Strength

Child:

 

She would be pleased

I think

eyes wide at some of it

beyond the circle

of childish knowing

but not beyond imagining

at least in some shadow

or play of light

part of her knew

and stayed

a witness and a reminder

calling me home

to myself

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 I came across an old memory a few days ago. I’ve always thought of it as one of those moments that define me. It’s a memory of the first time I went to the school library by myself and checked out a book. I was in Grade 1 and must have been just 7 years old. I don’t remember whether it was a class outing or a break time. I had searched the shelves and chosen a book. (I should say the book had chosen me. Books do that; they call to you.) I made my way to the librarian at the counter. I remember the desk being a bit higher than my nose and I had to reach my arms up quite high to get the book onto it. The librarian towered over me, or at least that’s how it seemed at the time. I was scared and intimidated, both by the person behind the desk and by the newness of the environment and the experience. I was so fearful of doing something wrong, getting some detail of the process confused, and being told that I couldn’t have the book. And I desperately wanted that book. The librarian asked for my name and I said it. She began to write it down on the card, pronouncing each syllable out loud. And that’s when I started to panic, because she was getting my name wrong. Part of me wanted to tell her, to correct her so that it would be written down right. But I was afraid that she would be angry and yell at me so I kept quiet. Then a new fear asserted itself: what if I got into trouble for not correcting her? What if the school found out that my name was misspelt on the card and I was punished? Now all of this distress may seem silly, unnecessary and even unbelievable, but it was very real to me. I was a sensitive child, easily frightened and very unsure of myself. I was in agony, and the only thing that kept me from dropping the book and bolting out the door, was the fact that I really wanted to read that story. The desire for it created in me a determination to stay put, so I remained rooted to the spot. The relief I experienced walking out of the library was immense, and so was the delight at having made away with the book. I couldn’t wait to get home and open it up, to discover the treasure of words hidden inside. (I still remember the book, and some of the illustrations.)

Together with many other experiences, this incident created a particular narrative that I carried with me for a very long time. My focus in this memory has always been on my timidity, my fear, my indecision. For years I believed that I am by nature fearful, anxious and uncertain. I told myself that every time I behaved in ways that were determined, strong and purposeful, every time I took initiative, that I was somehow transcending my essential nature.

Over the last several years, particularly since having children, I have found myself increasingly moving into areas outside my comfort zone. I have educated my children at home, climbed Kilimanjaro, started horse riding and yoga, forged new relationships, served as a volunteer counsellor and now recently (as my sons move into young adulthood) I have begun to pursue my writing with greater intention and discipline. In all these areas I have found resistance and challenge, and I have persevered. I have experienced struggle and failure, as well as enjoyment and success. I have made unexpected discoveries about myself and met many beautiful people along the way. I started noticing that I enjoyed challenge, that I was often quite happy with uncertainty and with moving into new territories of change and capacity. All this has made me realise that  strength and tenacity are as much part of me as fear and anxiety. And it is the determination and courage that often win out. I uncovered a long lost delight in the experience of being stretched and tested.

When I thought again about that day in the library, more than 35 years ago, I came to a realisation: I walked out of there with what I wanted. I took the book home. The heart of that story is not about a scared little girl who goes through life timid and afraid. It’s about a little girl who, in spite of fear, stood her ground and achieved her goal. That’s the deeper truth. It was hidden away under layers of self-doubt. I don’t think my story is unique. I am guessing that many of us need to remember who we really are, to be empowered by that knowledge. To be called home to ourselves.

Begin

You are getting something right. You are actually probably doing a lot right! And that is where you start. Then choose the next thing. An area that you feel needs work, something to be deliberate about. Standing on the solid ground of what you do well, begin to work on the area that needs to change. But most of all, make your relationships your priority.

