Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How and Who We See

Last week, at a downtown intersection, I saw three young adults carrying a large banner. The message, printed in big block letters, called on folks not to hang onto or teach prejudice and hate against transgendered people.
Now, I support efforts to ensure the safety, well-being, and equal rights of all individuals, regardless of sexual identity or preference. I smiled to see these folks declaring their right to be. And then I noticed myself automatically and semi-consciously trying to figure out the gender of those carrying the banner. And that got me thinking about the way we unconsciously try to fill-in-the-blanks about who others are (which no doubt is part of how we unconsciously calibrate our inner or outer responses to them.)
I’ve recently been reading Born Liars by Ian Leslie. Leslie looks at how our brains, drawing on past experience, take necessarily incomplete sensory data and create a continuous, coherent picture or story that allows us to predict what’s likely to happen next, and guides our response.  It’s a useful and necessary survival adaptation. When I see a car ahead of me speeding up to make a yellow light and another vehicle moving to make an intersecting left-hand turn, I slow down.  I don't have to think about it- it's how our brains are wired.
But this ability to create a whole from incomplete bits and anticipate a trajectory can also stop us from being aware of those things that do not fit with past experience and the resulting picture or story we’ve developed about reality. And one of the biggest stories we are taught from early on is what it means to be male or female, a boy or a girl.
One definition of “transgendered” is someone who feels their inner gender identification is different than the one which they were assigned at birth based on their genitals. But the Oxford English Dictionary also includes: ". . .  a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these."
Hmmm. . . . .In the early '70's I wanted to go to university and was told I couldn’t because I was a girl.  I was a long way from unambiguously identifying with conventional notion (within my family and community) of what it meant to be female! And yet, gender clearly remains a way by which I seek to identify others-  no doubt linked to unconscious and semi-conscious beliefs about what it means to be male or female. I’m grateful to the three young transgendered individuals for bringing this to my awareness, for helping me question what I look for and to consider both the roots and reprecussions of my selective looking.

Becoming mindfully aware of what we look for and the story or picture we create from what we see, might just make us more aware of what we’re missing. And that could prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering for individuals and help us find creative solutions for collective problems that we seem to futilely approach in the same way again and again.
So, next time you meet someone or are just people-watching, notice what you watch for, what intrigues or preoccupies you. No need for judgement- just gentle curiosity. Because in my experience, curiosity is the doorway into mindful awareness that really does let us think "outside the box" of our previous experience and unconscious assumptions. And who knows where that might lead!

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Recovering from my recent trip to New York, so decided to share an excerpt from my book The Dance. It's a piece that takes me back to what I need to remember again and again:

“When we believe that we are by our very nature deeply flawed- self-indulgent, selfish, judgmental. . . sinful- our efforts to fulfill our soul’s longing to live fully become efforts to control, chastise, reshape, improve and change ourselves. Believing we are by nature lazy and unworthy we believe we will not change, will not become the people we want to be unless we are pushed or forced by suffering to do so. Given this belief the methods we use do not cultivate mercy and compassion for ourselves but rather foster a hardness towards our own suffering and the suffering of others who are failing to curb, or rise above their basic nature. And in the face of these methods we do not learn to . . . dance, or dream or be all we are. We do not really learn to love fully or allow ourselves to receive love freely. We’re too busy surviving.
In the poem “It Felt Love” translated by Daniel Ladinsky in The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, the 14th century poet Hafiz talks about another way of learning, a way based on the assumption that to grow is to reveal the innate beauty we hold within, a beauty best brought forward by tender encouragement.

Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its

We all remain
Too frightened.

If we believed that we were in our essential nature compassionate, gentle and capable of being fully present our task- living our soul’s longing for deep intimacy- would be a matter of finding and placing ourselves within the warmth of the internal and external “encouragement of light” in our lives so we would open and open and open to all we are. I am not suggesting that this is easy- especially for those of us who have spent a lifetime surviving the sink-or-swim school of self-improvement. Often we don't even know where these lights of encouragement are in our lives.” 

May we each discover and receive fully the lights of encouragement- inner and outer- in our lives. For surely allowing ourselves to be who and what we we- unfolding- is why we are here and how we offer our beauty to the world. 

