schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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Swimming Lessons

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Life at university has felt like a series of dips into a deep, deep pool. The bottom is still murky, but the possibility of diving, deeper and deeper, is exciting. There are gems and secret doors, portals, to be found. It’s a process of exploration, and experimentation—of again and again refining my ability to notice and see.

What drives someone to keep studying (at a university, in this case)? A professors asked a group of us students this question sometime last week. Is it money? Is it the possibility of a brilliant career? Is it an inability to imagine other options? Or is it a deep hunger, a ravenous sense of curiosity? Take your pick, and I’ll take mine—and perhaps you can guess that it’s the latter.

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Here are a few dives into this deep pool—a few little gems (and splinters):

(All these pictures are, like the words, glimpses of this place. It’s all Germany—bogs, and lakes, and gummy bear cakes.)

In my economics lecture, we were told, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Most people in the lecture hall took this as a given—isn’t it something economists have believed for almost ever? Nothing, no nothing is free or comes without trade-offs. Still, there was a rumbling that went through the hall. A little huff of disappointment, maybe. Aren’t most of us still trying to be optimists? Somewhere to my left, a hand popped up and a small-ish voice said, “And what about sunshine? And love?”

(And yes, well, who cares if the asker is right or not. There must be room in our hearts for a little nebulous selflessness.)

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On a disoriented bike ride that was supposed to take me from the university down into town, I pedalled, accidentally, into a field of brilliant flowers. Cosmos, sunflowers valiantly blooming away the October blues, dahlias, malvas, zinnias, statice, sky-blue cornflowers. A little sign hanging from a post read, “Pick your own flowers.” Underneath the sign hung a little jar with a coin-sized opening. Two knives were provided. I got home with a backpack full of flowers, of course.

I discussed weather with a new friend from central Africa. We’re sitting outside, and I’ve stripped off shoes and socks. The grass is damp, but warm enough for autumn, thanks to the sun. He laughs. At home, he tells me with a smile, it’s never less than 20 degrees Celsius. I impress him with my story of living in a canvas yurt during a northern Vermont winter. I describe the feeling of blinking in weather so cold your lashes freeze together in an instant. I gleefully count layers for him: scarf, mittens, hat, sweater, thermals, woolen socks (2 pairs, maybe), felt-lined boot or mukluks… I get enthusiastic about ways to avoid frostbite. I suspect I adore winter. Together, we worry about this upcoming season in Germany: will it be too cold (him)? will it be unspectacularly balmy (me)?

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I go to class in a castle. It’s got an undeniably magical quality to it. Most people are blasé. They shlump around from class to class, trailing backpacks, coffee mugs, textbooks, stopping to smoke their cigarettes in hasty puffs. I, on the other hand, get giddy just thinking about it. Yeah, childish, perhaps. I might get over it. But I doubt it.

Little inklings of homesickness, every once in a while, have left me breathless. I’m falling for this place, but there’s still the essence of who I am—mostly, it’s a yearning for specific people, or trees and trees and rocks. Distance. Wildness. My cat. A certain smell almost moves me to tears. Woodsmoke still clinging to a sweater I haven’t worn in a year. I crave a spectacular October frost, the kind that leaves everything covered in diamond dust. And at the same time, there are a dozen or more hands reaching out to me wherever I turn, and for this I am so grateful.

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Impostor Paints Picture

“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.  If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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(I’ll spend no time recounting what has happened since the last post. Why? Why not? It’s too much to tell, here, and more than enough of it has seeped through to all future words you’ll find here. I’ll keep consistently wallowing in inconsistency, I promise.)

Paying close attention to details has always been a skill of mine. Maybe it’s my superpower? It’s my refuge from the almost constant feeling of being out of place. At my college commencement a few years ago, our speaker introduced us green grasshoppers to the thrilling (ahem) official term for this feeling: impostor syndrome, she called it. Way to send us off into the world, you say? Well, why not. The fact is, I’ve found this definition delightfully useful. And flattering, since she put herself into this same category I immediately assigned myself to. Impostor syndrome: it sure put a handle on this feeling, which I safely say I’ve had almost my whole life, of being a foreigner somehow mistaken for someone else (someone who should be here, in this place). Don’t get me wrong—it’s not about feeling excluded or uninvited. It’s the feeling, which many of us have, of having been undeservedly included in some inner circle. Of looking out from the inside, rather than looking in from the outside.

