Saturday, 27 June 2015

Garden Guru

Last week, a local newspaper carried a story about a woman who discovered 4 large goldfish swimming in her pond. She and her husband had never, ever seen fish in it before. Then they remembered that a visiting friend had emptied a baggie of tiny goldfish into the pond – 4 years earlier! All those years, the fish had been dallying about under the pond vegetation, growing and thriving, and were finally ready to show themselves!

Now there’s a life lesson in that story, if you want to excavate it. Something along the lines of “There’s a lot more brewing under the surface of things than you are aware of. It will all be revealed, if you are patient.”

It reminded me that the garden can teach us many things. We have a garden behind our home, one that we started from scratch when we moved here in 2007. The yard was a blank canvas, and we went to work on it with gusto. Now it's a jungle or a paradise, depending on your point of view.

Sometimes, we’ve grown things we didn’t intend to grow. Sunflowers, calendulas, tomatoes and fennel are very good at volunteering to grow all by themselves, from seeds that fell to the ground unnoticed last year. This year we’ve discovered that those squash seeds we carefully composted have come back to haunt us. We have a couple of squash plants growing in the front yard, and one is even growing out of the compost bin. I think there's a lesson in this, too, but I'll let you puzzle on that.

In our garden we have perennial beds and a lovely vegie garden. It’s been an extremely productive garden: this week we’re eating our own potatoes, lettuce, peas, and berries: boysenberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries...

Ah, yes: the blueberries. If you ever need to get taken down a peg or two, blueberries are a great antidote to the “Look what a beautiful, productive garden I’ve created!” syndrome. The problem is the robins. We’ve had robins in our strawberries in other years, but this year they discovered that blueberries are just so much easier to access. Without even asking for permission, they landed on the pea fence to survey the possibilities. "Well, would you look at that! Our own private grocery store. Oh, Mamma, this is going to be good," says Sir Robin to his wifey.

Well, the resident sweetie was not amused. Out he went, shooing them away. “If I do this enough times, they’ll get the message,” was his reasoning. Right. These robins weren’t reasonable birds. We watched them fly in, as though they were getting landing instructions from the traffic controllers at  Pearson International airport – one after the other, bearing off our precious fruits. Sometimes they even got greedy and took two or three at a time. Clearly, we would need to do something more drastic.

String old cassette tapes around your bushes – the shiny fluttering will scare them off, we were told. Didn't work. So we visited the Dollar Store and came away with pie plates, streamers, and a colourful whirlygig. The pie plates and neon orange streamers are fluttering above the bushes, while the whirligig turns round and round. “Oh, you changed the decor,” say the robins. “For us? Oh, you shouldn’t have.” Then they do their grocery shopping, and fly off without even a wave of their wings.

Grrr. Gardeners tell us we could bring a radio into the blueberry patch and that might scare off the birds, but I don’t have a lot of hope. We’d probably play the music the birds just love, and next thing you know, they’d be organizing a dance and inviting the neighbourhood hooligans. So we caved: we decided to live with it. We still get blueberries, just not quite as many. There are some things that you just have to accept; fighting for our blueberries is  not the hill we want to die on.
Which reminds me of something I’ve read by Thomas Moore, a Jungian psychologist who has written much about the human condition. He says we all have personal “robins in the bushes”: traits and shortcomings that we’d rather not have. "I shouldn't be so judgmental ... impatient ... so undisciplined. I should be neater ... read more ..."  (you fill in the blank.) And we tell ourselves that we will work on those faults, and when we conquer them, then, THEN life will be so much better. We try a lot of things, but nothing seems to work. Who are we kidding? There’s nobody perfect – we may think we are little more perfect than the next person, but then, that’s our foible. Moore says that we might be better off recognizing that we have our shadow sides. Instead of fighting our flaws , perhaps we can use our energies more profitably in positive directions. The flaw is what makes us human, and perhaps a little more humble. This is not saying that we should never attempt to root out deep spiritual faults that impact our families and our own happiness. But the things that bug us about ourselves may be the traits that make us who we are (just as the robins' antics are part of the life of the garden.)

I don't know how you feel about that -- when I first read this idea by Moore, I was taken aback. Not strive for perfection? Accept yourself, warts and all, and move on? Isn't that heretical in the great self-improvement drive that our culture has become, and that many spiritual traditions also promote? But as I think more and more about it, I'm beginning to agree.

Something to think about: another lesson from the garden, brought to us this week by the robins.

The elves have done it again: this is what our little tree in the woods looks like now. Happy Canada Day, everyone!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Just a walk in the woods?

Last week I wrote about antsiness and questions. This week I ponder wholeness, or rather, the quest for wholeness.

Oy vay, that sounds heavy. Yes, but...I hope you’ll stick with me while I explore this subject. Last week, I wasn’t sure whether I should post my blog. It felt so ... so ... unfinished. But your responses were astounding. It seems that, in sharing some of my own experiences, you were able to say, “Yeah! Me too!”  Many of you are on the same journey I am on, and isn’t that reassuring? We can help each other.

This  is what I intended when I began this blog: to explore topics of life and growth for people “of a certain age” – and that includes spiritual questions.

