COVID-19 Book List or My ‘Rona Reading Suggestions

I’m writing this post during a time of great fear. I am quite familiar with that emotion, and have spent the better part of my adult life attempting to assuage it. As institutions and events across the globe are being shuttered, we are all collectively finding ourselves with extra time alone. I know all about being alone. 

As a child, my military family moved so much that I went to several schools in multiple states, moving sometimes in the middle of a year all throughout primary. In my teens, we moved to the rural Midwest where driving an hour to get to a city with a large grocery store was the norm, and where folks are no stranger to natural and economic disasters. 

When I became a mother, I wanted to ensure my children had a greater sense of stability than I did, and I chose to homeschool them until they reached Jr. High age. During those years I worked from home and bootstrapped businesses that would end up supporting our home centered lifestyle. 

While my children have entered school now, and my last business has been sold, I find I am once again adjusting from a move to yet another rural town where I’ve lived for three years, but still feel very much like an outsider. I have had even more time recently to live a solitary lifestyle.

When I am not maintaining my home  and mothering my children, and generally keeping to myself, I prefer to spend my unstructured time reading. More recently, I’ve been writing an eerily prescient novel that depicts a character who undergoes a long period of isolation due to external global events beyond her control.

All of this is to say, I am uniquely qualified to share some book recommendations and do my small part (besides compulsively washing my hands) to help navigate the time alone we are all sure to face in the near future. What follows is a book list that I have categorized into nine sections for ease of perusal. I’ve written brief introductions about each book or given my reason for including them here, as it may not be obvious from their titles.

SURVIVALISM

It might feel like it’s the end of the world as we know it, and sometimes we just need to allow ourselves to think about that. Set a timer and give yourself permission to worry for half an hour. When the timer is done, pick up a book that helps you feel like you can handle some of the worst case scenarios your mind cooked up and be empowered.

A few years after Katrina, a large storm ripped through my town and we were left without power for days. All of the downed trees made it fairly impossible to relocate my young family. This was just months before the financial crisis of 2008 and a lot of my reading during that time focused on living sustainably. 

When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes by Cody Lundin I found to be oddly reassuring even though he touched on situations I hadn’t even dreamt of.

The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne makes a good case for ways you can be food secure in an urban area. The same goes with The Background Homestead by Carleen Madigan which gives step by step advice on how to fundamentally change a suburban home into a homestead.

Preserving Wild Foods by Matthew Weingarten is a good one to just keep nearby to help you feel safer and it’s a reminder that humans eat wild things.

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes may come off as a bit privileged in places, but she again makes a sound case for why being home centered is a great way to live. 

Possum Living by Dolly Freed might be my favorite book in this section. It is a cult classic and if you get nothing from the book other than the author’s indomitable can-do attitude it is worth the short read.

INTERNAL ADVENTURES

Maybe it’s raining outside and the day calls for fiction that plunges into the essence of aloneness. Inside this dark bookshelf you will see there are points of light that cast a strange glow. 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a historical fiction novel based on the bubonic plague. Reviewers online decry it for being “dark”, but I found it to be very engaging. 

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson is a tight, consumable novel about strange sisters that keep to themselves in a small town full of harsh gossip that may harbor some grains of truth. The narrator is captivating. 

In Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers we are transported to a desert land in biblical times when war and plagues and famine were rampant, but also love when love and magic and mystery prevailed.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is a novel based on true hostage crisis events. The characters all reside in close proximity in the same villa for an extended period of time and make the best of a distressing situation.

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer changed my life. It is an intensely psychological last-woman-on-earth survival story that will shock you if you let it.

A decidedly more pleasant novel about being in perpetual political house arrest is Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow. The novel spans decades and it is a gift to read about how an individual can play the cards life deals them in graceful ways.

Quarantine by Jim Crace is fiction that explores Jesus’ time in the desert. It is not in any way Christian fiction, and it will leave you thinking about what it means to be alone for a long time.

