How can we make social media more realistic and less aspirational?

Social media. Yikes.

I’ve stayed away most of the summer. Mostly because I was just busy with work, but honestly…I struggle SO MUCH with social media. Especially in my social media presence as an author. I want to create something of beauty where people can go to feel magical and safe. But I also feel pressure to make everything look perfect in a way that’s just not realistic.

This picture, for instance. I have many photos I’ve taken for my website that I absolutely adore, that feel like they embody who I am on the inside. But guess what? I don’t wander around in the woods wearing an outfit like this. HA! No, I usually go out there after my workout, in sweatpants and Wellie boots. There’s absolutely nothing feminine, beautiful, or mystical about me in those moments, at least not on the outside.

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The honest truth is that I get SO frustrated with social media today. It seems to be inundated with sexy photos of girls in their twenties pouring tea with their hair cascading down their shoulder and into their décolletage, or wandering barefoot and braless in the woods, or twisting their spandex-clad legs into yogic knots on the top of a boulder. Where the fuck are we, Toto?

I have actually had to unfollow people because I couldn't handle some of it. Outdoor soaks in bathtubs filled with rose petals? Sensual nude selfies in the greenhouse? Foraging for berries in a miniskirt and thigh-high boots? Come-fucking-on.

I don't actually have any objections to these things on principle. It's just that this is not all of real life. This isn't even 20% of real life. (And if you tell me you regularly bathe outdoors under the full moon, forage barefoot for your own food, and are quite commonly naked when watering plants in your greenhouse, I might punch you. I'm sorry in advance, but seriously. I can't handle it.)

I don't expect to see pictures of meltdowns, tantrums, broken hearts, disappointments, the earwig crawling up your wall, a broken pipe, your cellulite-y thighs, or your arm coated in the chocolate cake you just binge-ate. I suppose that doesn't make for particularly compelling social media posts.

But can we just talk about these things? Please? And can we post the occasional imperfect picture that maybe shows just a peek of real life?

And really…is everyone on Instagram twenty fucking years old? Where are the bold women in their 40's, the brazen hussies of 50, the scandalous seductresses in their sixties, and beyond? Where are they posting? Thank goddess for Catherine Just and Kris Oster and Lyn Thurman and Valerie Geary and Liz Gilbert and Anne Lamott for daring to take up real estate in this youth-obsessed culture.

I try, in my own ways, as well. I struggle with my author accounts on Instagram and Facebook. I don't really like to get personal on social media. In a memoir? Sure, I'm all about that. What's the difference? Hell, I have no idea. One feels more controlled, I suppose, more contained. Who knows what happens to your words and images on social media.

So I try to walk that line of what to share, tending to stick a little too closely to talking about my projects. I try to post occasionally about what I'm doing, but that voice inevitably crops into my head: Why the hell am I sharing this? What possible reason could I have for telling a bunch of people I don't know that I'm baking bread on a Sunday afternoon? Yes, I want to share my feelings of warmth and comfort with others, but again, on social media, it too often leaves me feeling empty and even sometimes manipulative.

The truth is, no matter what my Instagram feed looks like, I'm just an ordinary person with a job and a side hustle and an unbelievably messy, disorganized house, a crazy family, and an endless ability to annoy people with my quirks, flaws, and habits. Sure, I wish I was beautiful and sexy and that I radiated an unshakable inner calm 24/7. I wish I spent my days puttering around in a field filled with mullein, untangling my long skirts from the grasp of bittersweet nightshade. I wish I picked mushrooms with an owl perched on my shoulders and a fox at my heels. I even wish that I took baths under the moonlight and snapped nude photos of myself in the greenhouse.

But really, I’m just a woman with a messy ponytail running from one modern-day obligation to the next, like most of us do. It ain't pretty, it ain't sexy, it's not even that interesting. I suppose it wouldn't do much for social media, right?

In my attempt to find a way for myself in social media, I created another Instagram feed called The Owler's Notebook. I use it to share photos and stories from my owling adventures. It's very specific, which helps me feel like I know exactly what to post there, and I don't have to second-guess my motives because I'm there for the owls. I'm there to share their story, more than my own. That, I can handle.

I do want to present curated content at The Owler's Notebook - of course I do. I'm inviting people into the forest, and it must look the part. But I feel that I'm able to find the balance between reality and Instagram-fantasy-land very easily.

