How will you enter the new world when you get there? How will you even know you when you have arrived? Will a score of gleaming knights on black stallions ride across a causeway, trumpets blaring? Will the forest path end abruptly at the top of a windy cliff high above a roiling green sea? Will there be a hidden doorway behind a veil of vines in the back corner of a neglected garden?
I see how it is with you, Princess. You knock on the door of my cottage— so brave of you to come to the witch for advice. You’ve got all the steps memorized, don’t you?. Admit it.
One: Learn to spin and to weave. Bake bread. Learn to sing. Speak the truth, but in stories.
Two: Take a walk in the woods, though all have warned you against it. Don’t forget to put into your pocket the doll your mother gave you.
Three: Be kind to the Old One sitting at the crossroad who asks for your bread.
Four: Offer your service to the crone who lives in the cottage made of wishes and bones.
You’re a conscientious follower of the tales, you are. No leaf unturned, no story left untold. You have folded your heart into an origami bird, ready for flying.
The only crumb you missed on the way to the house of the witch is this one: The whole point, my dear—the sole purpose of this journey is that you learn one thing— You must relinquish your control. Offer the story to the birds who come to collect the crumbs on the pathway. The Old One who asks bread of you seeks not the loaf you have carefully prepared for the purpose, but the one you’ve been saving for yourself. Your mother’s doll will offer good advice, but the tool you most need you will find on the way.
This story, your story, isn’t intended to follow the formula you studied with such care. The truth you found so dear in all the others will not guide the plot of your own. The Guide you seek might be a tree, or a stone, or a wide shallow river. Find your own signposts. Seek your own star. Learn your own recipes for kindness and bread. And please, close the door on your way out.
Gratitude List: 1. Wonder. When I was a kid, my teacher had us fill a jar with wet paper towels, and then poke seeds around the edges, and we watched the corn grow roots and sprouts. Last fall, I brought a jar and some corn into my classroom, and set it on my desk, hoping to get around to doing it in my classroom, just to see what would happen. (I’m a high school English teacher, but wonder is wonder, and science belongs everywhere.) Last week, my students were asking me about the jar, and one of them went and filled it with wet paper towels, and I poked the little kernels in, kind of doubting that it would work as I remembered. But the roots have been growing down, long and strong, and several sturdy green shoots are shooting upward. My students are loving it as much as I am. We’re all rooting (ha!) for the little plants. I guess I will have to transplant them soon, and then I’ll have sweet corn this summer! (Next up: beans.) 2. The power of personal narrative. We do a lot of personal narratives in writing classes. It can be a little challenging to keep it fresh, especially when you have the same students in a couple different classes, but it’s part of the deep curriculum at my school: We want our students to be able to self-examine, to understand who they are. 3. Colors. A student of mine introduced me to the game I Love Hue, an app that sets up a grid of colored squares, and then rearranges a bunch of them, and you have to move them back to the right places in relationship to each other. Sometimes I am a whiz at this game, and sometimes I am terrible. My brain is not consistent in its recognition of varieties of hues. I feel like I’m learning and improving my sense of hues, especially as they shift around the grid in relationship to each other. 4. Books. A friend recommended The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. It came in the mail yesterday. I want to read it with Josiah, and we’re currently into Avi’s Ragweed and Poppy series, so it will wait, but I am excited to get started. (We were reading The Book of the Dun Cow, but I had forgotten that the basilisks killed Pertelote and Chauntecleer’s three chicks, and that was a deal-breaker for us. We stopped the book.) 5. When the planning works out. My brain was so foggy last night that I went to bed without a plan for Speech class, but I woke up with a very clear picture in my brain of the file where I had last year’s plans for the same thing, and I found it this morning, and it’s brilliant. I don’t know what foggy-brained-me was thinking, trying to re-invent the plans all over.
Beloveds, we are just over halfway to through this December labyrinth walk into the dark. The light begins to return on Solstice, on the 21st.
Where I live, the holiday traffic is ramping up to frantic, and the afternoon commute gets long and dark and claustrophobic. Yesterday, I nearly let the long ride home ruin my evening. Being trapped in a box on wheels on a highway in the dark for hours feels too much like my inner state in December.
Today, I need to make sure that I am intentionally working to combat the claustrophobia I feel rising in me as the constricting layers of winter clothes and the darkness and the schedule and the traffic have all closed around me.
First, Breathing: Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause: Remember last night’s moon. Breathe in, holding the image of moon. Pause: Let go of the traffic. Breathe out. Pause: Yesterday’s lovely morning snow. Breathe in. Pause: Let go of the work ahead. Breathe out. Pause: So many shining, twinkling lights surround me, students and family and friends. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause. . .
Second, Art: Yesterday before I went to bed, I watched a little video of comic artist Tim Gula doing an exercise in automatic drawing. It’s kind of like a journal free-write, where you just keep your hand moving and put whatever comes down on the paper. I have noticed that even my doodles have become constricted lately, lines choked and tight. I think that some drawing practice might help me to free up some of this claustrophobic inner space.
