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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Asheville Time

I clock in to my job at Trader Joe’s and I begin my training by shadowing a seasoned worker for the entire 8 hour shift.  I have learned much in 7 days.   I stock product on the shelf and I talk to customers and help them find items.  I barely know the products we sell and I rarely know where they are located.  I figure it out anyway and I get lots of help from my very cool and friendly co-workers.  Last night, I learned how to use the cardboard baler (a task that if done improperly could maim you) and I loaded up the cookie and snack aisles for about 4 hours non-stop.  I worked second shift last week.  This week, I will work the early morning shifts and learn how to run the cash register and all the detailed tasks that go along with this particular job.

I have been spending my shifts with predominantly men and listen to them announce their “bro love” in words that consist of “dude,” “fuck,” “asshole,” and other creative cursing phrases that are said in jest. This is genuine locker room talk that has no malice or perversion to it whatsoever.  They punch each other in the arm, steal the box cutters off each other’s hip holsters, or give each other high fives in passing.  One morning, I came in at 6:30 to help stock shelves before the mandatory store meeting at 7.  A guy next to me, who is a profound meditator and wears mala beads and talks about listening to Tibetan singing bowls as he does his chores around his house, dropped a head of lettuce on the floor and got upset with himself.  His friend nearby picked it up for him and then twisted his nipple and cajoled him before moving on to his task.  My work mate laughed and said, “Thanks, dude.  Sometimes I can be such a vagina-whacker.”  I laughed and he noticed me and blushed.  He apologized profusely and I told him we were cool.  “Aw, dude, thanks,” he said and then asked me about my yoga practice and gave me tips on how to better my meditation practice.

All the guys now call me “dude,” and they have started pulling out my box cutter from my hip holster, giving me high fives in passing, and cursing like sailors in front of me.  Towards the end of the night, one trainer and I stocked wine bottles and talked like hillbillies as we searched for the “pea-nut no-ear” and “Shar-don-ay.”  Another guy nearby took down his man bun and started metal thrasing in the middle of the aisle to the rockin’ 80s tune blaring from the speakers.  Heavy metal hair guy later gave me two rules I should follow while working here:  1.) Put Things On The Shelf (P.T.O.T.S.) and 2.) Don’t be a “dick.”  Easy enough.   It is a sweet relief and a welcomed initiation into the realm of happy, good natured male energy.  I am working my body and my mind is at rest.  I can relax and know that as long as I work hard and am nice to customers and my co-workers, I don’t have anything else to worry about.

I had coffee with my friend Randi the other day and we walked past Trader Joe’s to the coffee shop nearby.  I saw two of my coworkers cross the street and my heart swelled.   Their Hawaiian-themed colorful tshirts marked them as members of my new tribe.  There went my new friends who sang their work tasks in the middle of the aisle and smiled at me and laughed when I made a really clever joke.  There was the young woman who talked books and “deep shit” conversations with me in the break room.  Inside that space were managers and crew members probably dancing to the grooves of Chaka Khan and rapping as they sliced open boxes of brown organic rice or singing to Huey Lewis and the News and making up new lyrics as they walked a customer to the frozen food aisle.

These men and women are artists, writers, musicians with mad skills and creative advice.  I have also cultivated friendships with some strong, beautiful women outside of Trader Joe’s who are published authors and teach in either the yoga studio, or local colleges and universities as well.

It has been a blessing to not have to come home and worry about grading papers or writing lesson plans.  I don’t have to solve people’s problems and I don’t have to handle bad behavior or manage up to 30 teenagers (and sometimes their parents and the administrators and random students in the hallway) every hour, every day, five days a week.  The “Sunday Dreads” that used to fill me with anxiety of the upcoming week are beginning to fade away from my consciousness.  I am in the process of divorcing myself from my old self in which I had married myself to my job and my duties and sense of profound responsibility and mentorship.

I am working on releasing myself from old baggage and bondage and stuck-in-the-groove recordings of negative thoughts I use to tell myself about who I believe I am.  I am shifting away from identifying as a former high school English teacher and I am giving myself permission to tell people I am a writer.