I hope to see more of this in social media - accounts that tell a story as realistically as possible. And more of people who are more honest about their struggles - if not in the pictures, than at least in the captions. (But I swear to god, don't let me catch you posting about what a rough day you had because your body dysmorphia reared up, beneath a close-up shot of a pendant hanging between your naked breasts. I'll have to punch you again.)

I don't know what the answer is, and I don't want to be a judgmental bitch about it, either. Okay, okay, post whatever you want. #liveandletlive But I think we're moving pretty quickly in the wrong direction. Everything has to be on-brand. Good lighting. Sexy, pouty selfies. Poetic, provocative hashtags.

#Fuckallofthat. #Cantwejustbereal?

The Writer's Long Road

Every now and then, I find myself despairing a tad over my lack of progress as a writer - well, as a read writer. Maybe despair is too strong a word, but as a writer, I'm going to exercise my right to use dramatic language.

It takes such a long time to simply get a project to where I want it to be. Even a short story can take months to write and edit before I give it my stamp of approval. And novels can take years. The Poison Box took me over 15 years to write and rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…).

It seems like once you have completed something that took all your creative energy, all your courage, and all your free time, there should be some kind of energetic exchange with the world, right? Like, at the very least, people want to read it (and hopefully buy it). Or at least follow you on social media.

Well, I haven't found the equation to be quite that simple. I struggle with attracting social media followers (and often question the presence of social media in my life, in general). I struggle with getting my pieces published in magazines or blogs. I struggle with the process of attracting an agent. And I struggle mightily just getting people to review my work. Even when I give it to them for free.

I've been trying to find an agent now for over a year. I've gotten a handful of rejections, which I celebrate (it means someone is actually reading my submission, rather than ignoring it!), but no interest so far. And I've spent months reaching out to bloggers, trying to get them to review The Fox at the Door, my fairy tale for mothers in grief and the childless-not-by-choice. I believe in that story and I believe sharing our loss as mothers or the pain of not becoming a mother is something we, as women, need to talk about. This world of social media curated motherhood needs to crack and shatter and make room for everyone. Despite my attempts to share with bloggers and podcasters…crickets. Nothing is happening.

I forget that writers have to walk a very long road. Sometimes, we have to carry our stories such a goddamn long way just to get a handful of people to acknowledge the life force, the energy that is our story. We have to bundle that story up against the cold winds, hold it tight to our chest, and feed it the last crumbs in our pocket never having the assurance of knowing if anything will come of it.

I have to remind myself that not getting any interest from 33 agents is nothing in the writer's world. A writer might have to submit to hundreds of agents before getting any interest (if it happens, at all). I have to remind myself that spending months trying to get reviews for The Fox at the Door is nothing in the writer's world. It could take months. It could take decades.

The writer's road is one of the longest that I know. There aren't a lot of rest stops out here. Even fewer restaurants and cozy beds. It's one long, grueling walk, in your bare feet. There's no point in turning around because the road back is just as never ending as the one ahead. And there aren't any other paths, so the writer just has to keep moving and hoping that someday, please Muses, someday, our people, our readers, will start to find us and cheer us along to the next story.

Another Season of Owling Begins!

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Last Friday, I went out to my glade with my brother's dogs to sit by the Oregon grape and have some quiet time. The dogs surged ahead and to my surprise…an owl who had been sitting in the glade was startled by their movement and flew away.

It was such a wonderful surprise. I haven't seen my owl family since last fall and I have missed them so much. Although, this is something that attracts me to owls - their unpredictability, their mystery. You never know when or where you are going to see them. And even when they seem to be absent, you know they are out there, somewhere.

Later that evening, sans dogs, I went back to the glade to see if the owl was still in the vicinity, but knowing it wasn't. (In my year of owling, I've never found an owl in the same site he'd/she'd been in when I'd scared them away.)

And guess what? The owl had returned to the glade! I scared it off again, just as the dogs had the first time. But this time, I followed its path and found it in a nearby tree. It let me get very close to it - about 30 feet - and I sat there watching it for about an hour. It was such a privilege.

Then the following Friday, I returned to the glade…and there it was again! Just like last week, it flew away to the same tree it had sat in near me last week.

This is so unusual. I've never seen an owl revisit the same places again and again. This makes me wonder if it has claimed the glade and an abandoned nest there as its home.

