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Essay

Before the Butterfly, the Dark

This is the first year I can remember, ever, when I did not feel angst about the short days, the early darkness. This was the first winter solstice when I wished for more night, when I didn’t want to hurry up the lengthening of the daylight.

I felt deeply calm before the turning point, and now I feel how much is coming and will potentially move through me– career and curiosity, love and friendship– I feel all the waiting, all the expanding energy here in the underground seed of myself, and there’s an itchy longing to jump ahead to when I have cracked open, to skip the scary splitting open part and go to when I know exactly what kind of plant I am, what blossoms I have, what color, what medicinal properties, what qualities, what timing.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt this kind of swelling, this fear of transformative internal pressure: maybe not since I gave birth almost twelve years ago– and before that it might have been another ten years back when I was graduating from high school and stepping out into the world, trying to make the Right Choices about who I was and wanted to be.

I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half dismantling, extricating, sifting, asking myself what is wheat and what is chaff (even if– especially if– I used to call them by the opposite names), first with the pandemic’s invitation to drop my artistic and entrepreneurial identities, and then my habits of partnership, marriage, and home.

For months, I skated, as on new ice, flying fast and trusting instinct and the laws of physics, not dwelling on the idea of how slim the line was between myself and a cold plunge, always moving forward, in spite of or spurred by the crack and boom of the lake under me– and feeling a lot of joy as I did so, as well as wonder and grief and relief and awe.

In the last year I have felt myself holding old and new habits in my palms and weighing each one, often a little stunned that there’s a choice to be made, that I can and must set some down without knowing what will form their places, or what to do with my empty hands in the meantime.

And now it’s a new year, a new winter! And my sweet little butterfly heart is worrying about emerging– of course she is! Because, yes, this is a tipping point, an axis, a landmark. Yes, the days will grow lighter for longer and we will lean into the sun…

And it is still December.

Just as I didn’t tesseract through the last twelve months or take some Candy Land shortcut on the way here, I won’t be transported to a future I don’t feel ready for yet.

This tension feels so reminiscent of how I feared all the coming changes when my son was a baby– crawling, walking, baby proofing, solid foods– and then learned, over and over, that nothing happened instantly. There was always time, it was always subtle before it was sudden. It was a constant transformation, not an instantaneous one.

I’m still underground held in the frost, still contained in the chrysalis, nearly all of myself dissolved to goop, returned to pure energy and potential. It is not time to bloom. It is not time to fly. No one but me is asking me to come out now, shiny and sure of what I am, ASAP.

Maybe the last– or at least the next– thing to dissolve into this primordial ooze of (un)becoming is the fear that It Might Hurt, that I Should Know How to Fix Every Future Problem, Now.

As that anxiety is swallowed up by the magic of Not Knowing, I can turn my awareness back to noticing the gradual, almost imperceptible expansion of light over the landscape, like sun against closed eyelids. I can feel the subtle changes and stop fearing the sudden, because I am present for each shifting moment.

I can be curious, and I can trust that when the time comes to emerge, to reveal myself to myself and others, it will be the easiest thing in the world, the obvious next step that requires no “knowing” beyond feeling. And just as the dawn reaches to knock at my door, at the too-small husk, the now-paper-thin skin that barely contains me, whoever I am — whoever I have always been– will open everything and step forward, slip out with a sigh of contentment, with a homecoming, into the light.

Seal Skin

What have you locked away? What have you stolen from yourself and hidden so that you wouldn’t long for anything wild, anything unknowable from the safety of the shore?

What do you know and what have you always wanted without explanation? It’s there– very close. Waiting for you to breathe air into its lungs. Waiting for you to run into the water and swim down, down, down without worrying about how you’ll get back to the surface.

You know what you know.

You don’t have to “show your work.” Plants don’t show their roots, and the ocean keeps her creatures below the horizon line.

You don’t have to explain anything to anybody– not even yourself.

Explanation and Story are not Proof. They are vehicles for Knowing– viewfinders that create a frame, a beginning, middle, and end. But they aren’t the Knowing.


What do you Know? What do you already know? What have you always known?

Open the locked box, lift that Truth out, and slip it on.

See how it fits, perfectly.

Invitation

All the old fears gather around the table. Some of them are defiant, daring me to say something. Some only look down, trying the old trick of being invisible by not seeing themselves.

There are so many here that I look around– we look around– who is the hostess? Who is the Grown Up, anyway?

Silence. Eyes meet across the table.

But surely someone… someone must know what’s actually going on here? The right way to do it? The way to be Good, or at least Better?

More silence, and then– the scraping of a chair. One by one– all at once– we sit down to eat.

