The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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“Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.”
― Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

Over the course of my life, I have written extensively about my background. Candidly, unapologetically. Most of my readers know I am in recovery, grew up poor, and overcame a lot of trauma as a child…

I think the word we insist on using now is survivor.

And it is true; I am a survivor.

But here’s the thing, in an email conversation I was having recently with a wise woman, I discovered that this survivor label no longer serves me. In a way, it has limited me to always being the abused kid, the writer-alcoholic, the poor adult hopping from one near-miss tragedy to the next.

It seems that while survivor might be a badge of courage, it also assumes some basic things about a person, allocating him or her to a moment in time when surviving was the only goal.

And this isn’t even a post about thriving, although thriving is something most people aspire to, survivor or no. This is about the stories we tell ourselves, and in turn, the world.
Inadvertently, in all of my surviving, I forgot the other aspects of who I am and landed precisely in the middle of the narrative I created these last few years.

For example, how I ended up in Phoenix was not so surprising given the narrative of the life I was creating – preferring the wild fantasy to the facts. A survivor just goes with the pull of the tides, right? No. There was a deliberation of story, of belief.

But what would have happened had I done something else? Hmm.

What would have happened if the life I thought I loathed was just mirroring the story I kept creating rather than actual reality or what could have come to fruition?

I’d say any one of us is capable of re-writing a story in the moment – scrapping the old narrative when we find it going in a prescribed direction. Almost every decision we make is based on these stories, from work to romance; family to identity.

All of this has prompted me to JUST STOP TELLING THOSE DAMNED STORIES. Stop already.

Stop telling stories about being poor as shit, drunk as hell, and even…as much as it hurts me to leave her behind…lost and alone at age 10.

Because these stories aren’t where I live anymore, or what I live.

So expect something new from me in the coming months. Wildly, fervently, freeing-ly new… as I set pen to paper, and begin.


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It Began Here…

It began here, my desire for this place. The course of its existence ran through me – an energy to move a woman 2,000 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, the fierce shield of granite and water, to a place of obsidian and sky.

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Eight years ago, standing on the edge of old Route 66, I watched clouds pass across the cobalt. I could not remain in my old life. The hard edges of the city pushed me into these skies so vast. No amount of squinting could help me to discern what’s beyond the tall grasses and deep canyons. But I knew I had to find out.

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Soft definition is what I sought; a place where I could be as lucent as abandoned buildings, yet as full as the chambers of my heart.

To be filled with movement… I desired the poetry of pulse and breath.

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To come here meant I could fly into whatever scene I wanted; to be as mutable and impelling as the clouds drifting through the valley. I craved this story. And, the beautiful thing about story isn’t the story itself, but what you can leave out.

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I choose to erase

the details of

my desire for this place.

Some things need to move through. Across dry creeks and coyote tracks, there are only traces, and a place to pick up and start walking again.


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Unbound: A Modern Exile

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When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

It had clearly imagined Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.
― Song of Childhood, Peter Handke

And for the first time, he wished he were far away. Lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language, or streets.
― Paris, Texas, screenplay by Sam Shepard

On October 1st, I will be forty years old. The imaginings of a linear life have left me disappointed… the hands, the work, the “deal” – none of it mattered to me. I wandered through a variety of lifestyles, always feeling empty and restless. Restlessness seemed to be the precursor to my entire life – nothing can compare to the daydreams of a ten year old. There would be no sultry saviors, no absolution and no erasing the names. There would be a tapestry of longing and a growing compassion for process.

red-lipstick-fearRecently, I made the decision to be truly honest in my decisions. I have written extensively on the subject of work, place and self-awareness. I have a fascination with those whose approach to life smashes barriers. In my twenties, I revolted against femininity and modern capitalism. I squatted in abandoned homes, I jumped tracks and I traveled with an unabashed, caustic personality that drove me to places I never thought I would see. I didn’t participate in the traditional life. I hoofed it with fellow wanderers and freaks. I saw to it that I would never, ever be owned or trapped.

