The following musing is the first of a series that touches on the rituals of loss. The series will follow the structure of poems shared between myself and my late Buddhist and Yoga teacher, Michael Stone.
It feels like I've spent most of my life rehearsing for loss.
Like the 13th century wandering poet-monk Ehei Dogen, to whose texts my late teacher, Michael Stone introduced me, I lost my biological mother in childhood.
You'd have thought that loss might have prepared me for every loss that followed. But Michael's death feels like salt to a wound of some core, unavoidable separation.
In the wake of death, a hollow outline of my teacher's absence stares back at me. From it, seagulls fly out at midnight in all sorts of caws from another world.
Numerous students, family members and friends count the beads of the mala of Michael's love, now flung to the ocean but still thread in some variation of a heart sutra, simultaneously sutured and strung in the invisible.
Where lies the separation lies between grief and love?
Where lies gulf between life and death?
In Tibetan Buddhism, the dead spend 49 days in the intermediary zone between living and dying, between one life and the next. Loved ones guide the soul through The Bardo to the next incarnation.
Is that where Michael is now?
My culture has no certain language to speak about death and fewer rituals to keep our own souls from fragmenting from a safe holding space.
I hold my heart. A pain that is peaceful at times, and at other times ravaged, pulsates through my collar bones.
I hang my head. I remember how Michael held his head, lifted, even in suffering.
I ask questions that have no answers.
Negative capability, writes Keats, is the potential for the beauty of the world to unfold in the poet's wonder. Rilke counselled a young poet in a letter to never stop asking questions, "You might one day live your way into the answers."
If any experience might teach that no certainty exists in this world, it's death. Or maybe death, like taxes, is one of only two certainties. But still, in death, so many questions arise.
Michael suffered from a bipolar disorder, one that unbeknownst to most of his wider community had been worsening. He had talked openly of his depression. His vulnerability with his own pain and the pain in the world opened up a dialogue around trauma, about how wounds initiate our intimacy with the world and our collective responsibility to one another. That eloquence around suffering led me to follow his teachings; most of my yoga teachers up until then had denied their own pain and encouraged denial in their students.
"Don't admit when you're in pain," one Swami had taught me, "If you talk about your unhappiness, people will think yoga doesn't work."
And so I witnessed all sorts of pain hidden in forms of denial: reckless sex, assumptions that one yoga reigned supreme over another, too-certain assertions about God. One teacher had nightmare about World War 3 and asked his followers for donations of 1000 Euros each to a build a commune on a mountain in South America to save them. Another teacher submerged his confusion in corporate scandals and orgies that watered down Tantric philosophy.
By the time I met Michael, I had one foot poised and planted in Virabhadrasana II, (the warrior pose), and the other facing the door for a quick exit.
I kept one eye on the look out for a yoga I might know intimately on my own terms. And somehow Michael's terms and mine met in a kind of silent contract to approach the world with questions rather than answers.
"How do I intimately know my grief? How do I stay alive amidst heartbreak? How do I embrace the world in its pain and its joy? How do I serve?"
Following my mother's death, my own family in ways masked its grief. I remember once my father in my early 20s showing a slides of the early days of our family. The images of my mother, once alive, now gone, invoked sadness.
Seeing my tears, my father yelled, "You're supposed to be happy!" The utterance is cultural: we often shroud expressions of grief, upset, and anger in shame.
Did Michael, like many, feel shame for his own suffering? Did he march on like so many? Did he turn to a drug to mask the pain? Was it the isolation with a wound that he felt sting? Or was it the stigma, a stigmata, a mark that he feared if he had showed the world it might wound him further? Was he embarrassed? What impulses led him to self-medicate?
A stigma in botany is part of the flower that receives pollination.
In the wake of his death, I only wish he had shared that mark with us. I wish we could have held our teacher's pain in the way he held ours.
Now that stigma pollinates the world with questions and responses.
Where we've inherited shame around mental suffering, I'm not sure.
In his 1923 book The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes in "On Joy and Sorrow":
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
But that wasn't the poem that initiated me to walk with Michael for a while on the path of practice.
On cold winter evening in 2010, I first attended one of Michael's talk at Naada Yoga in Montreal. Tall, agile, full-beaded and gently moving, Michael reminded me, mysteriously, of "home." Now that I look back, I wonder if that feeling of "home" had been a summoning some neglected part of myself. Michael grieved the smallness of his first son's feet, ones that at the time were growing into pre-adolescence. Had he tapped into a grief my own upbringing hadn't allowed me to experience safely?
