Writing with Focus

I have recently decided to let go of my decision (which now seems arbitrary) to post here every single week. It was a good lesson in disclipline for 2017, and helped keep me focused on maintaining my online world, but it also took a lot of time and energy. I also had a goal of sending out two newsletters a month (which I almost met) and continuing some pretty major work on my next novel, and some adult fairy tales.

That’s a lot of writing and heck of a lot of deadlines.

I tend to get pretty locked into all the “shoulds” and “supposed tos” of the world. I’m supposed to keep my blog current, right? I’m supposed to maintain weekly or semi-weekly contact with my audience, right? I’ve even spent a lot of time researching the websites of my favorite authors to see what they feature there, if they blog, and how often they (or their web designers or assistants) update their content.

That didn’t help, at all. There were so many different types of websites out there for each of them – some with blogs, some without. Some websites were masterfully designed with animation or themes that matched their upcoming release. And some were downright awful – basic templates with zero detail toward design and branding.

So that research didn’t give any shoulds or supposed tos. But it did make me see that everyone is doing it differently. And that that’s okay. Some of the authors with the crappiest websites are some of the most successful authors on the NYT Bestseller list. It really didn’t seem to matter one way or another whether or not they were blogging or podcasting. They’re all doing pretty well, so far as I can see.

I feel a little relieved by that. Sometimes the pressure to blog makes me feel like I’m forcing the issue. And it genuinely takes away from my time writing the projects that matter to me so much more.

I also talked recently about how and when and where to share more honestly and that’s something I’m still debating. Is that something I want to live on my blog? Or do I want to go more deeply into my newsletter? That’s definitely something I’m thinking about.

In any case, as I consider my next steps, I know it’s important that I start putting more energy toward my high priority projects. So I might be posting a little (or even a lot) less around here. Or maybe transitioning into newsletters. Or podcasts. Or…?

There’s a lot to think about this winter, which is exactly what winter is for. Thinking, renewing, gathering energy for the next move. I know I need a lot of clarity about not only what I want to do…but WHY.

The Growing Space

Every day, when I pull up to my home after work, I’m struck by how much space I have acquired. Previously, I lived in a duplex in a cramped neighborhood where we each had a one-car garage, small driveway, and no curb parking. Being the only person who lived alone on that street, I was also the only person who only had one car. Everyone else owned 2, 3, or 4 cars and as such, the street was lined with parked vehicles from one end to the other. Our yards were almost non-existent, and there was no point in being precious about your personal space – anything outside the duplexes was fair game. The kids in the neighborhood played in everyone’s yards, having no recognition or care for property lines.

Everything was achingly cramped – enough to make me grit my teeth every time I turned onto my street and had to navigate between the tightly packed parked cars and children running back and forth across the street.

Now, 20 miles away, on the edge of another town, I live on a sprawling lot with a huge lawn. There’s enough space on the curb to park at least 5 cars – and no one parks there. There is a house to the west of me, but nothing else. My home is at the end of a 3-way intersection, so it faces a street – not another house. And there’s a farm behind me. The lot tapers into a point at the east end, and there’s nothing more there but the farm and the road.

Space. Everywhere.

And silence.

There are children in this neighborhood, too. They holler and laugh and run past my windows over and over, sometimes riding their bikes in my big driveway. But other than that and the train that passes by on the nearby tracks, it is so quiet in my neighborhood that it sometimes makes me anxious.

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Inside, funnily enough, is the opposite, as far as space is concerned. My old duplex was close to 1,000 sq. feet and this house is a mere 600 sq. feet. It is almost hilariously small. I literally have to walk sideways to make my way around my full-size mattress in the bedroom. (Imagine if I wasn’t single and had a queen or king-sized mattress – there’s literally no room for that in my house!)

As I move in, it’s a genuine challenge for me to figure out where to put furniture – how to fit it all in and do so in an effective manner. And it’s even more challenging (but also fun and freeing) to decide what items to let go of.

I find it so fascinating that I went from a spacious interior in the most cramped neighborhood I’ve ever lived in to a huge, open area with an interior space that could only house 2 if both ascribed to serious minimalism (and had a very tiny bed).

I’m glad, however, that my outdoor space exceeds my indoor space. This means I’m moving in the right direction. Ultimately, my goal is to either have a small ranch property, or to buy my mother’s property someday and bring it back into farming life. I want at least 30 acres – preferably 40 or more. I want my own forest that I can cultivate and protect.

Three years ago, I reached for a goal I never thought I could achieve on my own – owning a home in this wildly inflated market. Truthfully, I didn’t really think it could happen, but I kept finding ways to talk myself into taking another step.

And then....it actually happened.

So me having a huge lot, a lot of space outside the house, and a ranch behind and beside me…I know exactly what that means. My little farm is on its way.

In the meantime, I'm thoroughly enjoying my teeny-tiny nest. 

The Language of Honesty

I have been wanting so badly to really open myself up and write more honestly about my life. I have been helped by so many who have shared with honesty and compassion – people like Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, Cheryl Strayed, Natalie Goldberg, and Glennon Doyle. And we need that so badly in this culture where life coaches and social media have helped ingrain in us our desire and expectation for perfection.

