Beneath the Winter

There is a time, in February or March, when the winds turn warm and the sun dispels the gray. The snow recedes. A glimmer of hope, a hesitant smile. Is it finally over? Put the boots and heavy coats away. Throw open the windows. But the gray gates slam shut again and the wind howls with laughter. Soggy snowflakes bury the earth. There is always snow on the Day of Fools. The Spring of Deception, this phenomenon is called. I fall for it every time. Maybe I’m a fool, but at least my heart is still capable of hope. 

But this year is different. It doesn’t matter that it won’t last. The obligatory snow of April Fool’s is a mere dusting. The warmth persists. I fill my lungs with the rich aroma of thawing earth. We deserve this.

A lot goes on in these woods, but I keep most of it to myself. The ravens, especially, always lead me into deeper territory. Springtime’s blossoms and birdsong overshadow the death that also abounds this time of year. That which reawakens is disoriented. So easy to stagger into the path of disaster. And the new life, the babies. So sweet and fragile. One mistake and the life that could have been is finished.

Then there are the bones that resurface, a reminder that it takes a very long time for some things to disintegrate into dust.

What lies beneath my winter? I do not avert my eyes, no matter how uncomfortable the revelation. The intricacies of self-sabotage are revealed. It feels as though I’m standing on the precipice of happiness. But there has been so much disappointment, so much deception. When we ask/hope/wish, are we not relying on an external force to deliver? Maybe the person in the mirror is the one who holds the key. I’m tired of punishing myself for some long-buried, unfairly-assumed childhood shame. But maybe I don’t really want some of the things that continue to elude me. Perhaps, somewhere underneath, I know it’s for my own good. There is no time left to squander. As if there ever was. Be very, very clear on what you want and give yourself permission to have it. I peer into this blurry reflection in the snow-swollen current. Who we are is ever-changing. Momentary glimpses are swept away. 

In northern Michigan, true spring hesitates, in love with its own slumber. A gradual awakening, excruciating languor. Patience, patience. That which takes the most time to come into being is the most profound. Cherish the sweet unfolding. 

Each day brings a new surprise – another songbird’s voice, new buds emerge, and, finally, wildflowers. Marsh marigolds first, then violets. The drowsy flight of butterflies and bumblebees. Awaken, sleepyheads. The bewildered emergence of the little furry ones. They stare at me with curiosity, and then skitter away, remembering that my kind is to be feared.

The early petals wither while new blooms unfurl. Each one more flamboyant than the last. 

And, finally, the White Queens return and the woods become Wonderland. Soon it will be summer.

The freshest green of leaves about to burst from their buds is the most delightful color of all. A warm rain, a new morning. And everything that brought you to this stage of becoming is already a memory.

It was two years ago, I believe. During morel time. I had fled to my favorite place on the river. A place I savor every spring. By June the stinging nettle and thistle form an impenetrable barrier, barring my access until winter. Across the meadow and through the forest. Along the low bluffs. I startled a fawn that had been sleeping in a patch of tall grass. It scampered into the woods, bawling. I looked down at the ground, a wrench in my heart. A pair of ravens called back and forth to each other from the treetops, one on each side of the river.

And then I saw them, just under my feet. Out in the open, on the river bank, poking up through cedar needles and moss. There are strategies for hunting these culinary treasures. Look around fruit trees after the first warm rain, they say. And so on. But, in reality, morels grow wherever they please. They spilled out of my sweatshirt as I gathered them up. The turmoil of earlier that day lost all of its power. The ravens’ voices became more urgent. I paused and peered into the trees. The tone was unfamiliar, so full of despair. Something was happening. Were they angry with me? More gathered in the skies, circling and calling. I cradled the morels in my arms and headed towards home. I passed through a copse of poplars, scaring up about a dozen ravens that had been sitting in silence in the canopy. Waiting. I froze as the shadows flew over my head. 

When I crossed the meadow, I understood. On the far side, a raven swooped and fell to the earth. Another called down to it. It mustered the strength to lift off. Two smaller birds flew at it in attack. It dipped and nearly fell again. Two ravens ran the other birds off. They coaxed their injured one into the woods. Dozens of others followed. A grim procession.

I paused in the middle of the meadow and bowed my head in respect. When a raven is dying, its family gathers around it, keeping it company until it passes through the doorway to Home. It will not leave this Earth alone. I could have lingered or tried to capture it on film, but I’d always respected their wishes to not be photographed. As if I could if I tried. I headed up the trail, haunted and humbled. The requiem receded. My ears hummed in its absence. The world of humans loomed ahead. I took a deep breath. Yes, I often falter, but I somehow manage to take flight.

“It was good to finally know that the spirit is everywhere rather than a separate thing. I’ve been lucky to spend a life pretty close to the earth up here in the north. I learned in those three days that the earth is so much more than I ever thought it was. It was a gift indeed to see all sides of everything at once. This makes it real hard to say good-bye. My family will be with me just like that old raven falling slowly down through the tree.”