It was also unusual that it let me get so close to it without giving me an aggravated clacking of its beak. It makes me wonder: Could this be one of the owlets? Though I have heard it's more and more common for owls to be somewhat unaffected by a human's presence these days, I never found the adult owls I encountered last year to be particularly open to my visits. They heard me long before their babies did and were quick to fly away, though never going far, just in case their little ones needed them. But for the babies, having a human nearby was part of their lives - they knew nothing else. They grew up in my mother's "back yard," where I came to visit them every single weekend.

Is it possible that the parents left the area for new territory, along with two of the owlets, and one stayed behind? Could that happen?

Honestly, I want to believe it. I would love it if this was one of those dear little beings. Especially if it was Vesper, the youngest of the family. Unfortunately, comparing them in photos doesn't help, at all. They still had their juvenile plumage last time I saw them and this owl has all his/her adult feathers.

Owlet or not, it is so wonderful to have this opportunity again to spend time in the company of these beautiful creatures. My hour with the owl was very quiet. It sat in the branches, watching every movement in the fields beyond, every rustle of the bushes. When geese flew overhead, it looked up, watching with interest. (I remember last summer, when Vesper was hunting a duck, and Lyra overhead, perking up at the sound of the quacking.)

These birds are so patient and so slow, and at the same time, lightning quick. When they want to disappear, they can do so in a fraction of a second. When they strike as hunters, you wouldn't even know what hit you.

It's incredibly fascinating to observe them.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

The friends we make in the wild world

I haven't seen my owlets in nearly two weeks. They grew up fast, as I knew they would. When I first encountered them, they could barely fly. Within 3 weeks, they were expert aviators. When I first met them, they would let me stand a few hundred feet away and take pictures and videos of them with my zoom lens. Within 3 weeks, the moment they heard me coming, they would fly away. I could barely catch a glimpse of them.

I knew they would be gone by the end of the summer, looking for their own territory. But I thought I had at least a month before they went off on their own.

But the last several times I've gone out to look for them, there has been no sign of them. I see feathers here and there that have been lying around for a while - nothing new, nothing fresh.

I listen so carefully, trying to hear their call, but nothing comes. I hear the magpies and the hawks, but no baby owls. Every now and then, I think I hear them…but when I stop to focus, the sound does not recur.

I have to admit, I really miss them. Watching them has been one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. What a privilege to get a chance to watch three baby owls grow into maturity.

  Copyright: C. Martin, 2017, used with permission

Copyright: C. Martin, 2017, used with permission

In a way, they became my friends. I looked for them every Friday and Saturday evening. When you're owling, you have to slow down. You have to listen. The very act of walking so incredibly slowly, of looking into every tree for some clue of their whereabouts, was incredibly relaxing. It helped me manage the stress I've been struggling with at work. It helped me feel connected to a broader, wilder world than the one I currently inhabit.

Without little Lyra, Sirirus, and Vesper, I feel a little bit lost. Suddenly, the world feels so much emptier.

On Monday night, I walked the woods for over an hour, looking for them in the fading light. I began crying, feeling so hopeless that I will see their beautiful yellow eyes again. Was the last time the last time?

My sobbing startled a buck that had been eating grass several feet away. I didn't see him until he spooked and ran away. At the time, I was standing next to the bones of another buck who had died in November 2015, back when my own life was heading deep into the underworld.

The buck gave me some hope. He was young, his antlers velvety. Maybe another sign that my life is finally and fully emerging from that dark, deathly place it was in for so long. One buck left this world, and another has come into it, just beginning his life.

It gave me a little hope, even as I knew I had to face the fact that I might not see my little ones ever again.

I stayed at the farm on Tuesday night - something I don't normally do on a work night. I woke up just before my alarm went off, at 4:30AM. I laid there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for my alarm to go off at 5. Ten minutes later, I heard hooting.

I knew it was the mother or father owl sitting on the tree just outside the window, as they had done so often just before the babies were born. I couldn't believe it. After almost two weeks, one of them returned! Not one of my babies, but still…it was reassuring to hear one of the adults.

I went on with my day feeling much better, much more hopeful. Maybe I'll see them again. Or maybe the mother owl came to tell me that they were all moved out and happy in their new territories.

At work, a co-worker gave me a birthday present - a pair of owl-shaped earrings. It felt like the owls speaking to me, again, reassuring me.

I don't know if I'll see the little ones again. They might be gone forever, now. But I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with them. And I hope that the parents - or at least one of them - will stay on at the farm, letting me visit from time to time.