When we watch something, we’re generally not participating in the same way we would be were we not consciously watching. We become impostors in a slightly different sense. Actually, it probably boils down to obsessive constant vigilance. (Two words that always make me think of the Harry Potter character Mad-Eye Moody. Remember him?) It’s fun to indulge in this obsession every once in a while—though I try to leave it behind on a healthily regular basis, too—especially when exploring new places.

I’m thinking about all this as I wander the streets of one of my favourite cities: Portland, Oregon. It’s hot and breezy, and the air is tinged with the scent of jasmine and buddleia. A homeless man (by the looks of him) is picking unripe rosehips from a rose bush by the side of the road and popping them into his mouth, one at a time. He chews slowly, eating around the seedy centre, which he spits out with an enthusiastic “Thwack.” His hands meander over the rosehips left on the bush, deftly examining them before choosing another one. On the other side of the street, small wooden tables crowd the sidewalk. It’s before noon, and men with sylvan tattoos and Converse sneakers drink coffee, while women in short skirts and bare backs sneak sidelong glances at their Iphones. An old dark blue Volvo pulls up beside me—no rust: it’s the West Coast, after all. On its roof, rolled up tightly and bungee-corded to the roof-rack, are carpets and black rubber dry-bags, the kind usually used for camping. The car itself is stuffed to the roof with duffle bags and boxes of books, stray volumes propped unintentionally open at some page or other. From the rear-view mirror dangles a tightly wrapped bundle of smudging sage, its edges already singed. Colourful feathers crowd the dash. A man emerges, smoothes one hand over his hair—which is long, gathered in a ponytail that reaches the small of his back, and used to be blond.

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I started listening to recordings of Alan Watts when I was about sixteen. A friend gave me a collection of CDs, long, meandering Watts oratories that I listened to over and over again. I think it was in these recordings that I first learned about what Watts refers to as “witnessing.” I spent weeks trying to perfect this method of imagining myself floating a few feet above myself, just watching. What ended up happening, in the process, was that I learned to pay better attention to the world around me. It’s a skill that’s come in handy often. The world, in fact, is endlessly entertaining.

The long-haired man from the dark blue Volvo makes his way to the sidewalk, where he walks over a tiny literary detail in the pavement. Someone, at some time, scratched the words “Wow = Me” into the setting cement. Certainly better than “Woe = Me” isn’t it? I like it. He ambles off into a nearby building and is gone. The Volvo stays behind, windows rolled slightly down, metal crackling in the mid-morning heat. A few steps further down the street, someone has parked an old VW Westfalia—hands down one of my favourite cars. This one’s acid green, rusty in spite of its California plates, and bedazzled with bumper sticker upon bumper sticker upon bumper sticker.

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The poet Mary Oliver said it best, or at least, most simply:

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished. 

Tell about it. 

The tiny details of the every day are indeed the secretest (a word? why sure it is.) and simultaneously most accessible of messages from the universe. They are the dialogue between the semi-permeable realm of magic and enchantment that hovers just behind us and the tangible world we think we live in. These details are, if nothing else, fodder for stories. And stories are the building-blocks of our lives, so what better way to begin a story than by paying attention?

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PS— Don’t think the magic is real? Try thinking about it this way.


