Compassion for the Shame-Baby

Yesterday, at a child’s 4th birthday party with red, blue and yellow balloons floating on the ceiling, big slices of chocolate cake on plates, piles of presents and 14 rambunctious children chasing each other around the kitchen, the mother of the birthday boy asked me to hold her 8-month old baby girl. We played pat-a-cake and peekaboo, and I revelled in the innocence of this small gopher-cheeked human being.

In the midst of the noise and chaos, she struggled to stay awake. I rocked back and forth, hummed a tuneless melody in the comforting way that I used when my own children were small. She eventually succumbed to sleep as a puppy does, simply closing her heavy eyelids and drifting off into dreamland.

While I felt grateful for this opportunity to revisit the world of little kids, I couldn’t help but compare it to the self-compassion work I’m engaged in myself at the mature age of 66 years. Just a few days ago, I talked with a supportive friend, and I told her about one of my Shadow Selves, “Critical Carla” who yammers at me when I make mistakes. “You don’t measure up!” “You’re a failure!” When Carla speaks to me like that, I become anxious and stressed and I see only my flaws.

Intellectually, I understand the purpose of Carla’s tirades. She’s trying to motivate me by correcting me so I’m safe from the rejection and disconnection that I fear will come with disappointing others and myself. I don’t necessarily feel her protection. Instead, I feel hurt and defensive instead of determined to be my best self. Worst of all, I feel alone.

When I make big mistakes, Critical Carla’s reactions can wreck havoc in my life. When she compares me to others whose lives seem idyllic and perfect, when she castigates me for my disorganized housekeeping skills, my frustration with my husband, my inability to balance my cheque book, or any other behaviour in which I feel “not good enough,” I feel powerless to stop her until I listen carefully and acknowledge her reason for protecting me.

Until I become mindful, the innocent child inside me continues to feel ashamed. She is, as self-compassion researcher Kirsten Neff says, a “shame-baby.” This baby needs my compassion and comfort whether it is warmth and reassurance, rocking, or whispers that say, “You’re okay just the way you are.” She needs to feel safe with me, that she is not alone, and that all human beings have moments when they feel flawed and imperfect. I can put my hand over her heart or cup her face so she feels rest easy in my arms.

Lonely Lila

Lonely Lila

Lonely Lila comes to me in darkness
when the interface grid is offline
when my soul radiance dims
i hear her whistling in the dark
then i’m not afraid
to share the gift of words
to light up the world
with forgiveness
and acceptance.

it shocks me to know
the live wire of my heart
when amplified and grounded
is powered by a great Wind
the natural source of all love

then Lila leaves her lonely lair
she illuminates the way, makes my heart shine
my eyes twinkle and my words hum.

(c) Kathie Sutherland 2015/02/03

Fairy Tale Wisdom

“Even as children, our Inner Heroes set out to challenge the world. In the last two thousand years, nothing has helped this exploratory need as much as the fairy tale.

“I know what you may be thinking. “Fairy tales? Is he kidding? Why, those things are positively frightening. Children see enough violence on television — they don’t need kids pushing witches into ovens and evil spells and poisoned apples.

“Stop for a minute and remind yourself how long the fairy tale has been with us — in every nation and in every civilization. Surely there must be something significant here, an insight so important as to transcend time and mountains and cultures to arrive in the twenty-first century still intact. 

“What distinguishes the fairy tale is that it speaks to the heart and soul. The fairy tale confirms what we our.selves have been thinking all along — that it is a cold, cruel world out there and it’s waiting to eat us alive. Now, if that were all the fairy tale said, it would have died out long ago. But it goes one step further. It addresses itself to our sense of courage and adventure. The fairy tale advises us: Take your courage in hand and go out to meet the world head on. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the fairy tale offers this promise: If you have courage and if you persist, you can overcome any obstacle, conquer any foe.

By recognizing daily fears, appealing to courage and confidence, and by offering hope, the fairy tale presents us all with a means by which we can understand the world and ourselves. And those who would deodorize the tales impose a fearsome lie upon us. J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned, “It does not pay to leave a dragon out of your calculations if you live near him.” Judging from the daily averages, our land is filled with dragons.”

 * An edited quote from Jim Trelease‘s Read-Aloud Handbook

Although I am long past childhood, I too believe in the fairy tale as a learning tool for acting with courage and confidence. This is part of my soul journey.

