Everyone who participates in creation, whether as artist or agronomist, learns early on that beginnings are born of endings, and that creativity—and fruitful living—requires both. The acorn must doff its cap before taking root as a tree, and the poet must let go of preconceptions for the poem to ring true and free.
Early Romans took note of this with their god Janus, whose two faces looked both forward and backward at the same time. Carved over many a city gate, the image of Janus served as a reminder that every arrival is also a departure and every going out is, in another sense, a coming in.
In our own times, the spiritual practice of writing can also serve as a reminder, helping us pay attention to the way that comings, goings, endings and beginnings are inextricably hitched, not only on the page, but in the creative act of daily living. This kind of writing invites us to pause mindfully on any threshold we may be crossing, looking forward and looking back, whether it’s a significant passage from one identity to another or the more quotidian movement from one morning to the next.
One way that I encourage this awareness in my own spiritual practice of writing is by starting with the sound of a singing bowl. As I settle in to write, I strike the bowl and let its sound ring through my body and my bones. I listen as the note hovers on the cusp of silence and then slips into it, wholly absorbed. This reminds me how note and noiselessness are related, how much of my life unfolds on a similar cusp between this and that and how every moment is a meeting place between then and yet to come. It prompts me, when I’m writing about what is beginning in my life, to also turn my attention towards what is being left behind and when I’m writing, whether with grief or gladness, about something that is ending, to ask myself what new possibilities are emerging in the space opened by that ending.
Most often, for me, the spiritual practice of writing produces prose, but it also creates a lot of fodder for poetry and, sometimes, whole poems. This poem, written after my mother’s death, was conceived in my writing practice.
How We Carry On, Remembering
The singing bowl rings.
The clear chime grows thin,
one last thread trailing
dangling in the wind.
I cannot tell exactly where it ends.
My listening reaches into
holding your last words
and the bowl’s dimming note.
Silence shimmers clear.
the chime sounds
in bone and breast
and struck anew
since your last breath.
I have come to call this practice of writing “contemplative correspondence,” both because it opens a written correspondence with myself and because it seeks out the correspondence of all things, one to another. This makes it a living practice that bears fruit off the page as well as on. Because it turns out, the more I pay attention to my life in contemplative writing, the more l notice the metaphors embedded in the world around me even when I have no pen in hand. And from those metaphors, I’m often able to draw the encouragement, comfort, hope and sometimes humour that I need to get through some of my more difficult days.
When my mother died after a long terminal illness, the news was no surprise; but when the call came in the middle of the night, my sisters and I packed in haste for the trip home. One sister, travelling across the country, hurriedly threw her knitting in a bag for the long plane ride ahead, and when she pulled it out, she discovered the yarn had become hopelessly tangled.
As we all made our way through the knotted emotions of that week’s grief and exchanges and endless tasks, just about everyone in the family took a turn at trying to untangle the yarn. Sometimes, while we were together talking through things, two or three pairs of hands would gather around the pile of yarn, gently teasing the knots open until the ends could be pulled through and partially freed. We were grateful for the chance to keep our hands busy; but as the days went by it offered us something else as well. We began to joke that the mass of yarn looked a whole like our jumbled emotions and the muddled way everything felt in the wake of our mother’s death. And I noticed that as the yarn’s snarls slowly opened, our grief, which would not disappear for a long time to come, was at least beginning to loosen as well.
By the end of week, after the memorial service and almost as if on cue, the massive knot was fully unravelled and my sister wisely rolled the yarn back into a ball. After she returned home, she finished the socks she’d been knitting from it and sent a picture of them that I now keep side by side with a photo I took of the tangled mass in my parents’ living room.
Now, when I feel the knots inside that often come with grief and mourning, I remember that tangle of yarn. I remember how it took all of us working, together and one by one, to gently coax those knots open over time. And how my sister was then able to use that very same yarn to create something beautiful and warm and useful.
Many wisdom teachings tell us that beginnings are best found by tending closely to what is ending. Perhaps our spiritual practices can help us approach what is ending with more openness and acceptance, so that whatever losses we’re experiencing, we might grow more fully into the new day just beginning, creating something beautiful and warm and useful with the time we have been given.