The pace of living here is much slower and laid back than I am used to.  About three weeks ago, my friend Alex and I drove up Lonesome Mountain Road.  It is about twenty minutes away from here and is filled with twists and two tight hairpin turns.  We were going to have dinner with my former neighbor, Darby, and his buddy Leigh.  Leigh built a treehouse on the edge of a trout pond and Darby is living there while he searches for land and a home to buy.  The treehouse is a compilation of dreamed up ideas and ecologically sound ideals, and it is riddled with piles of used lumber, old tools, and a compost toilet nearby (i.e., a “poop in the woods” hole in the ground that is covered behind a tattered tarp).  We arrived an hour later than planned and Darby was still grilling the meat and sweet potatoes and yams.  Leigh asked for us to gather around for an offering before the evening began.  He passed around a roach clip with his best marijuana rolled tightly into a joint.  Darby and I stepped out as everyone else partook in the ritual.

img_2734I walked down the edge of the gravel road and admired the beauty of the place.  Here before me were wildflowers and marigolds rich in abundance and color.  No streetlights were around and the setting sun was beginning to dip below the tree line.   My dog raced with someone else’s golden retriever.  Both became muddy and exhausted on their foray around the property.  Leigh, Beth, Ron, and Barbara all walked down to the pond to harvest water lettuce and other vegetables and greens from Leigh’s garden.  Darby bustled around the tiny space.  He lit the stove’s pilot light and cursed when the flames shot up and wrapped around the cast iron skillet.  He popped back outside to check on the grill while the others were still moseying around the pond, ogling all the wild things in their presence.

I asked where the bathroom was.  Darby pointed to the tent about 50 feet away from the treehouse.  I knew this was the “compost toilet” he had mentioned.  I shook my head and started that way.  Darby has complained numerous times that he can’t bring himself to poop in the woods like a bear.  Although this pooper and makeshift shower has a compostable filtration tube that you have to aim into before it is washed away by the underground water system and filtered through the rocks and sand, Darby says it feels more natural to him to poop in a bag and dispose of it when he goes into town every couple of days.  “It seems more civilized that way,” he told us when the topic got brought up again for the third time that evening.  I hated to tell the man that he was one step away from adult diapers so I marched myself out into the woods, away from the contraption to let myself flow freely with nature.img_2742

When I came back inside, Darby was griping about Leigh’s lack of initiative and unwillingness to thank him for all the work he’s done.  He went on about how he cleans up the place, cooks them breakfast and dinner every day while Leigh smokes another joint.  Once their morning routine and bickering is over, they go outside and work on constructing another out building across from the tree house.  Leigh walked in on Darby’s tirade and smiled at his best friend.  Darby put his arm around him and said, “We bitch at each other, but at the end of the day we just fuckin’ bang it out, don’t we man?”   Leigh shook his head, his curly white locks shaking in front of him.  He patted Darby on the back and sauntered over to the table.  He turned up the Bob Marley song on his computer and shoved a cracker and slice of cheese in his mouth.  All was right with their world.

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Later in the evening, Leigh had us gather around the campfire outside and he did a “two minute” ceremony where he mumbled out his gratitude for all of us being in his home.  His buddy Ron scratched underneath his chin, shaking his white beard that was tied up into a braid.  Ron replied, “Yeah, thanks, man for having us out here.”  We all said our thanks in this ritual while Darby hustled around and offered us our meal of either BBQ chicken or venison and sauteed greens from Leigh’s garden.  We finished the evening with an apple cobbler I made and talked about art and writing.

When we left, my friend pointed up to the night sky.  We stood near my car and looked upward.  The Milky Way was twinkling above us in shimmering dots of yellow and swirls of purple and pink.   I’ve never witnessed anything like it in my life.  The doorway to an infinite realm stretched out above us.  Below was the dirt and the grass and us.  All these elements and more from those stars.

