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.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Imaginal World

I need to tell you about Imaginal Discs, because they might just be the metaphor that can unlock the experience of personal transformation. The butterfly has long been a representation of the human soul, rebirth, resurrection, and metamorphosis. The metaphor is a bit worn out, until you dig into the details of a butterfly's biological reality. Things are far more traumatic, violent, and ultimately powerful than you might think. We tend to believe that caterpillars crawl into their cocoons, sprout some wings, and emerge a butterfly, but this is a very simplistic description of the process.

Consider this--a caterpillar contains within it a two complete sets of DNA, one for the caterpillar and another for the butterfly it will eventually become. The DNA for the butterfly is contained in dormant groups of cells located throughout the caterpillar's body, called imaginal discs. The imaginal discs eventually "switch on" and begin to impose their biology on the caterpillar as it lies inside the chrysalis. The caterpillar's immune system fights this apparent threat, but eventually loses. The caterpillar's body is liquefied by a digestive enzyme and from the protein rich soup the imaginal cells reorganize into a butterfly. Amazingly the butterfly seems to retain some neurological information from the caterpillar, so while it seems that the caterpillar is completely gone it continues to exist in a small way inside the brand new creature it has become. In terms of a way to imagine the postpartum process I have never encountered a richer metaphor.

Because I have, like the caterpillar, imaginal discs embedded under my skin--a second DNA code that contains everything I might be, everything I am destined to become. I was comfortable with my old self--the single self, the academic self, the woman who never aspired to be a mother. I wanted to birth books, essays, knowledge, and literary sensibility.

But underneath my skin the imaginal discs were at work dreaming me an entirely different future. I got married, I got pregnant, and my son was born in the cold light of February. As he took his first breaths I dissolved. The Mother Self fed on my liquid remains and I descended into an Underworld to confront Death and wondered if I would ever return. Guided by Persephone and Inanna I learned how to be dismembered and reassembled. I grieved for my lost self and struggled against the Imaginal potential, clawing at the growing stumps of wings that burned and wounded. I railed against motherhood as the caterpillar rails against the invasive butterfly body superimposing itself. I wanted to reject the Mother Self who was so cruelly displacing the comfort of my pupal body. I clung to the simplicity of my life and was tormented by the suddenness of love when I held my infant son for the first time and knew that I would die for him. I carried the knowledge of my willing sacrifice like a million crosses and I did die for him, but in all the wrong ways. I died to joy; I died to self-love and to play and awe; I died to everything but the persistent demands of my child who devoured me.

But eventually I woke up and I saw my new body for the first time. I saw its beauty. I saw its lightness and began to feed myself again, learning to balance my own needs with those of my son. I feel now that I am coming out on the far end of transformation, the far end of postpartum depression. I cling to the branch of my life with wings too wet and heavy for flight, but I can feel the sun on me now. I can feel an unfurling and I wonder what I look like under all the slime and dead cells of that disintegrated self. I want to know what I am now and see what work I am suited to do in this world.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Animal Inside

I have been thinking a lot about the wilderness of soul; about the animal heart that beats in me, craving blood and the shadow-light of a full moon. I have been reading the poetry of Susan Musgrave--a woman who clearly feels the claws of a suppressed creatures scratching at her rib cage, looking for an exit. In "Night Hawk" she writes:

All night the 
deep bird inside me
circles the
gripped skin. At times in the 
cold light
he edges fire.

Musgrave seems to live in a place of darkness, the gestating coolness of the earth. She sees the value in hidden places, in the regeneration that can only exist as the bedfellow of death. From "The Herd":

No one would come here,
to this place; light is cold and
water is too deep for swimmers.
No one yet has been able to find me
nor would enter willingly these spaces, clear
and dark where I, like roots, find
upward from the edges that I am somewhere
nearer myself.
The darkness moves, not around
but into me. I might be here
forever, one moment might
hold me to the ground or shake me
from becoming anything else.

I rip away clothes and civilized graces to see the greasy fur underneath. The musk-smell of something untamed, untameable. I am wary of poachers. The Animal Self is vulnerable, endangered. Yet I risk it all and raise my face to the sky to howl, passionately, at even a hint of moon.  