Closing the Summer Market

I’m being cozy with myself. Curious, and gentle. Quiet, on this day without work or much for obligations.

I dropped my son off at school. (He was wearing a double-breasted coat, gray wool with a brilliant fuscia lining. It was a lost-and-found offering from a friend. I love that he loves it, and that I am able, in spite of all my acculturation, to let it be irrelevant that the coat was designed, tailored, and sold with a female market in mind, not a nearly 12-year-old boy).

I’m wearing a mismatch of clothes myself– only half-changed out of pajamas for the two mile drive into town and back. Clothes are a funny thing– so expressive and particular and important, and so absolutely not at the same time.

I made some tea– a pastel rainbow palette grown in Wisconsin that I’d forgotten I had. I drew, but digitally, and yet it still felt present and connected. I answered an email– and thought about the ways to say “no” that are both true and likely not to be interpreted as unkind by the recipient. I was asked to sing for a local event, and didn’t want to in the least! Not because it’s not a good cause, but just because I don’t want to.

I don’t want to do the work– and I don’t want it to be work. I made my income out of creative pursuits for almost twenty years, and I’m glad I did, and, when I’m not afraid I’ll be punished by some petulant diety for it, I don’t want to anymore– or, rather, I don’t want to right now.

I want to prod, as with a stick in dirt, not push as with a plow through a field.
I want to scatter seeds just by walking through the tall grass and the trees, not plan and plant straight rows of things to harvest, preserve, hawk.

That’s not to say being a “working artist” is only that: selling your wares. But it looks like that right now, and I don’t want to set up a stall in the village square and wait to see who wants what I’m selling.

I’m not actually resentful of the market. The resentment is wanting, despite how right I feel living my life a different way right now, to want to go to market. Because I haven’t reconciled that I wanted something before, and now I want something else.

Neither wanting is more right (or less right) than the other. Summer’s not more right than Winter– and I like both… and I’d choose Summer every time.

Isn’t it good that I don’t have a choice? That I don’t get to decide everything? That the way I want to live my life means I get to practice loving something as it is, something that I would not pick?

The next thing to learn is this: I’m not “making it through” Winter so that I can be better at Summer when Summer returns. I’m not “making it through” what Shopkeeper Rose might label as a dry spell, a period of contrariness, a time out, in order to have more exciting wares to bring to market when I re-emerge.

Because there is no such thing as “re-emerging.” There is no disappearing. There’s just a common way of noticing we’ve been told is the only way, and it is about crops and yeilds and profit margins and hours of daylight and wordcount and bank balances.

But if I don’t push, if I don’t resist, if I am Here… There’s the truth, and telling it or not. It’s the law that extends through everything, Summer and Winter alike.

Only

You are the only one– always.

Not in sadness or despair, but in strength.

In proof of living.

In the next step and the next.

There is no one else but you, here in the center of things.

Every ripple outward creates worlds.

Sing your song, hold your silence, put your feet on the earth.

This life– all of it– is here for– because of– you.

River

I wanted to believe I’d be married forever, for my whole life, for all the lifetimes to come– because that made it feel like God exists: here is a perfect thing, blemished, yes, but a perfect match.

I thought marriage meant an understanding that fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, carved just so, our edges matching each other’s with uncanny precision that felt like being held.

But it is a too-small idea of the Divine as One Thing Forever.

In art and creation and dreaming, the first idea is the doorway. And the next is another doorway, and the next is the next. It doesn’t stop. There is always transformation, movement, the changing of shape and the shedding of skin.

Why tell a story that we failed because we no longer fit together? Why not, instead, see the beautiful way each of us were worn smooth by the friction of the other?

Because we were never two die-cut pieces. We were close, as rocks from a common, ancient source, or two trees growing so near they shape themselves in constant accomodation.

I want to know who I am in full sunlight, in spacious soil, but it would be repeating the old prayer to believe there won’t be grit in the seams, that the boards won’t warp, that the wind won’t shape me, shave me into my next rendition of the truth.

All the curling tendrils of wood, the dusting of sand, the ash in the wind– I– we– this– changed and changed and changed over time. I felt it, I knew it, but now I am standing at a distance, watching from a height: I thought I had one shape, an old remembering of myself and my dreams, and now it is irrevocable: I am a different animal, I am never fitting back into that old nook, which has not even existed as I have pictured it in years and years, any more than a river is the same for more than a second.

What, then, is love? What is partnership? It seems to be the bravest thing: I solemnly swear to be honest, to show myself in every shape, to the whole world, including you. To swear and to know that the truth brings both joy and tragedy, new life as well as death.

