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.

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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.

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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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Embracing the Darkness: Francis Weller and the sacred life of grief

There are 20 days until the Winter Solstice, which means 20 more days of moving into the darkness before the light begins its slow return. The solstice makes a threshold between the waning and waxing of daylight, and is perhaps the most sacred day of the year for me, as I am one who has always been drawn to darkness and who at one point in her life turned toward nurturing light instead of darkness, which was no easy feat.

The darkness of November has always brought me grief often I name it Seasonal Affective Disorder. But this year, I moved into November on the heels of a private loss that evoked the deep life of sorrow in me. We all have these losses from time to time as humans on this earth, but we don’t always know how to cope with them, let alone embrace them. Swimming, in the perfect silence of the empty house, I thought of the grief we carry and often squander.

I walked through the woods and built a fire beside the pond and felt all the lives I would not live and the grief I harbored for the loss of each one. In the woods, I search for bones. I have found skulls, carcasses, the empty shell of a turtle. I covet the remnants of death because I want to draw close to death. I never want to turn away from that mystical doorway, and I want to let it soften me, just as grief will do if we allow it. But what I did not realize, until recently, is that I most likely covet death because the other forms of grief are not recognized or ritualized by my culture.

skull & fire

In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: The Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller writes that grief is a threshold emotion and when we cross through it we enter the world of community, of conversation, of sacred ritual. If we compress the sorrow of grief, we also compress our capacity for joy. In our culture we don’t have sacred communal rituals for expressing grief and we limit and restrain the experience of grief, which is why, Weller argues, we are a culture of secondary satisfactions like entertainment and shopping, but also a desire for power, wealth, status, rank, priviledge. Empire, he says, is one of the most egregious expressions of secondary satisfactions –we always want more. We are conditioned by our culture to never feel like we have enough. This is one of our greatest sources of grief and loss, our greatest wound.

Primary satisfactions are much simpler and yet sometimes they remain forgotten in our daily lives: human touch, laughter, shared meals, story telling, kindness offered in times of sadness, and rituals that mend and tend to the sacred world around us.

Weller writes of the five gates of sorrow, which go beyond the first gate of loss through the death of those we love.

Here are Weller’s the five gates of sorrow as outlined on in Apprenticeship with Grief from the website Pathways to Resilience:

Gate 1 – Everything We Love We Loose: this is the only gate we recognize on a cultural level, and yet, we seldom give it the space it deserves.

Gate 2 – The Places That Have Not Known Love: this gate refers to the aspects of self we deny in order to fit into family, peer groups, and the broader cultural systems.

Gate 3 – The Sorrow of the World: tending our Earth grief. As Francis Weller puts it, “We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the earth and communal rituals of celebration, grief, and healing that kept us in connection with the sacred.”

Gate 4 – What We Expected and Did Not Receive: For Weller, this gate has to do with “the expectations coded into our physical and psychic lives” due to our ancestors evolving for at least 200,000 years in relational environments and societies. The contrast of our contemporary life creates a type of deep grief that, Weller believes, we seldom have the language for or space to acknowledge.

Gate 5 – Ancestral Grief: The grief we carry in our bodies from the trials and tribulations of our lineages.

This year, during November I nurtured my grief, I did not turn away from it, I lit fires every day–a candle, a bonfire, a small fire beside the pond, a fire in the fireplace, and the flames comforted me. I sat in meditation, willing myself to soften to the sadness I felt, to let it in, to let it speak. I lay in hot baths filled with bath salts my beloveds had gifted me, sniffing tinctures made for grief, eating pie, walking through the woods, dragging my children along behind, running, and gazing at the moon. And, amazingly, I did not get depressed. I cannot say what will come, but after all these years of running away from the grief without even realizing it, I have finally sat still with it and let it heal me. That is the work of grief and we must engage it if we are to find the wild joy of our living.

I hope to make these next 20 days of darkness sacred through the rituals of lighting fires and candles, sharing food with my family, laughter, and snuggles. I will also be writing here about grief and sorrow, and how embracing this time of darkness can lead to a richer, fuller life, not constricted by a denial of grief. I hope you will join me.

-e