Touched by his gentleness, the way his words opened up a place in myself I hadn't felt permitted within community to explore, I felt drawn to him.
"Thank you for the light you bring into the world," I wrote Michael in an email, the day after that talk. I copied and pasted a poem by Robert Bringhurst, "Flowers of the Body." It was the beginning of an exchange of poems and words and meetings as a teacher and student that lasted seven. The last verse of "Flowers" reads:
We are the trees we plant
in the one earth of one another,
that they flower there
together: flowers we bring on the living
branch to one another,
in the darkness where there are
no other faces, shapes or colours,
no bouquets, no other
and in spite of that,
and in spite of that,
no faces, voices, colours,
no song singing itself
in the fingertips,
no tongues, no teeth,
no taut lips softening,
and closing, no
of light and fire and
and no flowers
and no hands.
He responded to say Bringhurst was one of his favourites.
Now that I read this poem, I see the prophecy in it. For every life ends in "no tongues" and "no teeth." It reminds me of "The Heart Sutra," a song that sings of the empty place where consciousness has no certain body. When I was going through breast cancer treatment, Michael's partner Carina mentioned she memorized The Heart Sutra to soothe herself.
The "no ears," "no hands" and "no mind" of The Heart Sutra at the time didn't have the same affect on me. But now I see the wisdom in it. In those threads of words I hear an unimaginable state, perhaps like the "no opening / and closing, no / unsoftening," of "Flowers of the Body" by Bringhurst. Repeated ritualistically, perhaps "The Heart Sutra," prepares the body for that state of "no eyes."
Such a place frightens me. Like most people, I hang onto life, to my physical body. I hang onto images of health, of wellness. I hang onto how Michael used to appear to us. When I watch him on video, it feels like I will see him soon.
I had emailed him the day he went into a coma. He told me I had a bell ringing job at the retreat in France. I half expect in my psyche's own denial of his absence, that he will be present at that retreat, calm and welcoming with the gentle embrace with which he ritualistically greeted his students.
As much as anyone, I have learnt ways to mask my pain and my scars.
So, in my own attempt to hold this unknown and uncertain place of "no opening and closing" that we call death, I have created my own rituals to contain the unthreaded complex feelings around loss.
What are those rituals?
Ritual readings of poems. Ritual dances. Ritual sharing. Ritual bowing. Ritual running along the ocean where in the wide expanse of sand, sea and sky where I imagine a world of freedom beyond form. If that is where the "no bouquets" of Michael's body soar, in that empty wide expanse, may it be glorious and alive, full and bright, even in the state of "no eyes."
This share is one ritual. It is one of many poems Michael and I shared through the course of our friendship. For my own healing process, my own mourning, I will continue to share these poems over time.
If you like to bear witness, please do. Or share your own in the comments below.
Que dois je dire?
Je vous remercie pour les pierres, les feuilles de palmier, l'érable, les mains qui sculptent la pierre, le soleil qui allume l'arc, les livres qui dansent, les nouveaux amis, les vieux amis, la musique, les robes et la beauté sans fin. Temps avec mon père. Vos traces. Merci.
Que dois je dire?
Avec amour, toujours,
Photos courtesy of SOUL AMSTERDAM
What's a goddess to you?
Do forces outside your limited sense of self inspire your daily life, your practice, your art and your work?
What is a muse in your mind?
Who is your muse?
Or do you have one?
Amuse: A Course in Contemplative Creativity allows you to investigate the energy of the "muse" in creative and contemplative practice.
The course encourages you to find fresh metaphors to reinvigorate your practice, to give vitality to your work, to offer new energy to your every day life.
Amuse: A Course in Contemplative Creativity gives you the opportunity to open up a little more to the unknown dimension of creativity. As artists are we completely in control, or do we co-create with agencies and influences beyond our limited perception of the self?
The course follows three cycles of three weeks. Each week, you'll be introduced to a Boecian Muse, or goddess of inspiration.
What is a Muse?
A muse might be an androgynous figure. It may be a friend, male or female. A muse might be a stranger you look up to.
A muse might be a composite character that includes the traits of many characters. It might be more like an energy, or a force of nature. It might be the ocean, a daffodil, a sandpiper. If you want, the muse might transverse species and forms like a shamanic beast.
The muses might be any energy that bring you what you need in any moment. They might offer medicine. They might offer romance. In ancient literature, the muse tends to possess a spirited, flirtatious and delightful quality.
