For the past couple of weeks I have had a simple piece of yarn tied around my wrist. To most people it no doubt just looks like a ratty grey string. But when I look down at it I am reminded of my strength. The other day at yoga I was doing a pose that involves balancing on one leg. As I teetered there with my arms outstretched attempting to find my balance my teacher reminded the class that just as focusing the eyes on something steady in front of us helps us find steadiness in our physical balance, noticing when we are feeling unsteady internally and finding something that IS steady in our lives to focus on can bring strength and balance during times when we feel overwhelmed or uncertain about what comes next.
The past two years have felt a bit like someone is attacking me with a machete. If the losses had been physical it would have been a bit like watching as a number of what I have until now considered essential body parts were hacked away one by one. First my father passed away very unexpectedly after a brief and very aggressive battle with heart cancer. Three weeks after he passed away my best childhood friend from back home in Cyprus lost her battle to cancer, leaving her two sons with no mother. During this time I also met the man I thought was the love of my life and married him, surrounded by my friends and family, only to have him decide that I was not the love of his life after all less than a year later. After every loss I noticed myself desperately trying to adapt to losing someone I loved so deeply that it felt like a little part of myself had just died too. And while they say that trials and loss make us stronger, the immensity of the losses that I have experienced over the last two years has been so tremendous, with so little time between them for healing or processing the grief, that I started noticing an increasing sense of losing balance and pulling further and further from my centre with each wave of loss.
I have just returned from four months in New Zealand. I spent the year after all of these losses just trying to stay afloat. By the end of the year I felt so emotionally and physically exhausted that I knew that I was not going to be able to keep going without taking some time out from my normal day-to-day schedule to do something to re-fill my tank. I have always dreamt of visiting New Zealand, and for the last couple of years I have been following fellow flower farmers at Field of Roses on Instagram and wishing that there were a way that I could go learn about growing roses with them. I wrote to the owners, Zoe and Sue, and, surprisingly to me at the time, they said “yes–come ahead.” Since New Zealand is so far away from PEI, I decided that if I was going to take the time to visit I might as well take advantage of the fact that I was going to be there during what would no-doubt be a rather brutal winter on PEI and spend a few months exploring after my internship.
I will write more about my time at Field of Roses and in New Zealand in at least one if not a series of separate blog posts as it was such a transformational learning experience on so many fronts that it deserves more attention than I can give to it here without turning this post into a book. But I noticed that apart from learning about how to cultivate roses and exploring one of the most powerful countries I have ever visited, there were a few essential things that I learned about balance on this trip that I thought might resonate with others.
Back to balancing on one leg. If you had asked me what balance looks like a year ago I would have talked about what stability looked like to me on the surface: Owning my own house; a car to get me from place to place reliably; with any luck, maybe some land. About having a partner to share this journey with and possibly the bounty of giving birth to and raising children. Stable income. A combination of physical and intellectual work. All of these things can be a reflection of balance–don’t get me wrong. But my trip to New Zealand taught me that real balance happens at a much deeper level.
Shortly after I arrived in New Zealand they had a magnitude 7.8 earthquake off the east coast of Kaikoura in the South Island that ruptured 21 faults — possibly the most number of faults ever ruptured in an earthquake according to recent reports by seismologists. The earthquake was so powerful that it actually created new land areas that had been beneath the sea before they were thrust upwards during the quake. Earthquakes are nothing new to New Zealand obviously. Christchurch is still in the process of re-building after their devastating 2011 earthquake. Having grown up in Cyprus and lived for periods in California I am used to the idea of regular quakes, but being in New Zealand made me reflect more deeply on the role they play in disturbing and creating balance.
The effect of the Kaikoura earthquake was tremendous. There was widespread infrastructure damage–the coastal highway that is usually the main thoroughfare for traffic traveling south along New Zealand’s South Island was so badly damaged that anyone wanting to travel south had to take a detour through the heart of the centre of the island–a beautiful, but nevertheless more circuitous route. Communities along the north eastern coast of New Zealand are sustained by tourism, so the challenge of accessing them easily had a severe financial impact for those living there. Out of interest in what was happening beneath my feet while I was there, I often visited the website Geonet, which shows all the earthquakes happening in New Zealand every day. Today alone there have been eleven. Most of these are very mild — likely barely felt by the population. But I began to get the sense that that the ground I was hiking on was constantly shifting and moving beneath me as opposed to being an immobile source of balance and stability. If you speak with the residents of Christchurch many of them will tell you that they used to live in a great city, and that some day it may be great again. Walking around the city in 2017 and seeing construction site after constriction site; derelict and abandoned buildings and road works everywhere I looked, it is easy to understand why the residents would be feeling frustrated and even a little discouraged. When I first arrived in the city to visit my friend Pascale, whose family lost their home twice in 2011 due to quake damage, she was telling me that often she will leave home to run an errand along a particular street in the morning, but when she goes to use the same route in the afternoon it is under construction. There were a number of times when we were out that I noticed her hesitating before deciding which direction we needed to head in. When I asked her about this she explained that the last time she was on that particular street half of the buildings that I was seeing had not been there. With so much of the city being new and unfamiliar to those who have lived there their whole lives I was thinking how disorienting it must be to feel so uncertain about where you are. When you base your whole sense of direction on landmarks and they are suddenly all gone, how do you orient yourself in space?