But I struggle so much with how much to share. There’s so much of me out there, already, and so many privacy leaks online that we may not even be aware of. I’ve learned from experience that it’s so easy to become an object to someone, something they can project their wants and needs onto. And so easy to become the target for someone’s cruelty.

I don’t want to overshare or put myself into a vulnerable position. And yet, sharing the way I do, lately, has sometimes felt a little icky. There was a time, after I stopped green blogging, that I became so entrenched in the language of self-help, that everything I wrote felt like it was sales copy for a life coaching practice. Not that there’s anything wrong with life coaches, but ick, that’s not what I was and not what I wanted to sound like.

Even to this day, I still struggle with shedding that language from my toolkit. It’s not accessible in the way I want to be accessible. It doesn’t feel genuine to the kind of writer I want to be.

Unfortunately, the language itself doesn’t solve the other problem – what and how much to share. How do I protect the privacy of the people in my life while still telling my story? How do I know what’s too much?

It’s almost easier in books. In The Paris Diaries, I really laid it all out on the table. That book is literally a copy of the actual journal I wrote in during that time in my life, with only a few changes made to make it easier to read. I did hold back just a tad, though. There are a few incredibly personal things that happened that I didn’t mention in the book. But mostly, it is a very raw account of what happened.

There was a safety in the book format. I knew people would have to actually get their hands on the book in order to read it. They couldn’t just type in a search term on Google and have the intimate details of my life pop up.

But…people do that. And oftentimes, successfully. Many people find great clarity and release from sharing in very public forums, and many others are strengthened by that spirit of truth and courage.

I guess part of what I want is to just strip away that awful life coach language and at least see what lies beneath it. And I try to do this with every single blog post. It’s a good place to start, at least. And hopefully, things will become clearer from there.

What are your thoughts on sharing your life in public forums?

Three Years and Seven Inches Later

I’ve been growing my hair out for 4 years. The first year was just a lark, wanting to see what it would look like just a tad longer. But after my boyfriend left to marry a woman almost twenty years younger than me, my desire to grow out my hair became something else.

I had always wanted to have really long hair. In my childhood, my mother always had my hair cut short, while my sister typically had very long hair. At some point, I started to wonder if our different haircuts were reflective of something my parents saw in our personalities. It was easy to see what long hair symbolized – beauty and femininity. Was I the opposite of those things? Is that why they always encouraged me to have shorter hair?

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

I wanted to bust through this perception of myself at many points during my life – and hopefully end up looking like, say, Queen Guinevere in the process. In my mid-twenties, I let my hair grow out halfway down my back…and I hated it. I was very overweight back then and every time I saw the pictures of myself with that super long hair, I felt like I looked even heavier and droopier.

I happily kept it at a medium length throughout my thirties…until that day the ex left. I was crippled with insecurity. I had wanted to marry him and raise a family with him so badly and over the course of our seven years together, he backed away from those dreams until one day he started claiming that he didn’t believe in marriage, at all, would never get married, and that he would never, ever have a child.

And then a little twenty-something single mother caught his eye, he fell instantly in love with her, and decided it was time to become a husband and father.

All I could feel for two years was that I just wasn’t good enough. If he could so easily do the things he had abhorred with this new woman, it must be because there was so much wrong with me. I was just a mess. I knew I couldn’t “fix” my personality, I knew I couldn’t make myself younger like his new love, and I knew I definitely could not make myself prettier. Don’t get me wrong – being in your forties is great – but, to put it bluntly, the 40’s cannot compete with hot, young ass.

But there was one thing I could do, I realized. I could grow out my hair. It seems ridiculous to say it now. At the time, however, it was perfectly logical. Having long hair would somehow transform me into that Celtic princess. It was like a magic spell that would cause observers to see me as pretty, even if I wasn’t. Somehow, I could hold my own next to a 20-something…because I had long hair.

Two and a half years after he left, I had an opportunity to buy a house for the first time. That had been one of our biggest disagreements – I wanted to buy a house and he didn’t. I thought it would be impossible for me to buy one on my own…and suddenly, there I was, about to sign off on a stack of mortgage documents.

I could not believe how scary and amazing that process was. But throughout it, I realized that my hair was starting to ask for attention. It was so long, it was becoming burdensome. And every time I looked at it, I remembered my ex and how insecure I felt – back then, and if I was honest with myself, still in the present moment.

But I had done something I never thought I could do – I bought a house BY MYSELF. Commitmentphobic boyfriend be damned. I DID IT. I started to see myself very differently. I could do more than I thought.

Meanwhile, my hair was dragging, dragging, dragging. I felt so heavy with the weight of it. And no, I didn’t feel like a Celtic princess, at all. And no, it honestly didn’t make me feel prettier. It just made me feel a tiny bit unusual.

Things were also starting to come full circle. Moving back to the town I had left after the breakup was bringing up all sorts of emotions. At first, it was sad – the last time I moved into a house in that town, it was with him and was literally one of the happiest times of my entire life, however shortlived that joy was. Later, it started to feel freeing – like I was starting fresh, wiping the slate clean. I realized there might be a time when I didn’t feel so much sadness in that town, that I wouldn’t see the ghosts of the past on every sidewalk, in every store.

Two weeks before I got the keys to the house, I started to feel so terrified and so excited that I wanted to make even bigger changes. I knew this really was a whole new chance for me and I wanted to let go of EVERYTHING that had dragged me down. Including my hair – or rather, what it represented.

