I’m allowing the idea to enter my head – and body – that a human doesn’t have to be any particular way. Continue reading
It came back to me today, as it has over the years: the story of the girl who did not see the sun.
For me, it’s been the opposite. All we’ve had for two months has been sun. No rain. Not one drop. We’re heading into drought conditions.
As the creeks dry up and the river runs low, as the grass dries and the ants invade the house looking for water, my heart shrivels a bit each day.
Until today. Today, we have rain, and I am out in it.
And I’m thinking of the girl.
I read the story in elementary school; I was maybe eight or nine, so around 1970. The girl lived on a planet where the sun came out once every generation (as I remember it) for two hours. The rest of the time, it rained, it rained hard, the light was grey, the people lived indoors. And they lived for the moment when the rains stopped, the light brightened, and they would all run outside and feel the heat on their skin and the indescribable caress of sun on their faces.
But when it came, the single day of the sun’s two hours, this girl’s classmates locked her in a closet. No one knew she was there but the children who had locked her away. And when they ran outside to play in the sun they forgot about her. No one let her out. She did not see the sun that day, and in my memory of the story, she would not see it in her lifetime.
This was a shocking, poignant, and enrapturing story of yearning, betrayal, remorse, and acceptance. As I remember it (though my memory turns out to be faulty), in her closet, this girl travelled through grief and fear to acceptance and humility, and ultimately embraced her identity as the only person on the planet who had not seen the sun that day.
Sitting on my porch this morning with the rain finally pouring down, the long, steady sound of heavy drops around me, the thick wetness of the air, the rhythmic loud dripping from the eaves, and the grey mid-morning sky, I seem to be right inside that girl and her longing for something unattainable beyond the rain. Yet as I head out in the downpour for my morning run, feeling the coolness on my skin and the wetness on my face, I am deeply grateful to be out in this drenching water, no longer a prisoner of the beating closet of heat and dryness the past weeks have brought.
And because I have WiFi and curiosity, I have just now looked up the story by keywords and found it immediately: All Summer in a Day, by Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954, a story of Margot, nine years old, from Earth, who now lives on Venus where the sun shines once for two hours every seven years. “Only when they sang about the sun and summer did her lips move as she watched the drenched windows.” A thoughtful blogger has posted the story here. After all these years of remembering it as sad and elusively beautiful, of having only pieces of it, of not knowing how to find it again, I’m almost topsy-turvy with how easy it was to rediscover this tale that through the years has shaped my thoughts on a deep level.
Lies and true things
Then this morning, after I wrote my first draft of this piece, came my weekly email digest from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, with an article about Neil Gaiman’s take on Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451.
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
The gist of Maria Popova’s article and her examination of Neil Gaiman’s book, for me, is the question of why stories matter. Why did this story that I read 46 years ago matter to me then, and why does it matter to me now?
But the aboutness of the book, like the aboutness of any book, Gaiman reminds us, is porous and responsive and in constant dynamic interaction with the context of its time, its place, and the locus of circumstances in the reader’s life at the particular moment of reading it.*
At the particular moment of reading All Summer in a Day, I felt, like Margot, an outsider in my school environment. Sensitive and somewhat small, I had friends but I also felt (and was) at risk of being bullied – either on my own account or because I stayed friends with others who were bullied. Unlike Margot, who had seen the sun on Earth, I didn’t particularly know something important the others didn’t know – although the truth of that is a longer story – but once when younger I was locked in the garage by another girl (who denied it) and later for a time I was shunned at school for having a secret written language with a friend at a different school. These happenings made me embrace my outsider identity at the same time that I wanted to be rid of it.
Childhood is confusing like that.
It turns out that Margot in Bradbury’s story did not, as I wrote above, travel through grief and fear to acceptance and humility, and ultimately embrace her identity as the only person on the planet who had not seen the sun that day.
That was all in my head.
The story ends before we know how she acted, and how the others were with her once daily life began again. I created a memory that served me: Margot let me identify with the outsider, but also heal my pain and confusion at this separation from my peers that I thought was unjustified, by creating a false memory of her epiphany in the closet.
Popova quotes Gaiman:
Ideas, written ideas, are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our ideas from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.*
This story was powerful for me because it was a tale of what could happen if a world’s shared history was lost; a story of jealousy and remorse; a story where ambivalence and thoughtlessness led to the unthinkable, but as is clear when Margot is freed, after the unthinkable happens, we must still find a way to go on. How will these children be with Margot now? Who will she be inside? It also taught me empathy: for Margot, that’s the easy part; for myself, as expected; for the other children, who found themselves having done a terrible thing without meaning to, because of fear, perhaps, or wanting not to be powerless, and now had to bear the consequences, or deny them.