Ginny Sheller

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When I read Ginny Sheller’s thoughts earlier today, I smiled. It was good to be reminded that I am probably getting a few things right. Don’t we need that encouragement sometimes? I know I do. It makes me ask myself: “What’s working here, what are the things I’m doing that are really producing growth, that make a difference? When I get to the end of the day, what are the things I feel good about?” These are important questions. I often come to the evening with a sense of frustration over all the undone things, especially the things that relate to writing. I have so many plans and dreams, and there are days where no matter how good my intentions are, the plans get derailed. That’s okay sometimes, but if I don’t make some conscious choices to prioritise, days can turn into weeks which turn into months. Momentum and inspiration are lost and I get discouraged and settle into a kind of comfortable mediocrity. I tell myself that one day I’ll have uninterrupted time and energy and focus; then I’ll really get into all those wonderful projects buzzing around in my head. But what if, as Ginny says, I choose “something to be deliberate about”? David Whyte speaks about this: “…I was going to do at least one thing every day toward my future life as a poet. I calculated that no matter how small a step I took each day, over a year that would come to a grand total of 365 actions toward the life I wanted. One thing a day is a powerful multiplier.” One thing a day. I can do that, in my writing and my riding and my relationships.

I can look at what’s settled and sure, the places I feel safety and a growing sense of accomplishment, and I can build on them. Some of the steps I take will be easy and some won’t. I’ve felt sometimes like I’m jumping off the edge of a cliff and I have to tell myself that even if I don’t fly, it’s alright. Falling is all part of the journey, as long as I learn from it and move on. I can’t control the process, but I can be open to the lessons it brings. And there are often unexpected gifts.

I like what she says about relationships. About their value and importance. I enjoy ticking things off my list, and relationships don’t fit neatly into lists… It’s so important to be present to the people in our lives and to give ourselves to shaping connections that are deep and real. Such connections have sustained and nurtured me, and provided much needed encouragement and support in the pursuit of all my dreams and goals.

Progress is often so much slower than I would like. I wonder some days how I manage to get so little done. But I am moving forward, step by step. And that is what matters.

A Remedy

“Tell me about exhaustion,” I said

“You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”

“What is it then?”

“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

(A conversation quoted in David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea)

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Wholeheartedness. What a beautiful word; I’ve always loved it. It speaks of entering your life with presence and commitment. Of bringing all of yourself to the moment. It’s also a word that challenges me. I am familiar with exhaustion. I sat down this afternoon to do some work, and found myself falling asleep, my head in my arms on the desk. My body and mind wanted to disappear into that netherworld where nothing is expected of me, and I can forget about all the to do lists and responsibilities waiting for my attention.

Our lives are busy. We have so much to do: goals to achieve, relationships to nurture, families to raise, careers to build. It’s not only the world around us that fuels our busyness. We are storytellers, every one of us. We create narratives in our minds, narratives that drive us forward and shape our choices. My head is a place full of competing voices, debating and arguing over how to order my days and weeks. These voices are full of questions: should I write or go and run those errands that have been waiting since Monday? How do I make time for the things that must be done without neglecting to make the most of the precious time I have left with my parents, or the sons who will soon be leaving home? What about my marriage, my community, my church? I struggle to find the clarity necessary for making these decisions, for moving through the hours of the day in a way that aligns with the deep intentions of my heart. I am like a coracle, tossed by the demanding (and sometimes chaotic) currents of my inner and outer worlds. In David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea, there is a chapter on the need for silence. He says, “we are each surrounded by an enormous silence that can be a blessing and a help to us, a silence in which the skein of reality is knitted and unravelled to be knit again, in which the perspectives of work can be enlarged and enriched. Silence is like a cradle holding our endeavours and our will; a silent spaciousness sustains us in our work and at the same time connects us to larger worlds that, in the busyness of our daily struggle to achieve, we have not yet investigated.” He speaks of the spaces between the notes in a symphony, of their importance, of how without spaces in our work and lives, there is no music.  “Constant busyness has no absence in it, no openness to the arrival of any new season, no birdsong at the start of the day.”

So that is what I need, to cultivate the kind of pauses that open me to the movements of truth often buried beneath the surface of all the activity. To hear the “still small voice” that guides me and helps me see more clearly the way ahead. And then, to follow that quiet voice, wherever it leads.