We all share a common road, which is the never-ending journey into ourselves. My Storyteller is getting old, and she’s hobbling along this path mapping my life in poems and short stories. She creates metaphoric, mythic landscapes to show where I am, where I have been and where I might go.

Fairy tales are one way to remember the Sacred Being we have forgotten, buried as She is under all the stories we use to protect ourselves from dragons. We can search for Her in our memories and find meaning by listening to the emotional tone of past events, using our senses, finding words for previously unexpressed experiences, embracing symbols from the vast store of the unconscious using metaphors, imagination, wordplay, flashes of insight, while appreciating the sheer joy of wordsmithing. For me, the fairy tale is a healing concoction from The Alchemist, a magic elixir that can transform the lead of my fear into the gold of understanding.

 

My Storyteller’s Tale

 

The Storyteller squats by the well in the gathering place of the townspeople. No one pays much attention to a dusty old Gypsy woman so she sits quietly and observes the people and their lives. Her embroidered skirt is muddied at the hem and her boots are worn down at the heel. She wears large gold earrings, a strangely marked talisman around her neck, and her thick grey hair is held back with a red silk scarf adorned with coins.

On this particular day, a market day, people bustle around her. Children with dirty ears and ragged clothes chase each other until she bids them come and sit with her. They call out to the beggar by the gate and he comes too, his craggy face lined and his toothless mouth grinning. The stripling lad from the inn and the young barmaid arrive not long after, holding hands and nuzzling each other. Mothers with babes in their arms purchase trinkets at the market stalls and then settle in to nurse their infants in the shade of the elms. They have come to hear the Gypsy woman who tells tales of wonder and magic.

With her begging bowl beside her, the Storyteller weaves tales about the trees in the wood, the smell of the dusty road, the wizards who travel there, and the dragons who live in the caves beyond. The old woman travels far and wide, visiting countries at war and those in peaceful times, during droughts and floods, through seasons of plenty and years of starvation. She sees babies born and old men die. She suffers and yet, she considers herself as happy and innocent as the dirty children beside her.

A young woman asks her to tell a story – a true story of a Princess and her betrothed, a Prince who will one day be king. After a time of thoughtful silence, the Storyteller begins her tale.

“Once upon a time, a silken-haired Princess sat in the palace garden admiring the roses. She felt safe there on her little bench in the sunshine. She pines for her Prince, who has been far away fighting on a distant battlefield.

Suddenly, a horde of marauding soldiers seeking revenge for the murder of their King, break through the gate and carry her off. Naturally, she quakes with fear. She has never been outside the palace walls. As they tie her behind the wagon and ride away, pulling her along, she thinks, “I will never survive all alone in the wild country.”

The Storyteller pauses dramatically, looking at each face in the audience.

“On arrival at the soldier’s camp, the beautiful Princess considers her predicament. No one will protect her or guard her honour. She concludes that her Prince is not coming to rescue her, even though she had always thought that was what Princes were to do. She says to herself, “If I am to move forward, I must rise above my fears, persevere and be strong.”

Her situation is dire. She is hungry, thirsty and tired. Even though she appears beaten, she feigns weakness to fool the soldiers. One takes pity on her. He unties her hands so she can drink from his cup, and she slips free and takes his sabre. She twists this way and that, leaps nimbly away, and runs to the paddock where the horses are tied. She untethers a white stallion, throws her leg over its back and gathers the reins.

The soldiers rally.

“One shouts, “You can’t escape now. You must stop and surrender.”

“A second guard yells, “Wench, give up your feeble efforts! We will take you anyway!

The Storyteller pauses. In an aside to her listeners, says, “Will she escape or will she stand firm? Will she run for her life or will she take up a sword and fight?”

Her listeners lean forward. The Storyteller speaks faster and louder, gesturing as she acts the Princess’ part.

“Our Princess is ready to ride away but she reins in the horse, jumps down and stands fast, facing her enemies. She meets them in a Hero’s stance, her head held high.  She slashes and slices. Suffers cuts and wounds. She fights with confidence; she fights a good fight! And when they are all lying in the grass moaning or dead, she remounts the stallion and rides away toward the castle.

The listeners echo her words, “…the good fight.”

