The Language of Animacy

In the beginning was the Word . . . Although I don’t identify as Christian so much as Multi-faith or ‘Faith embracing’, that phrase has always resonated at some deep level within me.

Words, language, and the way in which we use them hold such power. Today, savouring my reading of the wonderful Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer gifted me with one of those precious moments of illumination that shift the world on its axis.

A language of things

I had never particularly thought about how the distribution of a particular type of word in a language may mediate our relationship with the world. English is a noun-based language, a language of things. We make that which is not human an ‘it’, an object. Potentially, in so doing, we create a barrier between the human and everything else that makes it much easier to disrespect, despoil and destroy. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, the words of being and doing.

Winter Lake Illumination
Winter Lake Illumination

A language of being

Learning her ancestral language, Potawatomi, Robin Wall Kimmerer was initially bewildered to discover that 70 percent of its words are verbs and that, whilst there is no dividing the world into masculine and feminine, the use of language is shaped by whether something is perceived as animate or inanimate.

It was the word for ‘bay’, which reads more like ‘to be a bay’, that provided that vital spark of understanding.

In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. . . But the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
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This ‘grammar of animacy’ extends not just to plants and animals. It includes rocks and mountains, water and fire, places, sacred medicines, songs, drums, stories – anything that is imbued with spirit. The inanimate forms of language are largely reserved for objects made by people. It strikes me that, in our English speaking and many other Western cultures, our art, our music, our poetry is often an attempt to reclaim animacy.

Animate or inanimate?

I remember my daughter at a very young age fascinated by making the distinction between male and female, boy and girl. Today I find myself looking around me with the same fascination, trying to distinguish between animate and inanimate.

I hold up a small candle, burning in a glass jar. The glass and the candle itself feel inanimate, though the changing state of the wax gives me pause for thought. But the flame is so obviously animate.

Looking at my nightstand, made from reclaimed wood, I address it as something inanimate, but which has also once been animate. I wonder, though, if a table imbued with love, with a reverence for the tree from which it is hewn, built with artistry and skill, is animate or inanimate?

'Somebody' who visits almost daily - rabbit in snow
‘Somebody’ who visits almost daily

In truth, I identified at least to some extent as an animist from my teens, so this is not entirely new territory. The last five years, living so close to nature, this sense has bubbled up with increasing vigour. I perceive the Lake as my greatest teacher, so obviously ‘alive’. I automatically think of the creatures we see or become aware of as beings, as ‘somebody’, even the ticks and the mosquitoes! Likewise, the trees and plants, with whom my relationship deepens as each season passes. This sense of animacy and its implicit connectedness is part of the underpinning of my sense of joy.

I can’t help wondering, now, how other languages reflect and shape their speakers’ relationship with the world – what a fascinating area of study for one of my parallel lives.

Braiding silence with animacy

How wonderful it would be to have a living language, imbued with this sense of being, in which to think and speak and write. Some thirty years ago, I wrote a poem entitled The Speaking of Silence. I still aspire to learning the language of silence. But now I would wish to find some way to braid it together with the language of animacy.

Joy and delight in challenging times

What is the relationship between joy and delight and how can we cultivate joy and delight in challenging times?

Joy and delight

I think those things that delight us may often connect us to joy. But for me joy has more of a sense of rapture, bliss, ecstasy, and transcendence than delight.

In my 2019 post Revisiting Joy I described joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness and as existing only in the ‘now’. Saint Thomas Aquinas describes joys as ‘delights of the soul’ – yes, this sums up the distinction beautifully.

Opening to joy and delight in challenging times

In challenging times, I believe it becomes more important than ever to nurture and tap into joy as an underpinning of resilience and hope. I have worked consciously for more than a decade to cultivate the capacity for joy. So part of my ability to remain open to joy is simply ‘practice’. A key element of that practice is regularly and consciously opening out my senses into the now. Over time, this has become a normal way of being. This brings with it a constant stream of small joys that feed my soul and connect me to all that is. That sense of connection is fundamental to my understanding of joy.