My schedule was too crazy to get an appointment before the big day, so I had to patiently wait a few more weeks to get rid of this bad mojo I’d been carrying around. I even had to reschedule the appointment, and asked if I could push it back a week. Later, as I plugged it into my calendar, I saw that that “one week later date” was my ex’s birthday. Well…that’s appropriate, I thought.

I babbled and laughed during the entire cut, trying to manage the anxiety I was feeling. She took a “before” picture and I was stunned by how long it was. I hadn’t really realized. She said she was going to cut 7 inches to get the length I was asking for – was I sure?

Yes, I said. Do it.

Every snip of the scissors had me both exhilarated and sad. I couldn’t even look on the floor afterwards – I knew there was a ton of hair down there and I just couldn’t bear to see it all.

After the cut, I was feeling pretty good about myself and I decided to run into the store and pick up something I needed. And there, I came face-to-face with my ex’s mother who hadn’t spoken to me in 3 years, despite the many times I had reached out to her.

She gave me a huge hug and seemed anxious and sad. She asked me several times how I was doing, was I okay? It was a short conversation and I was overwhelmed with emotion – which I hadn’t expected – and afterward, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Hey, Universe! I just cut off 7 inches of hair to let go of that man and then you put his mother in my path right afterward? What the holy heck?

I think I might have to forgive his parents. I felt so hurt that I’d never heard from them again after all this happened. Their son had lied and cheated and I was the one who was pushed away? It seemed so unfair to me. It still does.

But…ever since I bought the house, I’ve felt more indifferent than I used to. Not in a disconnected way – just in a “sometimes shitty stuff just happens” kind of way. I don’t have to do anything about it – I don’t have to cry about it (not anymore), I don’t have to feel bad about it, I sure as hell don’t have to fix it. It just happened, and who cares now because I’m an independent woman who can kick ass and buy herself a house?

So yeah, maybe forgiveness is the next layer. For them. I’m not quite there when it comes to the ex, yet. That might take another three years and seven inches.

And in the days following the haircut, I admit, I have a bit of a hangover about it. I kinda miss the long hair. Not a whole lot – it really didn’t do much because of how heavy it was, and I usually just braided it, which got so boring. But I miss it a little. It was a security blanket of sorts.

Now I have to face the fear I was avoiding the whole time – without the hair, am I just old and ugly and totally useless to a man? I know in my head that that can’t be true. But my heart isn’t there yet.

I also know I don’t want to set this kind of example for the young women in my life. I’m buying into the disgusting notion that the only value women have is in their beauty and youth. Apparently, that’s still very true for many men out there. But not the ones that I want to be around. Not the ones who are worth caring about.

It’s a long road, those seven inches. Even now that they’re gone, there’s still such a long way to go…

The Clarity of 600 Square Feet

Three weeks in and my little cottage looks like a bomb went off inside it. I have never in my life lived in such a small space and even just getting things set up is a challenge I did not foresee. In the past, I’ve been able to designate part of a room the “drop zone” – I’ll stack things there and move them to where they belong as I tidy up.

Well, the rooms in my new house have no “parts.” Each room is so tiny, there’s no place to stack items in order to move them around later.

Because I packed my belongings without dividing them into boxes based on which room they belonged in (I’m more interested in using the space in a box wisely than designating each box to a separate room and potentially waste a few square inches), when I open a box, stuff comes out that belongs in the garage, in the spare room, in the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the kitchen… It’s a random grab bag. So I’ve had to move piles of items from the spare room to the garage to the living room to the garage to the spare room again to the garage and on and on. I’ve literally shuffled things back and forth at least 4 times, at this point, just trying to figure out where to keep things, where things will FIT. (Not a lot fits.)

I’ve known for a while that I would have to seriously downsize – and before I moved, I got rid of my couch and two entire carloads of stuff I don’t use anymore. I thought that would make a serious dent.

It turns out that actually being in the tiny space of my home gives me much more clarity about things than I had before I moved. Now it’s not just conceptual – this is the real deal. Suddenly, being able to function in a room without feeling like the walls are closing in is incredibly important. Suddenly, the occasional usefulness of an item is not enough of an argument for me to keep it. Suddenly, something that takes up only 3 square inches has to justify its presence in my home.

As I was unpacking the other day, I thought about Marie Kondo’s organizing philosophy that an item should “spark joy” if it’s going to stay in your home. Usually, I’m pretty sharp about what that means, what that feels like. I know that spark of joy.

But now that I’m in this new space, swimming through a sea of stuff, I started to feel a little muddled about it. I’d pull things out of boxes and remember that I used to love that item, but did I still? It fit so well on the table in the old living room, but now… A lot of items also reminded me of how much time and money I spent on trying to build a perfect home for a family I never had. That’s a lot of ghosts to bring into a new home, and frankly, I don’t have room for them, either.

As I pondered all this, pulling items out of boxes that made me feel lukewarm and confused, I suddenly pulled out some of my antique knickknacks…and smiled. I could feel my whole face light up. I was excited.

I realized my new experience of “sparking joy” was going to be much more discerning. There are a whole lot of items that made it past the pre-move initial sweep that aren’t going to make through this time around. The second round is a lot tougher than the first. My possessions really have to work it if they want to remain a part of the household.