Spiritual: a very popular word these days. If you want to sell anything  – books,
 art, retreats, home decor, conferences, magazines, pottery, even clothing
–  just add a whiff of spirituality. Put a butterfly on a scarf, a swirl on a pair of running shoes, crystals on an ornament, and the words “inner growth” on reading materials or conference names, and you’ll get the hungering masses interested.

That’s you and me, folks, because we’re all hungering for wholeness and the answer to the meaning of life. Sometimes, we think we’ve found it, then something happens that knocks our spiritual socks off and we start all over again.

I checked out what “spiritual” really means. The spirit, Wikipedia tells me, is the “animating or vital principle in man and animals” originating in the Latin word for breath. The scripture narrative says that the Creator breathed into the "dust of the ground" and formed a living creature. Traditionally the goal of a spiritual life has been to become more and more closely aligned with the image that God created within us, and which, over the course of life’s experiences, gets banged and bruised out of shape. At least, that’s my take. I don't know how many church fathers are rolling over in their graves as they read this, but I think St. Ireneus is cheering. He said, "The glory of God is a person fully alive."

And so we adopt spiritual practices (or habits, or disciplines -- choose your own word) to help us become more closely conformed to all that we could be, connected to all of creation, and in harmony with God and mankind. (Again: my interpretation.) There are many practices we can adopt to move us along on our spiritual journey: prayer, study of sacred texts, silence, belonging to a community of faith, meditation, social action, worship, walking ...

Walking? Who knows what will bring each of us closer to our Creator? For some of you, it could be biking, or gardening, or taking care of your goldfish. I’ve tried, and stuck to, and sometimes discarded, many practices. I was taught some as a child, but as I matured, I discovered for myself  other practices that also helped me grow. Now I count walking and journaling and creating art as important items in  my spiritual toolkit. When I took stock of my antsiness last week, I realized that I had been neglecting walking and journaling – and so I began again. It’s early days, but I can say that the restlessness is settling down. So I'll share some photos of a walk I took this week.

The path beckons ...

I cross the bridge, and immediately enter a different world. I call it my cathedral. Time slows, and I breathe deeply.

The music in this cathedral is the sound of rushing water and birdsong. "All nature sings, and round me rings, the music of the spheres."  The incense is the scent of growing things, flowers, warm earth.
I walk in a community of old and young plants, the young growing out of the old, integrally connected, and I am part of this community too.

I stand here, totally surrounded, close my eyes, all the better to listen. Amazing what you hear and feel when you stop. Just stop.

Looking up is good, too. How small we are, and yet how important in the Creator's eyes.

There's a season to everything in the woods. This week it's the week that  Ocean Spray blooms.

Take a close look. Amazing! Thousands of blossoms in each bunch, each with dozens of fuzzy stamens, each blossom having a purpose in the grand scheme of things. I am speechless.

It's time to return

to the world of sidewalks, garbage pails, fences and trucks and light poles. And this too is good.

A friend this week mentioned the phrase “being strong at the core” – yes! That's what questing for wholeness is all about, and it's what spiritual practices help us do. It’s what we need in order to tackle the questions, to love the questions, and to live into the answers.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Into the Future

I’ve been feeling a bit antsy lately. “Wanna go out?” asks the resident sweetie.  Maybe. Stay in? Perhaps. Read? Do some art? Write? Maybe, perhaps, possibly, it’s an idea, could be ... but probably not. When I’m antsy, I dabble, pick up things, put them down. The thing I want is just down the road, if only I could put my finger on it.

Maybe the reason for this restlessness is my birthday. Often such milestones have been times of  reflection, resulting in  new ideas, or a project that fills me with renewed passion and excitement. At 65, I began this blog, for instance, after much reflection and visioning. Creating this art piece helped me make that decision.

Self portrait at 65
Last year, as I approached my birthday, I was wondering whether to continue my blog. When I realized I was doing what I loved, I felt great delight.

Self Portrait at 66: no spring chicken, but still dancing.
I figure there should be some big reveal in the offing for this birthday. But so far, that’s not happening.

Instead, I have questions, many questions, about my life thus far, about blogging and art, about relationships and living life and growing spiritually. I have questions about the sorry state of our earth and wonder what I should be doing. Or is it too late? And what about politics and religion and truth and all those horrific stories on the news begging for action? Where should my energies go at this stage in my life? On and on and on, new questions around every corner. I want answers, and I want them now, but nothing's happening. No booming voice or tiny whisper, no finger pointing me in the direction I should go.

So I turn to my good and trusty friend Google, who often has deep wisdom to share with questors. And there I find Parker Palmer’s  January 1 blog for the program On Being ( He quotes a poem by Anne Hillman:

“We look with uncertainty
    beyond the old choices for
    clear-cut answers ...
    We stand at a new doorway,
    awaiting that which comes…”

Yes! Exactly. But Palmer doesn’t tell me how to find the answers, either. Instead, he points me to another quote, this time by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote this in a letter to a young poet:

 …I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Really? LOVE the questions, with all the attending uncertainty and antsiness and restlessness? And what does that even mean, to LIVE the questions?

