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.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Why Being an Emotional Wreck is a Good Thing

I'm listening to this song by Karine Polwart and thinking deeply about my son, and about how raw being a parent makes you. Polwart sings of an earth poised on the brink of environmental disaster, of a place where the rivers, the very life-blood of the land, are threatened by human insatiability. She tells a tale of great love, great hope, and great beauty. Like Polwart I hope that there will be a natural world that's worth passing on to the next generation. I hope that my boy will have a chance to connect with the living-ness of the planet and I worry that too much is being lost too fast. I worry about the world my grandchildren will inhabit.

And all this loving and worrying leads me off on tangents about the emotionally vulnerable place that parenthood is. Having a child left every nerve exposed. Pregnant women get heckled for being overly sensitive--for crying at commercials and things. What they don't tell you is that this emotional rawness isn't going to end with your pregnancy. In fact, it's never going away EVER. My son is two and a half and I have cried twice today. Once when reading an article about a photographer who photographs stillborn children and their parents in order to give the families a few precious memories and some closure. I was in tears after viewing the first powerful and heart-rending image (article found here). Already primed by grief I ended up shedding a few tears over Karine Polwart's song as well and had to fight against an urge to go into my child's room and snuggle his sleeping body in the midst of his afternoon nap.

I was always an emotionally expressive person, but becoming a mother kicked it up into high-gear. In the beginning I was worried. I wondered when these stupid hormones were going to regulate. I wondered when I could act like a normal person and not experience every tragedy as if it were my own. I wondered when I would be able to peruse my Facebook feed without ending up in tears over something sad or something beautiful. But when I realized that it wasn't going away I began to look at things differently. It's a gift, really. My son came with the gift of deepened empathy and that empathy leads me to take compassionate action in the world. I care more about the earth and I care more about the people around me. I remember to compost, I grow some food in my garden, I get outside more and think about things like losing the darkness and losing the wilderness. Whatever is beautiful has become immensely more so and I am more often in awe of art, music, and the natural world. I get to see everything again through the eyes of my Mother-Self and even though this entails more tears and more hurt, I'm grateful that motherhood keeps me from becoming jaded. My emotional spectrum is (unbelievably) wider than ever before.

All this means that I have to be careful how much media I expose myself too. I quickly become overwhelmed by the horrors that our world faces daily, but I can also become overwhelmed by too much beauty. This experience of everything being "too much" helps me to empathize with my son, who must see the world as a huge and confusing place that can often become "too much." But rather than being a burden it's possible to see "too much" as a blessing, as evidence of startling abundance and insurance that I am living fully in the world. Being moved to tears regularly shows me that I'm walking right up to the edges of my soul's landscape and really engaging with the most expansive parts of my emotional life.  I read a quotation recently that went something like "if you don't want to feel pain, don't love anything." I will not stop loving so I welcome the hurt to my table and offer it a drink.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Death of Stars

I'm reading a book called The End of Night by Paul Bogard and find myself plunged into a state of mourning for the beauty of true darkness. As I read more about our overuse of light at night, how it disrupts entire ecological systems, how it leads directly to the deaths of enormous numbers of birds and bats, how it deprives human beings of a chance to see the life altering beauty of the night sky saturated with stars, I begin to grieve. Bogard writes that "The history of Western civilization is full of attempts to stamp out wildness--the unknown, the mysterious, the creative, the feminine, the animal, the dark" (130) and I am at a place in my life when the loss of wildness feels particularly sharp.

I have had a sudden realization that some of my most profound memories come out of the darkness and out of those brief encounters with wildness that I have been allowed. As a child I used to drive with my family to Rondeau Beach in south-western Ontario. We would swim in the lake all day, have a dinner of hot-dogs and marshmallows, then wait for night to fall. When the darkness descended we would drive slowly home, stopping in a dark alcove of trees to watch the fireflies sparking just outside the car windows. When we tired of their winking brilliance we would continue down the highway and I would tip my head back as far as it could go so I could stare up at the stars and the moon through the back windshield. The memory of watching those stars fly by is stamped on my soul. There weren't even that many of them. The sky was polluted by the wan orange glow of light from the city that obscured the night, but there were enough stars to be tantalizing, enough to enthrall a sleepy child after a day of play.

