Solo parenting small children, for 15 days, in a 1970 trailer, keeping a wood stove going, above the 49th parallel, in a cold snap in January, has its contemplative learning advantages.
The temperature has been consistently dropping from -25 Celsius during the day, to the -30’s every night with extreme cold warnings that with the windchill it is really in the -40s. Every day, I bundle my kids up in their snowsuits, their toques, mittens, boots, snow shoes, scarves and we blaze trails through the woods, trying to stay out of the wind, so we can get some fresh air and exercise. This very act of winter outfitting, and the patience that it takes, is a contemplative practice of such magnitude that it would challenge the most ultra-enlightened people on this planet. Most of the time, I fail miserably at doing it without losing my inner cool, and then I remember how James Finley says “the poverty of the practice is the richness of the practice”. So then I surrender into that poverty, (which is another way to say, fall into the eternal source of love), and somehow put that last impossible mitten on, with a love beyond what "I" could conjure.
We’ve driven into town to get the mail once, but because I don’t really like being out on the roads with such small children in this kind of cold, we just turn around and come right home. Also, we try not to use fossil fuels for no good reason.
We’ve been to our dear longtime friend’s (a family down the road) for supper, and will be doing a sleep over at my sister’s, but this week has otherwise so far, been a very real, challenging time, to bunker down and simply live out our days. We draw pictures of our garden together and we sort our seeds. My 2 and 3/4 year-old has announced he is going to have a booth at the farmer’s market this year, to sell magic beans like the one from Jack and the Beanstalk. My 5-year-old has announced that he is planning on being way more cooperative when he turns 6.
This week, as you will know, one of the world’s great poets, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83. I have to say, that although losing a poet like Mary Oliver leaves a grievous void in the world, hope rose in me, as I watched how many people shared and posted what her poetry meant to them. Even people I wouldn’t have guessed. The flicker of what’s real, behind the smoke and mirrors of our time, shone more brightly than I’ve seen in awhile, as folks revealed their secret. That they read poetry. Good poetry. Life-altering poetry.
There have been many Mary Oliver poems, scribbled in the journals, and on the very hearts, of questers around the world, who’ve carried them like guides, out into the woods, the desert, the wild, back country. Those seekers who awaken out of the pathologies of urbanity, and hear the call, the primordial yearning, to come home, to really belong to this earth and to the mystery that gives it breath. (Normally, I would capitalize “mystery” but I’m currently rereading The Life of Pi, and laughed out loud when Pi observes how much Christians love to capitalize words! A telling trait I will probably continue on with, but for this bit of writing.)
I have been such a person. Once, in the Colorado back country, I cast off the chains of the need to ask for permission to live my own life, and the words of Mary Oliver were there to see it done.
There are some grudges, some ancestral coils, to be released and unbound, in the presence of a magpie and an old cottonwood tree, that can never be liberated in the presence of tall buildings. It grieves me that nature should be either parochial or gentrified. Vinyl pressed on a billboard, an idea of it, that exists in the mind of someone who hunts for sport, or someone with a pocketbook for elaborate hiking gear and cautionary guidebooks on regional fauna… but never touches, never tastes, never vulnerably indwells.
As my children sleep under their warm blankets and the heat-powered fan rattles on top of the wood stove, loaded with dead-fall poplar, I am reminded that I walk in the world of contemplation through the lens of dwelling in nature. Contemplative practice erases the false lines of separation between me and God and others, and asks me to be attentive to unnoticed things. Through embodied, country dwelling I am taught attentiveness and simplicity, and out of this place, there are clear calls to action that take shape.
Much of the time though, it seems that contemplation and nature are not necessarily in authentic unity. We haven’t reconciled all the threads that lay deep down in our psyches. The ancient earth powers, when our same wild God hadn’t yet been put in a book. The great first axial iterations of higher consciousness that miraculously stayed swords and then, all of them, fell into bloodshed, split after split. The off-by-a-mile trajectories that led to rigid, disjointedness, and eventually to literalism, and then eventually up again to a sold-short kind of myth-telling. But there are stories and mysteries that still quiver in each of us, under the surface of things, that are too incarnate to be metaphor. Or to say it differently, God has dwelt among us in the flesh as a human metaphor. Sacred has the last word, down to the smallest quark and beyond the farthest reaches of the universe.
The song for this week is We Do Not Attend, from the album Point Vierge. The lyrics belong to Thomas Merton, and my dear friend and teacher James Finley, does the spoken word at the end.
Merton was drawn to nature. To the solitude of fire making and walking in the woods. He could see the neurosis of power and greed infiltrating and controlling the lives of all of us, and he grieved that we can be so distracted by all of our many plans to be great, that we blunder the opportunity to pay attention to God’s most profound gifts.
In one flock of birds is a hundred words of God in full flight. In one smile from a child in your life, is an opportunity to mirror them, which multiplies the smile into laughter upon laughter, echoing all laughter that ever was or will be.
I continue to pray for a me, and for a world, in which being attentive to these purportedly small things becomes valued beyond the measure of all our extractive, plundering ignorance. And so we might honour the poems of the poets, with our offered service, at home in our “place in the family of things.”
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on an aspiring permaculture farm on the Canadian prairies.