On feelings and fires

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There are four people in my online networks who are directly impacted by the recent Australian bushfires. Their posts punctuate my newsfeed with descriptions of repeated evacuation, observations of the fire’s impact on wildlife or community and acknowledgement of the emotional toll this taking on them. Some of these people are very dear to me. I have stayed in their home, been warmly welcomed by their community, felt relaxed and rejuvenated in their presence.

When I read their posts, the impact of the fires feels close. Particularly when the smoke is blowing across Melbourne. We wake to an orange sun and hazy air. My partner’s asthma gets activated and I go looking for face masks. I feel kind of silly when I wear one (am I being melodramatic?) but I appreciate the difference it makes. The subtle headache that has been building begins to dissipate and I think “Cigarettes, it’s like smoking cigarettes. I don’t want to breathe that in.”

The sadness comes in waves. Mostly I stuff it down under a layer of grumpiness, a mixture of sadness anxiety and rage. I spread generous helpings of grumpiness upon the people in my life and then go to social media and generate more by raging against politicians.

At one point I came across the Wildlife Rescue Craft Group and I was super excited. I am an accomplished crochet master and here, at last, was a helpful task uniquely suited to my skills. No more grumping at everyone and stuffing my face full of chocolate, now I could make pouches for super cute singed wildlife.

The online group was full of heartwarming stories of folks in foreign countries coming together to support the wounded wildlife of Australia with bat wraps and joey pouches. Within days all my warmth evaporated as it became clear that the international fervour had more than met the needs of wildlife carers and their patients. “What about me?” I yelled at my laptop “I’m right here in Melbourne and I need to do something constructive! You bloody bastards have gone and done it all, now there’s nothing left for me.”

I see folks out there feeding wildlife and I want to feed wildlife, I want to make it better. Anything to avoid the small voice in the back of my head saying “It’s January, it’s only January.” and “This is just the beginning, it’s going to get worse.” Years of long, hot summers stretching out ahead, years of bigger and bigger fires, years of background anxiety that starts in December, in November, in October and extends into March and April and May. Years of face masks becoming a common place reality, of cancelling summer camping trips, of summer camping becoming a thing you just don’t do anymore. And the animals, observing the birds that I so love to watch, gradually disappear.

This time the fires haven’t struck the places I have deep long-term connections with but I know it is only a matter of time. I can hear the bell toll. Please give me something to do, anything, anything to drown it out! Anything to avoid the catastrophe that has already been guaranteed by the last twenty years of carbon emissions.

I find myself in a Heart Sharing Circle, sitting with 60 other people in the bottom of the Rialto. We are not here to take action. We are here to feel. We are here to witness and be heard.

I check in with two good friends and use my three minutes to rant about all those greedy foreign crafters. I link it back to colonisation, the Western Settler’s incapacity to grieve, to feel into their impact on the Earth. The grief that might serve to inspire right action, right relationship, the grief that might actually put a check on our voracious industrial appetites and over consumption. The grief that is actually love if only we would turn toward it instead of away into busyness.

“What I really want from all those people overseas is for them to share their grief! I want them to share theirs so that I can be brave enough to feel mine. I want the grief to flow so that it can bring its gifts of connection and love and so that I can feel a little bit less alone.”

All this running around, donating, crafting, visiting with empty chilly bins, organising fundraisers, protesting, coming up with big ideas, “How can I help??? What can I doooooo??” Suddenly revealed as a desperate attempt to avoid the grief that permeates my life like smoke.

And of course, as I make my demands of the mythical ‘them’ I realise the work that is mine. It is time to make use of the capacity I have been cultivating all my life (particularly in the last couple of years) to sit with grief.

There has never been a more urgent time for me to stop and slow down and feel.

Reclaiming anger

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It is 10.30 on a Saturday morning and I am sitting on the floor in front of a woman with a rolled up towel laid out in front of me like a samurai sword. I bow over the towel and take seven deep breaths then I lift it over my head and yell “Ha!” as I whack it onto the floor in front of me. Continue reading

Stepping into the space between

Australian magpie in flight.

It’s been a number of months since I completed the Space Between Stories online course with Charles Eisenstein. At the time I was mildly disappointed, I wanted to change direction and I thought the course would do that or at least point the way. Instead it pretty much confirmed the holding pattern I was already in. The various speakers seemed to suggest that the right moment would present itself without my control.

