The Poppy and a Call to Love

The poppy has long been a person symbol for me. Interestingly perhaps, not in conjunction with Remembrance Day or the ‘poppy poem’ specifically. But if I think about it, there is a connection.

I first saw poppies in my mother’s English garden that was stuffed with tall bush-like flowers – bleeding hearts, flocks, rudbeckia and poppies. The soft terra cotta petals flapped in the breeze and the entire cluster swayed on strong, slender stems. Later I noticed them in impressionist paintings of the French countryside – fields of poppies with a warm yellow-stone cottage behind. I found them exquisitely lyrical, Romantic with a capital R. They spoke to me of the longing for a more pastoral life.

When I was fourteen, my family and I were driving through exactly such a setting on a trip through Provence. All at once, as we were about to pass it by, I called out from the back seat for my father to stop the car. I wanted to run through the poppy field. This was not such an unusual request in my family. My father read Proust. My mother was a language teacher and literature buff. They were also in favour of retreating to the country for months at a time. And so, my father pulled over and l jumped out of the car and flung myself across a huge ditch onto the edge of the field.

Almost immediately I discovered that my idea of running through the field was more symbolic that realistic. Perhaps it was the time of year. There were large, dry clumps of mud that made it almost impossible to walk even, and the grasses that played host to the flowers were so dense and tall I decided to simply look into the floppy depths of the flower, at its dark textured centre. But I had so much wanted to run, freely and with abandon.

As an adult during visualization meditations I have often brought to mind the image of the poppy and the ideal of freedom: freedom from convention, freedom to be oneself. And yet, I was aware that we often confuse freedom with independence or isolationism, from the free nation to the hermit in the cave. But getting right down to it, the poppy grows in large clusters of plants. They grow wild, but in communities and in amongst other crops. They understand the lack of independent existence. The worldly experience is one of enmeshment. And within this enmeshment we thrive.

In my final year of university, one of the few books I had time to read (every night in fact) was Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. No matter how challenging the multiple essays all due the same week, no matter how intense the fear and unknowing of what the future held after leaving the safety of the university walls, I could always find respite in the author’s credo: share, look, and “when you go out into the world its best to hold hands and stick together”.

This is the freedom of the poppy – to seek the sun, and allow its artfully crimped petals to blow in the wind, while holding firm to the earth and the cluster. It is the rootedness that allows us to rise in freedom, the strong community of nations that affords us true peace.

I have been reflecting on this today: holding hands, we go out in the world together, known, seen, accepted by our tribe of friends, family and neighbours with all our idiosyncratic ways. And as we feel rooted, then we are able very organically to extend that deep sharing and the gift of presence. We say it often enough – most people just want to be loved, to be understood and appreciated. How do we as a community accomplish this. To share, look and spend time together.

Remembrance Day at my children’s public school is a very moving tribute to this coming together for a certain ritual – the moment of silence – to experience something together. It is a rare occurrence in our society of individualism and decreasing participation in religious and community institutions. But maybe this is causing a growing consciousness of how we connect with one another, and watch out for ageing neighbours. How do we create space to just be with someone. Here are some crib notes I’ve made for myself:

  •  Stop and take notice when something strikes you as notable for any reason. Take time for a breath and to really experience it: whether it is a garden well tended, a kind word, or a sign that someone is reaching out for support.
  • Look someone in the eyes when they are talking to you, breathe and listen without prescripting a response.
  • Reach out and touch someone. In the ‘north’ we are often hesitant about touching other people – hug friends and family a moment longer than you normally do; touch a friend on the arm in greeting; hold hands more, find time to squeeze and cuddle the kids.
  • Let someone know you appreciate them for the everyday things they do and the ways they show up in life. It is not in the extraordinary that we are special, but in the small ways of being that we live day to day.
  • Find ways of participating in the community whether it is joining together for a raking or shoveling party on the street, hosting a potluck or going to a service at a school, church or community centre, or a local art event.
  • Be brave: even if you have no one to go with, reach out, attend. You will be surprised how receptive people are when someone shows up to an event on their own.
  • Love is not just a type of relationship, it is a way of being in the world. When we can find our roots in life, we can blossom forth in love both for ourselves, for others, animals and the natural world. Love is a response to life which we sometimes fear and stifle. Root down and blossom in love.

Leaning Into The Holidays

Christmas wreaths

I always been a fairly last minute shopper, and relentless Christmas enthusiast. For me, I believe the two things are somewhat related. I enjoy carolers in the mall dressed in Victorian velvet cloaks and top hats, and the palpable excitement that builds a few days before the holidays. As fat snowflakes float above, illuminated by a streetlamp on a dark December evening, I feel the nostalgic sense of holidays past flood through me.