Image Credit Unknown.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Being a Raccoon

There is little I love more than putting on a ridiculous costume and going out in public. My husband thinks that's weird, but it can't be helped. I'm not sure when it started but I do know that in the 9th grade I had drama class before shop class and I would often go to shop class in my costumes from drama class, claiming that I hadn't had time to change even though this wasn't entirely true. I would then do my woodworking and welding dressed as a fairy, or a clown, or an impersonation of one of my teachers. There's something so liberating about acquiring a new skin, something that allows you to access the souls of things that exist outside of you.

So when the Museum of Vancouver announced an animal and plant themed dance party in conjunction with their Rewilding Vancouver Exhibit, I bought a ticket immediately. The intent was for guests to dress up as local flora and fauna to celebrate the wilderness that lives alongside us in our mountain city.

I was having trouble deciding what to dress up as, until I found Vancouver local costumer Shagpoke Studios on Etsy and discovered that she makes the world's most amazing animal tails. The raccoon tail just had to be mine, so I ordered one and then got to work needle felting some ears to go along with it. I then made the sad mistake of using liquid eyeliner to draw "fur" on my face. Turns out that's a bitch to get off. Nonetheless, a fun evening was had by all. I danced, stared into the glass eyes of the museum's collection of taxidermied animals, was especially spooked by the grizzly bear that looked as if it could break through the case and eat me, and generally carried on as a raccoon at a party might (I also took a quick poke through the garbage, just for the sake of realism. The friend who accompanied me to the party has photographic evidence of this). My husband stayed home. Ostensibly because someone needed to watch our kid, but mostly, I suspect, to avoid seeing me shaking my tail in public.


Here's me on a fence. Because I'm pretty sure raccoons like to hang out on top of fences.


A close up of the impossible to remove make-up and my needle felted ears.


Hiding amidst the honeysuckle. Again, because I feel like that is a raccoon thing to do.


And one serious portrait of my raccoon-self, complete with amazingly luxurious tail. I worried that I might run into real raccoons on the way to the party and that they might be jealous. Thankfully I didn't have any encounters except with the taxidermy raccoon at the museum. He looked at me askance but was unable to comment.

Monday, April 21, 2014

No Option of Dying

Kim Thuy's book Ru gives the reader a story in stream of consciousness form. The word Ru means stream in French and lullaby in Vietnamese. Thuy uses the word in both ways simultaneously, presenting interconnected prose poems that glisten on the page like tears, and sing sad, quiet songs. The narrator's conflicted relationship with her mother and with motherhood stands out as particularly poignant. Of motherhood the narrator says "It's my children who taught me the verb to love, who have defined it. If I had known what it meant to love, I wouldn't have had children, because once we love, we love forever, like Uncle Two's wife, Step-aunt Two, who can't stop loving her gambler son, the son who is burning up the family fortune like a pyromaniac" (103).

Later she says "I never had any questions except the one about the moment when I would die. I should have chosen the moment before the arrival of my children, for since then I've lost the option of dying. The sharp smell of their sun-baked hair, the smell of sweat on their backs when they wake from a nightmare, the dusty smell of their  hands when they leave a classroom, meant that I have to live, to be dazzled by the shadow of their eyelashes, moved by a snowflake, bowled over by a tear on their cheek. My children have given me the exclusive power to blow on a wound to make the pain disappear, to understand words unpronounced, to possess the universal truth, to be a fairy" (113).

And so it is that to love your child is not so much a feeling but an eternal impulse, a constant action. Loving my son is an all encompassing, perpetual thing. It is not a choice, not something I work at, but something that lives in me like another organ next to my heart. And as Thuy's narrator so eloquently expresses, this love is not always a gift. It can be heavy, it can rip you to shreds, it can lead to the most extraordinary outbursts of rage, because no matter what your child does  you cannot stop loving them, and that knowledge is a hard thing to carry. Think of the mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin who finds that she loves her child even as he sits before her in prison, a convicted murderer. Containing such a love means facing the full catastrophe. It has its own neural network that plugs in to your mind, your body. It allows you to experience great tenderness but only if you are willing to experience great pain, only if you are willing to be horrified by the violence of your emotional landscape.

