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.

Meet Ruth, of the childless ones

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This is Ruth.

Unlike my grand-aunt Aida, Ruth and I crossed paths in this life. Despite the fact that she was one generation higher than Aida, she lived a very long life. I met her a few years before her death, in the late seventies. Sadly, I was so young, I do not remember her. But I share her name (Ruth is one of my middle names) and have always felt a deep connection to her.

Ruth was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who settled in Minnesota in the late 1800's. She was the middle of three children, with a brother above her and a sister below. Like me, she was the quiet, introverted sister, and like me, she worshipped her gregarious, outgoing, vivacious little sister.

My great-grandmother Ruth's little sister married and gave birth to my grandfather by the time she was 20 years old. Ruth was still single at this point, watching both her siblings build families, waiting, no doubt, to build her own. For me, in the 21st century, watching my younger siblings reach major life goals ahead of me wasn't so bad - it's not something that's considered unusual anymore. But back then, in the early 20th century, I can only imagine how much she must have stood out, single and childless, long after her siblings had created their own families.

Ruth fell deeply in love in her late twenties and "finally" married at the age of 27 - spinsterhood in 1919. From the stories I heard, she adored her husband - and he adored her right back. All the family spoke of their relationship and what a deep companionship the two forged.

  Ruth & her husband

Ruth & her husband

Unfortunately, Ruth still found herself childless well into her marriage. Motherhood did not seem to be within her reach…until one day, she found out she was pregnant, and as the story goes, she was overjoyed to finally have the chance to become a mother.

What came next is heartbreaking: Ruth's baby was born still. It was a little girl who never took a breath outside the womb.  

While I remember hearing many stories about Ruth, I heard very little about this horrifying experience - how it happened, why it happened, what happened after. I don't know anything about it except the baby's name: Dorothy. I can only imagine that Ruth and her husband were devastated by the experience.

She never had another child. Were they plagued with infertility? Did they stop trying?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I have been told that their marriage was strengthened by this tragedy, which isn't always the case. Ruth and her husband stuck together through thick and thin.

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My grandfather loved his aunt dearly. His father was not much a part of his life, and as such, Ruth became like a second parent to him, taking care of him when her sister was busy. She might not have had her own children, but she loved the children in her life as much as any mother would.

  Ruth & her nephew (my grandfather)

Ruth & her nephew (my grandfather)

Ruth's husband died after a good, long life, leaving her on her own. One of the things I admire so much about my great-grand-aunt is that she persevered for many, many years, all by herself, after his death. She lived alone in Minneapolis and took care of herself, keeping in touch with all her nieces and nephews and their offspring, like a loving mother hen. She outlived both her brother and her sister, and became a surrogate mother, of sorts, to all their descendants.

She was an amazing, brave woman with a heart of gold, and I'm so proud to be her great-grand-niece. As with Aida, it's so important to me to keep her memory alive. As a descendant three generations below her, and as the only one in my family to have met her, I realize I might be the last one to tell her story.

Her bravery inspires me every time I think of her. She was so willing to surrender to the life that was given to her, even though it bucked tradition and didn't give her what she had hoped for. She still put one foot in front of the other each and every day and freely gifted others with her motherly love.

If I find that I share her destiny - to be childless - I hope that I can be as generous and brave as she was.

Meet Aida, of the childless ones

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This is Aida.

I discovered her in my 20’s when I was working on my family tree. She was my grandfather’s sister. I had heard a little about her during my childhood. She had died young, in her early twenties, and by the time I was that age, and found myself looking at a photograph of her, I couldn’t stop thinking about her legacy.

She had never married or had children. Who, I wondered, would remember her? Who would keep her memory alive?

Even at that young age, I remember fearing such a fate. If you are a woman who doesn’t have children, who will remember you? Who are you and what does your life mean if you leave no descendants, or if your descendants leave this earth before you do?

And twenty years later, I find myself facing those very same questions all over again, as a woman who did not have children (by circumstance, not by choice).

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Even in my youth, I recognized how important it is to remember the women who came before us. But now I realize why. Our ancestors, mothers or not, leave an impact on their family members – cousins, sisters, nieces. Aida might not have had her own children, and might have died long before I ever had the chance to know her, but as my grand-aunt, she is still part of my DNA. And it’s important to me to remember her and share her story.

Like me, she was the eldest of four children (though unlike her, I have two older half-siblings, as well). Also similar to my family, the older two children were girls, the younger two, boys. Aida, my grandfather, and their siblings were born in Copenhagen, Denmark. They spoke Danish and English, and a smattering of French and Latin. All four of the siblings were fierce kayakers. They loved to be in the water. They came from a long line of Scandinavian intellects, philosophers, and craftsmen.

