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 A slightly withdrawn child, in his own world, “Off with the fairies” his dad used to say.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.

Survival Day

Image of aboriginal flag with sorry in the background

My ancestors came by boat to this country
With arrogance and violence and ignorance
They made their home without regard for the spirit of this land
Without respect or care for her people
In 200 years very little has changed
Always was, always will be, aboriginal land.

My placenta is buried under a lemon scented gum in Mitcham
I spent my childhood holidays among granite mountains and wide beaches
Ormond point oversaw my first spiritual awakening
The great trees have guided and comforted me
When I have travelled I have yearned for these landscapes
This land has raised me, it is in my blood and bones, in the depths of my psyche.

The horror of our history is overwhelming
As much as I feel love and connection to this land
I am as a child playing by the ocean of indigenous understandings
All my life I’ve carried an ancestral guilt
The deeper I connect to this land
The more keenly I feel the damage done to the first peoples
The more I feel the personal loss of the knowledge they hold.

I love this land and I feel its claim on my heart
But it doesn’t belong to me
I can’t own the spirit of the land
I can only listen and serve and pay my respects
My spiritual connection gives me no rights
Only responsibilities.

And if I ever have the privilege of sitting with the elders
I would want them to know
As deeply as I love this place
I would give it up for our healing.

What I feel called to do is harder than that.

In giving my heart over to this country
I open myself to all the grief and love it has to offer
I feel the injustice of the ongoing process of colonisation
I see how my own spirit is dominated, controlled and subdued
Entwined with the land I love.

A tale of three worshops

Spontaneously dancing with my scarf in the Toolangi forest.

Spontaneously dancing with my scarf in the Toolangi forest.

I was really thrilled over the last few months to have had two invitations to do the Work that Reconnects at festivals. The first one was the Waking up the Spirit Skillshare weekend (with the Barkindji people north of the Murray River), the second was for the Toolangi Forest Secrets Festival (in the mountains past Healesville).

Neither event turned out quite the way I expected. I didn’t end up running full ‘Despair and Empowerment’ workshops. Instead I just stayed present and connected with people individually. On both occasions I had planned a variety of processes to share but when I got to the festival it just didn’t feel like the right ‘vibe.’

In between those two events I ran a truth mandala at my home for friends. I had about 8 people come and it was lovely, so beautiful to see people go from strangers to connection in two hours. It was also deeply satisfying to find that I am actually capable of following through on a facilitation commitment!

It feels timely to pause and reflect on these experiences. What does it mean that things didn’t go according to my plan at the festivals?

I really want to criticise myself. The difficult thing is that each time I chose to be present and be guided by what my instincts were telling me. In the moment I was fine with it and happy to accept the other connections I was making but now, in retrospect, I’m disappointed and wondering what the next step is for me. I really want to experiment with larger groups of people but I just don’t seem to be able to make it happen.

I’m not sure if I am not ready to facilitate in those situations or if people are not ready to participate, maybe it’s both. Not everyone sees the value in grief and I am not confident enough to force it on them. I seem destined to enlarge my circle one person at a time. Should I be content with that or am I keeping myself small?

Surrender

Surrender

Earlier this year at the Wild Mind festival I attended an embodied writing workshop with Maya Ward. As a poet I expected to write poetry. Much to my chagrin what came to me were some cheerful words and a snippet of melody. A week later it was still running around in my head so, even though I didn’t really like the melody, I took the time to sing it out and write some more lyrics.

The resulting song has been a prayer, an affirmation and a blessing. I have sung it to myself and to other people in my life whenever the reminder to surrender was needed. It has brought numerous people to tears (which I count as a good thing) and brought me enormous peace. Now I finally have the courage to share it:

Serenity, wonder and peace are yours
The infinite mystery of life
Wholeness, connection and balance are yours
If you surrender to strife.

Let go and let come
The earth will keep turning
The work will get done
Let go and let come
The universe is waiting for you.

Kindness, compassion and love are yours
Softness of a warm embrace
Happiness, humour and joy are yours
The laughter of children at play.

Let go and let come…

Silence and stillness and solace are yours
Because sometimes you must go within
Nurturing, comfort and weeping are yours
If you can learn to give in.

Let go and let come…

Envy and anger and greed are yours
Because they too have something to teach
Community,  family and friendship are yours
If in your heart you make peace.

Let go and let come…

The universe is waiting
Your own heart is waiting
And we’re all here waiting for you.

Dancing with shame

Back Creek heading into a tunnel

The other day I got to meet some awesome new people who are living close to the Earth, growing vegies in their backyard and building community. Lots of big ideas were thrown around about worker cooperatives, festivals and financial collapse. It was exciting but, if I’m honest, also a little intimidating. Why is it that instead of being happy about people embracing new ways of living/being I turn it into some kind of judgement on myself?

