Words from a Poet

My friend Staci Lee and I have been collaborating on some of these writing projects. We decided this month to choose one of our favourite poems to share. I always find it a bit difficult to choose favourites. I have favourites for different reasons, and some that speak to me more profoundly during different seasons of life. For this month, I decided on “Sweet Darkness”, by poet David Whyte.

David Whyte’s words are usually soul gripping and moving. But this poem sums up a deep human experience, while asking the reader more of an existential question; propelling them into the mystical landscape of their own soul. He touches on the themes of darkness, aloneness, vitality, letting go and coming to find your own sense of self in the world.

The last eleven months have brought some very significant changes in my life. Changes that have been excruciating at times, and also some of the most life-giving. If I have learnt anything, it has been that letting go, moving forward, saying no, and having some real self-respect has very much been worth the pain. Choosing to say yes to the things and people that actually make you come ALIVE, and no to those that don’t, no to the things that would be “settling” for you, is a lot harder than we think. Listening to our inner voice can often go against cultural norms, or the opinions from family or friends. It can feel like you are stumbling in the dark, alone. And yet, there is a surety that comes from within yourself, when you enter that space, and welcome it. David Whyte’s words remind us of the sweetness of such a time. That in it, we might actually discover a vitality that we could only dream of before.

Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte

“When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

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Darkness.

The days are getting shorter now, as autumn has fully emerged from the warm summer months. Darkness has subtly welcomed our mornings and taken more from our evening light. We wrap ourselves in layers of comfort, to ease the chill of these colder days. Naturally, I think, we take on a slower pace. We cannot anticipate the first snowfall, or the Southern Ontario ice storms. But somehow, we adjust to the rhythms of autumn and winter, to the darkness; to the cold.

Our bodies know that they need to keep warm. That they need a bit more light. They know that we may need to hibernate more than usual; and to walk gently through the world lest we slip. We go to bed earlier, and perhaps allow ourselves that extra bit of sleep in the morning. The physical world teaches us that darkness too has its time and place. Creation submits to the presence of the darker, colder months. Not only does it invite us, but somehow gently nudges us to accept it too. The resistance only seems to make us more miserable.

Truth be told, I am a lover of these darker months. Autumn and winter are my favourite seasons. They have a moodiness, and a melancholic spirit about them. Two things that aren’t foreign to me (sometimes I wish that weren’t the case). However, the seasons in our lives that are clouded by deep darkness, and despair, do not explicitly carry the same magic or anticipation that fall and winter do. They often hold in them much fear, anxiety, confusion and disorientation. And yet, this darkness too is a gift.

I am sure you each have had your fair share of darkness. Perhaps it has been cloaked in grief, loss, or mental health struggles. Perhaps it came from a wrong done to you, a move, a relationship conflict or ending, abuse, or a an unmet longing. Maybe you experienced it, or are currently experiencing it, but have no idea why. It just seems to be there, with no explanation or understanding of it. And you can feel it, almost viscerally.

I know you’ve heard it before, that there is hope within the cloud of despair. That “this too shall pass”. And as cliche as it is, it’s the truth. And maybe just something we all needed to be reminded of. Not only will it pass, but it will mark you, maybe even leave a scar on you, to remind you that you endured, and that grace held you through it. It will remind you, that you too can be, and hold hope for someone else, because you lived to tell the tale of it.

If I look back on my life, it is the times that were completely and utterly dark, that formed me most, and frankly, made me more kind. This is the gift of hindsight. When you are in it however, it feels like complete shit and as though joy will never return to you. But it does and it will.

I can’t tell you how your own box of darkness (as Mary Oliver writes) will shape your life. How, you too will look back on it with some sense of gratitude for the ways it taught you about grace, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and love. But it will. In its own mysterious way and timing, it will cultivate an empathy and spaciousness within you for others to sit, and just be, in the dark.

Just as we let our physical bodies be cared for in these months approaching, with warm baths, and soups, blankets and early nights in with a friend or a book; let yourself be cared for in the times of pain. Make self-care a priority, and don’t feel bad about it! And please, please let others care for you.