At the age of 15 I traveled to Greece on a school trip. While staying on the island of Santorini my two room-mates and I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and watched a meteor shower as we sang in three part harmony. Those shooting stars fell straight into my body, filling me with white-hot energy, with the purest joy. I call still see them falling and falling, the darkness filled with the most perfect sparks.

At 16 I spent a summer in the north of Ontario and on the last night of camp, when I was troubled by the complex grief of going home after eight weeks of transformational time in the wilderness, we were given the gift of the Aurora Borealis radiating across the sky. Forty girls, who had become my closest friends, gathered in the darkness and let our tears intensify the wavering of the northern lights.

I forgot about the night sky for awhile after that I think. I finished high-school, completed two post secondary degrees, I got a job. I was busy and I wasn't living in a place where darkness was accessible. Bogard points out that the majority of the world's population no longer has the option of seeing a natural night sky. We go out at night and we can see everything--people, buildings, roads. The darkness is dead, chased away by our own anxiety and the lights we install to dispel it.

But on the night of the last full moon a friend and I walked out to Garry Point Park--a strip of land by the docks of Steveston--and we watched the Super Moon rise over the tree tops. We were walking and talking and I turned around suddenly to come face to face with a massive, glowing presence on the horizon. Chills ran through my body. The moon appeared like some miracle of light, like a door opening in the universe that could let me back in to all the wild places civilization has lost through our technological "advancement." I actually leapt for the joy of it. My friend and I embraced. The moon rises every day, yet we rarely stop to experience its beauty. We bathe instead in the sterile light of our iPhone screens, watch only the bluish apple-shaped light glowing on the backs of our lap-tops.

Bogard doesn't call for us to shut out the lights completely. He realizes the folly of plunging our civilization back into darkness. We need the lights to help us navigate, to keep us safe. But we need only a tiny fraction of what we have. Our eyes adjust to dimmer places, and without the glare of a million streetlights we can actually see better. And not just in a literal sense. Our night vision is connected intimately to the seeing of our souls and to our emotional landscapes. To be in the dark of night is to become familiar with the darkness inside ourselves. We have forgotten the magic that lies within that darkness. We try to banish the dark nights of our souls along with the starry skies.

Bogard quotes Henry Beston, a man writing in the 1920s, who says "For, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity." Having emerged so recently from the underworld of my own Dark Night I now have cravings for the darkness and the gifts hidden within it.

A few nights ago I went outside near midnight with a blanket and looked up at the stars from my back-yard. There wasn't much to see. The Big Dipper is one of the only visible constellations from my light polluted vantage point. Someone's security light was glaring into my yard with ugly persistence, making it impossible for my eyes to adjust to the available darkness. I tried to reach out with my mind to the cosmos. I tried to conjure up memories from my summer in the north when I could see the spiraling tail of the Milky Way signalling my place in the universe. What are we truly afraid of in the dark? What monsters lurk there? Only the ones that reside in our own unconscious I think, and these are beasts that we would do well to befriend. Shining a light in their eyes only torments them and detaches us from our spiritual depths. It pays, sometimes, to turn off the flood-lights and sit, instead, by the primitive glow of a small fire, and call the monsters home.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Second Retreat

At the end of June I took myself to the Sea to Sky Retreat Centre near Whistler looking for a weekend of solitude and quiet.

Sea to Sky. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014.

I certainly got my wish, arriving at a tiny private cabin overlooking the above pictured lake. A short walk took me down to the dock where I could look out over the water to the snow capped mountains beyond and breathe the clean air. I immediately got the sense that I had landed somewhere wild. It never ceases to amaze me that a two hour drive by car can take me from my front door to the gateway of wilderness.

