Sunday, July 27, 2014

Following My Heart

I’ve been preoccupied these past two weeks with the final edits on a creative non-fiction piece I am entering it into a contest. The essay is about finding my mom’s ashes thirty years after her death. While the writing of it was a journey and the editing, at times, epic, this story is also the culmination of my grieving process. Not to say that I have relinquished all my feelings about mom’s passing but I think I have finally come through the more intense parts. Then again, who knows? Losing a parent at any age continues to have direct and indirect ramifications in one’s life regardless of how much therapy, talking and writing one does. Their death becomes a reference point—a delineation of life where events are characterized by either happening before or after. Life changes, sometimes dramatically, and writing has been a tremendous gift in helping me transform the emotional shades of death into the creative process.

But coming back to this piece I am writing. Last week I sent the article to five people for a look over before submission.  Except for one, my readers were a somewhat homogenous group in terms of age, gender, education, travel experience, birth country and social consciousness. With this in mind I expected their critical eye to captures more or less the same flaws. Wrong. Oh, there were a couple of glaring ones that everyone caught but other than that these friends found very different things on which to make comment.

In reflection I see this process as a metaphor for life.  First, no matter what our similarities, we are all individuals with unique perspectives and interests. The differences may be subtle but nothing looks, feels or sounds quite the same as what the person next to us is seeing, feeling or hearing. From this angle I marvel how we manage to communicate our deepest thoughts and, for that matter, sometimes do it quite well.  My friend, Carla Webb at Empowered by Horses uses horses to help people learn more about effective communication. Her work drives home the need for patience and compassion when trying to get a point across and, more importantly, when listening to another, especially one from a different culture and language. With writing, the challenge increases. Here there is no body language, facial expression or intonation of speech. It’s just ink on paper ready to be interpreted at will. This is where I learn humility. I cannot force others to see what I see or feel what I do. Sometimes I just have to face the fact that I don't yet have the skill to portray what I want. I trust that skill will come but, until then, I can do  justice to the process by following my heart as it manifests on the page.  

Second, this editing process reminds me of some excellent advice I once received from a professional writer, Pamela Mandel. She said that while it was good for me to get outside suggestions, at the end of the day the story will have my name on it. Take only what feels right for you, she said. In my training with The ARC Institute, we talked of this same process as coming into Self or coming into leadership of who we are and where we are going. In ARC the focus was on our internal parts—different aspects of who we are.  These parts, just like my readers, all have unique perspectives on life, different desires and needs. Parts of me, for example, may want to eat another piece of chocolate cake, run naked down the street or quit my job, sometimes all at the same time. And, while it’s a good idea to acknowledge and listen to these disparate inner parts, decisions still have to be made that benefit the whole. It is up to my Self to take leadership and direct me towards the safest, healthiest or heart-centred route. While that may still mean having second helpings of desert, it won’t be done unless the whole of me (and, if appropriate, my community) is considered.

So, that is what I did. Over the last few days I considered the excellent suggestions I received: I incorporated some, revised others and deleted the rest. Some ideas I had to sit with for a while, searching deep inside to see where my truth lay and with others, it was more of a question of whether it my style of writing that needed clarity or just one reader's unique slant on things.

Regardless, as said above, all I can do is follow my heart and see where it goes.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Little Sparrow

There is nothing like a little house sparrow perched on your shoulder to knock the melancholy out of you… but I will get to that story in a bit. Let’s start with the previous day.

Yesterday, I was supposed to go to my high school reunion. I am always ambivalent about these kinds of events. Those years were not my fondest. Between desperate attempts to be cool (and falling flat) and family issues that I could never quite get the grasp of, life just didn’t reflect the fun times of Riverdale High (or Ridgemont High for that matter!). On top of that, I don’t do well in groups. Oh, I’ll facilitate a class with glee but being part of gathering puts me on edge. I didn’t go.

Instead, I walked around Kitsilano, my old neighbourhood. Growing up it was a working class district interlaced with a heavy dose of Greek culture (especially on Broadway) and a hippie way of life on fourth. Now it’s the centre of, well, the “centred”, or those who try to be. It’s filled with alternative health clinics, yoga boutiques, trendy clothing stores and a bounty of all-things organic. Despite this (or maybe because of this), even after 34 years, it still feels like home in this weird parallel universe kind of way.

At the corner of Broadway and MacDonald I looked to the northeast and spied where once stood my old house. All that remains now is its ghost but right there, three houses from the corner was where I spent eighteen years. Most of the old buildings, at least on that block, have been torn down and replaced. It no longer resembles the extra long "front yard" of tolerant neighbours where my brothers once played football. I walked around the back to the laneway, to get what I hoped, a glimpse of the past.