I will leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver that a friend gave to me not that long ago. Along with a poem that I often come back to in the more trying times. May these words leave you with a little more hope and light.

Heavy, by Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poets said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

I have collaborated with the wonderful Staci Lee Kennelly in some of these writing projects.  Please check out her work here:

https://alifedeveloping.org and follow her on Instagram at stacileekennelly

Take Notice

In the last couple of years there has been a surge of literature, both spiritual and psychological, on the benefits of practicing gratitude. If I am perfectly honest, whenever this topic was brought up or encouraged in my life, I would feel a cringe inside of me, almost an aversion to it. I would nod my head and think “yeah yeah, I get it” and go on with my day. I think at the root of that, I just didn’t actually believe in the practice of it. I didn’t actually think taking time to quiet myself enough to give thanks for the outrageous amount of graces I have received in life, would bring a sense of peace or enlightenment. And as awful as it sounds, the popularity of this topic made me want to dart the other way.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in Canada right now, and though October is my absolute favourite month, and Thanksgiving being one of my favourite holidays (you know, no pressure for gifts, just good food, family, and friends); this year has felt a bit different. A bit clouded and maybe appropriately grey. But as I woke up this morning, made my coffee, sat in my favourite rocking chair, I felt an invitation call me.

As I sat in the silence of my small apartment, I picked up my pen and an inventory of gifts in my life just came out of me. I could almost feel my spirit bow within me in a posture of “thanks”.

And all of a sudden, there were these faces of people, both near and far that came flooding back to me. The encounters with folks who I have met along the way, even just for a week or two who reminded me of simplicity and what really matters in life.

The real friends who stick it out with you. Who sit with you in the shit and mess of life, and who can authentically celebrate your victories. Who make you meals, light candles, and watch your favourite films with you when you’re half asleep.

The family who holds a gracious space for you, no matter what you are telling them on the other line. Who without a doubt is there for you in a second, with unconditional embrace of all that you are. A consistent voice of truth for your dreams and failures.

The mentors who I often think, “How on earth did I end up with these people in my life?” Who have let me into their lives, hearts and spiritual journey’s without hesitation.

Then came the kindness of doctors, counsellors, and pharmacists who care about their jobs and the people who they’ve been entrusted to care for.

For my body. In all of its wonder and imperfection, in its ability to run, walk, cook, clean, feel, and experience the world. The way it has taught me to love with radical acceptance, and care for the created world.

For my mind and heart. For the way I think and feel in this world. The ability to create, to analyze, reflect and respond. For the depth of emotion that reminds me of the layers of experience in life and in God. For the feeling centre of Being and the empathy that it provides.

For experience. For the past experiences that have taught me more about myself, God and the human condition than any dogma or psychology ever has. For the gifts that came from grief, loss and complete desperation and disillusionment. For the moments of complete elation and joy, that propelled me to dream and take steps to live out my vision for life. Because the past reminds me that my present is too a gift. One that I will eventually look back on, with gratitude and fondness for the ways it has led me to where I am going, and who I am becoming.

I think this post is probably more for me than for any reader, and I could sit here for another couple of hours adding to the list. But, for someone who didn’t always believe in the power of practicing gratitude, this morning was a very upfront reminder of the renewing power it has.

I hope that sometime today or this week, you can take a small inventory of your life, however that looks for you. That you would feel the humble adoration that comes from bowing to the power of Grace in your life. Because it is there, we just have to take notice.

A Blessing for Celebration by John O’Donohue

“Now is the time to free the heart,

let all the intentions and worries stop,

free the joy inside the self,

awaken to the wonder of your life. 

Open your eyes and see the friends

whose hearts recognize your face as kin,

those whose kindness watchful and near,

encourages you to live everything here. 

See the gifts the years have given,

things your effort could never earn,

the health to enjoy who you want to be

and the mind to mirror mystery.”

Desire

What is it that you really want? What do you most deeply desire? 

My Spiritual Director asked me these two questions two years ago, and to this day they still echo in the corners of my spirit.