I have told myself lies about the unfolding of this story – and the story is a lie in itself – but the details don’t matter. The emotional true things for me are these: We cling to what we’ve known. We yearn for what we believe we need. Others will do what they know, and they may harm us deeply. They may be deeply sorry. Whether they are sorry or not will not change what has happened. It may rain for seven years, or we may be in a drought condition, and we must find a way to live, with ourselves, with others, as a damaged person or a better one, and maybe with some kind of grace.
*Quotes are from Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
[I titled my piece before I found Ray Bradbury’s story online. It’s a self-evident title, but I also enjoy the unconscious reference back to his story, so I’m keeping it.]
I love being at home. It’s not that anything remarkable happens there. It’s that a succession of unremarkable moments, when truly inhabited, turn out to be quite beautiful.
When I have time around my actions to feel the rhythm of the day unfolding, I also have time to observe the details of my life in a way that lets me see how incredible all of this is, and that some sort of “I” in me feels privileged to be aware of it.
Just like the little brown jobs or LBJs my bird-watching friends talk about (nod to A_Span and MRM III) — the hard-to-distinguish (especially female) birds of the perching passerine family, such as sparrows or wrens, whose similarities can make their various species hard for humans to accurately identify — the moments of my days at home are small, hardly varying on the surface, but full of song.
Take today. I’m talking like someone knowledgeable about birds, but I know almost nothing. However, thanks to Bob at Gilligalou Bird Inc. in Almonte, ON, I know more today than I did yesterday. Tuesday on my way to meet a friend for lunch I stopped in at Gilligalou to ask how to put suet into the feeder I had bought the other week at the co-op. You’d think it was easy, but at my first go, I felt totally inept. Bob interrupted his own lunch to answer my 15 minutes of questions about what birds eat, and to explain the importance of small to large seeds, nuts, and mealworms, and some of the best ways to provide these.
He told me about Gilligalou’s specially formulated blends, with no filler, that give wild birds optimal selection and nutrition; showed me various styles of feeder; talked about habitat; and reassured me that I’m not being a bad citizen if my feeders go for a few days without being filled. The birds will come back, but they will establish a habit of eating at my house to the extent that I provide them with a reliable food supply, water, cover, and nesting opportunities.
Next I crammed two types of suet – a peanut blend, and a mealworm blend – into the different holes of the wooden hanging feeder I bought the other week at the co-op. It’s the first time I’ve held a mealworm, and although they made me jump for a second, I’m most intrigued.
Next step: a proper feeder with rails for the ground-feeding birds, since there is nowhere for them to land on the seed feeder I have now. In the meantime, I’m trusting they will continue to gather the big seeds from the snow where they fall as the smaller birds eat. And after that: well, I have dreams, but I’ll be happy with life’s LBJs.
17 January, 2016 – Update: This week’s visitors include chickadees, juncos, a multitude of posturing jays, a male house finch, downy woodpeckers, and a discriminating cardinal.
My vehicles have names.
What’s a vehicle? Anything with wheels, that I take to go on adventures. Car (Vivi, Mattie), bicycle (Genny, Francie, Gary)…
It’s only since moving to my little two acres, with a big patch of cleared greenery to mow, and a Greenworks battery-powered mower to do it with, that I’ve started thinking of my lawnmower as a vehicle with whom I have adventures.
But I haven’t known what to call this companion. Until the other day, heading out to mow for the fourth or fifth time in a week, and realizing that I was looking forward to it, I thought, “the lawnmower and I have a bit of a thing going on”.
So let me tell you about today’s adventures, mine and Mrs, Jones’.
We avoided the usual batch of smartly hopping frogs, crickets, cicadas, spiders, and moths. We did not avoid the desiccated wild cat poop but as it was dried, no matter. (No photo, you can picture it yourself.) We cut down a goodly number of nascent wild parsnips but they were not in flower so we’re simply keeping them at bay, not spreading them around, according to what the provincial ministry of the environment’s website tells me.
We collected grass clippings for the compost – this is heavy work, and pushing Mrs. Jones and her bustle full of long grass along the sloped lawn makes me think I can cancel my gym membership.
We found wild catnip, which I harvested for Hazel and Mabel.
For the good of us both, I wrestled and snipped out several stands of wild raspberries, which Mrs. Jones finds impassable. Wild raspberries have whip-like, pliable stems, up to ten feet long, that start new roots when their tips reach the ground. They may not look like much in the photo, but they also have wickedly clever thorns that hook and slice human skin and foam rubber handles with equal ease.
We picked six domesticated raspberries, the whole harvest from the plants sweetie transferred this Spring from the city house. I fed these to sweetie.
We left a few wildflowers here and there to brighten the lawn.
And just before the rain, we found a patch of lemon-scented moss with a teeming colony of winged ants, that reminded me of Coalescent, by Stephen Baxter.