During this time, I explored the trends of body and spirit dualism, eating disorders and body image. I exploited every revolting aspect of the flesh in hopes of making them beautiful. I danced and tripped on mushrooms. I would go without bathing or combing my hair. I pushed for a love of flesh – in its complete glory and eventual decay – because I did not know how to love my own mortal shell. I thought that salvation, or revolution, was found in the intersection of love and physicality. I wanted to be in my skin – lovely and horrible, yet completely body-authentic.

Throughout my thirties, I developed an interest in authenticity as commodity and trend. Authenticity became the battle cry of marketing firms and big brands. The migration from body wisdom to authentic identity of personhood was troubling; mainly because of the way the mainstream embraced the concept. The collective consciousness of Gen X was quickly and quietly overtaken by a new promise of being both successful and authentic. More people, particularly young people, embraced their weird uniqueness and eccentricities, and that was wonderful in many regards. However, this co-opted form of authenticity remained sophomoric and typically American. “I have a right to be me” became the empty shell of egocentric pursuits and isolation. More niche and fringe groups formed based on limited cogent forces – the individual became a composite of type. When a question was posed, the individual could simply fall back on adolescence, “You just don’t understand me!” Me went off the charts. Me denominated the market and continues to do so.

“Remember the quiet wonders. The world has more need of them than it has for warriors.”
― Moonheart, Charles de Lint

What would it be like to lose one’s identity? The movie Paris, Texas (screenplay by Sam Shepard) illustrates the need for an endless terrain and a loss of identity. The main character, Travis Henderson, becomes drawn to “forgetting” and being unknown in an unknown land, simply slipping the realities of tragedy, loss and addiction, TravisimagesCAX2CIXT makes his way home only to choose to return to the land of unknown – the power of movement, following the crack-snap song of power lines that cut through otherwise desolate country.

Tragedy, however, need not be the only impetus for losing oneself to the world. Shamans, prophets and wisdom keepers tread the path of the unknown, the lost one. In shedding former identity, an understanding of place can be attained. One can transcend human boundaries, hearing the songs of crickets and owls and wearing the night like a coat that cannot be slipped. The wanderer becomes small yet great in smallness, silenced yet wise in the vacuum.

Personas can be shifted. Over the past few months, I have considered the random and unsuitable personas I have worn over the years. My general dissatisfaction with a monetary based system has also been a pinnacle factor in my desire to shift from laborer to vagabond. Perhaps persona is a modern development, a modern affliction. Did early man consider his uniqueness? Did he cultivate a collection of property or skills that helped him become alpha, popular and accepted?

There is a connection to the dog-order of humans and other pack animals. Somewhere along the evolutionary process, this aberration of self was developed in order to secure … well, security. With exaggerated limbs and features, bigger-faster-smarter, we rose and challenged. We amended. We edited. We made over and dominated in a pernicious quest for immortality.

Troubling Uniqueness

You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?

― Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads

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The paradox of the fascination with uniqueness is that it is made moot by context. How are we unique if not in the reflection of a communal norm? There would be no uniqueness without a benchmark. We are never separate, individual. There would be no concept of identity if we had no place within a larger social order. That is why the most isolated of tribes or individuals have a rich dreamscape that has not been eradicated by comparison.  In these worlds, plants become as alive as humans. Stones tell stories. Garbage is sacred. It is a mad world that invites weeds to the storyline.

Since the original concepts of loss of identity and regaining of self have nothing to do with pandering to a value based system, we as a culture have little regard for or understanding of those who move beyond what is acceptable. For example, the unique worldview of a person deeply entrenched in paranoid schizophrenia – without being medicated – perhaps represents the purest form of authenticity. The mentally ill and their schematics and dreamlands create fear and order in a tunnel almost devoid of common experience.

There has been much research on the subject of self and mental illness as well as self and shamanism. In this paradigm, there is room for all forms of perception and reality.

To jump off into cholla with dreams of remaining unharmed…

To climb the slick rock and see antelopes dancing in the shadows of light descending…

To know the names of every plant and rock… to call them when you are alone and need life to follow.

