October 31, 2007


Walking into stillness

It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness. —Pema Chodron

Perhaps the best part of spending four days at a monastery is the experience of finding space and stillness. Of course, for me stillness doesn't necessarily mean sitting still. When I want to escape my own circling thoughts, I usually go outside for a walk. I need the rhythm of my muscles moving and the sound of my breathing to help me achieve that stillness, that spaciousness.

All around the monastery are miles of hiking trails that go up and down the hills, along the edges of sheep pastures and through the forest. The monks keep about 300 sheep so the pastures are pretty extensive. The fluffy white bodies of the sheep contrast with the brilliant fall foliage and still-green fields. The pastures are edged by woods, mostly on the steep hillsides, woods that smell of dead leaves and mud.

I kept my winter coat buttoned against the cold wind that rushed against my face, swept through my brain, and kept me awake and alert and very much in the present moment. From atop a hill, I looked down at the monastery, the white steeple just visible amongst the trees. How different things look when I am able to pull back and gaze at them from a different perspective. I walked until my fingers were numb with cold, and then I retreated to the chapel. Shivering, I pulled open the heavy wooden doors and stepped into the warm, musky air. That familiar smell of incense and melting wax is a scent that always makes me feel safe.

Inside the chapel, I climbed down the long stone staircase into a crypt, a dark room lit by natural light streaming though stained glass windows, set high on the walls, and the flickering light from the vigil candles that cover the low stone altar in the center. I sat in in my favourite spot, cross-legged on the floor on the stone floor, and gazed into the vigil candles, feeling pleasantly tired from my hike and entirely at peace.

And here's the steeple

October 30, 2007

Reading through the mist

Early morning

Saturday morning at the monastery, I woke early and walked outside into a foggy, rainy world. White mist wove itself through the hills, across the sheep pastures, contrasting with the gold, yellow, and red foliage. My sneakers and the bottoms of my pants were soon soaking wet as I wandered through the barnyard. Even though it was early, the monks had been up even earlier: the first prayer of the day is at 4:45 am. As I wandered over to the apple orchard, I could see Brother Swings Arms walking up the hill. Even though he was carrying an umbrella that hid his face, I could tell it was him from the way he walked and the way he swung the one arm that was not carrying the umbrella.

The wind and cold rain gave me a good excuse to spend the rest of the morning inside, with my books and journals. I sat at the round table in front of the big window of the guest cottage, with a cup of tea and a piece of Monking Friend's homemade banana bread. Monking Friend and I each bring a stack of books with us when we go on retreat, mostly books that we've read over and over again, voices we want with us on retreat. We look through each other's books almost as soon as we arrive, both smiling at the familiar names. That morning, I chose a book my friend had brought, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, and a book from my stack, Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. I alternated reading chapters of those two books, while also writing in two of my journals, the black spiral-bound book that is my everyday journal and the journal with the purple cover that is my special monastery journal.

Monking Friend and I read and wrote, mostly in silence, although sometimes one of us would look up to share a quote from what we were reading. My monastery journal contains the history of my visits to the monastery, 24 visits in all, and I like to read through and see how much I've changed. This sheep farm high in the hills has been an important part of my emotional and spiritual life over the last ten years.

At noon, the bells at the top of the chapel began ringing, and I put my raincoat back on to to join the monks at prayer.

October 29, 2007

And I shall have some peace there

Monastery barn

The drive to the monastery took us through small towns, hills of farmland, and woods filled with brilliant colours. I drove with Monking Friend, a longtime friend. We talked the whole way in the car, catching up on news. I've got two kids in college, and she has three. Our lives are changing as our kids get older. The first time we came together to this monastery was ten years ago, and our kids were young. I'd just stopped breastfeeding my youngest so it was the first time I could go anywhere for the weekend. How ten years changes things! Our kids — and we each have four — are all teenagers and adults now.

As the car sped past cornfields and pumpkin patches, we talked about our husbands, our extended families, our work. The conversation grew more introspective as we moved past the roles we play — mother, wife, daughter, sister, teacher or social worker — and begin talking about our emotional lives, our spiritual journeys. We talked about friendships, about projects, about healing.

By the time we reached the narrow winding road that leads up to the monastery, we were analyzing ourselves. We're opposites in many ways, so we always tease each other. I'm an extrovert; she's an introvert. One year, we both spent time figuring out where we fit on the Enneagram, which is an ancient method of understanding personality types. I'm a number four, which is characterized by the "need to feel special," which isn't surprising for someone who grew up with a bunch of sisters close in age. Monking Friend will often tease me about that trait, which is one she does not share. And yet, as a friend, she understands my need to feel special, and she does things like bake banana bread especially for me when we go on retreat.

