Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On Milestones

It's Tuesday morning and I'm sitting, alone, in a local cafe enjoying a sunny spring day and a tea. There's an empty stroller parked beside me. Today is my son's first day of preschool and I'm sticking close to him at this coffee shop in case I get a call saying that he needs me, that he's melting down, that he isn't coping. I dropped him off at 9 am. It's almost noon and I have received no such call.

My son dropped his nap right after his third birthday. This sent me into a tailspin of desperation since I was no longer getting my daily break from parenting. Twelve hours in a row of intense three year old energy was enough to make me remember the early days of postpartum depression and a sense that I was in over my head. I started researching preschools and had a few panicked weeks when I realized that I had missed most of the registration deadlines for September admission. Who knew that preschool admissions are akin to university enrollment? I went to tour one preschool and found a line up of 25 families waiting at 2:00 for a 6:00 registration for the local nature preschool. Apparently some of them had been there since 8 am. I did not feel like I wanted to camp out on the steps of the community center in order to get my kid a preschool placement. When did childhood become so difficult? When did parenting become a competition in which the merits of early childhood education are hotly debated and preschool placements are assumed to influence a child's entire future potential? A comedian (I can't remember who) summed it up when he said: "Preschool is about singing songs and playing with blocks. How is it possible to get that WRONG?" And yet I have overheard tense conversations between moms at the playground discussing the enriched programming at various preschools. Is it Montessori? Does it provide music and dance education? Will the kids have access to second language education and reading? Will there be drama and yoga and sports and access to nature and gardening and water play and art lessons and healthy snacks?

 I have to admit that the preschool my little boy has started at does indeed have most of these things, though it's not Montessori. I toured a Montessori preschool and was confronted with twelve kids quietly engaging in independent play at desks and I just couldn't picture my insanely energetic and inquisitive boy fitting in there. I was told that at Montessori preschool the kids are not encouraged to interact, expect occasionally in pairs, because if more than two kids are working together on projects "things get too boisterous." These kids are THREE! I would think that a bit of boisterous behaviour would be expected and allowed. Montessori is probably a good fit for some kids, but I left feeling uncomfortable. I kind of thought preschool would be about playing and socializing. Whatever else is offered is just icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned. I'm convinced that Montessori has its merits, but it wasn't for us.

I eventually got a last minute spot at a preschool that one of my son's friends already attends. The ability to start immediately was a huge relief for me. He'll go twice a week until June and then ramp up to four days a week. When I dropped him off this morning for his first day he was over the moon with excitement. He practically pushed me out the door. I left the room and watched him for a few minutes through the window. He was already busy building a Lego tower with three other kids. He was going to be fine. My friend had to pick her son up early and called to report that H. is doing great though he was told to "settle down" a few times. Apparently he was confounded by the idea of quiet reading time, but otherwise he's having a blast. It's much as I expected. My kid is extremely outgoing and thrives in chaotic environments. I also received a video by email of H. sitting at a table with all the other kids at snack time, sharing cookies, and singing happy birthday to my friend's boy, who turns three today. H. looked so grown up.

I had a small moment this morning when I was packing a lunch for my son to take to preschool. Packing a LUNCH! It feels like yesterday that I was sterilizing bottles in a haze of sleep deprivation and now I'm putting cucumbers and oranges in little plastic containers and placing it all in a dinosaur lunch bag that H. carried to school by himself. I surprised myself by not crying. If I'm honest I mostly felt a deep sense of relief. Like, holy SHIT, we made it. We made it to preschool and I didn't die and my son is happy and relatively well adjusted (I think). We get to move on to a whole new phase of childhood and I know I'm supposed to be all sad that I don't have a baby anymore and I'm supposed to lament how quickly he's growing up, but it hasn't felt fast at all (more like an eternity) and I'm just so grateful that we made it this far when there were so many struggles to get here.