It might take you one hundred years to read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the magical realist depictions of a town that is cut off from the world and the bizarre family that built it will haunt your quiet moments at home. 

Finally, I close this section with a biographical novel about embracing the great alone of existence. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse beautifully illustrates the life of The Buddha who chose to go far enough inside the luminous peace of his interior that it eventually shone out over the whole earth.

SOLITUDE NOT ISOLATION

In my mind, there is quite a difference between solitude and loneliness or isolation, but that dichotomy is all in mindset. These nonfiction selections may help you get to the other much brighter side of isolation. 

Pond by Claire Louise Bennet is a quirky book that explores what it’s like to live as a single woman in a quaint cottage who has sequestered herself to write. I thoroughly enjoyed the mental dialogue she has with herself. 

Michael Harris wrote a book called Solitude: In Pursuit of A Singular Life that makes valid researched points about the physical, spiritual, and mental health benefits of solitude. 

Either by predisposition or trauma, or both, some of us just want to be alone. The Stranger in The Woods: The Incredible Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel accounts for an interesting modern day life scenario.

The Story of My Heart by Richard Jeffries is probably second only to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in its transcendental exploration of the self in relation to the vastness of our universe.

Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard is a collage of writing about both physical and mental space and the cultivation of both. It is perhaps best read in slowly in smaller to digest bits in order to appreciate. 

HEALTHY AT HOME

It is not only our duty as this time of crisis to keep healthy, but it can also by joyful and above all feel doable even with limited resources. 

Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable, Nesting Skills by Raleigh Briggs is an adorable little book with wonderful tips on natural cleaning. 

Eat to Beat Disease by William W. Li is extensive and a bit technical, but much of the focus of this book is on eating foods that boost natural immunity. His website has a useful PDF to download for food lists at a glance. 

How to Stay Sane by Phillipa Perry is short, to the point, and a little sweet. It’s perfect for dipping a toe in maintaining good mental health.

HYGGE HELP

Hygge is a word that means all things cozy and it gets tossed around online every fall when we in the northern hemisphere find it pleasant to retreat to the indoors. You might not be feeling it now, but these books may illicit all the cozy stay at home feels you need to help you being to love your time in seclusion.

The Private World of Tasha Tudor by Tasha Tudor is a gorgeously photographed coffee table type book about the home life an outrageously endearing children’s book author/illustrator who dressed and lived her life like it was the 1830s. Everything appears to be a dreamworld, but she truly lived that way until she died in 2008! Once this crisis is over and we can all travel and vacation again, I’d love to visit her home in Vermont. 

Jeanne Rose’s Kitchen Cosmetics by Jeanne Rose will have you treating your skin, hair , and soul with inexpensive and edible beauty potions you can make yourself.

I can personally cannot think of anything more cozy than the smell of baking bread wafting through my home. Artisan Bread in Five MInutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg is easy to understand and you’ll have a little extra “chore” to look forward to in your daily routine.

The Art of Family: Rituals, Imagination and Everyday Spirituality by Gina Bria advocates ideas to keep your family centered and feeling included and loved, and there is no better time to start creating new traditions at home.

Speaking of traditions, All Year Round: A Calendar of Celebrations by Ann Druitt, Chrystine Fynes-Clinton and Marjie Rowling is wonderful for parents or caretakers of young children who need an abundance of wholesome nature based activities to keep busy and joyful. Many of the supplies for the celebrations could be found in your backyard.

SPIRITUAL TRIAGE 

In such times as these, it is a good idea to have principles to hang your coat on when you may not be functioning at an optimal level. These mostly secular suggestions could stoke the flames of your personal ideology in spite of cancelled congregations.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is one to read and re-read. It may feel quite uncomfortable to radically accept the present moment, but this book helps you trust that on the other side of that is peace and wellbeing. 

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosopher’s User Manual by Ward Farnsworth isn’t exactly a spiritual text, but a great intro to stoic philosophy. Stoicism is likened to an operating system and is not centered in anything esoteric. The general gist is to focus on what you can control in life and let go of what you can’t. There is a lot more to it and this is a great way to learn more. 

