Squirrels, Time and Is-ness

“Has it really been that long?” I ask, looking at the date on my last post. The evidence is categorical. The date on my last post is July 7. And life has continued on apace.

“They” are clear. If you want to build your blog, you must post regularly. At least once a week. Daily is better. It must be about something. Something clear. Something that benefits others. Not just noodling around.

I know this because I am a human being with the ability to perceive, discuss, and document patterns in the universe. Particularly patterns around time. And this one is pretty obvious… jump up and down making lots of noise, or people will forget you exist. At least the ones who don’t care about you, which is (coarsely) the difference between friends and audience. It is, frankly, exhausting.

And what, I ask, is it all for? All this jumping up and down? “I see the world! It looks like this! I worked hard to figure this out! You should see it this way, too!”

On the one hand, there is the ego. “I am so smart. S.M.R.T. Look at how smart I am!” :D

And the other, insidious, also ego. “Nobody cares what you have to say.” Also categorically untrue… at least some people care what I have to say, and I only actually have to be able to point out one to render this argument false… but that one never listens to reason.

And the other other ego… “The end is nigh! The world is (somehow or other) and that’s just The Way Things Are. There is no point. Have another beer.”

Come to think of it, I could recount the voices of ego all day. What is apparent, though, is that they don’t agree… the only thing they have in common is that they are very, very certain. They are annoying, and strangling, and/or self-aggrandizing (followed by self-shaming, usually for self-aggrandizing), but whatever stance they take is non-negotiable. These voices are deeply inscribed in our bodies, stored at the cellular level: we become paralyzed by phobias, nauseated at the prospect of walking out onto a stage and saying words, drawn into rage by the fears and jealousies we create when our partner doesn’t call. Thought, story, hormones, physical response… never-ending cascades, buffeted and thrown into chaos by the voices.

When we guide ourselves to set them aside and live in the moment, (which I practice, not as much as I “should”, but some) there is always this to draw us back: Winter is coming. Doubt is dangerous. Because if winter is, indeed, coming (as it generally does) and food is, indeed, about to be scarce, we’d better damn well listen to the voices in our heads that tell us to prepare. Now!

This keeps us scurrying, trapped, flailing from one egoic stand to another, each trying to get our attention, call us away from the brink of… something. Something invisible, unnameable, unreachable, unarticulated. The low thrumming dread underlying it all… Something Bad Might Happen.

Which brings me inevitably, obviously, to squirrels. This summer, while pondering the Arising of Consciousness at three in the morning (like y’would on a night that the rain was pounding on the roof of your cabin), and I rolled over and (accidentally) whacked my partner in the head. “Hey! When do you think somebody figured out that plants came from seeds??? That’s a pretty awesome stage in awareness!” He mumbled, patiently, I think you will agree, “Acorns are pretty friggin’ obvious,” and I rolled back over to think about acorns. Acorns… oaks… squirrels… squirrels store acorns for the winter, but I’m pretty sure that individual squirrels don’t know about winter. Squirrels don’t know about time. Squirrels aren’t thinking, not in the way we think of thinking… but somewhere in the pattern in the universe that we call Squirrelness, there is contained information about the passage of time, seasons, preparation, the need to take particular actions because of What Comes Next. I might have woken him up again.

In a very real sense, squirrels have it easier. The pattern of squirrelness is pretty consistent on this time-food-prep thing. There aren’t millions of different possible solutions, all of which are competing for their energy and committment. Squirrels at the nut store don’t have to run the gauntlet of magazines telling them all about the newest trends in nut storage or suggesting that they should cut down on the M&M’s because their little furry butts are not up to snuff. In short, squirrelness is a (relatively) uncomplicated pattern. Humanness, on the other hand…

Humanness.

This is at the core, isn’t it? What the h-e-twosticks are we doing here?

Humans are different from squirrels. We don’t have pre-programmed behaviours; we must learn the patterns of humanness. And we are, above all else, adaptable. In fact, I have previously argued that we only exist symbiotically with our stories. They are patterns in the universe that live in and through us. “The Truth About Stories,” Thomas King tells us, “is that’s all we are.” This last I have considered long and hard since I first encountered it, lo these many years ago, listening to public radio before I became a part-time Buddhist, but already a devoted ponderer. I have come to hold it as both true and not-true. Verily, we do consider ourselves to be the sum of our identities, agents in some grand narrative that situates us in a particular time and place. The stories, the voices in our heads, the ever-so-certain projections from whence we came and to which we are (we fear) ever-fated, we experience as self/selves. And this is what calls me back again and again to the written word, to reading, to writing, to teaching, to conversation… “Here is a story I have discovered… here is part of the world as I see it… what do you see? Does this help? Do you stand near enough to me in the vast mindscape that this makes any sense to you at all? Tell me you understand. Tell me… I’m not alone.” (still the voices of the ego, quieter now, more fearful, plaintive…)

And not-true at the same time… for in the years on the cushion, on the mat, in conversations like the one I just murmured, I have heard stories that tell me that there is more. That we are more (or less) than the sum of our stories. Emptiness, atman, anatman, soul, Self, the watcher, consciousness… something that hears, perceives, notices, that regulates the interaction with the stories. Bare attention. Is-ness confronting is-ness without trying to make a story out of it. Flashes of awareness.