At the time this was frustrating, I went to a three day retreat in the middle and was bouyed up by the beautiful community of deep ecologists and spiritual Earth seekers, which only compounded my dissatisfaction with my ‘ordinary’ life and with the artifice of the Space Between Stories online community. Now though I have to acknowledge those speakers were right.

Three weeks ago I resigned from my very secure, reasonably well-paid bureaucratic position in a government institution. The work I did there was good work, the people I worked with were lovely and all had their hearts in the right place. There were opportunities for me to learn and grow and make a difference in the world but it was prey to the usual frustrations of working in strict hierarchies. I’ve known for some time that I needed to leave but I wasn’t sure of my next step and then, after a particularly difficult week, the answer was startlingly clear. I just had to quit.

I did it with grace, ruffling as few feathers as possible but it got to the point where I just knew I couldn’t work there anymore and so I resigned without knowing what the ‘next step’ would be.

Over the past three weeks a number of ‘next steps’ have presented themselves to me. Things that I never even thought possible have been offered. What is even more surprising is that each week my ideas about what I want to do in life and my vision for the future have changed and deepened. Things that I thought I wanted have been rejected in favour of more radical paths, paths that I hadn’t even been aware of until I gave myself permission to dream larger, until I chose to step out of the structures that were keeping me secure.

I am taking this opportunity to experiment with following my heart. I don’t know what the future will look like but I know that the Earth will be at the centre of my life. I want to prioritise my relationship with the more-than-human and see where it leads. I look forward to sharing the journey with you!

The power of presence

My son and my mother walking together.

On the face of it the Forum process is deceptively simple. A group of people sit in a circle and silently offer their presence to one another as they take it in turns to step into the middle and speak about what is going on for them. A facilitator sometimes asks questions of the person in the middle or offers various techniques to encourage them to go deeper into what they are feeling. When each person finishes their time in the centre, the silent witnesses are invited to become mirrors and offer reflections. They speak in third person about what the protagonist shared, what they noticed or what resonated with them.

Continue reading

He left his glasses in the trunk

He left his glasses in the trunk

Martin didn’t always love plants but he’d always been awkward. A slightly withdrawn child, in his own world, “Off with the fairies” his dad used to say. The words made him shrink a little as he slunk off into the garden.

He would have liked to be surrounded by friends but somehow, couldn’t manage it. Other children looked sideways at his quirkiness, it interrupted the flow of the ordinary. They didn’t quite understand what he was saying but felt shown up by it anyway. They covered their confusion by giggling behind their hands at him. He, feeling hurt, retreated further into his flights of fancy.

The trees were what brought him out. At first they were merely a backdrop, characters invested with his imaginings. Then, as he began to whisper his secrets to them, they became his friends. Finally, as the self obsession of adolescence gave way to a mature interest in the world, he found that trees have secrets of their own.

He developed an eye for green and growing things, noticed them everywhere and delighted in their determination. Moss-lined gutters, weeds poking up through cracks in the footpath, an impromptu garden in a long forgotten laneway. He was inspired by things that grew in adverse conditions.

For a time he buried the quirky, imaginative child under the weight of scientific enquiry. He dressed in brown and beige, wore his glasses high on his wide nose and focused on his studies. He never stopped speaking to the trees, though if you asked him he would have said he was speaking to himself.

It became his habit to walk each day by the river at Burnley and it was there he attracted the attention of a particularly ancient tree.

The tree was fond of the way Martin addressed her and her colleagues as so few humans do. She could feel the respect and admiration Martin directed toward them, and the tree, very slowly in the way of old trees, made up her mind to reward him.

So it was that one day Martin, frustrated at a failed experiment wished aloud that he could make things grow. The tree sighed with delight and Martin turned to see who interrupted his solitude.

There was no one there but Martin found himself overcome with dizziness. He sat abruptly as the whirling passed from his head and his whole body began to shiver uncontrollably. When the seizure passed, Martin sat up, gazing blearily at the world. It was then he noticed his hands. Gasping in amazement he held them up to face. They were quite green.

He pulled up his jumper to find that it wasn’t just his hands, his whole body was green. He thought it must be some kind of sick joke. For several minutes he stared up at the sky wondering about dye falling from above. The sky was empty as was the park around him. Shaking his head in bewilderment, Martin headed home.