It is just good to know that we have friends out there, somewhere in the wild world, who touched our lives. And maybe we touched theirs, too.

Pay Attention

It always surprises me how challenging it can be to do the simplest thing - like pay attention to what's going on around me. Were we always this distracted?

I get thrown off by my cell phone dinging. I lose my focus when loud cars roll by or people spill into the office, talking loudly. I fall back into old habits of rushing not even always realizing that I'm doing it.

I'm trying to take a slower, more deliberate pace, especially at this time of year, when work is so stressful. I make time to write down my tasks in a date book every day, to help me focus on what I'm doing and where I'm going. I try to force myself to take breaks and to focus on taking care of my body.

Nevertheless, the rush creeps in. Just last weekend, as I was wandering the woods, looking for my owlets, I realized I was crashing through the brush at a rushed pace. Why on earth was I was going so fast?

Habit. Pure and simple. When I walk, I usually walk for fitness and am focused on what I have to get done when my walk is over.

But that's not the case when I'm owling.

  Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I had to remind myself to slow down. I had to remember that I can't find those precious little creatures unless I walk very slowly and listen for their soft calls. I have to pay attention to every little thing around me.

I have to take notice of the magpies flying above. The way the wind is blowing. I have to look so carefully in the trees and listen with deep concentration so I can hear the owls' squawks.

All of this is a necessary reminder.

My bicycle commuting used to be this touchstone of focus for me. I can remember writing blog posts about how much bicycling slowed down my attention and helped me to appreciate the trees and flowers, how it allowed me to notice such "small" things like a beetle crossing the road - something I never would have seen from a car.

But all these years later, in another town, at a much faster pace, I have lost this sense of attention when I'm bicycling. I'm moving too fast. Hurrying too much. Trying to avoid the traffic, trying to get to work on time.

So now I must re-learn this lesson from the owls. Stop. Listen. Look around. Pay attention.

As I reminded myself of this last weekend, I stumbled upon a bush that was surrounded with owl feathers. I stopped, realizing my little owls had been there, probably not so long ago. My focus deepened, instantly.

Looking up for more clues, I found myself almost face-to-face with one of the owls. Right there. So close.

It took me several more minutes to realize that his sister was sitting right next to him, concealed by a branch. And another several minutes to notice his other sister just across the path from me.

There are a lot of things in life that sit quietly in the trees, waiting for us to notice them. It can be hard to see them. Hard to hear them. But if we remember to be deliberate and focused, we will take notice of the clues.

Go slowly. Listen deeply. Look closely.

Pay attention.

In Mystery, They Remain

I spent last Friday evening looking for my owlet twins - with no luck. I roamed 40 acres of land and could not find a trace of them. I couldn't even hear their calls.

Disappointed, I thought I might not get a chance to see them that weekend. Until Saturday night came around.

After seeing their parents flying in the back pasture from the windows of my mother's house, I ran out with binoculars and camera in hand.

As I was snapping pictures, I thought I was imagining what I was seeing. Not two little fluffy white creatures…but three. What? Did I really just see that?

I turned on the video camera with its zoom lens and started watching the little owlet who had landed on a pile of hay (I was too far away to get a good view with the binoculars and certainly couldn't see well enough with my naked eyes). Another stood nearby. And then…sure enough, a third one flew in.

  Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I could not believe it. What kind of blessing is that to have not one, not two, but three owlets growing up before your eyes?

I watched them in awe for nearly an hour. They were playing on a pile of hay that I had gotten it into my head to move a couple months ago. The pile had previously been sitting near the house (once a fort for my nephews) and had rotted over the winters into a pile of disgusting mush. I was so sick of looking at it that in March, I decided to haul it out to the back pasture, with my brother's help.

Well, I couldn't have moved it at a better time. The little owlets seemed to loved using it for hunting and flying practice. The short peaks made for perfect, modest "diving boards" (though they still face-planted an awful lot). They picked up chunks of hay and tried to lift them while flying (mostly unsuccessfully) to (presumably) strengthen their legs and build coordination, they went crazy over the buffet of bugs living in the decomposing matter, and most of all, I imagine, they were listening for the little mice who have since made a home in that pile, honing their ears for the day they will be hunting on their own.

