It was a typical New Orleanian structure, not built to retain heat but to dispel it. Without insulation, the cool damp air of winter would penetrate through the floorboards, under a crooked door, and around unsealed windows. I made do with two space heaters, but some nights when the cold found its way into my bones, nothing but a hot bath could shake it off. An extraordinarily long clawfoot tub was the one decadent feature of the entire place, along with a brilliant location between the French Quarter and Bywater. In a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying, all of its spartan details made it seem quaint, or at least that was how I chose to see it.
I called it the temple- a tiny shotgun on Spain Street, four blocks from the Mississippi. During the rainy season it would swell with moisture causing the door to stick. Curious vines pushed their way inside, trailing along the window frame next to my bed creating a bridge for tiny insects, rust colored geckos, and frogs no bigger than a thimble. In June there could be weeks of solid rain- not the light gentle rain of the mountains where I'd lived but unpredictable, heavy, tropical rain. Rain that battered the plants outside of my doorstep like a bass drum. Plants whose thick, waxy leaves miraculously survived these daily outbursts from the sky and yet somehow produced flowers with such complicated and exquisite aromas, one might imagine themselves living next to a French perfumery. Plants with leaves so broad they could be sewn together as a Mardi Gras suit.
Gradually I became accustomed to getting caught in these sudden rainstorms and showing up to places completely drenched. And regardless of how much it rained, the smell of confederate jasmine would cling to my skin like an oily film.
August was an inferno, and September even more debilitating. You fooled yourself into thinking that evenings would provide a reprieve from the stifling heat, and then stepping outside you were struck dumb by air so lifeless it made being trapped in a body that much more uncomfortable. Like a vampire, I waited until dusk before venturing out. Some nights I stood outside of the Spotted Cat, a venue where you could catch live jazz until the wee hours. Other nights I took a bike ride along the river where I was more likely to find a breeze. Waving hello to familiar musicians who'd stepped out for a smoke or weaving through the row of psychics in Jackson Square filled me with the most delicious sense of freedom and carefreeness. I learned to be alone without ever feeling alone. I honed my ability to spot an open face and spent many a wayward night engaged in sincere and meaningful conversation with complete strangers.
The unruliness that had become my life was invigorating. I was elated to finally fulfill a lifelong dream seeded by Joseph Campbell after reading a collection of his work called Reflections on the Art of Living.
What stood out about Campbell's life and left a lasting impression was the time he spent in Woodstock, NY. Before going on to become one of the world's most well known mythologists, Joseph Campbell lived in a shanty, did not hold a job, read as many books as he could get his hands on, listened to jazz, and made an art out of listening to people's stories. And he did this for five years.
Having spent those years on the heels of the Great Depression, it was a radical choice to live on a whim and follow one's bliss. But the life he designed was not based on whim. On the contrary, there was much thought and intention that went into it. Campbell believed that a life dictated by others was detrimental to both body and spirit. Bliss was the enthusiastic energy of the divine expressing itself uniquely through each person's journey of individuation. The master morality that Campbell sought was tied to this bliss.
As a young woman, I was never encouraged to explore my autonomy. And for the most part, my self-worth was proportionate to how well I pleased others, both in deed and appearance. I was handed a specific set of expectations supported by another glib set of doctrines, neither of which took into account my intelligence or my curiosity. One message after another conveyed that happiness and satisfaction were to be found in goodness and domesticity despite the fact that these things looked very different for boys and girls. I was being sold a fairytale, and I was expected to accept this fairytale as my personal myth.
Which didn't pan out.
I hungrily read the works of female writers and thought leaders, excited by any new discovery of a feminine archetype that personified self-possession and heart wisdom.
I've often wondered what it would have been like to inherit a more sophisticated morality system where my goodness was inherent, and I wasn't expected to constantly prove my worth. Not to imply that usefulness and cultivating a concern for others aren't meritable traits- on the contrary, my life has been immensely enriched by service and charity. The satisfaction of helping another human being goes without saying when it's in the spirit of true generosity. But when robbed of choice, acts of charity can become something entirely different.
