Elegy for a row of poplars

Elegy for a row of poplars

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I understand the needs of civic offices
I know a dying tree can drop a branch
Or topple whole upon some hapless passer by
But my heart grieves for your passing.

You and your siblings were guardians of this street
Every morning you witnessed my passing
Along with so many other busy humans.

Tenderly you gave us shade
Releasing the breath of life
Even as you drank in ours
My heart is humbled by your generosity.

I hope in death you have the opportunity
To pass on your precious nutrients
That your spirit may live on through other beings.

I hope the one who cut you down
Opened their heart to your glory
And gave thanks for your magnificent life
As I do.

and so it begins…

A European wasp

A European wasp, or vespula germanica. Wikimedia Commons: Richard Bartz

Climate change is a kind of creeping death, so gradual that I almost don’t notice it. It’s there in the back of my head though, whispering to me on hot days or big weather events. Climate change, climate change, climate change.

I haven’t ever associated it with anything tangible though. I don’t live close enough to the Earth, don’t spend enough time observing the more than human to notice any incremental changes. I’ve noticed no plants or insects or animals growing in new places or behaving strangely. Until now.

I can’t remember who first mentioned the wasps. I think my ex-wife told me they had to move our son’s birthday party indoors to avoid them.

At a cafe a week later I noticed them swarming over someone’s bacon. The waiter told the customers that he’d complained to council but there’s nothing they can do. Wasps can smell food over a kilometre away and it is almost impossible to track them back to their nest.

On a bushwalk in Daylesford last weekend I was struck by their ever-present hum. There were so many hovering around the mainstreet I had to keep the windows closed when I drove past.

My son told me that his kinder friend’s mother had been bitten on the lip while eating bacon and his friend had been stung too. It is a fear that looms large in his small world and is no doubt shared by his friends and their parents.

Via these small moments the wasps entered my field of vision. Then I saw this article on my newsfeed. It turns out the whole of Melbourne has a wasp problem. My attention was captured by one line in particular from the entomologist:

we’ve had a mild summer and a mild winter before that

Climate change, climate change, climate change.

And so it begins.

The wasps are harbingers. Their presence fills me with dread but it’s not the sting that worries me, it’s the myriad unknown changes to come.

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.

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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?

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

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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.”

Grief and gratitude

I seem to be pulled toward grief and gratitude at the moment. On the face of it, according to common understanding, it seems incongruous like being pulled in different directions. From the inside though the connection is seamless, grief and gratitude entwine each other, the latter is a balm for the former.

Earlier this year my 4 year old moved up to the kinder room and was quite sad about the loss of his beloved child care room. I mentioned this to a colleague at work who responded with enthusiasm. “That’s great, he must have felt really loved where he was.” Her response shifted my thinking and inspired me to tell Mr A “I know you feel sad and that’s okay. That sadness tells us that we loved something so what we can do is be grateful and say thank you. Thank you child care room, thank you toys, thank you carers.”

Some weeks later I cradled Archie, my beloved dog of ten years, as he lay on the threshold of death. I was moved in that moment of letting go to give thanks for the life we had shared and wrote the below poem in his honour.

Poem of gratitude to my dog

At the Wild Mind Gathering I offered a ritual of grief and later a song of gratitude. The song was inspired by the joy of finding community but the grief of separation was just around the corner. I knew everyone would share my pain at leaving such a beautiful space of connection and sharing, so I offered my thanks for what we had created together.

Joanna Macy says that gratitude is a revolutionary act. Gratitude says “I am enough. I have enough.” The danger in grief is that the pain will lead us down the path of fear and scarcity, closing us off to love. Gratitude stops the descent and holds us in grief as a pure expression of love.

Grief is becoming a friend to me. It shows me that I’m alive, that I am capable of love and that I am engaged in the world. I am learning to be grateful for the pain of grief and finding that the more I embrace it, the more it sets me free and the more open I am to embracing the love that comes my way. I am grateful for all the people, things and moments that I have loved and lost for helping me learn this lesson.