The Storyteller steps forward, holding the young ones spellbound,

“Everyone in the kingdom knows this Princess as a sweet and gentlewoman, and not one to fight and make war. How has this happened, that a peace loving girl has been transformed and now wins a victory by the sword?”

“She is a Heroine!” the audience gasps.

“Perhaps…” the Storyteller pauses again.

“She has a special power, my friends. Yes! Our Princess chooses to act on her own behalf, to take back her power through her actions.”

“What??” A young listener in the audience says, “She chooses?”

“Do we not all choose which battles to fight?” asks the Storyteller. “The Princess chooses to own her power and courage. She works with life rather than resisting. Her hand is loose on the sword not clenched. She understands that she alone is responsible for her freedom.”

No sooner is this statement out of the Storyteller’s mouth than the one who requested the Princess story, jeers, “That is not the story I want! The Princess must be saved by her Prince.” There are others who shake their fists and throw spoiled tomatoes and rotten cabbage at her. Splat! Splat! The audience howls but the Storyteller does not retreat.

The crowd yells, “You are mad! Everyone must abide by the law and submit, including the Princess. What story are you weaving? No one has this freedom. Begone!”

But behind them, at the back of the crowd, the young barmaid cheers and her fellow too. A mother under the elms is smiling though she says nothing. The children play at sword fighting at the village wall.

The Storyteller understands that of which she speaks. She, herself, is free to move about, to decide which stories she will tell, and to tell them in her own way. She begins her tale again, her voice rising above the din.

“I weave this tale so you may see that you are like the Wise Princess who may someday be Queen. Hers is the story of us all. You too can choose courage to own your life and its path.”

It is evening now and the sun is going down. The villagers have heard and seen enough. They drift away to tend to their homes and families, the barmaid returns to the tavern, the babies are asleep in their mothers arms, and the children are tired of their games.

The Storyteller sees that her bowl is empty but her heart is full. She has a bit of bread and cheese in her bag and that is enough for her.

The next morning the Storyteller, having shared her wisdom, gathers her meager belongings and sets out on the road to the next village.

 

The moral of the story? We all have the freedom, right and responsibility to choose our way.

 

 

Unearthing Essence

Since I began this blog, I’ve been paying more attention to the words I use, to their energy in the world, and to the things they convey. I’ve noticed that the subject matter I choose is often about the pain of the past. Many beautiful poetry, prose works and other artistic expressions arise from the rubble and hurt of people’s lives (think Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemmingway). I get judgmental about my writing when I continue to pull the darkness back over myself; like putting my head under the covers when it’s a beautiful day outside. Maybe that’s why, when I was a teen, my Dad woke me up by flicking the light off and on and announcing loudly, “You’re missing the best part of the day.” I didn’t like it at the time but now I see that he appreciated mornings and was grateful for the renewal that a new day brings. 

In my recent writing, I’ve tried to ease up on rehashing the past and spend more time becoming aware of the lessons that are right in front of me. I am aware that by telling stories over and over again, I am peeling off layers in a search for the essence buried under the mundane events of my life. Many days are not very interesting, exciting, or dramatic, the very things I use to create stories and poems. Perhaps that’s why I write, to relieve the tedious and repetitious nature of things. So I asked myself this morning, “What could I be writing that would be neither pained or boring but true to life?”

I could write that it was my daughter’s birthday today and that she loved all the Facebook messages she received and she is looking forward to her birthday supper with friends. I could write that her puppy, Jax, is the cutest grand dog ever, and I love that he communicates so much with his quizzical facial expressions. I could write that I finally got a good night’s sleep after a couple of long awake nights and I’m feeling more perky today. I could write that my husband makes the best oatmeal porridge, which is much better than mine probably because he uses the large flake oats and cooks it a long time.

Anyone can write about ordinary everyday stuff like this but some writers like to unearth the essence of things. They try to link today’s birthday with previous significant birthdays like turning 18 or 30 or 65 or describe the animated messages on Facebook. They try to write the thoughts a dog might have. They try to portray a peaceful night’s sleep or one with horrid nightmares and by doing so, understand themselves. They try to take the reader step by step through the precise measurements and cooking style of an oatmeal specialist. They try to write with appreciation, gratitude and renewed amazement at the darnest things.