 And he was oh so ready to spend his mornings with other kids and teachers. I believe that he'll thrive in this new environment and I think that I might too, because suddenly there is a whole village of people looking after my child and there's just a tiny bit more room to breathe. And if H. learns Mandarin and French, if he learns his ABCs and does yoga that's great, but I don't think it's the most important thing. On his first day what I wish for him is a chance to gain confidence in his own abilities and to learn how to be part of a community. I hope he'll begin to learn what it means to have a friend and that he can choose to contribute to the happiness of others with his own kindness and effervescence. Good luck today H. I know you're going to shine.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Windowbox Children

I've skirted around this theme before--the idea that since giving birth I am sometimes more animal than human. I'm more rooted in physical form that I was before. It has something to do with the intense contact required between a mother and her child. My son literally crawls all over me all day. I'm always reminded of chimpanzee mothers with their young clinging to their backs. If my back was hairier my kid would totally do that. It sounds kind of nice actually. There we would be, climbing trees, swinging from the branches, eating bugs....wait...that part doesn't sound very nice. I digress...I think that giving birth made me more attuned to the seasons, the ground beneath my feet, the waxing and waning of all the earth's systems. Suddenly I gain pleasure from planting things. Not because I want to be lord over a variety of plant life in my garden, but because I want to be a parent to delicate plantings. Flowers are easy children compared to human babies, but they still require a certain amount of tender care, attention, and coaxing.

I've been reading a fascinating book by Stephen Harrod Buhner called Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. The book has given me insight into plant neurology that is completely blowing my mind. As it turns out, modern research is beginning to see that humans are not even close to being the only intelligent life on earth. Our definition of "intelligent" is, not surprisingly, extremely narrow and short sighted. If we expand our idea of what counts as a brain, for instance, we begin to see that trees are not so different from us on a chemical and neurological level.

Buhner illustrates, pointing to huge amounts of scientific data, that tree root systems, for instance, are very similar to our brains. Even the chemical messengers are the same and trees respond to many medications (like morphine) in exactly the same way we do. Buhner writes, "Our brain matter is, in fact, merely the soil that contains the neural net we use to process and store information. Plants use the soil itself to house their neuronal net" (Buhner, Stephen Harrod (2014-05-14). Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth (p. 121). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition). We tend to think that plants don't have a "brain" but with a small revision of what a brain looks like it becomes obvious that trees do, in fact, have a brain system that rivals our own in complexity, even if the tasks it performs are quite different.

All of this is to say that I don't feel so crazy now for feeling a maternal affection for the pansies I just planted in my windowbox. Their aliveness has been more apparent to me since having a child of my own. All summer I will be guardian of the windowbox pansies and I can leave the door open for a relationship to arise between us. I will give them food and water, they will give me purple streaked flowers to adorn my front yard. And if I chat with them a little, perhaps with Buhner's blessing, I can not be considered certifiable. Could it be that all my life I have failed to listen to the world properly, and with the right sort of attention, to receive a reply?

It scares me, sometimes, how detached we city dwelling folk are from the natural world. I know so little. It wasn't so long ago that indigenous tribes all over the world let plants and animals be their teachers. We've forgotten that lifeforms other than our own have wisdom to impart. I  have very little access to nature in my day to day life. My yard is postage stamp small. But I can plant eight pansy flowers and let them be my doorway into a world that my mind has forgotten but my indigenous  heart remembers. Shaman and teacher Martin Prechtel says in his book Secrets of the Talking Jaguar that each and every one of us has an indigenous soul that we have silenced and repressed. By this he means that there is something deep inside the ancestral memories we carry in our genes that hearkens back to a time when were original in some way and lived differently. When the earth was our home in a more symbiotic way, when we knew the names of the animals and plants around us. There's this internal whisper that reminds us that we are creatures of the soil and the water and the forest. I think that whispering gets a bit louder when you are in mindful contact with something alive, whether it's a pet or a domesticated plant or something wilder.

And so I tend the windowbox children. They don't always survive. The Impatiens I planted the first year in my current home didn't fare well. The begonias the second year thrived. This year I will see how pansies do, and hope that I can develop the skills and knowledge required to keep them healthy. It's a small task, a small piece of wisdom, but one that puts me in contact with a lost relationship to the natural world. I become just a tiny bit wilder with my fingers sunk into the soil, even soil caught in the contained space of a windowbox.

Pansy. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2015.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coming into Spring

Winter doesn't get a grip on the West Coast very well. No sooner has the New Year arrived then signs of spring begin to emerge from the damp earth. This winter was particularly warm, with temperatures reaching as high as 12 degrees this past week. But the world still sleeps from October to mid January, and the West Coast is intensely dark in wintertime. The cloudy days bring the evening on earlier and by the solstice it's sometimes dark by 4:00. The damp gets into my bones and I feel cold in a profound way, even though the temperature remains above freezing.

So it's always with joy that I meet the first early signals of the coming spring. Already there are crocuses breaking the earth, blossoms opening, and snowdrops fully grown. I respond to these small stirrings viscerally. There's something about the first shoots of green testing the still chilly air that makes me want to break out into a run. It feels like we've all come through something. It feels important to have survived the darkest nights and the rainiest days. I wanted to touch each fragile blossom I passed on my walk home today. Goodbye winter. I pay homage to the necessity of the darkness, but look forward with joy to the light.

