Putting Myself in the Way

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When I first came to Dawson City twelve (!) years ago, I was struck by the different birds I saw. A sparrow wasn’t just a plain old sparrow anymore: it had a bold black and white striped head, and a beautiful song belted out from tree tops. Ducks were more than just mallards. Tiny, bright yellow birds flitted among the willows. I felt a desire to know them, to name them, and so my love of bird watching began. I got myself a field guide and a better pair of binoculars, and over the following five or six years, I became a bit of a bird lady.

I used to spend an afternoon sitting on a sandy spot of riverbank, my binoculars in hand. I watched the bank swallows skim bugs; watched a common merganser teach her ducklings how to dive; once saw a bald eagle defend its catch from gulls. Hikes to the Moosehide Slide, or on the trails in Tombstone Park, always included my binoculars, swinging around my neck. I started writing a bird column for The Klondike Sun, and friends would come to me with their bird queries: “What’s this little brown bird I see at my feeder? The one with the stripes?” Bird watching was a part of how I came to define myself; when people saw an interesting bird, they thought of me.

On a trip to Mexico, weeks pregnant with Aedan, my friends and I went on a bird watching tour. We rose at dawn to be collected by our guide, and went out on a boat in a mangrove swamp. We saw something like fifty different species of bird that morning. Four or five different herons, frigate birds, cormorants, ibis, scarlet tanager, vermilion flycatcher, to name just a few. It was one of my last great bird outings, before having kids.

After having kids, birdwatching was one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to wear binoculars with a sleeping infant carried on your chest. And toddlers are not known for being quiet, or sitting in one spot for hours so mama can watch the birds. I let it go, like I did writing, reading, and hiking. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d pick it up again; a casualty of the intense early years of parenting, I suppose.

Lately though, like the other passions I let fall by the wayside, I feel an eagerness to get back to it. These past few weeks, with the spring migrants making their way through, I’ve had some exciting incidental sightings: a sharp tailed grouse displaying in our yard, its wings held out to the sides, thrumming; a bald eagle gliding over the driveway where we were playing; ducks, so many and varied ducks in the ponds we pass on our drive to town. The ducks were the tipping point for me. I just could not stand that I didn’t know them, that I couldn’t name them. I decided then and there to put myself in the way of bird watching again.

I’ve been putting myself in the way of poetry again, too, looking for poems just as I look for birds. Making sure to read some poetry every day. Committing to working on new poems, to writing down the ideas and lines that come to me, following different threads like I follow a bird sighted in my binoculars. In the past month or so, I’ve organized a poetry reading with Whitehorse poet Joanna Lilley. I’ve read at an open mic and have committed to read at two more in the coming months. I’m working on some poems to complete the chapbook manuscript I’ve been thinking of for the last year. If I let my vision go soft-focus, if I leap just a second before thinking, I find that I’m pulled in the direction of poetry, of a writing life.

Two days ago, out for a walk in the woods with Colm and Charlotte, what I think was a boreal owl flew over head, a pair of robins in pursuit. I wanted a closer look, but of course, I didn’t have my binoculars with me. The following day, as we got ready for our walk, I took my binocs off the hook by the door. I dusted off the glass, and slung them around my neck. Where we rested, while the kids threw rocks, I watched a yellow rumped warbler move from tree to tree, spotted a say’s phoebe (a bird I’d never seen before). It was exhilarating! It struck me how easy it is to pick up again. How easy it is, now that I don’t have to wear all the babies, to take the binoculars with me. How easy it is to sit and observe not just my kids, but the birds, too. I just have to open myself to it, to the birds all around me, the inspiration all around me.

To practice birdwatching, poetry, running, whatever it is, requires effort and discipline, yes. It is a choosing, every time, to do that thing over not doing it. But I’m also learning that it’s a matter of repositioning, if that makes sense, like an adjustment a chiropractor would make, so that things align again. The more I do this, choose these things, the more I put myself in the way of my passions, the easier it will be to get swept away by them.

 

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Daily Practice Revisited

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Yesterday, I was thinking about my word for 2017: Practice. I was thinking about how, like so many things in my life, I figured that I could just set it and forget it. Practice! I’m going to practice. Every day. Writing, being a writer, mindfulness. Poof! Done.

I feel like I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because apparently I’m not getting it: it’s not that easy. It seems funny to me that I chose such an active word. The word itself exhorts me to do something, and yet, I don’t. I just sort of expect it to come, I’m just magically writing every day and it flows like water, easy. What I am coming to realize is that practice is hard (how embarrassing! I’m just coming to this realization?!) Developing any kind of daily practice takes a lot of effort. It feels really awful, in the beginning. Each day, I have to drag myself to the thing I want to do and basically force myself to do it. After the doing, I might feel better, but not usually. Often, I feel disappointed. Like, is that it? That’s what daily practice looks like?

This may be a function of social media and the sharing of carefully selected moments of life. I scroll through Instagram and see a lovely photo of someone doing a headstand, or sitting in a peaceful spot writing, or their running shoes on the ground. What these pictures don’t show is everything that led to that moment. I’m realizing that what goes into those moments is a lot of push, a lot of preparation. A lot of choosing to be there. That is the rub of it, for me. I have to choose to practice.

This week I have: gone for a run that was mostly a walk; gone to a yoga class; not purchased a big bag of chips to inhale; meditated once; sat down to write this blog post; gotten out of bed to work on a poem. All of these things took monumental effort. Took me getting outside of myself for a moment, acknowledging what I reflexively wanted, recalling what I wanted ideally, and taking a step in that direction. So much of my life is just reacting, reacting, reacting. Thinking “I want to eat a whole big bag of chips” happens in a fraction of a second, and in that sliver of time my hand reaches for the bag and puts it on the belt at the grocery store and then opens it in the truck and eats it on the drive home. If I don’t stop and check myself, before you know it, it’s gone.