They had boxes and boxes of zines from Doing it Ourselves and were generously encouraging my friend and I to go through and take what we needed in exchange for a donation. My friend amassed quite a pile but when I looked at it I felt sick. I imagined reading all those ideas and strategies and comparing it to the life that I lead now and finding myself wanting. A pile of what could be a gateway to inspiration and creativity was looking to me like a big pile of shame – some kind of indictment on my way of being in the world.

I work full time in a public health organisation, I get paid to look at the big picture of what’s going on in society and develop strategies that will change the way people think and act so that we all have the opportunity to be healthier and more connected. I work with awesome people who are genuinely passionate about the work that we do and care very deeply about making the world a better place. And yet, yesterday, in a bid to garner the approval of these ‘cool new people’ I found myself dismissing my work and the way I feel about it by calling myself a ‘wage slave.’

I’m not writing this post to get sympathy for myself or to beat myself up, I just think the strength of my reaction is interesting and I’d like to unpack it. At the end of the day I was exhausted and fuzzy headed,upon reflection I wonder if this was the result of ‘performing’ for the ‘cool new people.’ One of the topics that came up in conversation was burn-out. Apparently there are a lot of people around suffering from burn-out and I wonder if there’s a connection. Burn-out is a product of doing too much, of feeling driven to perform, perhaps I’m not the only one who can feel berated by a stack of zines I haven’t even read yet.

Reflecting on the train this morning I wondered what would happen if I ran a workshop that deliberately created that sense of shame. Delivering to people a list of criteria for the ‘perfectly sustainable human’ and then inviting them to reflect on how this list makes them feel. When I think about shame in terms of the impact on our community rather than me personally I can see the insidious ways that shame operates to keep us small. Marketing is all about encouraging a sense of shame of ‘not enoughness’ that we must buy our way out of. When we are measuring ourselves against the standard of ‘perfectly sustainable human’ we are perpetuating a cycle that prevents us from opening up, connecting with others and creating the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Activists, radicals and other idealists have the courage to see what is wrong with the world and dare to hope for something better. They carry the shame of humanity on their backs, but if their action is borne of shame it will inevitably lead to burn-out and if they are judging themselves they are bound to judge others and create disconnection along the way. We need to name this shame collectively, to bring light to it, and support each other to operate from a place of love and care. As one of the ‘cool new people’ pointed out to me, in practice our actions may look very similar but when the feeling that drives us is love, our lives can be gentle, peaceful and nurturing as well as revolutionary.

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.

Your tears are sacred

image

Some things are so big you can’t possibly write about them.

Three months ago I flew to Colorado to spend a week in the wilderness on a vision fast with a group of magnificent women. All the way there I wondered why I was flying halfway around the world to connect with the Earth when I feel so connected to the Australian landscape. The whole journey was about surrender, about feeling called and acting on impulse, about letting myself be helped and carried by the people around me.

When I arrived in Colorado my heart broke open with the beauty of it. Those mountains!! Those delicious, incredible, magnificent mountains. “No wonder” I said to my generous host “American’s like big cars and big houses, anyone would feel insignificant next to that!” I enjoyed feeling dwarfed, having a real sense of my humble place in the scheme of things.

Somehow the long journey, the altitude and the jetlag conspired to leave me vulnerable and weepy but rather than fight it, I saw this as a blessing. It stripped layers of reserve off me, here on the other side of the world, far from family and broken relationships, I could lay down the burden of grief I’d been carrying. I spent much of the first two days in tears, I was beginning to feel self-conscious about it when one of our guides, a woman of few words and an impressive herstory of wild Earth love, looked me in the eye and said “your tears are sacred.”

I cannot tell you the relief those words inspired in me. “Here you are safe,” they said, “Here you are enough. Just be.”  I have had the great honour of offering those four simple words to a number of people in my life. Each time I have witnessed the gentle sag of shoulders as they relax into their grief. Recently as I cried in the arms of my new love, she offered them back to me. What a beautiful place the world would be if we were all able to hold this understanding in our hearts and minds – your tears are sacred.

People seem to fear tears, fear the discomfort of grief but I have found it is only repressed emotion that is truly discomfiting. After and between and through my tears, up there in the mountains, was a boundless joy. The remote valley where we stayed was alive with new creatures and I was in a perpetual state of wonder. Thrilling to the sound of chipmunk chirps, delighting in their feathery tails and observing their movements with rapt attention.  Every bird and butterfly was a visitation, the whole valley seemed to rise to my attention, almost showing off.

Around the circle I laughed at myself, bashfully admitting that I felt like Snow White, surrounded by birds and small mammals. Our guide looked me in the eye once more and said “You have come here, across the world, and offered your loving attention, why would the land not respond to that?”