My friend Pascale told me that before the Christchurch earthquake the residents were far more insular. They were less connected to their neighbours and communities and more inward-looking. The scale of the destruction caused by the 2011 quake meant that there really was nothing stable to rely on. In her neighbourhood liquefaction had even turned the streets viscous. Pascale and her family turned to the only thing that was stable — relationships with those around them — helping their neighbours and connecting to their community in any way they could. She explained to me that although the emotional impact of losing their homes is still very real for many residents, the shift in consciousness that has taken place as a direct result of having experienced so much physical loss has transformed the city into a place that is far more community-minded. Neighbours now know and support each other. I got the sense that this deep sense of mutual support and collective action may not have developed had it not been a necessity.
I am noticing that I am gradually becoming aware of what my time in New Zealand taught me since I got back to North America and embarked on the personal challenge of figuring out what comes next in my own life. Knowing that the transition back into life in North America might not be entirely smooth, my first port of call upon returning was Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.
If you have been following my adventures for a while you will know that my dear friends Ahava and Gregory live on Butterstone Farm, a sweet little farm nestled into the side of a mountain off of a dirt road among the clouds on Salt Spring Island. This visit was a special one because Ahava was celebrating her fiftieth birthday. It is hard to believe that Ahava is fifty. She looks not a day over thirty five and has far less white hair on her head than I do at thirty eight. Ahava has redefined many things for me from friendship to what love looks like to the many different ways that we take care of ourselves. This year she also redefined what fifty can look and feel like for me. I have never seen anyone so excited about turning fifty! A couple of days after arriving from Auckland her husband Gregory wisely escaped to the mainland leaving Ahava and I and 16 of her close female friends to honour and celebrate the beginning of this next chapter of her life.
The party was held in Ahava’s yoga and writing studio which stands separate from the house next to a creek and surrounded by gardens. The space has a wood floor that is perfect for dancing, and during the day is flooded with silvery light. On this particular evening the sun was setting as the guests began to arrive. The guests were women that Ahava had met all over North America through her many creative initiatives. They were all ages and came from all walks of life. Some she had danced with. Some she had written with. Some had met her at a performance that she had given. Others had worked with her on choreographing movement pieces. Her oldest friend present was a woman that she had originally moved to British Columbia with many years ago when she was first striking out on her own.
I had been a little bit uncertain about how the evening was going to go since I had not met many of these women. Ahava had asked each of us to come planning to share a little bit about how we had met her and something that we had done together that had impacted our lives in some way. While I thought this all sounded wonderful in theory I was also a little bit uncomfortable with the idea — wasn’t it going to be awkward both for her and for us to sit in a room of people and listen to everyone share what they appreciate about her?
After everyone had arrived we all settled in a circle on the studio floor. Someone pulled out a ball of yarn and Ahava explained that the person with the ball would share how they met her and share something that they had shared together or that she had brought into their life that was meaningful. When that person was done they would hold onto the end of the ball of yarn and toss the ball itself on to someone else in the circle, allowing the yarn to unfurl the distance from one person to the next, effectively weaving a slowly-spun relationship web as the ball was passed from one woman to the next.
Despite the fact that I did not know any of the women in the room when I walked in, from the minute people started sharing it was as if our common bond with Ahava made us all old friends almost instantaneously. I had assumed that that the exercise would yield many new gems about Ahava, but in truth I learned a lot of very intimate things about each and every woman present because as they shared how they had met Ahava or how she had touched their lives they also shared what they did for a living; where they came from; what their passions were; who they had loved; stories of children and parents; work and struggle; triumphs and losses.
We laughed and cried. We sang. We danced. We made collages. We stayed up talking until the wee hours of the morning. And before everyone left we cut our yarn web up and each of us tied a piece of it around our wrist. To remind us of the power of sisterhood. Of friendship. Of the strength that we have access to when we draw on our collective wisdom, determination, focus, creativity, passion, joy, grace and faith.
Right now I am staying at my mother’s house in California preparing to return to Prince Edward Island despite having no sense of where I am going to live or how I am going to support myself once I get there. I have been saying a lot of prayers about it all as well as working very hard at searching for for more stable work to help me re-gain my footing. This past week I received an email from a dear friend letting me know that if I do want to return to PEI she and her husband would love to have me as their guest for the month of April. The kindness of the invitation and the knowledge that she could tell I needed something stable from which to take my first steps out into the world as a single woman again brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. A few days ago another friend sent me a job application. On Monday another friend sent another job listing that matches up perfectly with my skill set.
When I first got back my mother was dealing with having had her home broken into and her jewellery stolen. Fortunately she was not home at the time, and was not injured, but the experience really shook her up. It is very violating to not feel safe in your home. I was relieved to hear that a number of her friends had stepped up and helped reassure and support her through that first week of living alone after the break-in until I arrived.
Last week one of my mother’s close friends fell and broke her foot. Yesterday mom and I headed over to cheer her up with a ridiculous get-well card and a box of Ginger Elizabeth chocolates. She is waiting for a ramp to be built so that she can get out of her house, and is house-bound until that happens. While we were there we helped her to feed her cats since bending over is challenging with only one functional leg.
When my yoga teacher asked us to notice what we are focused on when we feel unsteady I found myself gazing down at the reminder around my wrist, a smile playing on my lips. Circumstances will vary during our lives and across the globe. Sometimes we may lack external stability. Sometimes we may have lost that internal balance. But it does seem that one thing that is universal no matter what we are experiencing in our lives or where we are located on the planet is the common spiritual journey we’re all on together. We have each other. I can think of no greater source of strength and balance than this. And in truth, it leaves me wondering if without a constant and deep awareness of our common connection to draw upon, true balance is even possible?