The Cracked-Open Heart

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

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

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

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

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

img_2646

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_2662

Advertisements

Wild.

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

IMG_2078

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

***IMG_2072

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

IMG_2074

IMG_2075

***

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

IMG_2070.JPG

IMG_2077

IMG_2069

 

Weekend Vignette

I.  Plants and Fish Scales

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

IMG_1971

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

FullSizeRender

II. Toe River Stories

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

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

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

IMG_1969

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

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

FullSizeRender

III.  A Dog Named Ashby

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

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

FullSizeRender

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

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

FullSizeRender

FullSizeRender

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

FullSizeRender