I went through a particularly dark depression a couple of years ago and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl was so important in supporting me through that difficult time. The author survived the holocaust in WWII in a concentration camp. Friends, we are no where near that kind of awfulness at the time of this writing. Read it.

I only recently picked up The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton and I was enchanted by reading about the life of an American Catholic Monk and the spiritual distance he traveled from self-absorbed frat boy to cloistered convent in a Cistercian Monestary. It was surprisingly inspirational. The depictions of monastic life near the end of the book is worth trudging through the clunky first half. 

PERSEVERANCE AND OPTIMISM 

There is a Midwestern saying that goes “If you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” It’s easy to persevere through difficult times when you have the right attitude. When I read Rowing Without Oars by Ulla-Carn Lindquist I cried the entire time. Nothing put my life in perspective like this autobiographical account of a successful newscaster and mother who was diagnosed with ALS and her battle with the debilitating diagnosis. 

The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska was life changing for me when I was in my 20s. A young Jewish girl is determined not to let her age, race, religion, gender or hunger stand in the way of doing the things that she wants.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a kind of bible. Open it up to a random page and you will find something uplifting to read. It is focused on writing, but so much of it can be applied to life.

Optimism by Helen Keller is a perennial favorite of mine. The case for optimism is clear coming from a woman who could not see or hear and somehow managed to be bursting with good news. 

Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven came to me at a time when I felt very lost. I could, however, make my bed. That one act can be built upon to make changes throughout your life. 

In The Book of Delights by Ross Gay,  the challenge was to write short essays about something delightful every day for a year. It was an inspiring practice and is written from a poet’s perspective.

OUTER REALMS

I find that feeling afraid can place an irrational emphasis on the importance of my own little life and it leaves no space for me to ask bigger questions. These books might help challenge a mind that is stuck in a rut and help change thought processes.

I read the Sci-Fi novel Contact by Carl Sagan as a young person before the movie came out and trust me when I say the movie pales in comparison. Yes, it’s about aliens, but more about thinking in unconventional ways. 

Many Lives Many Masters by Brian Weiss is a wild ride. This is a nonfiction account of a psychiatrist that performs past life regression therapy with a patient and keeps copious recordings/notes.

Where ARE all the scientists and doctors who believe in an afterlife you may be asking yourself? Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander is the near death experience of a medical physician who tells about everything he saw while clinically dead.

The Light Between Us by Laura Lynne Jackson is the story of one psychic’s journey to self acceptance as her abilities are put through a set of rigorous blind tests.

CLASSICS FOR KIDS

If you’re waiting to hear if your child’s school is canceled like I am right now, it might be a good time to see if you can stock up on a couple of classics that feature solitary characters. 

*Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is about a small family that live a self reliant life in the woods, miles away from their nearest neighbors. 

The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint Exupery is the epitome of the gift of imagination to the solitary soul.

Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scot O’Dell was one of my favorite books growing up. A girl is left on an island ans survives for years with only her culture’s traditions to save her. 

*The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was a magical read for me when I was young. It is delicious for a child to be doing something they might get into trouble for later. Luckily, reviving a tangled garden is a transgression most adults could handle these days

I have read every single book on this list and am completely open to having thoughtful discussions about any of them. I can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and most other social media @FolktaleJess

** These books can be politically incorrect or insensitive in parts and I recommend screening before giving it to your child. 

I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one.

This is a post about my journey as a wet plate photographer.

In 2014 I became completely obsessed with wet plate photography. This was not when I first fell in love with photography, because I had once made a living as a traveling portrait photographer (that is another story for a different time), but it was when I was deeply inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Imogen Cunningham and Vivian Maier. Looking at thousands of black and white images invoking tremendous emotion felt like an aesthetic home to me.