– Jim Harrison, Returning to Earth

The White Room

I awaken. Something is different. I blink the sleep from my eyes. Scan my body. Catch my breath. The pain. It’s gone. My eyes flicker to the window. The pine trees are blanketed with fresh snow. A gust of wind seizes the branches and the world is obscured in white. A long, smooth exhale. It is over. 

The lessons I’ve learned over the past year: 

— The difference between signs and wishful thinking. 

— For every demon inside of us there’s an angel. Sometimes they’re the same presence. I’ve identified mine and given them names. We work together now.

— You can pass the test, but feel defeated rather than victorious. 

I’m a profoundly different person than I was a year ago. Am I a better person? I really don’t know. 

I’ve entered a vast, white space. It is utter emptiness, a vacuum of cosmos magnitude, but not desolation. Eerie, but intriguing rather than terrifying. I stand still and listen with innocent curiosity. I have absolutely no idea of what is to come.

There is a recognized form of torture called “white torture”. It’s used by certain organizations and governments, including my own. A prisoner is entombed in a soundproof white cell. Her clothes and even the food she is served is white. All communication with guards must be written down. The only sound is the prisoner’s slippered feet shuffling across the white floor. And her thoughts. Eventually, the prisoner completely loses her personal identity. She will never return to normal.

Is it really amnesia? We are more than just beings who process the sensations of our environment. When the external is stripped away, we are confronted with the blank canvas of the psyche. Out of the white void, something else arises. If we let it. 

I have a new profession. One so alien to me and yet so necessary. I work in a temple of value and worth. Rigid compliance and conformity. The soft rasp of currency gliding through my fingertips. The tinkle of coins. When you touch too much of something it loses its power. It becomes silly.

I close my eyes at night and I’m there again. People have given me money for my work. Stacks and loose bills. Ones, fives, hundreds. Two-thousand and ten-thousand dollar bills. Dreamland denominations. I’m humbled by the generosity. It’s much more than I expected and I wonder if I’ll get into trouble for taking it. I look over at my coworkers, those above me. “Can I take all of this?”

Their smiles are amused and slightly sad. “Of course you can take it. It’s yours. You deserve it.”

I sort through the bills. Some are faded, torn, blood-stained. There is a small stack of twenties with a singed hole through the center, like a gunshot wound. This is all they had to give, but it doesn’t mean it’s all that you’re worth. You are not obligated to accept it. You never have been. I set the soiled bills aside. Mutilated currency is sent back to its origin and it is taken out of circulation. Forever.

The things that I’ve let go. Fundamental facets of my identity and purpose in this life. Who was I? A world traveler. One who will most likely not be welcome in a brave new normal. I refuse to betray my convictions. Even for the road. The vessel that carries my soul is more sacred than an airplane. I have my wilderness, now. I drift amid my trees, gloved hands caressing bark. Eyes lifted to the sky, following a raven’s trajectory. The crunch of my boots in ankle-deep snow. New adventures begin to sprout in my imagination. Whispers fill my mind: permaculture, agroforestry, foraging, herbal medicine. A wonderland surrounds me. 

Who did I wish to be? An author published by a recognized house. Alas, my story is not one that’s sought by the masses. It was not bitterness, but momentary resignation that blossomed into sweet liberation. I never truly wanted to be part of traditional publishing. I am too wild for that world. I have lost the last of my respect for it. Now, only my energy will be within the pages. It won’t be sanitized by outside influences to make it more marketable. I won’t be molded into a Brand®. I have enough faith in my ability as a writer. Those who are destined to read the book will find it. 

What seems like rejection is redirection into new frontiers. I wait and watch and listen. Try to identify this incredible feeling inside. Indifference, effervescence, wonder. Purity. I have passed the test. There are things I will never again allow into my life. If it means that I finish my existence alone, so be it.

Recede. Come home. No one can hurt you here. 

A mischievious smile creeps across my face. I was never really there, anyway.

Years ago, back when I wrote fiction, I wanted to write a story about a woman who believed she was a ghost among the living. There have been so many stories written about phantoms who believe they are still alive, and the story ends when they’ve discovered that they’ve passed on and couldn’t let go of life. The character I envisioned wanders the corridors of her workplace and the various haunts of her daily routine. She no longer bothers to communicate, because no one has ever acknowledged her. Then, one day, a man speaks to her. He peers deep inside of her and smiles. And she realizes she’s alive. She always has been. The others were incapable of seeing her. 

The softest hiss of a paintbrush gliding across bare wood planks. The walls of my little shelter. Just enough white to brighten, but not enough to erase the character. I lift my eyes and brush my hair out of my face with the back of my whitewash-splattered hand. The iridescent glow of snow light through the shiny new window. Snowflakes dance against the pristine window pane. I’ve been writing that story all along. How it ends remains a mystery.

Candles in the Rain

Fatima, Portugal – November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)

As I enter through the back gate, thick raindrops begin to fall from the sky. I glance down at my watch. 11:11 a.m. I freeze, then smile. The raindrops lengthen into streams which become buckets. I duck into a church to wait it out. A half hour passes with no sign of it letting up. I open my umbrella and stride into the deserted courtyard, a vast arena that can hold hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Rivers of rain flow over my feet, drenching my pant legs. Rain soaks through the umbrella. I slow my steps, so that I don’t get swept away. 