Cultivating our capacity to experience joy is also a process of honing our ability to connect, as well as to contain and to accept every shading of existence. This encompasses both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world, which in the end is simply another manifestation of all that is whether you define this spiritually or in terms of particulate matter.

Implicit in and emerging out of ‘connection’ are love and compassion for all beings.

If you develop a strong sense of concern for the well-being of all sentient beings and in particular human beings, this will make you happy in the morning, even before coffee . . . Joy is a way of approaching the world.

Perhaps, too, the recognition of the existence of that unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking enables me to maintain my connection to joy even in times of suffering.

There are, of course, moments when I lose the connection, times of utter weariness and despair. But I have learned that these times pass, to rest easy with them. I don’t force my way back. But I do try to continue to open my awareness, to some extent to ‘fake it till I make it’, to rest in faith. I retain a sense of trust in the calm that runs underneath the turbulence always.

Delight in the everyday

I am constitutionally curious, and my curiosity reaps an abundance of delights!

Sometimes what draws me is something not previously perceived in an everyday experience; the musicality of dancing across frozen ‘puddle-drums’; the shadows cast by individual pieces of gravel on the road in the stark, bright sunlight of an early winter’s afternoon; the exquisite crystals forming at the bottom of a bottle of maple syrup. It might be natural beauty, which often illuminates some interiority. Or perhaps an interaction with another being; the infectious chuckle of a baby; a leisurely conversation with a dear friend; the knowledge that, in some small way, I have been able to make a difference, whether to loved-one or stranger; the now familiar gentle knock of our favourite squirrel on the window; the regular visits of the Cardinal lighting up our bird-feeder. Invariably, implicit in the flashes of joy there is some sense of flow and connectedness.

I realize that joy is often, for me, a multi-layered experience that instinctively links me with deeper knowing. I feel delight in what my senses are gifting me; the breathtaking majesty of a mountain range; the wondrous lake that is the backdrop to my life; the fractious flurry of goldfinches fighting for a place at the window feeder; the scent of lavender. But beyond that delight exist additional layers, rooted in association, symbol and insight.

My eyes may be drawn to the mountains, but the soaring of my soul reflects an awe that extends my awareness outwards into all of creation.

The lake tethers me to the constancy of change. it reminds me that there is a place of deep calm within me too that remains even in the midst of the wind’s tumult or the immobility of ice. I remember that it is the moments of absolute stillness that most fully reflect the light.

My delight in the goldfinches links me back to my Grandfather’s love of ‘all things great and small’ and to the benediction of his transmitted wisdom. The lavender is my Grandmother’s gentle, loving presence.

These do not need to be conscious or articulated thought processes. But as I have cultivated joy, they increasingly underpin and amplify my experience. Joy, it seems, for me at least, can be cumulative.

Bodily delight

Saint Thomas Aquinas distinguishes bodily delights from the delights of the soul and thus joy. I’m guessing he is referring here to ‘pleasure’ and ‘sensation’. I think, though, there are other dimensions to bodily delight.

Like many of us as we age, I see my mother in my hands. I sometimes hear her in the words that emerge from my mouth. I think the delight I feel lies in a sense of recognition, perhaps even of presence, of continuity and, again, of connection.

As I spoon round my husband each morning, there is always a flash of joy. Yes, that dear familiarity, that skin on skin delight in touch is still the first layer, even 30 years on. But it also connects me to the whole of our history together, all the growth, learning and co-creation, the deepening of mature love.

And, recently, I seem to have moved into a new relationship with my body as simultaneously separate from and integral to that which constitutes ‘I am’. With this has come an unaccustomed tenderness and compassion, as well as a stream of fresh awareness and delight. A fleeting perception of my body as a community of cells within that greater community that is existence was just the kind of momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is that forms part of my definition of joy.

Joy and gratitude as an act of resistance

Whether it’s the transcendent joy of sacred ritual or the simple joy of cultivating a garden, the pursuit of joy amid great struggle is a way to tend our humanity when it is most threatened. . . Joy is also a manifestation of abundance.

