Awakening Persephone

No one notified me that the tall, slender, young tulip poplar trees outside my balcony were going to be cut down and turned into mulch right in front of my eyes.20170328_165312

I left for work agitated that the apartment complex hired a company to dismantle the tiny woodlands on my hillside in order to widen the mountain views for the tenants on the upper floors.  I did not realize the devastation left behind until later that night.  I walked my dog behind those very apartments where I like to catch glimpses of the moon and the few lights on top of the mountains, but mostly because I feel protected by and connected to these elegant, tall trees.

 

They were cut down in their youth, right as they were taking root and finding their place on this hillside.  Tenderness and sadness swam in the depths of my heart.  A soft whimper escaped my lips and tears fell from my eyes.

In that moment, I felt a shift.  A transformation snaking its way up through my spine into my heart.  A calling to go deeper into the reasons I felt called to these mountains.  My pain was directly connected to this landscape in front of my eyes.

20170330_195049

For the past few weeks, I have been dancing between flirtations and fun at work, sensual movements in yoga practices and classes I teach, and joy and lightness at my easy work and life schedule. I have been ignoring the whisperings of past hurt, resentment, and regrets I thought I had left behind.  I pushed away the worries of money and not having a definitive career.  I threw myself into hikes and flowed with the directionless winds of my life.  Yet, I also sensed that I would have to face the darkness and shadows I had carried with me to these grandmotherly mountains.

Then, a series of uncomfortable events happened in a few short days that came out of nowhere like the razing of the trees.  I felt vulnerable.  Naked.  Exposed.  There was no way I couldn’t look down the hill and see the dark soil, ripped up roots, mulched trees and their stumps, and the litter and waste left by careless tenants.  There was no way I couldn’t see my own pain and sadness.  Nowhere left to look but down.

And so down into the depths I travel.

Before me stands my 22 year old self.  She is beautiful with soft, olive-complected skin, long brown hair.  Her mouth is thin, but when she smiles, her straight white teeth highlight her lips’ natural red glow.  Staring out from under her jet black eyebrows are dark, liquid, brown eyes that look out at the world with wide eyed innocence.

She has graduated college and walked straight into her career as a teacher.  No break.  No gap year.  No time to explore and discover herself.  She is on a mission to share her natural gifts with other young, innocent children not more than 4 years younger than her.

As she is coming into her womanhood, she is fending off advances from 18 year old men that she finds attractive.  She is confused, so she builds up a wall around her sexiness, her sensuality, and steps up her authority figure identity.

The following year, a 35 year old male colleague begins paying attention to her.  He is attractive.  He seems concerned for her well-being and is interested in her life and what brought her to the big city of St. Louis.  He then begins showing up at her classroom in between passing periods, flirts with her in the hallway, and sits too closely to her at faculty meetings.  She begins to get uncomfortable because he is married, his wife recently giving birth to twin sons.  She is confused because she likes the attention, yet scared because she worries he will one day cross the line.  And he does.  He tricks and manipulates her by inviting her to a happy hour with other colleagues.

In the end, he was the only one there with her.  He takes off his wedding ring and says provocative things to her.  She is angry, both at him and herself.  She feels dirty and ashamed, and ashamed at the fact that she thinks she used her power to make him attracted to her.  He threatens that if she doesn’t invite him back to her apartment, he will follow her and show up unannounced one day.

After he walks into her apartment, he grabs her and kisses her.  She kisses him with anger.  He is more attracted to her because he thinks its a sign she wants him.  She regains her senses and asks him to leave.  He has a moment of guilt and stops groping her.  He then begs her for sex.  She refuses with a whimper.  He asks her to give him a blow job.  She refuses with logical reasoning.  He realizes she is not going to give anything to him, and instead of taking her by force, he lashes out his violence with words and calls her a slut and a whore and a cock tease.  He begs one last time for a little kiss.  She closes the door on him.  And she locks down her heart, and closes the door on her body, her sexiness, her sensuality.

And the years go on in that way.  She placates the women in her teaching circle by going out with their sons or sons of their acquaintances, yet she locks her passion and humor and sensuality and sexiness down at any hint of rejection or criticism from these young men.  She fends off single male colleague’s advances because of her past experiences.  She listens to her students when they come to her privately with their concerns of boyfriends wanting to have sex with them or offers advice to or gets help for young girls struggling with weight issues or cutting themselves or attempting suicide due to emotional or physical abuse by their fathers, step-fathers, or boyfriends.  She holds a space for the transgender teen who is mid transition and so confused and in need of love and acceptance.  She turns in a colleague for her inappropriate bulletin boards that have overt sexual references on them.  She fends off single fathers’ advances to take the parent-teacher conference out of the classroom and to dinner at a fancy restaurant and maybe a little dessert back at their places.

All the while, she continues to offer her teachings and protection as she sacrifices a little bit more of her youth and locks down her sexiness, her sensuality, her passion, her creativity and gives her whole heart and mind to her students, their youth, their education, their advancement.

I fall to my knees and bow down in front of this beautiful, young, warrior woman.

And I owe it to her to stand up and walk into my sexiness, my sensuality, my passion, my creativity.  For it is all holy and she has protected all of it for this ripe, tender time when it can come from the depths of the damp, dark, mysterious earth and meet the light.  And blossom.  And grow like the cherry blossoms and forsythia that line the ragged hillside, acting like monuments to the fallen tulip poplars.   And twist and turn like the vines and twisted limbs of the laurel trees on the mountainside.  And flow like the streams.  And shimmer like the glistening dew on the tips of the clustered ferns.  And take up space in crevices of boulders and on top of the rich humus like the lush green moss.  All of this is her home.  And I have returned it back to her by coming here.

The warrior is now a goddess.  And she will walk this earth and give of her sexiness, her sensuality, her passion, her playfulness, her creativity, her love.  Because she is holy.

 

20170330_195237

 

The Menstruation Manifesto

It’s Personal.

The wait in the gynecologist’s office was longer than the process of having my IUD removed.  While I waited, however, I did get to examine my vagina and my internal reproductive organs quite thoroughly.  “What kind of mirror do they have in that exam room?!” you ask?  Well, I confess I carefully studied the poster version of what my vagina, uterus, and ovaries medically look like.  (By the way, did you know vaginas have ridges?  I feel more enlightened now that I know other things besides potato chips have ridges.)

img_3152As I stared at the poster on the back of the examining room door, I couldn’t help but wonder if all of that area inside me is truly the colors of Pepto Bismol and purple SweetTarts.  A concoction of pinks and purples and whites housed in a sterile environment where no mess of blood, hormones, mucus, fatty tissue, or water float around.  And, if the poster is accurate, then all women should have 10-15 wisps of pubic hairs around their genitalia; and that hair would be short, soft, and smooth and brownish-blonde, not a Brillo pad of “little, black. . .little, black. . .little, black, curly hairs.”

The female gynecologist and her nurse came in.  She asked me to lean back and put my feet in the stirrups as the pink paper cloth covered my nakedness from the waist down.  I felt the metal clamp open up my cervix and a slight cramp seize my lower abdomen.  The doctor looked up and threw the tiny “T” shaped piece of plastic and black thread into the trash.  “All done,” she said.  She peeled off her latex gloves, tossed them into the trash, and stood up.  I sat up and took a deep breath.  I felt slightly different, but not too much.  I got the entire lecture of using condoms and protecting myself from STDs.  She reminded me that I probably would start bleeding in a few days, so I should purchase some tampons and pads.  Right as I asked for a small “maxi pad” (an outdated term showing I haven’t had a period in years), the nurse opened the cabinet on cue and handed me the neatly packaged in pink period pad.  I thanked them both and dressed myself (noting that the blood was already trickling out of my poster-perfect pelvic region).

A few months prior to this visit, I had my annual gynecological exam at this office by the same doctor and nurse.  When I mentioned that I wanted to have my IUD, the doctor looked questioningly at me.  “Are you trying to get pregnant?” she asked after a short pause.

“No, I just want it removed,” I replied.

“Huh.  Why?” she asked as she reviewed her clipboard with my medical history attached to it.

“I just want to feel where I’m at in my body.  In my menstrual cycle,”  I explained.  “I want my period back.  It’s been gone for 3 years and I just am curious and want to see how I’m doing,” I rambled on and on like this while their silence filled the room.

“You want your period back!” she exclaimed.  “You’re crazy!  I never want to experience that again.”

I blushed, not out of embarrassment, but out of anger.  I didn’t want to explain or justify myself, but here I was doing just that.  I resorted to my defense mechanism of humor and laughed and said, “I just want to be able to use the 30 Rock Liz Lemon excuse ‘Oh, no, my period!’ whenever I am feeling emotional or stressed out.”  Chuckles filled the room and their attention was diverted.

imgres-1

I get their response, though.  The period is 100% an inconvenience most of the time.  It is bloody, messy, and painful when your cramps amp up and you have a headache.  When you have to go through two tampons in two hours or you use almost a whole roll of toilet paper just to feel “clean.” Or when you spend more time in the bathroom at a restaurant, you want to die a million deaths.  Achy breasts and emotional waves of sadness and anger can be painful both physically and psychologically.  And the cost of an environmentally friendly box of tampons or panty liners can put a dent in your pocketbook. (I guess environmentally friendly feminine products are the new trend along with gluten free and non GMOs in food.  Toxic shock syndrome aside,you want to make sure the sewer water isn’t polluted by your blood, right?)

