I went for a walk today in the cold sun. The dirt road led me up and up; my feet slipped on treacherous patches of ice lurking invisibly under a thin layer of earth and sand. Water ran in the ditch alongside the road under winter skin, thin and glassy in the sun and opaque and layered in the shade.
The bones of the trees show clearly during this thin and aging time of year. We’ve had heavy wind in the last few days, and new, jagged wounds show where trunks and boughs snapped and splintered.
Winter Solstice is a strange time of year. Spending time among the bony, sleeping trees under the pale light of the low sun is such a contrast to the frenetic human activity accompanying the holiday season. The fields and forests sleep, letting the long dark hours and cold do what they will.
Nature has always been my best teacher, leading the way to faith, trust and renewal — the endless natural cycles of life and death. Even from my small, ant-like perspective, I find comfort in the ebb and flow of life.
I’m in need of comfort. Our woods are beginning to fall silent. Our bird feeders are full, but we see very few songbirds now, and when they do appear, they’re in small groups or single, rather than in flocks. Many insects are vanishing, which means the avian insectivore populations are diminishing fast. It seems to me we’re losing so many kinds of life — so many lives — as well as other things like trust, respect, dignity and integrity.
But I know loss is just another word for gain. The dark is another kind of light. Good-bye is another kind of hello. All we know now is loss; our inability to imagine what might come into the empty spaces of our loss does not mean nothing will.
It’s easy to forget about light in the darkness.
Yet I welcome the longest night of the year with my whole heart. Something in me loves the deep, cold darkness, unlit by flame or star. The darkness is like a womb, and in that womb lies a glowing seed containing rebirth, transformation, and the new cycle.
As I celebrate Yule, I sit in the darkest place I can find and open myself to it. I call up the shadows in my heart and mind and embrace them without fear or resentment. My eyes are blind, but inside me something old and primal listens and watches, waiting for guidance or wisdom, waiting for the light to return.
This time of year I do the ancient women’s work of sorting one thing from another. How do we discern the difference between natural cycles of darkness and light and the frozen, unending darkness our choices and behavior can lead us into? What habits of thought and action keep us groping, blind and despairing, without a star to light our way?
What offering can we make to the dark? What can we let go of? What is ready for recycling and transformation? What do we need to do in order to greet the dawn of the new cycle less burdened?
When I have rocked in the cradle of darkness long enough with these questions, I light a candle and tell the small flame of all my gratitudes, great and small. Each one is like a prayer of thanks, a guiding star in the dark night.
The candle flame is a spark of life cupped tenderly in the hands of the dark. What might grow out of it? What new paths might we tread; what terrain might we explore? What new intentions have rooted in our hearts? What can we call into birth and being within ourselves? What undiscovered guides and friends wait in the year ahead? How can we keep the flame of our courage, love, and strength alive?
What is waiting to be born in the next cycle?
A winter blessing on you, my friends. May your Yule be dark and the following dawn be bright.
For each of us There is a desert to travel A star to discover And a being within ourselves to bring to life. –From an Iranian Christmas Card
Autumn’s smoke and flame are with us again in central Maine. The land’s lush summer garments fray and fade, withering into dusty, brittle rags of leaf, flower and stem.
More than a dozen apple trees grow on our 26 acres, everything from small, hard green apples too sour for anything but cider to large, sweet, white-fleshed beauties, fragrant and delicious.
The first frost or two brings my favorite eating apples to the peak of perfection, and last weekend we knew it was time to harvest if we wanted any of the fruit. A friend, with three children in tow, participated in a nature walk at a nearby lake and came to sit in the sun with a picnic lunch and pick apples.
A crisp, sunny autumn day, three eager children and apple picking. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a gorgeous day.
Apple picking, as anyone knows who’s done it, is about so much more than selecting the most perfectly waxed, polished, shaped and colored specimens from a grocery store pyramid and putting them in a cart.
Apple picking is about muddy shoes and knees and floppy hats. It’s the smell of tick and mosquito spray, rotting fruit and browning ferns; the texture of twig, bark, raspberry cane, moss, and the waist-high brittle, dry aster blossoms.
Apple picking is a lesson in sharing. Many creatures enjoy autumn’s bounty. Birds peck at the fruit. The deer take bites out of windfalls. Worms leave telltale dark tunnels. Wasps burrow head first into the flesh, ecstatic and writhing.