I have come to light a candle for someone. Sadness and worry keep me awake at night. Helplessness. I don’t know what to do anymore. I am so far away. I buy one of the elegant, rustic tapers from the lady in the booth and await my turn. So many candles here, even now. Some of the flames dance, some burn long and steady. The candles at the front are pelted by the rain. They flicker and go dark for a split second, and then they reignite. So defiant. I move forward, light my flame from another, and place it among the others. 

I am an imposter here, and I’m not sure why I have come. I have not been a Catholic since I was a child. My knowledge of Fatima is obscured, probably on purpose. I remember when my little sister Pebby dressed up as one of the shepherd children for a school event. On the day that Ronald Reagan was shot, while my family was gathered in front of the television, she remarked, “Watch. Now the Pope is gonna get shot.” He did, and it was on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. My father, who had slipped away into schizophrenia, saw signs in everything. He never left her in peace after that. 

I abandoned the Catholic faith when my father got sick. I had prayed for him, for my family. Please make him better. Please protect us. But things only got worse. No one would protect us, so it became my job to take care of everyone. I was thirteen years old.

Pilgrimage sites, of every kind, have a palpable electricity. It’s as if the accumulation of the faith and awe of millions has charged the air. Something happened here, all those years ago. A crystalline lady, a “dancing Sun”, three prophecies. It is natural for inexplicable events to be interpreted through the lens of the culture and time period in which they occur. Christian God, extraterrestrial visitation, mass hallucination. Does it matter what the explanation is? 

The Chapel of the Apparitions is a simple glass box. A statue of the Blessed Mother is the only ornamentation. I sit on a bench. Most of the others are solitary or in small groups. The silence is absolute. A dog wanders in and curls up in the middle of the floor. Faces turn to smile and then settle back into meditation. I watch them. One by one, they are overcome. Bodies tense up. Eyes widen, staring into an endless internal horizon. Gentle nods. Faces melt into wonder, humility, gratitude. There are no histrionics. 

My eyes come to rest on the floor. A long sigh of envy, of defeat. I’ve tried for so long to transcend this depression. So many things I’ve tried. Why can’t I get it right? I wish I would have a breakthrough. The air to my right grows heavy. A sound, like a massive wave, fills my mind. As the wave moves through me, I hear, Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. The wave exits my body to the left. I wrap my arms around myself as the room spins. And then, the light. Flickering, then pure, unwavering illumination. A presence, eminent and kind. A hand on the shoulder. A finger pointing. Look, child. Here. It’s always been right before your eyes. I lean forward, my face in my hands. The hardest person to forgive is yourself. The enormity of it all. The simplicity.

The light. Yes, I remember you from that time, so many years ago. That gloomy winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after my father died and I tried to die. Twenty-three years of life, but so very old. I was working in a cavernous old building in downtown. A furniture company, I believe. Alphabetizing invoices. Hundreds and hundreds of invoices. I’d file them in boxes and load them in the creaky wooden service elevator and bring them up to the archives in the attic. I didn’t have to talk to anyone or think of anything but letters on a piece of paper. I didn’t have to think about how I was going to live. And then, the light. There were no words or thoughts, just radiance. And love. And it didn’t matter anymore what I was going to do with my life. Everything was going to be okay.

I sit, now, and listen. To the things I said to myself. My peers shunned me because I am defective. I was sexually assaulted because I wasn’t vigilant enough. People take me for granted, make the least effort possible, and consider me a last choice, because I am not good enough. I deserve every bad thing that ever happened to me. All of it was my own damn fault. I should have known better.

Maybe faith isn’t about how hard you pray, but how deeply you surrender. Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. Such a simple thought, but it is something I needed to understand. I’ve read similar words in books, heard them from “enlightened” ones, but they beaded up and rolled off. It had to come from within. We hold the keys to our unique prisons. The doors must be unlocked, one by one. Every lock is trickier than the last. 

Back outside, the rain has stopped. Into the basilica I stroll. Disheveled and dazed. I drift past the monochrome altar towards the tombs. The austere décor is a perfect tribute to these humble children. So much love in this place. Gentle, motherly love. I sit, once again, and let it hold me. And time passes.

Nine years have passed. Every year, I celebrate this day. The person for whom I lit the candle overcame the struggle very soon after my visit. There has been no relapse. I’ve never told that person of my visit and I most likely never will. With the exception of those who are closest to me, I’ve kept this story locked up in the vault of my memory. A few mornings ago, upon awakening, it drifted back to me and I knew that it was time to share it. “Illumination” was the word I chose for 2020. For most of the year, I’ve felt the complete opposite. As have so many others. My story is not Earth-shattering. I didn’t regain my sight or the ability to walk or conquer cancer. Even so, someone may need to hear it. No flame is too humble to light another.