After declining on my first visit to allow a male student resident to examine me (and feeling guilty while Doogie Howser bumbled through the preliminary exam questions), I began to realize that our healthcare system favors the rote questioning and sterile treatment of patients.  I noted some practitioners don’t listen to our basic needs or see us as individuals.  If I was indirectly being shamed for wanting to feel my body and its flow again, how must other women feel when they want to have their tubes tied, ask for contraception, learn they have an STD, or have a doctor jam his finger up her anus while he presses on her stomach to check for ovarian cysts all the while telling her to calm down and that it’s not as bad as a prostate exam? (True story.)

For me, my body is an amazing vessel and a wise teacher.  It teaches me about pain, about where my emotions are stuck, where I am holding my breath and why, and it allows me to feel pleasure and joy among many other things. (Oh yeah, and it allows me to justify to eat lots and lots of carbs and sweets whenever I feel ravenous and drained of energy.)  My menstrual cycle has always given me guidance and allowed me to tap into my intuition and sync my actions with the phases of this ancient cycle that has been in sync with the moon for most of my womanhood.  Why, then, must I try to justify what is a personal decision to listen to my body’s wisdom?

It’s Political.

The answer to the above question is that I have to fight to protect my body.  My body bleeds for me, literally.  It is my duty as a woman to take care of it and to protect its wisdom and its daily functions.  When I showed up for my annual gynecological exam a few months ago, I presented my insurance card.  Insurance that I am paying for through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  I am not ashamed that I have chosen to use the ACA as a way to insure myself and be able to afford (and that’s the big word – afford) to be able to have my lady parts examined for optimal health.

But “The Man” is trying to keep me down.  (To keep us all down, honestly.)  Even before reproductive rights became a legal issue, with Roe v. Wade being at the forefront of that debate, women’s inner plumbing was a “hush hush” topic.  Deemed impolite and improper to talk about not only in mixed company but also between mothers and daughters and women and their friends.  Don’t believe me?  Ask your mother or her grandmother if they ever had  necessary, in-depth discussions about puberty, menstruation, hygiene, sexually transmitted diseases, sexuality, childbirth, abortion, or (God forbid) orgasms.

It’s 2017 and some of the taboos on those topics have been lifted.  Yet, we are a nation wrapped up in a patriarchal system who still clings to outdated Puritanical undertones of wanting to repress women (including transgendered men and women) and strip away rights to their own bodies.  Want affordable healthcare so you can get screened for breast cancer and ovarian cysts?  Sorry.  You’re a bottom-feeder who is trying to strip away taxpayer’s money.  Need to have a hysterectomy and go on hormone replacement therapy?  Well, it will cost you.  Lots. And we will judge you for being “less of a woman” too.  Want to go to Planned Parenthood for education on safe sex or affordable gynecological exams to ensure you are not living with the HPV virus?  Sorry.  You’re a baby-killer and you should go straight to Hell, and do NOT pass “Go” (because it would fall on the taxpayer to get your ass out of jail or keep you in there, anyway).

But:  want to keep your penis up and going all night long?  Sure.  Here are some pills and tons of commercials to make you purchase these magic beans.  And, your health insurance will cover that, so no worries.  Just check and make sure your heart is up for the ride.  (We have pills for that, too, by the way.  Just ask your doctor.)

The fact that we feed into this divide by supporting either “Republicans” or “Democrats” on issues of sexuality, reproductive health, and gender stereotypes (to name a few), shows how we are looking at the issues from a divided mind.  We cheer on our political “team” and boo “the opposition” and we demonize the acts and consequences of sex and pretend that the complications of being human and engaging our sexuality and using our bodies can be regulated only by state and federal law.

Rape, abuse, and abortion happen.  Frequently.  We cannot deny it and we should have open discussions about this, not just in Congress where one party is fighting the other party for political power and aligning themselves with either alt-right religious zealots or ultra-liberal elitists, or PACs and lobbyists, all who can be equally as intolerant and self-serving.  Instead we should have these conversations in our circle of friends and within our families and communities.  And although this blog is a digital medium I willfully use it the way I want to, online discussions and news clips on Facebook statuses only go so far as well.

img_3572To be a woman in this body which has the potential to hold life and invite in a man to her fullest depths is so hard and so scary and so intimidating at times.  I can’t think of a time when I haven’t felt vulnerable carrying around my sexuality or my sensuality.  I have stories, as I know most women in my circle do too, where I have been violated or humiliated.  Or made to feel somewhat criminal or unethical for supporting abortion (which I cannot stress enough is a personal and moral decision that can only  be made by the one whose body is experiencing her individual journey through this life).  I have guilt and shame wrapped around the idea that touching my body when I am alone in my own home is gross and ugly and debasing and somehow just wrong and proves that I am a lonely old spinster who can’t get a man to do it for her and make her feel complete.

I’ll be damned (and I’ll not pass “Go” and I’ll not collect $200) if I sit back these next four years (for the rest of my life, actually) and allow decisions to be made about the bodies of the other half of the human equation without my voice being heard.

And if we’re lucky, maybe Morgan Freeman, as the “voice of God,” will call from the heavens that Viagra and Cialis are no longer covered by insurance companies.

It’s Spiritual.

Long before my body was part of a political agenda, I inhabited it fully with the innocence and knowing of a child.   I swiveled my hips in the kitchen of my childhood home while I listened to Michael Jackson (and then later Janet Jackson and Madonna) and knew instinctively where the beat would drop at the same time one of my hips and shoulders dropped too.  The beat was inside of me – resonating all through my feet, hips, heart, hands, shoulders, and head.  When I danced, I felt connected to a greater realm that went beyond the four walls of my house.

Somewhere along the way, people (some family members, teachers, preachers, and creepy peepers in the form of neighbors) told me to stop shaking my hips and acting “sexy”.  I didn’t understand what that meant.  I was dancing out of a sense of joy and pleasure.  I felt so connected to my body.  And I felt powerful and strong and alive.  How was that bad?  But, over the years I hid that part of myself and it translated into hiding my beauty, my sensuality, and eventually  being afraid to fully express myself sexually.  Yoga returned some of that life back into me, as did therapy, burlesque and belly dance dance classes, along with sheer will and determination.  And all of that led me to this place in my life where I dropped the school marm act and stepped more deeply into my wildness.

In this day and age, we have become too domesticated.  We have put ourselves on mental and emotional leashes and tried to turn everything and everyone around us into a more docile or subservient form of the truth.  We walk around with jaws clenched and take shallow breaths.  Our shoulders and necks ache.  We turn to our phones and check to see if the latest statuses on our social media either correspond with our ways of thinking or evoke any forms of emotions in us so we can click “like” or “love” or “laugh” or occasionally “sad” or “angry”.

And we ignore and shun the seat of our creativity – our hips, pelvis, low back area – and we become achy, stiff, tight, and wobbly.  True, some of the physical pain is straight up gravity and DNA.  We also have to take into account our modern way of living.  But underneath all of that, our emotions are trapped and our joys are blocked.  We believe that sensual pleasure is a dirty term.  We equate sensuality with pornography and romance, when what it really means is engaging all of the senses to experience the world we live in.  Our senses and our emotions, just like our bodies, are our wisest and most ancient teachers.

However, in today’s world, these three entities (emotions, senses, and our bodies) are put into boxes, analyzed, examined, and ruled over.  The mind-body-spirit connection is “poo-pooed” in some circles of society as being “metaphysical mumbo-jumbo” or just for “weird hippies” and “alternative thinkers”.  So, we close up our bodies, our hearts, our minds and subject them to domesticity and a linear way of being.  Yet, our hips cry out to be expressive.  Our desires ask to be heard.  The drums of our inner selves beat incessantly and we turn up the chatter on the news to drown it all out or give into our fears that the risk to be joyful, wild, playful beings is not worth it.

This is why I returned my body to its most natural state to let it be fully heard.  If I’m lucky, I will have a choice to get contraceptives again if I so desire.  But right now, I desire more to tune into that part of me that knows the flow like that of the creeks and the ancient rivers.

My period is a monthly reminder that “This too shall pass.” That I have another cycle of emotions, regeneration, growth, and daily deaths to pass through where I wax and wane and move and flow through my life.

I once read a passage by the scholar and philosopher, John O’Donahue, where he writes “The body is in the soul.”  What a beautiful concept.  It resonates so deeply with me.  How can I be “unholy” when I physically live within my soul’s realm?  How can my emotions, my sensuality, my sexuality, my personal expression of my outer and inner worlds be regulated by unjust laws and regulations and cruel judgments placed on me by some extreme lawmakers and their constituents who use religion as a way to control the spirituality that I wake up into every day of my life?

We put way too much emphasis on the biological aspect of giving birth to a human, or what constitutes a human being and when, instead of making space for all of the women and men who can harness the powerful, nurturing Divine Feminine within themselves and give birth to their own creative, individual lives by following the innocence and knowing of their heart’s desires.  We travel through this life in our own physical vehicle that either has a penis or a vagina (or in the case of transgender people who have had the unique experience of traveling in both types of bodies).  The body is in our soul’s field of play and consciousness.

