a gopher maybe, a catastrophe, a muskrat, a family, or maybe a river otter
I respond, without thinking, to most situations with fear. This happens when you grow up with trauma. My house was erratic. It could motor along for days in its quiet but off-kilter way and then, out of nowhere, the volume would increase, its intensity and its intolerable, compacted fucked-upness would hit the fan. In this way, I was wired as a first responder and I often found myself in the trenches. I know how to move fast despite feeling paralysed. I’ve known this feeling for decades because it’s so deep in my wiring it feels normal. It’s a familiar and reliable reaction. Necessary, protective, and, at some point, a fair and worthwhile response to the many situations I experienced. It’s got a drone voice and narrates most things with downward dread: holy shit this is going to be bad, ack. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for fear. I appreciate how it shifts my gears to hyper-alert, switches my headlights to high beam. But I’ve been noticing how persistent it’s been, how it assumes authority and how much authority I give to it without question.
The Buddhists say we have two dogs in us: love and fear. We’re asked by pretty well every situation we find ourselves in: which dog do you want to feed? The answer is simple enough but carrying out that answer is a little more challenging. Responding to situations and to people with love takes practice. And a generosity I’m working on. Curiosity seems a realistic place to start. It is a reliable negotiator, it can mediate between my racing heart and panic, my dread, and invite me to consider other possibilities, other directions while not quite demanding the outpouring of love which I know to be the golden goal. Curiosity initiates a bonus round or another chance. It’s a game changer that widens the horizon line. When I follow its roots, I arrive at awe and the jaw-dropping, unbelievable genius that is our planet’s morphology and workings. Awe and then love. The way I see things is refreshed then, invigorated with the resources that bubble up when possibilities are manifesting and anything can happen. And those things may be better than I can imagine. But some days, I can’t even imagine that.
If awe is salve for our eyes, the way Rumi says it is, then maybe it’s balm for our curiosity. There is so much we don’t know: how things will turn out, for example. And curiosity, I’ve been thinking, may be the best greeting for encountering the unknown, the unexpected. Fear has been my reliable first response but curiosity may be a more sustainable fuel. I lean out of myself when I’m curious, I perk up; fear diminishes my primary radiance. It erodes my spirit, it’s a pesticide for options and perspective and it robs everyone else of their spirit as well. What first eradicated my fear were encounters with seahorses and a Portuguese man o’ war, bats and hummingbirds. A singular pine hit by lightning but surviving with a crooked and vital reach. These encounters claimed me somehow, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A couple of years ago, my friend was camping by a lake. She was sitting by the water in the early evening when she saw something swimming towards her. A gopher, she thought, no, maybe a beaver. Not a beaver, a muskrat? As it swam closer she thought maybe a fisher, a river otter. It gave a shake as it reached the shore then it stood.
I do this all the time. Name things before they’re out of the water. I think growing up in the house I did nourished the kind of vigilance that worked hard at making sense of a situation. If I named something, then I knew what I was dealing with. It was a way of keeping myself safe. I honed my observation skills, my intuition. This usually happens, for example, after that. I’d create equations for the unknown, and potentially dangerous, to stay ahead of that danger. And I get why I did it. I still appreciate the skill, the dedication it took. It was spirited. An early form of courage. I bow to that younger version of myself. Well done, I say, and now you can rest.
Sometimes naming is also a form of control, isn’t it? If I name it this, it can’t be that. And the quicker I name it, the faster I know what it is and what I have to do. Another way to stay safe. What would happen if I learned to wait a little longer? What would happen if something was given the space to claim its own name?
The creature shook and then nudged itself forward and up, sort of unfolding itself. A young moose, all legs, dripping the lake back to itself. A moose, my friend said, never would she have guessed a moose.
the moment in which I was lit
I was pedaling a bike with training wheels through two puddles, working on the wet trail of all the tire marks I was leaving. The making of the marks was engrossing, though I was circling something I knew intuitively to avoid. It soon became the hub in my circle, the point from which I navigated. If I had been stopped at this moment and asked what exactly that thing was, I would have maybe said: wet kleenex. I would have said: small clump. I was four and can still smell the parking lot, see the weeds you can imagine would be growing near an apartment building in the suburbs: long grass, some wild chicory still fisted, new sprouts of goldenrod. The small clump was a bird, fallen from its nest. I remember squatting for a closer look at its workings visible through its translucent skin. Its eyes were planetary, dark and inward. I knew, beneath words, that I was in the company of something important and unexpected. Too important for my parents. I went to the woman who knew birds, the silent old woman on the ground floor who fed them in a way that expanded my idea of family. I don’t remember what happened to the bird. What I do remember was the care she showed it, her reverence. It was the nutritional kind of care a child leans into and learns something from. If someone had held a match to her care, it would have lit.
an apparatus, a vortex
- I had been conducting the wind to vortex around
- our apartment and unearth the root of the basement
- from the ground, sending the building swirling to another place
- with darker trees and a wider green. The process involved
- an open heart otherwise an audience with the wind
- wouldn’t be given so I put myself in its current
- and with wide arms tried to get it to chase me.
