Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sink, swim or take a hike?

The creation of this blog marked the re-dedication of my intention to lead a more creative life. Since high school, I’ve dipped into visual and written art forms in a hobby-like way. I wanted to dip in again, but this time to wade into deeper waters, maybe even leave the security of the shallows and go where I’d be forced to swim, go to that place in the middle of the lake where you float and wonder, where is the bottom? Just how deep does the water go?

It doesn’t require much, really. A desire and discipline, and bravery, too. And one other thing: time. 

But these days time is like a slippery moss-covered rock partially submerged just offshore. You clamber up on it out of breath thinking you’re safe for a moment on something solid, and the next moment —sploosh, you slip ungracefully off the stone into murky, weedy shallows.

Lately, life has been a series of slippery stones. But I’m far from giving up on my goals. No, I’m in the water now and soon I’ll stop flailing around long enough to notice how soft and cool it feels on my skin. No, I don’t want to get out. I want to swim.

But March was full of motherly commitments and real paying work, and there’s a busy week ahead and after that, the added complication of jury duty looms. Still, I’m trying to keep my heart open, to keep the intention present, to stay in the water and not scramble for higher ground.

Twice this week I’ve managed to dip into the natural world for a bit – not for swims, sadly, more like sponge baths!

First was a visit to nearby Centennial Ridge Creative Centre. The gardens there are not wild spaces; rather, they are cultivated, the hand of the gardener evident everywhere. But there is beauty in that, too.

Here, there were trees to feed my imagination.

Trees with faces from the pages of dark fairy tales.


Trees of unusual beauty.


Trees of unmistakable sensuality.

And others with a poignancy that begs you to pause.

This magnolia unfurled its buds early – coaxed by the March heat wave, those record-breaking days of 20 and 25 C, followed by April, the cruelest month, with frosts that burnt the blooms dead.

This last shot I took was of a younger magnolia, which blooms later; its blossoms are thankfully unharmed. In a few days they may unfurl.

There were wonderful colours here. Clouds of purple and white scilla.

I love how these yellowy-red leaves contrast with the green foliage and the purple blooms below them. 

Before I left I popped into the centre’s office to see if there were openings in their spring session watercolour courses, which have already started. What possessed me? I need something else to fill up the schedule? Really?

I think this desire for the visual started when I helped Aaron with his portfolio a few weeks ago, showing him how to slow down and look carefully at an object while drawing it. Then we worked with oil pastels and replicated a Lawren Harris painting. I showed him how layering the colours added depth. We were really happy with both our efforts. 

Then I stumbled upon artist Valerie Claff’s blog (also note her art website) . Her watercolours moved me deeply. 

Her blog, where she writes of her life in the woods with her cat and her art, her need to listen to the trees, to have that energy around her, made me gasp. That resonated so powerfully in me I feel it even now in my core. It vibrates up my spine. That truth shifts my awareness from my busy mind to a different kind of knowing, clunking into consciousness in my solar plexus and heart. Call it what you will, a gut instinct, a message from your soul—all I know is, I don’t want to ignore those feelings any more. I’ve no time to put off experiencing the pleasure that comes with focused creative work and connecting with nature.

Why have I denied this necessity for nature for so long? And why is it that we humans are so quick to turn from what our souls tell us to do? I think it happens slowly, slipping away from us as childhood does, without us noticing. I know I have compromised my values along the way, but I do believe I can turn the tide, although I do not underestimate the effort it will take to live aligned with my deepest values. But I don’t think I need to think that far down the road. It doesn't feel as daunting to know I will do this one blog post at a time, one word at a time, one story, and maybe even one watercolour at a time.


Yesterday, I dropped Aaron at school and heeded the call of the Oak Ridges Moraine. I felt guilty about the gas I had to use to drive there (I’ve driven more this year than I’ve ever in my life — that’s so wonky considering my desire to step more lightly on the earth). 

My intention had been to go for a hike, take some pictures and stop at the art store on the way back to pick up supplies. But soon I started having second thoughts about the painting course. Do I have time? Is this just a way to get out of the hard work of writing? Am I sabotaging myself again? What about the money for supplies? Starting up again will cost quite a bit. I told myself the walk would clarify the issue. I told myself, “For once, just SHUSH! (Okay, I probably said SHUT UP Kathleen!) The answer will come if you stop panicking.”

I also knew having a couple of hours alone on a work day was a gift, and I was grateful, so I tried to put guilt aside, tried to trust that even this walk was part of my unique process.

I found the entrance to Pangman Springs Conservation Area and was immediately greeted by crows as I set upon the path. I love how they talk to each other, such a confident cawing from one treetop to another. We know now crows are sophisticated communicators. It’s not as though they just developed this — they always communicated, we humans just didn’t know how to listen. We didn’t ATTEND to them.

The presence of the crows hit me on two levels. At first, I thought, “Cool. Love crows. Wonder if I can get a shot?” But I sensed a greater meaning. Later at home I looked up crows as a totem and read they are an omen of change among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, a call to “speak your truth.” 

I try to avoid cultural appropriation and oversimplification of indigenous people’s spirituality, and I think reading totems in this way can be like reading horoscopes—too simple, too psychic fair. But it was funny, too, that a man named Crow-Eagle registered me for the watercolour course. 