My life is changing. Nothing seems fixed as such – and in this shape-shifting, fluid state, I worry less about my life and my purpose. There is a dignity of ignorance I seek. You see, the unchanged world of beliefs and personas is an unforgiving one. In this static state, you are sick or well, pure or rotten. There is a collective desire to find Elysium in the status quo and the illusion of authenticity.

I don’t want to be clear; I want to be knee-deep and murky. I want to wade out when the songs of the sirens bellow across the turquoise. There is beauty in dissolution and chaos. Nature adores the ever-changing and amorphous. There is no regret in simply living without having one solid version of life and the beyond. Perhaps it is not for us to know. Perhaps being an animal among field songs and flight is a very good life, indeed.


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Reframing Belief and Prosperity

 

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I am standing on a rhyolite cliff looking at a fresh pile of bear dung. Not a pretty way to start a story, I know, but this is where it begins. It’s 8am and the sun has started to burn away the clouds that line the canyons and valleys below. A lone Steller’s Jay decides to announce his presence, then his displeasure with mine. His streak of black-tipped feathers against a strikingly cobalt body remind me of clubs in Toronto where hair and body never quite took on the proper colors and textures. I bend down to survey the pile before me… the bear must have been here within the last hour. It’s not that ominous a scene, however. The Sierra Ancha mountain range is full of black bears, deer, mountain lions and other woodland mammals. Although I have never actually seen a bear here, I have seen their tracks, their scat and their tell-tale scratch marks. It’s an honest place to be.

For three hours, I sat in my tent looking at a deluge that washed over the ridge. There wasn’t much to do in those moments but kick back, read or think. In this case, I opted for the latter. Looking out on damp pine needles, my mind wandered to the themes that are most pressing in my life. Those themes that keep me up at night in the city, but are soon diminished in the cold, damp and windy confines of these high cliffs. It isn’t like they disappear entirely… no, but they don’t suffocate me. They are like the damp pine needles. I just see them and notice their presence. For the past two years, I have felt a building ache in my heart. It started as a married woman. I had dreams of escaping the city with my partner, reluctant dreams. Now, as I am – alone and in flux – I want to do things that I have never before attempted to do.

For one, I am done trying to live my life by anyone’s measuring stick – friend, companion or otherwise. I am also done carrying secrets – mine or any else’s. I do not wish to control or judge; I simply want to be free to live as honestly as I can. I understand that I will lose friends over this. I know it will be uncomfortable for some to accept what I am about to embark upon. Frankly, I am old enough to know it isn’t passive-aggression or rebellious behavior. I just decided I am tired of being a part of an assembly line lifestyle I don’t and never did want.

None of these statements are particularly revolutionary. Many more choose the off grid or simple life: activists, Buddhists, seekers, iconoclasts, etc.. For some reason, though, I have found it difficult to find those who relate to my vision. I meet many people who are on a spiritual path or a path to recovery or healing, yet they still seek the same societal end-means that the rest seek. I am not a believer in the Promise. I do believe that our thoughts impact our perceptions and experiences, and possibly even our outcomes, if external factors align and we are blessed to reside in a country and time that upholds these principles. I still believe in work, direction, movement and animal truth.

This brings me to prosperity. One of the pinnacle reasons I avoid “abundance” as a movement is that it is rooted in the outward rather than how one feels and the quality of experience and character. Plenty of people buy into the idea that if they “positive think” everything, they will be gifted material rewards – usually in the form of entrepreneurial endeavors or independence from wage slavery. The focus is on the monetary compensation that will arrive if they magic-think it so. Abundance thinking has never been outlaw thinking. If anything, it upholds the systems that demand us to believe poor people or those who have experienced hardship haven’t opened up to the power of the universe or simply have a bad attitude. It does not question why some people acquire yet abuse their possessions and power. It also is nation-centric in that the basic premise is that an individual naturally is equipped with a wide variety of choices. It ignores famine, captivity, disease, oppression, slavery and war. By logical deduction, if blessings are created by positive thoughts than hardships must be equated with negative thoughts. If one has control over prosperity than one must also have mastery over poverty. Hmm… sounds like familiar rhetoric, doesn’t it?