I had been feeling creatively burnt out for some time, after years of running a popular and successful fiber arts business (again a different story for another time) I was looking for a way to express myself in ways and mediums that were largely unfamiliar to me. I do love to knowing that I have a lot to learn, and trying new things has always helped me feel as if something new is beginning.

After months of staying up late pouring over antique photography texts, and reading everything I could obtain about the wet plate process, I was ready to dive in and get my hands dirty. After my Mother helped tremendously with the initial investment on my first camera (for which I will forever be indebted), I was off and burning with passion for my new hard learned skill set.

In early 2015 I entered a tintype triptych in a local art contest and received promising recognition for my work. The next several months were spent painting and prepping an old Victorian house adjacent to a Civil War Museum for my studio. While I made some beautiful photos there, and did several demonstrations for school children, establishing myself there was taking time.

In late 2016 my husband took a job offer that relocated the family a few hours north. I said goodbye to the victorian house and the space in which I made much of my early Wet Plate work, both portraits and still life.

My camera, lighting, and darkroom equipment stayed packed while I weathered the move, the new school adjustments for the children, and a bizarre cycle of health problems that began to plague me. I was in medical care for varying lengths of time for: car accidents, mysterious vertigo, severe depression, wasp swarm attack and random and painful eyelid cysts that required multiple surgeries.

What saved my life during that dark time, was reading. I read one hundred books in 2018 and while my body was cloistered and convalescing, my mind traveled to far away places and grappled with problems bigger than me. I learned so much about myself during that time, that I highly recommend everyone have a mental breakdown and recover by reading 100 books in the subsequent year.

I wrote quite a bit in that time as well, and found that my greatest ambitions in life involve inspiring others who may also be going through difficult times. Whether it be through my artwork or my words, It is my dream to express myself and share an aesthetic connection with others. I am grateful to be on the path to doing so again.

In August 2019 I was able to pilgrimage to the beautiful artistic mecca of Santa Fe New Mexico and revisit my wet plate photography goals. I came home creatively rejuvenated and ready to work with my chin up and my eyes on where possibilities lay. There is so much to be learned with both my artwork and my writing and I have found that I am excited and inspired as much with what I don’t know how to create as I am with what I do.

Still, there is a such latent magic with both writing and my analog photography adventures. Both practices capture something out of thin air- generating images within spaces that are real and imagined.

It is a good way to spend a life.

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul?” ~Keats

He didn’t mean it in a nasty way, and I didn’t take it like that at first.  When my light-of-my-life thirteen year old son said: “Mom. No one is going to read your blog” truly, it was if a giant weight was lifted off of my chest. What if no one read anything I wrote? What if I had total freedom to write everything, but no one else would see, would I still write? How much does an audience matter to me? Clearly it matters not enough to saddle myself with debt to pursue academic validation, but also enough to publish my words publicly on the internet. At the risk of romanticizing the past; perhaps it is a generational idea in that I cling to imagining a choice there. It wasn’t always obligatory to put oneself “out there” or at least it looked a lot different than it does now.

For one thing, people used to talk on the phone simply to connect. I spent an hour on the phone with my Mother a few days ago and I remember feeling uncomfortable, like something unusual was happening. It was after we hung up and there was that solid silence that closed in on me like a shutting door  that I realized the whole being on the phone and talking thing was what was strange and nostalgic. Sorting things out on a blog and publishing it on the internet for maybe negative billion people to read, is apparently, nothing to give much thought about at all.

    During a creative dry spell recently, when my mind was more hedge maze of self-limiting emotions than anything else, I remembered that Buckminster Fuller used to tell people that he contemplated suicide, but decided rather than throw his life away, he would dedicate it to saving our “Spaceship Earth”. Inspired by this memory, I took my phone out of my pocket and wrote a little note of encouragement to myself- one which I have referenced more than a few times since.