Some of this is painful – it’s always hard to relive memories of the dreams that fell by the wayside. It’s hard to open a box that was packed up right after the dissolution of a household and relationship and find items, three years later, that had once held a place of honor in your supposedly happy love nest, but that went forgotten in their boxes.

Some of it is completely awesome. There’s a lot of stuff, I have discovered, that I used to love to do but perhaps don’t really love so much, anymore. And even more stuff that I thought I should love to do that I really don’t. Hobbies that I’ve grown out of, or hobbies that I started because I wanted to be “that kind” of wife and mother.

It’s really exciting to claim what I am and what my life is like here and now and decide what that really means and what that looks like. I’m not a mother. I’m not a wife. I can let go of so much of what I acquired to fulfill those roles and then…what might await me? Time and money to spend on a little bit of travel? More time to explore the woods? Or better yet, what if my writing becomes such a hot commodity that I have to spend most of my time writing novels? I love clearing the space for these possibilities.

I also just love to relieve myself of the emotional weight and energy. I believe that every single thing we own (even stuff that’s as tiny as a thimble, and even things we have forgotten we own) costs us energy. Every single thing. Anything under our stewardship demands energy from us, in one form or another. And when you’re the sole head of a household and every part of it, inside and out, is yours and yours alone, that’s a heavy load to carry. It can be a joyous one when you have struck that balance of owning the right amount of possessions and only (well, mostly) those things that make you happy. But if you’re drowning in an ocean of STUFF that you don’t really care about…it’s time to reevaluate.

And that’s where I am. I am waiting for that smile now. That excitement when I look at something I own, when I see something that makes me happy. Almost everything else is going to find itself a new home with people who truly appreciate it and will be energized by its presence.

I want to be a lean, mean machine in my 600-square-foot house. I want to know where every single item lives and be able to grab it quickly. I want my home to be simple, organized, and filled with space for whatever is coming.

And guess what else is going? The hair… (Stay tuned.)

We cannot hide at Grandma's house

As I write this, I find myself terrified. Excited, yes, but incredibly terrified.

I am buying a house all by myself on a salary with which I can barely make ends meet (the danger of working for a non-profit). No backups. No safety nets. No second income. No roommates.

Just me.

There are times, as I run from one room to another, packing furiously, that I feel I will explode from the worry, from the fear. Can I do this? Can I even make the one step it will take to sign that last contract? Can I even make it as far as to just finish packing and truck everything over there?

Funnily enough, by the time you read this, I'll be well-settled into my house. I realize all of this will be over. I might even feel like laughing that I ever felt so afraid.

In fact, I'm counting on that.

In my youth, this kind of fear would signal to me that it was time to run - or at the very least, hide. I would've assumed the fear was a sign that things were wrong, that I was going down the wrong path.

Now, I see that I have never grown in significant ways without doing something that scared the you-know-what out of me. I have never changed without the rug being pulled out from under me, without doubting that I was ready to make a change, without jumping off the edge and into what scares me most.

I still hate that that's true. Will the next 40 years also be full of nausea-inducing choices to grow, versus the relative ease of complacency? Will I have to face this fear again and again and again?

I wish it weren't so, but I think I probably will. It's the Big Bad Wolf waiting for me in my dark forest. I just want to arrive at Grandma's house, safe and sound, but in truth, there's no end, there's no destination. There's only the twisting, winding pathways leading us through the woods, where all the scariest creatures await us.

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So, I press on. I know better now than to run. The fear, like a bear, will only run after me, and eventually overtake me. So I might as well face it, trembling, holding on to my lantern. Once I've looked it in the face, I know it's not going to be half as scary as I thought. And once I've danced with it for a little while, it's going to become easier and easier, pressing me to meet the next creature that awaits me.

I suppose that's the best gift we get out of all of these risks, all of these moments of facing our fears - we realize, simply, that we can survive it, which gives us the courage to try again, to reach even further.

Scared as I am, I cannot wait to see who I become after I settle into home ownership. That's a big manifestation in the physical realm. What's going to come to help me support that?

I am terrified…but jubilant with excitement, waiting to find out.

Hunting with the owlets

On the evening of September 8th, I headed out into the woods to spend a little quiet time (which I do at least once each week, with no expectation of what I might see. I hadn't seen the owlets in two or three weeks, instead encountering a heron and a peregrine falcon, so I was excited to see whatever Mother Nature decided to show me.

Before I even made it to the woods, I saw one of my owlets sitting on a fence post behind the pole barn. I couldn't believe it. She was so beautiful - still with much of her white coloring, and beautiful "horns" that have fully grown in.

Truthfully, I cannot easily tell these three birds apart, especially when they are alone. Together, I can compare their sizes and behaviors and make a pretty good guess. But when they are alone, I trust my intuition to clue me in. I had the feeling that this one was Lyra - she certainly had that diva attitude about her, which is so like the Lyra that I know.

For the first time since she was a baby, she let me come pretty close to her and watch her for quite a long time. She was mostly napping, but at one point, she puffed up her feathers, opened her mouth as if she were yawning, and made several squawks (still not hooting). I could hear her siblings answering her from the woods beyond, but none appeared.

Some time later, I heard a duck quacking and landing in the pond several hundred yards away - out of sight, but loud enough to hear. Lyra heard it, too. She perked up, moving her head forward and back, forward and back. I thought she might fly off, to explore, but she remained where she was.