Third, Story: I’ve queued up the next book in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle on my tablet, and I am going to have it along on the ride to school so we can start to listen to it today.
Perhaps claustrophobia isn’t a struggle for you at this time of year. Is it panic, silence or noise, loneliness? Or maybe this is your happiest time. What are the tools you use to cope with the challenges or to mark and celebrate the joys?
Gratitude List: 1. Story 2. Art 3. Breath 4. Wildness 5. Moon
Today, I am taking a day of work-rest. With stacks of grading that are somehow not grading themselves, I asked to take this day off so that I could catch up to myself. It will not be a day of rest, exactly, but it will be restful. It will be at my pace, though I need to keep it moving so I get as much work accomplished as possible.
And it will be silence. Hours of silence. Me and the cats and the papers. No one needing anything from me except for an occasional head-rub. I need a mini-vacation from being needed. And it’s strange, when my work is words, when the spoken word is my favorite art form to observe and to do, that the rest that I crave is a break from speech. I long for this coming day of silence.
I have begun looking at the mini-breaks that I take in my day, trying to mark and acknowledge them and live into them, so that I can feel them as balm and not simply as escape. In that thirty seconds after the room empties and I need to head off to chapel, can I take three intentional deep breaths? Instead of walking down the hall to lunch, might I detour outside for a moment and greet the Three Magnolia Trees in the corner behind the old classroom building? Can I take three minutes of my prep period to listen to a piece of music every day? Or open my journal and do a five-minute word-dump or fast-write?
What if we were to try to see our moments, or breaks in the day, as little vacations instead of as escapes? If we were to intentionally stop and take breaths, make art, feel silence, listen to our heartbeats, put our feet on earth, commune with plant-beings? I think this will be my plan for the shadow journey ahead.
Gratitude List: 1. The earnestness of Lancaster people to resist injustice and to create compassion. Last night I attended a public meeting of Wing, a local group begun to try to develop community responses to the crisis created by recent immigration policies. The meeting was held at my church, and we filled the parking lot and the edges of the parking lot and the grassy spaces along the lot, and people parked down the streets and walked to the church. There is good energy in this community to do something to help those who are suffering as a result of this country’s harsh immigration detention policies. 2. Women in Black. I am heartened by this group of women who are committed to standing in protest of violence. Last night we stood with a sign proclaiming our solidarity with Kurdish women who are suffering in the wake of Turkish incursions. 3. Poetry and story. The weaving of words. 4. Yesterday, after I asked for today off, I felt such a release of tension and pressure. I’m grateful for understanding administrators and colleagues. I will be a much better colleague and teacher myself for having this day to breathe and catch up. 5. Dawn. The coming of light into the day.
Hear the story of Cassandra: She longed to serve the goddess Athena, to give herself to wisdom and law, to craft and mathematics, to courage and strategy and skill. Athena offered her a life filled with the tools and the skills of her own empowerment, her own scholarship. In Athena’s worship, she could follow the trails of her own curiosity and speak the truths she encountered. Enter Apollo. As patriarchs so often are, he grew jealous of the woman’s devotion to the women’s ways, fearful of truths spoken that issued from sources not under his control. He offered Cassandra music and poetry, promised her the gift of prophecy if only she would serve him instead, a beautiful bird in his golden cage, there to do his bidding and sing his songs instead of her own. Safe. But the safety he promised was his, for her inner knowing, her self-assurance threatened the ego that wanted control of everything. The wisdom of women was mysterious to him, and the mystery disconcerted him and terrified. So he cursed her. Although she refused him, still he gave her the gift of prophecy he had offered, and she would always speak true. Her voice would ring out in the marketplace, telling the story of what was to be. But the curse was this: her voice would not be heeded. As happens in the belly of any patriarchy, the woman’s voice was ignored and discounted. Old wives’ tales! they scoffed. Cassandra is making things up, looking for attention. Pay her no mind. And the fire she saw and spoke of engulfed the city. The mercenaries and looters and kidnappers swarmed the streets as she had foreseen. They broke the ten-year siege, and overthrew the city. Cassandra herself became a pawn of the men in their men’s war, a tool of their scheming. Heed Cassandra, Friends. Listen to her words. Perhaps we can yet rescue her from Apollo’s clutches.
Gratitude List: 1. The Cassandras who will not be silenced, who speak even when threatened, even when they are ignored. 2. Circles of beloveds. 3. Speaking it out loud. Telling the story that itches to get out. 4. The magic of wind and water, fire and air. Everywhere we look, there is magic. 5. Lights at the ends of tunnels.
You need to brood, to hold the day-world deep, to creep through hallways and tunnels in buildings you half remember. Keep things in their rooms, hidden in hollows, behind oaken doors and up stairways, through arches and curtains, where they become something else, symbols of themselves, monsters and midwives.