And yet, as a mom of two with seven nieces and nephews, I have had to adjust my desire for spontaneity with a bit of planning in order to grow into the role of creating Christmas magic for my own children. It’s a tall order. And of course, I have incredible appreciation for the traditions and ambiance my own mother created in our home, complete with crafty tree decorations, boughs on the hearth, cookie baking from heirloom family recipes, and the whole nine yards. With no fire place or mantle, and the sole parent within the ethos of the Christmas tradition, in a vegetarian family at that, I know what I create will not be exactly like the holidays of my childhood. But perhaps this is the key – blending planning and spontaneity, new traditions and old, to drop into that same Christmas spirit in a slightly new way with my children.

When expectation and busy-ness arise, notice the tendency to shift into avoidance. Bah Humbug! In my first few years with my daughter, I did avoid stepping into the role of holiday parent. I spend the first Christmas with baby at my parent’s place, leaving our own home tree-less and dark for the week. Over the next years of her pre-school life, I spent winters in India. We didn’t mention the holiday much to our daughter, and celebrated with ice cream sundaes at a Rajput palace terrace one year. With an 18 month-old and out of the country, it is as simple as that, “Oh, it’s Christmas day, let’s have a sundae!” The year my daughter turned three, and I was in late pregnancy, due on the solstice, I had no choice but to shift into an earlier preparation for the holidays at home in Canada. I went out to buy a few simple decorations and lights for a tree, and asked my sister for two of our simplest tried and true cookie recipes. At 39, it was going to be my first full-blown Christmas in my own home. Would I be able to maintain my enthusiasm for the holidays, while finally having to do some of the real work?

I have! I’m five years in, and still leaning into the holidays. How can we get back to a gentle savouring of the holidays, knowing that there is an increased busyness, increased expectation, and frankly, expense? I chalk it up to mindful appreciation balanced with keeping it simple. This is a blend of a top-down approach complete with perspective shifts and check-ins, and a bottom-up approach with practical strategies for relieving stress. To me these both implicate and inspire each other.

Let’s start with the practical.

Prepare

Who had not admired the prepared family member who started squirrelling away holiday gifts in July? Yes, starting early definitely decreases the hassle of having to decide upon, purchase and wrap presents at the very last minute when the malls are at their most crowded, certain items will be sold out and you have other things to do to get ready to celebrate. But without foregoing the fun and spontaneity of holiday browsing and shopping during the actual holidays, you can still relieve the inconvenience and panic of super-last-minute shopping. Put pen to paper today and identify those for whom you need/want to buy gifts, brainstorm gift ideas and when and where you’ll find time to get them.

Consolidate

As I mentioned, I have seven nieces and nephews. Without doubt, part of the stress of the holidays is the extra expense. As we’re already into December, and if you’re reading this, you are likely not a planner by nature, so it is too late to talk budgeting. That said, there may still be time for a strategy my siblings and I have found really helpful: gifting to nieces and nephews in rotation. Let’s face it, after gifts from parents, grandparents and the Jolly Old Elf, a present from one aunt rather than two is not going to be missed by the kids. But the savings to you in time and money are significant.

Convenience

If mall fever is the thing that causes you the most stress over the holidays, and you feel disconnected from the box store experience, or question their ethics, shop locally and make it convenient too. Shopping in local, independent stores often provides a neighbourly experience and on a human scale. Last year, I bought most of my gifts from an independent children’s bookstore. Not only was there cider at the door of the wooden storefront, but they featured books by local authors, and I was able to shop at leisure in a cozy environment and get good advice from someone who truly cared about children’s literature.

I know, if you have relatives who live a distance, shopping locally and shipping the presents just doubles the cost (or takes value away from the kids) and is a last-minute gifter’s nightmare. But I have found a solution that has given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Rather than clicking automatically onto an Internet retailer, I call a boutique in the town where my relatives live. When I make a call to Woodbury Mountain Toys, I feel the slower pace of life carry over the phone line; I picture the cheerful, painted wooden houses peeking out of the green-top mountains as I read out my sister’s address. The shop keeper says she thinks she knows my sister. When I hang up, I feel the warmth of a holiday interaction and my shopping for the Vermont cousins is done!