The knowledge arises that our stories do not love us. They divert our energies to particular structures, patterns of their own perpetuation, whether we agree with them or not. Whether they serve or not. Whether they cause suffering or not. We live so much of our lives trapped in the anxieties that develop when trying to choose between stories that disagree on what (they are certain) will happen if we take action. If we have free will (and I’m not entirely committed to that any longer) this is the moment of its arising: when we learn to find our way to the point of confrontation, maintaining awareness, disidentifying with any particular interpretation of our inner reality.

This, I have experienced, is possible. We can learn to find our way back and forth between the stories, the watcher, our thoughts, our actions and our impacts. We can live in intimate relationship with the universe, not seeking to reach out and make it into the story in our minds, but willing to negotiate, knowing that this is the process by which the universe precesses. “To action only are we entitled…” cautions the Bhagavad Gita, “never to its outcome.” We reach out, but not because we know what comes next. Not to control the outcome, not to prove our own value, or even our own existence by our impacts. Our actions, our writings, our stories themselves can become offerings to the World As It Is.

And so, despite my desire to not jump up and down, the exhaustion that takes me when I think about keeping up appearances, I write. Despite my inability to stick to a posting schedule, despite my difficulties figuring out how to tell you that *this* (this, here. THIS!!!) is what I’m trying to tell you… I write. The blog sits, perhaps neglected, perhaps unloved, but holding space for stories in case one of them turns out to be the one that this person needs to hear right this minute.

Rather than jumping up and down, I offer an invitation. In this moment, I send out love hoping not that I will be validated by your attention, but that you will.

(Wake up!) she whispered…

An Afternoon with Arthur

I looked out the window on Saturday during “post-tropical storm Arthur” and noticed that there were small-to-middling sized branches on the ground all around my car. I was concerned about the windows.

I said to my mother, “Um. Do you think that the cars should be parked directly under the trees?”

“Hm. Maybe not. Let me check and see what your father thinks.”

She went out to the motor home, to which my father had retreated for some peace and quiet in the middle of the storm. (Apparently my children are noisier than a post-tropical storm.) He came in and we briefly conversed about where else we might put the cars, gathered keys, and went to the back door. I opened it, and discovered that the lull in the storm was no more.

Rain was going past in sheets, horizontally. Branches whipped in the wind. It looked like stock footage of a storm. I stood there with the door knob in my hand for a moment, and said, “I’m not entirely convinced we should go out in that… “

I had just decided that the cars were going to have to fend for themselves, and started to close the door. “Maybe if there’s another lu…”

CRASH!!!

“Something fell on the house!” I said.

“I don’t think so,” said my mother. “This tool just fell off the dryer…”

“Something fell off the house?”

“I don’t…” said my father.

“Well, something happened to the house,” I insisted. (1)

I shuffled the kids back into the living room at the middle of the house, because I wasn’t sure what had happened. But I wanted them to be away from whatever it was. “Why?” they said. “Because!” “But why can’t we go outside and look?” “Because!” “But why?” “Because sometimes you just have to listen to what we say!” “But why?!” “Sometimes you just have to do what we say so you don’t die!” (I heard giggling as I walked back out of the living room. Not sure I got through to them, but they sat still for a couple of minutes.)

Assessed that the power was out. Unsurprising. Looked out the window. Wind roaring, water sheeting, branches tossed like so many sheets of paper.

“That tree across the road came down on the power line,” said my father. “The motor home looks a little… flat.” After a couple of hours of him sneaking out during lulls (against my protests that we couldn’t do anything about it anyway, and clearly they were temporary), he established that the CRASH had been the sound of the electrical mains coming off the house, and the stud they were attached to snapping in half and flying across the bedroom where my kids had earlier been watching a movie.

Just to reiterate all the things that didn’t go wrong: My father was not crushed by a tree in the motor home. Nobody was killed by a tree falling on them while they moved a car. My children were not impaled by a flying 2×4. The cars even came out of it intact, if not the motor home. (It wasn’t as flat as it might have been.)