One of the reasons I love being in wild places is how it brings me down to the most basic element of being alive: I want to bJuly13dump 319e alive. If I believe I am the most powerful animal in the forest and go about my delusion foolishly, I may get injured or die. It doesn’t matter how much I believe I am the master of my universe, or that Christ or some other deity will protect me; life soon finds a way to subterfuge my beliefs with a mortality wheel I have no means of stopping. In this state of utter surrender, one can be truly prosperous and totally authentic. By understanding the limits of my beliefs and ideas, feelings and thoughts, I can work within a larger framework that includes everything around me: other life, stone, earth, stories. In including everything around me as abundance, I also embrace death and disease, the occasional let-down, loss and missed opportunity.

One of the most fundamental ways of cultivating abundance is through connection. My desire to disengage in the “game of getting ahead” is largely informed by a very human desire to connect. Being a part of a career puts me in isolated odds, whereas serving the community relates to the larger whole. Abundance, ultimately, is rooted in contentment and happiness, comfort and safety. False ideologies will have us believe these can be attained through competition and cultivating our authentic selves. But what are we without others?

Whether we shroud ourselves in an illusion of isolation and self-sufficiency or we desperately seek validation from others, we are still suffering from the same malady to validate our time here on earth. But the most basic beauty is that we all are alive and a part of this life. Just by going outside and noticing the plants and animals in our yard, we can understand that our goals are just as basic as the those of birds and the plants. We are a part of the whole of this dying process, despite our thinking lives, and are here for a very short time. It really doesn’t matter what we believe. The reality is, we are not that unique. Our creature sense wants the same basic things: warmth, food, shelter, the softness of other animals.

What is comes down to is making peace with a lack of control and uniqueness. Imagine the possibilities of being with rather than against. What would our lives feel like if we were more communal than opposing? If we walked among the trees and moss and felt no need to stand apart.

Life is fragile; our own lives are rife with threat and potential. Maybe there is less to do than we think. Maybe sitting on the edge of a cliff and watching the sun rise is a fine way to live. Let us embrace our commonalities and know abundance lives in the place where understanding meets fearlessness, where enough is good, really good.


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Making Work a Conscious Act

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I have had many jobs in my life. I have scrubbed toilets, bussed tables, sold trinkets, stripped and posed for an 80 year old sculptor. I have been a business owner; I have been a corporate drone. Perhaps my most important role, however, has been as a nonprofit professional, raising money for a myriad of good missions over the years. Still, looking back, I do not associate any of these roles with who I am as a human, nor would I have passed up the chance to quit any given job to pursue a life of exploration, learning and spiritual growth.

There is no job or career I have taken on that supplants my desire to run, to move, to wander this world with an inexhaustible curiosity no career could ever sate. I simply do not believe in career or job as being something natural to us. Work is of course a part of being alive. We work to eat, keep warm, find a mate and gain security… but work was never meant to consume us in such a structured manner of identity and value. The need to work would often arise with the need for outcome. Spontaneity, chance and flexibility revolved around the perils and payoffs of work – reward or lack thereof. As we formed community, roles were assigned, but again, work was the basis of an outcome and not a descriptor with false value and meaning assigned per se, until we began to move into such a context.

From industrial perils to blue collar masses to college-fresh degree holders entering into the career world, we have replaced the elements of work that make it work with fantasies of identity, power and prestige. Work no longer produced only results = i.e. food, house, car; work became our pinnacle form of identity and pride. Academic institutions pushed the new “educated worker” with the mantra of a more enlightened nation and a workforce of specialists, making higher wages. In fact, the past 80 years have funneled us into believing that we can earn our worth. This philosophy assumes that our worth is based on monetary gain, academic success, or – in the case of many conditioned women – our ability to work someone else’s gain.

The problems inherent in this phony empire of career pomp are becoming more apparent as the disparity of classes and make-believe markets are creating deeper gouges in the fabric of this economic dreamscape. But I am not writing about the current fiscal crisis and profound inequity between classes. Ultimately, what I argue is why must we even subject ourselves to this?