What fascinates me is digging deeper than the surface fluff in search of treasures that exist at a spiritual level. Spiritual for me means writing in awareness of and integrating ordinary physical, emotional and intellectual experiences to find the extraordinary and connect that to All That Is. That’s one of the reasons I love metaphor. It’s a tool to connect concrete things to a spiritual abstract. I’ve been known to include a bit of twisted humour in my poems, a paradox or two, and find weird relationships between unrelated subjects. Riddles and puzzles stimulate questions about the Mystery and create synchronicity too.

Let’s consider a dog’s perspective, for example. Dogs are very intuitive, sensual creatures, present and focused on whatever they do, totally in touch with their natural instincts. A dog teaches me to stop and listen. I follow this inclination whenever I can because it feels like meditation when I pick out individual sounds and follow them until they are gone. One caveat I hold to as a general rule is… Steer clear of dog kibble and milk bones. 🙂

Here is a poem I wrote in 2001 that captures a dog’s imagined perspective on spring.

spring cycles

my dog teaches freedom
tugs at the leash
rushes headlong into the walk
she knows where she is going

i follow in her wake
believe her instinct
go where she goes
she has untamed advantage:
singular focus on scented breeze

here I stand
distracted by a plural mind
caught up in the colour of new lilacs
squeals of children at play on bicycles, water gurgling in gutters

but my dog knows better, raises her nose
obeys the call of the wild wind
with the smell of God in it

05/15/01

I believe spiritual essence lives underneath everything including the mundane. I’m always looking for it, asking questions, and listening for messages about the mystery of life.

If you like the idea of poetry as a spiritual quest, check out my poetry books on my Bookstore page.

 

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not…

Picture by Allan Lloyd, near Saanichton, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Published with Permission.

 

One Thanksgiving about 20 years ago, after our little family devoured turkey with all the trimmings and then slices of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, my kids disappeared to watch TV or talk on the phone, my mother-in-law snoozed on the couch, and my husband and I took our dog, Annie, for a long walk.

As we marched along the street, I commented on the number of cars parked at the house next door and people coming and going with boxes and bags. I suddenly felt lonely and nostalgic for my mom and siblings. The word nostalgia still conjures up my yearnings for home. It’s not surprising that this word, which comes from the Greek, means homesick.

I’d spent many years away from the noise and busyness of my first family back on Vancouver Island, and every holiday for years, I felt sad rather than joyful. Even advertisements for long distance phone calling cards, especially the ones with grandparents and parents, children and teens laughing together under winking lights and festive candles, made me ache for the family gatherings of my childhood. I envied those who were connected and belonged. I felt that I did not.

Each time I rewrote and edited these Thou Shalt Nots, I wondered what lesson I was supposed to learn. Over time, I realized that the thoughts in these vignettes were what made me nostalgic. By writing about the loss of people and communities I had left behind so many times in my childhood, I was forgetting about the gifts of my transient childhood. I was choosing to be sad about things that were long past, things I couldn’t change.

The following Thou Shalt Nots came to me after our walk that day.

Thou shalt not covet holiday gatherings. Evening shadows cast by the setting sun creep across the yard and the prairie sky looks like a slice of peach pie topped by purple whipped cream. The spruce trees to the west are etched black against the fading light. Straggly vees of late-leaving geese warble overhead. The light from living room windows stitches a patchwork of yellow light on brown lawns. I peer into the living rooms of other people’s lives where families gather at festive tables or huddle in the flickering blue of TV football. I am like a little lost girl with her face pressed against the candy store window, the one who wishes for a taste of childhood Thanksgiving long since passed away.

Thou shalt not covet a place in the tribe. Leaves rattle across the pavement and autumn dust crunches under foot.  A crust of ice covers the puddles and the grass is coated with frost. I shiver. Some days, my heart seems frozen too, I feel restless and tossed about, rootless and ungrounded. I feel like an outsider in our community, even though I have lived here for more than 20 years. I envy the tribal roots others have.

Cinnamon coloured poplar hearts with jagged edges make a carpet under the trees as they have for hundreds of years. This leaf rot create food for next year’s growth and insulates roots from the winter cold. I love the wild woods close to our neighbourhood where aspen groves provide shelter for the young saplings, and as each one grows old, it feeds the life of the ones that come after. Deer, coyotes, porcupines and birds make their homes here. I wish I too could be a tree because they represent wisdom, growth and acceptance.