And I have learned never again to succumb to the temptation to “just do a little thing” during a lull in the storm.

Also, if you need me during future storms, I’ll be under something heavy.


1. I heard a DC-10 explode once, and the people I was with that time also insisted that it was nothing to worry about. For the record, it sounded almost nothing like thunder. Sometimes I wonder what other people do consider a noise worth noticing.

State of the Garden

It is (finally) spring/summer in Cape Breton. Which means adding trees to replace the ones that froze to death:

(That doesn’t usually happen.)

tree taking advantage of sunroof on Jetta sedan

Gardening with Jetta

Prepping the lawn mower:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And getting ready for the prom:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I know, that’s not strictly gardening… but look what I grew!

Back on Bike

Time was, I lived in the country and didn’t have a driver’s license. That was a long time ago.

Then there was a good length of time that I lived in the city and didn’t have a car. Even that was a long time ago.

But it’s written in my bones, this memory of bicycle-as-transport. Not just “going for a ride” but “going somewhere”. Going out for dinner – on a bike. Getting the groceries, going to school, even going to work. Burlington, Waterloo, Kitchener, Fredericton… places that I knew on two wheels. Feet onto the ground, back onto the pedals, hand signals, backpacks, limited to transporting what-I-can-carry.

A few weeks ago I got to the page in my book (which I still insist I am writing) where I had to acknowledge that the bicycle, compared to the car, is a technology more appropriate/conducive to peace in the world. It’s more accessible, it can be used for many things, it reconnects us to our bodies, it slows us down… or rather, it prevents us from speeding up as much as we are able to when relying on fossil fuels. Nothing’s perfect; it still was hauled out of the ground… it is not that I am seeking no impact, it is that I am seeking a justifiable level of impact. And I drive (and fly, these days) rather a lot.

Thus, to reconnect with my bicycle.

It is a human-scaled technology, which moves us through the world in a particular way, at a particular pace… at a speed and location that are intimately connected with the landscape they move through. Or at least, more intimately than these hurtling boxes we (normally, many of us) inhabit.

I live by the water (yay!) Which means basically everything is uphill. (boo!)

The nearest thing that is useful is 5 km away (gas station, post office, liquor store, pizza, bakery, movie rental, convenience store, Sears outlet, and a little bit of hardware). But basically, it’s 16 km to everything else… which means I need to be able to knock off 32 km with a trailer attached and still do the shopping in the middle. Hopefully on one of the days that it isn’t raining too hard.

I might need a little encouragement.

Permaculture and Me

I am pleased to announce that I have just returned from the spectacular Vancouver Island to the also spectacular, if colder, Cape Breton Island, bearing a new Certificate in Permaculture Design:

CPD

I can’t tell you how excited I am to show you this. Also, isn’t it pretty?

A couple of weeks ago, I undertook the journey to OUR Ecovillage in Shawnigan Lake, B.C. to study permaculture (and Earth Activism) with Charles Williams and Starhawk. (I stopped in Vancouver for a tour of the Quest Food Exchange, a visit with new friends, and a brief foray into a city with Actual Public Transit.) The two weeks were spectacular, and riveting, and magical. We learned and learned and learned and learned, and somehow I gave up coffee and started spontaneously waking up with the sun.* We learned to find contour lines with three sticks, some string, and a rock. We built walls out of mud. We practiced communicating and working in teams and standing up in the face of a threat. We made biochar and aerated compost and a Really Big Compost pile that was cooking away beautifully when I came home. We ate outside and stayed around the fire until all hours. There was at least one instance of ecstatic dancing.

I also started going out of the building with the bathroom in it to find the composting toilet. Even when it was raining. So you know that there’s something going on there.

But what, you may ask, is permaculture? (Or perhaps, “isn’t that something to do with farming?” To which the answer is, “Yes. Sort of. Maybe. It depends.”) Permaculture includes an approach to growing food, but it is a more comprehensive relationship with entire processes. I described it, by the end of the course, as “the engineering I’ve been looking for all these years.” That is to say, it is a way of working in the world that acknowledges our roles as creators, modifiers and agents, but also works with rather than against the processes we are embedded in. I woke up yesterday morning thinking about a science and technology in which we are acknowledged as part of the system, rather than maintaining the pretence of objectivity. In which our bodies are acknowledged and our need for food and shelter is honoured, but the need for everything around us to have bodies and food and shelter is equally esteemed. We build systems that provide habitat while they are also providing nuts, fruits, shade, water retention in arid landscapes, space and food for chickens and honey bees, firewood and and and and… We work to reconnect loops that have been lines for far too long. Instead of consuming at one end, producing waste at the other, externalising costs step by step all along the way, this is an approach that might (finally) get us to Beauty All the Way Down.