If you need pleasure, your muse might point you to pleasure.
If you need materials, the muse might point you to the right set of pens.
If you need support, the muse might point you to the financial or emotional support you need to get your art off the ground.
Your muse might whisper in words, notes or signs.
So who are the muses of Amuse?
Let's meet them.
1. Melete or Attention
The first muse of Amuse is Melete. But if you don't speak Ancient Greek, call her by her English name: Attention.
Sometimes she goes by the name, "Contemplation" or "Meditation."
According to the mythology, Melete is born of water.
The first muse inspires the flow of attention, the flow or ideas, the flow of creativity. She moves like water. Perhaps like water, she transforms states and circumstances.
In addition to paying attention to flow states in contemplative and creative practice, in the first cycle of Amuse: A Course in Contemplative Creativity, we focus on listening.
Sometimes, the muses' clues are subtle. Listening is an art that helps us get in touch with whatever muse we need in any moment.
2. Mneme or Memory
Have you heard of a meme?
If so, you may already be familiar with the second muse, Mneme.
"Meme" comes from the same root as Mneme.
Mneme means memory.
In weeks 4-6 of Amuse, we'll be musing with our memories, investigating what memory is and how it plays out in our physical bodies, in our individual consciousnes and in the collective unconsciousness.
We look at things like limitations, rituals and "murmuration."
Melete, or Attention, influences, Mneme, or Memory. What we attend to mindfully, we often remember.
Artists must tune in consciously and continuously with the world. They must listen to the world, to themselves, to their bodies, to others.
Attention and memory, Melete and Mneme come into play in parenting, teaching, drawing, hairdressing, dancing, public speaking, cooking, gardening, performing, yoga - you name it.
In the second cycle, we lightly touch on different theories of memory. Walter Benjamin calls memory a theatre of the mind. Biologists like Richard Semon envision cell to hold memories that play out in our physical bodies and in our experience of the world.
How do the theatres of our minds/bodies meet the theatres of other minds/bodies? How does the memory of one single event differ from one person to the next? What happens when two people explore the gaps and crossings between personal and interpersonal memories?
The second cycle of Amuse allows you to investigate what memory is and how it might inspire your practices.
3. Aoide or Song
Aoide is the Ancient Greek name for the muse of the human voice. So in the last cycle of Amuse, you'll tune into your own Muse of Song.
But I like to see the "human" voice to include all the inhuman things that help us be who we are. We are interdependent beings after all. Our existence wouldn't be possible without the bees, the trees and the snakes.
Maybe you already have a Muse of Song?
Singing is one expression of Aoide. If you play a guitar, you likely pay attention to the instrument. You might memorize chords or patterns of sounds.
Once you've done a bit of work with attention and memory, you might fiddle, play, or sing more freely with your instrument.
Amuse gives you the opportunity to rekindle your musical, magical, enchanted relationship with the world.
Exactly how you sing through last three weeks of Amuse is up to you, but the guided practices and meditations give you a safe framework in which to explore your own voice.
In Amuse: A Course in Contemplative Creativity, you'll have an opportunity to dive into many dimensions of your own practice.
We work contemplatively. We'll enter into a reflective practice along with a creative practice. We'll ask questions.
I model this aspect of the course on the state of enquiry, the Keatsian mode of negative capability.
At Amuse, we honour the openness to possibility.
You might want to check out the Modern Muses page. Parts of these interviews will be available exclusively to those who register for the paid version of Amuse,
With Amuse, you can go at your own pace.
Amuse takes an approach creativity that sees it as a pleasure, a joy, a delight.
Goddesses as Muse
The original goddesses in Greek mythology were inspirational beings. Interbeings. They danced and derailed artists' egos, negotiated alliances between earth and heaven and the human and non-human world. They played between worlds like demi-gods. The history books often figure the muses as women, but who cares - goddess is just a title. Muse is just a noun. Or a verb. Or a name of a perfume made by Estée Lauder. A goddess can be anything. It could be a worm for all we know about the gods.
And let's face it. Any female poets in Ancient Greece besides Sappho have been written out of history.
Amuse: The Literary Salon invites you to muse with female artists, female readers, female figures.
Our first artist, writer (and muse) is Patti Smith. In June and July of this year, 2017, we're reading her autobiographical book full of musings: M Train.
I've had this book on my shelf since 2015.