I'm reminded of Rilke's great fascination with the world around him and his desire to experience a kind of deep seeing. In The Book of Hours he addresses Nature:

Dear darkening ground,
you've endured so patiently the walls we've built,
perhaps you'll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor--will you let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name 
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they're worthy of you and real.

I want only seven days, seven
on which no one has ever written himself--
seven pages of solitude.

The turning of the season tends to remind me how quickly time passes and how brief my opportunity to truly see the things of this world.  I feel some of Rilke's intensity, and his desire to love, when I stumble upon the first tentative openings, and the hint of warmth in the air.

Here are some images that I took today of the very first hints of winter's decline:

Winter is on its last legs!
Snowdrops. January 2015. Copyright Andrea Paterson

Blossoms in January.
Blossoms in January. 2015. Copyright Andrea Paterson

Stirring. January 2015. Copyright Andrea Paterson

Monday, December 1, 2014

Coyote Visit

UBC Coyote
Coyote. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014

Winter is settling onto the land here in the West. We have snow on the ground today. A rarity that makes it feel like Christmas. I like the rawness of the air when the temperatures plummet to just below freezing. I like wearing hand knit wool sweaters as insurance against the cold. I like the way the work of my own hands can fend off the chill and I like the scratch of real sheep's wool reminding me of my own fragility against the roughness of something more purely animal.

The winter is a time for animals set against a canvas of blinding white—the iconic stag in the snow kissed forest. The white hare hiding. The red fox hunting. And, suddenly, the coyote loping. I keep seeing coyotes these days. Not a common sight in the city and one that makes my heart pound a little faster. In my car about a week ago I came to a stop-light near an open field. Just behind a bus shelter I saw a lone coyote set off across the frozen land. I thought it was a dog at first, but no, something else entirely, something distinctly wilder with a ravenous purpose.

At the University of British Columbia Rose Garden yesterday I was taking pictures when a coyote came down the path towards me. I had to leap aside, a part of me fearing for my safety. The coyote passed within three feet of me and didn't even bother to look my way. He was sick looking, with a wound on his back leg and a scraggly tail. Something is afoot, I thought. Something four footed. Something that sends a shivery thrill through my body and also makes me worried because the city is not the place for creatures such as these.

They are displaced things and some of my concern stems from the fact that I identify with them. I am a displaced thing too, not particularly well suited to city living. I suffer from senses that remain in a state of high alert so loud noises, congested streets, too many lights, and too many people quickly result in over-stimulation. The concrete hurts my feet. The constant drone of planes and cars and and sirens eat away at me. Aren't we all just wild things living in the concrete jungle? The coyote reminded me of the world beyond and how immersion in the city can lead to a certain sickness, a kind of ennui and dependence. The UBC coyote was in the process of forgetting how to live in the wild. He scrounged for garbage, lost his fear of people, became vulnerable to the easy appeal of civilization with its discarded fast food boxes and spilled soft-drinks. But he was dying it seemed. Or at least very ill. Civilization is not the place for a coyote. And though humans, perhaps, fare better, we have also forgotten where we came from. The coyote encounters of late sparked an ancient memory about being connected to the land in a way I can barely dream of now.

I hope the coyotes find their way home to a wilder place. I hope I can continue to find pockets of wildness to experience not far from the city. There are always places to go. A short drive up the Sea to Sky highway you can enter the Wildwood. Not without hearing traffic noise from the highway, but it's still something. It's hard to find the time to get away though, hard to find the resources sometimes. The coyotes reminded me that I should try harder to get there. Maybe this year is a good time to try snow shoeing. I relish the idea of walking silently atop the snow in a world muffled by ice. These small pleasures are within my grasp if I need them. Who wants to come with me? I have extra wool sweaters.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

On Empathy

Hayden. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014
In a world so full of terrible things I am finding great peace and hope in watching my nearly three year old son develop powers of empathy. My Hayden changes every day, becoming strangely articulate, his thoughts only sometimes outpacing his capacity for language. He is developing a sense of empathy that seems impossible for such a young creature. It's as if we are born with great wisdom and compassion that we slowly lose as we age and then have to work hard to recapture. If we maintained the simple kindness of a child, the world might be a very beautiful place.