I’m in love.


* Results not typical.

The Wonders of Lights

Look what we grew under our grow lights!

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Grow lights rock!

Multipotentiality: It’s a Thing

Originally published elsewhere, but since nobody paid me for it, and I didn’t transfer copyright, I disavow the very possibility of being able to plagiarize my own work. Especially since I use Creative Commons licensing. So there.

Even though it’s a fairly new word in my world, multipotentiality surrounds me. And although I’ve seen some people come to terms with a career/hobby/spare time approach to the problem, I’ve also seen many people struggle with the issue of finding time to do all the things that they want to without feeling like they’ve lost something significant in the process.

For those of us with many unrelated interests and talents, the challenge of figuring out what we are going to love enough to keep doing day after day doesn’t end when we finish school. Career counselling conversations seem to imagine a track: “high school, university, professional school, career, advancement”. The goal is to get people (kids, really) onto the “right” track so that they will be productive, successful, and hopefully relatively satisfied.

Yet the world is full of people who are fully grown, living what look like productive lives, but feeling like they’re dying on the vine. I described it (when this was me) as being like trying to fit an octopus into a box… I always either had arms left outside, or felt I was crushed into a space too small.

So imagine my dismay when the very first academic paper I came across in my ramblings literature review said, “Multipotentiality doesn’t exist.

What they point out is that people who are very good at a wide range of things are not equally good at all the things they are good at. As “multipotentiality” is described as having what is called a “high-flat” profile on aptitude tests, their claim is not that the high part is invalid, but that the flatness is an artefact of testing with imprecise instruments. In effect, you can eliminate the flatness by asking harder questions.

Yet it is a jump from the position that multipotential people still have variations in their capabilities to “multipotentiality never existed”. And I would suggest that is an unhelpful position for people trying to make choices about their lives who don’t see a lot of limits due to their capacities. Yes, you might be better at some things than some others… and (gasp) there may be things for which you have no aptitude at all! But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a problem with the number of choices in front of you.

So, here’s why it’s not true. Or at least not true in the way that they are suggesting.

The first thing is, they’ve drawn conclusions about longitudinal impacts from a cross-sectional study. That is to say, they have identified a problem in an adult population (highly intelligent people are frequently troubled with career indecision and distress) and inferred an intervention at a younger level (don’t assume that the problem is a “high-flat” profile when providing career guidance to graduating students) by changing their assessment tools at an even younger level (administering the SAT to grade 7 students to determine that they do, in fact, have individual variations). This is always a risky manoeuvre, and here, I would argue, it simply doesn’t apply. They are hypothesizing that the eventual dissastisfaction in adults can be forestalled by appropriate interventions at a younger age (which is an interesting idea), but they have neither solved the problem with the adults in question, nor done the longitudinal study necessary to validate the intervention.

In fact, to claim that the problem doesn’t exist does worse than nothing for the adult who is struggling with their position in life. It places the blame back upon them, or perhaps upon their guidance counsellor from years gone by, without providing them with guidance about what to do with it. It pathologizes the need for growth and intellectual stimulation and recasts it as vanity.

Yes, if you test people who are at the tail in a number of different categories, they turn out to have variations in how far out the tail they are. They may score at the 98th percentile in spatial relations, 99th in language, and 99.9th in something… These profiles vary from one person to the next. And when you’re dealing with extreme outliers, they might look something like 99.9th, 99.7th, 99.98th percentiles. The strategy they suggested in that paper was to use challenging enough test instruments to get them out into those extremes and then use that data for guidance purposes. I imagine the conversation going, “Well, you’re only extremely good at all these things, but you’re absurdly good at that one, so we think that you should choose that.”

How is this supposed to help? You’re still talking to somebody who is going to be better at most things than almost all their “peers”, and (this is more to the point), would have been better than almost all their peers at any number of other things they chose. The goal in this finer sorting seems to be to find the thing that they are so much better at that they don’t feel dissatisfied with losing the other things they’ve left behind, rather than structuring their lives so that they don’t have to leave anything out.

Better questions than “Where do your talents lie?”

What do you want to do? What lights you up? What, if you are not doing it, feels like a piece of you is missing?

Then, how do you arrange your life so that those pieces are not missing or relegated to a tiny corner of leftover time? It is time for those of us who are living this to engage with this question, instead of trying to make ourselves fit into lives that are three sizes too small. It’s time for a new conversation about what we do when we grow up.

Among those of us who find ourselves already there.

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