Along with yellowing pictures of my grandparents and little black and white photos of my parents on their wedding day, one of my favourites is of an old green cottage on Lake Mississippi in Ontario. I remember the few times we stayed at “The Elms” and what a delightful summer place it was. In particular, I remember my 8 year old self fishing for sunfish off the dock, wet footprints on gray weathered wood, the sound of loons and the reedy smell of lake shore. Inside, at night I felt comfortable and at peace under the handmade quilts my aunt made. My grandmother’s ashes are planted there among the elms. Those trees whisper to me now, telling me I do have a tribal place, a natural place where I do belong.

Thou shalt not covet history of place. On weekends, our daughter plays ringette. The local arena is filled with the sound of catcalls punctuated by whistle shrieks, voices floating in icy puffs, the swish of skate blades on artificial ice, and the slap of a rubber ring on the boards. I’m aware of the teenage boys at the snack bar, the ones in baggy pants, bleached hair spiked; tittering girls with glossed mouths and glittered hair; clutches of moms with coiffed grey hair, wearing leather jackets, carrying designer handbags, their wide buttocks in tight B.U.M. jeans. Ringette players like my daughter among them are groomed to curl and swoop, snowplow, deke, dart, wind up and let fly. I’m watching her easy manner with her team mates.

I wonder what it would be like to hang out with junior high school friends, see your grade 7 crush grow up and marry your best girlfriend from Brownies. What is it like to graduate from a local high school, get married at the church you were christened in, by the pastor who remembers you as the littlest angel from one Christmas long ago? What would you give to attend your own 25 year high school reunion and really understand the woven network of relationships in a small community?

My name was once scratched on a desk in a school. This was an act of disobedience and disrespect for property but it was also a lonely testament to classmates and community that I was there once, that I existed, evidence of my being aside from faded yearbook photos.

Thou shalt not covet a resting place. Along the bike path through the park are benches dedicated to community leaders. Across the river, I can see an old white church, its spire poking upward to the sky. I’ve been there, and marveled at the variety of people who are buried in the cemetery next to it. Memorial gravestones remember little children who died in an influenza outbreak in 1917, young men who give their lives in World War II and old couples married for 65 years, still together even in death.

I don’t remember cemeteries at the Army posts where I grew up. I don’t remember gravestones and resting places for weary foot soldiers heading to a final home. I once told my children to fling my ashes to the wind. This seems fitting for a woman who compares her soul to drifting mountain snow and seabirds floating on foamy whitecap waves. But now, I think my ashes could be planted beneath a tree so I can nurture it and feel the wind in my branches as it grows.

Thou shalt not covet writing by local authors. Writing is a time machine that allows me to accept and honour my past and see its relevance in my life now. The story of my family history, traditions, beliefs about community, and the emotions they stimulate, needs to be acknowledged and released. My story, both past and present, is unique to me and I will honour it.

I used to be afraid that Little Kathie would be lost without this childhood story of loss. I wanted to protect her so I continued to believe the myth of the separate Military Brat. It seemed so real at the time but after I wrote my Thou Shalt Nots, I felt less isolated, less alone, less crippled by my backward view.

Now I see that Little Kathie is intact and whole in the here and now. Her memories are in my writing and they are safe inside my adult heart.

 

Playing with Perspective

My first memory is of a tiny speckled bird shell. I remember wind blowing and dark earth. I cannot say where it was except that when I was three, we lived near Penhold, Alberta. I wrote a short story based on this momentary glimpse of innocence and wonder, and it brought back feelings about my parents, siblings, and summer picnics. Somewhere inside me, that curious child still lives.

I loved the outdoors back then. I was fascinated by caterpillars and feathers, dandelion seeds and ants. I loved to touch, smell, taste and observe the world around me. I noticed that round rocks roll and leaves fall down not up. In those days, at the playground, I tested my ability to climb, jump, swing and twirl. I developed physical strength, coordination and balance, as well as social skills, creative game playing, problem solving, confidence building, and a connection to people and place. At the time, I didn’t realize I was learning. It was all play to me.

What is your first memory?  Is it a small snippet without context? Writing about this memory in the present tense may bring up feelings about the experience. Feelings do not know the date and are just as powerful to your Child as they were when the feelings first arose.The gift of this approach to stories from childhood is described by Alice Miller in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child…”the experience of one’s own truth make it possible to return to one’s own world of feeling at an adult level – without paradise but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does give us back our vitality… awareness of old feelings is not deadly but liberating.”