For me, my soul does not play and create  in the field of mythology where my body came from the rib of a man to give him comfort and pleasure.  Nor did it arise out of a temptation to convince him to sin and be expelled from a paradise or be shunned by an angry and vengeful god.  It did not arise from a woman who gave birth to two sons who were so divisive that one murdered the other out of blind rage and then started a race of exiled beings who had to spend the rest of their lives punishing themselves and each other; sacrificing their sons or their flocks or cutting flesh from their genitals to appease a god who demanded their repentance through constant sacrifices, war, and death and only spoke to chosen men through visions or burning bushes.

imagesInsteadimgres-2, my soul plays and creates in the realm of dreams and wilderness where creek beds turn into mountain streams; where soft, lush moss grows on ancient stones mixed with quartz, mica, hematite, and garnet.  Where ferns gather around the tall oaks, maples, and hickories and listen as the birds sing their unique and fleeting songs.  Where mushrooms grow from the decay of life that once was and their underworld of dark rich humus and beneficial bacteria help trees send messages to their sisters and brothers miles away.  Where visions of goddesses and stags, crones and ravens roam this wilderness and whisper their words of encouragement while lighting my path as I come out of the grogginess of a deep sleep.  Where I shed my fears and insecurities and step fully into not just my womanhood but my being with human skin.

Endings and Beginnings

One of my managers asked me the other day what are some of the differences between my old job as a teacher and my new job as a crew member at Trader Joe’s.  I stared at her for a little too long, bags of salad in my hand and boxes at my feet. My brow furrowed into a questioning look.  I searched for the right words that wouldn’t come out as smarmy or cliched.  Nothing is the same.  And that’s the whole reason I’m here.  It is like comparing apples to oranges (oops, I used a cliche).  Except I never received the round, shiny apple from an overly enthusiastic student hungry for knowledge at the beginning of a beautiful school day and the oranges here are in bags, stacked neatly in a bin waiting to be grabbed by hungry, overly enthusiastic customers.

I gave her some lame answers about not having to think, plan, or scheme ahead and deal with any teenage drama or angry parents.  I mentioned how nice it is to not have to think about work or take anything home with me nor work late hours at home to get ready for the next day.  She smiled.  She is kind.  She was reaching out to me and trying to connect with me and build rapport.  I was grateful for her attempt, but I had to fight back tears in the middle of the produce aisle.

The rest of that day I was a bit rattled.  I heard myself telling customer after customer that I “used to be a high school English teacher” whenever I was engaging in small talk and sharing the reason why I moved out here three months ago.  I couldn’t give myself a new title of “writer” or any other creative moniker that distanced me from what I used to be.  I haven’t fully untangled my mind from identifying as a high school teacher.  I have not accepted that part of me is dead.  Grief is settling in and it is manifesting in awkward places like when I am ringing up customers, eating my salad in the break room, or dipping up soup and slices of grilled cheese sandwiches in the demo kitchen.

My workdays are spent in pure physical labor tasks where my body is engaged and developing muscle memory.  My mind is focused solely on the task at hand.  It is only when I am prompted by a coworker to talk about my old job that I begin to let some of the old memories materialize into hazy mental images that have been tucked away in some hidden corner of my mind.  I am surprised by how little memory I have of teaching after 18 years of the career.  It worries me.  I question if I have completely erased that part of my life.  On break, I check my phone and see that I have two emails from former exchange students who are back in their home countries.  They ask how school is going for me.  They do not know what my new life is like, and they still have me locked in their memory as their English teacher who shared with them her passion for American literature and writing.  Somewhere across the globe and in small pockets of the United States are young people who know me as only “Ms. Hoelscher” and either love me or hate me or remember to put a comma or a period in a certain place when writing an email because of my attention to grammar on their essays.  I was once a high school English teacher.  But what am I now that I have no one sitting in a classroom with me for fifty five minutes a day, five days a week for 180 days out of the year?

One afternoon, a coworker grabbed my box cutter out of my hand while I was stocking shelves and began to chastise me by saying, “Never, ever, ever. . .” Then she realized my safety was on and that I am left handed and have a left handed box cutter so my actions look “off” to her.  I stood there and smiled and listened to her apologize as she handed me back my cutter.  I went back to work knowing she was just trying to give me a veteran tip and help me adjust to my new job.  A few minutes later, however, tears pooled up in the corners of my eyes and a sense of embarrassment and shame flooded over me.  I wondered if this is how my students felt whenever I was harsh with them.

Another day I gave a break to a coworker who was working the demo kitchen area.  She is very good at her job and did a great job training me on how to run a smooth kitchen the week before.  She worried that I would be too overwhelmed for the 10 minutes she needed to use the restroom and eat a snack.  I listened as she fussed and  went over the small details on how to ladle the soup into the cup and put the grilled cheese slice on the plate.  I nodded and smiled as she reminded me to fill up the cider sample cups and be friendly to customers.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was an easy job in comparison to dealing with 100 teenagers a day, tolerating the loud noise in the hallways before and after school and during passing periods,working 12 hour days, mentoring emotionally conflicted students, calling parents and taking work home, staying after school for an extracurricular assignment, grabbing copies out of the run down copy machine while grabbing a snack, peeing before the five minute bell was up, answering random questions in the hallway, rushing to the classroom and beginning my lesson, and also managing bad behaviors and technical difficulties while still managing to teach a complex lesson on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” in under 55 minutes.  I can handle 10 minutes of ladling soup into a disposable cup, placing a piece of grilled cheese on a paper plate, and smiling at customers as they wait patiently for free food.

Thankfully, I have moved away from feeling shell-shocked and fearful on a regular basis like I did in late July and early August.  I am only now coming to terms with the fact that my old life is dead and gone and will never return to me.  Pain is settling in and manifesting in places like my neck, jaw, shoulders, and upper arms.  I’m sure the lifting of heavy boxes and scanning and bagging people’s groceries are the physical cause of this outer layer of pain.  Whenever I find myself talking about my former life or reliving memories (good and bad), I feel my body shifting to this protective mode so I don’t start crying while I sweep up spilled tomatoes and onion skins off the floor around the vegetable and fruit bins.

I realized that my attachment to my old identity was a way to protect myself from feeling lost in this new skin I am starting to grow.  I have no idea what to call myself when people outside of work ask me what I do.  And I find myself feeling sad when customers find out I’ve lived here only 3 months and ask what did I do before I came here.  I am stuck.  Am I a writer?  Am I a former English teacher who is on sabbatical?  Am I a yoga teacher?  Am I an artist/creative person?  Am I a crew member at Trader Joe’s?  Am I a dead beat (as one customer asked one of my managers when they asked about his former life)?  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  All of these questions swirl around me as I walk my dog down Weaverville’s Main Street or scan a box of Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s and cauliflower rice and cases of wine.

img_3060On Halloween, we were encouraged to dress up for work.  I didn’t have a costume until the last minute when I decided it would be fun to follow the traditions of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and use humor and love to commemorate my old self.  I dressed up as a zombie English teacher, complete with a bruised apple, composition notebook, and a Great Gatsby bag as accessories.  I let her come out and play and be seen.  I remembered her and remembered how good she was at her job.  How she created solid and creative lesson plans and adjusted them according to her students’ various levels and needs.  How she listened as a student came to her crying about her boyfriend and her fears of becoming pregnant.  How she was yelled at numerous times by frustrated students and angry parents and stood her ground and took the verbals hits and then went home and licked her wounds and ate ice cream in front of the TV.  I remembered how she once farted in front of a class of 30 sophomores and ran out of the room straight to the restroom to discover she had food poisoning from the Mexican restaurant she ate at the night before.  Then, she came back to class and taught like nothing had happened and finished her day running to the restroom between the five minute bell periods.

I loved her.  I still do.  I am just not her anymore.

The next day, I decided to put her to rest and give her a beautiful ceremony up in the mountains in a tiny alcove of rhododendrons and Mountain Ash berries. I had bought a bouquet of marigolds, sunflowers, rosemary sprigs, and yellow and purple flowers.  I brought it with me on my drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway up to Craggy Gardens, an elevation of over 5,000 feet.

fullsizerender

In front of me was a semi-private dead end trail, no more than 20 feet away from the parking lot.  There was a circular clearing.  I spread out the flowers in a mandala.  I said a prayer and thanked Ms. English Teacher for all the years of protection and lessons learned along the way. I sat down and closed my eyes and silently asked myself, “What needs to die and be released?”  After a few moments, memories that had been stuck inside of me and that I was having troubles recalling, came flooding forth in a stream of chronological order:  from my first days as a student teacher, to my first year as a teacher with her own classroom at a local junior high school, all the way to the old Belleville West campus to the new one right up to the day of my last goodbyes.  It was like watching a slide show or a movie where my life flashed before me.

fullsizerender

fullsizerender

I would gladly share all of those memories, but they are enough to write a book.  And who knows?  Maybe one day I will.  The more important thing is that a wave of bittersweet memories and a twinge of melancholy flooded through my mind and body and came out in the form of silent tears.  I cried so much that my lungs heaved and snot dripped out of my nose.  I wiped away the tears (and the snot. . .sorry grass) and inhaled deeply and exhaled out of my mouth while my chest shook.  Something inside of me had broken and released and all of that tension and pain I had felt for weeks in my jaw, arms, shoulders, neck, and chest dissipated.  I could finally breathe in the fresh mountain air and I took it in small gasps until I finally settled into a steady and calm rhythm.