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Soul Smiling

I’m in my apartment listening to the school children running and screaming and laughing in the small park next to my building. What a teeming picture of life they are! There’s a foot wide gap between the trunk of a large hemlock tree and the chain link fence that runs along the edge of the playground.. As usual, three five-year-old boys have managed to squeeze themselves into this space. I think they like it because it gives them a sense of being hidden from view- although I am quite sure the teachers supervising the playground are aware that they are there (and I can see and hear them clearly, although I don’t think they've ever noticed me.)

They are the picture of conspiracy- whispering, peeking out at the playground mayhem, and clearly making plans for some kind of action. In the past I’ve witnessed the implementation of some of their schemes- sometimes a surprise run-by on the girls making sand castles, or a wild whooping dash amidst the swings moving in high arches over their heads (something no doubt prohibited by safety rules.) Mostly their plans degenerate into high-pitched squeals, giggles and a hasty retreat to the haven of their lair behind the tree.

As I watch them I become aware of a smile spreading throughout my body- a kind of full-body grin in response to seeing them so deeply involved and delighting in these moments outside in the sun and warm spring air. It reminds me of my own two sons- now men working in the world- and the days they spent at the small trailer we had in the wilderness setting up elaborate imaginary games that included building tree forts and making maps of areas where there were “treasures” to be found or “dangers” to be navigated.

As always I am in awe at the power of the imagination and the soul-sustaining delight that comes when we allow creativity to unfold, to construct new worlds and plan new adventures. Surely we need these moments of playful imagining and exuberant expression as much (or maybe more) as adults.

This week CBC radio’s Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Adam Cohen, son of the Canadian poet/songwriter/performer Leonard Cohen. They talked about the reasons why Leonard, at seventy-seven, is experiencing such phenomenal success in the world. Adam speculated that his father’s success results from the incredible hunger for art that enlivens and his father's commitment to doing his creative work for its own sake. (My paraphrasing of Adam's words.)

Watching the children playing I feel my excitement and need for that which sustains my own creative impulses. I feel how great art- poetry, story, paintings, sculpture, film etc.- stirs my hunger to write and inspires me to keep my imagination fluid, open and active.

So, I do something I rarely even consider: I order tickets for a concert- Leonard Cohen in Toronto, in December. And I feel the same full-body smile that I felt watching the children. In part, it's knowing that the concert will offer nourishment for my soul and creative inspiration. But mostly I was smiling because, for me, just ordering the tickets is a huge inner “Yes!” to my own desire to continue to engage my imagination, a recommitment to engaging fully with my own life and my own creative work.

And there’s nothing like being fully engaged with life, the world and our imaginations- whether we are writing a poem or plotting a run around the playground in some new and exuberant way- to really make a soul-smile spread from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes. 

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

News From The Front

Years ago, when I sent my agent, Joe Durepos, the first draft of the book The Invitation he phoned me and said, “Wow, writing for you must be like what going to war is for some men.”

Now of course, in some very real ways that matter- a lot- writing is nothing at all like going to war. But I knew what he meant metaphorically. I know men who have gone to war, and they’ve told me that their experience of knowing that everything was on the line made them feel very alive even as they were terrified of dying. Writing, for me, is a little like that- I am compelled to put everything I have into it, writing right past my fears or my desire to withhold or hedge or make myself (or someone else) look better than we were in the stories I am recounting, even knowing some parts of me will need to “die” in light of what I will learn from the process. And when this magic combination of letting go and forging ahead occurs, I feel deeply, ecstatically alive.

Last week, my work on a new book (The Choice) took me to a story about something that happened when I was a teenager- something I’d never forgotten but hadn’t thought about until a few years ago. Here’s the thing: I thought I’d remembered everything about the incident, which involved both of my parents. But when I wrote about it I “saw” something I had forgotten: I remembered the look on my father’s face, his embarrassment, his shame, his inability to look me in the eye. And, for the first time, I understood why I had done what I had, how I had moved instinctively without any thought of self-preservation. I’d been trying to protect him, to reassure him that I would be okay, that he didn’t need to feel badly about what was happening.