So what does it matter, these adventures Mrs. Jones and I have together?
I’m surprised at how much I like mowing the lawn. I tend toward non-intervention, wanting to leave things to themselves. My brother says I used to protest shovelling because it ruined the smooth look of the snow. But to some extent, mowing must be done, and it’s a physically exerting but intellectually easy job, one I understand. I know when I’ve done it well, and I know when it’s finished. Mrs. Jones is like a horse who knows the path, and I can almost just follow along. I’m outside, I’m moving, I’m getting to know the world around me, and I can hear myself think. I can hear the birds, I can hear the sheep, and the mower doesn’t scare them off. I can take a break over the rail fence to nuzzle Alpha, the elderly horse who boards with the sheep.
Alone with my thoughts, yet interacting with my environment, mowing is not quite a meditation, but a way of coming alive. My friends say, get a ride-on mower. But I’ve got my thing with Mrs. Jones.
Last month, I moved. From a 14-year sojourn in a house in the city of Ottawa, Ontario, with a large vegetable garden, mature trees, and friendly neighbours, within walking distance of shopping centres, bars, and the library, from this place that had always treated me well but always felt too jangled for my soul, my spouse and I packed cats and belongings to install ourselves on a two-acre wooded plot an hour west of downtown, outside the small Ontario town of Almonte, in rocky, farm-strewn Lanark county.
Let’s be clear. I am not a farmer nor a back-to-the-land-er. I am a city-bred, wireless-loving, grocery-store dependent woman, who knows how to grow almost every vegetable for my own freezer but is ignorant of – or at least shielded from – the hard work and hard choices that go into raising animals, growing crops, and making a living on the land. I’m a tree hugger and plant singer, toad minder and deer talker, rock thanker and grass patter, and I will be slightly out of step wherever I live. But I am not afraid of the dark, or of solitude. I am not afraid of the woods, or the wind. And I am deeply relieved to be away from the asphalt and cement, and to find, surrounded by the world, the softer, fuller breaths that lie in my depths.
All my life, I’ve lived in small cities, with their buses, bustle, and myriad choices for entertainment, employment, and shopping. But all my life, it’s been on visits to my grandparents’ dirt-road rural summer home in Clifton, Virginia, or at the ocean on Prince Edward Island or Virginia Beach, or standing against the sea air at the rocky coasts of Tofino and Gabriola Island in British Columbia, that I have felt like my real self. Camping on school canoe trips in Algonquin Park, canoeing in Temagami, hiking outside Banff… this is when and where I have felt in step with the world’s music.
My new landscape does not have everything. It does not have ocean or mountains. It is pastoral, settled, mostly on the grid, thoroughly – although sparsely, compared to town – inhabited by humans. I do not have, and do not plan to have – although I would if this were 20 years ago – the care of cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and chickens. What I do have is trees, rolling countryside, rocky outcrops, barely visible neighbours, animals – both farm and free – living all around and sometimes spotted by me, and an independent, inter-dependent, community ethos that feels like a meal I’ve been missing.
Video: Three deer, June 2015
This is only the beginning. I don’t yet know how different my experience may be here outside town, with regular visits from deer and with sheep grazing next door. Already, I feel a change in myself as I sniff the breeze, as it awakens in me the possibility of a greater awareness and a greater appreciation of what I have mostly thought of as ‘nature’ but now realize is simply ‘the world’, living its own life. It’s a return to an earlier state in me, when, as a child, I knew that I was part of a fabric whose weave included all of existence.
When I mow the lawn with my battery mower, I keep my eyes sharp so as not to run over tiny toads. When I drive to my job, in the city, I watch closely for rabbits, chipmunks, and deer bounding across the road… or turtles, who in no way bound and are thus so vulnerable to rushing traffic. At night, I go to sleep in the dark, with a backdrop noise of frogs and distant coyotes; occasionally I’m awakened by the dream-jarring screech of hunter or prey, twisting abruptly through the night. When I dig in the garden, I can wear something resembling pyjamas, with no one but the next-door sheep to cast an eye my way. When I need a boost or a tool or a hand with a tiller or a dozen eggs, or a jar of honey, I call a neighbour, and assistance is rendered. When I stride downtown in my rubber boots, I feel right in step with myself.
Some of this is not much different from life in the city. There is loud machinery, as the land is worked and buildings are put up. There are dead animals along the road, hit by fast-moving cars. In a few years, I will need to clean my septic system, paint my house, repair the porch. I have friends along the road. There is a library in town. And people are people: kind, helpful, honest, private, industrious, or not.
But who am I? How will I be shaped by the unceasing green and rolling vistas, shaped by the world that I encounter each morning?