I wiped away a few more tears, straightened my spine, and then asked myself, “What needs to be born inside of me?”  Hints of the creative self and the written word came to me.  Time in nature and a deep connection to the trees, plants, animals of my youth and the ones in front of me swirled around me.  Some sense of teaching and communicating through creativity and movement flowed through my mind and body.  Yet, no real answers came.  Momentarily I tried to plot out my future, and that’s when the tension started to arise again in my body.  I shook my head and settled back into my hips and legs that were connected to the earth.  No need to know right now.

The next day, I went to my small writing critique group and got excruciatingly honest reviews of a piece of fiction I’m trying to write.  I sat there and listened to the necessary feedback where I have gaps in point of view, too much telling and not enough showing of what the characters are going through, and awkward sentences that take the reader out of the moment (just to name a few critiques).  I listened graciously and accepted the feedback (I mean, I did ask for it).  I left not feeling defeated, but definitely feeling wounded.  This is what it feels like to show off new skin that hasn’t fully formed yet, I thought as I drove back to my apartment.

It was way too soon to show that piece of work or let alone claim myself as solely a writer when I haven’t had enough time to work on old skills and talents that have been dormant for at least 18 years of my adult life.  I am capable of teaching what makes a good story, but I’ve never really had time or gave myself a chance to write one.  Besides, why only limit my skills to writing?  I think I have a lot more creativity inside than just pushing myself to become a published writer and calling myself a “success” so as to justify why I left a comfortable life (even though that life felt like a tight, itchy sweater).  I now have time to flex my creative muscles.  I have a job that allows me to work my body and calm my mind.  One in which as soon as I walk out of the doors I don’t have to think about until I walk back in those doors.  I have money from the sale of my house and backup money from investments I made outside of the Teacher’s Retirement System.  For now, I am O.K., and I don’t have to put a label on myself at all.  And that is O.K. too.

I am like a baby giraffe on roller skates.

One day I will be something else.  But for now, the transition can be awkward, messy, funny, strange, sad, scary, and down right mystifying and magical.

I’m working with what the Transcendentalists and Romantics call “mystery”.  As Emerson once wrote, “What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters to what lies within us.  And when we bring what is within us out into the world, miracles happen.”

It is now a matter of exploring what lies within.

 

The Cracked-Open Heart

On nearly a daily basis, I have moments when I ask myself a series of questions: “Why am I here in Western North Carolina?  Why did I leave my old life behind?  Is this the right thing to do?  How will I know when I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing if I don’t even know what that is just yet?”

A series of serendipities this weekend delivered me a piece of the mysterious puzzle I have been trying to solve.

On Saturday, at the suggestion of my new neighbor, I went to the literary festival in Burnsville, NC.  The drive to Burnsville was thirty minutes of glorious scenery of undulating two lane highways towards a soft, rolling, layered backdrop of gentle mountains.  The trees are beginning to yellow and already there is some type of brush that has turned a fiery orange and yellow.

img_2642I walked up to the old brick building of Yancey County Public Library at 8:45 a.m. and watched the last of the fog peel away from the distant mountains and reveal a glowing sunlight on the tops of the trees.  I was there to attend a writing workshop hosted by local writer and teacher, Jennifer McGaha.  She is a lovely woman with a sense of humor and really challenging and interesting writing prompts.  By the time the nearly three hour session was over, I was fighting back tears of tenderness I had unlocked in my writing, most of which I didn’t share with a single soul but my composition notebook.

Across the room at another table facing me was a beautiful woman who had snow white hair, a sweet face, and the cutest red shoes that I coveted all morning long.  She shared a piece of writing with the group that was so descriptive and emotionally moving that I knew I had to talk to her afterwards.  I felt so drawn to her (and I wanted to know where she got her shoes).  She invited me to lunch with her and Jennifer.

img_2646

Through their kind words, listening ears, and probing questions, they validated me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.  I soaked up everything they said and internally I was fighting back tears.  Not of sadness but of sheer gratitude.  Here before me were two women gently mentoring me and holding me accountable to my dreams.

fullsizerenderLater that evening, I attended the ending lecture of the three day festival.  The speaker was David George Haskell, biologist and writer who is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his beautiful book The Forest Unseen.  I had only read two pages of his book the day before when I purchased it and my ticket.  Something inside of me told me to forgo my cheapness and spend the money to listen to him talk about the natural world.  He spent one entire year observing a square meter of forest in Tennessee.  What he learned and what he shared resonated so deeply within me that I cannot even begin to articulate it.  Just imagine Charles Darwin meets Charles Dickens meets Mary Oliver.  This man has the mind of a scientist, the master craftsmanship of a novelist, and the heart and soul of a poet.  He reminded us that the beings in the natural world are relational not to just one another but to us as well (they’re our “blood kin” literally if we believe in evolution).  His message was that we must pay attention to the particular so as to be able to see our part in the universal.  Through this practice, he learned:  1.)  that there is an opening for everyone to experience the unspeakable beauty in this world; 2.)  that there is a sense of the fathomless brokenness in things – from a sense of feeling so lonely to trying to understand the universe and humans inability to communicate with their natural kin; 3.)  that the pain in just one square meter of forest is extraordinary and we must learn to live and appreciate the duality of the beauty and the suffering and not try to create a resolution between the two.  (See?  My words are incapable to do his justice.  I mean, we gave the man two standing ovations, for God’s sake.)

At the end of the lecture, I noticed no one was clamoring around him to bend his ear or have him sign their book (I realized later I missed the pre-lecture book signing).  My knees shook and my heart fluttered.  I knew I must go over to him and thank him for being my teacher this evening.  When I spoke, tears alighted to my eyes.  My heart was overflowing with so much gratitude and incomprehensible desire to know more about myself through the natural world and his understanding of it.  Why did I uproot myself and plant myself hundreds of miles away from the rippling cornfields and blue skies of my Midwestern world?  Why am I in these mountains, sometimes alone and lonely, overstimulated and confused, or peaceful and laid back?  Why was I almost crying in front of a stranger who spoke his truth and his beauty not more than 10 minutes earlier?

I collected myself and he was so moved by my tenderness that I saw him put his hand over his heart.  He pursed his lips into a smile and he lowered his shoulders and became very humble when I asked him to sign my book.  Another impulse came over me and I told him about my time last year spent in Colorado where I “attuned to the particular to see myself in the unversal.”  He became very excited and he noted down the name of the psychologist (Bill Plotkin) and his foundation (Animas Valley Institute).  He assured me his work was now on his radar.  We both discussed how it is important to start re-wilding ourselves as a society and learn again how to talk to nature and let nature talk to us.

Which leads me to today.  My two new yoga friends suggested I go to Warren Wilson college so I could spend some time in nature and write and attune to the particulars of my chosen world and path.

I spread my blanket in the shade of the glorious meadow that was covered on all sides by these divine, feminine, graceful mountains.  I began to write, hoping to capture some sense of beauty and inspiration.  What happened instead was that I became agitated and annoyed.  Out of nowhere, tiny insects began biting me and buzzing my head.  A big black ant came marching towards my thighs.  A tiny green spider crawled over my foot.  My dog strayed too far away from our sitting area and I had to stop writing and call her over.  I held on to her leash and she pulled and strained and walked around me as I tried to balance my composition notebook on my lap.  She spilled her drinking water and frustration welled up inside of me.  Birds started to pick up on my frustration and they became noisy.  I was ready to call it quits, when I heard myself ask, “Why must you always try to orchestrate everything with your mind?  What if you just sat here and tuned in to what is happening in and on your body, in your surroundings?”img_2663

 

I put my pen and notebook down.  I closed my eyes.  I took a breath.  Then another.  And then another.

A gentle breeze picked up and evaporated the sweat off of my upper lip, my armpits, and behind my knees.  The breeze acted like a balm and suddenly all of my itching went away.

I focused my attention on the particular area of my heart.  The breeze picked up and blew steadily against me.

I said a prayer of gratitude for all of the goodness that has been happening to me.  And without warning, I began to cry.  And more than cry, I started to sob.  My mind wanted to start to rationalize why I was sobbing, but my body stopped it and asked it to be silent and just let this wave of sadness pour over me.

That’s when I felt a lot of compassion, more than I have ever felt in all my life.  Compassion for my dog who was hot and tired.  Compassion for the ant that I had chased away.  Compassion for the birds that were searching for food.  Compassion for my friends and family who have their own fears and obstacles to overcome.  Compassion for the constant struggle we all have to just stay alive and thrive.  Compassion for these mountains that are ancient and weary but ready to nurture and give more life to their space on this planet.

In that moment, the wind enveloped me.  The birds began to sing even louder.  And right before I pushed through the other side of some type of release, I remembered to include myself in this chain of compassion too.

I do not need to know the answers as to why I am here.  If I only came here for this pure moment of utter gratitude and compassion that cracked open my heart and allowed my tenderness to pour out with no shame or embarrassment attached to it and no need to withhold it, then that was enough.  A piece of the mystery was revealed in that moment when I chose to give my tenderness and practice a second of compassion here in this world where I am a tiny leaf on this great tree of life.

img_2662

Loosening the Ties That Bind

I have made a conscientious decision to stop writing about and talking about my fears and anxieties.  I know that by being raw and vulnerable and opening up those wounds and exposing them to those of you who read this blog especially has been like a balm for some of you.  It’s good to learn that others have fears similar to ours.  It makes us feel less alone in this world.  It comforts us to know someone else out there is struggling and if that person can overcome their fears and push through them, so can we.  Brave heart warriors  willing to dance with these darker emotions are needed to help us navigate through our own emotions and help us evolve.  However, I am putting aside my warrior ways for now.  I have fought the good fight by standing in the trenches of the dark emotions and facing them head on.  And a lot of wisdom and magic have come out of those moments and have prompted me to grow and change.  A lot.