Last Friday I had the great priviledge of watching Tanderrum, the ceremonial coming together of the five language groups of the Kulin nation, the local Aboriginal people and custodians of the land where I live. It was beautiful and moving, only the second time the ceremony has been carried out since colonisation.  I cried most of the way through for reasons that are difficult to articulate. I kept wondering if it was wrong to cry, disrespectful or embarrassing,  but our guide’s words rang in my head and my heart “your tears are sacred, your tears are sacred, your tears are sacred.”

Wild at heart

I love this article from the Huffington Post UK. It’s an elegant articulation of a number of complex ideas that seem to be coming together in the human psyche at the moment. I have noticed though, that there tends to be an othering of nature that happens as part of this narrative of reconnection. 

wpid-imag0718.jpg
I agree that it’s easier to see ourselves as part of a greater whole when we are overwhelmed by the more than human. Going to places that haven’t been obviously rearranged by human hands can be a humbling experience and that humility is crucial to the shift in consciousness that is needed. But unless we can bring that humility and that recognition of our place in the larger whole into our cities and human communities, our work will be fruitless.
 
This is a critique borne of my own frustration. The conditions of my life require me to live in the city and give me very few opportunities to ‘escape’ into the wilderness. I need to be nourished and nurtured by the more than human world as much as anyone but I can’t do it in the traditional way of ‘going bush.’ I am slowly developing practices for myself that help me ground my sense of connection in the places where I live, work and play. Perhaps the judge sits in my own heart but I feel these practices are overlooked or undervalued by my deep ecology friends and by the broader narrative of ‘nature connection.’ As though they are merely stop gap measures until I can get out into the ‘real’ wildness again.
 
If we are truly to see ourselves as part of nature rather than dominating it we need to radically rethink the dichotomy that says ‘nature’ is in our national parks and not in our cities. We need to take our hearts, awakened to wildness and use them to see the land where we live. Our great teachers in this could well be our children, the young ones haven’t yet learned to pay more attention to ‘human’ objects over non-human ones. Those of us who don’t have children may have memories of the way we used to play, the trees and flowers that drew our attention. The things that fired our imaginations and filled our hearts with joy. As Mary Oliver so eloquently put it we need to “Let the soft animal of [our] body love what it loves” and we need to do it wherever we are. 
 
The day after my walk along Back Creek, a gathering entitled “Rewilding the Urban Heart” was advertised on Facebook – to say that I am excited would be a massive understatement.

Ode to rubbish

Rubbish bins or sacred crucibles?(Dedicated to The Order of the Rubbish)

Garbage men are magicians
They take our waste to the mythical realm ‘Away’
We take sacred matter and make it profane
We remove it from the cycle of life, death and rebirth
We call it ‘rubbish’ we call it ‘waste’
Then we give it to the garbage men
And they bury our shame.

This is how the archaeologists of the future will know us
By the buried remnants of our fear of death
A fear that may yet kill us.

The oceans are full of plastic
The ground is desecrated by our waste
Our obsession with immortality has broken the very thing we long for.

In my future, garbage men are shamans
Mystical midwives of matter
They speed it on it’s journey from one form to the next
Reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle
In nature the waste of one is nourishment to another
This is alchemy
This is eternity
Let go your fleeting form and become.

Introducing Back Creek

About seven years ago now I discovered that I have lived by a creek for most of my life. Back Creek is a tributary of Gardiner’s Creek (formerly Kooyongkoot Creek) which is a tributary of the Yarra River (also known as Birrarung).

1871 Map of Boroondara Shire with Back Creek highlighted

This map of the Shire of Boroondara circa 1871 confirms the original path of the creek (and a number of others besides). The green line is Kooyongkoot/Gardiner’s Creek, the light blue is Back Creek and the purple lines are Canterbury, Riversdale and Toorak Roads (from top to bottom), they should help to orient you if you live locally.

In environmental circles it’s widely recognised that connecting with ‘nature’ is important. Most people tend to think that the only way to do this is to go out into the wilderness where the human is dwarfed by the more-than-human. But what if it’s not?

The environmental crisis requires us to live more efficiently, with smaller footprints. It doesn’t make sense for all of us to go and live in the wilderness so we can stay mindful of our true place “in the family of things.” We need to look with new eyes, to see the wildness in our own backyards, our cities and suburbs, to see that we are part of a greater whole no matter where we are.

To this end I am planning a walk along the length of Back Creek. This journey is significant because the reason I didn’t know I lived near a creek is that it mostly runs underground in barrel drains. I’m not sure what it will be like to walk it, whether the land still gives clues as to the creek’s location.

Much of its length is now parkland and walking trails, a few short sections are open to the sky. It is cared for by council staff and ‘friends’ groups made up of local residents. I am in the process of collecting stories and information, if you have any to share please get in touch.

I invite you to join me on an adventure, on Sunday 27 July 2014, into the history of land, people and home. Come see the wildness in our streets. The creek may be covered but traces remain for those with eyes and heart to see.