I remained there for another ten minutes, taking pictures and watching Lyra, the duck happily quacking over and over again, and suddenly I realized: there are at least two other owls out there in the woods. I couldn't help but think about the duck, who would be completely defenseless against a Great Horned Owl.

I carefully made my way down the hill, hearing Lyra squawk behind me. As I rounded the corner, the pond coming into view…sure enough, there was an owlet sitting on a rock overlooking the water. I had a feeling it was little Vesper, the runt of the family (or, more accurately, the last one born, making her markedly smaller than her older siblings).

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

I can't explain the feeling I had in that moment. I was nervous, excited, and even a little horrified. There was my beautiful little creature honing in on her prey. All of that gorgeous wildness was about to turn into blood, bone, and death. I have seen what Great Horned Owls can do to other birds - even birds larger than themselves - and it isn't pretty.

I wanted to see Vesper have her moment. I wanted her to have her dinner and keep surviving. I wanted to see her power.

But I also couldn't bear to see a harmless female duck lose her life.

What an odd moment, there in the woods, twilight descending, the shadows growing longer and longer, the sun a stark red against the smoky sky, the pond gently reflecting the tableau surrounding it, the duck happily quacking away. The owl waiting. Watching.

Did this duck have a mate? If her she was a mother, her ducklings would be grown by now, but would she be missed if she never returned home? Would Vesper kill her quickly enough so she would not experience pain?

Whose life was worth more in that moment? The duck? Or the owl? Would allowing the duck to become Vesper's dinner (breakfast?) be fairer than depriving Vesper of her well-earned meal?

I didn't have any answer to any of those questions. But I did know one simple thing: I couldn't bear to witness death in that moment. It was too beautiful. Too surging with life. All three of us living beings who wanted to keep on living. Who wanted to survive.

So I slowly walked toward Vesper, who finally became aware of my presence, and she flew away, into the trees. I felt guilty, but also grateful that I had come at that moment. Grateful that the duck would be able to return home, safe and sound.

I took a few pictures of the duck, then held up my arms and yelled, scaring her away. I knew Vesper would come back if the duck was still there and my attempt to save her would have been in vain. I watched the duck's retreat until she was no longer visible, relieved that she was safe.

I thought about what I'd done as I made my way back up the hill, back toward the house, Lyra still squawking away, still sitting on her post. We so often hear people advise us not to mess with nature. That if you do, it throws everything off balance, sometimes in ways we cannot even foresee.

I find this saying laughable, though. Look how much we have messed with nature in the last 100 years. We cover the earth in concrete, blast through tectonic plates to extract oil from beneath its surface, create enough plastic waste to destroy our ocean habitats, and poison the water with our chemicals. So making a fuss about not touching baby animals that appear to have been abandoned by their parents, or interfering in an animal's hunting habits doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. There are worse kinds of interference happening every day, every second.

But beyond this, using a word like interfere implies that there's a division between us and the wild world. There's us (the domesticated) and them (the wild animals). The truth is, though, that we are all one and the same. We are animals, too. And these so-called wild creatures live among us, and we amongst them, and everything we do affects the other, whether that's our intention or not. (You know what they say about the butterfly flapping its wings in Central Park.)

I have been a part of these birds' lives, and they of mine, since they were born. In their experience, it is normal to have a woman skulking around in the woods, taking pictures of them and watching them. Having me join them on a night of hunting is just another day for them. (Though I still feel guilty that I "stole" Vesper's dinner.)

The action that I took is a reflection of the kind of wild animal I am - philosophical, intellectual, pseudo-logical. I tried to make a moral distinction in that moment (which really was a random choice born of my own perceptions) and when that failed, I made a decision to do what would make me more comfortable. Because, yes, I, like other humans, have been somewhat domesticated, and that domestication alters our perception.

I often wonder what it might be like to have a different perspective - something wildly different. Like an owl's. Would it be as simplistic as we assume it to be? Do owls think about the meaning of life? About the price, born by other beings, to keep them alive?

I feel lucky to have had the experiences I have had with them. To watch, observe, think, wonder. To, in a sense, change my skin just by spending time with them. What would it be like to be one of the woodland's most powerful predators? To be so calculating, efficient, and even, perhaps, cold-hearted?

If you think about it, though, are we so different from our Great Horned Owl companions? Humans are at the top of the food chain. You could argue there is no one more cold-hearted, efficient, or calculating than we are. If we have this in common with the Great Horned Owl, what else might we share?

As they have grown up, I have seen so much tenderness in them. I have seen both the mother and father owls come swooping in the moment they thought their baby was in danger. I have seen the mother owl sit for literally hours at the top of a fence, a powerful sentinel, when one of the babies was too tired to try to fly out of the patch of grass she had fallen into.

I have also seen the babies peck at each other. I've seen them come flying at their father, pummeling him with their wings until the father gave an angry squawk and flew away. And now I have seen them carefully stalking their prey.

I think I am drawn to these owls because of the mystery they represent to me. They live in the darkness. Their lives are, generally, shrouded from the human eye.

But the more I watch them, the more I see humans reflected in their behaviors and the more I see owls reflected in humans. We are all so connected.

Striving for domestic goddesshood

As I'm preparing for another move into my first experience of home ownership, I have to downsize. A lot. Again.