To quote one of my favorite authors and creative mentors, Elizabeth Gilbert, “Fear is boring, because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is ‘STOP!'” It’s time to push on through to the other side of fear.  It’s time to shed the old skin of the badass warrior woman.  Time to take off my Wonder Woman bracelets and slip into something a little more comfortable and lighter.

big-magic-fear

What prompted this decision to stop focusing on the fear was because I suffered three weeks of physical chronic pain right before and after my last blog post and am just now coming out of that.  I have started seeing the old biological patterns of fear in my body that have been there since I was at least 16:  the achy pain in my right side and outer hip/buttocks region; the wobbly leg syndrome; the tight calves; the low blood sugar and erratic sweating that makes me pass out (which thankfully I haven’t done since I was a teenager).  My parents and doctors never really could figure out what that was all about.   I’ve had bouts of this freakiness since then in various forms which culminated in pain a few weeks ago where I could barely walk up my stairs into my living space.  Prior to this episode, I had not experienced even a small degree of that pain for over 4 months.  That was immediately after I made the freeing decision to begin this journey.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that part of the chronic pain is from asymmetry in my body (my hips are a little “wonky” and an X-ray once showed my knee joints are slightly misaligned).  We are also a society that sits a lot and weaken our muscles and I’ve been sitting more than usual these past few months.  I also must face the reality of being 41 and I’m more than likely starting some perimenopausal symptoms where muscle and joint pain is caused by shifting hormones. And I’m aware that sometimes my diet and the wrong type of exercise (like hiking up and down over 500 stairs at a state park and then driving home and falling asleep instead of stretching out my muscles) can exacerbate it.

All of that scientific stuff set aside, I know in my heart-of-hearts this chronic pain is also a result of old biological patterns in my body that have been prompted by some fear-base mentality I have carried around nearly all my life.  I’ve lived a good portion of my life being “stressed out,” worried about the future, or always believing something bad was going to happen even if everything is good and pleasant at the moment. In the past three weeks, I have become aware of the fact that I clench my jaw any time I feel too happy or excited about all the possibilities before me.  I sit watching TV with my inner thighs squeezed together so tightly that I am sitting up on the knots of my butt muscles.  I drive down the street and feel my rib cage is so tight because I have shallow breathing.  And every time I take notice of these bodily sensations, I scan my mind and find that without a doubt I am living some part of that moment in fear and panic.  I even get afraid of the thought of being in pain that I seize up and don’t want to move.  Then there’s the flip side:  I move too much and overstretch because I’m trying to shake out all the antsy feelings within me.

What was I afraid of?  It couldn’t be some big bad predator like a saber tooth tiger out to get me, (although my body was reacting like that was the case).  If I examine my fears closely, I can say I was afraid of being too powerful.  Too beautiful.  Too sensual.  Too creative.  Too loving.  Too free spirited.  Too much.  So, I shrunk myself down to stay in the game of living a scripted life.  When, in reality, every part of me was longing to be free of 35 years of schooling.  I’ve been living that life since I was 5.

So, today, I decided enough of following that script.  Enough of living completely in my mind and strategizing my next move (although, let’s face it, I’ll probably always be somewhat of a strategist and planner.   Those are some awesome skills to have as they set me up to make the bold move that I did).  Enough of worrying about people telling me they’re envious of me.  Enough of feeling like I’m being selfish for making this lifestyle change.   It’s time to live directly from my body.  From my heart.  From my spirit.

Every single day for three weeks now, I have softened into my body, meditated, accepted the moment, and given thanks for at least three things that have happened to me, no matter how big or small.

IMG_2516Today, I focused on sweetness.  I asked my body what it wanted to do today.  What did it need in order to feel whole and happy.  It asked for a strengthening yoga practice followed by longer, softer, gentler stretches and holds.  I gave that to my body.  I asked my spirit what it needed.  It asked for 20 minutes of silent meditation and prayer and to be in nature by going to the University of North Carolina’s Botanical Gardens.  I gave that to my spirit.  I asked my heart what it needed.  It asked for a day’s outing to eat a sweet meal, go to my favorite store “The Bee Charmer” in downtown Asheville, and to people watch.  I gave that to my heart.

Yet, my fear wasn’t about to be left behind.  It flared up in the form of a shaming voice that told me that I really shouldn’t eat the Challah French Toast stuffed with honey cream and blackberry sauce with two strips of bacon.  I became aware of the masquerading fear and silently said a prayer of gratitude when the waitress brought my meal.  I ate it with reverence and a sense of pleasure.  Fear’s voice said, “You shouldn’t eat sugary things.  This is bad for you.  It could hurt your body and you could get a cramp in your leg.”  I smiled and took another bite, savoring the creamy texture, the sweet and salty mix of blueberry and bacon.  Silently I let my body speak to my fear.  She said, “Please stop.  This meal is eaten in gratitude and with pleasure.  Your opinion no longer matters.”

When I went downtown, I heard my fear speak in the form of guilt as I purchased some local honey, a t-shirt, and a necklace with a drop of honey in a small amulet.  Fear’s voice said, “How dare you buy anything for yourself.  You don’t have a job anymore and you should not buy anything that isn’t for mere necessity.  You’ll regret this when you’re on the verge of being broke and you might go homeless.”  I smiled as the sales clerk handed me my lovely purchase and silently I let my heart speak to my fear.  She said, “Please stop.  This purchase was made in gratitude and with pleasure.  I will use all of these things as a reminder that my life is so very sweet.  Your opinion no longer matters.”

I arrived at the Botanical Gardens, which is on the UNC campus and right near a busy road.  I started walking over the bridge and down to the creek and could hear the traffic through the pines, the sycamores, the ashes, and the laurel trees.  The chirping of the birds was competing with the whir of the engines.  I again heard my fear speak, but this time in the form of judgment.  Fear’s voice said, “This place is terrible.  How can it be beautiful when there is so much urban traffic flying by?”  I smiled as I climbed over moss covered stones to sit near the creek and watch butterflies and dragonflies dancing with one another.  Silently I let my spirit speak to my fear.  She said, “Please stop.  This time outside is spent in gratitude and with pleasure.  The birds, the bees, the butterflies, and all the other creatures are perfectly content living here.  In fact, they’re thriving.  And these flowers, plants, and trees, give shelter and a loving touch of Mother Nature to remind us to stay connected.  I think all of this is beautiful and natural.  Your opinion no longer matters.”IMG_2517

I squatted next to a Red-Spotted Purple butterfly as it opened and closed its wings on the creek bed.  My spirit felt so much love to be watching a beautiful creature up close.

I walked in the sunlight across the lawn to a small trail that led to a gigantic sycamore tree.  I placed my hand on the trunk and looked up and suddenly memories of being a child flooded my mind.  I saw my cousins, my little sister, and me playing on the old tire swing that was hanging from the large sycamore tree in our grandparents’ backyard.  We were so happy and carefree.  My heart filled with love.

I climbed a set of stairs built into the dirt and tree roots, and my footing was secure and I had no pain.  My body was at ease and in its element.  That’s when I realized, I had left my fears behind.

No more will I allow fear to control my days.  This will take mindfulness and some level of self-discipline.  Yet, all I wish to share right now are moments of beauty and love. Of awakening to a higher sense of purpose.  Sweetness and joy.  Insight and gratitude.  Pleasure and easiness.  And from these things, I choose to bring forth all of my creativity and set it to work:  playing, growing, living, writing, drawing, teaching, listening, being, loving, and most of all finding pleasure from the mystery of the unknown.

IMG_2521

The Do-Over

It’s midnight.  My tears have finally dried.  My lungs have stopped heaving.  I have wadded tissue around me and my dog is by my side.  I have cried my first deep cry since I’ve been here in the Asheville area a month now.

imgresMany would say there’s nothing to cry about.  There should be many things I am thankful for.  Just today, I got an apartment that I can move into starting September 7th.  I have made my first big mark on my white canvas life.  On what one of my friends called my “do over.”  Why then all of these tears?

Are they tears of relief or anger?  Maybe both.  I now know I have somewhere more permanent to land.  This cottage has been far from ideal.  It is not the “writer’s retreat” or the “lover’s paradise” I was hoping it might have been.  The pictures on the rental site are nicer than the actual space.  There is a mildew smell that wreaks havoc on my lungs and causes me to break out in rashes every time I walk inside.  Mold once covered the entire insides of my window AC unit and the tiled shower has it in droves.  I scrub everything daily, stirring up more allergens probably than necessary, but I itch so much that I can’t stop trying to clean.  Ants march around my food and the recliner has so many stains I’ve stopped counting.  I don’t read by the standing light there anymore once I found that the light bulb is on sideways and held together by duct tape.  I can’t enjoy the backyard with my dog because it has piles of dead sticks among all the pine needles, gravel, and black plastic pushing out from underneath like blackened weeds.  The cottage gardens are overgrown, and instead of scented wisteria vines and honeysuckle, there are bagworms and spider webs at every turn.  I must face the fact that I cannot get back what I once owned and called “mine.”