They watched me watching them, often looking directly at me. Their parents fly away whenever I get within 300 feet of them, but the owlets are young enough not to care. I still remain at a distance, but unlike their parents, the young ones will allow me to observe from far away, occasionally looking my way to make sure I'm not coming any closer. Somehow, the mother and father owl will reappear in a nearby tree without my notice, flying away a second time when I get up to leave.

That Saturday night, as I watched and recorded videos, the sun cast a stripe of light straight down onto me and the owls. It was as if our little slice of the earth had turned to gold. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. Did this happen every night, I wondered, and I was just too busy indoors to notice? Was it just this time of year, when the sun was at that particular angle in the late spring sky?

I didn't have time to ponder it much more - the light literally disappeared in less than a minute, casting the world into the last stages of dusk, that murky, beautiful gray-blue that emerges along with the stars in the sky.

Little Lyra flew across the field and into a tree at that point, nearly falling out, as she often does. She held on to the branch for dear life, falling upside-down, her wings extended. She looked like a giant, white, fluffy bat. I have seen her do this before and like always, she pulled herself upright again and caught her balance, sitting proudly on the edge of the branch, looking my way as if to say, "See? I got this."

Her brother, Sirius, soon followed her, almost landing on top of her, almost knocking them both off the thin branch that wasn't quite big enough for two birds of that size. Somehow, he managed to regain his balance and both remained steady on their perches.

Below them, their little sibling, the mysterious third fledgling that I had only just met that night, had perched on a fence post and was looking out at the mountains.

When I thought it was just two owls, I randomly decided that they were a boy and a girl (which may or may not be true). This mystery baby…I'm not sure yet. I suppose, in my gut, I think it's a girl. I'm a little stumped on what to name her. But I know she'll send me a clue when the time is right.

Just as the final light of day disappeared behind the mountains, the triplets' mother soared above them, landing in a tree several yards away. Always watching, no doubt. She and her mate are never far from those babies.

I love watching them. I love being reminded of what it means to really pay attention to something. I love the surprises in the world that we fail to notice because we don't go outside enough. Mother Nature is always waiting to remind us of her beauty.

But once the sun goes down, I have to surrender. After dark, I'm sure, is the best show of all - watching the owls hunt and fly and call to one another. But alas, I don't have their eyes. I cannot see in the dark. And illuminating their nighttime rituals with artificial light to satisfy my curiosity just wouldn't be right.

So in mystery, they will remain. I will get a few glimpses of them here and there - hopefully a lot more before these little fledglings move on to find their own territory. But what they do in the dark will stay in the dark, as it is meant to be.

As all mystery is meant to be.

Flying Lessons

Over the weekend, I spent an evening sitting outside, watching the owls. To my surprise, I found out that there was not just one owlet, but two!

There is something about being in proximity to something wild - especially a predator - that thrills me. I came face-to-face with a coyote once and it was a moment I will always remember. Going outside at sunset with a pair of binoculars and finding the yellow eyes of an owl staring back at me is such a rush. And to find not one but two babies, recently. . . it was such a treat.

  Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I sat and watched them for about an hour over the weekend. The father owl came and sat, watching them, for a few minutes, then he flew away. Afterwards, the little boy (I've randomly decided that they are a boy and a girl) flew from the tree he was sitting on and landed on the roof of a pole barn, a few hundred feet away.

Watching these sweet little creatures try to fly was hilarious, heart-warming, and adorable. I didn't see the little boy (who I named Sirius) land, but I heard it - a loud crashing sound on the tin roof of the pole barn. When he took his next leap, he literally collided with a juniper tree, getting his wing stuck in the branches for a moment, until he could maneuver himself into a better position.

After that, he and his sister (who I call Lyra), called to each other for a long time. Their calls are so sweet - not a hoot, hoot, as I expected. Little, baby squawks. They called back and forth again and again until little Lyra took her own journey into another tree, making a similarly clumsy landing.

It was such a happy time. The junipers and willows seemed so happy to be able to catch these little owlets and shelter them between jumps. And their parents were, without a doubt, watching them from nearby.

The next night, I went out looking for them, but could not find them. Until I stopped and listened. I heard them calling to one another again, and followed the sound of their calls. Sure enough, coming down a hill, I noticed Sirius sitting on top of a pole, looking over a field, as the sun went down.

I am sad for the day they will leave us, going out on their own to find their own territory. But for now, this summer, a time when they will remain close to their parents, I'll enjoy every second I get to spend with them.