Desire is one of the most fundamental aspects to what it means to be human, and often the driving force to most of our decisions in life. Depending on what kind of tradition you grew up with, opinions and teachings on “Desire” could have been very skewed and seen as something to be suppressed or even exterminated. Especially in regards to sexuality, which is a huge part of what it means to be human! Or perhaps you were encouraged to only live by what you desired in the moment, to indulge in whatever you wanted or could. Both of these extremes aren’t very helpful. Like most things in life,  extremes can be harmful, and even limiting to us, not allowing us to live a whole, full and satisfying life. Our deepest desires are good, they are gifts given to us from God, to be cultivated, nurtured and given back to the world.

Each of us are made with this sense of “ness” to us. What I mean is, you are specifically you in your “you-ness”. I have a Melissa-ness about me that no other has. We each carry desires, passions, longings within us that only we have been given. Though those things can mirror one another in some ways, no two people will exhibit them in the world in the same way. And so, our journey is one to explore, and discover that “ness” within us. To ask ourselves the questions “What do I really want in life? What do I most deeply desire? What makes me ME?”

For some of us, the answer to those questions come easily, and without much hesitation. For others, it is a longer process and frankly one that I don’t think we ever fully arrive at with the answer. But rather, life is an invitation to discovering more of what we most deeply want. Beneath the temporal wants, desire gets at the deep place within us, a soul level desire that drives us to exist in the world as who we truly are.

As Jesuit Priest James Martin writes,

“Desire is a key way that God speaks to us…Holy desires are different than surface wants, like ‘I want a new car or a new computer’. Instead I am talking about our deepest desires, the ones that shape our lives: desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deepest desires help us know God’s desires for us, and how much God desires to be with us. And God, I believe, encourages us to ‘notice’ and ‘name’ these desires.” 

I have been thinking a lot about Vocation lately. What it is I want for my life, and feel a sense of calling towards. Though this is not something that is always clear, or black and white, it is something I have found I can’t ignore. I think getting back to desire, to what we most deeply want in life, is the foundational starting point to discover the things that make us come alive, give us purpose and open us up to the world in front of us.

Whether we are trying to sort out what we want to do with our lives, where we feel we want to live and exist, who we want to journey with, or simply, what kind of rhythms we want; its important to remember that these are all aspects of our day to day life. We don’t somehow just arrive at a place that necessarily encompasses all of our desires. Rather, the big picture of our lives are made up of the small, every day moments. And so, I have found, paying attention to the day to day, to the reality in front of me, helps me to embrace what I do have, while still turning my ear towards that inner voice who propels me forward and whispers of deep desire.

Teresa Blythe asks these three questions for Spiritual Direction that I encourage you to explore for yourself. They can be helpful starting points to looking more intentionally into one’s life.

What is it you care most about in life?

When do you feel most fully alive?

When do you feel least alive? 

I will leave you with a blessing, once again by John O’ Donohue. And as you continue on the path you’re on, may you be reconnected more and more to your deepest desires; may you embrace them, explore them and discover more of your truest self in them. May you find the courage to look at them, and at yourself and say “yes”.

A Blessing by John O’ Donohue:

“Blessed be the longing that brought you here, and quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire, that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe. 

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease, to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship – be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.” 

 

I have collaborated with the wonderful Staci Lee Kennelly in some of these writing projects.  Please check out her work here:

https://alifedeveloping.org and follow her on Instagram at stacileekennelly

 

Poetry as Sacrament

Monday morning has consisted of reading the lines from a poem by Anita Barrows (which you’ll read below) and sipping coffee on my parents porch. These are the sacramental moments in the mundanity of Mondays – poems and porch sitting.

Poetry has been apart of my life since I was basically able to read and write. Coming back to my parents house these last few visits has allowed me to sift through boxes of my childhood. Finding old booklets full of my, some very dramatic, poems has reminded me of the need I have, and always have had for this genre of literature. I, in no way, believe myself to be an astounding poet, rather I am just someone like you, who loves to write and read it.

Poetry really has become a Sacrament in my life, and probably for you too, maybe without you realizing it. A sacrament is a specific practice, often acknowledged and affiliated within a religious ceremony. It is an outward or visible sign of inward spiritual grace. It symbolizes the touch of the divine in ones life. Poetry has saved my life, more than once. It, as some may say, has been “divine intervention” when the dark of night grows thick.