And oh, such wonder! The alley is exactly how I remembered it. Perfect in every detail from the potholes to the crooked backyard fences stacked all in a row. This was home turf. We played variations of baseball from Cherry to HotBox, kick-the-can, hide-and-go-seek, and sped our mustang bicycles (one speed, of course) up and down the laneways, matching and beating times set by our siblings and friends. Our house had the perfect spot of being the centre of a T intersection for two alleys—we could see all the way down to Fourth Avenue from the back porch. It was there my mom watched me come home for lunch from General Gordon Elementary and there she would try to warn me when Stephen K was waiting behind some corner to jump out and scare me.

A woman putting out her garbage listened while I reminisced. She said, “they wanted to pave this alley.”  In horror I exclaimed, “no!” “Well,” she said, “it is bad but paving would have just invited the dumpster divers with their buggies. Best to leave it the way it is.” (Thank god for suburban fears!) Then she gave me four raspberries right off the canes. Memory lane pays off.

Other joys, although none so good as my alley, was seeing the White Spot and Dairy Queen still standing. Although I could almost taste the Chickin' Pickins and Banana Splits of  my youth, I bypassed both for the new (well, new for me) Thomas Haas Chocolatier and settled down with a perfect way to end a perfect walk: Classic Hot Chocolate.

But somehow, despite the pleasures received the evening before, I woke up this morning feeling out of sorts. Melancholy of the worst kind, in fact. Perhaps it was the revisiting of old haunts on top of writing a story about finding my mom’s ashes but I was twisted into an awful knot. I went for the cure: a hike in the forest.

Up 21st Street I strode to get to the trailhead. About 15 minutes on my route I spied a small sparrow. He was sitting on the sidewalk, half way between a seven foot high fence and a busy roadway. As the fence was about twenty-five meters long I had to conclude it had fallen from a nest. I got closer. He didn’t fly away. In fact, he got closer to me, gathering shelter, it seemed from my foot. This didn’t seem good. I looked up for a sign of a nest but the branches betrayed no home for wayward birds. I looked down the street and back up it; out to the sky and across the way, waiting, hoping, for some angry momma bird to swoop down and tell me to let things be. Nothing stirred except the seemingly endless stream of traffic heading for the freeway. I called Wildlife Rescue, left a message and then made, what any wannabe rescuer would do, a decision.

“Well, little bird,” I said, “guess you are coming home with me.” I brought my hand down to cup him. He jumped on my finger instead. Okay, then. I stood up and back home we went. When I thought it might be better for him to be sheltered in my hat, he ruffled his feathers in rejection and jumped on my shoulder. Okay, then. I walked home with a sparrow on my back who ever so often let loose a beautiful song.

I got to my apartment, went up the elevator and let myself in just when the rescue people called. “Well,” they said, “he doesn’t sound injured. Our guess is that he is a fledgling and just learning to fly. They hop around on the ground for a few days with mom sparrow watching out but cutting the apron strings bit by bit.” “In other words,” I said, “I just took him away from home.” “Yeah,” she said.

Meanwhile, the little sparrow, seemingly content, stayed perched on my shoulders. He never seemed stressed and, in fact, if I was to anthropomorphize the little guy, seemed to enjoy the whole thing: big adventure and all that. Back outdoors we went with him at the nape of my neck singing the occasional trill. Fifteen minutes later I scooped him off my shoulders and placed him under some bushes about ten meters down from where I originally found him. He didn’t seem especially pleased leaving the sanctuary of my collar. Then again, maybe it was just the height he enjoyed, being flightless and all that. Kind of sat there dumbfounded for a bit while I told him to be careful of crows and furry creatures. I then sprinkled some millet seeds on the ground in case he was hungry and we said our goodbyes.When I returned an hour later, my little guy had bounded off, hopefully to some other grand adventure.

And lo and behold my melancholy was gone.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Crazy-Moon Nights


At the end of a crazy-moon night
the love of God rose.
I said: “It’s me, Lalla.”

This poem, one of my favourites, was written by 14thc. Kashmir mystic, Lal Ded (Lalla). It speaks of a personal relationship with Spirit; a passion for living and a deep seated trust in life.

It’s been many nights, perhaps years, of crazy-moons. Yet still, with each dawn, I am blessed. Trust, so long without, deepens with each awakening.

I find my way home in light and laughter.