: a list. Here are a few things that have been feeding me spiritually, lately.
Cycling. Cycling at a leisurely pace, on safe trails, through the beauty of our Canadian spring. Biking home from campus, the thought comes like a refrain: this is exactly what I’ve always dreamed of, teaching at a university, being able to bike to and from work, taking life at a pace that does not sap it of its natural rhythms.
Church. I’ve been drawn to church this calendar year. I grew up in the Mennonite church, attended a variety of different churches, in different settings, and despite long lapses and absences, feel at home there, at home in the hymns, the passages of scripture (like poetry, my daughter whispered to me recently), and in the community. My mind and spirit are fed in the Sunday services. It helps to have found a church that appeals to me as someone who seeks and questions, rather than someone who yearns for answers and prescriptions.
Poetry. I can’t say enough about how poetry is feeding me right now. I’m teaching the poetry unit in my creative writing class, and everything about it feels fresh and alive. I’m alert to the necessity of poetry, how it moves toward meaning and mystery in a way no other art form can, quite, except maybe for song.
Music. Playing it, singing it, listening to it. On Saturday, driving home from an event in Chatham (a presentation at a library), I kept myself awake by singing along to opera. Harder than it sounds (or maybe not!). Only possible when alone in a vehicle (as I’m sure my children would assure you).
Friends. Every human connection sparks something in me — gratitude, appreciation, comfort, hope. I am blessed with friendships that are old and have weathered much, and by newer more fragile friendships too. I am aware of a web of connections that opens around me and my family, supporting us.
Dogs. Our dogs, these two formerly homeless animals that we adopted almost five years ago, who took at least three years to settle in and trust us, bless us daily with their in-the-moment animal presence.
This list could go on and on. But I’m about to get on my bike and cycle to campus (in the rain!) to work in my quiet office before teaching this afternoon. And I’m hungry. (Literally and figuratively.)
Blank. I sit before the screen, blank. My thoughts are with people I care about, people I love, people who are facing an illness that everyone fears: cancer. Cancer is so much more prevalent than it once was, it seems. Or maybe cancer existed in greater numbers than was spoken of, once; there was a time when cancer marked a person with shame, though that makes no sense to me. Cancer used to be like Voldemort: a word too terrible to speak. People hid it, kept it secret. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Now, everyone knows someone who has cancer. Most of us probably have close friends or family whose lives have been changed by cancer. It’s a presence in our landscape, it’s almost a place. It has its own geography, its own language, its own time zone.
In my own life, cancer has visited people I love, people very close to me. One of my brothers survived childhood cancer. You’d never know it, now. But I’m sure he knows it. We know it. When he turned forty, it seemed like a dream, a wonderful ordinary dream. I thought about how many other children, treated in his era, were not so fortunate. I thought of the loss to their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.
Cancer opens question marks in a life. The unknown looms. What will happen? How long do I have? What do I need/want to get done here on earth? What’s urgent, what matters, and what’s superficial, what can I cast off? But the question marks are always there, have always been there, we’re just not thinking about them. I want to think about them. Life is precious. This is a statement both banal and cliched; and completely absolutely heartbreakingly true. Life is always precious. It seems all the more precious when we’re made aware of how fragile life is. Tough, but fragile. Because life isn’t ours to hold onto. Life is a gift. I think of this New Yorker story about super-rich tech men who are building bunkers in the American desert, preparing to survive nuclear war or some other human-made disaster, and I think: What arrogance, to imagine that you can control what will happen to you; what a waste of resources, splurged on the self. This is how you want to spend your numbered days? All the money in the world can’t buy you immortality. You are mortal, as we all are, you are made of flesh and blood.
So, what to do? What to do, sitting here, feeling blank, feeling angry, feeling afraid, staring at this screen, knowing most piercingly that life is precious, that today is precious, that this hour is precious? I don’t know, any more than anyone else. It is not only life that is precious, it is time, our measure of life. Time is a luxury. Time passes, and we pass through time. Today, I will bake a birthday cake for a nine-year-old. I’ve already wrapped a few carefully chosen presents for him. I’ve walked him partway to school. We hugged at home, but he did not want a hug when we said goodbye on the sidewalk. Today, I will write for awhile and draw for awhile. Today, I will play on a soccer field with a group of lively eleven and twelve year old girls. Today, I will eat cake and watch an excited boy blow out candles, make a wish, open gifts.
I will wish for presence given to the task at hand, each one in turn. Every minute, poured into the task of love and care, patience, devotion, hope, joy, even grief, even that. Whenever I am discouraged, I take a really deep breath. Whenever I am afraid, I take a really deep breath. Life is precious. Breathe deep. Life is a gift. Breathe deep. Right now, today, this hour, life seems like a wonderful and ordinary dream, for which I give thanks.
P.S. I want to add to these reflections after reading two obituaries in the Globe and Mail newspaper today, one about Penelope Reed Doob, a scholar of dance and literature, the other a personal memory about Richard Wagamese, a Canadian-Ojibway writer. Penelope Reed Doob was not only a scholar, but also did medical research, founding a company involved in finding a cure for HIV/AIDS in the late-1980s/early-1990s. “I wanted to save lives,” she is quoted as saying. “However, I eventually wondered what I was keeping people alive for. I thought that dance was one reason why people should enjoy life.” The piece about Richard Wagamese recalls his story about a librarian who helped him when he was homeless. “She opened the world for him. He told us that the librarian taught him to read, see, hear and feel through everything she introduced to him.”
What connects the dots between these thoughts and my reflection, above? To state that life is precious, that it is a gift, is the most obvious of observations. It’s almost too basic. Life must also be worth living—a worth that is felt and experienced. What makes life worth living? For Penelope Reed Doob, it was dance, it was art. For Richard Wagamese, it was also art, music, books, education. For me, it’s play, art, words, creating, sharing, good food, the list goes on and on. There is surviving and there is living. Living should not be a luxury, available only to the privileged or the lucky.
