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.

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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.

 

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In the Midst of Confusion

You should see the sunset behind the mountains here in Asheville, NC.  The mountain ridge’s silhouette is framed by a deep red and orange sinking sun and a deep purple burst of clouds fan out and stretch upward to touch a gray blue sky with even grayer clouds floating above.  It’s beauty is not lost on me this evening as we move into the winter solstice:  the darkest time of year.

I live on top of a small hill on the second floor of an apartment complex.  The tulip poplars’ limbs reach upward and I can see eye level with their small branches that have ridges and grooves where leaves will sprout out in the spring.  These trees act as a fence and along with the pine trees and mighty oaks and regal maples they keep the soil intact so we don’t slide down onto the busy street below.

Fifteen minutes have passed since writing the first words, and the sun has disappeared behind the mountains.  It is pitch black, save the streetlights in the parking lot below.  The solstice is upon us and like the black bears here in the area, it is time to go inside and hibernate.  Except, I am already indoors nursing a mild cold that creeped up on me yesterday evening.  Metaphor then calls for me to know the next step of going inside:  to drop into my heart center and seek the mystery that has been calling me for awhile now.

Truthfully, I never fully understood why I came out here this past summer.  I told my friends and family it was just a breakaway from my old life and a chance to explore and do something new and different before I got too stuck in my ways.  On the surface, it was really that.  So, I put all of my attention and energy there and explored the city and met interesting people.

I also had grandiose ideas of starting my freelance writing career and making money by writing copy and profiles for businesses and small organizations.  I did that for awhile and I put all of my attention and energy there.  It was exhausting and not as rewarding as I thought it would be.  And, I wasn’t making any money.  That was Ok if I could drum up the business, but I was in a new town, a new environment, and without a lot of chances to network nor had I enough experience yet to even charge for my services.  I also had to admit that I was putting on a good show for myself and my friends and family as a way to prove that I would drum up business and support myself financially and one day this would become my means of support.  I see now that I was trying to put on airs to make this move, this leap, not appear so scary to me or others.  A way to justify my need to be accepted as a mainstream, career writer with a solid vocation that fit into society.

Then, I heard a voice tell me that it is inevitable that I should become a published writer since I am a former English teacher.  So, I put all of my attention and energy there.  And, that felt better, yet it was still exhausting and I realized I was going on a path where my ego was getting the better of me and telling me I was worthless as a writer if I didn’t publish anything any time soon.  I went to writer’s workshops and writer’s circles, and even joined a critique group.  And, I failed and I fell.  Hard.  (See last blog post about a  piece of fiction I workshopped before it was worth showing to anyone.)  I was expecting my transformation as a writer to happen over night because it is what I want.  In September, I had written one of the most beautiful pieces of my life and now it sits in online queues at numerous literary journals.  There is one rejection letter already in my email folder.  I tell myself that it’s all Ok because it’s the name of the game.

img_3153After a little soul searching, and laying my persona of an English teacher and an academic to rest, I returned to my first love of drawing.  I started a doodle of a sugar maple leaf and it turned into something that lit me up inside.  Here, tucked inside the leaf, were images of butterfly wings, pine bark, rocks from a creek bed, elderberries, and mountain ash berries and so many more things from my daily nature walks.  “Maybe, just maybe, I can consider myself an artist?” I thought to myself.  In a classic self-loathing fashion, however, I berated myself and told myself that I was a fraud on all creative levels because I never went to school for art and I spent most of my writing time in a classroom reading teenager’s essays and re-reading and discussing pieces of literature and poetry from textbooks.

I didn’t give up on drawing, however, and saw it as a new form of meditation that could replace my daily journal writing, which was becoming cumbersome, melodramatic and morose.  And so I went about my days drawing, working at Trader Joe’s, teaching yoga, and going on nature walks when I had the time and energy.

All seemed well and good at this point.  My easy-going lifestyle was nice when I was in the flow and enjoying my creative pursuits simply for pleasure and a release of years of pent up creativity that had no time or outlet to come forth.  But, life happened to me.  I began to get scared about why I was here in Asheville.  I worried again about living on a mix of a low income from the grocery store and my stored up savings account.  I began brainstorming of ways to fast track my creative pursuits and think of how I could develop them quickly and prove to myself and others that I wasn’t wasting my time here.  And worse, I began thinking of how to make my creativity the center of a new vocation or career based on the shaky skills I had pulled out from years of hiding deep inside of my psyche.

The universe brought to me an opportunity to teach a yoga and journaling workshop on overcoming and transforming fear.  I was (and still am) excited about it.  I even met with a doctor who has been practicing yoga and meditation for 30 years.  He overheard me talking about my workshop to a couple I know at Trader Joe’s.  To make a long story short, we met and he wants me to teach at his practice and also wants to introduce me to some friends of his that run a retreat center in the area.  So I thought to myself, “Aha!  This is what I’m supposed to do!  I can combine my love of teaching and yoga with my skills on how to write and I can make a living from this down the line.”  I abandoned my drawing and poured myself into my research and practiced breathing techniques and wrote lesson plans like I used to do when I was an English teacher.