Fledgling

I find that there is no more dramatic, tragic, or triumphant stage in all this world than nature. Spending time outside feeds my soul in every way. I couldn't love it more.

I try to spend a good portion of the weekend outdoors - especially in places that are a little bit wild. That is mostly accomplished by visiting my mom's ranch, just outside of time. Forty beautiful, slightly secluded acres that are regularly visited by deer, skunks, badgers, owls, ducks, snakes, and coyotes. Even an occasional cougar.

  Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

For the past several years, there has been a Great Horned Owl living on the property. With my love of owls, I often take sunset walks around the property with my camera, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

This year, my job was made easier by the fact that the owl found a mate and they have regularly made appearances near - and sometimes even on (landing on the rooftop) - the house. It's such a delight to see these powerful, beautiful birds swoop down from the trees just outside the window or to hear them hooting once the sun goes down.

A few days ago, my brother made a discovery: the owl couple had a baby.

What a wonderful surprise! Honestly, is there anything cuter than an owlet?

I heard the owls calling on Saturday morning and went out to see if the baby was up and about. I wanted to see her with my own eyes. As I approached the pond, the mother owl swooped down and landed on a fence post right in front of me. I was shocked - and so was she when she realized she had landed right in front of me. She immediately flew away and I laughed because she had come to sit right next to a plastic owl that we installed years ago to scare away the real owls and keep them from killing the ducks.

Whoops. I realized suddenly that it wasn't a plastic owl sitting there. It was the owlet!

I watched her throughout the day, stumbling around on the ground, trying to fly. Her parents swooped down on either side of her whenever she seemed to be in distress. At one point, she made herself a little bed in the grass near a fence and spent the better part of the day there. Her mother sat on the fence post almost the entire time, her head bent down, watching her little one. It was so sweet.

When I checked on Sunday, the owl family was gone. Back to their nest, I assume, with their little fledgling, who only has a little more time with her parents. Soon, she will be on her own, probably leaving the property and looking for her own territory.

The parallels between this journey and my own are clear. I'm in a state of fledge right now, too. I already have my own nest, but my nests have always belonged to someone else (meaning, I've always been a renter). I'm about to leave the nest I'm in and truly find my own territory.

But I think of those owls and how Mother Owl sat with her baby all day long, staring at her, making sure she was not disturbed, making sure she was safe from harm. We all have that force of protection in our lives. We may leave the nest, but we'll always be watched over.

When I think of the dangers that little creature faces - the neighbor's violent dog, coyotes, hawks, rattlesnakes . . . It's a miracle she was hatched from her little egg, and a miracle she made it to 9 or 10 weeks. It's a miracle she left the nest, not quite able to fly. It's a miracle that she's climbing fences and trees and building her leg and wing muscles. It's a miracle that she has gotten this far and that someday - very soon - she will be one of the most powerful predators in the area.

Life is holding her, taking care of her, like it does for all of us. Even when we leave the nest and have to establish our own territory. Our protector is watching from above.

I know exactly how I got here

When I was 10, my parents decided to write book under a pseudonym - my first name and an ancestral surname. When I saw the name Yancy on their business cards above the word "writer," I knew with every fiber of my being that I was going to be a writer. I started my first novel the same weekend their business cards arrived.

I know exactly how I got here.

I wrote novels longhand in spiral bound notebooks all during my teenage years - because back in those days, families were lucky to have one computer for everyone. We had to share. It was easier - and more private - for me to write my romantic novels and mysteries in my notebooks, dreaming about becoming a famous novelist someday.

I know exactly how I got here.

  Copyright: C. Martin, 2016

Copyright: C. Martin, 2016

My uncle gave me his old laptop - a funny name for the machines they had back then, which were really just smaller desktop models that weighed 20 pounds and only had one purpose - word processing. But hey, that was fine with me. It was all I needed. I started writing dozens of new novels on that machine, looking for the one that would capture my attention long enough for me to finish it.

I know exactly how I got here.

In the mid-90's, I was fortunate enough to get a real desktop computer of my own, which changed the game, entirely. Suddenly, with the speed of typing, I could pump out 10 pages a day if I was disciplined enough. I wrote three novels on that computer, certain that they would bring me the kind of publishing contract and  public recognition I was looking for.

I know exactly how I got here.

