Out of my Mind

What is precious

inside us does not

care to be known

by the mind

in ways that diminish

its presence

 

David Whyte (from The Winter of Listening)

 

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I took this picture of the Buchaille Etiv Mor almost two years ago, while walking in Scotland. The name means “great herdsman of Etiv” (the Etiv being a river that curves its way round the foot of the mountain). I was awed by it from the moment it came into view, and that night we slept at an inn that has stood in its shadow for four hundred years. I fell in love with the place, and especially with the mountain itself. I like that it is referred to as a herdsman, since I have often felt held and shepherded by mountains.

Looking at this photograph puts me in mind of David Whyte’s words. I love looking at the pictures from my trip. I enjoy going over the memories in my mind and sensing again something of the beauty and magic of the moments they capture. But there is a distance from the actual experience, a distance created by time and by all the other memories that have followed. I cannot go back to the purity of that exact moment in time.

I am told that our minds are not able to reconstruct a memory perfectly; that what we remember is always changed in some way in the remembering. We create meaning out of our experiences, and in so doing, lose the experiences themselves. This is true even in the moment of being there, at least it often is for me. I am so well versed in the value and importance of making sense of my life, and so immersed in the language of my own mental maps, that I sometimes miss the geography of the actual encounter.

I want to ground myself instead in my senses. Ellen Langer describes mindfulness as noticing, being present by paying attention to what is around us. If I am preoccupied with the smell of my horse, or the softness of his nose, I will be present not only to the moment, but also to him. If I am captured by the light in my husband’s eyes and the sound of his laughter, I can connect more powerfully to him and to the love we share.

My mind is a gift, and creating meaning out of my experience is a valuable part of what it means to be human. I need to evaluate and ponder. I need to articulate all that thinking, to distill it into words that help me to understand myself. I need it so that I can be more aware in my relationships and wise in my choices. But I don’t want to get stuck there. I want to dive down into the realm of pure being more often.

 

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Take a Step

Start Close In

 

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

 

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.

 

Start with your own

question,

give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something

simple.

 

To hear

another’s voice,

follow

your own voice,

wait until

that voice

 

becomes a 

private ear

that can

really listen

to another.

 

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s 

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

 

Start close in,

don’t take

the  second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

 

-David Whyte

 

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I enjoy walking labyrinths. Just when I think I’ve found a clear path to the centre, I’m led outwards again, back to the rim. Making my way round those twists and turns helps me to let go, to allow the path to take me where it’s going and to settle into the beauty of each moment. It’s a powerful reminder that inasmuch as I make choices, life will often meander in ways I cannot predict. And that has often kept me from taking the first step.

I remember being given a copy of David Whyte’s poem years ago. It struck a chord with me, even then, but lately it’s become a kind of mantra. I’m good at taking a lot of steps, especially the familiar ones. I like taking the well-worn tracks, from one activity to another, from one train of thought to the next. It’s easy. It’s safe. It’s the taking of steps into new territory that scares me. I think of where I plan to go, how far away it is, all the challenges along the way, how unprepared I feel (how unprepared I am). And I wind up not taking that first step at all. Start close in… I don’t want to do that. If I do then I’ll have to take more steps. And close in is where all my fears and insecurities and confusions lie. Just beneath the surface.

Whyte talks about not letting other people’s questions smother something simple. My questions are often simple. Taking the next tiny step is simple, not easy, but simple. This last year or so I have been taking those little steps, sending mails and making calls, writing. I can’t say the steps have become easier to take, but the way ahead does seem clearer. And I feel a sense of integrity growing inside myself. I am beginning to take myself more seriously. I am beginning to believe that I may get to the centre of some of my goals.

It feels good, this taking of one small step after another. Start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.

Encouragement

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Yesterday I went for a haircut, and my older son came along with me. I’d just fetched him from work and he’d decided that he needed a haircut too. The hairdressers know us well; my boys love the extra special head massage you get when they wash your hair and we all enjoy the friendly banter. The ladies clearly enjoy what they do and are as comfortable with teenage boys as they are with middle aged moms. The last time I was there, was on the stormy night of my younger son’s matric dance, watching him have his hair styled for the big night.