Abiding Presence

With this, I feel myself leaning into the holidays already! And yet, I’m aware that these practical solutions in and of themselves are not a fix-all. In fact, I can see that they would only minimally change things without the ultimate dropping into the experience which is the essence of mindful living. Truthfully, my list-making, July shopping relatives are not less stressed or more enjoying of the season. This is what turned me into a last minute shopper in the first place – my insistence that holiday magic comes from being lit up, and super present to the moment.

One of the hallmarks of mindfulness is being with what is. As the energy of the holidays ramps up to a frenzy, what does this mean in terms of mindfulness. Putting ourselves on notice to drop into the spirit of abiding presence even more this season.

Breathe

Whenever you feel the tension of to-doing, or a resistance to increased holiday traffic or extra engagements, take a few minutes to come back to the breath, and just be in the body. Busy-ness creates a heady feeling that life is spinning out of control. Just stop and give yourself a few minutes of nurturance amid the chaos every hour if you can. During those few minutes, take your mind completely off-line of worry or complaint. Be with the sensations of the body and with the enjoyment of the feeling of the breath as it moves through the body. I know you know this. Just give yourself the gift of a three-minute breathing break several times a day.

 Savour (even when there’s aversion)

On your way home from work, school, the shops in the evening, slow your pace slightly, look around, and notice perhaps the crispness of the air, the sound of the crystals in the flakes of snow as they fall, or if you’re not in a place that is this quiet, perhaps the view of the fluffy flakes illuminated by a street lamp.

Notice any seasonal decorations, natural or artificial, specific to one culture, or universal. Notice any aversion toward a certain type of decoration or what may appear to you to be excessive or over-the-top, and try even for a moment to see it in another way, saving the environmental pointers for another time, or turn it into service by writing a blog post on how to celebrate with less of a footprint). For us in the northern hemisphere, the colourful lights are a symbol of warmth and illumination in the darkening days approaching the winter solstice. The large air-puffed Frosty the Snowman on a neighbouring lawn could remind you of the lightness of how children play in the snow.

If you find yourself railing against carols in the mall so early in December, notice that, and just listen to the sound of it without labeling or describing. Listen to the notes and the harmonies. If this comes up because you don’t even celebrate Christmas, notice all of the carols which relate to snow, being together, bringing nature in or celebrating the greens of the season, spruce trees, holly and cedar wreaths. (If you’re from a warmer clime surrounded by carols about snow, sorry, that’s a whole other level of de-contextualization to deal with!)

Enjoy the smells and sounds and tastes of the season, get nostalgic if that’s what comes up. Let it all in!

Celebrate

Even if you haven’t celebrated actively for many years, try leaning into the holiday season by choosing a few activities that make celebrating meaningful to you, and planning to make time to enjoy them. Here are a few suggestions for resuscitating a meaningful season.

  •  Baking is therapeutic – the sense of mastery in actually making cookies or tarts, the nurturing smell of sweets in the oven!
  • Attend a children’s holiday concert at a school. I love the multi-faith winter concerts that preschools and primary schools often put on. Even if you don’t have children, find out if you can join friends or relatives for a school event. They might not think to ask you or consider you would be interested.
  • If you are interested in Christmas culturally or just enjoy the lighting of the candles though don’t consider yourself religious, this is a great time of year to actually go to church, no questions asked. Churches expect to have one-timers to their services on Christmas Eve, or for the carol services hosted earlier in December also. Find out what is happening in your area, and consider singing along with a choir for free (or by donation) in a local church. For people on a tight budget, this is a way you can go to what in many cases will be a very polished performance by a choir without buying tickets to a concert venue. And singing really does make you feel better. Collective singing and chanting have been proven to release oxytocin, the bonding, feel-good hormone.
  • Consider heading out to a community tree-lighting ceremony, or other winter festival.
  • If you’re without family for the holidays, you might want to find ways to volunteer with an organization to help others and have fun doing it, whether it is distributing food baskets, helping to prepare or serve a community dinner or joining a group to sing at a retirement residence. It is a perfect time of year to join a group or to volunteer at a meaningful one-time event.

There are so many satisfying ways that communities come together over the holidays. If your mind turns to complaining about the consumerism or commercialization of the season, direct it instead toward finding ways you can get involved with an activity you can really get behind. Ho Ho Ho!

Quick Vegetarian Cooking for Families with Young Kids

Finger Food Bake

I love cooking and food, don’t get me wrong. But, I almost never spend more than half an hour cooking dinner. And yet, as a vegetarian with young kids, I can’t just pull chicken fingers out of the freezer. What’s my secret? I’m committed to the idea that it is just as fast to cook fresh foods at home as it is to order in. I get loads of satisfaction from chopping and sautéing, 15 minutes of each, short order cook style!

