Tomorrow I turn 49. Not a milestone birthday, but a messenger of sorts. A foreshadowing.
As far as it goes, I’ve done well in the last year. My fitness has been on track, I started a new job in the fall, my family is all still living, my partnership is loving, and I’ve put a fair amount of writing and objects out into the world. If I find myself anxious these days (and I do) it’s not because of any lack in my own life, but because the socio-political winds are blowing in the wrong direction and I am not able to prognosticate the future. But then I remind myself, it was ever thus, and there is no period in which humans have been free from calamity or suffering and why should now be any different?
One of the weird coincidences in my life is that my birthday and work anniversary are only a few days apart. As of February 3rd, I had worked for my employer for 24 years which is half of my life. I’ve been thinking about how much I identify with that role lately, specifically as it relates to people in my Facebook feed spewing conspiracy nonsense, not to mention supporting the current protest in Ottawa. While I don’t believe that government does everything right/makes all the right choices, I have grown impatient (angry, really) with the implication that myself and people like me are working in concert to actively harm our fellow citizens, neighbours, and family members. Because for someone to believe in the conspiracies being promoted out there, that is literally what they have to believe, not to mention the fact that nearly every doctor, scientist, and academic must be in on it as well. Whether it is 9/11 or anti-vax, to believe in conspiracy is to actively despise the civil service, or at least some quarter of it. And while I aspire to detachment, I’ve started to take that quite personally.
I am a big believer in the right to public protest, and have participated in many a demonstration in my life. I believe citizens should let government know when they are dissatisfied with policies or are seeking redress, and I’ve always felt that a demonstration outside my workplace is a sign the work we do is relevant to people, enough that communities seek change or inclusion in process. Where things veer off course for me is in demands that democratic processes should be discarded in the face of big trucks, that government should abandon programs or policies without plans for new ones that take all people into account, and ultimately that fascist views should be included in “the tent” of ideas for consideration. If anything is worrying me on the eve of my birthday, it is this.
On the weekend I read about a California couple who got snowed in at their mountain cabin on December 6th, but only recently called for help as their supplies dwindled. I suppose they were used to being snowed in and were just waiting, figuring two months of supplies would last until they could get out again. But as it’s been a historic snowfall year in Lake Tahoe, that didn’t happen and they had to call for helicopter evacuation. Upon reading this I implored Brian to imagine living that far off the grid, and how lucky one would be to not know what was going on in the world. If I didn’t know about current events, then surely they wouldn’t be impacting me the way they are. Right?
In the meantime, Brian bought me an Oculus VR headset for my birthday and I’m finding solace in virtual reality. It’s very clean and trippy in there, surprisingly calming. I seem to have reached a point lately where all I want to do is take low doses of mushrooms and float around in imagined reality. Given the state of the world these days can anyone really blame me?
Halfway through 2021, I stopped meditating altogether.
After cultivating a fairly steady practice since 2014, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I have occasionally stopped for a couple of weeks, and “daily” has sometimes meant 4 times per week, but I always return to practice fairly quickly because I notice it in my nervous system when I don’t. Perhaps more practical than any spiritual quest, meditation is one of the most effective mechanisms for regulating anxiety I have found, and Zen study helps me situate myself in the tempest of this world.
At first I told myself it was just due to summertime which always turns routines sideways. The heat dome and successive heat waves didn’t help as my sleep was disrupted frequently and I had trouble motivating myself to the cushion in the early mornings. As the cooler air of September prevailed I had the greatest intention to return to my rhythm during the fall practice period. But although I cleaned my Zendo and put fresh flowers on the altar, I did not sit once from September through December. “New job/new schedule,” I told myself whenever the feeling that I “should” be sitting arose, “I’ll get back to it when I’m ready.”
After a few months, a great resistance rose inside of me whenever I thought about sitting again. I predicted failure of attention and wild discomfort, convincing myself that returning would require starting from five minutes per day and building up all over again, something I didn’t want to face up to after years of being fairly dedicated.
But last Sunday, on the second day of the new year, I entered my zendo, bowed to the altar and then slipped onto my homemade meditation bench to join my sangha in Vancouver on Zoom. Knees on the cushion, facing the wall for the first bells of meditation practice, I immediately relaxed into the posture that feels like home to me even after many months away. Sitting, walking, sitting, then dharma talk and Zen service; besides a little fidgeting during the meditation periods, it was as thought I had never taken a break at all.