Days and weeks have passed by me at a snail’s pace.  Yet, I also exist in a swirl of creativity and waves of emotion.  I feel more connected to this land and this city now that I am developing a routine and meeting more people.  I still struggle with opening up to that same creativity and emotional surge that is brimming under the surface.  My head tries to work out the logistics of my new lifestyle.  It worries daily about money, bills, connections, schedules, friends and family, and any other scheme or strategy it can lock onto as a way to keep me safe and keep me small.   I try to dance the dance between creative freedom and expression and living practically and sensibly.  I still have this belief that I must accomplish some type of creative project and become successful with it in order to prove to myself and others that I made the right decision to come out here.  I also struggle with this imaginary time line where I believe that I must choose a definitive date to end my sabbatical and have something to show for it before I go back to a “normal life” and a “normal routine”.

My heart, on the other hand, is swelling with emotions and longing to be expressed.

I struggle so much with this desire to be purely creative.    Thankfully, an eight hour shift of putting things on the shelf, bagging groceries, and being nice to people erase all fears and doubts for the day.  After work, I was free to go with a small group of friends to Max Patch bald an hour away.  We hiked up to the Appalachian Trail pass and witnessed a 360 degree view of the mountains and the gradual changing of the leaf colors.  My dog ran in and around us.  We sat in the grass and looked upon the swelling moon that was just beginning its tour of the horizon.  The sun was to our backs and warmed us as the mountain breeze blew over us.  All of us sat in silence, alone with our thoughts.  

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I laid back in the grass and let out a sigh.  These mountains have called me and I have heeded their call.  It is not up to me to work out and carve out a “normal life” that brings me money, success, recognition, or a comfortable pension.  I am to be worked on by the grandmotherly love and ancient energy and medicine of these mountains.  All  those who live in this area or visit here have said the exact same thing.  These mountains heal and offer up gifts to those who are willing to receive.

I rested my head on the tufts of grass behind me and could still see the soft curves of the mountains.  My friend asked me what I was thinking.  I said to him, “I’ve never let myself do anything like this before.”  I honestly don’t know what I meant by those words.  It was the best I could come to expressing that I was healing my old wounds and letting the cool breeze, the mountain landscape, and the pure clean air erase all traces of self-doubt.    Two tears dripped down the sides of my face and landed in the dirt.  I closed my eyes just as my dog jumped over me.  The mountains were working their magic on me.

This is Asheville time.  There is no rhyme or reason or linear way of being.  It is as near to mythical time as I can get.  I must yield and open up to these gifts.  They will come out in their own time and in their own way.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll put on my Chaco sandals and buy a Subaru (the official car of these mountains).  Then I’ll be able to drive to town in style and meet Darby for a cup of coffee after his daily dump.

 

 

The Wild One and Her Muse: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 4

I had a voracious appetite when I was in Colorado.  I ate a wide variety of foods set before me at the buffet style meals in the lodge.  Bison lasagna?  Put it on my plate.  Stewed lamb with tsatsiki sauce?  Put it on my plate.  Roasted garlic chicken, acorn squash soup, quinoa and oatmeal with stewed fruit, pastrami sandwich with hummus, lettuce, and tomato, root vegetables in tomato sauce with basmati rice?  Put it all on my plate and give me seconds when possible.

True, I spent the majority of my days hiking in the forest, but there was more to my appetite and the fact that I needed calories and protein to sustain the strenuous daily activities.  I came to realize how much I have denied my connection to the earth, to my body, to my sensuality and pleasure of life in general.  I felt a need to prove to myself and others that I was maintaining a strict diet that helped cure my Crohn’s dis-ease, keeping up a strict exercise routine (complete with fancy yoga poses) to aid my lumbar spine, SI joint, and sciatica issues, and always saying “Yes,” when asked to help take care of others’ needs, even if it meant pushing aside my wants and desires.  If I did all of these things, then I would finally prove that I am “good-enough,” “worthy-enough,” and “lovable-enough” to be accepted and loved.  By doing all these things and so much more I could justify all the good things and events that happen to occasionally show up in my life.  The worst thing about this self-imposed mental prison of conformity?  I was the one that had locked myself inside and hid away the key somewhere in my psyche.  The youth-oriented, material-driven, pleasure-denying and rewarding, guilt-ridden, ego-inflating and shaming immature aspects of our Western society don’t help matters much either.