By the time we pulled onto the grounds of the monastery, we were already feeling talked out and relaxed. We were staying in the East Casa, a little guesthouse tucked just under the big barn, with a bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a living room. We carried our stuff in and then I sat down gratefully, feeling the peace of the monastery envelope me as I looked out the big windows to the pastures, the hills, and the sheep grazing just outside our window.

View from the window

View through the window of the guest cottage.

October 25, 2007

Off to the monastery

Can safely graze

I've gone in search of sheep, real life sheep, to throw at my facebook friends. I'm tired of cheap imitations.

Tomorrow I will return for a four-day retreat at my favourite Benedictine monastery, a working sheep farm that includes two big barns, many hillside pastures, several guesthouses, and a chapel. I am looking forward to hiking through the woods, walking through the sheep pastures, and wandering through the barnyard. I'll go to services in the octagonal chapel, sitting in the same wooden pew I always choose, listening while Brother Tractor plays the harp and the other monks chant psalms. I'll climb the stone staircase into the crypt to light candles, to sit cross-legged on the stone floor and pray. I am looking forward to the quiet and peace that always comes with a trip to the monastery.

October 24, 2007

Ecky Thump

Ecky thump

The summer before he began eleventh grade, Boy in Black showed me his class schedule. He'd signed up for the usual academic classes, but what startled me was that he had registered for Band.

"You signed up for Band?" I asked. "But uh ... you don't play a band instrument." He did play piano, but as far as I knew, there was no piano in the concert band.

Boy in Black shrugged. "Oh, I'm going to learn to play the drums."

The whole thing seemed odd to me. He was going to join a concert band even though he didn't play any of the instruments? Seriously, what the hell was this kid thinking? What was the band director going to say on the first day when this kid showed up with no instrument?

But as usual, I was wrong, and Boy in Black was right. What the band director said was: "Okay, cool." Boy in Black started taking drum lessons and playing percussion in the concert band. When he started taking guitar lessons, he joined the jazz band. Apparently one week of lessons is all you need to become a member of the band.

When Shaggy Hair Boy started high school, he too jumped into the band, playing percussion even though he had little prior experience. And last year when With-a-Why began sixth grade at the junior high, he told me he wanted to sign up for Band rather than Chorus. Even though I should have seen this coming, I was still bewildered. "Uh .... you play the piano. There isn't a piano in the band."

With-a-Why is a boy of few words. He said simply, "I want to take Band."

So I wrote a note to the junior high band director: "With-a-Why wants to take Band. He doesn't play a band instrument. He plays the piano, though, so he can read music and knows something about music theory."

I could just picture the band teacher reading the note and then looking at the kid in front of him, a painfully shy kid who most likely stood there with his long hair in his face, not saying a single word. I guarantee that With-a-Why just handed the note to the teacher and said nothing at all. And what the band director said was, "No problem. Tell your Mom to buy you some mallets, and you can play the bells."

That's been my experience with school band directors. They will take any kid who wants to join. Knowing how to play an instrument is not a prerequisite. On the stage at a concert the other night, I counted over a hundred kids, all with whatever instrument they happened to choose. When Lisa Simpson made the saxophone popular for girls a few years back, the band director simply welcomed all the new saxophone players. If twenty kids want to play percussion, he shrugs and says, "okay."

When Boy in Black decided he wanted to learn more about music theory, the band director let him do an independent study, making time to give him one-on-one attention. When Boy in Black graduated from high school, he chose to play the guitar and sing a song as his valedictory speech, a Bob Dylan song to which he had written his own lyrics. When administrators gave him a hard time, trying to get him to change the lyrics because they didn't approve of his message, the band director showed up of his own accord to support Boy in Black.

As a teacher, I too know how to be supportive and inclusive, and how to encourage students to follow things they are passionate about. So I guess I am not completely surprised that these music teachers know how to support my kids' love for music. But here's what amazes me: I go to concerts at the high school, I sit in the dark auditorium, and I look up at the huge group of students who have taken over the whole stage, an odd assortment of students from all different backgrounds, who walk in lugging their instruments and music stands. And then, through the dim air of the auditorium, from the borrowed and rented instruments held by these high school kids, comes beautiful music — melodies that tug at memories, rhythms that change my mood. Incredible, lovely, stirring music.

And that's the part that stuns me.

October 23, 2007

Unstructured time in nature, baby


Above the wooden "No Swimming" sign, a bright red sign warns: "Violators subject to $100 fine. And/Or 15 days in Jail." That sign has been there, at the side of Pretty Colour Lake for as long as I can remember. We've always treated it as a joke.

