What began as a slight break from writing over the winter holidays turned into a month off, which turned into an indefinite hiatus, which turned into a slightly uneasy feeling in my stomach about how long it’s been since I last posted here and how on earth to start up again. It feels as though I’ve let a friendship lapse, and in a very real way that is true.
Last night one of my professors closed our addictions class with a feedback circle. Each one of us listened as our classmates reflected on the strengths they had seen in us, and on the places we could grow stronger. It reminded me of the half-birthday shadow-request letter I sent out a year ago that gave birth to this blog. And do you know? —–I have grown! There are painful patterns of decades that this year in the mountains has put to rest. New friends see different strengths in me, different weaknesses, than the friends I polled last February. They told me this: see things through.
See things through. And so I am back here, writing again, letting it be that sometimes things fall by the wayside and are picked up once more. Giving myself the grace of following my own rhythm and beginning again where I left off, maybe a few months ago, maybe ten years. Forgiving myself for lapses, refusing to allow them to become an excuse for defeat. Seeing things through.
Last week, on a hike in the mountains, a new friend showed me a stand of ramps. I hadn’t eaten ramps since I lived in New England a decade and a half ago—following the pungent, lily-like stalks down into the muck with my fingers, scrabbling at the clay to release each tiny root from the earth, I felt a giddy joy uncurl below my heart that remains even now. I can touch it as I write this, and I smile. I love ramps. I love fiddleheads, and trout lilies, and the delicate bulbs of spring beauty, and yes, even young asparagus-like Japanese knotweed. I love the food of the spring, the fresh green chickweed that becomes my breakfast en route to the bus stop when I have risen too late, and the heart-stopping impossible color of violets and redbuds and dandelions in the salad after months and months of clammy quinoa.
The ramps came home with me in a sack and I cooked them with ghee and mustard seeds and Japanese potatoes. Friends from this blossoming year, new friends I suppose (though I think of them as the best kind of old), feasted with me and we made art and talked. Giddy on ramps and tipsy with wine, I did not even pause to think when a friend asked what I consider to be my strength as an aspiring counselor.
“MAGIC.” I said. “I have my fingers in the magic!”
Because I forget, sometimes, to see things through; I forget that when things fall down they can be picked up again. But my life has never forgotten. My life has been suffused with magic. The founder of this expressive arts program that pulled me across the country, the distant originator of all of these incredible changes, is retiring this year. We celebrated her last class on Tuesday. Oh, the weight of what this woman I barely know has done for my life!
The truth is that I had all but given up on myself. I had stopped trusting myself, and for good reason. When I applied to this program, it was only a hollow gesture, a last airy sketch in tribute to the girl I had once been. I knew I would never be accepted. And if I was accepted, I could never afford it. And if I could afford it, I could never go because I had my children to take care of. And even if I found care for my children, I could never in a thousand years find the resources to endure the legal and emotional devastation of obtaining the custodial right to move across the country.
But my life has never forgotten the magic. I was accepted into the program. And I was awarded residency, and a fellowship. And my children were taken into the hearts and care of their unconditionally loving grandparents, and somehow there was a bus back and forth between this tiny mountain town and my home so that I could be both mother and student, and somehow there was the perfect house with the perfect housemates and somehow I was still standing at the end of the three years of legal carnage, with the right to bring my children here. And I got to study with Sally Atkins.
To honor Sally, some of her friends and former students put out a call to all of us who have been changed by her. They asked us to reflect/write/paint on the theme ‘answering Sally’s call’. I wove her a long strap in the pattern of wild geese, and I wrote her this story:
Years ago I traveled to Oregon to study permaculture. I met a woman there who offered to instruct me in the rare art of tablet weaving. The first pattern I wove was called the wild geese.
There was a dance at the completion of our permaculture course, and I was startled to see a man dancing there that I’d met years before, in the isolated islands of Gwaii Haanas. We talked of the magic of that place. I remembered how an orca nearly overturned my kayak as my friends and I watched a lantern-jawed bear slope along the shore.
Watching that bear, I was reminded of my favorite book, a story called The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. As a child, I read this small and lovely book again and again, crying and laughing over it, only to discover years later that Jarrell himself was buried in the cemetery behind the Meeting I attended every Sunday. When I found his grave I felt a shock of magic, the way life circles around and surprises us. I felt that same magic watching the bear at Gwaii Haanas, the magic of finding a world alive that I had only ever thought to find in the story of a poet.
When I returned from Oregon, I went to Randall Jarrell’s grave and sat there, considering the streams of life that meet and part. An elderly woman approached and we talked for a while, first about poetry, then about permaculture. I told her how much The Animal Family meant to me, about gardens, about the bear.
I tried to bring what I’d learned in Oregon to my college by constructing a permaculture garden, but there was no funding and the space we’d been using as a garden was slated for development. A check arrived just in time to save the garden. It was from the woman I’d met at Randall Jarrell’s grave. She was his widow.
Years later, lost and foundering, unsure of who I was and what I was to do in this world, I typed every single thing I found beautiful into a google search box and pressed ‘enter’. Sally Atkins popped up.
In my first class with her, Sally related the story of how she became a poet: a professor of hers began to read a poem, and then, moved to tears, canceled class.
The professor was Randall Jarrell. His passion woke something in Sally, and here she was, moved by the magic of the same man, calling me, in turn, across the country. I took this in.
That same day, that first day of class, Sally read these beautiful lines of Mary Oliver’s from a poem called The Wild Geese:
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Robert Frost opened a place in Randall Jarrell, and Randall Jarrell opened a place in Sally, and Sally opened a place for me, and in this space I have learned to take permaculture and poetry and bears and magic and hopelessness and weave them all into my theory of practice, my place in the family of things.
I offer this weaving, a pattern called the wild geese, in honor of the braided stories that brought me here to learn from such a remarkable woman. Thank you for calling, Sally, thank you for the mysterious way your work reached out and found me across all of those years and miles. Thank you for your place in the family of things, and for the way, in answering your own call, that you have helped me (and so many others!) to find mine.
After I wrote it, I looked at this story for a long time because I could not believe it was really true. But the ramps are growing on the mountainside, and there are violets in the salad, and life really is this beautiful.
My strength is having my fingers in the magic. Sometimes I lose my way and I forget to see things through. But life shows me gently, again and again, the way back. Not because I’m important, but because the story is bigger than me. Listen to Sally:
Tell Me, She Said
Tell me, she said:
What is the story you are telling?
What wild song is singing itself through you?
In the silence between there is music;
In the spaces between there is story.
It is the song you are living now,
It is the story of the place where you are.
It contains the shapes of these old mountains,
The green of the rhododendron leaves.
It is happening right now in your breath,
In your heart beat still
Drumming the deeper rhythm
Beneath your cracking words.
It matters what you did this morning
And last Saturday night
And last year,
Not because you are important
But because you are in it
And it is still moving.
We are all in this story together.
In the silence between there is music;
In the spaces between there is story.
We are listening each other into being.
~Sally S. Atkins