Smith's 2010 memoir of her life with Robert Maplethorpe first turned me onto the musician-as-writer.
When I finally got my hands on Just Kids that Christmas, it felt like I was reading some version of my own story.
My Chelsea Hotel had fewer tenants, but Leonard Cohen was there. Or, at least his house was.It was in Cohen's house off The Main, a well-known street in Montreal, that I first learnt to sit zazen. Zazen is the Zen term for sitting meditation. When sitting quietly in zazen in the winter of '96, listening deeply, I first "felt" the presence of poetry.
I remember it clearly. The room felt soft in its rows of navy zafus and painted grey walls. It smelt of cedar. Snowflakes circled outside the window draped in white curtain. A flood of images that might have been totem animals that might have metaphors that might have been a muses washed through me like water lifting into steam.
Perhaps that was my first contact - or recognition - of a force of inspiration beyond my ego.
My Mother as Muse
In some ways, my mother was a bit like Patti Smith. She wasn't a rock star, and she didn't write poetry, but my mother loved books. Like Patti Smith, she grew up Catholic.
I have fond memories of my mother going me to book clubs and carting me along. Instead of talking about the books, I crafted figures made of straw, fabric and yarn. My mom dressed in linen dresses, I, in blue overalls. I loved travelling with her there in her Mazda sports car listening to radio drama.
Friendship as Muse
One afternoon, exhausted by the heat and the dust and the crowds, I stumbled into a café in Istanbul. I had been exploring the winding streets of Cukurcuma, a neighbourhood whose narrow lanes lined with antique shops filled with brass dishes for Turkish Delights, tiny silver coloured cups for Turkish tea and other curious bric-a-brac.
I had been looking for Orhan Pamuk's "Museum of Innocence" but I'd gotten lost and thirsty as travellers often do.
There were no free tables left in that café in Cukurcuma, but an intriguing-looking woman invited me to hers.
After a few words, we discovered we'd both been born in Canada and we had studied at the same yoga school in Thailand.
That woman was Blaire Lindsay, and she encouraged me to start this salon.
Reading Circles as Inspiration
Relationships - between family members, artists and friends - are the circles of connection that often offer us seats of protection and seeds of genius.
So the name of mothers, muses and maidens of intimate affinity, I invite you to a table of books, a circle of contemplation and creativity.
One way to take part in a circle is to participate in the nine week course, Amuse: A Course in Contemplative Creativity. I run this course in nine week cycles four times a year.
Another way to enter into inspired relationship is to join Amuse: The Literary Salon.
Like any good circle of friends, in both the nine week course and the literary salon, we neither shy away from the messy stuff nor the ways that our lives intersect with books.
Come with your nightmares. Come with your quests. Come with your questions. Whatever those are and however you happen to dream, come as you are.
Dear Lovely You,
I'm back in Ol' Blighty.
Right now, I'm sitting in a cafe in Bath, around the corner from Walcot Chapel where my work is on display amongst others as part of Embodied Cartographies curated by Fay Stevens.
It's a wonderful, almost magical exibition, and I am honoured both to have my visual poetry on the white stone walls and my body as the now official "writer-in-residence."
Check out the beautiful website:
If you are in the area, why not come to this exquisite exhibition?
Bath water carries all these memories of history - both beautiful and terrifying - in the ground beneath the stone.
Bath water cures the soul and drips from the bricks of the Georgian architecture.
And it carries the memory of slaves thrown overboard when merchants carried the cargo that now give this town its stone elegance.
As a writer-in-residence, I will be available to speak about my work to whomever is interested. Occasionally, throughout the residency, I will write with my feet.
By that I mean, I will trace the path of a circle based on the Zen practice of "kinhin."
Some of the writing and artefacts of the process I may leave behind, but rest assured, bits and pieces will morph into a book. So if you can't come, or even if you can, stay tuned for whatever appearances of that book as they come on my website. If you get on my mailing list, you won't miss it.
Residency Locations & Times:
Walcot Gate, off Walcot Street, Bath, England BA1 5UG
Tuesday, May 30th, 11 am - 2pm
Thursday, June 1st, 11am - 2pm
Friday, June 2nd, 11am - 2pm
Saturday, June 3rd, 11am - 2pm
Monday, June 5th, 11am - 2pm
Palace Yard Mews, Bath Spa University, BA1 2NH
Wednesday, May 31st, 1-4 (part of a series of talks, where I will be taking notes and writing)
On Saturday, June 10th-11th, I will be taking a sightly different approach to my performative writing practice and residency. The times of performances will be unscheduled and more often than not spontaneous.