My last move was somewhat unexpected. I had a tight deadline (less than a week) to go from settled to completely moved out. I didn't have time to purge things. I didn't have the strength, either. I was still processing the end of my relationship and the loss of the happy little nest I had spent 5 years creating.

Though I have had much more time to prepare this time around, I admittedly haven't done well with pacing myself. Now that there's less than 2 weeks left, I realize I've saved about 75% of the work for the last minute. Partly out of procrastination and overwhelm and partly because in my childhood, we moved a lot, and I have a particular aversion to living in a half-packed house for any length of time.

Copyright Yancy Lael 2015

Copyright Yancy Lael 2015

But now, finally, I have no choice to pack. And with the packing and downsizing comes a lot of purging. I'm finding all the domestic treasures I made and/or collected for the house I had with my ex. Two years ago, at my last move, I considered these things precious, invaluable, a symbol of the hope and love I had in my heart. Today, I look at them and only see the burden I felt to create some unrealistic domestic paradise. Trying so hard to be worthy - a woman who could attract the love and commitment of a man, who could keep her home beautiful and cozy, who kept meals on the table, who constructed elaborate holiday traditions, who would one day become a mother (the most worthy creature of all) and continue juggling all these balls, plus night feedings and poopy diapers.

It pains me to see how much I strived back then. How much I've always strived. I aspire toward the domestic perfection I see in the movies. I aspire toward the domestic perfection I see on Martha Stewart. I aspire toward the domestic perfection I see in my friends and family members' lives. It seems like this incredible ideal that lives somewhere "out there" that I have never been able to attain and somehow, reaching for it, moving toward it, directing my energy toward it, has given me some level of comfort in all these years.

But it also set me up for massive disappointments time and time again. And caused me to miss out on the normal business of living - missing connection, missing the opportunity to engage in less stressful events, missing simplicity. Missing the chance to enjoy my life just as it is. Missing the chance to see myself as worthy without all the striving.

As I truck all of these items - supplies from my old business, handmade domestic frills, furniture the ex and I bought together - off to the thrift store, I feel a tinge of sadness and a ton of freedom. I don't know if I can live without striving - it seems to be a default setting within me. But to live with more awareness surrounding that still feels like an improvement.

What might come of letting go of these possessions…and what they were meant to symbolize?

Where you can be yourself

A few weeks ago, I was at an event hosted by a local non-profit that works to get school-aged children out of the classroom and into the forest to experience more hands-on education. There's a lot of emerging research indicating that youth learn better in the outdoors and retain more information when education is more physical, more hands-on. (As you can probably imagine, this doesn't surprise me in the least.)

Copyright 2017 Yancy Lael

Copyright 2017 Yancy Lael

During the event, a kindergarten teacher began talking about the positive experience she was having with her class during their outdoor education days each month. She had a whole list of anecdotal evidence to share that made her believe the experience was worth pursuing, but one of the things she mentioned really struck a chord with me. She said that one of her students told her something like (you know, the kindergarten version of this): "I feel like I can finally be myself when I'm out in the forest."

When I heard this, it gave me the chills. I hadn't really put it into words before, but this is exactly what I feel like when I'm out in the woods. Finally, I understand what drove me to seek out those wild refuges! And of course, it was a 6-year-old who put it to words. Leave it to a kindergartner to put complicated truths into simple words and in the process, solve all the worlds problems.

The greatest privilege of being in the wild world is that we get to connect with our own wildness (which is what we really are, after all). We get so caught up in the myths we've created around being humans that we forget we are still part of the kingdom Animalia, the genus Mammalia. We are animals, belonging to the forest, the desert, the mountains, the rivers.

Out there in the woods, I never have to worry about how I look. I don't worry about the rituals of mating that we single gals think about so often. I don't have to put on makeup. I don't have think about whether or not my face is bent at an angle that's unattractive so someone standing across from me. I don't even have to wash my hair. I can lie in the dirt and stare up at the sky through the canopy of branches and experience one of the greatest freedoms I have ever enjoyed: Not thinking about whether or not I'm attractive enough to catch a man's eye.

Out there in the woods, I can sing. I don't censor myself and my love of music comes spilling out. I hum as I'm walking, I sing softly while sitting by the creek, I even call out loud tunes from the top of the hill to see if I can make an echo of song in the fields below me. I don't mind so much when I miss a note (which happens a lot). I don't worry that someone will walk in, see how much energy I'm giving to my song, and laugh at me for being so dramatic. I just sing and I know the squirrels, the vines, the owls, love to hear these melodies.

Out there in the woods, I can just be myself. I don't have to impress anyone. I don't have to worry about saying the right thing, about having good manners, about keeping the peace or being "spiritual." I can take in every sight, every sound, every texture and engage fully with what's around me, barely spending a second thinking about my deadlines, my obligations, the social missteps I made in the past week. I don't have to worry about investing or working out or saying just the right thing at the right moment. Everything I do in the woods is the right thing in the right moment. There's no judgment from the flowers, the deer. There's no one measuring my progress, asking for goal charts, demanding more growth and improvement. I am what I am in that moment and what I am is perfect.