Oh, did I mention I almost never sent out queries to publishers? I was too scared for that. It felt so vulnerable to share my work with them. What if they thought I was a stupid, naïve little girl? (Well, I was.) I couldn't bear the thought. So my writing remained a secret from the world.

I know exactly how I got here.

In 2007 or 08, I took a big leap and decided to join all the other green bloggers around the world. A Green Spell was born and I was hooked. I made so many wonderful friends through blogging - some I'm happy to say I am still in contact with today. It was another world, back then - blogging was such an exciting platform for creativity and personal connection. Not so saturated as it is today. I loved it.

I know exactly how I got here.

In 2010, I took another leap and began selling the beauty products I had made to heal my skin. It was a big departure from the career in writing I had always wanted. But I enjoyed every second of it. There weren't nearly as many green bath and beauty vendors as there are today and people took notice of the care I put into my products. My shop and its blog, Five Seed (named after one of the streets in The Poison Box's fictional town, Salome - a novel I had abandoned by then), soon eclipsed A Green Spell, forcing me to put more and more of my time and attention there. Eventually, I knew I had to say goodbye to A Green Spell, a decision that was very difficult for me, but I was relieved to have more time to spend on Five Seed.

I know exactly how I got here.

It didn't take long for the market to become saturated with organic bath and body products. Competition became a genuine problem. And when a certain small business platform rolled out new policies barring natural beauty sellers from any mention of herbs, their history, and/or their healing properties, I was essentially put out of business. Sales went from the hundreds to less than ten in six weeks' time. Maybe there was a Plan B that I didn't see at the time, but I must have been pretty burned out because I let that disappointment end my business. And I can't say I'm sorry about it.

I know exactly how I got here.

The end of selling beauty products pushed me into another kind of production that I hadn't previously planned on: sharing the story of how I healed my skin. It started out as an idea for my blog, and then became a pamphlet. The pamphlet soon evolved into a book. Over 200 pages of what I had learned about skincare. The original plan was to make it into a PDF - and I had no idea how to sell something like that. But I soldiered on. I was quickly led to the world of self-publishing and my book became not only a Kindle book, but a real, full-fledged, paperback, as well.

I know exactly how I got here.

Suddenly, holding that paperback in my hands, I realized I had come full circle. I was finally an author.

I know exactly how I got here.

The next few years were filled with writing more books. Next came The Paris Diaries and Dear Me. I resurrected The Poison Box (to my delight) and then published Being Beautiful. As soon as Being Beautiful was finished, I knew I was done with my beauty books. I had been working on a huge series of beauty books prior to that, but I scrapped all those projects without a second thought. I knew what I wanted - I remembered what I wanted. And that's what I needed to put my energy toward.

I know exactly how I got here.

But the problem of my website still remained. After Five Seed closed, I made the quick and simple decision to set up a website under my own name: yancylael.com. That way, people could easily find me if they wanted to learn more about my writing. But I had to say goodbye to my old audience. Most were not interested in following me. I had gone from a natural beauty expert and product provider to a writer. A big leap for them. For me, though, I was just getting back to my roots.

I know exactly how I got here.

I started to notice that people were less engaged once I became yancylael.com. Was it because my name didn't evoke anything for them? Because I didn't have any cute titles like Five Seed or A Green Spell anymore? Because people weren't really sure what, exactly, I did?

I know exactly how I got here.

It didn't help, I'm sure, that I had a brief couple of years, during the promotion of Soulful Skincare and Being Beautiful, that I did beauty coaching and intuitive healing. I'm sure that had people a little confused. Was I a writer or. . . ?

I know exactly how I got here.

In the past year, I have tried to develop my website brand by calling myself what I am: a storyteller. Yet still, I feel a disconnect. Like something is not quite getting across. I often get the nudge that I have to perhaps remove Yancy Lael the writer from Yancy Lael the blogger, the seeker, the creative. As in, one site for publishers, for clients, for people looking for my books. And one site for people who want to connect more deeply with me and my stories and art. Perhaps I do need that website name that evokes something in others. Perhaps I do need to look in another direction.

I know exactly how I got here.

I believe in letting the wild world dictate what it wants. I believe in letting gardens find their own way to beauty and abundance. Hell, I wrote a whole book about leaving your skin alone and letting it finds its own way to health and beauty. Now how do I find that for my career? How do I let it go and let it find its wildness, what it wants to be?

I know exactly how I got here. But I'm not quite sure - yet - where I'm going.