Your story is unique because it is your perspective on events, a viewpoint that may be far from the factual truth but very accurate in terms of emotional and intellectual insight. Memory is unreliable because it comes to you as a reaction to a present event and manifests as a fleeting glimpse of a scene from childhood, an emotion such as fear or fun, an impression of a person, even a reaction to a smell. I recall tears welling up in my eyes once when I smelled pipe smoke. I turned toward the smell expecting to see my father smoking his corncob pipe even though he had passed away 30 years before. This is the power of memory.

Now, as I near “senior status” I’ve been visiting a new playground – the one in my imagination – where I can grow by playing with perspective. I’ve learned a great deal about my inner world by writing from my senses, feelings and especially, from my imagination. I can creatively capture a moment in a poem, a sentence, a story or vignette. I do not want to miss the miracles that occur every moment of every day, the way a Child perceives the world, free to explore and experience with the joyfulness of an open heart and mind.

I experienced this today when I stepped outside into cold winter air. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky. Chickadees hopped about in the spruce tree beside the deck. Snow glittered. As I write this now several hours later, I remember the feeling of cool air on my skin and the aliveness of the moment. I set aside my complaints about icy highways and wind chill factors and instead, choose to see the world with new eyes. This is the gift of your Inner Child.

 

Camping Revisited

 

I can revisit places and experiences from the past when I write stories, essays and poems. Now that I am older and wiser, I see things in a different way. On our last camping trip of the season one year, I discovered that storytelling also contributes to my growth.

Early in the summer, we took our RV to Long Lake Provincial Park, a well-kept, family-oriented getaway spot. Most campers abide by the late-night quiet rules, and aside from busy weekend afternoons when the jet skis and power boats roar up and down the lake, we take the most pleasure in nature at the sites with a view of the lake, some tall trees, and a reedy beach for the dog to have a swim.

Now, on our last outing of the summer, the cool October wind blows across the lake and makes us shiver as we step out of the truck to set up our trailer. Golden aspen leaves shush above us and a lone gull cries as it skims the whitecaps. After lunch, we hike up the trail and sit at the picnic table we used in early September. The breeze funnels down the road and whisks the leaves into mini-tornadoes. The grey ash in the fire pit is cold and lifeless with no hint of the snapping, fluttering and huffing warmth of our previous visit. No campfire smoke hangs in layers in the treetops either, and only the smell of leaf rot rides on the wind.

The sun is a white disk hidden behind a thin layer of cloud. The watery light intensifies as clouds thicken, and then, without warning, sunshine comes up like theatre lights. It sharpens the angles of the wooden posts, and defines the shadows of picnic tables on the grass. There are no lawn chairs in the sunny spots and no awnings for shade.

Down on the beach, the playground swings are pushed by ghosts, and the squeals and shouts of kids are silenced at the water’s edge. The only creatures on the sand are three gulls sleeping with their heads beneath their wings. I miss the sounds of summer the most: the laughter, the weekend neighbour tentatively playing Puff the Magic Dragon on a guitar, wind chimes plinking at the trailer down the way, and the faraway murmur of people in boats out on the evening water.

I take the best from each campsite: the view of the lake with boaters buzzing by, seadoos bucking and kids on tubes screaming with excitement; the one close to the boat launch where the dog has the best spot to dive into the cool lake and fetch her sticks, then return to shake water all over me. At that one, I could lie on the dock at night and see starlight reflected on the water. A third one has a picture window view onto the wilderness, spruce trees towering above dead poplar trunks full of sapsucker holes, the setting for a moose dripping marsh grass from its muzzle.

I have memories of childhood camping beside a stream somewhere in Ontario where raccoons ate the marshmallows right out of the picnic box; my sister’s pet turtle got away into the forest; we slept in a canvas tent big enough to fit all eight people in our family; my mother mending a rip in the roof with a curved surgical needle, dental floss and paraffin wax. I remember the taste of hot chocolate at the campfire and the evening warbling of loons.

I know I can never go back to these special moments from childhood or to the adult camping trips at Long Lake but I can recreate the emotions they engender. I can take details from a movie, pictures from a magazine or a story I read, and mix them together. Then I can recall the sound of the wind in the trees, the way ducks fly in formation at the edge of the lake, and how the stars pop out at night just when the light is nearly gone from the sky, and write to record.