We don’t know how old any of our trees are, but their gnarled and disheveled condition suggests they’re quite old. Many have hollow trunks and a great deal of dead wood. The one we picked from is lying almost on its side, half uprooted, the base and uncovered root ball couched in moss. Crawling under the tree, carefully avoiding wasps, nettles, poison ivy and other hazards, one finds a damp, low-ceilinged shelter, roofed by the tree’s branches and floored in muddy ground. This particular tree grows over a spring; doubtless the reason why it fell in the first place. The deer have lain in this sheltered place. Their scat is everywhere, and I see their prints in the mud and the smooth hollows where they’ve lain together on the ground.
Apples thump softly around me as the children enthusiastically wield the apple picker, an old mop handle on which is attached a cloth bag suspended from toothy jaws that pull high apples off their branches. The ripe fruit falls easily with a nudge.
Apple picking is wonderful therapy for those of us recovering from perfectionism. Each piece of fruit is uniquely shaped and blotched with color, ranging from pale green to pink. Some are patched with brown, rough areas. Some are speckled with green spots. Windfalls bruise and split, an invitation to insect plunder. Heavy with juice, sitting comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, each is a lovely, individual thing rather than a clone lined up with other clones in neat rows for display.
As the children pass the apple picker around and bag the fruit, we adults talk casually of apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and drying. I remember the ache in my right hand from processing pounds of apples when I lived in Colorado and had children to feed. In the fall, my food dehydrator was on for days, four trays stacked with plums, apples and pears I picked from trees and used for homemade granola, trail mix, fruit leather and hot cereal.
For days I have been watching golden leaves loosen and fall. Fall, for me, is always a meditation on loss and surrender. On my hands and knees under the tree, retrieving windfalls, the smell of damp earth, rotting fruit and drying leaves and bracken in my nostrils, the sound of the children murmuring and laughing and my friend and partner talking, I feel a pang of grief about what I have lost. My own small boys, firm-bodied, grubby, loving, hilarious, maddening and mischievous; the big-hearted, foolish yellow lab who helped me raise them, seem for a moment to be there, with me.
Then, just as quickly, they’re gone, vanished back into the past, and I feel slightly ashamed of my nostalgia and wipe away a tear before anyone sees. After all, I know children grow up and faithful, foolish dogs can’t live forever. My grief is followed then by a pang of gratitude for what has been, what is this day, and possibilities and adventures in the future.
Fall is a time to think about harvest, both the harvest that keeps our hands, tools and dehydrators busy and the harvest of our hearts and minds. The leaves that made the summer green are falling now, in a final glorious display. The nights lengthen, temperatures and humidity drop, and soon we’ll bring the outdoor furniture cushions and houseplants in from the front porch for the winter.
I do not count the blessings of my personal harvest. I feel them. The wordless embrace of friends. The weight of a child in my lap. Laughter. The exchange of support, affection, information, and a really good book. Deep sleep. A healthy, active body. The muscular rhythm of walking, swimming, dancing and exercise. A small group of children learning to swim, blowing bubbles, coughing, grinning, giggling, splashing and spluttering, like so many wriggling otters, joyful and triumphant as they master floating, kicking, and rhythmic breathing. The opportunity to be of service, to make a contribution to others, to share resource.
I’m equally grateful for what has been lost, though my gratitude mingles with grief. Every autumn, the trees guide me in the work of letting go, of surrender, of faith and trust in the natural cycle of life and season. This year, I’ve released objects, clothing, financial commitments, noise, clutter, destructive patterns of behavior, and, painfully, some illusions.
Without all this stuff, the true shape of myself and my life begins to emerge, and I’m less apologetic and more confident. A deep well of creativity bubbles in the center of my experience, cool and clear and clean, moss and stone and the scent of water.
While the horses strain at the harrow in a darkening field, I pour red wine over lentils in an iron kettle. The full moon rising beyond the farm graveyard is as round as a well, and the cold autumn wind has the taste of distant water.
Working in a fitness/rehabilitation center in January makes our cultural and personal obsession with our bodies and looks inescapable. All day long I hear conversations about health, pain, weight loss, exercise and fitness goals and diet. There’s something inescapably seductive about the idea of making a fresh and successful start in a brand new year.
At home, in my peaceful attic where the winter light steals in, poet David Whyte suggests making ourselves big for loss; if we have a healthy interior landscape, we are better able to absorb painful experiences.
Whyte’s inside-out wisdom, which has caught my attention before, provides a new frame I’ve been playing with as I live my life. It seems everywhere I turn I find this idea of loss and how we manage it. I’ve been reading a memoir entitled “This Life is in Your Hands” by Melissa Coleman. It’s about her childhood with her family on the coast of Maine during the 70s as part of the back-to-the-land movement. It’s a fascinating story encompassing all kinds of ideas, beliefs and discoveries about what it takes to leave much of modern life and wrest a living from the land. It’s also a story about a gradually unraveling family, doing their best to create a life they believe in but ultimately defeated by their ideals and the death of a child.
