comfort isn’t an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don’t need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I’ve made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn’t need shelter from walls or the root. I’ve been out of touch with that part of myself, and I’ve suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water – early spring grasses, a maple leave, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines – life finding its way – giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles on my skin again. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched it move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine – or was it someone else’s?) had loved blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I’m sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn’t see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn’t matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes not of beam and nail, but of existence itself.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” Mary Oliver’s, Upstream

Going Dark: Autumn Update + Thoughts on Writing and Horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows I watch. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches.)

I walked through the small woods in my backyard. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hoped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for the men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.
I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

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It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.
I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.

All the Color I Could Find

Use2Sunday morning, I woke up with aching feet, a scratching voice, and something between a head cold and a sniffle, and I decided to go for a run. I haven’t run since last summer (and even then it was sporadic), but it sound like the right thing for my body, and the right way to soak up what was promising to be the last spring-y day for a while.

Turns out that spring-y weather wasn’t supposed to kick in until noon-ish that day, so instead of the climbing-to-seventy-degree weather I expected, there were puffed clouds, racing grey, and a wind that still whipped with winter’s chill.

I live right on the edge of a large complex of soccer fields, skate parks (didn’t know those still existed), community centers, and nature areas. I headed this way, jumping in and out of the disc golf course to avoid flying discs, and heading generally towards the serenity gardens area. Although it’s a pretty spot, it’s a highly manicured garden area. When I moved to the area, I’d walk there on lazy Sunday evenings to walk through the wood chipped gardens, and the small ponds stocked with orange fish. Lovely, but tamed.

Behind the gardens are a few acres of marshy, swamp land ringed in by other community buildings and apartment complexes. A shallow, scummy creek runs through the swamp. Slow water with algae building up in the summer, and foam moats frozen into the ice during winter. I took a muddy path over towards this area, and paused on a small wooden bridge over the creek.

By some trick of the bearing wind and driving clouds, this little batch of nature, probably left alone only because the wetness of the ground would make for slowly sinking buildings, became wild. The swamp grasses were flattened out, tangled together by the snow and wind, and the trees, gnarled and solitary, held their bare arms stark against the sky.

I got off the trail, down to the level of the swamp grasses, and creek. There’s something special, for me, about getting off the path, especially when it’s pavement or cement (read: man made). I have a small, Neolithic longing to see what land and place looked like before humanity made its heavy mark, and when I get down to the literal ground, this small long gets fed.

Here’s what I am constantly having to remind myself: Getting down onto the dirt, and getting close up with it feeds a part of my soul, but there is so much treasure (As Calvin says: There’s treasure everywhere). The creek still had a thin film of ice, but it was slightly submerged, sinking slowly as open water spilled over the top of the ice from open edges. Foam, the color of heavily creamed coffee, and black dirt were frozen into this crust of ice, and a few pieces of algae—St. Patrick’s Day green—were still present in the stagnant water, leftover from summertime. Grasses (or maybe small birds?) had made these tiny, wild hatch marks in the ice, and rotting wood was overgrown with verdant, fecund moss. The branches of trees and shrubs were beginning to shake off their winter dormancy, their new bark a deep wine-red, shining in the weak sunlight, and dotted over with silver-gray.

I was a hunter, looking for all these riots of color, barely hidden in an area that looked, from up above, so barren and colorless. There was so much of it, everywhere I looked.   IMG_4581Use3IMG_4563Use5

I followed the stream all the way down to two domed culverts that funneled the water underneath the wide, two lane road. Down to the walking path that connected directly to the paths in and around my apartment building.

When I hit pavement, that sense of wild was gone. I actually felt foolish having through there might have been any hint of wilderness in my little walk. All along the paved trails was a different kind of color: Garbage. Caribou Coffee cups with brow residue in the grooved bottoms, shopping bags caught in knobby tree bark, plastic bottles and soda cans, and candy wrappers. All the refuse that we mindlessly, unintentionally, shrug away, uncovered after the snow melt. On my way back home, I passed three piles of discarded Christmas trees, thrown a few feet off the path, into the wooded disc golf course, their evergreen faded. There was even the rotting carcass of a couch, cushions split open, and a shattered glass tabletop underneath it.