Are they tears of grief?  Maybe.  I miss my friends and family daily, yet I do not wish to return to my old life.  That old life was a tight, itchy sweater that I only kept on wearing because I thought I had to.  Because I thought it was expected of me.  And though it wasn’t comfortable, it was comforting to know that the restrictions I had placed on that life at least kept me safe.  Yet they also kept me small.  They kept me in what I thought were my expected roles:  The reliable daughter.  The authoritative teacher.  The know it all big sister.  The eccentric aunt.  The go to friend.  I never dipped my foot into the other part of me that has been calling for a very long time.  That part of me that knows how to be sensual, to be sexy, to be earthy, to be creative, to be divinely feminine.  In my previous life, that larger role was a threat to all these smaller, more comfortable facets of myself that seemed more appropriate in polite company.

Maybe the grief is due to the fact that I have begun to face the facts that I will probably not physically have a child of my own.  That I have no man I deeply love in my life to warm my bed.  To hold me in his arms.  To protect me from all of the elements as I face my inner fears.  I have to face them alone.  With no one else’s help.  And I must confront myself and my fears more fiercely than ever before because as Rumi once wrote “What you seek is seeking you.”  I must surrender to myself and to the forces inside of me that know I can no longer look outward for my happiness.  I have arrived in the location I was meant to be in. Now there is no turning back.  I have mysteriously been drawn to this particular land.  To find within its cool mountain streams the pool of soul-recognition.  Now, I must look deep into that watery reflection and see that I have carried what I have been seeking all along.  And at some point, I must bring whatever that is forth.

imgres-2

This is my Romantic side calling me.

The practical side of me says “Cut all of the poetic bullshit.  Dry your tears.  You get a do over.  So, don’t fuck it up.  You can’t make any mistakes here because you can’t turn back.  Besides, what’s there to go back to?  You fucked all that up.  So, let’s come up with a plan to make your life easier and get you back to being a full-fledged member of society.”

Are these tears of frustration?  Maybe.  How do I listen to my Muse and bring forth my imgres-1inner Romantic creative and beautiful soul-self on a larger scale yet honor some of the practicalities of trying to get everything organized and managed well enough so I don’t lose what money and resources I have left?  I am being pulled in these two very opposite directions almost every day and I don’t exactly know how to regulate each one.  I came out here to eat good food.  To play.  To create.  To be in nature. To feel connected.  To explore my options.  And any time I start really getting excited by that, I listen to the practical side that worries more about how much money I spent on a Glade plug-in at Walmart so as to ease the mildew smells of the shack, (er I mean cottage).  After each exciting encounter with the new life and the new me,  I then revert to checking my bank statements and holding back on eating out more often.  I choose to stick with tuna fish sandwiches and chips as opposed to experimenting with my cooking or trying out a new restaurant.  It’s as if I have relocated that old, itchy sweater of my past life and keep putting it on again and again in hopes that it will fit and feel good now that I have made some major life changes.

But that’s not how a do-over should work, right? Maybe.  Maybe not.  But just maybe it’s more like the metaphor of reaching the end of your leash.  You keep coming back to the point where you left off and touch base with the familiar in order to remember that you no longer want that anymore.  Then, you grow stronger and braver and again reach the end of the tether you tied yourself to long ago.  And a few strands break, but not enough to set you free.  Or maybe you got a little too scared that it would snap all at once propelling you too forcefully and into a space that’s not ready toimgres-3
catch you just yet.  So, you come back to the start  again, and again.  You regroup before stretching out even farther the next time, where even more fibers of that old rope break some more.  Until one day, you are floating and then flying and then soaring into the new side of yourself that has been seeking you all along as much as you have been seeking it.

 

Wild.

These are ancient mountains.  There is a divinity here among the ferns, the plants, the old trees, the stones.  Fecundity in all things green.

***

The wilderness outside is reflective of the wilderness inside.  So much yet to explore.  So much mystery abounds in the moist earth that sprouts white and red mushrooms and dwells inside the crevices that look like medieval grottos at the base of trees.  So much mystery inside my restless heart and creative mind.

***

My skin crawls with red bumps all up and down my legs, and tiny, oily pimples spring up across my face every waking moment.   I am disoriented at times, and sad, and irritated, then mesmerized, and finally humbled into submission by something I can’t fully explain.

***

My dog sprouted swollen bumps on both sides of her jaw after a restless night of becoming irritated by some tiny creature that lurks within the cracks on the walls or the floor.  She recovers her wellness and her joy at the first scent of the mountain air and the kindness and practicality of the local veterinarian.  He recommends I go on a hike with her as soon as she has recovered.  Here, the prescription is to get out in nature.  To commune with the land as a way to heal.

***

At every twist and turn of the mountain roads and challenges in my daily life, I try to remember to lean into it all and let it be what it is.  No need for perfection.  No need for justification.  No need for analysis.  Just lean into it.  Tap the break at the right moment.  Pause and release.  Then coast and lean into the next moment and curve.  Continue like this: up, down, around, and over the mountain until there is a small space to pull over or a scenic overlook to enjoy.  In either instance:  breathe.

***

There is a space where I may have found my tribe.  In a dance studio downtown Asheville where the live drumming of the West African rhythms can be heard from the street.  Where the instructor, a beautiful, powerful, kind, and joyous woman from the Cote d’Ivoire, counts to you in French and commands the drummers to slow down or speed up by just a simple gesture of her hand.  Here, the drums pound inside of my stomach.  Inside of my pelvis.  At the soles of my feet and the base of my spine. And my shoulders shake and my heart is in control of my joy.

***

My dog and I approach the blue blaze right off mile marker 375 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We are headed up to Rattlesnake Lodge – a deserted vacation getaway in the 1920s and 30s.  Only stone foundations of cabins, fireplaces, and other buildings exist.  It is a popular spot of locals.  Before us is a wet slab of exposed mountain with a cascade of water splashing over eroded stones that are now round and smooth.  I say a small prayer for our well-being but also as a greeting to the ancient ones that inhabit every rock, plant, stream, and tree in this place.  I am entering their world, and I must respect their ways.  We begin our ascent and cross over a small part of the stream before stepping onto the worn path with exposed roots and small, loose stones.  I inhale the damp smell and settle into my body.  Many times I am overcome with tenderness and so much love.  Tears fill my eyes.  “Bring us your tears,” the ferns, stones, and stream whisper to me.  So, I cry in the middle of the forest on a worn path where oak trees act as citadels and twisted laurel branches arc over me and guide me to the white blaze called “Mountain to Sea” trail.  My dog leads.  She seems at home.  Her tail wags and her tongue hangs out.  She is smiling.

***

IMG_2078

A young, green, perfectly shaped acorn drops at my feet.  It is a gift from my friends the oaks.  I pick it up and put it in my pocket.  I swipe away sweat from my forehead and strip off my self-conscious thoughts.  I am becoming wild, and I am no longer ashamed to reclaim that part of me that we have all lost somewhere along the way.  At another stop, I find a stone in the shape of a tulip tree leaf.  It has flecks of mica in it.  I am prompted by some inner guidance to pick it up.  It is not for me to keep, but I do not know what I will do with it.  I place it inside my pocket next to my acorn.  My dog and I continue to ascend until the ground levels out and I see before me a pillar of stones that looks like a sacred altar.  It is one of the remnants of the old lodge, possibly a fireplace for I see the center has been charred.  Here I know that the stone is a symbol of my day of initiation.  I hold it to my chest, say a prayer of gratitude to this ancient land, and then place my stone on the charred altar.  The mica sparkles.  Three large daddy-long-legs creep out from the stones and walk towards me.  The biggest one is right in front of my face and he crawls over the edge of the stone and begins to bob up and down softly.  Maybe I have threatened their home and existence, but my heart knows why they are here:  they’re ambassadors for the ancient ones of this land.   I smile and blow them a kiss.  And a little one walks out from the shadows and joins in the dance.

***IMG_2072

Walking southward, I spot a large fallen tree.  There is enough space to walk underneath it.  I see this as my opportunity to shed my old skin, my old patterns and habits, and step into my wild self.  I take a breath, duck my head, and pass underneath.  My dog follows me.  We behold in front of us a pool of stones and part of a stone wall covered in moss.  It is damp and cool in this space and smells earthy.  There looks to be a well where the water is coming from.  I take it all in.  I breathe deeply.  Once more tenderness overcomes me and I shed more tears.  “I am wild,” I say quietly.  Then I say it again.  Louder.  And louder after that.  I turn and face the entrance and I look at my dog and smile.  “We are wild!”  I yell, and I run underneath the fallen tree and out into the clearing, spinning around like the child I once was.

IMG_2074

IMG_2075

***

On the descent down the third blaze, I am silent.  I stop and give my dog some water and drink a big gulp of it too.  My boots clump the trodden path and I fall into a rhythm.  A mantra begins forming in my head with each step:  “I am wild.  I am wild.  I am wild.”  I smile and my breath gets deeper.  “I am wild.  I am wild.  I am wild.”  My pace quickens.  “I am wild.  I am wild.  I am wild.”  The next thing I know, I am saying this out loud and moving quickly, as my dog enjoys the sudden burst of energy.  “I am wild!  I am wild!  I am wild!”  Finally, I see the creek bed at the entrance to the trails.  There is a ledge where the water streams over the black slab.  People have piled stones on top one another at the edge.  Another nature based altar, framed by laurels and rhododendrons.  My pack is heavy and my shorts are riding up my thighs.  Sweat has seeped into the folds of my tshirt.   I don’t look much different than when I started.  Yet, I am transformed.  I have come back to the beginning.  Back to where I belong.