Imagine three criminals exchanging stories in the prison dining hall.
"Whadda you in for?"
"Assault and robbery."
"Me? I went swimming in Pretty Colour Lake."

I'd told my students about the sign, but I think most of them thought I was teasing. When we arrived at the lakes, they kept saying, "The sign! It's really there!"

We'd come, simply, to leave the city behind to spend "unstructured time in nature." After reading Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, a book which talks about how children nowadays suffer from what he calls "nature-deficit disorder," my students kept saying, "We need some unstructured time in nature! The book says so." So I signed up for one of our buses and brought my students on a fall day to one of my favourite places.

We hiked back to the second lake, Round Lake, a small glacial lake with incredible green-blue water. Some of the students wandered off to explore the trails, climb trees, or sit quietly with their journals. Another group sat near the edge of the water, chatting lazily and looking out over the lake. Formed by a glacier, this small deep lake is surrounded by hills that rise sharply from the trails. We were the only humans in this little valley of hardwoods and cedar trees.

Of course, my students found the clear water of the lake, on this unseasonably warm fall day, impossible to resist. The threat of a prison sentence did not deter them. They stripped off what clothes they could, the guys getting down to boxer shorts and the women to t-shirts or sports bras. The water gets deep immediately, so they had only to step off the shore to plunge in over their heads. Other students climbed the cedar trees that hang over the edge to leap more dramatically into the cold water.

Not everyone went swimming. RedCurlyHair and LovelyVoice sat on a rock in the sun, sketching. One student had brought her camera to snap photos of the illegal activities. TallGuy demonstrated his prowess at skipping stones. CameraGirl set down her camera to fashion a boat out of twigs and leaves, a sailboat that actually did float across the water. FromElsewhere, who was playing in the water at the edge, picked up a hunk of smooth clay, and the students began rubbing the clay on their faces, their hands, their arms. We were talking quietly, in hushed voices as if we were in church, and rubbing the clay onto skin was a strange ritual somehow in keeping with the changing leaves, the sound of geese overhead, and the soft autumn air.

Eventually, it was time to walk back to the buses. Storm clouds had rolled in, and rain came crashing down. Half of my students were already wet, and no one seemed to mind. By the time we got to the parking lot, big puddles had formed, and we splashed through them gleefully. Everyone was laughing and talking as we piled onto the bus, some clutching handfuls of wild grapes. SparklyEyes said to me, as she walked soggily past, "This was so wonderful. It's like all the stress of the semester just melted away."

Into the water

One of my students climbing out to leap into the lake.

October 22, 2007


I was grading papers at my desk yesterday afternoon when loud noises began outside my door. It sounded like my teenage boys were bouncing balls off the door of my office. The balls would thump, the boys would laugh, and every once in a while, I heard a crash as something hit the floor. I listened for a minute. I could hear a bunch of muttering that sounded as if they were making up rules to a new game, and the repeated use of the word DRAIN, which usually followed the crashing noise.

I put down my pen and opened the door.

"Hey, watch this, " said Shaggy Hair Boy. He threw a ball, which bounced off the floor, banked off the wall, and fell into the metal garbage can they were using as a basket. Boy in Black grinned at me before turning to toss a ball over his shoulder, backwards. The ball hit the floor, bounced, banked off the bookcase, and just missed the metal basket.

"Isn't this really an outdoor game?" I said, reverting to the kind of language I used when the kids were young.

Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair exchanged a glance, both sort of rolling their eyes. With-a-Why looked at me in surprise. "How could we play this outside? We need walls to bank off."

October 21, 2007

Another cat


Rachel was jealous that her sister Rogue was getting so much attention on the blog. So I told her that she could pose naked.

Then I think, really, I am going to have to take a break from all these nude photos. Naked cats! With faces even! This blog is going to hell in a handbasket.


When I was a kid, no one ever went running through the house asking, "Where's the phone?" No one ever began tossing newspapers and papers off the couch, rummaging about, swearing, searching desperately for the phone. No one ever yelled, "Someone call me so I can find my phone!"

The telephone, black and impressively big, was firmly anchored onto the kitchen wall. We all knew where it was. My mother kept a pad of paper and pen right near the phone, so that anyone who answered the phone could take messages. The answering machine hadn't been invented yet. Cell phones hadn't been invented yet either, so the only time you might see a phone vibrating against someone's leg would be in a comedy skit.