People think cooking vegetarian food is complicated. Believe me, I think roasting a turkey sounds complicated. It is just a question of trying new things, and maybe experimenting with new ingredients. Add kids to the equation and you’ve got another conundrum: how to get vegetarian kids to actually eat vegetables! Take pasta for example, a go-to easy dinner for most families. But between the ages of 2 and 12, many kids don’t like sauce. Hence the restaurant kiddie menus highlighting pasta with butter. My solution? Chunky primavera non-sauce.

Pasta Primavera

When trying to go can-free, I hear people complain that no one can possible have time to make their own pasta sauce. This all depends on what you think of as sauce – a thick 2-hour reduction takes, well 2 hours to make. But you can make the chunky primavera in less than 30 minutes. Put your pasta water on to boil, and then chop, chop, chop go the zucchini, vine-ripened tomatoes, asparagus or broccoli, a few kalamata olives and kale or collard to wilt on top. Cube about half a brick of firm tofu. Next, toast basil flakes in olive oil, add tofu cubes, zucchini and a bit of tamari or Bragg’s (unfermented soy sauce). When you fry the basil flakes in a bit of oil, you’ll notice they release their aroma much more than when you add them to a dish later on. Finally, add the rest of the vegetables (except the kale) and a bit of water, and salt if you wish, and cover the pan for 10 minutes on a low heat. I find having a frying pan with a glass lid an essential. By now your pasta water will have come to a boil, and you can add the pasta noodles so your dishes will both be ready at the same time.

Ten minutes later, wilt in the kale and presto, a kid-friendly dinner that is delicious for the rest of the family. Serve the kids’ pasta with butter and place the tofu chunks, broccoli trees and maybe a wilted kale leaf on the side. And you get a sumptuous Primavera.

Finger Food Bakes for All Ages

Not only will my kids not eat sauce or soup, they won’t eat dal! That excludes half of the vegetarian’s repertoire right there. Over the years, I’ve learned that finger foods are a hit, so I make something akin to a toddle tray for dinner that’s suitable for the whole family. Cast aside the idea of making fish fingers and french fries for the kids and preparing a whole separate dinner for the adults. Instead, slice a brick of tofu into five large slabs and place them on a baking pan. If you have time you could marinate them in olive oil and tamari, but I usually just drizzle Bragg’s over the tofu right on the pan. Lay a bunch of washed asparagus spears on the pan beside them. Then cut a sweet potato (and potato if you like) into long pieces like fries with the skin on. Drizzle the lot with olive oil and sprinkle with with Celtic sea salt. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes. Serve as a simple, finger-food meal that includes two super foods!

In my next blog posts, I’ll look at a Vegetarian Christmas dish that fill the house with the smells of the season. I’m also working on a post on holiday mindfulness entitled Leaning into the Holidays.

Remembrance Day Reflection: How can we celebrate culture without entrenching separation?

“When old men fight, you people die.” It seems a simple truth, but when I read this in Anne Fortier’s 2010 novel Juliet, it reminded me of all of the ways we are affected by war, and all of the things people are asked to give up. During the war, young people give up life and lose loved ones. And yet, after the war it continues. Long after. Marguerite Duras portrays the emotional devastation in Hiroshima mon amour, and also in L’Amant, in which young people are forbidden to love the enemy. In the 1970s, who did not grow up with the quietly echoing phrase, “because of the war.”  If we add oppressive colonial regimes to the category of war, a war on culture a war on independence, then the discussion becomes even more far reaching. Because of the war, you must not fraternize with the enemy.

And because often culture and language have been threatened, the end of the war creates a cultural revival, a renewed identification with tribe and all of its regalia. And in response John Lennon lyrically urges us to imagine a world with no religion – nothing to kill or die for. But must we give up culture too, in order to live in peace as a human race? Or can we celebrate culture, and therefore difference, without entrenching separateness, sectarianism and segregation. I believe we must try, and I’ve wagered a lot in my persistence with this view.