It is cliche to say that we live again through the eyes of our children. Thuy turns this cliche upside-down and writes that the arrival of children removes "the option of dying." It's easier, sometimes, to let ourselves die to the world, to allow ourselves to become numb, unresponsive, unseeing. As a parent you no longer have the option of dying. A child makes everything hyper-present. Every experience is intensified, every tear is a symbol of the greatest hurt, every outburst is a wail of unparalleled grief, every smile reflects the most expansive joy and wonder. It is exhausting to confront life so magnified. And any parent could be forgiven for saying, "I didn't know it would be like this. Please just let me close my eyes for a moment, shut out the cacophony, retreat to a dull and colourless dream where the edges of the world become hazy and indistinct." When does beauty become so sharp that it turns to pain? When does elation spill over into despair? My son shows me that the line between them is an illusion. In him every experience, every emotion lives untempered by the social systems that will eventually wear the mountains of feeling down into harmless pebbles. He is a daily storm that leaves me raw with love, stripped down to the bone. When the narrator of Thuy's book says that "If I had known what it meant to love, I wouldn't have had children," this is not a statement of regret. She clearly does not regret the presence of her boys, but she expresses the crushing weight of forever, of being under the control of a love more powerful than any other force in the universe. This is not regret but awe. How is it that a person so small brings the entire universe with him when he is born? He carries it like the compressed matter of a baby star, drawing in everything that dares to enter its gravitational field.

Collecting. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Necessity of Self Care

I have been reflecting on a blog post that I recently read in the context of the Buddhist philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh writes that:

So in taking care of yourself, you take good care of your beloved one. Self-love is the foundation for your capacity to love the other person. If you don't take good care of yourself, if you are not happy, if you are not peaceful, you cannot make the other person happy. You cannot help the other person; you cannot love. Your capacity for loving another person depends entirely on your capacity for loving yourself, for taking care of yourself”

This applies so deeply to motherhood where the insistence upon martyrdom is still strong. I was recently reading a blog post by a mother who was reflecting upon the challenges of parenting and attempting to cast the struggle as a duty and, ultimately, a blessing. The writer suggests that being a mother is the greatest and most wonderful thing, and that nothing in her life will ever be better than being constantly needed. She suggests that when her children leave her life will be empty and meaningless. You can find the entire article HERE.

One of the statements in the article that disturbed me greatly reads as follows:

“The sooner I can accept that being Mommy means that I never go off the clock, the sooner I can find peace in this crazy stage of life.   That ‘Mommy’ is my duty, privilege and honor. I am ready to be there when somebody needs me, all day and all night.  Mommy means I just put the baby back down after her 4am feeding when a 3-year-old has a nightmare.  Mommy means I am surviving on coffee and toddler leftovers.  Mommy means my husband and I haven’t had a real conversation in weeks.  Mommy means I put others’ needs before my own, without a thought.  Mommy means that my body is full of aches and my heart is full of love.”

In the context of Thich Nhat Hanh's theory of the essential practice of self-love, the above paragraph hints at nothing less than self-abuse. No one should be living a life where they “never go off the clock.” Even mothers should be able to carve out time alone when someone else is caring for their children and they are pursuing their own interests. If you are “surviving on coffee and toddler leftovers” then you are not nourishing your own body with healthy food, and that can only mean depletion and sickness down the road. If you are not talking to your husband then your relationship will suffer greatly. As co-parents it is essential that you maintain your relationship, even in the chaos of a house full of children. Your marriage is the foundation upon which your family rests and if your marriage suffers so will your children. Especially terrifying is the author's contention that “Mommy means I put others' needs before my own, without a thought.” This is the most damaging and persistent myth out there about parenthood and motherhood in particular. If, as a mother, you never put your own needs first, if you neglect your own health and well-being in favour of the health and well-being of those around you, eventually everyone will suffer. Thich Nhat Hanh so wisely says that you must take care of yourself in order to have the capacity to care for others. Love comes from a place of wellness, not a place of depletion. If you are exhausted, if you are ignoring the desperate plea of your own mind and body for nourishment and healing, then you will grind yourself down to a tiny nub and you will have nothing left to give of yourself.