I can still remember my first cordless phone, and what a luxury it was. With several small kids at home, the telephone was my connection to the world of adults. The cordless phone allowed me to talk to a friend while I followed my kids around to make sure they weren't sticking things in their mouths or setting anything on fire. I learned to play Candy Land with a small child, change a toddler's diaper, breastfeed an infant, and balance a phone on my shoulder all at the same time. But yeah, it was weird to have a phone that I could lose. My friends would come over with their kids on Wednesday mornings, and right before they left, they'd gather up all the toys that were scattered about my small living room and dump them in the toy box. Inevitably, that's where I'd find the phone.

My kids have grown up with the idea that phones are portable devices that can be tossed from person to person and left stranded wherever you happen to be when you end the phone call. Without a phone attached to the wall, they were never trained to write down those phone messages. Shaggy Hair Boy is usually the quickest to answer the phone, but he is terrible about giving me messages, even when I'm just downstairs in my office. As my parents' car will pull into the driveway, he'll yell, "Oh, yeah, I forgot I was supposed to tell you. Grandma said that they were coming over."

Yesterday, my mother called and left a message with Shaggy Hair Boy that she had apple pies in the oven and that we could have one if we came over at 4 pm to pick it up. Shaggy Hair Boy came bounding down the stairs to tell me the news. He loves homemade apple pie. Just before 4 pm, he reminded me again. When we entered my mother's house, which smelled wonderfully of cinnamon, my mother laughed. "I knew somehow that this was one phone message that Shaggy Hair Boy would remember to give you."

October 19, 2007


My husband and With-a-Why left town this afternoon on a trip they've been planning for a while: they've driven to Town That Sounds Like Dishware. Right now, they're settled into a hotel room and are snuggled on the bed together, reading comic books, and tomorrow, they are going to Famous Glass Museum. With-a-Why has always been fascinated with glass statues and glass artwork, and he's looking forward to seeing the glass-making demonstrations.

What's most unusual is that we have no extra kids here tonight. Most of the kids in Shaggy Hair Boy's grade are sleeping in their own homes because tomorrow they have to get up early to go take a standardized test. But Boy in Black is here. As he lounged on the couch, eating potato bread dipped in balsamic vinegar (one of his favorite snacks), he and Shaggy Hair had an earnest discussion about the Ultimate Frisbee Club that Shaggy Hair is starting over at the high school. An English teacher and a gym teacher have agreed to sponsor the club, and their first meeting is Tuesday. "If Gym Teacher wants to help explain the game, let him," advised Boy in Black, "and if he gets something wrong, you can just tactfully correct him."

Soon the two boys had their guitars out and were deep into a conversation that made absolutely no sense to me, filled with phrases like, "the dorian mode of the A major scale." After they jammed on the guitars for a while, Shaggy Hair moved to the piano and Boy in Black to the drums. It's funny: when Shaggy Hair was younger, he and Boy in Black always seemed like such different personalities to me, but as they get older, they seem to get more and more alike.

So it's an unusually quiet Friday night here. Sitting on the couch with a computer in my lap and a cat at my feet, I am listening to the music and chatter from the two boys and during pauses, the sound of the raindrops hitting the window panes.

Friday cat blogging


It's hard to get a good photo of Rogue because she has such strange markings: in most photos, she appears as a dark lump. When she was kitten, she looked just exactly like a drowned rat. My daughter used to carry her into the house, dangling limply, and say, "Look, Maw, what I found down in the creek."

As a kitten, she was quite affectionate. When I'd be up late in the cold house, grading papers after the kids and my husband had gone to sleep, I'd put her inside my shirt and tuck it in, and she'd keep me warm. When she'd squirm and flip around, it was just like being pregnant.

As an adult, though, Rogue is not a particularly affectionate cat. She spends most of her time outside, coming in mostly to eat. She keeps to herself, an introvert amongst the cats in the household, and she will hiss at anyone who does not respect her space. She is not a cat to be trifled with. Our vet claims that she is the only cat who has ever bit him.

October 18, 2007

Sun, skin, water

Cool, cool water

Perhaps it was the unseasonably warm weather. Perhaps it was the cold water, so clear and sparkly, so tempting. Perhaps it was because we had just spend the afternoon talking and giggling and joking around. We are a group of friends who confide in each other, who support each other, who know each other well.

We had gathered near the lake for a photo shoot, hoping for a nice picture that we could frame and hang up, as a reminder of our friendships. We all had clothes on, of course, even socks and shoes. Quilt Artist had set her camera up on an overturned canoe so she could use her timer and get a photo of the whole group.