I would like to be honest. To say, yes, this will hurt, but it will hurt no matter what, eyes closed or open. And I like to see the look of recognition on your face as you feel what it is to be yourself.

It feels like standing in a river, the water pushing at my knees, intent on nothing but movement, union. It feels like keeping my footing, staying upright, to not build a dam, to not say, love me just like this and let us never, never change.

Here is the river, and here am I. If I let it, it will carry all my heavy longings downstream and away.

The Gift of Cold + Warmth

What is the point of a friendship, of any relationship?

I walked behind– and sometimes in front of– my dad today on the Cascade, thinking equally about how I should’ve kept one more layer on, and about this. And here’s my answer in this moment:

We want to know just how far we have to care, how much we may need to give, how to ration energy, attention, love.

Energy and attention may be finite, but love is not. I can love anyone, anywhere. Space and time and requital are irrelevant.

We want to say, You are mine and I am yours to make God smaller. To make God fit inside a church, a ring, a person, a shared schedule, a mortgaged house.

But God, which is to say, love and truth and alignment and Now, is also in the emptiness, is also in the Nothing, the boredom, the sadness, the ache. She seems especially so, because that is when we catch our breath as when stepping out into the cold: we pay attention.

If I am not afraid of the ache, of the echoes of my own thoughts inside my skull, the rippling vibrations of emotions in my body, then how do I love? And why should I name it?

A name is just another ring, a set of documents and insurance policies. It is making the infinite linear, pinned like a sphinx moth on styrofoam.

I walked, and the trees were present. The icicles were real. The cold shifted as the wind wended its way through the canyon. That’s love, what was passed back and forth between us. I couldn’t hold any of it in a basket, no matter how big.

It’s the same with people, and yet– we crave the burrow, the mate, the cache of food to carry us through winter. I think, then, that the dearest love is the gentleness of my large, wild self to my small and forgetful one. Maybe relationship is the same with others, too: compassion, presence, grace– and when we have underdressed or the night is very cold, of bodies close together: the gift of warmth.

The First Pancake

This Swedish Pancake recipe was on our fridge (on yellow legal paper) my entire childhood– so that if we had a babysitter Saturday night we could still have our usual supper.

I remember my mom’s note:

The first one is always poorly.

Too greasy (or, in today’s case, too dry) so we gave it to the dog.

I think this reminder applies to more than just pancakes. Don’t be discouraged, keep going. Lacy edges and winter-pale delights are minutes away.

What is Magic?

photo by John David Dela-Peri

What is Magic?

It is fierceness and generosity. It is one hundred children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym. It is six children in the corner of the library.

For me, Magic is Story. Or, Story is the vehicle I know how to navigate.

Magic is a feeling, an energy. There is mystery to it: I don’t know what will show up. Right now, I don’t know what I will say, though I feel many pressing, urgent things.

 

Magic is the sound of gold coins in a bowl, paying the fine for stealing a whiff of bread.

Magic is the cloak of the storyteller who clothes the naked truth so that the villagers can stand the sight of him and hear the wisdom he has to share.

Magic is a woven basket, the white necklace of the loon, the way pussy willows look like cat paws.

 

Magic is the connection, the unseeable, the divine. It is what makes us not feel we are alone. It is a lineage, an inheritance, an ancestry. It is the future, it is visions, it is dreams.

Where does it come from? Or, do we come from it? Are we the props, the puppets, the shadows on the wall as Magic tells itself a story about life?

 

I have always wanted to know what is Beyond. Where do children come from? Who are we before we exist and have mortal memories? Where is the doorway to Narnia? What must I learn to be able to speak the language of animals? How does cardamom raise the spirits of my long-dead relatives and transport me across oceans and centuries? How do plants grow?

 

Curiosity must be Magic’s lover, then. He would be a good one; attentive, delighted, asking questions that expand, unfold, reveal. I think this is my job, and I hope it is everyone’s job: to be the companion and lover to Magic. To ask the questions. To squint and sniff and listen for the answers, the clues, the hints, to go on that wild goose chase and in the process discover that not only can we fly but we are also swans.

That, yes, there are castles in the air, the stars can talk (and they do care about us), and all troubles and seemingly wasted journeys are, in fact, taking us home. Home to ourselves. Home to the Magic. Home to the beginning of everything, changed, sloughed smooth, worn by time, deepened, opened, made whole by being broken open.

 

This is my wish: to go where Magic calls me. To make my marks along the way so that others may take comfort, trust the compasses within their heart, and carry on.

I will see you there, on the journey, through the door, on the other side, back where it all begins again.