    I read my note again, and the little story about just one day being on the brink of suicide and “deciding” to be a savior of the world just rubbed me the wrong way. I mentioned in my last blog post that I find any “And I suddenly changed” narrative hard to believe in.  A quick internet search for confirmation revealed, the story Bucky told was one he fabricated to hide how long he had lost direction and purpose in his life. How easy was it to be absolutely insane with grief and self loathing to wield the genius that comes from total depression into a tool that convinces everyone around him of how worthy his ideas are? I think being an ivy-league dropout white man helps a fair amount. Although Fuller certainly used dark times to spur his wild creativity, he hit rock bottom repeatedly and his crazy was as wide and deep and well documented as any in history. In a way, finding out that he had to create his own mythology to fuel his creations and throw himself out into the world, trying to convincing others of his own validity could be more inspiring to me than the neatly packaged suicide parable he told everyone.

Admitting that I have been thrown (thrown myself?) for an existential loop the past couple of years is a great downplay. I can leave my quite stale lifelong struggle to find somewhere to “belong” in the world in a box for another day. I now live in a time when I have been confronted with news that most of the world’s living species will be going extinct in my (potential) lifetime. I know I have played my own small plastic role in this destruction narrative and I find even my now-pithy dreams of creating worthy art and abundance in my life, gray and hard to grasp at.

Since no one is reading this, the upside to that is I am free to be a little more forthright with my own inner workings than I would be if I had an Audience. And so. Some time ago, when I was very calmly and shrewdly (dare I say, rationally?) considering ending my own life, which was a departure from other times I had considered it- ones that were laced with very intense heartfelt emotions trailing catastrophic life events. I would turn this problem/idea over and over in my head obsessively on my daily walks. It really was one morning, in which I said to no one: “I didn’t ask to be born. I had no control over it.” to which nature replied in her million billion ways “Choice and control are funny stories. Surrender to change.” I took that to mean I will die in due time anyway, so I may as well submit to that fact and keep walking with the unfolding of life– the seemingly unbearable pain, the heartache, and all. Although it wasn’t overnight, not long after this revelation the cloud began to lift significantly for me. I assume a large part in due to being able to put that idea to rest and therefore had much more energy for living. Very shortly after that, the back to back suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain saturated the already death-obsessed media, and had I not gone through a revolution of sorts, I think I would have experienced that week very differently. Perhaps there is something to be said for overnight epiphanies after all.   

I think about my future death every day now over a year later, but hardly obsessively- or at least not with the same heavy handedness. The more I think about it, the more I read about it, the less afraid I am of it, and I feel less afraid of life, or if  I am- of making the ‘right’ choices to try and control some outcomes that create a life centered on happiness or one I “want” to live and other such nonsense. I make choices with the resources I have access to at the time and a best guess as to what will serve the highest good. My resources are infinite some ways, and non-existent in others. One day I will be dead and I will no longer have the worries and stresses that get to me now, and that is a gift I hope to be ready and ripened to receive when it comes to me.

There are those bottom-places filled with darkness that, in which mysteries marinate long enough and in the right conditions, will birth beauty and light. This is observable in the natural physical world, and in the realm of soul. Is something actually written if no one reads it? I don’t know. If I don’t write and share, there would be the comfortable certainty of no one reading a word. I found that reassuring for quite some time. At first I was resigned that idea, accepting the notion that what I think about and type out on a blog ( or anywhere else) has little to no influence in the world, perhaps very much akin to the way an animal of prey relaxes into the sharp toothed mouth of Fate.

Imaginary reader, that once-resignation coughed and squirmed and turned into something alive that has slowly and repeatedly ripped at my heart enough months that I must consider I am one of those ridiculous people who will waste chunks of their lives writing things that no one will read and making art that no one will see. Much like choosing to continue breathing because I have decided to believe in the reality of this natural order I have found myself inhabiting, I choose to appease my little ambitious animal heart and create. I don’t know how many times I must keep choosing this. I don’t know how many blog posts I need to basically say “here I am”, but at least this one more. I am a no-name fool lacking an institutional education and imaginary audience with the basic ability to upload a blog post on a website.