But we kept edging closer to the lake, the waves, the ripples of reflected sun. Soon Beautiful Hair was taking off her shoes. Makes Bread wriggled out of her jeans. Gorgeous Eyes waded into the water to take a photo, then tossed her camera ashore. Before long the cameras and clothes were piled on the stone wall that edges the lake, and women were splashing in the water.

The cold weather is coming, and winters here are long. It's best to get naked when you can.

Getting warm in the sun

October 17, 2007

Career plan

One of my students last semester wrote some amazing pieces in my literature class. The theme was the urban environment, and when I saw how talented he was, I kept encouraging him to do creative writing rather than literary analysis. Inspired by the poetry of Audre Lorde, he began writing down things he saw when he when he was wandering about in the city. We all especially loved these character sketches that he wrote in the form of poems. When he read them aloud, I could just picture the woman sitting at the bus stop, the homeless man on the corner, or the waitress at the diner. His details were carefully chosen, and his imagery vivid.

At the end of the semester, I said to him, "Your writing is fantastic. What kind of career are you planning?"

Everyone in the class looked at him expectantly.

He shrugged. "I don't know. Something with a gun and a uniform."

October 16, 2007

Along the canal

Along the canal

When I take a walk along the canal with my friend Signing Woman, I am always prepared for dramatic interruptions that come without warning. Right in the midst of a conversation, she'll suddenly go silent, her head swishing to the side, her legs suddenly stopped as she points toward a bird, a butterfly, or even an insect. So many of my friends are naturalists that I am quite used to this behavior, although it doesn't stop me from teasing them about it. And I admit, when I am with someone like that, I end up seeing all kinds of things I probably wouldn't have noticed.

The other day, Signing Woman told me, she was walking along the canal, stopping as usual at every bird or unusual plant when she saw something you don't get to see very often: a great blue heron, standing still, eating a fish.

"You could actually see the fish going down the throat," she said.

A young woman was running by, wearing headphones and an iPod, and Signing Woman started signaling to her. The young woman couldn't hear anything because of the music in her ears, but Signing Woman, who works as an interpreter, is very good at hand motions.

Young iPod Woman stopped and looked. They both watched the heron, with Signing Woman giving whispered facts about the bird.

"Isn't that cool?" Signing Woman whispered.

The young woman nodded. "I don't usually see stuff like that," she said. "I come here everyday, but I usually just run by fast, listening to music, zoning out."

They watched the bird for a little longer, sharing the moment, then smiled at each other, and went their separate ways.

October 15, 2007

To scratch or dig with hands or claws

When With-a-Why asked me to play Scrabble the other day after school, I sat down happily. I like Scrabble! I'm good with words! I kept congratulating myself on clever moves, like adding RAM to the word PAGE to make RAMPAGE. We talked lazily between turns, and With-a-Why kept the score on a yellow legal pad somewhere near his feet. We were nearing the end of the game when Shaggy Hair Boy and Boy in Black joined us, both looking carefully at the board. Shaggy Hair Boy picked up the scoresheet and snickered.

Shaggy Hair: Mom, you suck at this game.
Me: (looking up in surprise) What do you mean?
Shaggy Hair: You are losing by over a hundred points.
Me: How is that possible?
With-a-Why: Look at how many times you let me get a triple word score.
Me: But I came up with cool words.
Boy in the Black: See, that's your problem. You play to make words instead of playing to win.
Me: Well, when I was growing up, Scrabble was fun. I can remember playing with my mother, and we'd just concentrate on coming up with clever words. We weren't so damned competitive.
Shaggy Hair: Yeah, that's why I always wreck Grandma at this game.

October 14, 2007



One fall day several years ago, I was coming back from a walk in the woods when I looked up at our roof and noticed that it was covered with bits of fruit: cantelope rinds, orange peels, apple cores, the kind of stuff that one might normally find in a compost pile. At first, I imagined that a large bird had flown straight out of a Dr. Seuss book to raid our compost pile and carry things up to the roof. Then I glanced at the footprints in the mud and realized that the culprits were probably the mammals that were asleep on the floor of my living room. When questioned, the gang of boys in the house said, yes, they'd invented a new game. They were using giant slingshot to fling items from the compost pile clear over our two-story house.

"Don't worry, " one of my sons assured me. "It's all biodegradable."

The episode came back to me today, when I was cleaning the front porch. One of the pumpkins I'd bought at a farmstand, a big pumpkin that seemed perfect for a jack-o-lantern, had succumbed to the unseasonably warm weather and collapsed into a soggy mess. Without giving it much thought, I tossed the whole thing into the compost pile and dumped water on the porch to get rid of all the pumpkin juice.

Boy in Black, who was home for the weekend, came in a few minutes later.