I puzzle and ponder on these words, and this is what I came up with. Love the questions, because questions are signs of growth. Love the questions because they are like locked rooms which you want to get into, so you dig deep and search hard for the key. In so doing you will find purpose in your life. Love the questions that are like books written in a foreign language – if you love those questions, you’ll put in the effort to learn the language that will reveal what the books say. And in so doing, I realize, I will be living the questions, and they will lead me to the answers. Or maybe not. Perhaps the answers aren't important; it’s all about the questions.

I wish I could say this pondering and these explanations bring relief from the antsiness. Alas, not so. Just because I accept that questions are good things, that restlessness is a process I will have to live through, doesn't mean I like it! I still need to learn to love the questions. I can see change coming down the road, but I don't see its shape or form. I don't like that. But then again, it's not all about me, is it?

Says Parker Palmer, “We look with uncertainty to the year ahead. But if we wrap our lives around life-giving questions — and live our way into their answers a bit more every day — the better world we want and need is more likely to come into being.” Thank you, sir, I needed that.

I was going to share my latest art creation with you, a self-portrait at 67. Sorry, it’s not finished. I’m not ready to finish it, either, because I am living the questions, and I realize the questions are an important part of the portrait. There’s me, the white crow (I’m no longer dipping into the hair dye pot these days) and I’m flying with threads that I want to add to the tapestry that is the world. But which threads? And where do I lay them down? And ... oh, more questions.

Instead, I leave you with this photo I found on the internet. The child reminds me that there is great joy to be found in the quest if we but look for it. Perhaps I will learn to love the questions, and live them. At any rate, I’m thankful to be rolling on into the future, still questioning. You too?

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Beyond Awesome

Who knows what sometimes gets your brain in a tangle? For me, it started when a friend posted a New York Times article on Facebook about awe.

Awe, said the researchers, consists of two qualities: a sense of vastness – something we think to be greater than ourselves – and a need to reconfigure our mind to include this experience. Often, an experience of awe is transformative; we see the world through different lenses.

People in the studies who experienced awe had an expanded sense of time, were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and preferred good experiences over material goods. Awe also aids creativity, gives us hope, makes us more empathetic, and helps us appreciate life.

It was all very good, a very important topic. I needed to get me some of that awe, I thought, and I wondered how I could do this every day in my own life. But something else was getting in the way. 

It was the word awesome. It is very hard to get serious about awe when the word awesome is floating about so freely.

Bar patron 1: Hey, dude, you spilled beer on my cell phone.
Bar patron 2: Awesome!

Teenager to friend: Shudda seen the awesome zit on my face this morning. I squeezed it. Yuk.
Friend: Awesome!

Teenybopper: I was like shopping in like Forever21 ...
BFF: like, awesome! ...
Teenybopper: yeah, cool, and I saw like the most awesome leggings, and like, I bought ‘em.
BFF: Awesome.

There’s a website called that posts a new AWESOME thing every day, and invites readers to add to the list. Things like  #951: hearing a stranger fart in public (catching a business man doing the deed while riding an express elevator to the 98th floor is the most TOTALLY awesome; he can't hide!) and #871: finding out that your birthday will be on a Friday or Saturday. Mine is – this week, even. Awesome!

Oh dear. No wonder there’s a movement afoot to ban the word awesome from the English language. That, and its sister AMAZING, its British cousin BRILLIANT, and baby brother Freakin’ Cool. These are amazingly, awesomely, brilliantly overused words that are no longer freakin’ cool. Are you with me, dude?

The sign reads: "The campaign to stamp out AWESOME starts here. Please try to restrict usage of this nauseatingly ubiquitous and by now completely meaningless superlative to those of us who are under the age of 12."
Actually, I like the word awesome, but in proper context. I’m not so sure that finding 40 minutes left on the parking meter, or picking up the last available barbecue on special is so awesome – although I will admit that I used the word when I counted the change that fell out of our jeans when I did the laundry: $20.20. Awesome! (Oops.)

But these delightful experiences, fun as they are, are not the stuff that inspires me to think of transcendence, causing me to rejig my view of the world. For that, I need to slow down, open my eyes, and really, really look at the world. When I sit with my morning coffee, I look outside our dining room window and watch the bees flying in and out of the individual bells of the foxglove flowers. In and out, in and out, collecting food, making their way back to the hive to feed babies they’ll never see. Now that’s awesome.

The bees wouldn't pose for this picture, but you get the idea!

I need to lay on my back outdoors on a summer night, far from the city lights, and stare up at the sky, knowing that billions of years ago, stars exploded, creating what I see – and then I remember Joni Mitchell singing, “We are stardust...” We are connected to this vast galaxy, sharing “stuff”. Wow!

photo courtesy Flickr
A poem that takes my breath away with its clarity and beauty; a piece of music that brings tears to my eyes; a child sharing his last Smarties with a friend who has none; a frail elderly couple holding hands as they take their evening walk past our house; a generous teacher sharing her skills and wisdom freely, without compensation ... the list goes on. Awesome!

This week, I wish for you, and for me, experiences of awe that fill our souls with wonder.