The woods demand nothing of me. The woods take nothing from me. The woods embrace me - not imperfections, and all, but me, as a whole, with no judgment. There's no such thing as "imperfections." I'm just a set of patterns, fractals, elements, observations, pulses, and movements, just like every other living creature out there. We are, all of us, together, one.

I can be myself out in the woods. And what greater gift is there than that?

Thorns & Prickles

I've been feeling quite prickly lately. Odd. Conflicted. Hard to fit. Even ugly, sometimes.

I've been spending as much time as I can in my grove (which isn't much time, at all, but some is better than none), and I noticed that the place where I sit is surrounded with prickly plants: Oregon grape, thistles, mullein, and some very thorny weeds.

They are all beautiful in their own way. I've always loved mullein and thistle and am developing a deep fondness for Oregon grape.

I touched the plants and even the prick didn't hurt that much. I thought, Maybe it's not so bad to be prickly. Maybe I can still be beautiful, and maybe my spikes and thorns can help me stay strong and protected.

Copyright Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright Yancy Lael, 2017

There is a legend in Scotland, one of my ancestral lands, that the Norse invaders tried to surprise the Scots in battle during the night - when one of them stepped on a thistle and screamed in pain, alerting the Scotsman to the attackers' presence. So there's some value to being prickly, hmmm?

And beauty, as well. I think thistles are stunning. And Oregon grape is so smooth and shiny and boldly green.

But then there are all the ways that we see our prickly bits as more severe than they really are. We see them as shutting us away from others. We LET them shut us away from others. We judge ourselves based on thorns that aren't really quite so sharp as we fear.

My favorite fairy tale heroine, Briar Rose, has this prickliness to her. She pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and falls into a magical sleep, protected in her castle by a wall of thorny brambles. Though there are dozens of symbolic interpretations of this story, I have often thought that her encounter with the spinning wheel represented her first true encounter with herself - and her inability to face her prickly side at such a formative age. At first, those thorny brambles protect her as her soul matures in a sacred sleep, as she begins to process the prickles. But eventually, they come to shut out the light of day. They come to shut out the love (not necessarily romantic) that is awaiting her. She has to learn to love her own thorns.

Like all things in life, there is no one way to look at our prickliness. It's good. It's bad. It protects us. It harms us.

A divine paradox, just like the rose. So beautiful, and just a little dangerous. Just a little painful.

The Path of Totality

It was the middle of the morning, 9:30AM, when I went outside, put on my special glasses and looked up at the sun. I could already see the moon crossing over, leaving a crescent-shaped shadow over the sun.

It was amazing. Seeing the moon in shadow. In daylight. Seeing what appeared to be the two celestial bodies almost switching roles.

Copyright: C. Martin

Copyright: C. Martin

I didn't expect to sit through the whole thing, but that's exactly what ended up happening. I sat down on a lawn chair and watched the show for the next 40 minutes or so. Every few minutes, I'd put my glasses on and look up and see more and more of the sun disappearing behind the moon.

As time went on, I realized I was shivering. It was getting colder. The shadows were getting longer. The light turned to an almost gray color. The shadows were unlike the shadows I normally see. The lines and patterns strange, unfamiliar.

I ran inside to get a sweater about 2 minutes before the peak of the eclipse. I stopped short. The house was dark inside, except for a few more odd shadows laying themselves across the floor and walls. I stopped to take pictures, then ran back outside again.

The whole backyard looked gray, like someone had fiddled with the contrast and exposure settings on a picture. It was genuinely cold.

I sat down again, and suddenly…there it was. The moment where everything went almost completely dark (I was about 30 miles south of the path of totality). It was like that moment just before night falls. Total quiet. Chilly. Gray.

There was something almost creepy about it, but mostly it was fascinating. Awe-inspiring. It made me realize just how vital the sun is to our lives. Would we survive in that darkness? In that cold?

And then, almost before I could blink, it was light again. Even after the moon had only moved the tiniest bit, even only 90 seconds of that darkness…the yard became so light again that it felt as if someone had switched on a lamp. Just in a moment. Light to dark to light.

It was magic. Pure, beautiful magic.

A moment of silence

There's been so much said since last weekend, when such unfathomable hatred broke loose in Virginia. Sometimes I feel I have so much to say. Other times, I feel that it would serve the world more to be and practice love rather than flap my jaw (or clack away at the keyboard) with more words, words, words. 

So I'm going to give the world my love today, rather than a whole lot of words that may or may not end up meaning anything in the end. But the love will remain. The love will matter. 

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

Can it be without conflict?

These past few weeks - maybe even months - I have run head-first into conflict at every turn. If there's even a possibility of conflict, it happens. It blows up. It escalates.

I have begun to think it's the eclipse. Right? Surely, it must be something in the air. Everyone in conflict. Looking for a fight. Defending themselves. Lashing out.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

Why all of a sudden? Why now? Or is it always so and I just don't realize it?

I started feeling like I was a random cog in this chaotic whirlwind. Some of my edges are sharp. I feel like I blow into other people, knocking into them, rolling over them, hitting against them. Sometimes my sharp edges hit them. Sometimes theirs hit me.

It feels random and unnecessary and painful.

And it keeps going. Now I wonder if this is just the consequence of interaction. So many different people, so many different ways of living, speaking, breathing, being.

We are all alpha wolves about something. Maybe we are destined to butt heads again and again. Maybe the sharpening of our teeth and claws is part of our journey. Maybe getting territorial is part of the process.