Audio: Waking to the world
Importantly, how will my writing reflect the change? I’ve taken a hiatus from the blog and for a short time will be posting here less frequently, as I plant new seeds and harvest a new creative vision. I aim to offer a richer harvest, as I wake up to the world.
I’ve been failing at meditation for a solid twenty years.
Alright. I suspect it isn’t possible to ‘fail’ at meditation, but I have walked away, frustrated, over and over again.
Conversely, of course, that means I have come back ‘to the mat’ over and over again. Something in me has persisted in believing that there would be value in this practice. And along the way, without realising, I have learned two decades’ worth of practical lessons about the process of meditation.
What I’ve learned about meditation
I have learned that I do not need to stop my thoughts or still my mind. I just need to keep noticing that I am thinking. Giving my mind something else to do, like watching my breath, or counting, or moving, helps it stay focused. Sometimes.
In the same vein, I have learned that a person can meditate anywhere, under any circumstance. I have learned that yoga or a body scan can be meditation. I have learned that my massage work can be meditation. I have learned that sitting cross-legged on my sofa with the fleece throw wrapped around me and the small cat on my lap is my natural setting: this is how meditation works best for me. (Small cat plus big cat on my lap is a rare bonus feature.)
I have learned that the days when my mind gnaws relentlessly on a problem, or solution, or fantasy I’m weaving, are just as much ‘meditation’, and just as valid, as the days where I have a clear instant of absolute awareness and peace. I have not failed just because my mind has wandered. That is what the mind does. I have learned that I can always, always intentionally choose an instant of awareness and peace. I have learned that usually, I will forget to do so.
I have learned that what I’ve wanted from meditation has been exactly what has stood in my way. Once I stopped wanting anything at all except to do it, it became impossible to fail.
And once it became impossible to fail, I stopped needing to walk away.
What I’ve gained from meditation
Then, I started reaping amazing benefits. Immobilising panic attacks: vanished. Caught in my own delusions: well, of course I am, and usually I can’t tell, yet I have learned to doubt my own story about how right and justified I am in any situation. Happier, more at ease in the world, less afraid of engagement, more able to focus on others, more genuine, perhaps a little kinder: these states have crept up on me and made my daily life more enjoyable. Cranky, judgemental, short-tempered, overwhelmed: thank you, yes, these persist and keep me humble.
Summing up what meditation has given me so far is simple: the ability to recognise myself as the default centre of My Universe, but not the centre of The Universe; and the ability to step aside from any experience (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) and to see that it is only one of the choices open to me in this moment. There is space between me, and my reactions. Awareness and peace are always available.
How I learned to meditate
Encouraged by Leo Babauta’s assertion that the smallest increment possible builds the greatest success over time, I started by sitting down in my meditation spot. Every day. Bum on the cushion.
Then, using Apple’s Do Nothing for Two Minutes, I let myself be lulled into stillness for 120 seconds, day after day.
It felt good. I wanted more. As the days went on, I wrote down very realistic goals for increasing my meditation time; they were so modest, I easily exceeded them, which made me feel successful and made it easier to continue.
I haven’t missed a day in a year and a half, and it is not effortful to keep this habit going. Some days it is a long practice, sometimes short; sometimes focused, sometimes sleepy; sometimes filled with tears, and sometimes with incredible peace.
It is always good for me, and for the world. Because of meditation, it becomes possible for me to take my best, clearest self out and about, which creates a better environment for everyone around me.
Can you fail at meditation?
If you don’t already meditate, but you think you might like to, here’s what I recommend. Sit yourself down, close your eyes, and take a slow breath. Follow it in, follow it out. Don’t try to do it right, just do it. Every day. Pick a trigger (right before your morning coffee; right before reading in bed; while riding the bus to work) to make it easy to remember. After seven days, make it two breaths. You can’t fail.
A few resources
- Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog (http://zenhabits.net/). Leo is a proponent of building habits in small increments, tiny ones, really, that pose no psychic barrier and, placed one after the other, create a road to a steady habit
- Apple’s Do Nothing for Two Minutes app (http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/).
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (http://m.indigo.ca/product/books/full-catastrophe-living-revised-edition/9780345536938?ikwid=full catastrophe living&ikwsec=Home)
- Calm.com (http://calm.com)
- Headspace (http://getsomeheadspace.com)
- Moving meditation, such as yoga, or Omni Pleasant’s “Breath Hand Eye” (http://omnipleasant.me/2013/10/04/breath-hand-eye/)
- Jonas Johnson’s Driving Meditation Game (http://primingforaction.com/driving-meditation-game/)
- A simple timer, and your breath
(Photo of Abbot of Watkungtaphao in Phu Soidao Waterfall from Wikipedia; all other photos (c) Ellen Symons)