That is all.
I’m blogging during the Superbowl, pausing to go watch the commercials and the half-time show.
I want to write about the lovely rituals that are sustaining me these days. At some point every day I spend 15 minutes doing kundalini yoga while listening to music (Mongolian throat singing; Tanya Tajaq; and Leonard Cohen’s last album are my current go-to’s). I follow yoga with 10 minutes of meditation, using Headspace, which is an online app. I’ve added in 15 minutes on the spin bike once a day, too, to get my heart rate up and start working on my cardio again, now that my head can handle it. And I’m walking about four times a week. Of course, I’m also writing by hand and spending a lot of time drawing, too. My hours are blessed and peaceful.
I am grateful.
I’ve been thinking that artists must be humble, must have humility before a higher power, as Leonard Cohen himself seemed to, because to make art is to be reliant on gifts beyond our grasp. We can only beg to be blessed, to be used, to serve, to be spoken through. So the work that gets done, the effort and discipline, it’s like trying to break a code, or tap some mystery that we know does not belong to us and cannot be grabbed, only given. Maybe that’s why my daily rituals seem so powerful to me.
I used to believe that work was the thing. Now I believe almost wholly in mystery. I believe in stumbling, through work but also through ritual, through faith, through any trick that might cast a spell, into the path of mystery; you might say, also, into the path of grace. I believe that whatever I’m here to do, I do not know, and it isn’t up to me to decide. What’s up to me is the choice to show up, again and again, with hope. To sing great praise, to open myself, to listen. I know nothing. I know nothing of what I am making, only that I am making it, planning it and studying for it (reading, researching, filling my brain with information and images) and making it. Surprise is the best part of the exchange. I am almost always surprised by what I’ve made, on the other side of making it. It is a simple joy. I want to share this joy, because it seems so easily discovered, like it’s always there, always waiting to be found.
I believe in mystery. I believe that anything I’ve made comes not from me, but through me, and it is not for me, and anything I gain from it is not for me, but for a power greater than myself, something I can’t know, but only glimpse, as through a glass darkly.
I am standing in warrior one pose in kundalini class, in Kasia’s sunny studio, my hands held in the air like fists, and at her command I am kicking my back leg up and through like a ninja or judo expert, neither of which I am. The music is guttural shouting — har har har har har in the throat, finishing with a strong shout: har! Our fists punch down and our legs kick forward.
The tree in Kasia’s backyard is bright orange and red and I am loving the shouting and kicking and punching, not because I’m angry, not because I have any fury to kick or punch through, but because it feels good to shout and kick and make known my presence on this earth. I don’t know what this kriya is for, that she’s chosen for this morning’s class, but I decide it is a kriya to rip out the walls of fear and hesitation and doubt — self-doubt — and cause a great wellspring of courage to flow forth into the universe, into the flamingly beautiful dying leaves, the crisp blue sky, the chilly wind, the room full of privileged white middle-aged women (and one man) chanting and kicking and rendering themselves vulnerable to mockery.
I see that. I see that, too.
I kick. I punch. I shout. The guts feel good on the shout. The foot plants after each kick with steadiness and purpose.
After this we will sit for awhile and meditate and the word awaken will fight with the word dream, and I won’t know which I crave more.
This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.
Here’s how to do AppleApple’s mindfulness meditation: an example taken from a moment last week, when I was at her soccer practice, sitting inside the car, and it was pouring rain. It was my “easy” day of the week. I’d eaten supper in less than 10 minutes between piano lessons and leaving for practice (and picking up Fooey at a friend’s house). The idea is that you ground yourself in the moment by going through a gradually diminishing list of what you see, hear, and feel. Feel refers to physical sensations, rather than emotions. It’s incredibly simple and can be done anywhere. You are also supposed to breathe deeply while making these lists to yourself.
I see … rain drops; lines on the car windshield; a red blinking light that makes no sense; the word Ford; the steering wheel
I see … my blue water bottle, the mcdonald’s sign, the grey cloud cover, trees
I see … my computer, my hands, my ring
I see … both legs in black pants, these words
I see … the blue background of my computer screen
I hear … rain drops on the windshield, the bumping noise when this laptop hits the steering wheel as I type, the sound of the keys being hit, rain drops slowing, raindrops pattering
I hear … the typing, my breathing, the sound of a car engine, raindrops
I hear … a car passing behind me, rain, my mouth chewing gum
I hear … rain, cars
I hear … rain on roof
I feel … an ache in my right upper leg, dry lips, the need to swallow, an itch on my foot, my back curved uncomfortably against the car seat
I feel … my right leg against plastic, my left leg against the door, my back pressing the seat, an ache in my right shoulder blade
I feel … warm, my mouth wants to move, the itch on my foot has not gone away
I feel … the laptop pressing my legs, my nails and finger pads hitting the keys
I feel … an itch in my left armpit
Often when I do this exercise, I only get to the first seeing ones. Often, that’s enough to ground me in the moment. I admit there are moments in which a person does not want to be grounded but would prefer an escape. As someone with a lively imagination, I often prefer escape. That said, escape isn’t always possible or even preferable and this exercise helps me deal with the reality I’m actually in.
I have used this mindfulness meditation in the past week on a variety of occasions: while driving to a soccer game in the middle of nowhere, feeling lost and late due to having to take a major detour around construction; after a run in the heat when I was feeling light-headed; in boot camp while lifting weights; by the water at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto before my panel on Friday.
I plan to write more about the panel later this week.
PS The above photo is from a different soccer event from either mentioned in this post. But it will have to do for illustrative purposes.