In my cabin at night the silence was so complete that it woke me up. At about 3 am when all the birds were sleeping and the darkness was so complete that I couldn't tell the difference between having my eyes open and closed I would suddenly wake up with a feeling of terror creeping over my body. I think we city-folk forget what silence is really like. We forget how dense it is, how layered and complex. The darkness and the silence contained within them a whole world that I don't have access to lying in my bed at home with the traffic noises dulling my senses. So on my second night I was lying there in the dark, listening to my heart pound in the uncanny silence and then the silence was broken by rustling. Something...something fairly large walked across my cabin porch. I have no idea what it was and was too afraid to investigate. I tried not to breathe and whatever it was went away. A shadow disappearing into shadows. It was as if the wild-things that stay trapped in my civilized body managed to escape and click-clacked with their ragged nails across the threshold of my heart. That creature outside was also inside and I was afraid of it, afraid of recognizing my own animal nature roaming out there in the dark.

Resident Husky. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014.

On my second day at the retreat centre I set out on a hike up to Garabaldi Lake--a 19 km round trip journey straight up a mountain to a glacial lake. I left my camera behind as I wanted to travel as lightly as possible. I was at the trail head by 8:15 a.m. and began the steep climb up  a series of switch-backs. I spent the first hour fearing I would be eaten by a bear. I had some real anxiety about being alone on a mountain trail. Being so early there were very few other hikers and the forest rose thick around me, broken only by hundreds of feet of vertical cliff face. But I had come to gain confidence in my ability to be alone, to travel alone, to confront whatever demons were contained inside solitude. An hour in I had stopped worrying about the bears. My breath filled my body, my muscles were warm and I was moving steadily. At the three hour mark I caught my first glimpse of Garabaldi Lake and I think I may sworn aloud because it was just so otherworldly. There was this pristine turquoise body of water surrounded by the remnants of the winter's snow. I had to trudge through rotting logs and slush to get to a bridge overlooking the water. The air was perfectly clear and the distant mountains stood out starkly against the morning sky. I sat there for a half hour staring and trying not to think about my trek back down to the parking lot. I think I conquered something on that hike and it wasn't just my own body which I forced to work its way up the mountain, it was something more subtle, something that had to do with a deep seated fear of becoming lost alone in the wild.

I half fell, half ran back down the mountain making it back to the parking lot in about 2 hours. I had blisters all over my feet and the gleam of my car was almost as stunning in that moment as the gleam of the lake. I stumbled into my car and made it back to the retreat centre in time for lunch.

The rest of my stay was spent engaged in serious relaxation. I would rise for breakfast, read until lunch, go for a short walk around the grounds, write until dinner, then go back to my cabin to read and write some more until bedtime. It was amazing to have such long hours for rest, reflection, and uninterrupted lounging. I spent the weekend reading a book on writing called Ensouling Language by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I felt like it was talking to my soul. I felt like I was seeing directly into the creative process for the first time in my life. Buhner discusses the concept of notitia or "the attentive noticing of the soul" which allows a person to reach out and touch the things around them with a sort of non-physical, soul-oriented touch and suddenly see into the essence of those things. This is, according to Buhner, what allows the writer to understand and communicate great truths.

So I spent much of my weekend practicing the art of notitia. I let myself reach out to touch the "emotional tone" of nature around me and tried to forget my tired ideas about what things are and how they operate in relation to me. In this state I took some pictures of the things around me, trying to see something new in them:

Birch. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014.

Driftwood. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014.
It's a good meditation, and I recommend it. It's something I hope to practice more, allowing my writing to become informed by a deep sort of noticing that transcends the physical shape of things and gets at something closer to the core.

When I had to come back to my life I experienced some brief culture shock. Even three days away were enough to make me forget the chaos of my daily life. When I stepped in the door my life came crashing down on me as if it had been piling up to the ceiling in my absence. Into my mind flooded knowledge of bills to be paid, and toilets to clean, and lunches to make, and groceries to buy, and a million little things needing my attention. Notitia was drowned under minutia. Yet I had a chance to get in touch with the wilderness, if only briefly, and I had an opportunity to see differently for three short days. It was worth it to have that respite. I can carry it with me into my harried days and also recognize that occasional trips to the mountains are not just luxuries but necessities.  This is the second year in which I have gone on retreat and I believe it needs to be an annual tradition--an opportunity to, in the words of Buhner, "travel into the wilderness and bring back meaning in buckets made of words, to give it as drink to the thirsty, to slake the thirst of those who have lived isolated too long inside their own houses, to give them the living experience of wild water" (87).

Recharging with Tea. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014.