As someone who grew up in rural lower middle class/poverty Americana, I was – despite being a bright and relatively good student – encouraged to find a job at one of the local factories in our mid-sized community. On a positive day, my guidance counselor might have suggested community college. You see, poor, rural folks were to be tailored for industry. This was the early 90s – not the early 1900s.

Thankfully, my stubborn gene kept me from succumbing to limited suggestions, and I left the small town and traveled throughout North America, working various odd jobs to support me as I wrote and experienced a multitude of places I thought I might need to see: Seattle, Boston, New York, LA… and the plethora of tiny burgs full of artists and writers, weirdoes and geeks. My life living paycheck to paycheck felt normal – I existed day-to-day and actually don’t recall worrying about the next source of income, whether I’d have a savings account or if I could afford to fly back to Indiana when my 1980 Honda hatchback (with its still working 8-track player) finally and stubbornly gave in to the auto graveyard.

Of course, this story does not serve to advocate the life of the young vagabond to those who want to have kids and settle in to some kind of community. Perhaps the sheer fact of youth and curiosity led to me to this pathway, but I am most certainly happy I took this course and started the ebb of wanderlust at a time most appropriate for passage into adulthood.cubicle

This story, however, is not a moral fable about lessons that lead one to buy that house, that car, that oceanfront property. This story is about someone who has decided to leave every myth behind entirely. For me, success comes through community, creativity and self-expression. I don’t care if I if I ever own the latest gizmo x, y or z. I want the kind of life that distinguishes perceived need versus impact. I want the kind of freedom that doesn’t require upgrading product every year.

Now, I can hear you screaming, “Luddite!” at the top of your lungs, but what I am advocating is not an elimination of technology, but rather a moderation of reliance upon such. There are always vast benefits in being able to communicate and learn globally, relate to new scientific advances and build social activism on a level never once achievable. However, just as with any other product or outlet, we can reduce  blind adherence to buying these tools when we view them as tools and not an extension of worth. Any time I have worked with teens and early adults, I have witnessed the incredible social impact of owning the latest tech toy or cell. It truly is brand talking and not necessarily need or advancement of intellect or action.

Getting back to work… there are many choices at hand for those seeking more fulfillment in life and moving away from the 8am-6pm dregs. Some suggestions to reduce economic enslavement are as follows:

1. Outline what you want

As a survivor of domestic violence, this obvious fact-finding process was very arduous until I was able to honor the internal. Before any of us can begin to manifest work as an expression, we must know Self and our subsequent values, ethics and hopes. Make a list of your deepest, most purposeful intentions to begin.

2. Adjust your habits

Ah, this is where action comes into play. Many of my dissociative habits – such as drinking and running – were counterproductive to the life I outlined and the beliefs I held close. What habits do you allow to run the show? How do your habits prevent you from engaging in your life and the life you desire?

3. Resist fear

I recently heard from a wise female friend how she made a decision to stop the “scary movies” she was playing in her mind. I connected to this on an intuitive level – my life was almost held hostage by potential horrific scenes of future atrocities. In order to manifest something new, we can maintain a state of mind that receives the energy of the day and resists future posturizing.

4. Reach out and accept

Reaching out and forming community, as well as getting sage wisdom regarding our chosen paths, are essential elements to growth and moving into a work that truly meets our soul-needs.

Allow yourself the guidance to listen, learn and apply.

5. Pass it along

When the time is right, pay it forward! Think of the myriad ways you have been told, “no” and pass the gifts of independence to others.

When I think about the ongoing theme of dissuasion from my true talents and calling, I am even more motivated to help others cultivate a path that honors their values, beliefs and talents. Work – that is, the stuff we do to attain housing, food and security – need not become our primary purpose. Work can be supplemental, but our paths and expressions can be aligned with our life at large. Purpose is so different from work. Purpose transposes talents with communal benefits and blesses us beyond measure.