When I was a double major of English and French with these two words sewn on my sleeve, a man in a bus stop jokingly asked, “What are you trying to become, a professional Canadian?” Yes. I don’t mind that at all. Navigating cultural borderlands can be a kind of calling. And I am not an idealist who has been insulated from the results of cultural conflict. As an exchange student in Quebec City, I was befriended by a family of five with one staunchly separatist son. As an ESL teacher, I lived in Korea during a time when the freedom of information for the period of the 1980 Kwangju massacre caused a dramatic increase in anti-American sentiment (ROK had been a US-backed military dictatorship at that time). I sat with a woman in rural India who told me she could not read because her father would not send her to an English colonial school. I have facilitated rooms full of young people coming together, and in many cases, embracing friendship: Koreans and Japanese, Saudis and Israelis. I believe we are coming together as a human family. And yet, I teach culture, I teach symbolism, I teach ritual. Perhaps, you might say, ‘you teach in a way that points to the symbolism of an early universal shamanic culture’. Yes, the more I study, the more I practice ritual, I feel the resonance of the deep seeds of universal culture. Though the question still remains – can we celebrate difference in harmony. A pro-feminist sociolinguistics professor once told me he did not want to focus on discrete difference in gender and communication, as difference was almost always interpreted hierarchically. The solution – deconstruct the binary sense of discrete difference. In other words, focus on the similarities, or on a spectrum. Focus on the similarities! Deconstruct difference! Yes – it’s so simple, and so post-modern. Except that postmodern anthropology teaches us through the lens of cultural relativity – difference is not wrong, it simply is. There are so many different trees in the forest. Difference just is. Will we ever be able to be with it, without trying to deny, distance or eradicate it.

Both of the fledgeling novels I’m working on at the moment concern cultural conflict, and young people trying to forge borderlands in which their friendship can exist. Today, yes, in this current time, 2014, when I hear of young people who are being urged or forced to give up relationships for sectarian reasons, ‘because of the war’, or for the tribe, every cell of my being rebels! The cultural revival the emerges in the post-war or postcolonial period must not become a perpetuation of war, the war on the young who (must not) love the other.

 

December 6th: Lost Time – 22 years on

This December 6th, twenty-two years on from the massacre of female engineering students in Montreal, I’m reflecting on lost time and wasted potential.

Twenty-two years ago I was in second year university. I remember it was hard to deal with the fact that male flat mates and friends did not think this was a crime against women. They said Lepine was crazy, and this wasn’t a reflection of the status of women in society. But we were university women at the time – the women of Ecole Polytechnique were our colleagues. The two male friends I spoke to that day felt that if women went to vigils and banded together to mourn, it meant they (men) were to blame. It was so much easier to avoid the issues and focus on the insanity of it all. But, for me and my female friends, that didn’t feel like the whole story.

Two years later, graduating from what is arguably one of our country’s best universities, was ironically the greatest drop in status I have ever experienced. One day I was a well-respected literature student, the next, I was an unemployed, dime-a-dozen graduate with a ‘useless’ liberal arts degree. I didn’t want to jump on the post-graduate train like many of my friends. It felt like throwing good money after bad. But the bleakness of a talk I’d been to in the English department a few months before graduation weighed heavy on me. An older male professor I did not recognize led a meeting informing us of the statistics the university had gathered on English undergraduate employment in the years after graduation. I think most of the female professors would not have been able to face us with such news, with no support plan in sight. The report outlined that women in the first five years after graduation were most likely to find employment as clerks and bank tellers. I remember the professor smiled apologetically after reading this, and explained that this was only the first five years, until they found their place. I don’t remember much of what he said after that. I thing something about people finding their niche, starting small businesses, going back to college for specific professional certificate courses. It is ironic this beacon of higher learning was subtly telling us ($100,000 and an incredible amount of work and dedication later) we would probably have to now go to community college for some practical certificate in human resources management or some such.

This reminds me of a particularly personable male colleague with a 3-year sociology degree who decided to just go to Hong Kong and get a job in business – which he did with seeming ease, while I did my 2 years time as a clerk and then fled overseas to teach English.

As our government is putting out data that shows how full day junior kindergarten is going to increase the profitability of the workforce in twenty years, I sigh and hunch my shoulders. Wouldn’t it be so much cheaper, easier and more immediate to invest in good guidance programs integrated within high school and university curricula to help already-well-educated young adults find ways to use their talents, skills and education in the workplace right now. There are thousands of women graduating liberal arts every year and then virtually dropping into the vacuum of apparent uselessness in the workforce. I can’t tell you how many times I was told ‘but you have no job skills’. I don’t know if I even knew how to articulate the skills I did have, and how they could be applied: research, clear writing, knowledge of grammar and punctuation, reading and synthesizing long texts, analysis.