The author of the blog post also talks about motherhood as being the sole purpose of her life. She states that being needed is what gives her value as a human being:

“I am sure there will come a day when no one needs me.  My babies will all be long gone and consumed with their own lives.  I may sit alone in some assisted living facility watching my body fade away.  No one will need me then.  I may even be a burden.  Sure, they will come visit, but my arms will no longer be their home.  My kisses no longer their cure.  There will be no more tiny boots to wipe the slush from or seat belts to be buckled.  I will have read my last bedtime story, 7 times in a row.  I will no longer enforce time outs.  There will be no more bags to pack and unpack or snack cups to fill.  I am sure my heart will yearn to hear those tiny voices calling out to me, “Mommy, somebody needs you!”

I would like to challenge this vision of the useless old person in a care home. While I will be the first to admit that parenthood is a deeply important job, and while I will agree with the sentiment that there is worth in being a caregiver for small children, I must emphatically disagree with the notion that a woman has no other source of worth. Yes, children will grow up and your role in their lives will change. And while you may not have the power to heal them like you once did I like to hope that your influence will still be valued even as an old woman. I hope my son and I will maintain a relationship that comes to be more and more one of equals. We will, one day, sit together as two adults who might help each other see the world in new ways. As he gains independence it will be important for him to need me less in some ways, but I hope that he will choose to love me still, even when he is long past the point of needing me to bandage his knees and sing him to sleep. I also hope that I will find other ways to express my worth and value to society. There are so many other places that a woman can engage with the world in powerful and meaningful ways. If your children don't need you in the intensive way they did when they were small then certainly someone else in the world does. We have so many opportunities to fight for social justice, to be a voice for the voiceless, to get involved in our families and communities and the structures of our globalized world and help those who are less fortunate. I hope that sitting in your wheelchair at the end of your life thinking that your value ended when your children moved out is not an inevitability. And to assume that no one will “need you” in your advanced age is narrow-minded and ageist. We need our elders. We need their wisdom and the accrued knowledge of their advanced years. We need them to continue to tell their stories to the younger generations so we can all have a sense of our heritage and history.

I can see what this author was trying to achieve. She wants to show the reader the beauty in motherhood. She also wants to vindicate her exhaustion by situating herself as a martyr. But I must argue that this position is damaging. If we encourage women to lose themselves to motherhood, if we keep insisting that martyrdom to our children is the ideal, and the highest work that we can do, then we will continue to condemn mothers and parents in general to a place of insecurity, depletion, and depression. It's important to find joy in the process of motherhood and I appreciate that this author was attempting to do just that. She wants to see beauty in the night-time feedings and the muddy boots. That's a wonderful exercise in mindfulness. But at the same time it is dangerous to live through your children and find worth only by subsuming yourself into their needs. As parents we must live for ourselves as well, feed ourselves, feed our souls and find modes of expression outside of parenthood so that we can model self-care for our children. This is the greatest gift we can give them, and it can only be achieved by sometimes putting ourselves first.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Small Moment of Utter Idiocy

It has become apparent that I am too dependent upon modern technology. I was in my driveway last week attempting to get into my car when I found that the battery in my key fob had died and pressing the "unlock" button to open my car door was no  longer an option. I pressed it a few times hoping to hear that comforting click but the battery was well and truly dead. I stood outside my car feeling a wide range of emotions. The first was bewilderment--"how am I going to get into my car?" I thought in dismay. Thinking about the problem I realized that my husband had another key fob and I could simply go back inside and get it. But this lead to rage--"What if this had happened when I was away from home and didn't have access to another fob? What if my son had been in the car and got locked in? What if I was on my way to somewhere really important and my fob just died, stranding me? Who came up with this stupid system that can fail in such a way that getting into  your car becomes impossible?"

In the midst of my annoyance I was scanning my car door absentmindedly. Suddenly I registered the small detail of a keyhole by the handle. I flipped open the key on my fob (until now used solely for the purpose of turning on the car engine) and realized that the key I held in my hand would very likely fit in the keyhole on my car door and, wonder of wonders, unlock it. And so, I was able to get into my car, now in a state of shock over my own stupidity. When on earth did I forget that physical keys can be used to open car doors? Technology is a scary thing people. The old ways are slipping away. I share this story as a cautionary tale to others so that you won't be caught in public fretting over your inability to get into your car when your fob battery dies.