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Breaking Up | Breaking Open

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I’ve always enjoyed the small details of life. My favorite place is the forest floor in springtime: spring beauties, hepatica, ramps, fiddleheads, trillium, wild ginger in flower, dappled sunlight on emerging green. Those are the things that make my heart sing. I like vast views, too, but I’m always more apt to drop down, smell the rotting leaves that hug the earth, dig my hand into the organic matter, see the bugs and worms at work there, the mushrooms that enchant the soil. In life, though, sometimes, this causes confusion. The “big picture” gets lost somewhere up above, details begin to dominate, and the little things start to become disconnected from the landscape that houses them. I recently broke up with a person I was head over heels in love with, and entangled with. The breaking up, the deconstruction of our relationship, was a landscape opening up around me, and, in a sense, swallowing me. Looking up was, is, scary. It means placing myself; recognizing where I am, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I searched for minute details, saving graces, the little things that grow along the wayside and make the journey beautiful—trying to avoid seeing the vastness ahead of me. I found those little things, of course I did, but the more I looked down at them (or rather back at them) the more this vastness beckoned to me.

In the introduction to his book Portrait of My Body, Philip Lopate asks the questions that for a long time stopped me from starting this blog, “What gives me the right to assume my life is worth taking so seriously? Is it arrogance? Self-centeredness? Yes… but not entirely. We must remember that most writers have only their own story to tell. In my case, I can also report better through my eyes what the world looks like than by pretending omniscience. I want to record how the world comes at me […].” In my search for the courage to really be where I am, to put aside escapism and to rewrite my grand dreams, I am daring myself to share some of the stories that seem, to me, to be the least public of them all. Please take what you like from them. I think of this as an exercise in spontaneous storytelling, not a foray into autobiographical perfection.

In this new beginning, there are still a million questions that keep me turning my head back. There are a million answers, or maybe (probably) more, none of which are as satisfying as taking a deep breath and looking forward. There are still plenty of things that go bump in the night—but there are also stars, and the moon, to light the way. Rob Brezsny, whose Free Will Astrology I enjoy weekly, planted an idea in my mind many years ago. “The universe,” he writes, “is conspiring to shower you with blessings.” What an audacious thing to say! And is it true? There are certainly enough instances when it doesn’t seem so, enough times when things seem to be heading so stubbornly in the opposite direction that it is easy, almost obligatory, to laugh at his pronouncement. And yet. I believe he is right. Counting my blessings, even when I rely on someone else to sit me down and do it for me, has a way of putting me in my place (the place where I happily look out, up, and all around me to see that I am, in fact, in a good and beautiful place). Looking up, lately, I have been shocked by the many blessings that I have received. What I have received has reminded me to plan and dream and simultaneously plant myself firmly in the earth of this place.

Here are some things that have pleased me to no end lately. Things that have tickled me pink, and made my heart pitter-pattern. Things that have caused me to jump with glee and awe.

A dear friend of mine, who lives a bit too far away for my liking, has decided to tie the proverbial knot. I am so absolutely thrilled for the two of them—I can’t even put words to it. And what is more, I am bursting with pride, as they have asked me to officiate at their wedding. Love, love, love! What an honour (and responsibility…).

While the above is surely number ONE, there are a few more things, too. Lucky me! Another blessing is that I live in a city that, as it greens with spring and new life, is full of beautiful surprises. I’ve been reluctant to find steady ground here, having had the idea that I wouldn’t be here for very long, and that planting my feet wasn’t really “worth my while.” That’s something I am committing to changing. No matter how long I stay here, I want to feel close to this place, get a sense of its people and its stories. Yesterday, a bike ride revealed a long, verdant corridor of uncharted pathway, echoing the river. A desire path created not by the city but by people who wanted to walk or bike there. On one side, the river; on the other a forested slope, thick with spring ephemerals (like a flood of white trillium).

I am also, still, beyond excited and filled with happy anticipation for the six weeks I get to spend at the Omega Institute this summer… Being able to go there and take a course for six weeks is an unbelievable, unexpected gift.

There are plenty of other things to say, here. I’ll leave it at this for now, and spend a minute basking in the universe’s conspiratorial bounty. A thought for you, too—something that a friend gave me a number of years ago, written on a card that lives in my wallet.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,

our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant,

gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?”

Actually,

who are you not to be?

xo

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I get to go back here this summer…