I often hear people say things like “knitting/running/gardening is my meditation,” but I don’t agree with this equivalence. I knit, weave, run, garden, cook – and as far as it goes, only meditation is my meditation. It is not the same as any activity (because it is primarily the absence of activity), even those which have a calming or focussing effect. Though meditation has a beneficial effect on my well-being, it is literally the only time in my day without purpose or utility. There is no end product. There is nothing in my life that has a similar effect to putting on my rakusu and bringing my attention to the breath. In and out. In and out.
I had forgotten that in my months of absence, but as I have come to sit for the last ten days, I am remembering every moment of my practice and my vows. I am missing my teachers and my community of practitioners anew. And I am reminded how this simple act of sitting daily helped me navigate the earliest days and anxieties of the pandemic. Somehow returning has been effortless, and I feel as though I’ve merely returned to where I left a part of myself and picked it up again.
In 2021 I made no new year goals, and I barely chose a word to guide my year (though I played with Renewal as an idea, I can’t say I really committed to it). Feeling disillusioned by my inability to plan around the pandemic which had blasted away all my goals for 2020, my general sense of well-being did not allow me to plan for the even the near future.
While I am not exactly able to see a path forward into 2022, and I am already tired by things to come, I have decided that rather than adopting a “let’s just get through this” mindset, I will work with the concept of fluidity and flow in 2022. As Lao Tzu and Lucretius (among many) have noted, water has the qualities of being soft and yet strong enough to erode rock. I would like to find the qualities of gentleness, strength, flexibility, and movement as I enter this new year with big and small goals. I am embracing “Fluid” as my word for 2022 as I seek to soften my approach to hard problems that have to be tackled.
1) Arrange renovations on my parent’s second home and move them into it. This is my biggest goal and part of helping them age in their community with less property to take care of.
2) Create my position at work and get appointed to it indeterminately. I’m currently on an assignment, but would like that to become permanent and am working towards that happening.
3) Staff my new work team once positions are created. That’s nine positions which come with a whole lot of work to create and fill them.
4) Run 15 km. (My previous record is 12 km.)
5) Complete one 30-day yoga challenge.
6) Increase on all my powerlifts: Deadlift 250, Benchpress 115, Squat 230
7) Complete one other fitness challenge (to be chosen later in the year).
8) Knit a first pair of socks.
9) Hand paint two warps.
10) Create some upholstery fabric and reupholster one footstool and a chair.
11) Weave a double-width blanket.
12) Organize community fibre meet-ups once omicron has passed.
13) Host an open studio where people can drop-in for a day of visiting and fibre discussion.
14) Publish 10 issues of Comfort for the Apocalypse.
15) Make fifty blog posts. (One down, 49 to go!)
16) Complete one long-read essay.
17) Return to Zen practice and study. Attend one residential retreat in 2022.
18) Put $2000 in savings and leave it there.
19) Read 100 books (I did this challenge last year and got to 91). This includes War and Peace which I am reading right now.
20) Do the January Cure (The Apartment Therapy program for getting one’s house in order for the year to come, which started yesterday).
21) Get to New York for friend’s wedding and family visiting in June. This is covid-dependent, but it’s on the agenda and will be the first trip outside of BC in over two years.
22) Arrange one smallish house improvement project – laundry room, downstairs bathroom or tbd – in the fall.
Though I feel these goals are achievable because they align with where I am currently at, a lot of external factors will influence how and if they happen. While that is always been true, it just seems more obvious in the face of wave after wave of pandemic infections. While I hope that 2022 brings an end to Covid (or at least sends it into endemic status), I also know that I will continue to carve out a life in my small/local community and use the quieter pace of lockdown for generative creative and spiritual practice. I hope that you are able to do the same, finding a focus that works to stabilize your own place in this ever-emerging world and even discovering new pleasures amidst our days of uncertainty. A better world is still possible, but we have to believe it’s so in order to make it there.
I haven’t done a catch-up post for awhile, and here we are at the end of the 2021 (almost!) Enough said that between viral mutation and climate change catastrophes it’s been a weird year, though we’ve done pretty well getting through it at Birdsong (owing to a great community and quite a bit of housing and financial privilege which allowed us to escape the precarity many people are facing right now).