Just recently I met a young woman who has just graduated with an MA in Literature from University of Toronto (how’s that for skills in hoop jumping. We’re talking the cream of the literary crop!). She has a part time joe-job and is working on her creative writing. She told me her last boyfriend told her after graduation that she would make a great personal assistant. We both balked at the re-telling in dumbfounded outrage. So, twenty-two years on our society is still wasting the talents of women graduating in largely female dominated undergraduate degrees. Women who excel in the ‘soft skills’. There’s a pink collar ghetto if I ever saw one. Though my first career after clerking, is the pink collar ghetto extraordinaire! ESL teaching (largely kept part-time and out of the union, no paid vacation or benefits, largely year-round, continuous intake in private language institutes) is of course, as one of my colleagues described it – the Cinderella in the closet of the wider education system. After 10 years in the field with an MA in TESOL, I finally got to teaching at community colleges and universities where I lived in Ottawa. I had gone through jobs as Algonquin, U of O, when Carleton called. I had promised myself I was leaving the profession in spite of feeling that I was doing good work, and absolutely dedicated to NOT sacrificing my clients’ education, though I was personally filling the gap between the budget of the administration and the needs of the students. The lovely woman who interviewed me and called to offer me my first 3-month contract was shocked when I turned it down. “This is the best-paying ESL teaching job in the city!” she exclaimed. “But I’ll have to re-apply for my job every three months.” “Yes, but for the most part we are able to continue giving contracts.” No, I just couldn’t continue to be a part of it. Like at Algonquin where they had to lay us off every six months to keep us out of the union. I had called Employment Equity, who told me that it wasn’t really an employment equity issue.

When my first love, yoga, started to become more mainstream, and it seemed we could actually, possibly make a living teaching, I channelled all of my educational expertise and long-time interest in meditation and Indian philosophy into my second career, and opened a yoga teacher training organization. I am very happy, and feel that running an institute for yoga teacher eduction allows me to use so many of my interests and talents without the bureaucratic hassles of teaching at a university. Twenty years ago, I could not have dreamed of a more perfect career for myself.

But, when I think of all the wasted time and thwarted efforts, and the pamphlets that the English department gave us before graduation, the loss of identity, the unsupported struggle to serve society in a way that was meaningful to me, I cringe, I writhe, I feel fully the incredible impotence of second class citizenship. I help women (and men) find their unique ways of contributing through the diverse tradition of yoga, and this is incredibly satisfying. I wish I could help my brilliant U of T graduate friend. She’s 23, and may be looking at spending the next five years underemployed, while the Government of Ontario continues to roll out full day kindergarten programs.

In fact, I support publicly-funded full-day preschool and kindergarten programs, but not because they will help increase our GNP in 20 years, but because they give needed enrichment to children who might not otherwise get it, and they support women in going back to work and maintaining financial independence without having to spend most of their income on child-care. And as I have discussed, will adding two years of education on the books really help 50% of them contribute to our GNP if we do not improve our record in helping these educated girls achieve their career potential?

The women killed at Ecole Polytechnique did not get the chance to complete their education, to use their engineering skills or to enter the workforce. One man didn’t want the competition – women in this generally male-dominated field. To honour those women, I don’t want to waste any more time not playing my full role.

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The Enveloping Approach

Virginia Woolf’s narration is cyclical, looping between past and present, in and out of the minds of various characters. It is feminine in its enveloping nature.

Reject nothing. This Tantric maxim comes alive for me in this way. Perhaps in Tantra the worship of the goddess, the Divine Feminine, of the Mother, exists to honour that ability to channel everything and anything into the quest for wholeness. A masculine approach may be more focussed, direct and intense, but launches toward a perceived goal, and later falters when the trickiness of ‘no path, no goal’ dawns. The archetypal feminine is more at home in multiplicity, with perceived incoherence, and can get beyond the duality of light and dark that axes off so much of our lived experience.

The path is not progressive, a knight’s tale of triumph over evil. It is a soothing expansion in all directions, that claims everything as its very own.

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Why Public Libraries Matter

A voracious reader since early childhood, and later an English language teacher for new immigrants, I am a huge proponent of the public library and public education systems.  I believe that they are among the few public, community spaces we have left where people can gather, do research, sit and read amid others in a large communal 'living room'.  


For those on a limited income, and people with young children, immigrants with limited access to English-language books at home, public libraries are like the life blood of our society.  Without access to books, we limit access to our national and community history, we limit our access to creative and research books no longer in print, we limit access to tactile books that give us a sense of connection to other readers.  Libraries also fill the function of positioning books and reading, of literacy,  as a valued skill and form of entertainment in our society.  