Coleman writes, “There were no gardeners of grief in our community.”
What a poignant, beautiful line that is. Gardeners of grief. There it is again, I thought when I read it, the idea of making intentional space, even a large space, for a feeling we typically avoid, deny or refuse to deal with.
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I wondered yesterday, sitting on the lifeguard stand watching the pool during a water aerobics class, how it would be if we focused New Year goals and intentions on our interior landscape rather than our external appearance. Would more people be more successful in making the changes they say they want? Would support and action in addressing our interior terrain naturally lead to the kinds of external changes so many of us seek?
Loss. What can we say about it? Some loss is so long and drawn out it’s almost chronic, and we become numb to it, though it shadows our lives. Other losses are shockingly abrupt and traumatic, and others still somewhere in between. Loss is painful in itself, but our feelings about who or what is lost can add significantly to our pain, especially if we don’t manage them properly.
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I’ve had two catastrophic losses in my life, though I feel foolish revealing them. The first was the loss of a diner. It was a little ramshackle shack with a spongy floor that dipped and swayed as you walked across it, room for about seven tables with mismatched and broken chairs, and a grease-saturated kitchen. It was less than a five-minute walk from my old house in a tiny Colorado mountain town, and for years I ate breakfast and/or lunch there at least once a week. I was working at the local public school while the diner was in business, so I knew all the high schoolers who bussed, waited, washed dishes and cooked. My own sons worked there in their turn. In the decade after my boys left and I was alone, the diner became like a second home to me. I was often the first customer of the morning, waiting patiently for the door to be unlocked with my travel cup of tea steaming in my hand and a book or notebook and pen under my arm. They made my breakfast without asking, as I always had the same thing, and Amy, the owner, would sit with me, sipping a cup of coffee, while we exchanged desultory early morning talk or were just quiet together.
I always felt welcomed at the diner. I loved it, and those who worked there, and they at least tolerated me with friendliness and kindness. I felt seen. One day Amy told me, with some reluctance, she was closing it down. The endless grind of owning and operating a restaurant had become too much, and it was getting harder and harder to avoid problems with licensing and inspection as the building deteriorated. She had dreaded telling me. We sat across from one another and wept.
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The second loss happened just a few weeks later, when the dearest companion of my life, a crippled long-haired orange cat, died quietly at home,
These two losses left me maimed and feeling unable to go on. I no longer recognized my life in that place, though I’d lived there for 20 years, raised children, worked, volunteered, danced and told stories. Strange, to realize the diner and Ranger as the only two pillars holding up my life. Why were these losses so much more terrible than my sons outgrowing the town, the school and me, and leaving? That was extraordinarily difficult and painful, and I thought I’d never recover or fill the hole they left in my days, but I still recognized myself and my life. I wasn’t completely undone. I knew we were all making the right choice to part ways and I would go on.
Remembering, it occurs to me my internal landscape had shriveled and withered without my noticing. Ranger and the diner had provided me with warmth, companionship, acceptance, love and belonging. In those two aspects of my life I was completely honest and authentic. When they were gone I was left with a grueling job that just barely supported me and was highly stressful, a home I loved and had worked hard to create but which was empty and desolate without Ranger, and the feeling that I was little more than a burden and a disappointment to nearly everyone in my life (including myself) and the town in general (with a couple of notable exceptions). I was nothing and had nothing anybody wanted or needed, and my life felt like a lie.
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When I think now about intentionally building an internal landscape, a bountiful landscape with lots of space, I realize the interior wasteland I was trying to live with before. A greasy spoon hole-in-the-wall diner and a cat were the only two things tying me firmly to life. I was not big enough to absorb their loss. I was always busy, but I wasn’t big. All my attention was on trying to please others and get loved.
Is getting a life, being in a life, creating a life about being busy and having things to do, or is it about building an interior landscape? Scientists are beginning to realize how important complexity is in living systems. Perhaps complexity is not about externals, such as how long our to-do lists are or our New Year resolutions, but about the interior ground of our lives. What if we were each able to build a complex interior terrain with not just room but welcome for all our feelings and needs, an interior system that could elegantly break down, absorb and transform loss, rage and fear? What if we nurtured several kinds of healthy relationships, contributed our experience and skills in more than one way and found a variety of creative outlets and activities to enjoy? What if we invited and allowed both loss and gain, joy and despair to dwell in our interior landscape? Would a more varied, complex and honest inner life allow us to find relief and respite from the inevitable losses and changes we experience?
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It seems to me the answer can only be yes.