Like everyone, I’m a bit done with the disaster movie life, but I’m also pretty sure that this is the way life will be framed forever until I die. I had hoped that the worst of the planetary undoing would come sometime in my 80s when I could just nope on out of here, but it seems that I’m going to experience a lot of it thirty years ahead of my preferred schedule.
But I’m going to do my best to enjoy whatever time in whatever conditions we’ve got left – and I don’t mean by flying around the world and churning more garbage for the landfill. Case in point, I still cherish beautiful tableware and last week Brian and I bought a set of vintage pottery from Mexico to replace our (ho-hum) everyday dishes. This is the kind of small delight I need with my morning coffee, or my evening meal – mugs that fit perfectly in the hand, the lightness of well-made stoneware, and little birds!
But while the big news on this home front is that we have new tableware, a lot more is going on in our extended families right now with elder parents transitioning and moving (which involves no small amount of drama in my family). I anticipate a lot of heavy lifting in the new year facilitate some of this. Fortunately no one is in a precipitous health decline and it’s more that everything has become too much and no one is denying it anymore. I hope that moving into more manageable housing will relieve some of the stress in my parents lives and help them live longer and with less anxiety. This Christmas will be the last we celebrate in their home of fifty years, and though my brother will stay on the family property it does mark the end of the central gathering place my mother always created for the holidays.
So I guess it’s no wonder I’m feeling a little verklempt as we enter the holiday season, because I can see that over the next few years things are going to get a little harder for everyone, even with these modifications and supports.
I’ve been baking cookies for the annual Xmas feast on Gabriola – which the last two years has involved delivered meals for those who sign-up – and this has brought a little Christmas cheer into the house which has smelled perpetually like ginger this week. Besides basic cookies, I attempted some German baking at my mother’s request–stollen and lebkuchen–which are among her favourite seasonal treats. While I may not be the best judge of my own baking, Brian confirms that both have turned out (the chocolate dipped lebkuchen are crazy good), though he has never had pfeffernüsse or lebukuchen before so perhaps he isn’t the best judge either. Suffice to say, we will be arriving at my parent’s home with a lot of baking this year (including Brian’s shortbread and Christmas cake), plus all the trimmings for Christmas dinner since we offererd to cook this year.
The provincial health announcement yesterday recommends the curtailing of gatherings, but more than anything I am worried about the weather which is supposed to blow in wintery around Christmas eve. I’m hoping that it holds off until the travel part of our day is done, which won’t be until later in the evening. Everyone we will be seeing is vaccinated, and our older family members are boosted, which doesn’t guarantee anything against omicron, but does help according to the data I’ve read. We booked our boosters for January 8th yesterday as we are part of “whole community” vaccination efforts on Gabriola and get to go a little ahead of our age cohort as a result. Brian and I are still inside six months since our second vaccination, so we should still be protected. Christmas has always been a stressful time for me, but the last couple of years have really been over the top.
And yet, I am still grateful heading into 2022 – that we have enough to carry ourselves through, that no one close to us has been struck terribly ill or by disaster in the last year, that I have great love in my life. I have lived through years where none of this is true – and so I am holding on to the goodness that is here right now. One day past the solstice, today is when the light begins to return today, which is truly a cause for celebration. We are through the longest night, though perhaps not the longest winter – my holiday wish for everyone is that we may pass through these days stronger and more connected, despite that which keeps us physically apart.
My parents still live on the property I grew up on, a five acre parcel in Saanich, with two houses and many outbuildings on it. They bought it in 1971, from a man who had just purchased close to sixty acres of land that he couldn’t really pay for. In order to make his transaction work, he sold off the five acres that had the old house on it (our property), and sold another 2 acre lot beside that as well. Subdivision back in the day must have been easier than it is now, as this man was able to subdivide property for sale without really owning it somehow. The remaining fifty acres had a road-accessible lot on it that my friend Miranda’s family would move their trailer onto in 1979, but was otherwise left as it was by the man we knew as Mr. Bear (which, it turns out was not his actual name, but left childhood me with the impression of a large bearded woodsman whenever his name came up). As far as I know, he rarely or never came to the land, and I never met him while he was alive.