  Aida at St. Joseph's Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark: 1920

Aida at St. Joseph's Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark: 1920

That is, I’m sorry to say, most of what I know of Aida. My grandfather didn’t share much about his family when I was little – and I was probably too young to have appreciated (or retained) what he did tell me. Any other information I have beyond this is based only on my intuition. I have a feeling Aida was a bit of a loner – perhaps her health problems set her apart from others. I believe she loved her siblings, and most especially, her sister, but that she never felt like she truly belonged. And most of all, I believe she loved life, and didn’t want to leave it so soon. I suspect it pained her, in the end, to face leaving her family, knowing they would go on to live full lives while she would never realize her dreams.

Aida was the only one in the family who never left Denmark. She was buried there. Soon after her death, the entire family – Grandpa, his remaining siblings, and his parents – gave up their lives in Denmark and immigrated to New York. None of them, to my knowledge, ever returned to their homeland.

  Aida's grave: 1922

Aida's grave: 1922

What happened to Aida seems so brutally unfair - to die so young, without the chance to experience love, motherhood, life. I have an especially deep compassion for women who have lost the chance at motherhood – in any way that might have happened. For some, it might be the death of their child. For others, infertility or other circumstances. And for some, like Aida, it might be their own early death.

It’s so important to tell the stories of the unheard women. We don’t have the voices of our daughters to echo our story to the world. But these stories need to be told. We need to be remembered, too.

To that end, I dedicated The Fox at the Door to two of my "great-aunts": Grand-aunt Aida, and Great-grand-aunt, Ruth. I will be the daughter they did not have, making sure their legacy lives on. I will share their story, and even join hands with them, as a fellow childless woman.

Now it’s your turn. Please leave a comment sharing the story of a childless relative (or friend) that you want the world to remember.

Scratch, scratch, scratch

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There are times in all our lives when things go dreadfully bad…and then a little worse…and sometimes, every now and then, even worse. After a certain age, even in the midst of the loss, we know our grieving will come to an end at some point and that we'll experience joy again. Love. Hope.

Sometimes, though, those rough patches are followed directly by a dry spell. Sometimes a really, really long one. It's as if the universe has hit the pause button on our lives. We're starting to feel ourselves emerge from the shroud of grief, but nothing is happening. We interview for new jobs, flirt with new people, move to a new home, double our efforts to make our dreams come true… And still, nothing happens. We look ahead and see a desert staring back at us. Barren. Endless.

We might start to lose hope.

I struggle with this from time to time. I feel like I've been on a hamster wheel for 2 years now, running faster and faster, trying to get somewhere yet remaining in the same place. I even have nightmares about this sometimes, that I'm trying desperately to run, but my legs somehow just won't fall into rhythm and I can' t move forward.

I suspect many of us feel this way - often, perhaps. There is a dream on the periphery of our current circumstances, one that seems so close, we could literally reach out and pluck it, as if it were an apple in the Garden of Eden. Yet, somehow, we can't quite reach it.

I wanted to write a story that would be a balm for this feeling of frustration, for this "just out of reach-ness." I wanted to write a story that would help us remember hope again, especially when we are in the depths of our grief.

The Fox at the Door will be available for pre-order this Friday, Februrary 2nd, a very special day that was once celebrated by my ancestors as the day the earth began to wake up from its long winter nap. The day crocuses begin to push up through the snow. The time of year when the sheep begin to give birth. It's a time of inspiration and…hope.

Yes, hope.

The book won't be available in its current form on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It'll only be available on my website. I'll be signing every copy of this limited first print run, packaging each one with my own two hands, and sending them out to you. I want this to be an intimate experience between writer and reader. I want you to feel like I'm personally handing this story to you, gifting you with beauty and hope.

It's a bit of a risk to do this. There's little profit in it. (Not that I have ever written with profit as my goal - though I have hope that one day, my writing will, indeed, bring in an energetic exchange that will allow me to continue my work.) The books are expensive to print in full color, and becoming the "distribution center," so to speak, adds a lot of time and labor to the process.

But I feel that we're at a time when this needs to happen. There's always a place in the world for e-books and mass market paperbacks, always a place for Amazons and B&Ns. BUT…I think we need to keep a balance and remember to support our small bookstores and our indie authors. I think we need to remember to support the "little guys" who cultivate community, who respect the art of storytelling, and who make space for the bards of our modern world.

I believe that relationship goes both ways - we authors need to cultivate it, too, by offering special projects (Wild Talewort comes to mind) to our readers and being willing to shorten the distance between us.

That's one of my intentions for the year - to reach out to all of you readers and see what happens when we step into the same circle. Hopefully, this will also allow for some events, as well, where we can meet in person. (Stay tuned!)