It became clear that good deeds alone weren't going to deliver what I most needed which was the experience of being loved independently of merit and permission to explore myself without the stigma of immorality or selfishness. Because somewhere in my bones a map was hidden carrying step by step instructions on how to live a good life- a life of my own design. And I wanted as much time and space as I needed to decipher it, regardless of the sacrifice.
The temple was where I spent days, sometimes weeks, studying the map. It's where I learned the value of stillness and pause. Where I gained remarkable satisfaction doing things that would never count as progress in the real world- a world I was slowly losing touch with as I came to trust an inexplicable process that revolved around surrender. The more I learned to let go, the better I felt. Without question, I was content despite not having checked off all the things on "the list". In fact, I did away with lists altogether and paid more attention to the small, otherwise overlooked, details of life that held so much meaning. By cultivating a daily practice in gratitude, I found my bliss.
Swimming against the current is never easy, and I often slipped back into old behavior by explaining myself or justifying my choices to those who couldn't relate. A dip in conversation or sideways comment could propel me into self-doubt, reaffirming an old story that I wasn't worthy of being taken seriously. Within seconds I was reduced to being a middle aged woman getting out her ya-ya's rather than the pioneer I had envisioned myself as. There were times when the trap of comparison was overpowering, and my spirit became crushed under the weight of everything I'd failed to achieve. I often wondered if I was fooling myself, stalling for time, and avoiding the inevitable.
But these periods of doubt always passed, and I eventually learned to lean in and weather the storms in my head no differently than the storms in the temple. The years passed like this- three steps forward and two steps back.
When you accept that you have no control over what lies ahead, the present moment becomes everything.
And so my last year at the temple turned into a montage of ecstatic, frozen-in-time moments. It was as though my senses had heightened- detecting more beauty, more color, more dimension. Love and forgiveness appeared in places I had long forgotten. The map pointed out what was most important and what needed to be surrendered.
Which reminds me of an experience I had years ago in a ceramics class, taught by an artist who lived alone at the top of a remote mountain. The driveway was so steep that I had to park at the bottom and walk the rest of the way up to her studio. When I arrived, all the the tables were covered in brown kraft paper with huge pillars of fresh, wet clay as centerpieces and an assortment of jars holding sculpting tools. I pulled out a notebook, expecting a lecture on technique (as I'd never worked with clay), but there was no lesson. She simply told us to dive in, that there wasn't a right or wrong way to handle clay, and to allow our senses to guide us.
People were visibly perplexed by this informal approach; we'd all paid good money for a proper lesson, and this seemed rather willy nilly. Nevertheless, the room eventually started buzzing like a giant beehive as we worked on our little masterpieces. Halfway through the day we broke for lunch, and afterward, she instructed us to destroy the pieces we'd made thus far. Then, sensing the tension in the room, she added, "Of course it's up to you. If you're too attached, keep what you've made. But if you're up for a challenge, start over."
Faces drew a blank when faced with such a decision. It was an awful moment, and yet I felt an excitement stirring inside of me that was unexpected. I did as she proposed (I've always been an enthusiastic learner) and almost immediately felt my brain flooding with endorphins. It was truly an incredible discovery that I never would have come up with on my own. Once the clay was back in its primordial form, I felt liberated, and a second wave of creative inspiration consumed me. For a brief time, I felt the breath of God permeating my senses, and I glimpsed an endless fractal of potential. I could play it safe and make something that I knew would turn out pretty. Or I could use my new skill of surrender, and work until I produced something honest. I chose the middle path, making one very literal piece that was recognizable in shape and meaning (a gift for someone else) and another piece that simply felt good. I kept the second piece for myself as a reminder.
Leaving the temple after almost seven years wasn't an intuitive process. Like a blind caterpillar groping its way along, it took a strong shake to pry me away from the familiar branch that had become my entire world. I was content to stay there and easily could have spent the rest of my days happily munching leaves, growing fatter, and never changing my environment. But my inner map must have known it was time for a change in course. It heard my soul's calling before I did and created the catalyst for my departure.
A succession of events changed everything. It felt as though the temple, like my body, was under attack. As though invisible forces were working overtime to get me out. I would have preferred for things to stay the same, but I also knew that things already weren't the same. I was changing more rapidly and my environment simply wanted to accommodate the change. As William Shakespeare wrote, " for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so-" it took everything for me not to default to old blaming behavior or see myself as a victim. In life, we are given tools. Whether or not we use those tools is up to us.