In his small bedsit he headed for the shower. The green wouldn’t budge. No matter how hard he scrubbed, the water ran clear and his skin remained resolutely green. Martin felt sick, drying himself off, he headed for the kitchen. He busied himself, making a cup of tea, still shaking his head with disbelief, too preoccupied to notice the tiny buds of green popping out of the floorboards.

It was the tea leaves that alerted him to his new power. As the teapot steeped he brushed stray leaves off the bench into his hand. He turned to the sink to let them go only to find a handful of green leaves in their place. Martin shook his head, seeing but unable, unwilling to comprehend. He stood at the sink transfixed, staring at his palm in disbelief.

The tea leaves continued to unfurl, gently tickling his palm as they came to life. A movment at the edge of his vision drew his attention to the floor. He could see, precisely the path he had taken from bathroom to kitchen bench. Each footprint was now neatly outlined in bark, small shoots sprang forth and were just beginning to bud into leaves.

Martin quickly turned back to the teapot, letting the handful of leaves drop to the floor. Carefully placing the strainer, he took refuge in the ordinary ritual of pouring. Time slowed as he narrowed his attention to sugar and spoon, losing himself in the whirl of brown as he stirred. He resolved to finish his tea and take himself to bed, hoping that sleep would erase the insanity his senses were delivering to him.

Sleep came quickly but provided little relief. He dreamed of vines that reached for him, chasing him through the bush. He hurled himself at last against the trunk of a tree, climbing upward only to find himself sinking into woody fleshy. He struggled to free himself, shaking his arms but as they swayed, rustling the leaves over his head, he realised it was too late. The only trace of the man he had been were the glasses embedded in his trunk.

He was woken by music. Instinctively rubbing his eyes, he was relieved to discover he could move. He rolled out of bed and went in search of the melody’s source. It was not a sound that was captured by his ears so much as his heart, awakening a curious longing within him.

As he entered the kitchen the music changed, brightened and he was arrested by the sight of the flower pot on the window sill. The flowers didn’t exactly turn to face him but with a warm thrill, he could feel their regard. The song of welcome and gratitude emanating from the plant was the most beautiful thing Martin had ever heard in his life. In that moment he forgot his troubles. He reached for the flower pot and, cradling it in his arms, he sat on the floor and wept.

The music opened doors in his heart. Every petty hurt, every moment of beauty and gratitude, every grief and every love were woven into the flowers’ song. The plant’s previous life under fluorescent lights in a shop were woven next to Martin’s lonely childhood. Martin could feel his care for the plant mirrored back to him, amplified along with his own life story. For the first time in his life he felt understood, in all his beauty and complexity. “I see you,” the plant seemed to say, “and I know how you feel.”

Martin felt overwhelmed by the pull of belonging. Looking around the kitchen he took note of saplings, rooted in the floorboards and now reaching toward the ceiling. He found he could feel them too, yearning for life, for sunlight and rain. He threw open the curtains and turned on the taps, filling an empty bowl he slowly, reverently began to water the small trees. Their response was swift and joyful, Martin’s face was wet with tears as he surrendered to the beauty of their music.

*This story was inspired by Gary Hirsch’s workshop ‘Making art and giving it away.’ Read about my initial experience here.

The magic of empathy

Last week I posted about tears so it seems fitting that this week the theme for me is empathy. I came across the above video last year some time when I was completely obsessed with Brene Brown (note: I am still in love with her ideas but I tend to mention them weekly now instead of every hour). The way people respond to our grief, vulnerability and emotions in general can have a profound effect on us.

For me there is a very clear link between numbing our emotions and a host of environmental issues from problematic consumption to our inability to respond appropriately to extinction. There is also a positive aspect, that when we are connected with our hearts we are more able to come up with creative solutions and cooperate with our fellow beings (human and otherwise).

The first step in becoming empathetic with people around you is learning to sit with the discomfort of vulnerability/strong emotions. Being able to genuinely support someone else through tough times requires an ability to be uncertain and avoid slipping into the trap of ‘fixing’ what is going on for them. This is something I have been guilty of many, many times throughout my life, I have written poems about my addiction to ‘fixing’ people. Who doesn’t love the ego trip of knowing that you’ve sorted out someone else’s life for them and the hook of knowing you are needed?