I started to become confused.  Which path of creativity should I take in order to make a new life for myself?  Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life while I’m here?  How long am I going to be here in Asheville?  Will I stay forever or will I return to the Midwest or will I move somewhere else and do something else?  Will I run out of money before I accomplish anything in this world worth doing?  Am I on the right track?  Am I happy?  Where has my passion and my spirituality and deep connection to my heart and to the earth gone?  Why am I not feeling anything?  Why do I feel like I am off course?  What the hell am I doing here?  What the hell are we all doing here?  And down and down and down the rabbit hole I went.

I slipped into a mild depression without realizing it.   It didn’t help anything that I had suffered a very bad haircut.  A mop of hair with two different dye-jobs and  silver-white chunks sitting precariously on top of my head.  Zits popped up and a few pounds stuck to my cheeks (on both ends) from the treats at work.  Even my apartment appeared cluttered and small.  I piled up dishes in the sink and pulled out clean ones from the dishwasher. A tumbleweed of loose hair (mine and my pets’) drifted across the bathroom floor as I walked in and brushed my teeth the other day.  I shut off the sink and the lights when I finished and simply walked away.  Too tired to pick up a tiny mess.

A few days ago, I experienced the throws of angst in my body 2 hours before I went to work.  I was sweating.  My breathing was shallow.  I was jittery and couldn’t sit still.  My mind jumped around to all the “what ifs” and projected worries and difficulties that could and would happen.  I had the same exact feelings and thoughts I used to have before I walked into the hallways of Belleville West high school where I used to teach.  Trader Joe’s is a simple, albeit very physical, job.  There is no stress or pressure to it (although, there is some drama and some very real frustrations of dealing with a few of the arrogant young men that work there…I’ll save all of that for a later post).  Fortunately, I have an arsenal of resources and techniques I’ve cultivated over the years (ones that I will share at my workshop), and I tamed and curbed my anxiety and understood it for what it was:  an old biological and psychological pattern that is from my past and is revealing itself in my present.  The only control I have over it is to not let it be a part of my future.

My body wasn’t done with me just yet, however.  Yesterday was a full day of practicing and teaching yoga, meeting with a spiritual teacher for personal and workshop reasons, working on a writing project for him, all the while neglecting housework and life’s necessary drudgeries.  I sat down on my couch for a few minutes before getting ready to meet with a friend for a bluegrass concert, and my body took over.  I felt heavy and achy.  My eyes watered and a dry cough started in my throat.  I tried to fall asleep on my couch, but my dog barked at every single noise my upstairs neighbors and their wild dogs made.  I forced back tears and got up, showered, and went to my friend’s house and later the concert.  The food we ate was delicious and the band was amazing.  That perked me up until they took a break and I realized I needed a mental, emotional, and physical break as well.

I didn’t go to work today.  I knew it was time to purge myself of this cold and these negative thoughts.  To awaken my body again to its resiliency and awaken my spirit as well.  I took it easy this a.m. and when I had enough energy, I cleaned my apartment in a mindful way.  I threw out or donated what was no longer serving me.  In my spare bedroom closet, I came across a stack of my old journals with beautiful ideas and words in them.  I smiled and a memory of my 10-year-old self came back when I realized I loved words and wrote poetry about soaring eagles or about the soft glow of the streetlight as I walked our family dog, Oscar.  I also found a stack of drawings and doodles I did on my free time when I had a career.  They’re not too bad and they show that I do have an innate sense of perspective, color, and design and a creative and unique approach to my subject matter.

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More importantly, I know how I felt channeling the words and the images through my mind.  My hands.  My heart.  I know that mythical time is there to support me and this linear time of moving about my day and earning money does not always have to be 100% in alignment with that.  Times like the winter solstice can help us go inward and empty out all that is dead and not working for us.  We can open up space and shine a light inside our hearts as a way to nurture what is to grow next. We cannot force its growth.  It must germinate and emerge from the depths of our souls on its own time.  Just like Persephone’s return from the Underworld.  Her mother’s sadness of losing her daughter is the world’s gain in the future when Persephone walks the earth with her mother again for a short while.

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When I found these drawings, I almost wanted to say “Fuck off” to my old self who had locked my mind, body, and spirit into a very unhealthy way of being where I consumed myself with martyrdom, angst, worry, and an authoritarian mentality inside a world confined to a small classroom inside a brick building.   But I brought compassion to that old part of me that is still somewhat wired in my brain and my body and comes out in awkward moments like I mentioned.  What I do know is that inside me all along has been the writer, the artist, the communicator, the teacher who can express the tenderness and beauty of the subtle and mysterious world.  Who can tell stories and myths and weave them into a yoga class or a blog post.  Who can help guide people through their own personal journey that is riddled with fear and grief.  Who knows the way to creating a body-mind-heart connection, even if it is for a brief moment.  Who is not a fraud, but a growing being with human skin and bones.  Imperfect but authentic in her pursuit of something bigger and more meaningful and helpful to humanity that only her blip of a moment on this planet can provide.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.