Above and beyond a community space and resource for books and encyclopaedias, libraries play host to children's programming and an open space for children, parents and caregivers especially necessary in a climate with so many days when children cannot spend much time outside.  Without this type of community space and programming, the elderly and young children would be literally house-bound and not have many free venues to participate in the wider community. 


As an English language teacher I found many of the colleges, schools and institutes I worked for had limited resources for teaching.  I regularly found inspiration and resources from different publishing times at the public library.  I also was able to compile lists of reading materials that were appropriate to the age and reading level of my students, confident that they would be able to get free access to these reading materials locally.  I am sure many teachers find general public libraries an invaluable resources for both their teaching and for their students.

Libraries also provide a quite space for high school students to gather and do homework, or read.  When many parents are at work until dinnertime, a library provides a community space where teens can safely work or read books more organically, in print, as opposed to incurring more screen time. 


This type of resource speaks to our level of democracy and our belief in access to community resources and spaces.  I live part of the year in India, and one of the most marked differences I find is the total lack of public spaces. There are not only no libraries in most small cities and towns, there are no park or community recreation centres.  Research is therefore pretty much solely done through the Internet, in universities or sites of private collections.  


Having such a wealth of resources in towns and cities across our country, why would we want to squander our public infrastructure now.  Our community resources are admired by many and are a testament to our belief in community access to knowledge, information, community spaces, and literary entertainment.

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In Defense of Birthing Our Own Children

Several years ago after I had my first child, I was facilitation a discussion during a Yoga Teacher Training course. One of the participants put forward the motion: “Yoga people should choose not to birth children; having children in an over-populated world is selfish”. Lately there has been a lot of mention in the media of adoption from the Global South (aka the Third World). Although I absolutely support educational and medical initiatives and grass-roots development project etc., I find the idea of adoption to reduce overpopulation a problematic one.

Firstly, only recently is the media actively covering the looming and very problematic phenomena of underpopulation in the Global North (aka Developed World). Under population is such a critical issue in countries like Japan, Korea, Italy, and Spain that in a few generations MOST people will have no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, no uncles, and no cousins. So our concept of family as one of the cohesive threads of society will severely tested. Of course, we are already seeing a move towards “chosen families”, and people who create family-like units and joint, creative families. But under population will also severely cripple the social system that many of us so value – universal medical care, successful public education, a safety net etc.

The decreasing birthrate already shows that many of us are choosing not to parent children at all, birthed or adopted. This makes it even less likely that mass adoption would equal out the population crisis. So rather than depending on continued and vastly increased immigration and the challenges of displacement, and vastly increased Third World adoption, would not increasing education for women in the Third World (proven to decrease overpopulation), access to planned parenthood, and on our side of the globe, a more family-friendly society that would encourage new generations to take on the task of parenting again, be preferable, simpler and more viable long-term options? How coy – this is not really a question. If left un-addressed, over-population in Africa and India will not be solved by adoption or immigration. If left un-addressed, under-population in Canada will not be solved by adoption or immigration alone.

Suffice it to say that I do not think it is selfish in our world to give birth to our own children in the West. Rather, I believe that our society needs us to continue to re-invent what it means to us to be mothers (parents) in the modern world. Many people having spent years in universities and/or in downtown corporations where there was little interactions with children and families, who did not grow up in a large family themselves, are removed from the experience of life with children, breast feeding women, babies in slings. It is simply a symptom of how removed we are from nature in general. Can families again become more integrated into the fabric of our society? Can we learn to better support families as they navigate childcare and work? I do hope so.

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Harry Potter and the Magical World of Yoga

Along with a bunch of other Harry Potter junkies, I am re-viewing all of the films on the big screen leading up to the release of the final film. My family indulges me partly because they know I need a night out now and again, and because they know I am strangely uplifted by these stories. Actually, perhaps it is not strange, as in unusual. When I was first introduced to Harry Potter in 2004, I was helping an ESL student research an independent study project on the first two books. I read the books so that we could discuss themes and symbols etc. I was immediately captivated. My student was interested in researching what people reported they felt moved by in the stories. Even at that time there was loads of material on the Internet by sick or disadvantaged children, shy people, or those facing a challenge in their lives, who felt encouraged by the solidarity and integrity of Harry Potter and his friends.