The truth is, I can revisit my whole life this way. I can retell a story in a poem or a short vignette to re-experience pleasure or fun. I can also bring to mind a painful story and give it a new ending from the lessons I’ve learned. I can rewrite my life to heal.

The past is gone. All I have is the present moment when the Storyteller in me connects to you, the Reader, through our shared human experience. Our stories can unleash powerful emotions, allow us to explore difficult topics, bring new self-understanding and awareness of what is important. This is the gift of writing as legacy.

 

 

A Way to Me

I don’t create poetry, I create myself, for me my poems are a way to me.

~Edith Södergran

 

I love this quote. It speaks volumes about why I write poetry. A way into myself. A pathway. Like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale following a trail of breadcrumb words as the path through the forest unconscious.

A fellow poet once told me that getting words down on paper for creative purposes is like taking dictation, and that one can simply write what one hears. In order to listen intensely, one must be silent. Close your eyes for a moment and you will realize sounds are clearer, easier to follow for a longer time. I am a very visual person so closing my eyes sharpens my other senses. The wind whispers in the spruce tree. Traffic on the highway is distant, and fades into the background. Snow melts and water gurgles down the drainpipe.

It is a real gift to focus solely on sound. Poems present themselves through the hearing sense as a short burst of insight or an interruption in energy and this highlights the correlation with an abstract, like a thought, a feeling, or an intuitive urge.

I tend to write in short phrases, part sentences, short spurts and couplets. In fact, I prefer that in prose too. Call them what you will, writing comes to me that way. Another reason to love poetry. To take dictation, one must listen to the voices within –  voices of the ego, voices of reason, but especially words of the heart and the voice of Soul.

A writing instructor once commented that one must give a nod to writing conventions in poetry. I rebelled at the thought. In poetry, twisting the language, disregarding proper capitalization, or messing with punctuation is all part of the fun. In the flow of a river, there is an eloquent movement forward, and so it is with poetry regardless of the wandering nature of the words.

Following is a poem from Shadow Girls in the Spotlight one of my poetry books. I’ve inserted it here to illustrate this “way to me” concept. In the book, it is accompanied by a Reflection, a Soul Message and a Question for Reflection, just the way it appears here..

 

orphan annie

snowflakes cling to her eyebrows
leaf skeletons to her ragged shoes

the inner orphan annie
cries outside the frosty window

she wanders in the winter twilight
peeks in at lighted kitchens

abandoned waif with tattered heart
she has no hearth fire of her own

she bickers with her disowned selves
trying on faces in the glass

unsettled ragamuffin, survivor of unmet needs
she digs for scraps of self-acceptance
in the rubble heap of loneliness

she’s begging for a bellyful
of warmth and kindness
and loving home for all.

Annie’s Role: The Lost One

Reflection: When I was a child outside at night, I felt curious about other people’s lives when I looked into their lighted windows. Like a voyeur peeking into their lives, I was fascinated by the comfort and warmth they seemed to have. In the years after I left home, these lighted windows reminded of the childhood home from which I was separated.

I used to feel lost, as if others had security, love, and safety and I did not. After writing this poem, I began to see Annie as my Inner Orphan, a Shadow Self who needed a safe place inside me. She wanted a home for all the personality parts I had left out in the cold.

Heart Wisdom: You have a loving home in your heart for all your lost parts. All are welcome in your home.

Your Turn:  Is your heart home safe? If not, what can you do to make it so?

Poetry is indeed “a way to me” and an exploration into my Shadow, and the masks that my Ego created to protect my Heart.

 

This blog is a reprint of an article published on my website on March 25, 2015 and has been edited from the earlier version.

Bouquet for a Friend

 

There is nothing better than the encouragement of a good friend.

– Katharine Butler Hathaway

 

A few days ago, my husband and I had lunch with friends. Our conversation included chitchat about food, creativity, computers, weather and all manner of commonplace things. Afterwards, we shared lattes and more chat, about websites and the “work” we undertake, our processes and expression. I was happy to hear that others search for the purpose of their creative endeavours as much as I do. This kind of conversation lightens my heart and gives me hope. In the same way, after many years of creatively writing about life, I realize that my journal is also my friend and advisor because its pages also listen, without interruption or judgment, then help me formulate alternatives for moving forward.