I am writing.        

Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?

“I’ve learned as time passes, all the things that you’re afraid of will come and they will go, and you’ll be alright.” -Stevie Nicks

Two years ago, I was in the solid cold grip of grief. I won’t claim it’s done with me. It defeats the purpose of living to walk around thinking oneself is completely healed from something as terrible as depression. There are times I’ve felt like I’ve have my proverbial shit together and other times I haven’t, and if hindsight has taught me anything, it’d be that my feelings aren’t exactly a superior indicator of holistic truth. I wrote a few polemical, expressive, pieces of writing while I was sickly and overwrought with crippling emotion. Surprisingly, I mustered the courage to briefly publish them here for consumption. I took them all down, because I’m not exactly sure what I want this space to be about. I believe I used to think I should lay bare every ragged trauma, both physical and psychic, I’ve wrestled with over the past two years in hopes they tessellate into some stable and unbreakable epiphany to plant my feet and surf on for the rest of my life. It is however, completely suspect in my opinion, to listen to someone testify to being a miserable person and then to undergo some radical interior change over a brief period of time, even if they have ‘seen some things’.

No. Life for me, so far, has been comprised of an epic duel between unconsciously formed habit and consciously wielded willpower wherein at any given point, there is no objective way to know which of them holds sway over the very real action of living. I have experienced change, though. There was a time when I was much less functional than I am today. There may be another one in the future. I have been sick, and I have been not-sick, or less sick, and I am somehow still here puzzling it over. If I have learned anything about myself through this strange journey however, it’s that I’m prone to excessive questioning and that my own weltanschauung is made up of layered and often subtle personal values that are far more prismatic to be able to dissect in a handful of intimate essays. In that sense, it makes blogging and teasing out one’s individual insight in somewhat digestible portions appear quite an attractive, if not also terrifying endeavor.

There may be a time when I share that “old” work again: those things I’ve written the past couple of years when I dove right down in the deep past where I thought I was capable of going. There may be a time when I feel that exposing my wounded shadow self and delving into the past will feel ‘brave’ or even a helpful addition to the collective consciousness in some way. I’ve experienced pain in spades as of late though, and as it stands, I feel the bravest and most helpful thing for me to be doing is focus on some diaphanous sunlit mountaintop ahead without somehow forgetting and dismissing the deep, forest-filled valley I’ve wandered through in recent years, and without dragging it with me. I mean, assuming there is such a mountaintop. I’m not entirely sure. What I feel is important to my growth goals right now, is to refrain from second guessing myself and wishing for some cagey comfort of perceived invisibility. That curiously doesn’t seem like an option anymore.

I can imagine sometimes, writing buoyant, borderline superficial, posts here: recipes I’ve tediously developed and tested, places I’ve visited on joy-filled holidays, or some other happiness of personal achievements realized. In my quiet morning reveries over creamed coffee about this space, they are sometimes delivered in a congenial and witty “hey girl, hey!” fashion that one day cultivates an upbeat online community in which I feel supported and loved. Realistically, the past couple of years has most probably bled from me whatever nascent ability I had to filter myself in ways that places how I think others will perceive me at forefront of thought. Though, if I do ever adopt a more bubbly and joyful perspective (if even for a day) and I compose a piece in that mood, I’d to think I’ll publish it and feel I’m being as authentic as when I’ve used a less than euphonious tone.

The saying is: you can never go home again. While I believe that’s true, I also believe you can’t stay in a place and not have it change you, and so shucking the past is an actual impossibility. The future is imbued with it. Perhaps it’s been my own sentimentality that has romanticized a time when blogging was less about flashy copy, internal links, search engine optimization, and book contracts than it was about sensibility and fellowship and I suppose that’s what I’m looking for- the beautiful and human simplicity of sharing. That’s what writing here on “Folktale Life” may yet be for me.

