Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Packing Carefully

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve gone off to a retreat of one sort or another–Gay Spirit Visions’ fall conference in North Carolina, and then, this last weekend, to spend two days in silence with Jesuits an hour west of Toronto.

Leaving home for destinations that encourage mindfulness, I’ve found myself wanting to take along something tangible to help me lay claim to whatever space is mine for a few short days. Somehow, it feels all the more important to nurture a sense of my own spiritual history and identity as I go off to a place that offers the possibility of some transformation.

Never one to weigh myself down in travel by packing more than I need, I’m learning to think small about this as well. For years I’ve had a little zippered pouch of Guatemalan embroidery, about three by five inches, one of several I bought cheaply on impulse, the others long given away as the covering for some other small gift. This one sat on the bookshelf, gathering dust and fading in the sunlight, until it occurred to me that it could accommodate a few small objects, and that its size would discipline me to choose carefully. In it, I can fit a tiny Shiva lingam carved of black stone, given to me by a fellow participant in Body Electric’s Erotic Temple workshop a year and a half ago, who had it in turn from a young gay man who clung to him for two days in Varanasi; a mala I bought on the afternoon of Rathayatra in Toronto five or six summers ago; a Tibetan brass vajra; a tiny hinged icon that a friend found at the shrine of Julian of Norwich; a small roll of fresh prayer flags.

I have no settled practice involving any of these. Some days, I count 108 breaths with the beads of the mala as a meditation. Some mornings, I hold the vajra to my sixth chakra in aspiration for a balance of wisdom and compassion in my life. Very occasionally, I say a short prayer before the icon. Each calls up something about the last six or seven years of my inner life that I need to hold onto, in ways that aren’t always clear even to myself. The flags I usually leave behind, tied into the branches of trees, as a continuation of the prayers I’ve said in the place I’ve visited.

Unpacked, they all fit nicely onto the tiny altar cloth that the pouch becomes when it’s emptied. Arranging them, I have a chance to take stock of how the pieces of my life that they represent relate to one another in the moment. The next time I travel, or the next day, or two hours later, a different arrangement may reflect some changed understanding of who I am and how I relate to these stand-ins for my inner experience and story. Carrying them, I carry home–and a small, adaptable map of my soul–in the palm of my hand.

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