Happy Christmas Eve Eve

My brain is total mush. The night is a wash of panic & exhaustion. Is the baby alive? Did she fall off my chest? Will she ever stop grunting in the cold, hard box that is supposed to be a bed? It occurred to me the other day that perhaps I depend on other people too much for my happiness. Perhaps the echo logic of my mind: should we move back? should we stay here? what should I do with my life? Has to do with this common human problem of existential emptiness. I’ve been eating cookies and bagels and my second son is hounding me to make mini-waffles with the tiniest waffle maker I’ve ever seen, which was a Christmas gift from a student.

In college I studied philosophy. I wanted to major in everything. I was obsessed with esoteric knowledge — which felt like magic spells made of words and power. I was desperate for approval, survival, and love. After I graduated with a BA in English, I took a French Literature course (in French) and got my first C. I had planned on applying to graduate programs in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, a specialized study of modern philosophy and language, but I never did. I moved to Vermont in January of 2005, migrating to creative writing while firmly establishing myself in what I considered an extremely male-dominated sub-culture of not-yet-woke, pre-hipster hipsters invested in music, literature, drugs, art and womanizing.

That chapter of my life remains ensconced in cold early mornings mopping the floor of a coffee shop bar, listening to the same CDs on repeat (Lenard Cohn, Bonnie Prince Billy), windows fogged or frosted in ice, the smell of stale beer and fresh brewed coffee stuck to my clothing like a fragrance. It was cozy & extremely cold. I loved when the sun set at five and I lit the candles across the room and the hippie-hipsters came in with their huge boots and woolly hats and mittens– long skirts over pants, and sat down to sip mulled wine or hot totties, leaving behind a puddle of melted snow. It felt like I had found a home. But always, the edge, the empty parts remained tender and untouchable.

I drank enormous bottles of beer upstairs in my cousin’s apartment where I was staying until I found a room to rent on Greene Street. Beer that I can still taste in my throat, bitter, dark and delicious. Eventually I turned to wine and that, thankfully, led to an ending.

The baby doesn’t sleep well at night. The snow makes me feel claustrophobic, but also joy when the sun shines and the light is amplified. I’d prefer to give the baby a bottle, a sort of parenting equalizer, but I cannot.

bb & me

All this time since she was born at the end of October, I have missed home and now that it’s Christmas, when we normally visit, I feel the ache of that longing more than ever. I miss the cold of Northern Minnesota, the crunch of snow under my feet; the long, cold runs passed snow covered evergreens followed by the hot sweat of the sauna. I miss sitting in the living room drinking coffee with my siblings and parents, while the kids binge watch TV in the basement. I miss the large Christmas Eve gathering, the chaos of so many beloveds in one home– a place and family built by my mother and father.

The tiptoe dance of one against the other–which place will love me more? will I love more? Perhaps its the curse of having choices to want other than this. Also, the current and pulse of my life–anxious wanting, getting, and feeling the curse of disappointment. But perhaps this isn’t a thing to change, to eradicate with meditations and chants and picked over Buddhist insights; perhaps, it just is, and this wanting, this pulse, is me–fully alive even in this haze of sleeplessness, doughy minded and soft.

I resist the urge to write anything cathartic or merry. I don’t feel those things. Though I feel pockets of joy. Catharsis is to nonfiction as plot is to fiction. Necessary but overwrought.

I’ve become waterlogged in self help-y, self care pause and smell the roses shit and long for the hard edges of logic, which I took instead of algebra or basic math in undergrad. What part of our human brain seeks the cold, controlled contours of this life? Nothing in nature is this way and yet I feel the imposed strictures of commerce and time pushing into everything, pressing and pressing until the skin breaks. The doing-ness obsession. One cannot just sit and look at a baby as she nurses, she must scroll or read or eat or drink more water; she must make requests of her husband, children, mother; or mentally list the tasks she’ll complete afterwards when the baby finally sleeps.

For a moment after the baby was born, a reprieve. The dewy womb of afterbirth, love-panic-exhuastion-love covers everything, a stained glass window / breast-milk squirting out like a hose over everything / the lure of cookies. But then, around six-weeks, its shimmer slips – the feelings of tender hollow angst, the old neuroses and anxieties and lists of things undone returned, and with it the emptiness–the huge God-hole as they say, the enormous crater of abyss, the crying over beauty and death and love and loss and longing, followed by the mean edged desire to win, to get ahead, to be the drone they’ve trained you to be since birth. Don’t pretend you’re above it all, your culture.