A few days ago Hayden was playing with a friend, also two and a half. His friend, at one point, became despondent and pouty. Hayden was clearly concerned but the sudden change in mood.

“Let's run!” he said, trying to prompt his friend to play. But he got no response.
Hayden peered under the other boy's hat and tried to make him laugh by imitating the pathetic sighs his playmate was dramatically producing. No response...then maybe just the smallest twitch of a smile. Finally, Hayden reached into his pocket, produced a bouncy ball that he had borrowed from his very reluctant friend earlier on, looked at it wistfully and said, “Do you want my bouncy ball?” His friend lit up immediately, took the ball, and the two boys ran down the path together holding hands.

I was dumbstruck. My two and a half year old child had given up a hard won and treasured object simply to make his friend happy. I wasn't sure that an adult would have done the same thing in his place. It was an unbelievable sacrifice that showed, I thought, a beautiful sensitivity to the emotions of others. This small child was such a bright light in that moment.

He surprised me again this morning. We had a rough night. Hayden was up a fair bit and I was exhausted as a result. I went about the morning routine in a fog, feeling my control and patience slipping.

“I'm really, really tired,” I said to Hayden and he ran upstairs. He came back with the blanket and pillow off his bed. He proceeded to make me a bed on the floor.

“Have a nap Mommy!” he said. I lay down on the floor and my son tucked me in under his blanket. He then got a plastic cup out of the drawer, ran to the bathroom and came back with a glass of water for me. After I had my water he brought me his alarm clock and said I should stay asleep until the clock's green wake-up light came on. I was laughing, but almost crying as well, because it was a ridiculously thoughtful and lovely thing to do and it completely blew my mind.

I want to say to you, Hayden, that I hope your capacity for love and kindness will endure. I hope it will never be beaten out of you, or your sensitivity discouraged. It's a rough world out there and it's easy to become jaded. I dream you a future in which you maintain at your core that luminous sweetness and grace.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Used Books with a Cat Included

One of my life's greatest pleasures is perusing the dusty aisles of a good used book store. One of my favourites in Vancouver is Kestrel Books on 4th Avenue near Dunbar. It's a dangerous corner of town for me because it's also home one of my favourite restaurants, Aphrodite's Cafe and Pie Shop, where it is nearly impossible to pass up a huge slice of rhubarb and apple pie. But I digress....BOOKS!

There is something so nurturing about a used book store. I'm not entirely sure why it's more exciting and more comforting than a new book store. I think it has something to do with the sense of history. All the books on the shelves at Kestrel were once held in the hands of a stranger. The words on the page have already made their homes in someone else's consciousness. The pages may even have marginalia, written in pencil or faded ink, that allow you a bizarre window into someone's reading experience.

There's also a sense of adventure and discovery. A used book store is always changing and I can walk through it while inviting moments of synchronicity. I read the book store like I might read a Tarot deck, letting books come to me as portents of my future. Dear Universe....what do I need to know right now? What do I need to read? What words need to come to me for the purposes of transformation, knowledge, epiphany? These largely subconscious questions are answered by colourful spines that draw my eye, draw my hand, draw my imagination. I let my fingers brush the dust covers and allow the spirit of the books to speak to me.

New books don't have soul in the same way that used books do. Don't get me wrong! I wouldn't snub a new book, and I've bought my fair share of them, but my heart is with the used books and their slightly worn exteriors.

I don't usually buy fiction at used book stores. In fact, I'm trying to use the library for fiction in order to stem my obsessive book buying. I now limit my purchases to books that I want to have near me. Books that I will want to refer to over and over again. This does include some of my favourite fiction, but my collection now tends to be focused on philosophy, psychology, mythology, ecology, and spirituality among other "ologies."

I spent over an hour at Kestrel books yesterday, sitting on the floor leafing through volumes, and petting the store's lovely tabby cat. Every book store should have a resident cat. The depth of calm and relaxation I can achieve while reading and petting a cat is far beyond anything my mindfulness meditation practice has produced. A dog might work too, but I find they're a bit too fidgety and energetic to be good book companions. A book really marries perfectly with a cat and a cup of tea.

My hour of bliss resulted in the purchase of four books with a decidedly Jungian leaning.

1. Alchemical Active Imagination by Marie-Louise von Franz. 
von Franz is a Jungian scholar and this particular book explores the symbolic parallels between the process of physical alchemy and the practice of active imagination that Jungians use to access and dialogue with our unconscious archetypes. It may be that alchemy had more to do with psychological and spiritual transformation than it did with turning lead into gold.