Furthermore, if we choose to successfully build and maintain a complex interior landscape, will all the outward things we worry so much about either seem less important or more easily managed? If we’re more physically active and heal our relationship with food because we’re cleaning up and creating our interior landscape rather than because we want to lose weight, will the re-focus of our intention mean less resistance and failure?
All my life I’ve tried to hold back my feelings because I’m afraid of being overwhelmed by them, or of what others will say or think of me. The problem is I can’t pick and choose which feelings to allow and which to exclude. If I’m going to love wholeheartedly, I’m also wide open to the pain of loss. The idea of creating an internal landscape spacious enough to allow every feeling and experience unlimited depth and width is an interesting contrast to my impulse to recoil, withdraw and barricade myself into a small stone cave for the rest of my life.
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Now and then I need that internal cave, certainly. A bolt hole is essential to me. But surely there’s a whole interior world I can build outside the cave when I’m ready to step out of it again, a world with gardens and orchards of feelings and possibility, a world of connections and people to love and learn from, a complex inner terrain in which to get lost and find myself again. Best of all, my interior landscape is solely my own creation. In it, I can be utterly naked and free from concern about what others think of me. I can be fully authentic and honest without fear or shame. I can feel what I feel and have what I need.
Gardening for loss, for fear and for pain. Landscaping for joy, confidence and healing. Welcoming complexity and delving beneath the surface of life and of myself. Making myself big for the hard stuff.
I’ve lately been revisiting David Whyte’s work, including one of his audiobooks titled What to Remember When Waking. He suggests having faith in things falling away.
It caught my attention because usually we speak of faith in what we judge to be positive: Courage, kindness and the sun coming out tomorrow. Having faith in the shadow side of life suggests a deeper wisdom.
This coincides with my current personal focus on shame, which I discover (to my chagrin and sorrow) is a burden I carry every day and can’t remember being without. I knew it was there, in the roots of me, but generally speaking I try to hide it and look the other way. I’ve never had any idea how to eliminate it or transform it into something less painful and more effective, so it’s become firmly and almost invisibly established.
Whyte, a magnificent poet, prompted me to think differently about feelings and experiences we typically cast as negatives and try to avoid, ignore, hide or minimize. Have faith in things falling away.
What kind of things fall away?
Leaves in autumn, innocence, comets, people, memories, time, feelings, others beloved by us, and our own lives. Flowers drop their petals. Snakes shed their skins. Seconds and years fall away, one by one. The sea ebbs from the land and then returns. What we can see of the moon wanes and falls away to nothing before it waxes once more. A fertile woman watches each month’s possibility of new life fall away when she is not pregnant. The dark falls away before the light, and the light before the dark. Cell by cell, lash by lash, hair by hair, our bodies fall away during our lifetimes.
Sometimes we fall away from others, or tear ourselves away from jobs, relationships or places.
Some things we are glad to let go and leave behind us. Other losses are so terrible we feel permanently maimed.
Then there are things like shame that are forced upon us by others, that cripple our joy and our ability to love ourselves. We long to be free of such burdens, to let them fall away, but we don’t know how to do it. Even if we find a way to loosen their grip upon us, we are sometimes unwilling to cast them completely aside, because then we would become strangers to ourselves, strangers in our own lives, and we fear that change more than our familiar suffering.
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Faith in things falling away. Trust and confidence, in other words, in both loss (things we don’t want to lose) and relief (things we do want to shed).
Could it be that the way through shame, longing, fear, anguish and the like is to turn toward it, embrace it, kiss it on the mouth? Is that what must happen before it can fall away? I wonder.
Can we trust in the approaching storm as much as we trust in the sun coming out tomorrow? Can we trust in the unraveling, the fraying, the slow decline, the darkest shadows of our hearts and actions, as well as healing, vigorous new life, and our kindness and compassion?
I suppose what I’m really asking is if we can trust in all of our experience and feeling, whether comfortable or agonizing, in any given moment. Can we trust in change and suspend our judgement about whether it’s good or bad? If our world is burning around us and everything we know or have is falling away to ash, can we have faith in the purification of that terrible loss?
Taking it further, am I willing to have faith in my own frustration, anguish, scars and shame? Am I willing to explore these things, talk with them, allow them to teach me, even love them, and then let them go or transform? Do I possess the courage to let an outdated version of myself fall away while I enlarge my soul?
Inevitably, inexorably, things change and fall away. As human beings, how do we choose to live with that fact? Faith or resistance?
Tonight I will sleep with my worries through dreams dark with soil and the heaving cataclysm of the spade turning earth round me not speaking of air or light fused with greenness but of darkness and the first leaves like hands in prayer clasped inside the seed.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.
We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.
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Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.
I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.
In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.
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Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.
Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.
Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.
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When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones needing the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.
It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.