It is a true gift to begin to look at the quality of one’s life, even in dire economic or health circumstances. Open to the possibilities inherent in each day and remain a student – the world needs more iconoclasts, willing to bridge the pressures of society while supporting the ideologies related to independent thought, action and path.


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The Freedom of an Honest Life

“FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS”
– A FORTUNE COOKIE

A fortune cookie saved my life. Well, perhaps not my life, but it certainly saved me from spending years stuck doing something I no longer (if ever) believed in.

I worked in fund development (fundraising) for a Catholic charity. This is fairly benign if you’re Catholic. I am not. In fact, I am a 100% pro-gay marriage, pro-choice (abortion and end of life), class-conscious eco-feminist. I don’t care if you make babies. In fact, I encourage you to remain child-free and help reduce the planet’s human load. More to this, I am not inclined to believe in a god that intervenes in our lives and elevates humans to superior animal status, giving us license to pillage whatever we want in the name of America, Allah or Free Market Capitalism. Believing what I do does not always make me everybody’s sweetheart, and certainly not in a neo-conservative state like Arizona, but it is the composition of these beliefs that define my values.

I am a person of faith. I have faith in the natural cycle. I have faith in the sun, the moon, seasons, community, birth and death. I never have to question their power or influence over me. I have faith in well-defined, actionable values. One of my values is tolerance for diverse thoughts and opinions. An action from this value is to curb my judgments.

Values are something we all like to talk about but very rarely understand. I know it was a huge wake-up call for me when someone asked me – in an interview a few years back – to define my values. Er, um, honesty, respect, selflessness… how many do you need again?

I struggled with listing my sincere values, and started to list those I felt the interviewer wanted to hear. My internal monitor censored my deepest values rooted in respect for ALL life, in protecting the land I love even if it means people lose jobs, in advocating for a nation of gardeners and artisans instead of mindless consumers.

Another thing I learned, other than how hard it is to succinctly define my values, is that there are values that evolve and mutate depending on context and application. For example, some values will differ if they are applied to my family as opposed to the world at large. (Insert the quote about “a foolish consistency…” here.) Some are very circumstantial, and some are meta-values that sweep over all aspects of who I am.

Not everyone shares the same values. I repeat, not everyone shares the same values. This may seem like a DUH statement, but I am surprised by how many of us pull one-size-fits-all values over us like an ill-fitting coat. My value to be responsible, for example, and to work hard, informed my faulty thought that “work is work” and “no one likes their job.” I grew up poor in rural America. To discuss one’s job as something that is both interesting and meaningful to some loftier cause is unheard of – no one talks about work unless it is the understood nod of how hard it is to get by. This background and worldview has led me into an accidental career in business, then marketing for for-profits, then into the Catholic charity. I told myself through each of these transitions that I can find my voice there, somewhere I will make a change. And, sometimes small changes were made in recycling procedures, ethical business principles, paper waste reduction, and opening minds and hearts about new ideas. I also met some like-minded coworkers who remain my friends today. However, the nagging feeling remained.

Ultimately, I found myself moving through the day feeling “off,” quietly resenting the coat I had put on. I believed, rather erroneously, that in order to survive this life, I had to simply shut up, keep my head down and get through. At home, my passions and ideas would butterfly into volunteerism, independent projects and being with the natural world, my sense of self restored. I felt the peace I had been seeking in the 40-60 hours each week of being insincere, untrue to my beliefs.

Great change is never gentle. It happens very quickly. The day I read the fortune, “FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS,” my life changed. My values created this change, but so did circumstances beyond my control. This possible life wanted to be heard all along. It just took a cookie to get me to listen (and a kick in the butt from the universe).

Life is short. We all say it and connect to those tearful end-of-life stories about what matters most. But do we act? Or do we become those who have so many regrets? Values alone mean little without thoughtful, purposeful action. There is suffering, yes, and all paths present obstacles, but the path itself need not be the obstacle.

Now I choose carefully. I let my intuition decide, even when my ego wants to kick and scream. I choose paths that bring me back to what I love, in a way that contributes with honesty, heart and good, old-fashioned work.

If you had a cookie to open today, what would your fortune say?