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.

 

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.

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?

Meet Judge Judy

 

On Tuesday, I drove to a retreat centre not far from my home city. I’d been planning sanctuary time for myself to simply stare out the window and listen to the quiet. I arrived just after 10 o’clock in the morning feeling rushed from preparing food for my family to eat in my absence and meals to bring with me. I’d spent the evening before packing clothes and books.

After arrival, it was walk time. I kicked through the autumn leaves collecting on the sidewalk, and remembered how much my Inner Child loves the fall. The cool wind invigorated me. Back inside, I found my little room at the end of a long hallway. I closed the door, unpacked, and settled into an armchair with my unopened journal in my lap. I sat for the long time in a blue rocker watching two gulls sailing on the wind above the trees outside the window.

In recent weeks, I’d been pushing myself to get my new website up, running, and with the help of a fabulous web designer, work out all the wrinkles. Now I wanted to compose something positive to send out into the world in my new blog. I wanted the piece to be simple and direct, something to affirm goodness and love. I wanted something to inspire my new readers.

When I opened my journal, a folded paper fluttered to the floor. After packing up my writing bag, I’d tucked it between the pages and forgotten about it. I had written, “Why do I get so caught up in judging my own writing?”

The whole point of the blog is to talk about writing to grow, the site theme. As I sat in the silence I wondered about the link between my self-judgment and my learning. Maybe a dialogue with judgment could help me. I’d used this writing technique before to connect with different parts of my personality. Not surprisingly, a conversation with one of my Shadow Girls began almost instantly.

These characters come to me with names to match their identities. I wrote a book about them, imagining their roles and purpose in my life. In our talks, I’ve learned some interesting things about myself. Their voices speak truths, when I read between the lines, and they hold opportunities for me to stretch and grow.

Today in the silence of my nun’s cell, I could hear one of  Inner Selves, Judge Judy, tapping on the window. She looks like one of the magpies I saw on my walk, dressed officially in her black and white robes and powdered wig. She whispers, “Tell the truth and nothing but the truth!” “The truth will set you free.”

On the page, Judge Judy asked me, “What have you got to say in your defense? What are your arguments and excuses?” She’s waiting for the right moment to leap to the Prosecution side and ask pointed questions. I have to admit, I’m a bit scared of her tactics. “You’re not a real writer. Your writing has no depth. You’re too serious. No doubt about it, your subjects are just too personal. You’re really going to write about that!? Are you really going to put that out there for the world to see? What’s going to happen when you hang out your dirty laundry?” And then the kicker, “Your writing is just too dark!”

I try using logic. What’s so awful about admitting I’m a judger? I’m not an ax murderer or a bank robber. Everybody makes judgments about one thing or another. Society does it. Politicians do it.

And she says, “You do it! In spades! You’re a self-judger of the worst kind.” That feels awful, like a punch in the stomach. “Stop it!” I write.

Judge Judy bangs her gavel down. “Quiet in the courtroom!”

Now I’m feeling ashamed, inadequate as a person and as a writer. And I feel a headache coming on. I’m feel like I want to run away and hide.

I turn my attention from my insufficiencies and decide to look deeper for some saving grace. Maybe I can find a shred of compassion for my unskilled reaction to her accusations. After all, this is a blog, not a court room.

Then I address myself, “You want to write a blog to connect to people? Right? You sure you want to share what you’ve learned from writing?

“Well, yeah. I guess so.” I’m not so sure anymore.

Judge Judy sums it all up, “You want to write about blame and judgment in a blog? Then you need a more loving response. You know, ask the mercy of the court.”

“Yes,” I say meekly, “In my heart, I’m a good person! I do have a light side, a kind side. And I want to be free from judgment.” And she says, “Then don’t run away. Turn toward the fear of exposing your vulnerabilities. Surrender.”

Judy likes to have the last word, and she says, rather kindly, “Find a little courage to overcome your fear. You’ve done it before. Be grateful for the creativity you use to expose your own masks and frailties. Others need reprieve too, especially when they feel alone in their own self-judgment.”

I look up from my journal and catch a glimpse of a seagull soaring on the wind outside. I turn back to the Judge on the page, “That’s a truth of mine, you know. To be with others when they feel alone.” But she’s gone and its okay. I’ve invited my truth into the room; that’s enough for me.

I close my eyes. Listen to the silence. I feel better now. Freer to listen to my heart and more open to what touches me.