In the meantime, be sure to check out the website on Friday and order your copy! 

A change in communication

If you’ve been following me for a while, then you know that these past few years, I tend to get really quiet in November and December. I long for silence. I quite suddenly have no desire to produce on the level that I’ve been producing throughout the year. I’m a little bit tired and a little bit overwhelmed, but really, I just want to listen, rather than talking, rather than even writing.

 

This seems perfectly normal to me. Winter is a time to settle down, listen, rest. You wouldn’t know it, though, by the way our culture is designed. Our work schedules do not change – we still work (and are expected to work) the same hours at the same pace winter, spring, summer, or fall. We do not change our sleep schedules with the seasons, even when the nights get longer. And with our consumer-driven holiday season, we are bombarded with stimulus non-stop from November through early January.

 

The older I get, the more I pull back from this. I want to enjoy the holiday season quietly without a lot of fuss. I want to sleep more and try to alter my schedule to make that happen. And I want to pull back from my work – even the work I enjoy very much – to make room for inspiration and rejuvenation.

 

In this time of quiet, I’ve found myself on a search for authentic connection within my online community. I have my blog, which I worked really hard to update weekly this year (until recently). I send email newsletters to my readers, but not regularly. And I try to post a lot on social media (mostly Facebook and Instagram) and interact with people I enjoy and admire on those platforms.

 

When I first started blogging in 2009, people visited one another. Communication happened in newsletters, emails, and blog comments. We weren’t yet at the point of convening on social media platforms. Once that shift occurred, I initially enjoyed it. But as social media has rapidly evolved, I’ve become more and more disillusioned with it.

  Photo by  Joanna Kosinska  on  Unsplash

 

Trying to get your message to people, on Facebook in particular, is very challenging due to all the new algorithms that dictate who can see your posts and when. I’ve found it difficult to start or keep communication going on social media (though that’s certainly not the case for many people). I find myself suspicious of the data collection these platforms do – it feels as though they have shifted from places of connection to advertising factories. Even trying to use that advertising to our benefit is, at least from what I’ve seen, a waste. I’ve tried two Facebook ads – one in 2016 and one this year – and both times, every single engagement my ad attracted (and I paid for) was from a spam account.

 

And that’s not even to mention that what was once a place to visit to see pictures and fun stories from friends and family members has now become an endless stream of ads, memes, and political rants.

 

This isn’t how I want to communicate or share with others. There’s nothing intimate about it. I’m not even sure there’s any pleasantry to it. It’s an overwhelming waterfall of words, pictures, stuff…and what I want is focused, tangible interaction.

 

I’ve come to this place before, but I’m even more committed now to focusing more on targeted communication, the way we used to do back in the old days (2009). It’s true, it’s harder to get people to come visit your blog when it’s so much easier to just visit a social media platform and see everyone you follow at one time. But I believe it’s worth it, and I believe that ultimately, those of us with like minds will be moving back in this direction as social media continues to grow and become more and more consumer, rather than community, driven.

 

I also believe in returning to the practice of writing consistent newsletters and reaching people in their inboxes. Again, this is a challenge – so many people will click delete before even opening an email, and let’s face it, with all the spammy “buy my stuff” emails that became so popular, that’s not surprising. (Not that there’s anything wrong with advertising via email – but there’s an art to that, and I think we’ve largely lost that.)

 

Personally, I love a newsletter-type email from writers, shop owners, etc. I try not to subscribe to many, but the lists I remain keep my attention with their creativity, interesting information, and beautiful photos. As I said, there is an art to this. Check out One Willow Apothecaries to see what I mean. Asia Suler has the best emails I’ve ever seen. Stories about the earth, herbalism, and alternative healing, beautiful photos and videos, and subtle reminders about her courses and services (which I’ve purchased and which are amazing). No, I’m not getting a kickback by talking about her. I just believe in her business and that's because she knows how to communicate beautifully and intimately – both on social media and off.

 

People like Asia are my inspiration when it comes to shaping my communication intentions. I realize that my audience might always be small if this is the path I take, but to me, it’s worth it. It shouldn’t be about numbers, anyway. It should be about connection.

 

I’m still debating how I want to use my blog (and am even debating splitting some of my creative work off of the Yancy Lael brand/website), but you’ll definitely find more of me here than on social media in 2018, with the possible exception of You Tube. And you’ll see me in your Inbox slightly more often. And I would love to hear more from you, as well – either here, in email, or yes, even on social media.

 

But that’s enough chatting for now. Remember, it’s the time of year to listen more, say less. I’m ready to descend back into silence… at least for now.

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.

UJED1303.jpg

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.