You must step into the stream of the story, find peace in the threads of the tale that the smallest elf of your deepest self is telling you, sifting and shifting images, sliding pictures through your vision like an old-time stereoscope.
Do not try to remember. Look sideways, like you do at the Pleiades, which you can only see when you look beside them, and never directly. The memory of dreams requires just such a two-step, a soft and sideways focus, peripheral. Write them down. Don’t force sense upon them, but let them unravel onto the page.
Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.
In these chill mornings, while we are waiting in the warm car in the dawn for our carpool companion to come out to the car, I watch how the light rises through the trees in her hollow, how the branches cross and tangle, creating loops and circles and triangles and the shapes of eyes. I am a fan of Zentangles, and I find that lately I am am obsessed with putting lines on the page, crossing and intersecting much as the branches intertwine, as though my mind might float away into the grey winter sky were I not to catch it in a tangle of lines on paper.
While I do sometimes use prayer to describe that place I go when I am consciously opening a space within me to communicate with the Great Mystery, I more often find myself thinking in terms of placing myself deliberately on the web of being, of holding my beloveds in the web of energy generated by Love. The dawn trees, the lines on a page, the webs of prayer: I am held, anchored at least momentarily in time and space. So, tangle will be my word for today, a tangle that holds and anchors and communicates along its seemingly random lines.
Gratitude List: 1. Tangles and webs 2. Trees and dawn 3. Stories that nourish my spirit 4. Planning 5. How meaning comes into being
May we walk in Beauty!
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” ― Walt Whitman
I Looked Up
by Mary Oliver
I looked up and there it was
among the green branches of the pitch pines—
a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back—
color of copper, iron, bronze—
lighting up the dark branches of the pine.
What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.
When I made a little sound
it looked at me, then it looked past me.
Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,
and, as I said, wreathed in fire.
At the Beginning of Winter
by Tom Hennen
In the shallows of the river
After one o’clock in the afternoon
An eighth of an inch thick.
Night never disappears completely
But moves among the shadows
On the bank
Like a glimpse of fur.
Flies and spiderwebs
Appear alone in the flat air.
The naked aspens stand like children
Waiting to be baptized
And the goldenrod too is stripped down
To its bare stalk
In the cold
Even my thoughts
Have lost their foliage.
“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”
― Joseph Campbell
Breath flows in, breath flows out,
Traveling always the curving path of the Goddess.
Breath flows spontaneously of its own will.
Thus all breathing beings
Continually give reverence to Her.
Be conscious of this unconscious prayer,
For She is the most holy place of pilgrimage.
She wishes for you to enter this temple,
Where each breath is adoration
Of the infinite for the incarnate form.
Into this body
As a nectar of the gods.
Every breath is a whisper
Of the Goddess:
“Here is the ritual I ask of you —
Be the cup
Into which I pour this bliss,
The elixir of immortal peace.”
Gratitude List: 1. Housecleaning. It’s not something we do with great regularity or relish here, and it’s very hard to clean a room with Legos strewn across the floor. Today, I got them to clean up the Legos and the techie junk that’s been cluttering up the whole downstairs for quite some time, and I vacuumed like a wild woman. I like to sit in the livingroom now.
2. Meeting a goal
3. Cool days
5. Good people working for good.
Gratitude List: 1. The Women’s Trio this morning at church. Blending of voices, colors, textures, rhythms.
2. Feeling the bass rumbling through the back of the pew.
3. Rain: Making it not-hot
4. Rain: I get to walk around with my cheery yellow duck-headed umbrella
5. Rain: Lying on my parents’ couch, wrapped in Uncle Henry’s red-violet blanket, watching the rain and listening to the murmuring and laughter between my parents and my children in the garage.
May we walk in Beauty! (And may all your basements stay dry!)
It’s not the clearest photo or the best composition, but you get the idea. Mama is on a nest. Stay away, coyotes and foxes and raccoons. May she and her nest be safe.
Some quotations for your day:
“When you teach your daughter, explicitly or by passive rejection, that she must ignore her outrage, that she must be kind and accepting to the point of not defending herself or other people, that she must not rock the boat for any reason, you are not strengthening her prosocial sense; you are damaging it—and the first person she will stop protecting is herself.” —Martha Stout
“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write… and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning… it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
―Clarissa Pinkola Estés
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
“In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.” ―Henri J.M. Nouwen
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
“Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.” ―Natalie Goldberg
“The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”
―Rainer Maria Rilke
“That story you writin’ just might save the world. That poem you throwin’ down, could end wars.” ―York Poet and Shining Woman Christine Lincoln
saw me and said,
I showed up,
Wipe your tears
and be silent.
I said, O Love
I am frightened,
But it’s not you.
Love said to me,
there is nothing that is not me,
“Be here. Let your wild self fly free.” ―The Crows