As C.S Lewis says, “Poetry is a little incarnation“. Parker Palmer elaborates on Lewis’s thought by writing, “Poetry helps me step, full-bodied into the day with whatever light I possess to do whatever I can to illumine the darkness“.

Poetry is full of nuance and paradox; two things life is very much made up of, often more than concrete understanding. It holds the tensions of the human experience more gracefully than that of our theories, doctrines and rationale. Poetry has a way of enveloping our senses and honouring our experiences by the use of metaphor, symbolism and pathetic fallacy. It’s as if the realm of nature and creation can speak more effectively to our emotions and appetites than our understanding of ourselves. Or at least, these figures of speech offer some illumination, a disentangling of our thoughts in order that we might continue on.

I have found poetry to be a profoundly spiritual experience; whether in me writing it or reading it. It opens me up to this other layer within myself, a soul level that exists no matter what comes and goes in my life. It’s like poetry touches “essence”, that part of us that always is and has always been, without alteration. Poetry gives us room to transform our experiences into art. It is elusive, mysterious and timeless, and often points to the human condition in subtle and hidden ways. It invites the reader to seek out its treasure, their truth.

Poetry, a sacrament – we need it, we hunger for it. In a culture that is so frenetic, busy, self-absorbed yet lacking self-awareness, we need the poets. From the past, from today and in the future, we need the writers of verse, song and rhyme. They remind us where we came from, what we’re made of and what we long for; something bigger than ourselves.

Let me leave you with a couple of poems. One of which has stuck with me recently, and two of my own.

Take, and eat of it.

Heart Work by Anita Barrows

“Monday. Bronze sunlight
on the worn gray rug
in the dining room where Viva sits
playing her recorder. Pain-ripened sunlight
I nearly wrote, like the huge
vine-ripened tomato
my friend brought yesterday
from her garden, to add to our salad:
meaning what comes

in its time to its own
end, then breaks
off easily, needing no more
from summer.

The notes
of some medieval dance
spill gracefully from the stream
of Viva’s breath. Something
that had been stopped

is beginning to move: a leaf
driven against rock
by a current
frees itself, finds its way again
through moving water. The angle of
light

is low, but still it fills
this space we’re in. What interrupts
me

is sometimes an abundance. My
sorrow too,
which grew large through summer
feels to me this morning

as though if I touched it
where the thick dark stem

is joined to the root, it would release
itself
whole, it would be something I could
use.”

___________________________________

Enough by Melissa Payne

“Learn to sit among the trees

with the sparrows

beside the sun.

Learn their way of seeing

through being

nothing else.

Born to welcome the morning

on time, every time

with whimsy and ease

these things

you cannot teach yourself.

No forcing, no striving

I know how much you like to try.

Learn to unlearn

be astonished.”

___________________________________

Autumns Hymn by Melissa Payne

The trees shed their clothing

yielding to winters refrain,

do you hear her cadence coming

chanting and cleansing

the earth

 

make it holy, make it holy, make it holy.

 

Summoning all

that is

to give in

let go

and die

 

even nature knows her destiny.

 

Pain is preserved within transition

from tips of branches

to twiggy ground

a dull ache hovers over, it

quiets her

make me holy, make me holy, make me whole

 

Begin again

I have always loved September. There is a freshness, and a clarity that comes with its newness. I find that it always feels more like a new year compared to January. It stirs up feelings of nostalgia, preparing for school as a kid, and all of the anticipation that comes with the turning of calendars. Summer is nearing its end, and though that saddens some of you, autumn is on its way. And with it comes crisp, new beginnings.

It’s a time to, as I like to say, “begin again”. It is an invitation to look back on all that took place in this past year. To remember the moments of deep joy, laughter and celebration. And to honour the very real residual ache and pain that is carried into your today. We cannot move into new territories of soul, without honouring and feeling our way through the goodness, and the grief.