Boy in Black: Hey, where did the pumpkin go?
Me: The soggy one?
Boy in Black: Yeah.
Me: I tossed it in the compost pile.
Boy in Black: What? You threw it out?
Me: Were you going to use it for something?
Boy in Black: Uh, not exactly.

He looked like he was about to say something, and then stopped. I could sense his frustration: what do you do with a mother who did not see the fun possibilities in a large rotting pumpkin, who would just carelessly toss it aside? He looked at me kindly, the way you'd look at a small child who simply can't grasp a complex concept, shook the hair out of his face, and continued on his way.

October 13, 2007

Blogger meet-up

Blogger meet-up

The two women in this photo are naked.

Oh, okay, not really.

Yesterday, I met Second Grade Teacher for the very first time, and I had fully intended to talk her into a nude photo. But we met on the shore of Polluted Sacred Lake, where a gale force wind was churning the grey water into white caps and geese were gathering in groups to fly south. As you can see from the photo (or perhaps not, such is the nature of shadow photograph), it was a day for bulky winter clothing.

The sun was shining, despite the cold, and we walked along the pathway, talking the whole time, with the honking of geese a backdrop to our conversation. It always takes me a while to get used to the weird disconnect of meeting a blogger. We'd start telling each other bits about our lives – and we'd keep interrupting, "Oh, yeah, I think I read that on your blog."

It was fun, of course, to talk about other bloggers we've met, hear the stories behind some of our own blog posts, and talk about other blogs we've read. We re-hashed some of the latest happenings in the blogosphere like old friends talking about a novel they've both read. We connected, of course, over parenting issues, both of us acknowledging how hard it is to let our kids go as they grow up.

After the walk in the wind, we were both grateful to slip into a booth in an Indian Restaurant, where we ate a delicious meal, sharing food and talking. After lunch, we parted reluctantly, each heading back to our busy lives: she was driving to a wedding shower, and I was going home to a house full of children.

October 12, 2007


Carrying pollen

As I walked back from the labyrinth last week, I stopped to admire some asters blooming crazily along the road. I was enjoying the smell of the dead leaves underfoot, and the coolness in the air. Before returning to my group of friends, to the warmth and light, the talking and the laughter, I wanted to take a moment to say a prayer for a friend who is going through a very difficult time. I sat cross-legged on the grass, on a hill just below the purple flowers, and let my hair cover my face so I could have a few minutes alone. When I looked up again, I was surrounded by monarch butterflies, perhaps a dozen of them, flitting about on the flowers. I thought about how butterflies are seen in some native traditions as messengers between heaven and earth. I watched as the last afternoon sunlight touched their bright colours – and their wings stirred the autumn sky.

October 11, 2007

Walking through

Walking the labyrinth

From a distance, it looks like a big circle of mulch, with bricks that create eleven concentric circles divided into four, with a six-petal shape of a rosette in the very middle. The bricks create a path that winds around and around, turning first this way and then that, covering every bit of ground until it reaches the center. The pattern of this labyrinth came from the thirteenth century stone floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.

Sometime I find it difficult to sit still for a meditation: when I want to go inside myself, I often go outside for a walk through the woods. I need the feel of my legs striding forward and the rush of air against my face, that forward movement that makes me feel I am making some kind of progress.

That's why I love the labyrinth.

When we arrived at my friend Signing Woman's cottage last Friday, almost the first thing I did was walk down the road to the labyrinth that's built near the edge of the lake. The two friends I had driven up with, Quilt Artist and Junk Food Woman, were still unpacking, sorting out the food, and talking while they waited for the rest of our group to arrive. I dumped my bag of food on the kitchen counter and slipped away by myself. I'd been talking to my friends in the car, sorting out my feelings about something, and I'd been thinking about the labyrinth the whole way up.

No one else was around. The afternoon sunlight glinted off the bricks of the labyrinth, the green and yellow leaves, and the waves of the lake. I entered quickly and began the walk, keeping my palms turned out and my fingers together, trying to accept whatever the labyrinth had to offer.

As I walked in curves, first one way, then the next, I stepped through my own swirling thoughts, those worrying, obsessive spirals, releasing them as I moved, leaving them behind on the path. Overhead, geese went honking and flapping past. My body felt like it was moving through water, that purity of sensation. I could feel relief, overwhelming relief, and then sadness. Waves on the lake slapped against rocks. I walked through a layer of anger, a layer of hurt. As I moved, I felt safe and protected, like I was retreating into a safe place.