But the light pushes through, soft and ever-present, unassuming, self assured. There are other worlds. Worlds upon worlds always, their fingers reaching like the tiny hand of the baby tickling your skin–your sagging, mottled, old skin, well loved, ever so well loved.

The First Geese of Spring

Photo by Julia Craice

I saw the first geese of spring this morning while standing on the porch, watching my son point to them from the driveway. When the geese depart and when they return are sacred times for me. They mark the coming and going of the dark season. There’s a letting go and letting in that happen in parallel — deeply corporeal in form. One of those wordless knowings that come through like a prayer or an intuition or a long forgotten scent worthy of time travel.

The little motions of springs remind me of Emily Dickinson’s dashes — breath ballooning out in space that has been created through ritual you made over the years without even realizing it. Here returns the body in prayer. Something to do also with Rumi’s love dogs — the longing you feel is the answer. I might cry now.

In Vermont, it’s sugaring season. Everywhere sap lines are strung between trees, silver buckets tapped into the sides of sugar maples. Soon the annual posts from sugar houses full of steam. There can’t be a more perfect way to begin the movement towards spring, the long poem of her becoming, but in a sugar house covered in the sweet smell and warmth of boiling sap.

~

All winter I have sought the comfort of tea: tulsi, nettle leaf, chamomile, red clover; mint and lemon balm and lavender from my garden.

Photo by Loverna Journey

Lately, I have been writing about forgiveness, flipping Tarot cards, and logging daily “morning pages” in my journal. I have been sitting before a single lit candle for exactly 12 minutes trying to meditate while my body engages in a wrestling match. I have been making soup, buying bread, walking through town alone with oat milk lattes (Lost Monarch’s are the best) and buying books like an oragami of salvation.

Yesterday, I bought The Book of Mythical Beasts & Magical Creatures for my youngest son, who lately has been obsessed with Greek Myths via a podcast called “Greeking Out.” He wakes me in the morning and I ask him to tell me his dreams, which he almost never recalls. Instead he tells a story, I dreamed of worms and a wormhole in the ground the same color as worm skin. Today in the half fog of before coffee, his story included imagery that I could tell came from his beloved myths… the head of a beautiful woman attached to the body of a bird, to which I cringe.

~

The geese form a recitatif between winter and spring: an interlude, a break, something to take me from my domesticity. They seem both archaic and otherworldly. In the fall, they cry into dark night, but in the spring, the are flush with the wild winds of March, the cracking open of the winter shell.

Until I grew older, I never understood the value of these seasonal touchstones. Though I grew up in the woods, I lived divided from my body as a young woman and long into adulthood, and thus the physical world. Spring hurt me. It felt like a cruel joke in the crushing sea of trying to get by, surviving the daily onslaught of tasks and responsibilities; anxieties, hopes and dreams that always felt impossible, lofty goals that perhaps weren’t really even my own.

I did not understand how the planning of a garden, the starting of seeds indoors, the planting of that garden and the daily devotion to its life, could change a person. I did not understand the way we long for rituals of the earth and fill this void, in our time, with consumption in all its varying chimeras. I did not know the way the geese could be the supple dash of Dickinson:

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –

Or that my son’s devotion to a flock of chickens and two ducks could teach me something about the way he longs to be loved. I did not let myself walk long enough alone in the woods to fully recognize the parts of me that came alive in that landscape; I had not learned how to nurture myself this way or how to seek new paths through the trees, trails and road, in order to keep my vision of the world alive, to warm the visionary within.

You can be told that you possess everything you need within you. Those words can become a mantra for years, but our awakenings are not fully our own, they happen in a different time, a landscape and place both fully of the body and otherworldly or “a beautiful and strange otherness.” Human biologist Paul Shepard in Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow says, “The grief and sense of loss, that we often interpret as a failure in our personality, is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.”

Weller writes of how animals shaped who we are as a species; they were the first things we depicted in cave drawings. They continue to speak to us in the myths and stories of our ancestry. Their beautiful and strange otherness, however, has been all but lost in humanity’s relentless desire to conquer and control.

But I wonder, how do these lost parts of our soul inform the wretchedness of our world? Can they still provide for us if we do not provide a place (space) for them? In the face of so much loss–loss of our planet, loss of our home, loss of ways of life, loss of nature, loss of small places like a corner store, loss of our connection to the physical world and so on–and the violence of systems of oppression, how do we find hope?