And so I envisioned myself tuning out the distraction- anything that might lure me back into a life I wasn't meant to live- and writing the next chapter. By a stroke of divine grace I was offered an opportunity to caretake a friend's cabin in the woods, and without too much hesitation I accepted the offer even though my head was filled with uncertainty.
But that uncertainty led me here... to the chrysalis from which I write.
Tucked away within the folds of a landscape that appears barren on the surface but in fact is thriving with activity, I am wintering with two enormous cats. Cats who hunt and leave slimy, still-pulsing tokens of love on the kitchen floor which I stoically clean up in the morning after praising and rubbing their fat purring heads. Cats who snore so loudly I hear them through the walls. Cats who were both waiting when I arrived, padding through the soft, fresh snow to greet me. With very little but this natural world to interact with, I have time to explore the master morality which Nietzsche, Campbell, Thoreau, and other notable men of thought had the privilege to ponder without the impatient breath of societal convention breathing down my back.
I didn't grow up building fires. Or learning to identify animal tracks. Or living in a house where the curtains weren't drawn at night because there wasn't another house right next door. This is all so very new.
There are evenings when it's 20 degrees outside and wearing nothing but my robe and a pair of gardening Crocs, I walk down to an outdoor tub where I can see the trees reflected on the surface of the water, their bare, spindly limbs appearing both menacing and protective. I look up to see Orion, Canis Major, Cassiopeia, Sirius, and Taurus, and I'm reminded of endless galaxies in a vast universe where the center is solely determined by perspective. I stand naked for a few moments and feel the same thrill of cycling through a rainstorm with my mouth open to the sky or walking alone at night through the streets of New Orleans. Somewhere in the distance I hear my mother's voice, rife with worry, "You'll catch your death out there."
And another voice, "When are you coming home?"
This body is my home. These woods, the river, the temple... it's all home.
Then I climb into the steaming water and imagine myself a Japanese monkey sitting in repose, eyes closed and surrounded by snow. It's a purification ritual. The water out here comes straight from the ground, full of minerals and so much softer than the water I've become accustomed to. In this water I am stripped of all the layers that have calcified over the years. Every boundary and wall that is no longer serving me.
A month ago I wasn't sure of anything. This morning I sit contentedly and listen to the wind bending around tall pines, the creaks and groans of a dry branch like an old barn door opening and closing. Every two or three minutes a rooster crows on a distant neighbor's farm competing with the clanging of wind chimes and an occasional stink bug hitting the glass pane of the window. At night when the temperature drops below freezing, it's the crackling of a fire and the drip of a faucet. Sometimes I think I can even hear the buzz of electricity in the air. It's truly that quiet.
Though it's a temporary situation, I have ample time to collect myself. Time to restore. Time to explore uncertainty, morality, and the driving notion that we constantly have to make something of ourselves in order to feel worthy. This time is an investment that won't depreciate, be repossessed, or crash in any market, and therefore, it's priceless.
This morning I was in the kitchen when I heard a loud screeching. It lasted long enough for me to walk to the porch and watch a red tailed hawk fly directly over my head and into the trees behind me. As I stood there gaping in awe, my first thought was, "It's a message."
Until then I'd been in hiding. Regardless of how wonderful things seemed, there was always an underlying sense of treason... as though I was doing something very wrong by taking full advantage of this solitude.
Hawk medicine, as it's often referred to, is about vision. Seeing the big picture, looking ahead, keeping a sharp eye, and being prepared to act when seized with opportunity. Some Indigenous tribes believe that hawks carry messages from spirit, and healers who work with hawk medicine are thought to be more closely connected to the spiritual realm.
I live in a city where I rarely come across birds of prey, and seeing one fly so close felt magical. Just like seeing a shooting star, which also rarely happens in a city, or waking up to a doe and her fawn grazing just outside of your doorstep. When we regard life as art, bestow each choice with meaning and consecrate every moment as something holy, we become the dreamer of the dream. The witches of ancient lore.
Once again I am called to trust the process, anticipating the day my life unfurls like the fresh wings of a black swallowtail waiting to become strong enough for flight.
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