This week I have had the privilege of witnessing a number of precious humans in varying states of vulnerability and it has brought home to me again and again the power of being present, of witnessing and reflecting their words from the heart. In practice these things don’t feel like much, I often feel quite helpless as I reflect someone’s difficulties a response like “Wow, it sounds like you are feeling really vulnerable.” or  “Oh it must be so scary that your mother could die any day now.” seem kind of lame. Even as I write those words I am feeling a little teary at the enormity of what some of my friends are going through and as I listen to them I am regularly speechless. Instead of rushing to avoid my anxiety I have learned to sit with it, to name it (as the video suggests), to be comfortable with my own silence or to name my deeper feelings.

What I also see in my friends though, as well as their pain, is an opportunity for love and openness. “You are feeling this grief right now because you love your mother, that’s a beautiful thing.” “You are feeling uncertain right now because you are daring to take a different path in your life.” Being able to reflect that larger context is an important way of holding them in the discomfort of the present. I am aware of being very delicate with this though because it is a short step from here to ‘silver lining.’ It’s important not to use the larger context to negate their feelings or rush them through it.

The final thing I offer, and this is taken straight from Brene, is ‘me too.’ Advice is terrible but stories are brilliant. Advice says “I know better than you.” Stories say “I have been there and this is what happened.” Stories allow space for other people to take what they need from your experience, sometimes you will know what they are going to take but sometimes it will be something completely unexpected. You have to be open enough and humble enough to share your experience and let the other person make meaning from it. You can tell them what it meant for you and what you feel you learned (the deeper and more honest you can be the better) but you can’t tell them what they should learn.

The act of empathy feels sacred to me, it is holding space for others to unfold. All humans are empathic, if they don’t demonstrate it it’s because they have learned to shut it down. The only way to open them up again is to create safe spaces for them to step into. Everyone has the means within themselves to overcome what ever they are facing. All this week I have witnessed people coming to a place of calm and finding that they already have the answers they seek. To me it feels like magic because what is required of me is actually very little, as though I’m just standing next to them while they fumble with their keys and open the door. They just need to feel safe enough to trust what they already know.

Open letter to Gary Hirsch

This is me with my new piece of art at Gary's 'Cocreation Lab.'

This is me with my new piece of art at Gary’s ‘Cocreation Lab.’

Dear Gary,

I loved your world domination summit workshop. I’ve been reading the book you gave us (Everything’s an offer) and I think it was very wise to give us the book with your art. For me it has been something of an instruction manual.

The piece of art I picked out on the day was not my first choice. I couldn’t see how it related to the kinds of things I want to write about. As a poet my inspiration has always come from being present to the deepest parts of myself. I couldn’t quite see how to bring that to your drawing. But I read the book and I was so impressed by your generosity that I wanted to rise to the challenge. You embody the kind of world I want to live in so I am very motivated to accept your offer.

Last night a friend stood me up for dinner so I read some more of the book, and turned my attention to your drawing. It still didn’t speak to me but I figured the least I could do was colour it in. I like flowers so I started with them. He seemed like a nerdy guy so I went on and gave him a brown cardigan. Then it started to feel like a routine, I could see where it was heading. I wanted to mix it up and I didn’t have a pink pencil for his skin, so I made him green and that’s when the magic happened.

A new beginning, Gary's picture coloured in and a story snippet.

A new beginning, Gary’s picture coloured in and a story snippet.

A green man gives rise to a whole lot of questions. By the time I finished colouring I had some words, a snippet of story. I wrote what I had across the top of the page and tweeted it. I wanted you to know straight away that I was on board. What’s more the story that emerged is entirely connected to the issues and themes that interest me but in an entirely unexpected way.

I feel like I’ve learned a heap of things from this process:

  • That letting go can sometimes return you to yourself from a new direction.
  • That you don’t have to know what the outcome will be and you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to accept the offer as best you can in that moment. I felt like sending you a colourful version of your drawing would have been a lame response to the task but I had to do something and that was all I could see.
  • That stepping into the unknown is possible, you don’t have to feel inspired to be engaged.

Thank you again for your generosity, I also used your three favourites activity at work, it went down a treat.

Yours sincerely,
Kiri
Melbourne, Australia

Note: for more details on the workshop go read Gary’s blog post.