I believe that art reflects life, and that all art in some sense is creative non-fiction. We relate to the common human struggles, and inner journeys explored. In Harry Potter, I appreciate the navigation of social struggles such as the conflict between pure bloods, half bloods and muggles ‘mud bloods’; the challenges faced by disempowered groups such as the house elves. Also, novels that I have most enjoyed contain kernels of wisdom that call us to reflect. At the end of book/movie two, Dumbledore puts it to Harry that “it is not our talents that make us who we are, it is our choices”. Students of yoga may recognize this as compatible with yogic reflections on skill in action (karma yoga).

In Yoga Teacher Training students sometimes seem surprised to hear me mention Harry Potter. But perhaps what interests me most about the stories is the sense of magic, and how that reminds me of yoga. Of course, the author has drawn from wisdom traditions in the books, and made references to this through names or powers and spells, such as anima, just as in Star Wars, the writers drew from Indian tradition in naming Yoda with a Sanskrit word for warrior. Yes, Yoda was a spiritual warrior – a master of mindfulness speaking in aphorisms. In this way, Dumbledore is to Harry Potter what Yoda is to Luke Skywalker: the teacher, the guru, the one who points to the power within and the key to understanding and tapping that power. These stories are our modern legends, rich in symbolism, and reminding us that there is more to life than “getting and spending”; reminding us that there is more to us than what we see, and what we may perceive our limitations to be.

That magic the wizards and witches tap into refers in my mind to the timeless awareness and transcendental prana that we tap into when we use the tool of yoga, or any practice/ritual/contemplation/meditation. Life is magical! We are much more powerful than we believe ourselves to be! We can connect to the past, present and future through timeless awareness, and knowledge fields that are all around us. We can use our insight and expanded energy to stay present, savour moment-to-moment experience, make choices and to help others. What we see in Harry Potter is both the magic (the tools, the practice of magic), and the daily living of it (the compassion, the integrity, the celebration of nature, friendship, sport, culture and celebration itself.

Pass the pumpkin juice!

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An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind

Tonight American news anchors reported the “jubilance of Washington” at the death of Osama Bin Laden. This causes me to pause, as I cannot relate to this style of discourse. Jubilant is a word I would have expected in conjunction with the Royal Wedding, not the death of a terrorist.

We tell our children not to routinely ‘hit back’ in the school yard, to use words, and to seek mediation. Of course I’m not suggesting that this complex web of international conflict can be easily navigated, especially in the situation of terrorism. But perhaps a more mature and sober reflection on what has gone on would better model our values.

I believe Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye just makes the whole world blind”. Unfortunately tonight I heard reports that before election President Obama said, “We’ll kill Bin Laden”. What about the idea of capture, of trial, if possible? What about the idea of restraining anti-social individuals from society rather than joining in on the violence by exterminating them. I can understand that it might not be possible to capture a terrorist alive, but to set out not to do so is a completely different thing. To rejoice afterwards, even more morally suspect.

Yoga scriptures and the broader Indian wisdom tradition offer us the concept of ahimsa – non-harming. We intend no harm, or the least possible harm. Sutra I:33 offers valuable insight here: “Calmness of mind is achieved by cultivating friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and dispassion for those who have done wrong”. This last bit is the trickiest for many of us. What is dispassion? Just like Jesus’ “turning the other cheek”, it does not mean letting people get away with things, but rather that peace cannot begin with violence. The surprise caused by an absence of vitriol, the absence of retaliation may open a space for change, a space for dialogue, a space for different responses. Dispassion means letting go of our visceral reactions of anger, condemnation, and retaliation and simply responding to situations as skillfully as we can. I heard recently on the CBC about a woman meeting a man who had been imprisoned for IRA bombings that killed her father. They were able to hear one another’s story; to open themselves to compassion; to understand better the complexities that led to violence, and the fruitlessness of violence.

Post 9/11, I think there was a real inner call for us as a global society to try to reduce discrimination, religious intolerance and economic and power disparity that are the breeding grounds of distrust, hatred and violence. Maybe this type of mandate could have shone a light on what to do about the perpetrators of mass violence, and how to approach justice. Tonight broadcasters are speaking for the American public about gladness and justice. I feel that this discourse shrouds us in the dim. Since when did the death of another person, no matter who, make anyone truly glad. The story of the English woman and the former IRA bomber really touched me, and was an incredible demonstration of what can happen when we open the door to dialogue, and let go of hatred. As in the above sutra, calmness of mind, closure, peace, can only come when we let go of automatic reactions and judgements.

I do not feel death is a vindication. Violence begets more violence.

I put the intention for peace. I put the intention to remind myself in my daily life to act to reduce the illusion of separation.

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