As we chatted with the stylists afterwards, one of them said something. A few words that I will tuck into my heart and treasure. She said that my boys are lovely (a nice compliment in and of itself) and then added: ‘…and they love their Mama.’ Wow. Of all the things I could hear about my boys, that has to be the best.

This morning I was reading a blog post by Micha Boyett in which she shared about her challenges in the kitchen, and her son’s appreciation of her dinner making efforts. She talks about being a ‘woman who practiced loving everyday everyday everyday. A liturgy of care for my children.’ As mothers we know that liturgy, how we repeat it over and over again in the words spoken, the meals prepared, the hours spent running errands and mopping up spills. The form of the liturgy changes, but our hearts in the performance of it do not. Like Micha, I have struggled with some parts of mothering. Some things have been a diligent practice of skills that feel foreign and uncomfortable.

That is why those words yesterday were such a blessing. Whatever else my sons know about me, I want them to know that I love them. If someone can see that they love me too, then my work is (almost) done.

Poetry

How To Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

 

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill-more of each

than you have-inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgement

 

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensional life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

 

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

 

Wendell Berry

 

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A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast, which included recordings of Wendell Berry reading some of his own poems, ‘How To Be a Poet’ among them. I love the sound of his voice. It is deep and sonorous, with a Kentucky drawl. He reads in a languid manner, as though he wants to be sure that every one of his words has dropped firmly into his listener’s minds. I was on my way home from a late afternoon visit to the farm where my horse lives, and the sun was setting. His voice was the soundtrack to a view of open fields and fencelines, silhouetted against the fading light.

This weekend I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival for the first time, and had the opportunity to listen to a number of poets read their own work. I attended only two sessions all weekend that were not poetry related. Mostly I was cocooned in ‘Protea 2’, a small room in the Protea Hotel, where many of the poetry events took place. It is hard to explain what that was like. Anyone who has spent time at a workshop or retreat, immersed in the opportunity to soak up hours of something you care about or love, knows what I mean. I listened as poets and authors talked about the music of words. They answered our questions and shared their stories. But for me the part I loved most was hearing them read and perform poems, their own and those of others.

I bought some collections and had them autographed. I met real life published poets, and found them to be kind, approachable and down-to-earth. I came home with a sense of fresh appreciation for the joy that poetry brings me. I also felt encouraged to keep writing and learning my craft.

The last session I attended was one in which writers talked about their ‘secret lives’. Hundreds of people packed the hall to hear writers talk about their habits, challenges and quirks. It was a fitting way to end the weekend. What struck me most were the words of Deon Meyer, in answer to a question about what it was that he loves about doing this kind of work. He said that it was meeting people all over the world and hearing about what his books have meant to people. He told a story about a woman who came to a signing and presented a cheese she had made for him, and another about a man who shared that Deon’s books had helped to bring him and his daughter closer together. He spoke with real feeling. I loved that, I loved seeing how much he cares about what he does.

I feel privileged to care about something so much, and to be able to make it part of my life. I think  that pouring your energy and time into what makes your heart sing, is a worthwhile thing to do. And I believe that when you do, you help ignite and kindle that flame of delight for others.

 

 

The Blessing of Work

In the house where we stayed, women came to launder our dirty clothes, and when they folded them clean, they made each stack precisely the size of an elegant basket and tied the stacks with a bow. In each bow were fresh flowers. They loved the special touch. They loved their work…People who love their work, who are content in their craft, are people who can understand a deeper metaphor about having a place to belong.

-Amber C. Haines

 

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I have been reading a book recently by Cal Newport, called “Deep Work”. In it he talks about the value and necessity of creating extended periods of time to immerse ourselves in our work, to give ourselves fully to stretching our minds and our capacities to the edge of their limits, so that what we produce is not only substantial, but also meaningful. He encourages his readers to manage distraction in order to embrace the discomfort of engaging more profoundly with the work we care about. I am finding the book challenging and helpful, and over the past few days I have attempted to apply some of the strategies he offers. I am trying to make the transition from a way of doing life that is filled with distraction and bite-sized dips into various activities, to one in which I make space for digging into work that matters.