At the edge of winter, many around me are breaking like the shattered ice of waterways. The tides within pull us apart; we heave forth, throwing ourselves against the shores in the splitting sun, breaking down little by little until we flow freely. We are struggling, now, to find our way in yet another new world. And in the face of all this, we are planning our gardens in the shape of our souls. Waiting for the geese to return. Boiling sap into maple syrup that will cover our oatmeal and pancakes and biscuits come next winter.

The open water, the open soil, the open field, the open sky, form the long and supple dash of all that we hope for and can only really be known through the “beautiful and strange otherness” that we were born longing.


Books & things:

I’m currently reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro who also wrote The Remains of the Day. It’s definitely a page-turner and a deep dive into human psychology. I’m told the ending is devastating.

I recently read the poet Anne Boyer’s memoir on illness, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness, which won the pulitzer. It’s a breathtaking account of her immersion into the cold, impersonal institution of modern medicine.

I recommend Toni Morrison’s short story Recitatif which we just read in my Intro to Lit class. It’s brilliant. You can read it here.

I’m teaching a monthly writing workshop online through the Howe Library. More about that here. There’s only a few spots left. So sign up if you’re interested.

We just watched the first episode of The Stand (based on Stephen King’s novel about a pandemic) last night. I highly recommend! It’s interesting to watch how they recreate this classic in light of current times.

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Thresholds: The Sacred Rituals of the Everyday

On Monday, in my writing group, we read Maggie Smith’s poem “Threshold.” The three of us all thought of threshold differently. One, thought of the exact moment of crossing between as in the point when the light turns to darkness each evening. Another imagined a going between space, the movement from one thing to the next, as in a phase of life, perhaps. I imagined the threshold of reaching a limit, as in a threshold for pain. What do you think of when you hear the word threshold?

The first line of Smith’s poem:

You want a door you can be
            on both sides of at once.

Reminds me of the space I often occupy. I feel between things. I am on the threshold of middle age, not quite ready to accept this transition. Some would easily call me middle aged and others would laugh at the suggestion. It seems reviewers love to call women in their forties middle-aged. To make a note of it, as though we need this information in order to understand their work. I noticed it again recently in a review of Eula Biss’s new essay collection Having and Being Had, on class, property, the demands of capitalism, and how we spend our time. The word “middle-aged” feels like a stain or a check against her. Youth being the ideal of our culture, and entirely wasted on the young, or so they say.

field as threshold

Precision and exactness are something I secretly love, but also loathe. I know that, for example, scientifically speaking, I could identify the exact moments of change. But I prefer poetry as in the feeling one gets on the day that it becomes clear summer has crossed over into autumn. The sinking loss before I turn towards the next season with hope for all it has to offer.

Reaching the threshold could also mean reaching the pinnacle, the prime. But in my mind I think of limits. In many ways, because of my class, whiteness, education, I have fewer limitations than most Americans. The limitations I struggle with are mostly my own use of time and imagination, and my choices around how I make or don’t make money. I have always been pulled by the spoils of Capital towards a desire for comfort, wealth, status, money. But I am also, and I would argue this force is more powerful in my life, pulled by the desire to reject capitalism, to live in my own way, to support others with the work I do, and to write. To make a masterpiece of my own life is to focus on and relish the daily work I do and not its product, which brings me to the sacred nature of everyday ritual.

winter field: light turns to darkness

We make our lives sacred through recognizing what we most value and focusing on it. We do not let the voices of “not enough,” the voice of fear, overcome us. When it arrives we greet it, we welcome it gently–hello, old friend–but then we turn to our sacred, everyday rituals of walking in nature, lighting candles, baking, reading, friendship, and so on. These acts that give our lives meaning also make our lives sacred when we relish in them. Living under the pressures of capitalism, we need a daily refuge and reminder to turn towards what is true and right.

During this most sacred time of year, we battle the wound of Empire. We are taunted by the stuff we must buy, we must do, we must be. But we don’t have to do it. We can turn towards ritual instead. Make this season about the sacredness of your life. Sit under the stars and tell stories to your dear ones, light a bonfire and drink hot coco, walk quietly through the woods, along a lake or a river, through your town or city with all its windows lit up and its comings and goings, sew or bake or write or make, dance or run or twirl alone in your living room. I promise, nothing you buy and no gift you give for the holidays will render as much joy as these simple acts of renewal and gratitude.

with love,

-e