As this came out on the page, I could not help but think about sitting with my father recently, rubbing his back and stroking his arm. He is beyond comprehending words because of advanced Alzheimer’s. I looked into his eyes, held his gaze and silently willed him to know how sorry I am that I cannot save him from the disease that is taking his life from him one painful inch at a time. Despite knowing we cannot walk another’s path for them, the spontaneous thought arose, “I’m so sorry Dad. If I could take your place, I would.”

Each person has their own journey. We can only walk our own and love those around us through whatever they encounter. But I am deeply grateful to have been offered this sliver of new awareness about an earlier experience with my father. It gives me an insight into my largely unconscious but long-standing impulse to rescue and protect him. It helps me be with him and and with my own pain at not being able to do the impossible – to “save” him (or anyone else) from their own journey- with more understanding and compassion for us both.

That’s why I write- why any of us engage in the creative work or expression that calls to us- to discover what we did not already know, to deepen our understanding and experience in unexpected ways, to live more fully and deeply and compassionately present with what is within and around us.

And that’s this week’s news from the (writing) front.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Mantra From The Boss

"It ain't no sin to be glad to be alive!" -Bruce Springsteen 

I heard artist Wayne White use this quote on CBC radio as he explained the title of the documentary about his life, "Beauty is Embarrassing." He quoted Springsteen as part of his argument for doing the "embarrassing" thing- for claiming and celebrating our love of making beauty in all forms, our experience of joy wherever it finds us.

I could feel something inside me respond to the Springsteen quote- a relaxing in my belly, a soft tug in my chest. The belly response was a kind of quiet, “Yes!” a release of unconscious guilt for being happy in my life. The heart response was a pang of sadness for all the joys uncelebrated or glossed over, all the gladness unexpressed. 

And I wondered - Why would anyone ever think it's a sin to be glad to be alive?

What came to mind was scene from my childhood: arriving home with a report card of straight A’s and having my mother quickly tuck it in a drawer, muttering, “You did well." She’d explained in a conspiratorial tone that we could not “make a big deal” about it because my younger brother had not done as well, and my grades would make him feel badly. When other kids in the neighbourhood were given gifts or taken on outings to celebrate passing a grade, we were told such fanfare was "ridiculous." As my mother put it, “It’s your job to work hard and do well. No one rewards your father for doing his job or me for the work I do at home.”

Being glad to be alive isn’t just about celebrating or being appreciated for our accomplishments or milestones, but I think this story points to something that might give us the idea that feeling glad, celebratory or joyous is, if not wrong, potentially problematic.

My parents, conscientiously trying to pass along survival skills, wanted me to be able to work hard without the promise of external rewards or recognition that may or may not come. And to some degree it worked. Angry at having my report card hidden I clearly remember (at the ripe age of eight!) consciously considering doing badly for one term so subsequent efforts would be appreciated. But I decided against it, decided I would do the work, revel in the learning for myself whether or not anyone one else noticed. This attitude has no doubt been helpful for spending long hours at the keyboard even when I am unsure if anyone will want to read what I'm writing.

But there’s another piece to this. If my brother had also had high grades, we may have celebrated. I don’t know. But I do know that the message was clear: if someone else is not doing as well as you are, your joy must be muted so they will not feel worse by comparison. Again, it’s not that there is no truth in this. I may choose not to talk extensively about the optimistic ecstasy of new love when I am sitting with a friend going through a difficult divorce. It’s okay to be sensitive to the conditions others are experiencing relative to our own. But we need to be careful not to unconsciously tag all joy with guilt, muting our appreciation for our day or our lives because there is suffering in the world. It’s not necessary and it doesn’t help anyone.

Living in Canada, I have a privileged life. That privilege comes with a responsibility to participate in co-creating change that can alleviate suffering in the world. And this ability to respond is much more likely to expand and be fulfilled in a sustainable way if I am glad to be alive, if I can feel the joy as well as the sorrow, appreciate effortless grace and beauty as well as hard work.

So, I think I’ll use Springteen’s line as a bit of a mantra to lift any residual reservations from the moments when I find myself smiling for no particular reason, remembering, “It ain’t no sin to be glad to be alive.”

Oriah (c) 2012