I accept this so easily in literature. In fact, the second book of the Raedwolfe Trilogy that I'm working on now is all about the cyclical nature of conflict and how we can connect so deeply with others only to hit the wall again and again and again.

What is the purpose of it? I don't know. Practicing strength? Power? Or learning to let go? Compromise?

I don't know.

Reading the Land

My first boyfriend was obsessed with a series of fantasy novels whose name I can no longer recall. He identified so strongly with the protagonist that he insisted everyone call him by that name instead of the one he was given. When we began dating, he said I was just like the female lead character. The girl in the story was a scryer - she threw stones and was able to find hidden answers in the patterns they made.

At the time, my boyfriend did not know what an intuitive I considered myself to be, how much I believed in magic, or even that I read tarot cards for fun. I found it incredibly affirming that he associated me, early on in the relationship, with someone who had such a strong connection to nature and such deep, intuitive insight.

As the years have gone by, I forgot about that book, about that character. My attention was caught again and again by other things.

Walking through the same woodland for 25 years, my artist's eye starting noticing the contrast between the different colors of bushes and bark. I became entranced with the dances the long grasses made when the wind blew. I especially loved textures and patterns - the way dead rabbitbrush would fan and flatten as it died, lying there alongside elegant twists and turns of living branches, or the delicious, slightly fuzzy bark that would peel away from the trunks of juniper trees.

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

I delighted in all of this, always wishing I could capture the beauty with more than just my camera.

And then one day, I read a blog post written by the luminous Sylvia Lindsteadt. She compares the detritus that washes up from the sea to runes and speaks about the secret language of the land that is hidden in these seemingly random items, in the patterns made by sea and sand.

I began to think about the patterns that, at one time I simply noticed, and that now I seek out - the random bone left behind by a coyote, the deer trails that crisscross the woods, the tiny, fluffy owlet feathers that still seem to appear in the most random places.

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

While I am glad to notice these things just to appreciate their beauty, what if there is more to our interaction than that? What if these are the runes of the land? What if these are the stones that we scry with? What if these items, these seemingly random placements and patterns, are not at all random? What if they are telling a very specific story of the land around us? What if those stories have instructions for us, information that could help us navigate through our own woodland (or seascape, or desert, or…)?

If we listen, if we read the runes, the stones, the bones, the feathers…what would they tell us?

She-Wolf

I don't want to fight. But I will. 

I'm shy. An introvert. Quiet. Gentle. Sweet. In fact, when people describe me, the most common adjectives I've heard are "cute" and "nice."

The older I get, the more I abhor being described by these words. I've learned where "cute" and "nice" get you. As a young woman, I was a walking target. Classmates sexually harassed me, teachers insulted, terrorized and/or sexually intimidated me, and even friends weren't afraid to insult or hurt me in order to get back power when they'd lost theirs.

As I became an adult, I struggled constantly with trying to identify the line. Where exactly does one cross over into bullying, harassing, or just plain being a rude jerk-face?

I never knew the answer to that. I still don't.

I am usually alerted to this by the feeling I get - that feeling we all know so well of getting our feathers ruffled. That "Whoa, what just happened there?" feeling.

But is this a trigger?, I have wondered. Am I being triggered by something I need to learn and grow through or did someone actually wrong me?

Seriously, I still don't know the answer to that question, and by now, I'm all too used to assuming I'm the one in the wrong.

It seems like there's something in the air, lately, though, that either has me feeling "triggered" almost all the time…or there's just a spate of bad behavior going on. It seems like (particularly at work), I've been judged, intimidated, and even insulted dozens of times a week these past few months. And most of all, I've been criticized over and over, by many different people, for "not being strong enough."

Let me be very clear here that their definition of "strong" includes being loud, pushy, and aggressive. Three qualities that I just do not have and have no desire to cultivate. I don't want to be "strong" like that. I don't want to change who I am or adopt more masculine qualities* in order to appease the feminists at work who think this is what it takes to be a strong woman.

If they only knew what it was like to be this quiet and this gentle in the world we live in. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to be kind, compassionate, and patient. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to be soft in a world so goddamn hard.

I don't want to be like them. I don't want to keep my dukes up all day long. I don't want to fight back.

I am not afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. I am the Big Bad Wolf. 

Copyright: Yancy Lael & C. Martin, 2015-2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael & C. Martin, 2015-2017

But at the same time, I'm at the end of my rope. I'm tired of defending myself or ignoring rude, aggressive behavior. There is a part of me, reluctant as it is, that is ready to draw the lines around my territory and stand guard, knives, guns, and landmines at the ready.

This is my turf. This is my personality. This is my soul. Go find someone else to bully.

I am drawing on my wild canine totem for this, my she-wolf. I am ready to growl, lunge, and take down anyone who tries to out-alpha me in my own territory.

Just before I sat down to write this, I drew one of those lines. Hard. It was risky and I still don’t know what the fallout will be. I guess when two alphas fight, there's no telling who will win.

But I say again: This is my territory. This is my soul. So if I go down, at least I went down standing up for the one thing worth fighting for.

 

*Please note that I do not mean to perpetuate any gender stereotypes here. I am talking about the traditional associations of masculine and feminine energy, which may or may not have anything to do with a person and/or their gender.