Monday, February 9, 2015

in favour of aliveness

"This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness."

- Mary Oliver

One day last week Chloe and I went to the Muttart Conservatory. She was off from school because of exams (she'd finished hers). I don't know why but we always seem to forget about the conservatory until February. Timely, I suppose though, as it serves as a bit of a mini vacation and really does alleviate the winter blues. 

We began in the tropical pyramid which is a wonderful sensation - to walk out of the biting cold and snow and to suddenly emerge in this warm and humid, plant filled place. I've been taking Chloe to the conservatory since she was 6 months old. We used to live closer, and I had a yearly pass. In the winter, we'd meet a friend or two, buy coffee, and just hang out in this pyramid. 

She brought her sketchbook, and her iPhone, and I had my camera. Of course.

And so we spent the morning, attentive, certainly that. And warm. 

The temple bell stops -
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers

- Basho

My low-internet experiment goes on, and while I'm still trying to wrap my mind around how to write a blog post that isn't too long and rambly and running madly off in all directions, once a week......I do feel like this has been a small but positive transformation for me.

It's interesting how when you make such a change, you start to notice all sorts of other people thinking about or enacting similar changes. I ran across a sweet blog called Blue Eggs and Tea and a post ruminating on and grappling with how to use social media.

Writers, in particular, have long been encouraged by their publishers to have a web presence, to blog, to use social media. So by now it's been engrained in us that these things are essential to our careers, to 'making it.' And sure, there are some writers who make great use of some or all of these forums. The thing is, there are plenty of writers who seem to get along very fine with either minimal use, or complete absence from all of the above. Also: from what I've heard, publishers are caring less about all sorts of things. Many don't seem to care if their authors are tweeting 16 times a day, or if they have a blog or website or not. Also fading away - the book tour. This is something I've long been grousing about. Writers get small grants, or worse, they foot the bill themselves, to travel insane distances, visit dozens of cities, to sell a few books at each venue. Sure, this isn't quite the case for authors who have big names and whose books have a wider audience than, say, poetry. But the old models have long needed revising, and I'm looking forward to coming up with creative ways to get the word out on my book (arriving this October 15) that doesn't necessarily entail extensive travel.

But okay, enough about all that :)

I can't tell you how tranquil and restorative our small excursion was to the Muttart.

The glass sculpture in the central area is so colourful and fun.

After the tropical pyramid, the 'show pyramid' was where we spent the most time. The current display celebrates Chinese New Year (which falls on February 19), the Year of the Ram, or Goat.

I was in love with all the many bonsai in the pyramid.

I also thought the ram sculpture was quite splendid.

The tree adorned with red envelopes was striking.

A description of the symbols of Chinese New Year from here:

"Chinese New Year has various symbols and traditions. For example, flowers are an important part of New Year decorations. Two flowers that are often associated with Chinese New Year are the plum blossom (courage and hope) and the water narcissus (good luck and fortune). Writings that refer to good luck are often seen in homes and business environments. They are usually written by brush on a diamond-shaped piece of red paper. Tangerines and oranges are also displayed in many homes and stores as a sign of luck and wealth. 
Envelopes with money (Hong Bao, Ang Pao, or Lai See), often come in the color red, which symbolizes happiness, good luck, success and good fortune. The color red is also used on these envelopes to ward off evil spirits. These envelopes are mainly given as presents to children."

Thinking about the Chinese New Year, led me to think about the new year in general, which then led me to re-read this post by Parker Palmer on the On Being blog. Instead of resolutions, he wants to take Rilke's advice about 'living with the questions' and to take questions with him into the new year. Which I like very much. Here are his questions:

• How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor of aliveness?
• What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
• How can I open myself to the beauty of nature and human nature?
• Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
• What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me?

I love these questions, and think I might just print them off and keep them on my desk for a while.

Perhaps I'll add a few of my own. But for now, I'll let these resonate and hum.

I've been asking myself a lot lately, how do I want to be? How do I wish to interact with the world, other people? How do I guard my solitude, but also be open to people and to possibility? And yes, what do I want to create next?

We ended our visit by spending some time in the temperate pyramid where we were graced with these splendid pink blossoms.

A couple of last things before I leave you lovely souls.

One of my closest friends, Nina Berkhout, has a new book out and it's incredible. The book is titled The Gallery of Lost Species. But don't take my word for it! A reviewer in The Globe and Mail calls the book, "one of the most deeply moving stories I have read in many years."

Let's end with a poem. This amazing one by Ellen Bass, from her website.

Pray for Peace

by Ellen Bass

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, writing on a blackboard
with yellow chalk, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

from her book, The Human Line


  1. Those questions? Perfect. That first photo? Amazing color and clarity. Also, I love the color of your daughter's hair. I am totally enjoying your longer posts!

    1. Thanks so much Manisha! I'm glad you are.

  2. this post is magnificent from beginning to end.
    lovely to see that chloe is still a totally unique and exquisite and creative soul.
    she always makes me feel as though an enchanted faerie has landed here for awhile!
    there's something ephemeral about her beauty and her very self.
    perhaps because her mother is the soul of creativity too.
    what a beautiful place.
    and the last poem...
    well. no words of mine could say enough. thank you. xo

    1. I ordered her book right after I read it! Thx Tammy!

  3. tammy j (above) so eloquently wrote exactly what I feel about this beautiful post. Your Chloe is exquisite and that poem is ... just simply perfect for me right now. Thank you Shawna XX

  4. I keep coming back to visit this lovely and thought provoking post. I feel renewed just looking at all these colorful images and you've inspired a trip to our local botanical garden just as soon as the roads are plowed and safe to travel. What a nice tradition you and Chloe have going! Will definitely check out your friend's new book...and what a phenomenal poem you've ended with (love the exit sign too!)

  5. Thank you thank you.
    I really needed to ground myself today.
    Your lovely photos were such a gift.
    I bow to you.


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