Although a key focus of my life has been an ability to help create the circumstances that support change for individuals and organizations, I’ve never really identified as an activist. I have always believed that the deepest and most enduring change always begins with the individual. So in looking at joy and gratitude in the context of resistance my focus is a more subtle, personal form of resistance.

At the most basic level, if joy underpins resilience and hope then it offers each one of us resistance against the negative emotions, the despair that might otherwise overwhelm us in dark times. There is great power in this.

To lay claim to joy and gratitude when the collective mood is one of loss, fear, grief and anger is to reassert our humanity, our vitality. By choosing to cultivate our capacity for joy, we retain the ability to expand rather than contract, which in turn drives our ability to embrace and energize change and so to move forward.

Similarly, in challenging times, the rootedness of joy in connection holds back the tides of isolation and alienation, certainly for self and possibly for others. We remain able to function from an abundance mindset.

Whilst it may seem counterintuitive to be joyful in the face of social ills and struggle, joy actually increases our ability to engage with the world empathically and effectively.

The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but . . . to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.

These last few difficult months have gifted many of us with an opportunity to turn our gaze inward. Although I have, like most people, struggled at times, I have been surprised to discover an increasingly persistent undercurrent of joy. Sometimes this brings feelings of guilt. How can it be OK to experience joy when so many are suffering?

This takes me back to that sense of joy as underpinning the capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human. Those of us who are able to tap into this capacity and to keep joy alive are, to an extent, light bringers and keepers of the flame. I can’t think of a much more profound act of resistance.

Light in tough times

In these challenging times, it is hardly surprising when fear creates a knotted tangle of resistance, control mechanisms, and doubt. It can be difficult to hold on to an awareness of light.

Awe versus awful

A friend commented to me that maintaining an awareness of awe didn’t seem to help that much when instead faced with awful. I think the reality is that awe, wonder and gratitude are important in nourishing joy and resilience. They are not a preventative measure or an insurance policy – life happens. But greater resilience and the ability to find joy in even small, everyday things, can provide the necessary glimmer of light to help you get through the tough times.

Not mine to fix

It is easy to find oneself on a slippery slope of self-blame or loss of faith when life doesn’t go as you hoped and expected, when illness or adversity strike. I realized in the last week that, whilst I am mostly able to understand and accept that it is not up to me to fix others, there is a part of me that wants to cling to the belief that, if I ‘do it right’, I can fix myself. It was illuminating and freeing to understand that it is also not up to me to fix myself!

I may aspire to physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, may do my best to adopt positive choices and practices. But it is not a weakness, a failing in myself, if physical or emotional issues do not resolve immediately in response to my actions – or even ever. I simply do not have that level of control over life – no one does. There is no point, therefore, in judging and finding myself wanting. Nor does this invalidate the choices and practices. What I can do is sit with myself compassionately and with acceptance of what is. I can listen deeply for what I need and tap into that ability to connect with resilience and joy and the underpinning awareness that the light is always there.

Shining a light

When we align with who we really are, who-what we are designed to be, we unfurl. Benefit in all directions abounds that has little to do with us. We are simply being . . . and the benefit that happens, in a way, is none of our business.

~ Kim Rosen

Sitting in meditation with these ideas swirling around me, I had a delightfully ‘silly moment’ when the thought that popped into my head was ‘I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!’ Beyond the thought, though, lies a deepening understanding that it is not mine to fix anyone and a continuing commitment to the growth of authenticity. This is helping to reframe my ongoing desire to ‘make a difference’. It struck me that this was a personal expression of what Kim Rosen suggests in the quote above (revisited from my Soul School post). Playing with the thought, the poem below was my destination!

Lighthouse - shining a light at the edge of the world (Cape Spear)

I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!

I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up,
to stand tall and true at the edge of the world
mostly unremarked and unremarkable but there,
a steady light radiating outwards from within.

It is none of my business
whether the light
is witnessed
or serves any purpose.

But, on the darkest nights,
when storms rage and rocks reveal their fangs,
just maybe my light may ease some being’s passage
and help them come home to themself.

August 13, 2020

Love Stories

‘Happily ever after’ or true partnership?