IMG_2070.JPG

IMG_2077

IMG_2069

 

Weekend Vignette

I.  Plants and Fish Scales

Glossy, shimmering , green heart-shaped leaves cluster together at the base of a tall oak.   The sweet musk of decay perfumes the damp and loamy forest floor.  Sunlight streams through the canopies of trees, while plush moss and feathery ferns rest at their feet.  a wilted creamy-white rhododendron blossom floats in the pooled water that is secured by the smooth, gray,black, brown, and orange river stones.   The water in the river bed tumbles over boulders and slides in between stones lodged in crevices of mud.  I am home in the woods.

IMG_1971

At the top of Mount Pisgah, there is a restaurant that supposedly makes the best trout, caught from the same stream I sat beside earlier this morning.  I sit down at the table with a fellow hiker.  She is here in Asheville to find her retirement home so she can be close to her young son, who is not married and probably is unlikely to take a wife and give her a grandchild she says.  The waitress serves our trout encrusted in walnuts with a slice of lemon and a side of homemade blueberry butter.  We squeeze on the lemons and smother the fish in butter, and I listen as she unfolds her life story in front of me:  from her career as a healthcare consultant, to her two marriages, the deaths of her college friend and her husband, her personal awakening and following of Amma the hugging saint, all the way to her friendship with a 40-something Indian woman who is an educator in Oakland and a published poet as well.  I watch her smile and glow and become animated to have a listening ear.  And I am listening, but I am also marveling at how she slices through the fish and eats scales and all. I pick out my bones and slide the meat off of the scales as easily as I pick out her story with probing, subtle questions and nods of my head.  I begin mentally weaving her story into my story as we look out at our window view of the Blue Ridge mountains that press up against the equally blue sky.

FullSizeRender

II. Toe River Stories

Everything grows here in Western North Carolina.  Chestnut trees, oaks, hickories, maples, rhododendrons, thistle, purple coneflowers.  So does my hair. And I have hair everywhere on my body, right down to chin hairs and wisps of baby fine toe hairs that I have to shave almost every other day.  I’ve never been in such a lush environment and marvel at the fact that even my armpits have a five o’clock shadow.

I have driven 45 minutes north through winding two lane highways that go up, over, down, and around mountains.  My destination is the home of George and Sabina, a retired couple from Miami that have been living here for 10 years now.  And it is a dream:  nestled between a hill and a sloping ravine that has a gorgeous view of the Toe River in the distance.  Hummingbirds swarm their feeders and their wings sound like electric fans.  We sit on the wrap-around deck and look out at the dense undergrowth that houses one blooming red gladiola a scattering of purple coneflowers, and so many native trees and bushes that twist and turn and wrap around each other and the large boulders in their landscape.

My dog has discovered their orange cat, Fanta, and she chases him around the edge of the deck that has no barriers to protect anyone or anything from crashing into the ravine below.  I wince numerous times, and George and Sabina laugh and tell me that my dog is not the one afraid of heights, I am.  I shouldn’t transfer my fears to her, they say.  My dog is safe enough and knows what she’s doing because she has a sixth sense of her surroundings.  To ease my anxiety, though, we hop in the car and take a drive down to the river to wade in the water with Lucy and Reef, their Golden Retriever.  There I watch as this nimble and wiry couple, who are my parents’ age or older, skirt over rolling pebbles and stones and sit on big boulders in the middle of the stream.  I on the other hand am having a hard time of convincing my pup that she will not die in the water, and have to pick her up and place her down on a shallow sand bar that has enough rolling water to qualify her as wading in the stream as well.

IMG_1969

We hop back in the van and George drives slowly back up and over the ridge so we can sight see their “neck of the woods”.  At the top of the ridge we come to a clearing and there is a 360 degree view of the mountain range.  I feel protected by these mountains.  It’s as if they are hugging me in this moment and letting me know on some level that I am safe and secure and right where I should be.  Later, at dinner, I loosen up my anxiety about my dog’s walk around the deck and her wanderings off into the woods.  She is in a dog’s heaven and by the end of the night, her border collie instincts have kicked in and she has surveyed her entire border and barks at the neighbor dogs and runs down the hill to smell them and make sure they are safe to let near us, her flock.

By the end of the evening, I have learned about how they grew up in Czechoslovakia (George) and Germany (Sabina) and then under different family circumstances in Buenos Aires, Argentina, only to have met in Munich, Germany, many years later.  George shares with me his father’s classic tale of a self-made man as first a wealthy plastic factory owner to a refugee in an internment camp to a single father of three working in a Czech restaurant in NYC for pennies back again to a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor who died in a small town in New Jersey some years ago.  Their stories grow and take hold of me and anchor me to them and the surroundings even more.  Everything grows here in Western North Carolina.  Even the stories get richer and more lush.

FullSizeRender

III.  A Dog Named Ashby

On Sunday my neighbor, Darby, took me with him and bought me a ticket to the annual Craft Fair at the Asheville U.S. Cellular Center. There were hundreds of craftsmen, jewelry makers, fine artists, and potters from the Southern Highland Craft Guild.  If I was rich, I would have bought something from almost every single vendor.  But since that type of wealth is reserved for the Vanderbilts and their collections at the Biltmore Estate, I chose to be the side kick for the day to Darby and his special charm and enthusiasm instead.

Darby stopped at almost every stall and asked the artists questions about their craft.  He took a genuine interest in them.  For the brief moments he was with them, they became the center of his world.  A jewelry designer, named Ruthie, beamed with pride as Darby asked her how she crafted her copper and bronze earrings.  By the end of their conversation, he had bits and pieces of her life out in the open and reflected back to her aspects of her personality like a shiny piece of copper.  One man pulled out his phone and showed Darby all of his tiny metal work he did on personalized bamboo fishing poles. Another man talked to him about his life as a musician and how he taught his son how to play guitar.  Once their stories were in full swing, Darby would turn to me and smile and without missing a beat, I would pick up the questioning and become equally engaged in the person’s story as well.

FullSizeRender

When the conversation came to its natural end, I would turn to say something to Darby and find he was gone.  I walked to the next stall hoping he would catch back up with me, and there I would find him either at the next stall admiring some handiwork or walking up and down the aisles with his headphones in his ears, backpack slung over one shoulder, walking on the balls of his worn out tennis shoes, white socks pressed up tightly against his skinny calves.  We would then meet up again and fall into our quickened walking pace.  He would tell me some hilarious story of his own or share something insightful and wise until we got to the next stall and he would stop mid conversation and converse with the next artist who had the pleasure of his company for however long it lasted.  This became our rhythm the entire day.  By the end of our 5 hour tour, our friendship felt natural as if we had known each other for years as opposed to two weeks.

The last stop was at Tom Wolfe’s woodcarving stall.  He is an 80 year old man from Spruce Pine, NC, (about 30 minutes away from Asheville), and is the grandfather and wise master of the folk art of whittling and carving here in the Appalachians.  Before I knew it, Darby had fleshed out his life story and the man shook Darby’s hand and gave me a hug.  I wanted so badly to purchase a carving of his, but I was being frugal with my money.  Darby relieved me of that worry and convinced me that I needed a piece of art from an Appalachian man who has written the book (actually several books) on carving figurines.  This is the man who says he sees faces and stories in his woodwork as he is shaping them. He smiled and said that as he whittles he begins to see faces of old childhood friends and family members now long gone.  We both looked at each other and got a little teary-eyed.  I understood him.  He’s a storyteller.  He uses wood instead of words.  Different mediums, but the intention to express ourselves or capture a person, a feeling, a mood, a scene are the same.

FullSizeRender

FullSizeRender

The old man hugged me again and told me to name my dog.  I said I would.  Darby and I bounced out of the convention center and picked up our pace as we walked down sloping sidewalks to his truck.  He was in the middle of sharing some whacky and wonderful story about his life when I told him I had a name for my dog.  He asked what it was, and I said “Ashby.”  He wondered how I came up with that name.  I told him it was short for two things that have been a part of my story since the day I got here:  Asheville plus Darby.  He puffed up and told me how happy that made him feel.  I finally had a story of my own.

FullSizeRender

Lost in the Undergrowth

Last night, I killed a cockroach that was crawling out of the sink drain.  Maybe it was an omen of what was to come.

Nights have been harder than I expected.  My shoulders, neck, and jaw are constantly tense and I can’t get comfortable on the bed even though I brought my own fancy pillows.  Regardless of what time I drift off to sleep, my eyes open at 6 sharp every morning.  Exhausted mid day, I try to take a nap, but 10-15 minutes pass by before I roll onto my right side to try and loosen up my back muscles and shoulders, and I can’t so I get up and try to do something else.  My mind has a grip on my body and it’s holding on tighter than I expected.

The lady I rent from left a binder of places to go and things to do.  I decided on an early morning hike this morning 8 miles away from the cottage.  The directions she left seemed simple enough and I copied them down.  The hiking spot was along the French Broad River.  After my breakfast and a cup of coffee, I got dressed and put on my hiking shoes.  Lucy hopped in the car with me and off we went.  “Edgy” is a good word to describe how I was feeling when I saw the first yellow sign indicating the road had multiple curves.  My solar plexus and the area between my shoulder blades had an odd, fearful energy.  Everything was tensing up, vibrating, and humming internally at the same time.  I ignored the sensations and pushed on through.  “All part of the mountain experience,” I reminded myself.