By the time I reached the center, I was ready to sit down on the mulch. I felt surrounded by the energy I'd created with my own motion, all that circling about, all that walking into myself. My eyes were partially closed, but I could almost see swirls of color in the air around me. I sat in the very middle of this safe place to examine my feelings, holding them carefully as if they were made of spun glass. I tried to name each feeling, whispering the words aloud. I could feel warmth seeping through my whole body: a relief, a release, a buoyancy.

My eyes were closed. I could feel the sunlight shifting, moving away, chill coming with the shadows. A lake breeze touched my hair. When I stood up, I felt relaxed and grateful. I began walking the path, winding my way out of the labyrinth. I named each of my feelings as I walked, thankful for each one. The mulch crunched under my sneakers.

When I came to the end of the path, I stepped out of the labyrinth and onto the grass. I sat for a moment in the wooden chairs at the edge to look at the bricks, the paths, the patterns. I admired the way the sunlight was glowing through the yellow leaves of the birch trees just beyond the path. Then, feeling relaxed and at peace, I began the walk about the road to rejoin my friends.

Adirondack chairs

October 10, 2007

All them naked women

Undressing at the summit

Readers have been complaining about the lack of nudity on my blog. "You don't even deserve to be on the internet," one blogger wrote to me. "All these nature shots and this earth mother peacefulness. Where's the sex and violence? WHERE ARE THE NUDE PHOTOS?"

She had a point. I've really let my standards slip.

But I figured I could get a nude shot during the long weekend with my friends. Our group nickname, Wild Women, came about when one of the husbands heard about us skinny dipping in the lake. Taking off our clothes for massages or sunbathing or swimming is practically a tradition. Well, at least for some of us.

So on Saturday, when the temperatures rose into the seventies, I decided to seize the opportunity. We were hiking through the woods, with a waterfall as our destination, and had stopped at the summit of the mountain to relax in the sun. Signing Woman was looking through her binoculars, Junk Food Woman was rummaging through the knapsack for a snack, and Quilt Artist was taking photos. Gorgeous Eyes, stretched out in the sun on a rock, said sleepily, "I have more clothes on than I'd like for sunbathing." I took that as a cue.

"It's time for the nude photo." I said. "I need one for my blog."

None of my friends are bloggers, and only a few have ever seen my blog. But obligingly, they began stripping off their clothes. Beautiful Hair, always the first to be naked, stood at the edge of the cliff with a walking stick in hand, striking a macho guy pose that contrasted with her full breasts and long hair. I took a wonderful photo of her, but I knew right away that it was not one she'd let me make public.

I figured the more naked bodies I could get into the shot, the better. I kept shouting directions as my naked friends cavorted about. Unfortunately, they were having too much fun joking around to pay any attention to the photographer. And admittedly, my directions were a bit confusing.

"You need to clump together somewhere so I can get you in one shot!"
"No! That looks posed."

No one understood the rule about hiding their faces. I think they thought "face" was my personal word for some other body part. "What? Doesn't this rock ledge hide my face?"

At least one woman pointed out that we were on a hiking trail used by all sorts of people, most of whom were coming to look at the foliage and might be a bit surprised to find a group of naked women just lolling about on the trail. I kept reassuring them that being naked was completely natural, and your average hiker would be just thrilled to come upon such a natural scene. I mean, Artist Friend, for instance. He hikes and backpacks with his brothers all the time, and I think he'd be just tickled to come across a whole gaggle of naked middle-aged women.

But my friends kept telling me to hurry up. So we didn't have time for any kind of artistic pose. I did manage to snap a bunch of funny shots, almost all of which were then prompted veto-ed by all who viewed them on my laptop when we got back to the cottage that night. It's amazing how picky people can be about photos of themselves. Especially when they don't have clothes on.

The next day, when we were down at the lake taking the traditional photo of us, the one that we put in a frame and have up in our kitchens or put on our desks, Junk Food Woman said, "Hey, this time we all get to wear our clothes, and jo(e) can be naked." I was fine with that. After all, none of them have blogs.

Them Naked Women

October 09, 2007


We climbed a mountain and got naked at the summit. We waded through a stream and splashed in a waterfall. We cooked together and ate meals by candlelight and sat at night by a crackling fire. We played a ridiculous game called Washers that led to so many jokes that we were rolling about on the ground with laughter. We took a night time walk that led us through the darkest of places.

We gave each other massages and reiki. We meditated and wrote in our journals. We talked. We listened to music. We took photos. We went paddling in the canoe. We stripped off our clothes and swam in the chilly lake. We teased each other and made fun of each other and laughed at our faults and weaknesses. We saw a red-necked grebe and the scat of a large bear. We watched the sunrise together. We walked a labyrinth. We cried and laughed and hugged each other.