But I am wary of reading too much into signs and I try not to force convenient interpretations upon every coincidence. Philosophies like the “law of attraction” oversimplify how things work (or don’t work) in the universe, and can promote a tendency to self-centredness. A woman explaining the law of attraction to me once said, “I wished for a red wallet and the next week I walked into a store and there was a red wallet, just like the kind I’d wished for!” I asked her, “How is it that starving children can’t attract food to them, because surely they must want it?” I know, kinda bitchy of me, but it didn’t phase her. She bumbled on about how those children might be living those lives so that we are called to help them and live our purpose—so offensive! But, really, she believed what she said and seemed genuinely ignorant of its implications. She really believed she had all the answers, which was another clue that she didn’t.

Still, despite my previously admitted Doubting Thomas tendencies, I realize that when it comes to spirituality, you must be open to interpreting meanings in signs perceived. Each person must give meaning to the life that pulses around them, but it’s a fine line I walk when I look for the meaning in “signs from the universe.”

Back in the woods I continued to study tree forms in detail and how they are shaped against the sky, and to study the shifting clouds and the light and its affect on the forest, how breaks in the cloud let the sun pick out white birch in a stand of trees, and how cloud cover grayed the scene down.


Too late, I noticed the delicate life springing from the forest floor. This, I realized, is why we are asked to keep to the trails.

I must have crushed quite a bit of newness before my eyes opened. I walked more carefully afterword, cringing when I snapped the dry branches of trees and shrubs not yet pulsing with spring’s life force. A bull moose would have done less damage.

I examined lichen carefully and noted striking colour combinations.

When I was ready to go, I turned and my attention was caught by something moving quickly on a branch nearby. A single feather was attached to a twig and fluttered madly in the wind, followed by pauses of almost total stillness. 

I watched as it shook wildly but did not blow away. So beautiful. Just there. So animated, enlivened by the wind. It was like a gift held out to me. A treasure. I felt it was for me to keep and to contemplate, so I carefully put it in my camera bag.

After dinner that night I went up to the plaza to buy the last few items I needed for the watercolour class (yes, I’m taking it, partially because I can’t get a refund as the class started two weeks ago!). I was getting in the car (ugh…again with the car) and looked up to see two hawks flying low – gliding on strong wind gusts. From where I stood, the setting sun lit up their wings from below. Golden wings flashed, turning the pair of hunters into mythic creatures from another dimension. The wind was so strong they barely had to flap, just tilting left and right to change direction as they scanned for food. Spellbinding. I struggled to reach my iphone for a quick picture but in seconds they were past the parking lot, heading for the trees. Always this heading for the trees.

At home moments later, I am at the sink looking out the window at two mourning doves on the deck, puffed up feathers and agitated. I grabbed my camera just as they mated.

Afterward, the male spent some time grooming himself and then a much longer time grooming his mate. She seemed content, I must say.



So many birds today. It is spring, after all. My appreciation for these creatures is growing. Just this week I was reminded of the devastation this city’s reflective-glass-clad office buildings wreak on migrating song birds. It’s an unforgivable tragedy and I mourn the hundreds and thousands of dead birds. 

It is a crime. At least I hope it will be. A current precedent-setting trial will hopefully find owners of a building at Yonge and York Mills in Toronto guilty of three charges under the federal Species at Risk Act, the EPA and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Check out this article and this organization for more information

And so I will hold this feather and think of their plight, and also consider the strength, beauty and resilience of something that seems so delicate. 


I knew this creative work, which requires such openness, would be inseparable from spirituality but I did not realize it would require a return to environmental activism.

Frankly, I’m afraid of this love I have for nature. It is so strong that when I open my eyes to the pain of the planet, I feel it too. It can feel like a crippling sadness, like grief. But it can also be a motivation to act, to commit small acts of love, because what is love if not a verb?

I worry about time. When will I fit it all in? Art, writing, this blog, work, family. But that worrywart voice is a waste of energy and really getting on my nerves. 

I think again of the feather in the forest, how it withstood the wind; more than that, it rode the wind. When the gusts came, the feather waved at me with a crazy joyousness, an exhilaration, holding fast to the twig with its downy after-feather near the base of the quill. The after-feather seems to be the most delicate part of a feather but is actually crucial in protecting a bird from cold. Bits of fluff so soft and insubstantial, yet deceivingly strong. That is how I want my heart to be. This feather is why I go to the woods.

1 comment:

  1. Much of what you wrote feels universal. Much certainly resonated in me anyway. I, too, wonder why we turn away so quickly from what our hearts inform us to yearn for. It is in large part why I chose to live out where we do, of course. And you have that lovely expanse of Bluffs so nearby. I have not forgotten to play hookey one day and go out taking pictures and talking about how to do so effectively. For me, the greatest challenge is not in including what I want in a photo. That part is easy. It is much more difficult to ensure you exclude that which you do not want in a photo. Look at Picasso's early work. It was completely representational. He learned to walk before he ran. But being on the path to looking is by far the most important aspect of reproduction - whether it be photography, watercolour paintings or memory. Clearly you are on that path.