Curve.  Fear.  Second curve.  Fear.  Ascent.  Fear.  Descent.  Fear.  Curve.  Curve.  Curve.  Fear.  My butt muscles clenched.  A ripple ran through my solar plexus down into my rib cage, seizing hold of my breath.  I exhaled when I came to a small post office. I pulled into the parking lot and yelled at Lucy for her whimpering and pacing in the far back seat, out of reach for me to pet her or pinch her neck.

FullSizeRenderOnce I got my bearings and was reassured by the young man behind the counter that I had the right directions, I got back onto the highway and found what I assumed was the hiking spot she wrote about (turns out her directions lack detail and description).  I was at Alexander River Park and there were parking spaces and two gravel roads, one to the left and one to the right, leading down to the river.  She recommended the left loop, so I took the left gravel road.  There I was met with heavy underbrush and a small trail about 1 foot in width.  Even though this is supposedly a populated dog walking area, no one was in sight.  Wild thoughts rushed through my mind as the current rushed over the boulders.  “Will I be raped or murdered?”  “Will the story of my disappearance by on 48 Hours or some other crime scene investigation show?”  Fear crept up my spine and cinched around my midsection.  My dog was a hot mess too, turning in circles and getting tripped up in the underbrush and in her leash.

IMG_1796

It took less than a minute to get down near the river.  True, the scenic view was gorgeous:  mist rising off the river and fog lifting off the gray-green mountains.    The scene was less than peaceful to the ear, however.  The river moved so quickly and ramped over boulders and folded over itself.  The sound was amplified by chittering birds, chirping insects, rushing cars on the highway right above me.  The overgrowth in some areas was as tall as me and it seemed like only a machete could clear it.  And even though I could see my car through the weeds, they seemed to crowd in on me and cut short my breath.

FullSizeRender

Fear became replaced with anger as I walked towards the car.  Beer cans, trash bags, and other random junk were scattered around.  I watched Lucy try and negotiate through the jungle of weeds and my anger became directed at myself:  “What if she gets ticks all over her and dies of Lyme disease?”  “What if that small growth on her shoulder that I didn’t get checked out before we left is cancer and she dies before my time here is over?”  Tears pooled up at the edges of my eyes.  I stepped to a clearing and tried to breathe slow, deep, calming breaths and watch the current float by me.  The current was faster than my breath and I tried to force the beautiful but fierce scene into a serene and healing one.  It wasn’t working.  Obviously.

So I cried instead.  Too bad I didn’t take the opportunity to scream like a banshee or wail like a lost soul, but I was still holding on to my fears and feeling self-conscious that I would be discovered by locals who thought I was a crazy woman.  Instead, I just let the tears stream down my face.  I crossed my arms over my chest and said quietly and repeatedly, “I’m so scared.  I’m so scared.  I just want to go home, but I don’t even have a real home to go to.”  As I cried more, Lucy sat there and looked up at me.  I collected myself before I “lost it” (although, I think I would have felt better had I unleashed my fear and anger).  We walked back to the car and I felt relief.  A little lighter.  A little more rational and sane.  I texted my sister again and told her briefly of my “crappy” experience and then just sat for a moment.

FullSizeRender

The drive back to the cottage was uneventful.  The twisty curves were more manageable and smoother.  I was headed back to the cottage.  My “home base” so to speak.  I started thinking how people keep telling me I’m so brave for having set out on this adventure.  If they could see me now they may question their statements.  This rawness and vulnerability are strange and scary and to be truthful, I don’t really like this feeling or this experience all that much today.

Maybe being brave is about the recognition of fear within us as it’s happening?  Maybe being brave is about letting fear live alongside us but not allowing it to rule us?  Maybe being brave is about using fear as a tool to highlight the fragmented, shadow pieces of ourselves, giving us an opportunity to find that gap where the jagged piece goes in to the ever enlarging puzzle of ourselves?  As I type this, I can honestly tell you I don’t know.  I haven’t fully ridden out the wave of that fear that seized me this morning.  It keeps morphing from fear, to anger, to sadness, to loneliness, to confusion, to whatever else is lying awake inside of me, ready to strike.

All I know is that I am here and I will keep following the trails inside and outside of me until the path clears again.

Now What?

The wide river stretched over the rich green valley and dark green and gray mountains loomed in the distance.  I drove over the bridge and an electrical impulse ran through my solar plexus and I caught my breath.  “Wow!” I exhaled.  My cat, caged in the carrier next to me, meowed, and I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my dog’s black head pop up.  She had been asleep in her crate too, and she released anxious whimpers as we came around one bend and began to curve around another.  We were here in the Appalachian mountains and the longest part of our journey was about to become breathtaking.

Two days prior to that, I loaded up my pets and luggage in my gray SUV and headed south on highway 45.  I had spent a week with my parents and prior to that a week with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.  In their homes and with them, I had comfort and security.  My mind didn’t wander to “what ifs” or any daydream of what was to come the day I set out for the Asheville, North Carolina, area.  When I reached Paducah on Saturday, my friend’s hospitality took over and I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to board my dog or cat or sleep for the night.  He didn’t even let me consider the possibility of a hotel room, and so I had another full day of comfort and security.  As we walked the historic downtown waiting for the restaurant to open for dinner, I began to share with him a little of my worries and concerns about the path I had chosen and how lost I was starting to feel.  He didn’t even give me a chance to second guess myself.  Instead, he bought a handcrafted copper compass keychain from a street artist whose wares we had been admiring.  After the artist soldered the O-ring in place, my friend handed the gift to me, smiled, and said, “This is so you’ll be able to always find your way back home and find your place in this world, no matter where you are.”FullSizeRender

IMG_1708

InFullSizeRender Nashville on Sunday, I stayed at a pet-friendly hotel and another friend picked me up for dinner.  We ate at Chauhan Ale & Masala restaurant where the chefs blended art and traditional style Indian food.  It was super delicious and had a great atmosphere.  We ate Gol Guppa Shots for an appetizer – puffs of semolina with garbanzo beans and potatoes inside that you fill with mint water and shove in your mouth for an explosion of flavor.  For our main course, we chose traditional Indian dishes that were equally amazing.  As we talked, I realized that I would soon have the opportunity to explore deliciously prepared food where I was headed.  I could also take my time to shop the farmer’s markets and really tune into enjoying my food instead of shoving something down my gullet (like my oh so reliable peanut butter and jelly sandwich) so I could get back to teaching, grading, or working on my lesson plans.  We toured downtown Nashville (which has such a super-chill vibe despite the fact that it’s 600,000 people in the city alone) and wound up having dessert at Five Sisters Bakery in the swanky 12 South neighborhood.  For once, I was excited to indulge on so much food, and even took the last of my peach-glazed donut to go so I could enjoy it early the next morning before I left.

The next day, I began the drive to Asheville.  I crested a big hill in Cherokee National Forest and curved around a bend and saw a fathomless sea of tree tops.  I dipped down into a low valley and the trees towered above me.  I passed through two tunnels inside the very same mountain chain I had been admiring a few minutes before.  Up I climbed again and at the top of the hill I saw more mountains in the distance and a wide open blue sky.  I felt a shudder in my heart as if my body knew before my mind that my new life was upon me.  I took in the view as much as I could at the scenic overlook and rest area outside of the park.  I arrived later at my cottage and hurriedly brought my luggage and pets inside as thunder rolled in the distance.  I explored my new cottage home and stopped at a cafe to eat then grocery shopped while an evening rainstorm passed through.  I tirelessly unpacked until late in the night as a storm rolled in. FullSizeRender

FullSizeRender

This morning I tried to set up some type of routine for myself so I wouldn’t feel as if I was pissing my time away.  I awoke at 6:30 a.m., made coffee, and walked Lucy down the lane as the mist rolled off the hill across the street and some unseen roosters crowed.  I ate a simple breakfast, read my book, and wrote for a half an hour.  A decent yoga practice came next followed by meeting the woman from whom I’m renting the cottage.  I went to the post office and got my P.O. Box set up and then walked Lucy in the Nature Park right off of Main Street.  I returned home to eat lunch and visit with my neighbor, and have been writing ever since.

IMG_1743

IMG_1744

IMG_1746

For an unknown reason, a bit of melancholy has come over me now that the thrill of yesterday’s drive has gone.  I keep wondering “Now what?” as I go through my new normal and try to strategize my next move once the middle of September has come and gone.  What am I doing here and why have I come on this journey?  Then, I think back to what both my friends in Paducah and Nashville reminded me of:  that this is a time to enjoy my life.  To soak in the pleasures of all the simple things this world has to offer.  That there is no need to justify wanting to eat delicious food, walk in beautiful scenery, live in a quaint cottage, and just be creative for the sake of being creative.   These mountains, these lush trees, the sounds of the chirping birds, and the breezes of the wind, the thunder and lightning, the screen of misting rain in front of the backdrop of sunshine, the local and friendly waiter, cashier, dog owner, restaurant customer, all are seeping into my veins and soaking into my bones and shaping my destiny.  All I have to do is let it happen.