It's wonderful to spend four days with close friends who love each other enough to be vulnerable and honest with each other, who know how to be supportive of each other, but also give each other space. As the long weekend came to an end, we carried on the tradition of Signing Woman's family, singing a goodbye song that has as its refrain, "Be always kind and true." We always laugh as we sing the song, because it's a children's Sunday school song, but as we were driving home, Quilt Artist said to me, seriously, "You know, a retreat like that does make me want to be a better person."

Morning coffee

My friend Beautiful Hair taking a quiet moment to drink her morning tea.

October 04, 2007

Gone wild

I leave early tomorrow morning for a four-day retreat in the mountains with a group of women friends. It's a trip we've taken every October for years, a long weekend that we jokingly call The Wild Women Weekend. We'll stay in a place owned by my friend Signing Woman's family, a camp with a big fireplace and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook Lake Named After Dead King, or Maybe One of the Beatles.

Our plans include canoeing and hiking, eating and talking. We'll find a mountaintop in the sun where we can relax and soak in the last sun of the season. We'll walk the winding roads to a nearby church that has an outdoor labyrinth at the edge of the lake. We'll have time for things like reiki and meditation and massage. We'll talk, sometimes in a big group, raucous and laughing, and sometimes in quiet pairs, for serious in-depth discussions.

Over the last year, one woman in the group has filed for divorce, one has lost her partner to cancer, one has become a grandmother. Several of us have sent children off to college. So we're likely to have some serious talks as we sit in front of the fire, but we'll have fun, too, playing music and dancing and being silly.

From the top

This photo is from last year: Reiki Woman and Beatiful Hair talking in the sun.

October 03, 2007


Against sky

In spring time, green creeps slowly over the landscape, and by May, my eyes have adjusted to the lush green world around me. After a whole summer, I'm used to green lawns and green lilac bushes and green foliage in my woods so thick you can't see for more than ten feet.

But in early October, a maple tree that has been green for months, a tree that I drive past every day on my way to work, will suddenly turn red as the cholorophyll drains from its leaves, leaving them glowing and translucent. When I stand under a maple tree on a sunny day, I feel completely surrounded by brilliant colour.

It's spectacular because it happens so quickly, practically overnight. And it happens on such a large scale, branches and branches of leaves, whole tall trees, entire groves of trees, hillsides and mountains full of trees. Even though I've lived in this landscape my whole life, the sudden bursting colour still catches me by surprise, sort of the way I feel when I look at my youngest child, sitting quietly on the couch reading a book, and notice his long black eyelashes, his lovely clear skin, his silky hair, and think to myself again, with a sudden surge of feeling, what a beautiful child he is.

October 02, 2007

What we talk about at lunch

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I eat lunch in the snack bar on campus so that I can hang out with colleagues and students in a relaxed setting. When I sat down today at my usual table, Scientist Guy and his newest grad student, WorksWithPrimates, were talking about the drill, one of Africa's most endangered primates. WorksWithPrimates was describing some of the field work he had done with various primates. "Chimpanzees are so intelligent," he said. "It's just incredible."

Then he was telling me about how he used to work with rehabilitated chimps and mandrills that were going to be released back to the wild. I was remembering Jane Goodall's stories about how social the animals were. The grooming rituals that chimps do seem to me not much different than the grooming rituals the women in my family will do up at camp, brushing each other's hair and such as we sit in the sun.

"Well, it feels good," said WorksWithPrimates, in complete seriousness. He described how he'd just sit still while a chimp or mandrill ran fingers over his short-cropped hair. "Really, there's nothing more relaxing than having a monkey pick bugs out of your hair."

October 01, 2007

Early morning meditation

Early morning

Whenever I am staying on a body of water, I get up early in the morning. I like the ocean best, for instance, when I am the only person on the shore, walking in the sand, watching the sunrise, alone except for the birds that run along the wet sand. On the river, my father will wake me for an early morning sail, where we can glide past the quiet islands, with summer cottages full of sleeping people.

Last weekend, staying at an old inn on a mountain lake, I woke early and sneaked out quietly, leaving my sleeping husband snuggled in the cozy bed. My sneakers were soon wet from the dew-covered grass as I walked along the shore, looking at the boats tied up and the overturned canoes on the dock. In a pavilion where there had been a wedding the day before, I found two empty ring boxes.

I sat quietly on the dock. The blue emptiness of early morning gave me space for meditation, for reiki, for calm and peaceful thoughts. I watched the mist puffing through the mountains, blurring the autumn colours, as I breathed in and out. The wind kept changing the patterns on the water, and the sun touched the lake with pink.