2. Seeing Through the Visible World: Jung, Gnosis, and Chaos by June Singer.
A book about inner work, mystical experience and its relationship to the ordinary. It's about the experience of things that are not "knowable" through ordinary mechanisms of human awareness.

3. The Voice of Experience by R.D. Laing
Oh how I love R.D. Laing. His writing about psychology and perspectives on mental health remain highly relevant even 40 years after the original publication of his work. I bought this book particularly for Laing's discussion of pregnancy and birth, though I'm sure I'll enjoy the rest of it as well.

4. The Body of the Goddess: Sacred Wisdom in Myth, Landscape, and Culture by Rachel Pollack. 
A journey through the sacred spaces of a number of ancient cultures. Pollack provides a look into the form and significance of the Goddess.

Emerging into a sunny afternoon with my purchases I feel like I've just spent time kneeling at the altar of some secret church. I've breathed the incense of ink on paper, I've touched the sacred texts, I've sat in quiet contemplation and now am released back into the streets feeling renewed and energetic.

It breaks my heart to think that independent bookstores everywhere are an endangered species. Amazon doesn't come with friendly, book-obsessed staff. It doesn't come with serendipitous book encounters. And it certainly doesn't come with a cat. Next time you're off to buy a book, think about a soulful excursion to your nearest used book dealer. You might just emerge a convert.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's Potty Time!

Having kids is weird. They always say that you get to re-live childhood through your own child's eyes. I didn't think they meant that literally, as in--you will suddenly be acting like a two year old and your child will be taking on the role of parent.

Example: my son is in the midst of potty training. We have a system: if he pees on the potty he gets an M and M candy (I know, this bribery system using sugar will probably render him incapable of functioning in the world or something, but it's working). And generally we say encouraging things, like "way to go" and "nice work." Standards are low when you're two, okay?

So the other day I have to go pee, and because two year olds are incapable of letting you pee alone my son followed me into the bathroom. He stuck his head right between my legs while I relieved myself, because apparently he needed a REALLY good look at the pee going into the toilet. When I got up and flushed my son was ecstatic.

"Way to go Mommy!" he exclaimed. "Now you get an M and M." So we marched downstairs so I could have my treat. It has been a VERY long time since anyone praised me for depositing urine in a toilet. This is what I mean--having a kid results in literally reverting to a state of childhood yourself.

My son is talking a lot now, and very strange things come out of his mouth. The very best thing about having a two year old is that they have literally never seen things before so everything is the most freaking amazing, confusing, bizarre, unbelievably awesome thing in the world. It's kind of like an alien landed in your living room and is completely blown away by everything that happens around him.

At lunch the other day Hayden's stomach grumbled. He stopped eating and looked startled. He looked at his stomach.

"What was that Mommy?" he asked with concern. "Did my bellybutton make a noise?" I had to explain that bellybuttons are generally silent, but stomachs are quite rude and will blab away at the most inopportune times. My son seemed satisfied with that.

Two year olds are also the best at insisting upon completely nonsensical things. I sing Hayden a song called "I gave my love a cherry," which is a riddle song my parents used to sing to me and my great-grandfather used to sing to my father. Hayden really likes it, but wasn't completely satisfied with cherries, chickens, stories, and babies as gifts (as the song outlines). So he insisted that I sing "I gave my love a lawnmower" instead. He's kind of obsessed with lawnmowers right now. I can't say that I get it.

And finally, two year olds are tantrum wizards. They can throw a fit about absolutely anything. While Hayden likes getting his M and M after he pees, he's a bit particular about the colour. He really only likes the brown ones (maybe because they're the only ones that look like they're going to be chocolate?). So one day he reaches into the jar and pulls out an orange M and M. I screw the lid back on the jar and put it away. Hayden puts the M and M in his mouth and starts chewing. Then he starts crying, and that deteriorates into a full on tantrum.

"I don't LIKE this M and M!" he sobs. "I need ANOTHER one!" Seriously. Toddlers are the only people on the planet who can cry about having a mouth full of chocolate. You would think that chocolate and tears are mutually exclusive. Not so, apparently. The upside of all this is that Hayden discovered that the coloured M and Ms taste like chocolate too. Now he'll eat a coloured one, but only in addition to a brown one, and only if he can put them both in his mouth at the same time. Toddlers are naturally obsessive compulsive it seems.

At least he's not a one trick pony anymore. When he was a baby all we got was bodily fluids. Now at least there's some entertainment value. Although a drunk adult might provide similar amusement.