This sixty-acre block and everything around it had been logged flat to the ground at some earlier point, likely the 1910s or 20s, and two old logging roads formed the main trails we travelled through the woods. No vehicles ever drove on those roads in my lifetime, though the wheel ruts were still in existence when I was young. Way out in the middle of the forest was a concrete pad where a small shop or shed had at one time stood. A place where tools were stored or logging vehicles repaired perhaps. There was quite a bit of metal and glass debris around this spot and as children we mined the ground for small treasures when we went down into the woods. There were other ingresses into the forest also, deer trails that had become foot paths, lesser logging roads that had grown over into track, and places where Miranda’s father had cut the slash back to make room for their ponies to graze in a small meadow that a creek ran through.
At the edge where our family property and the larger acreage meet were two specific zones of interest for me. One was the dump, which sat at the foot of a bluff and was clearly where all refuse was thrown in the days before recycling. Like the former shed site in the woods, this was a trove of glass and metal bits, old bottles and metal cans that seemed like valuable antiques to me and I would make little displays of them in the woods and in the cave – my other spot of interest. This small cave, not far from the refuse site, was formed by a rock outcropping, with a tree that grew up right in front of it so that once you were in the small cavity no one could see you. Over my years as a child and teenager, I often went to that place on my own, imagining that it held some magic or secrets that would be revealed to me if I sat or meditated there.
Despite the fact it was a private forest, Mr. Bear never put up a Private Property or No Trespassing sign, never barred access to the woods in any way, and so the community used the forest as though it was their own. Trails were used and tended, deer trails to a spectacular arbutus grove and the small creek became walking paths, people came to cut foliage for their Christmas wreaths and my family took our Christmas tree off that land every year (which is not the happy memory you think it is – given the chore of dragging a heavy tree through wet trails and the fights that ensued around this annually). This wood connected up several neighbourhoods and was used as a shortcut to visit friends, and when we got older and snuck out to meet up at night we learned to traverse those trails in the dark.
Around the edge of the wood are private properties, many of which I’ve interloped through over the years to get out to a road, or avoid the marshy edge at the bottom of the creek drainage. My parents have always allowed neighbours to pass through their property to access the top end of the trails which connect Mountain and Excelsior Roads and make for a nice circle route through the rural neighbourhoods. Most recently, a new trail has been cut down to the edge of the former golf course on Prospect Lake (now leased by Right to Play) which travels through parts of the forest I never knew as a child.
Like the new trails, life within the forest has continued to expand and I have come to understand that the wood has been healing itself for the past hundred years, nearly forty-nine of those in my lifetime. Owls, once rare, are very common now. Bears and cougars, driven from other developed areas, are active in this wood in a way (we are lucky) they weren’t when we were kids playing out there on our own. The understory is much thicker now in some places, and at least one of the spur roads that once lead to someone’s house (I have a vague memory of going with Mrs. Bothwell, an elderly neighbour, through this part of the wood to visit a friend when I was only four or five) has been completely overtaken by fir saplings and great masses of salal.
About twelve years ago, Mr. Bear died and the future of the forest became uncertain. He had owned many properties in the Victoria area, all undeveloped, and his inheritors were selling them off. Given its rugged profile and watershed status, the 50-acre wood behind our house wasn’t the first property to go, which gave time for people in my family and from the community to open up a dialogue with the people who now owned the wood. While I won’t go into the ins-and-outs of all that transpired over the last decade, I will say that there were many false starts and disappointments along the way. Times when it looked like development was inevitable because the municipality wouldn’t move, and other times when it looked like a single saviour (like the Nature Conservancy) would be the answer. But the people who wanted to save this small patch of second-growth, and my father in particular, were tenacious in their goal over all these years and last week it was announced that in negotiation with the owners who agreed to price that made it attainable, the Habitat Acquisition Trust and the Capital Regional District were able to purchase the Mountain Road Forest for parkland in perpetuity (it will be protected by a covenant that disallows the CRD from changing its use in the future).
The protection of this forest gives me a feeling of solidity, that there is one place that will forever be known to me. At the same time, its park status will change it from what it has always been to those of us who grew up in it it. The cave might become the playground to more than the children who live on the hill, the hole dug to trap a cougar many decades ago will probably be filled in for safety, trails will be marked and “improved” instead of being the desire paths they are. The place where Miranda’s trailer once stood, where we spent so many of our after school times, will become a parking lot. But like all community parks, it will mainly be used by the people who visit it now, and the covenant should mean that not too much gets done to it over time.
This forest of so many stories was part of what raised my brother and I, and a place to which I return many times a year in all kinds of weather. Writing about it now, I can see it is like a friend in my life, a once and future place I hope to know until the end of my days.