As we drove home that day, ominous clouds raced along the horizon and autumn leaves chased each other across the highway, and as I watched them, I reflected on the pages and pages of unfinished writing projects waiting for me on my computer. They include keynote speeches, e-courses, workshops and three large writing projects in various stages of completion. What struck me was how, with a few words of encouragement from my friend, the spark of my enthusiasm for long neglected plans was fanned by cheerful words.

As I often do when a word pops into my mind during a conversation or in my thoughts, I search for it to learn its history and etymology. The word encourage, comes from a root word used the early 15th century, the Old French encoragier “make strong, hearten,” from en- “make, put in” + corage “courage, heart.” In short, my friend had given me a shot of courage!

Another word that comes to mind when I think of these friends and our lunch date is gratitude. That’s a blog for another day but suffice it to say, this word is older still, from Medieval Latin gratitude, and even earlier, Latin gratus, meaning thankful, pleasing. This is one of the attributes of my love affair with words. I can see the way a word travels through history. Courage and gratitude are timeless virtues that not only motivate our actions, but are also a consequence of them.

I offer you this bouquet of roses, my friend. I am feeling excited and motivated to move ahead. I really appreciate your love and encouragement.

When Will YOU Begin…?

 

Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning. – Joseph Campbell

 

Life will tell you when it is time. Life will call you to look for meaning. Many events can trigger this call. The best place to seek meaning is in your life story. You have been living your story for your whole life and your lived experience in the present moment will tell you when its time.

What sort of lived experience am I talking about?

  1. Look for meaning when chaos arrives in your life.

In 1998 when my daughter was in Grade 11, she began dating a boy. He was older, charming and exciting. One day, she announced she was leaving home. She quit school and moved into a small apartment with him. Life turned upside down! I had hopes and dreams for her, but they were not meant to be. Everyone in the family grieved the loss of her from our lives. Eventually, she got pregnant, they married in our back yard and my grandson was born shortly after.

  1. Look for meaning when your heart aches.

After my daughter left, my heart felt broken. Months later, it still hurt and I wanted to understand why. I needed a new perspective.

I began writing with other women: first about my parents, then my childhood, teenagehood, adulthood and present situation. I began to see how my story, my husband’s story, and our family sagas had converged in a perfect storm.

For the heart ache to heal, I needed to go back to the beginning to rediscover who I was then and now.

  1. Look for meaning when life feels pointless.

For a long time I ached to do something with the hurt of this loss.The story I told myself about my past as a transient military child made sense when I understood that my grieving of small and large losses was undeveloped. I learned that loss compounds if it is not released.But that was not the end of it. I learned that to be resilient, I had to open my heart and be present to my emotions right now. I needed to embrace what needed to be healed in me.

When I look back at this story with eyes of kindness, I realize how difficult this situation was for my daughter; perhaps even more than it was for me. She was so young and innocent. I remembered how difficult my life was when I left home too. I see the confidence and growth which has come from this struggle to be her own person. After all she has been through, I appreciate her strength. I, myself, grew in compassion, as I watched her break out of her cocoon and become a beautiful butterfly.

When you begin your journey into story, you too will see how events have meaning when viewed as a big picture.

Here’s how:

  • *Write the story of your life using stepping stones (events in which your life changed direction abruptly) as a guide. Simply listing these events is helpful. Stories can be as short as one page or as long as a book. Remember every event has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • *Write a memoir beginning with a small slice of your life; focus on one time period, or even one event.  Use the prompt, “This period of my life is like…” Then try another slice. And another.
  • *Create a fairy tale, a fantastic but universal, symbolic tale that embodies what you’ve learned from your life. Resonate with others through the common lessons in our human story.
  • *Write a poem or a series of poems using imagery, metaphor and rhythm. Let it express your story idea in a metaphoric way.
  • *Write a letter to a grandchild sharing what you have learned about life so far.

Look beneath the facts and discover the deeper meaning of things. Look for patterns. Question everything. Ask what touches you? Who do you love? What movies make you cry? What books do you devour? How do you deal with anger and other strong emotions? What is your body telling you about what works and what doesn’t? Follow the clues. You are a whole being. Search your body, your mind, your heart, your soul.

I ask you again. When will you begin the search for meaning in your story? Is now the time?