The different seasons in the year consistently remind me of beginnings, endings, and the beginning again cycle. In the Celtic tradition, life is not a linear pattern of events, moving us either backwards or forwards. Rather life is cyclical. There is this rhythm of life, death, and rebirth. All things belong to the invisible story and thread of grace that is guiding us to our next beginning.

So, as we wake to more crisp mornings, and rest into the cool of night, may the whisper of God within remind you, that this is the time to begin again. This is dawns kiss to you, welcoming you into the newness that awaits. Receive and live into it, relentlessly.

A poem for your journey:

“As this year draws to its end,

We give thanks for the gifts it brought

And how they became inlaid within

Where neither time nor tide can touch them.

The days when the veil lifted

And the soul could see delight;

When a quiver caressed the heart

In the sheer exuberance of being here.

Surprises that came awake

In forgotten corners of old fields

Where expectation seemed to have

quenched.

The slow, brooding times

When all was awkward

And the wave in the mind

Pierced every sore with salt.

The darkened days that stopped

The confidence of the dawn.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter

With light from beyond themselves;

And from the granite of some secret sorrow

A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned,

For all we loved and lost.

And for the quiet way it brought us

Nearer to our invisible destination.”

– John O’ Donohue

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion. This theme has followed me for as long as I can remember. Recently, when I asked readers what they have been mulling over and would want to hear more of, “self-compassion” was thrown in the mix, once again.

Since I was a little girl, my parents have told me that I have been given the gifts of empathy, understanding and graciousness. Of being able to really put myself in the shoes of others, and feel what they are actually feeling. A dear friend asked me just the other day, “when do you feel most alive?” Among a few other responses one of them included, being able to sit with people, listen to their pain, dilemmas and conflicts, and somehow bring insight or direction that can offer relief to them. Even if just for a moment.

I have always been an empath. Someone who not only wants, but feels that I must, extend a sense of embrace to the world. This feels like breathing to me, a non-negotiable for living. And yet, I have often overlooked an important person in that extension of love –  myself.

The ironic thing is, just as I can remember feeling those more “positive” traits above, they were also coupled with an intense inner-critic. Harsh accusations, self destructive thinking, and negative self-talk were very much part of the dialogue within my younger mind, and still can be today. I think somewhere in growing up, I just thought it was self indulgent, selfish and straight up wrong to consider myself with the compassion and grace I so quickly felt towards others. How messed up is that!?

As I have reflected on this theme of self-compassion over the years, and specifically more recently, I have discovered a freedom and acceptance that is unlike any other. Compassion is the gift and grace that we extend to the “other”, in order that we might connect, form intimacy and have a sense of belonging. This is something I have had to learn in accepting the “other-ness” within my own self.

“In a sense, the human being is the loneliest creature in creation. Paradoxically, the human being also has the greatest possibility for intimacy. I link compassion immediately with intimacy. Compassion is the ability to vitally imagine what it is like to be an other, the force that makes a bridge from the island of one individuality to the island of the other. It is an ability to step outside your own perspective, limitations and ego, and become attentive in a vulnerable, encouraging, critical, and creative way with the hidden world of another person.” – John O’donohue 

The self is made up of many selves. My “self” is comprised of the compassionate self, the empathetic self, the creative self, the understanding self, and the self that belongs. While at the same time, the angry self, the depressed self, the jealous self, the critical self, the anxious self, and the outsider self, are also weaved quite tightly into that same thread. The compassionate self is able to look at these other selves with acceptance, and instead of trying to simply exterminate them, respond to their invitation for healing, and greater understanding. We must try and learn, for the sake of our well-being and for others, to accept the “other-ness” within. To befriend the shadow side of ourselves and be kind to her.

We are so hard on ourselves, us humans. We have absolutely unreal expectations of what and who we “ought” to be, especially here in the West. I am convinced, if we don’t do the slow, hidden work of self-compassion, we will never encounter the fullness of love, embrace and freedom. We will never experience that inner voice who guides the landscape of our souls as good and wise. That voice who settles us into a sense of home, and reminds us of the sacredness of being.

A poem by Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. 

 

Be kind and compassionate to yourself dear friends.