You may be lucky enough to meet my alter-ego Marie O'Nette.
P.S. You can reach me at +44 075 9878 8062
Dear Wonderful You,
I always feel strange writing that salutation. Who is reading this?
What connects us; what threads led us to each other?
We may never know those threads.
Or can we?
Can we trace our connections, the lines of lives through the creases in our palms back through time to each other?
Do we share similar DNA?
Are we aware of each other when we are not in the same room together?
I know you're out there. We miss you. I see you in the sun. I see you in the snow. I see you in the geese. I see you in the swan. I feel you in the swan's song. I feel you in the sun at dawn. I feel you in the sun at dusk. You are on the surface of my skin. You are in the scent a perfume yon a shelf. You are in the pearl earrings you left behind.
I am sorry I lost one of your earrings, the ones that Patrick gave you when he went to Russia in grade nine. I don't know what happened.
It just fell off my earlobe on an underground train in London on my way to the airport two summers ago.
You were always so forgiving of my mistakes. Remember when I carved your mother's initials into the surface of chest of drawers in my room. You calmed down Dad. We hid it all with lace.
Mom, I look for you in books all the time. I look for you in poems. I look for you in postures of yogis. I search for you in dancers' gestures.
I read in your letters you did yoga too. I hadn't remember that until I read your letters a couple of years ago. You liked the head stand. Me too. I used to stand it in for an hour at a time, and now I have chronic neck pain because of it...
I took your letters, Mom. I erased parts of them. It's a technique in conceptual poetry where you choose a text and erase some of the words. So rather than write words, you discover words.
It felt like sculpting. I always thought that sculpture is the most sensual of arts. I used to want to be a potter, but I let that go because there were only so many hours in the day.
I read once that when Michelangelo sculpted, he felt he was cutting away the stone, so that God would appear. So before you get upset, maybe we can think of it that way. That's what I was trying to do, let the goddess appear.
I'm not Michelangelo. And your letters are not written in stone. I transcribed them into a word document. Some might think that typing on a laptop is not organic or bodily or anything.
But it sure felt that way to me.
It felt like a goddess appeared in white on the page as I removed words and you appeared. I typed those words again overtop photographs of you and photographs of me dancing on the shore behind Nana's house.
Patrick was living there with is new wife, Melodie. You'd really like her. They have a beautiful daughter, Anne. Did you know that my name is a form of Anne? Same root from the Gaelic. Nancy is a nickname of "Anne." Did you know that when you named me?
Anyway don't worry about me messing up your original letters. The orginals are still in tact. I collected them all and put them in a Japanese box covered in dried flowers.
I did it because it felt like a conversation with you. Images of you and I unfolded on the page. In one letter you describe the two of us waiting in a doctor's office. You write that you had bought us, "two pretty white blouses."
I suppose it's just a coincidence that today without thinking, I chose a white blouse from the hanger. It was like it was calling me. I have to wear a coat or a scarf over it because if I don't you can see the scar. I have a tattoo covering it now.
Remember that time in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and you'd lost all your hair and back then it freaked people out to see a woman with no hair? You had to change your shirt, so you ducked in the seat in the car and your wig fell off, and you were afraid that someone would see you. Back then, you didn't even tell your best friend that you were sick.
When I think of how I handled my illness, I feel like a public frog - I told everyone. I even published a piece about it in the National newspaper. I am so indelicate, unlike you. Honestly. Why did I feel the need to tell everyone? I sometimes I wish I just quietly went along my way.
And it's true, you know, some people can be so judgemental sometimes about bodies and the feelings about bodies that get sick.
I bought the white blouse I am wearing for my next dance performance related to your memory. I've already chosen a site in The Netherlands. Broken Circle is an unfinished land art piece by Robert Smithson. He shaped the sand as it juts into the water. He died in a plane crash, so it isn't finished. But it looks like an enso, one of those "unfinished" Zen circles that people paint in the duration of a single breath.
Mom, I used to go looking for you in books.
Just now I went downstairs to the garage and looked for the boxes of books I packed from Montreal before I left. I asked Dad to keep the poetry ones and the yoga ones and he could let go of the rest. You know Dad and his habit of letting go things.
Sometimes he acts too quickly, and there is only so much room in the garage.
Do you ever feel grief when you lose a book that you love?
I guess it's a good lesson in letting go.
This writer is for hire.