I love the quote by Amber Haines; it resonated with me the first time I read it. For the longest time I have not felt as though I belong in my life. As I think of it now, I have an image of a hovercraft, skimming across the water. It’s fast and it gets you places, but when you are in it, you are simply moving from one place to the next. You are not able to immerse yourself in the water. You cannot feel it’s currents, the bite of the cold on your skin, or appreciate the way the light glints off its surface. You are there, but not really there.

When I set aside time to write, and I honour that time, there is a kind of rest that comes upon me, even as I find my mind challenged and taxed. I enter an almost meditative state in which time disappears and I feel fully alive and engaged. When I come out of these moments of intense concentration, I feel refreshed and whole. I find that sense of belonging that Haines talks about. Belonging to my days. It is a powerful antidote to boredom, apathy and discontent.

I experience the same gifts when I give myself to a craft or to preparing a meal, when I lean into a deep conversation with the people I love, or in the focus and intent I exercise in a yoga class or riding my horse. The challenge is one of presence, my mind and body fully and completely occupied with the moment.

I am realising how addicted I am to distraction, how much easier it is to flit from one thing to the next. Emails and facebook posts, whatsapps and errands all compete for my attention and will. Newport suggests fencing these things off, giving them boundaries, so that they don’t interfere with the business of building capacity for more demanding pursuits, ones that will add up day by day into a body of quality work that reflects what really matters to us. This is what will give me a sense of connectedness to my life, a feeling of belonging. It’s a way of coming home to myself.

A Word of Thanks

My Mother Made Me Two Shawls

 

My mother made me two shawls

one brown and the other full of greens.

The greens of moss and forest leaves,

and new grass,

the gentle weight of them

on my shoulders, come cold winter days,

is a reminder of her love,

woven with needles and ladles

 

and potatoes roasted crisp

with chicken and gravy. And pancakes

on rainy afternoons.

And on sick days,

hot lemon and honey

(with a dash of brandy)

and tucking us into bed

with ginger ale and grated apple.

 

She stayed up late some nights, sewing

for school and Christmas plays,

and curtains with flowers of pink

(a surprise, returning from camp one day

to find my room transformed,

and I-a girl-full of the delight

of a gift created just for me,

could not stop looking at them).

 

Now I am a woman,

a maker of gifts myself,

but still, a daughter.

My mother made me two shawls.

 

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As a little girl I always had a new dress to wear on Christmas Day, and most of the time the dress had been made by my mother. I remember the magic of anticipating Christmas morning, of being so excited to put on my new dress and wear it to church. My mother enjoyed sewing and knitting, and she loved to make things for me. When I was about eight, she knitted me a jersey in a coral peach that made me think of starfish. It had puffy sleeves into which she threaded silk ribbons. It was beautiful and I remember being sad when it became too small to wear. I held onto it for years, unable to let it go. I eventually gave it away, but only with much reluctance.

On Sunday it will be Mother’s Day, and I am mindful of the many gifts of love and care my mother has given. With my own sons closer to leaving home, I am more aware than ever of the vulnerability of parenthood, the weight of it. I think about what it means to shepherd your children from birth to adulthood; it is a much more intricate and careworn task than I ever imagined. The road is full of turns and sheer drops. There are moments when there is a break in the trees and I glimpse a view that is clear and beautiful, and there are places where the path has given way, and the mists have come down, and nothing feels certain. There are times when it seems that joy is the abiding truth of motherhood, and times when I ache with loss and hurt and sadness.

My mother and I do not always see the world through the same eyes. In some ways we are so alike, and in others very different. But as I grow older and watch my boys begin to leave, I find myself newly conscious of how much I value her. I am conscious too of all the other mothers in my life, the aunts and friends, the older women and mentors who have walked alongside me. In Beannacht, John ‘O Donohue speaks of a slow wind working “these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life.” I have felt that invisible cloak, in experiences of both joy and pain. The shawls my mother made me are visible manifestations of that cloak, and when I wear them I feel minded, nurtured and held.