Turns out, I’m a very sensual, emotional, loving, tender-hearted woman.  Yet, I’ve devised techniques over the years to hide as much of that side of myself as possible due to so much heart-break, shameful experiences, and confusion about what it means to be a woman.  I’ve always thought I had to be emotionally strong, independent, opinionated, forceful, and in control at all times.  My heart, my imagination, and my body were not places to inhabit full time.  My linear, logical mind was what got things done, got me a good job, (and also gave me a lot of grief and anxiety).  It was the comfort zone-safe space for the majority of my 20s & 30s.

For so many reasons (too many to list here), I pushed away and/or safe-guarded my sensuality, my creativity, my tenderness and intuition.  I was an artist, a dancer, and a writer from a very early age.  I could move my hips and shoulders in rhythm with any beat.  I could paint and draw and express my raw and unbridled emotions in a variety of ways and with a plethora of unique words, phrases, body movements, shapes and colors.

One thing I loved to paint, draw, write about, and imagine I was when I went out into nature, was deer, the doe in particular.  Recently, I cleaned out my closets and came across three drawings of a doe, a stag, and a fawn that I did when I was in the 5th-7th grades.  These paintings made me smile and I have them displayed in my house along with other porcelain figures of deer that I have collected over the decades.  I have been drawn to deer for as long as I can remember.  They’re so graceful, gentle, intuitive, brave, perceptive creatures.  They can adapt to almost any situation and living condition.  although many of my Midwestern friends and family would say they’re a nuisance, for me they inspire a sense of tenderness and divine feminine quality inside of me.

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In Colorado, I finally returned fully to my body and fed it with earthy, delicious, sensual, tasty food.  I moved my hips and shoulders to the rhythm of drum beats in our group activities.  I peeled away layers of clothing under the dappled, sunlit aspens, and revealed the flesh of my arms, wiping sweat away from my brow as I continued my hike.  I pressed hot sunbaked stones to my cheek and smelled the dusty earth that covered them.  I dipped my polished toenails in the creek bed and slid my feet into the cool waters of the gently flowing stream as the smooth river rocks massaged my achy feet.  I laid down in tall grasses and stared up at the sky and listened to the wind moving through each blade,  crickets playing bass, and birds chirping a melody.

And I cried tears of joy.  Of sadness.  Of longing for what was lost to my regimented mind and old ways.  Of a longing to rekindle whatever wasn’t dried up from years of neglect, shame, and self-doubt.

What I didn’t realize is that nothing was lost or dried up.  And my tears were a gift.  A way to signify that I was present with and able to express all of my emotions.  That I had all the tools to unlock myself from my self-imposed prison.  My heart was cracking open and the tears were breaking through the floodgate.  What would follow?  Well, that was (and sometimes still is) a mystery.

One day, we were divided into two small groups for the afternoon’s activity.  I was with 4 other people and one of our guides, Gene.  I remember Gene telling us a personal story of how he finally owned up to his sensual, passionate side of himself and told us, “I may be small in stature, but I’m big in heart. . .I realized then that I love who I love, and I want what I want.”  His story of reclaiming his wild, passionate, sensual side inspired me.  If this strong, earthy, passionate, kind, tenderhearted man could own his wild, beautiful self, then why couldn’t I?  I realized on this trip that I was not a “freak,” and “artsy-fartsy hippy,” or a “wimpy” person who was overly sensitive and emotional.  That it was just those passionate, tender, artistic, creative, sensual aspects of myself that I and others need to see and know and learn about in order to grow and feel more connected to the world and each other.  Staying small and safe is more destructive than being vulnerable, open, and true to one’s nature and gifts/talents.

After one of our many large group discussions, I set off on a solo creek and headed for the creek and meadow that called to me earlier on that day’s first hike.  I turned the bend, and in the clearing I saw the gentle slopes and sinewy curves of a doe foraging in the field.  My breath caught and she looked up.  I stopped walking.  We locked eyes.  I smiled and waved to her. She did not move or look away and we continued to hold each other’s gaze.  I took off my sunglasses and hat and lowered my pack by sliding it down my arm and leg until it settled to the ground.  I blew her kisses and laughed.  Still she did not move.  Her eyes pierced me and a sudden urge to go deep inside of my heart and soul came over me.  So, without fear or embarrassment of other hikers who may walk by me, I opened up my arms wide and offered her my heart – fully & completely.  At that moment I felt so very vulnerable, but I knew that was what she was asking of me.  As if on cue, she stood straight up, elongated her neck, spread her ears wide, and broadened her chest.  Gazing into each others’ eyes, we stood – Heart to Heart.  The Wild One and Her Muse.photo