Rock love heart

Why is it that so many of the ‘great love stories’ seem to end just when the real work of love begins? ‘Happily ever after’ is such a cop out!

Why is so relatively little written about love that has had decades to ripen and mature, forged and strengthened by the shared joys and pains of a lifetime together?

As a culture, it seems that we glorify the exhilaration of new love, extol its romantic and sexual highs. We talk so much less about the depth and richness that develop when we genuinely choose to partner with another.

Reflection 1

Waking in the night . . . reaching out and linking arms like otters as we drift back into a sea of sleep.

Morning comes. Holding each other close, we welcome the day and the joy is like a shaft of sunlight, even when the world outside is dark and gloomy.

Enduring love

The love that endures the decades is not the sentimental, delusional stuff of glossy romance. Time has exposed unexpected strengths and skills, but also vulnerabilities and inabilities. There is nowhere to hide.

In this narrative, the rich colours of joy and contentment, of achievement and fulfilment, are intertwined with the darker shades of despair, of doubt, of dashed dreams and struggle. These form a resilient rope of experience that connects us ever more deeply, yet never binds.

To live this long this close is to witness both the best and the worst of self and other.

There is something truly profound in knowing that your loved one has, at the very least, caught glimpses of your shadows, your demons, and not run screaming for the hills. I call this ‘embracing the 5%’. Sometimes I think it is harder to accept this gift than it is to give it.

With the passing of time, I have come to understand that love exists not ‘despite’ our human imperfection but rather ‘because’ of it. The beautiful ability for true compassion is nourished by this understanding, not by the sterility of perfect people living perfect lives.

To know another deeply is also to know how much you can never know; exquisite closeness and unfathomable distance co-exist.

I’ve never been sure of the idea of a soulmate – sometimes this seems to be represented more like a narcissistic reflection. It also sets us up to expect something that ‘just happens’. Yet so much of learning to love requires the choosing of an investment of our deepest self.

Reflection 2

Walking into a crowded gig and knowing instinctively where to find you – even then, a fine thread connected us.

Red roadside poppies on Valentine’s Day (no, it can’t have been; it must have been a birthday!) and the importance of blue moons . . .

Shared dreams and adventures, the same words tumbling at the same time from two mouths, passing kisses, flirtatious glances (yes, even thirty years on), the hugging, the holding; our story.

The years have tested and strengthened that thread with the countless strands of our shared existence.

It is hard not to imagine that this connection might endure beyond time and space . . .

Revisiting Joy

Joy is to be found in a place of inner quiet, the point of light within – the divine spark? It is more the manifestation of a quality of spirit than an emotion, existing only in the ‘now’.

Back in 2010, when I started this site, this was my first attempt at a definition of joy.

Revisiting joy nearly ten years on it is interesting to see where this perception has led me.

I see joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness.

Joy is not happiness. If anything, I think it provides a glimpse of the unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking.

I perceive joy to exist at the level of our essential being. Young children access it more easily than adults because they have not yet fully constructed ego’s walls.

Still wilderness. The place that is most us yet remains beyond us.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

Those with a deep spirituality often seem to radiate joy (the Dalai Lama comes to mind). Is this, perhaps, because they have worked to shed layers of ego, to access and stay connected with the depth of being, the flow?

Let there be light

. . . joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

Often when we experience joy it is as an incandescent flash, almost outside of time. It is not something we can hold onto, yet it nourishes us to the core. It is, in the words of Derek Walcott, an illumination, a benediction, a visitation.

Cultivating our capacity to experience joy is also a process of honing our ability to connect, as well as to contain and to accept every shading of existence. This encompasses both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world, which in the end is simply another manifestation of all that is whether you define this spiritually or in terms of particulate matter.

It is interesting that, at least according to Buddhist academic and teacher Reggie Ray, if we go back far enough in time to archaic, pre-agricultural civilizations, life’s purpose was perceived not as ‘progress’ but to stay connected with the depth of being expressed in creation. It seems to me that joy re-opens that gateway to connection and to that ‘still wilderness’.