I am realizing that I will take the path of least resistance, always and forever. If I don’t push myself a little, I’ll never make any changes. I’ll sit and stare at my phone and let my kids binge-watch The Wiggles until they’re ready to move out of the house. I’ll never write another poem, climb another mountain, or drink a glass of water if I don’t make myself do it. Practice is a series of choices, every single day. I choose and choose and choose again. Sometimes, I choose the easy thing: the whole bag of chips, the staying on the couch, the not-writing. And often, I think, “that’s it. This is me, forever and ever. I’ll never be different.” But that’s not true. The beauty is that there will always be another choice to make, right around the corner, and I can choose differently. The hard part is remembering that. The hard part is not listening to the nasty voice in my head that tells me no, never, not good enough, give up.

I did not want to write a blog post today. I do not want to work on some poems. I don’t want to read a book, or go for a walk. Today, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. But I will do some or all of these things, because I know that this is how I build a practice. I just fucking do it.

What will you do today?

A Word for 2017

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This morning as I browsed some favourite bloggers, I noticed that Lindseay Mead of A Design So Vast had written a post about her word for 2017.. She writes that sometimes, if a particular word presents itself in the days and weeks leading up to the new year, she’ll choose it as something to guide her in the coming year. I like this idea because it seems simpler and more general than listing resolutions and trying to stick to them all. I like to think of choosing a word as a touchstone, something to come back to again and again. A way of checking in with yourself.

Last year, I chose the word “connect”. I’m not sure how I did at connecting, overall. It was meant to encompass my self, my children, my partner, the present moment. In looking back through my blog, I see there were days where I absolutely chose to connect with those around me, and also days when I made a very concious choice to disconnect. I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded or failed. Rather, I set an intention and came back to it when I needed to.

In the final weeks of 2016, there was a word that popped into my mind over and over. An idea that intrigued me. I wrote about it here and here: daily practice. Or, for the purpose of this exercise, just “practice” will do.

This has to do with my writing, first of all. I’ve wondered how a daily writing practice would change me. I’ve been inspired by Sarah Bousquet of One Blue Sail and her daily blogging, as well as blogger Elan Morgan and their daily poetry practice. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing either of those things, but in the end, I feel like life with three kids is a little too hectic for me to commit to any one specific form. So instead I would like to practice my craft, somehow, every day for the next year. Just practice coming to the page every day, even if it’s just a 10 minute freewrite in my journal.

I’d also like to practice showing up for myself. Practice coming back to the present moment as many times as I have to in a day. Practice self-care. There are so many things that I wish I just had perfect right out of the gate, and it’s my nature to give up when they’re not. So I’d like to let this word remind me to be gentle with myself and to keep at it, whatever it may be, doggedly, even when it feels messy or lame.

What about you? Have you ever chosen a word for your year? What word would you choose for 2017?

P.S. I had to Google how to spell “practice”. The internet says that as a Canadian, should be using “practice” for the noun and “practise” for the verb. It also notes that Americans use “practice” for both noun and verb and so I’m going to stick with that for ease!

Running Towards Fear

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I don’t want to write today, so I’m doing it. I didn’t want to take the kids outside to play, so I did. I’ve spent a few days now running from the present moment, from my reality. Although I suppose my awareness of the fact that I’m doing that: “now I’m going to eat this whole bag of chips; now I’m going to pick up my phone again; now I’m putting the television on to distract the kids;” is something in itself. I’m not sure it counts as true awareness, true mindfulness, but it’s a start. It’s a moment of space around the unconcious acts that take me out of my self.

I’ve been thinking a lot about daily practice, as I’ve written about a few times now in the past month or two. My thought process goes like this: I’ll write a poem every day for a year. No, too hard. I’ll write a blog post every day for a year. No, too hard. I’ll just write something every day for a year. No, too hard. I’ll meditate every day for a year. No. Then the inner critic gets real loud and I tell myself the only thing I’m capable of doing every day for a year (or 5) is surviving. But there is some hopeful little part of me that whispers: you’re worth it. You matter. Your voice matters, if only to you. I am enough.

So, like I’m doing right now, like I did this morning when I suited the kids up to go out in the snow, I am going to do the hard thing I don’t want to do. It feels a bit grim, truth be told. Like running as fast as I can down a slippery dock towards a cold lake. And I’ll launch myself headlong into that lake, I’ll plunge into the icy water and be reborn as I break through the surface for air. Each moment is a chance to be reborn. I can only stay stuck for so long. And that’s what the binge eating, the screen time, really are for me. I think of them as escapes, as I’m indulging in them, if I think of them at all. But they aren’t escapes. They’re not things that move me forward. They’re things that keep me stuck and the present moment just keeps battering against me like waves against a sea wall. What if I let the water do its work? How would it reshape me? I’m drawn by the thought that instead of just surviving, just numbly stumbling through each day, I could be awake and alive to it all.

I think of mindfulness as meaning peaceful and content and calm. But I’m learning that I can be mindful of the turmoil in my brain. I can be mindful through the worst parts, I can be present through the confusion or anger or fear or sadness. And it’s uncomfortable. Being present doesn’t mean it’s going to be more pleasant. It just means I’ll be there for it, whatever it may be. I’m going to run straight at my fears and discomforts, because that’s when the growth happens. I can’t grow if I keep checking out. So I come home to my breath. Come home to the present moment, ever changing moment, ever changing me.

Image via Flickr user Tracy