Day 3: Master Craftsmen & the Art of Storytelling

Creating art, in all its forms, is to possess a combination of creativity, passion & skill mixed with a certain sensitivity, vulnerability & openness to life. A master artisan, craftsman, musician or storyteller must learn how to channel all this and, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, bring “what is within, out into the world.” By the artist harnessing and fine-tuning all of his or her talent, the viewer, listener or reader will be transformed. This is what I experienced today here in Waterford, Ireland.

As a culture, we Americans put a lot of emphasis and expectations on our celebrities. We also harbor a secret desire to be recognized & some of us crave fame & fortune because to be recognized for something we are good at & then put on a pedestal & have our work admired, means we have “arrived”. The vast majority of us will never, ever be famous, regardless of how talented we are, while those who can sell products, act outrageous or fill stadiums will continue to flounder or flourish in the spotlight. There are great artists, musicians, writers, poets, dancers, singers, actors and craftsmen that will go unnoticed or unrecognized their whole entire lives, yet they are so dedicated to their passion, talent, craft, art or music that they will create art for art’s sake. They are the ones that silently, elegantly, beautifully, unwittingly change lives of those they encounter.

Take the master glass blowers and glass cutters at the Waterford crystal factory I observed today. I don’t know their names or their life stories, but I do know that they carefully etch intricate designs on elegant crystal or work laboriously heating, shaping & blowing the glass to create stemware that will be used by royalty, trophies that will be given to champions &gifts presented to heads of states.  These craftsmen will never receive any award themselves nor will they leave their names somewhere etched on the bottom of the crystal vase, bowl, or statue. Yet, they endured 10 years of training and art school and 3 years of apprenticeship before ever being allowed to handle the intricate & labor intensive work that is required of them. And if they make one tiny mistake, their piece will have to be smashed & thrown back in the kiln & reheated again & the tedious process must be started all over again.

Or take our local guide, Jack, who took us on a walking tour of his beloved city and gave us a history lesson mixed with a lively, witty, well crafted & executed story at every single stopping point, whether it was a Roccocco styled Anglican Church, a fortified ancient Viking tower. Or his history lesson he had us act out to demonstrate Irish-English relations over the centuries. I only now remember this story because of his interesting spin on it and because he knew how to deliver it so wonderfully to make it educational & entertaining at the same time. He conducts these walking tours daily (among being a consulted historian on many archeological digs in the area) and can read a group’s mood, identify strangers who are willing to participate & find a way to also have a personal conversation with each and every person by the end of the tour & then hope that he is thanked or given a nice tip for his art of storytelling.

And lastly, I met a musician/singer tonight who really made me understand that creating & presenting one’s art or craft to an audience is not about your ego and getting praise, but about tapping into emotions (yours & your audience’s) and giving your gift freely and joyfully. His name is Dermot Power. Odds are he will, like most amazingly talented people, never perform at large stadiums, or in front of heads of state or be offered millions of dollars in recording contracts & tour dates. He sang with a clear, beautiful & honest voice. He played his guitar with such ease & skill. He told stories & gave the history of the ballads he was singing. He talked to us and asked us questions. He made us laugh and made me cry on two separate occasions. Those were songs that had a melancholy overtone to them: “Working Man” writtenby Rita McNeil & an a cappella rendition of the famous Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Ragland Road.” He also sang funny “ditties” that made the family from Michigan so happy. The teenage girls swayed to his music, the little 3 year old girl sitting on her mom’s lap clapped her hands, the dad & the oldest daughter smiled and talked & elbowed each other every time Dermot repeated the funny chorus line. My travel buddy, Kristin & I had so much fun that we stayed until closing time. And 8 elderly women from Dublin sat in a small corner booth & sang a long to the Irish ballads of their youth.

That is what art, in its purest form does: it brings what is within you, out into the world.

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