This was a couple of years later. I was six or seven, running madly around our building convinced I could create an adventure by vortexing our building out of the earth. I had talked a few of friends into joining me but gradually they got bored or distracted so I was running alone.
- The apartment building was solid with renters
- who didn’t have much furniture but had a heaviness
- to them that involved shift work and souring.
- It was like riding on the back of a mammoth
- with nothing to hold on to. It bucked me close
- to the bush with thorns but I held on and called it magic.
There wasn’t much else in my life at that point. A television. A dark and heavy family. I was convinced I’d been born in the wrong one. Seriously. They just didn’t feel right.
- My sister yelled stop every time I blew past her.
- It finally bucked me off and I rolled hard
- towards the building, the thorn bush softening
- and then stabbing my fall. When I sat up, I was in the same world,
- the rocks hadn’t grown, the sky still in a hurry. In the bush
- above my head was the only clue that something was different.
- The unexpected green of it caught my breath, freshened it with colour
- and then gave it back to me so I could whisper: what are you?
The moment was a chandelier. I was alone in a new and vital silence. The look we exchanged was potent. Or poetent, I just typed by mistake. But that’s what it was: the look was poetent.
- The creature posed all angular and miracle. If it had been
- a miniature horse, it would have whinnied and shook its head
- at being seen. If it had been a miniature airplane, its propellers
- would’ve started spinning, its engine pulling it down the runway
- of the branch and then, unbelievably, airborne
- into takeoff.
What moments like these share is an expansion and a sense of other, a blueprint for the mysterious and for the totally unexpected manifesting. I was part perk and part bow. Humbled and verging. Fear’s blind spot has kept me from knowing that I’m part of this genius. That I’m unfurling with a delectable spirit honed to that awe, that genius of design all living creatures share. When I forget that, I find myself homesick for the wildness that is inherently part of me.
The creature I found had given me courage,
convincing me that it wasn’t an insect but a portal
into the miraculous. If you think I’m special, wait
until you see what else is out here, it telepathed
and I believed it.
I had to. There wasn’t much else and my relief was palpable. Ennobling. The luxury of a praying mantis: its colour and unexpected angles, its extensions only hinting at what is possible and how very little I actually knew. I remember the gratitude I felt. My horizon line widened past family. Here was another clue that I belonged to something bigger and my curiosity quickened. Who invented these creatures? And who thought up the apparatus of these perfect and timely encounters? Now I wonder: how do we keep that vitality watered when we find ourselves in a palliative care unit or a mental health ward? How do we keep it fed when all we’re given are forms and prescriptions to fill? Or when we feel the heart pain inherent to living on this planet at this time with the deep grief we’re experiencing but can’t even begin to articulate? What is salve for our care and for our kindness? Our generosity and restoration? I wonder if we’re more important to each other than we think.
an attack only better
- It was the Summer of Heart Attacks. One after another,
- men from Quebec in Speedos, their cigarettes wilting
- towards their commendable bellies, this an electromagnetic force
- in the middle of its enduring oui or non argument. The bodies, thick
- logs of sullen nons and the hot tongue of sand licking its yeses.
- I counted five attacks before the shark and then stopped counting.
I was eleven. The first man to have a heart attack on the beach was an event that afforded me some time to think about mortality. A voltage into an already present: ack, it’s going to happen to all of us?? By the fifth attack, a pattern seemed in place. I’d have guessed that it would happen again. I would have bet on it. The next day, however, a shark appeared instead, beached, and still very much alive. A shark, I remember thinking, who saw that coming? I’d never encountered anything so streamlined and so condensed. It had washed up crammed with ocean and was the most primordial yet modern thing I’d ever met. It spiced my summer with something that removed me from the mundane and wrought company I’d been in. I forged with it, I melted. There are no reliable patterns, I was learning, and this was neither good nor bad and sometimes could be spectacular.
- After years of therapy, I unzipped the wetsuit of shark
- and found a heart attacking. My mouth to fish, breathing,
- was replaced with ocean bailed from my eyes and sloshed
- on gills. The fish fluttering like a bird, like a new love eager
- for a glimpse of me, another beloved.
synchronizing our watch
I’m still learning to appreciate moments that defy the mundane with their singularity and brilliance. These moments are like dahlias, each detail a petal, contributing to flower. My vocation now is to watch for them, to take notes, to weed around them so they thrive.
An old friend and I were catching up, talking about our lives. Each of us needing answers more than we should have needed anything. Maybe we wanted safety or reassurance. Maybe we wanted affirmation or just company. We both were on our own, facing our singular and private loneliness. The pub we were sitting in was called The Nail and the Kneecap, which is what we were feeling we were up against, emotionally, spiritually even, we had joked. Life, eh? We had so many questions and weren’t willing to admit how scared we were, how old we were to be so scared. Here we were, knowing so little. What was it she asked me? if I’d do anything differently? If I had any regrets? The pub’s windows were generous: wide and open to the street. Summer was just emerging, the flowerpots vivid and active. My pause after her question was part bafflement, part consideration, and a large part dread. And that’s what he drove through on his bicycle. The young person, driving without hands, right in front of us: straight-backed and composed, wearing the biggest, white-feathered wings I’d ever seen: another species of response. His timing, as timing is, was perfect.
Photo by Josef Wells