When fairies move to the prairie, they eat biscuits and cry.

shadowselfie01-1-of-1

Yesterday, I wept at breakfast with my family. We’d walked under an expansive cloudless sky to the nearby truck stop where two interstates meet and where since moving here, we’ve learned they have both the best biscuits and gravy on the open prairie, and the best trucker conversations to eavesdrop on. I reveled in stories about offloading in Anchorage and how there was a warmer chill than the shoe-sticking cold of Chicago’s sidewalks this week. I live for ear food like this. A sentimental old trucker stopped by our table on the way out to wish the kids a merry Christmas, and turned to say he wished Santa could bring them “just, everything”. He was so wistful- so goddamn sincere, it hit me square in the chest.

The day before, a woman at the bank brightly chirped: “Did your candidate win?” I was disarmed by the raw sincerity behind her eyes. It was as if she’d wanted to high five me in the hall after a home game. I replied with a reserved “no”, and her face changed with sympathy and gave me a conciliatory “Well, at least his family looks normal!” as she nodded her empathetic little head in my direction. Tell me, stardust; what else could I have done besides laugh until it was unclear to both of us if I was indeed laughing or crying? I am a sincere animal, too.

I’ve felt this before. I am a living, breathing, organic archive of emotion and I know these feelings from previous travels in the arid desert of the Middle East. A certain sun-soaked open-skied honesty lives there that supports an overbearing presumed collective aspiration of religious idealism and family-centered simplified living, while it simultaneously marginalizes and radicalizes the individual with blazing ray-like intensity. I wondered to myself if there had to be a supernova… point at which divine intuition was suppressed so far down, it finally turned in on itself into a moebius black hole of dogma where the light of empathy is bent into a merciless endless night.  How often do we contemplate the other side of these things before they appear on the evening news? Not often enough.

I sat with my family and cried over my steaming gravy burdened biscuits and spoke to the kids about how chickens have this natural tendency to gang up on the sickly or malformed and peck them to death. Being a chicken is competitive as hell. Chickens can teach you to love and care for creatures whose consciousness is so brutally, honestly ignorant, you can’t help but be revolted enough to consider those parts of yourself.

Jung once wrote: “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” The middle. The crossroads. Where the devil and the divine meet and drink and dance. The point where even if  we head off where we shouldn’t have gone, but can still go back and choose another direction before we completely lose our way.

Warm gravy will make the coldest of us reminisce. I spoke about those brief liminal years in my late childhood when it was my turn to raise chickens. I told them a little about how I’d let other people hurt me, about how I never felt like I fit in, about how much of my personal shadow work circumnavigates shame, but also how I believed I was loved. I want them to understand loving is the dead simplest, most difficult thing to do in the whole world. Between tear salted sips of good bitter coffee, I wanted them to know if loving is ever to be sustainable, that we’d have to start by first finding the contours of the darkest parts of ourselves. I don’t speak of this enough.

It’s one thing to observe fear on a diode lit screen, and another to kiss it on the forehead when it tries to smother you in your sleep. Jung wrote: “If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.”

I miss the graffiti of my hometown. It leaks out from silent faces at the bus stops at night in brightly colored spray paint onto anything that will hold the message. It’s resistance reassurance symbol soul language from the underground on trash bins, brick school walls, virgin sidewalks, broken bar windows and outdated ATMs. That is the kind of news you can’t hide from your digital social feed or switch the channel from. When I walk across this interstate in the mornings, I sometimes fantasize about what I could paint and drape over the side, illuminating an imaginary underground interstate of fellow star people toward my particular hue of enlightenment.

I find myself now here on the winter wheat planted plains, unable to turn a face away from the daytime programming at the bank, and at the restaurant. There is no where to go under this open sky except deep inside where, armed with a lantern of love, I no longer trip over my own feet in the darkness. Feeling along the edges, I find a solitary solace from which to do the work. The hard stuff: the loving. It is from this new stronghold at the convergence of light and dark where I will be found, integrating it all until there is nothing left of the divide.

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