The Underworld

It might have been the incessant rain or the murder of crows gathering in the dead oak outside my window. It might have been the dying flowers in their pretty vase or even the candles—flickering their last at the ends of their wicks. Whatever it was, I found myself at the gate. Unlike Heaven, there’s no keeper. This gate is unlocked and you can come whenever you please, though it pleases no one to come here.

I tuck my heart close, lest I lose it, and set my shield down; having been here before, I know there will be no protecting myself from what I find. Next, I tuck my shoes and soul beneath it’s weight, comforted that they’ll have some shelter from the elements while I’m away. Whatever else you do, never bring your soul here—this is no place for the divine.

When all is as it should be, I step through and begin my descent. Down, down over eons of rot that squelch between my toes. Down, down through hallways of bones and teeth where I somehow know which belong to those I’ve loved. Down, down where moonlight can’t go. Down, down where the rain is full of salt and never stops. Down, down until the path levels out and turns to the broken dreams of the living. Only then do I know I have arrived in the Underworld.

It isn’t Hell, if such a place exists. Hell is for souls and there are no souls here. Just the end. The end of whoever it was you were in the middle of loving. The end of yourself as you were when they lived. The end of all you knew and all you didn’t. The end–where all that holds physical form loses it to water and worms.

Now that I’m here, I crinkle my brow the same way I do when I’ve just entered a room and already forgotten why. After all, I already gathered up the remains of my loves and left them here months ago. I stand at the exact place I stopped then and try to remember to no avail. Finally turning with a shrug to retrace my steps to the gate which leads right back to my life as I left it . . . it’s only then I realize my mistake.

I left the wrong way last time–returning to life as I left it—surrounded by empty spaces where love used to be. I let go of their bodies but held on tight to the emptiness they left behind. Turning back toward the dark unknown, I shudder. I want to go back to the gate: back to my shoes and my soul and my shield, back to familiar, if empty, spaces.

But I don’t.

I know I came for this—the sixth stage of grief. The one that comes after you find your way through your worst nightmares to acceptance. It took me a while. Acceptance cost me and I had to gather up fresh courage for this:

There’s new love, new adventure, new wisdom that await on the other side of all you go through when you grieve. More than enough to fill the empty spaces to overflowing. But if you want it, you can’t go back the way you know.

To reach the sixth stage is to set down your shield. It’s all heart. It’s running barefoot through the Underworld, soaked in the tears of everyone ever, in a darkness too deep for moonlight. It’s feeling the sickening squelch of eons of rot between your toes and pushing forward, knowing that if you keep going, you’ll love again and get hurt again . . . and again and again until your teeth and bones join the others here.

And it’s worth it.

Every time.

It’s worth it.

So I run. Heart wide open through all I’ve loved and lost before. I run barefoot through darkness as deep black as a crow’s feather with nothing but hope to guide me forward. Until I’m falling down, down into a deep, slow river. Cool, fresh water rinses the tears of everyone ever from my hair and washes the rot of eons from my feet. I close my eyes and float on my back, not warm or cold, not happy or sad, and not marking the moment moonlight creeps in–slowly turning blackest black into gray and gray into silver, until the sun rises–shifting silver into the pale gold of a new day.

The Lipstick Letters: Intuition, Ready or Not

I’m not ready.

My heart is still in pajamas. My grief hasn’t finished her morning coffee. My soul is not washed. Yet, my intuition is saying, “Now.” So here I am with my lipstick on.

I hadn’t planned to start with Intuition. It’s such a bold red. If I could have chosen any shade, I would have picked a much more muted, quiet color. A color that better reflects how I feel about myself and my life right now.

I had these letters all mapped out. I spent a year putting each lipstick word/color in order and planning the themes so I could show in each post how I came to this tidy piece of wisdom: Pain and loss are always the ultimate cost of loving and they are always worth it. Love is where all the good stuff is–the joy, the community, the laughter, the growth, the forgiveness, the strength.

But I never wrote any of it. And I should have recognized my intuition in that writer’s block.

Instead, I kept trying, kept seeking, kept shifting, and kept to myself. I started throwing out bags full of stuff we don’t want or need. I started cleaning out dark spaces inside and out. I started taking a knitting class with other women who say “fuck” a lot while they knit. I started making room for myself in my life again. And somewhere in the midst of it all–the things I was doing and not doing, I realized that maybe that tidy advice I thought was the end, is actually the beginning.

Now that I know the devastation of losing those I love, how do I knock down the walls that pain has led me to build between myself and others? How do I stay soft when hardening up dulls the hurt? How do I push through my fear and hold my hands out again knowing how it stings when they get slapped instead of held? It’s terrifying and anxiety producing to think about racing out into the world with my heart wide open and my soul on my sleeve. It’s one thing to have learned the lesson, it’s something else entirely to live it.

Yet I know that’s exactly what I have to do if I want more happiness, connection, fun, and satisfaction with my life and I do. I want those things so badly it aches. Maybe the Lipstick Letters are not meant to be about the what. Maybe they’re meant to be about the how.

With that trajectory in mind, I’ve thrown out the plans I had and maps I made. Actually doing this process instead of just thinking and writing about it scares me, but it’s also exciting and has me feeling the same thrill of inspiration I felt the first time I opened a box of fifteen lipsticks on Christmas morning back in 2020.

I’m missing something and my intuition is telling me it’s right on the other side of myself. So ready or not, here I go . . .

If you want to read previous Lipstick Letters, click here!

If you want to hear me read this one, click play below:

this wine (written in 2007)

this wine
tastes like forgetfulness
with a hint of plum
and i can’t imagine anything
more perfect
i love plums and horses
and forgetting
and carl
and my dog.
EE cummings wrote poems with
the punctuation all silly
which was brilliant
the first time he did it
but after that wasn’t he just repeating himself?
i repeat myself all the time
tell the same stories over and over
just like a dog
barking at passing cars.
this wine
tastes like i’m drunk
and i can’t imagine anything
more perfect than
that other than
tiramisu although
it creeps me out to eat something called
lady fingers.
lets not talk about eating

i miss you and i wish you were here
wine tastes better
on your lips
and you’re right about
goldfish not being the same

i hate the sound of your phone
and by your phone i mean my phone
on your plan that you gave me
because you were tired of my mom
answering the phone at 2am
is the phone you gave me like the ring of
our cell phone bill marriage?
everytime i hear it its supposed to be you
but its not
and every time i hear it i think of you coming
home from work, but youre not
i don’t want to wait for summer
to sleep by you every night
i’m going to sleep by you every night I ever can
you’ll never spend a night on the couch
because i’ll never take the feel of you
breathing against my back
for granted
with so much time together slipping
through our fingers
while we wait for our five year plans to line up
i could never waste a second of

the rest of our lives
sleeping cold

i love you

g night

Again

Sometimes it’s been too long–

the reasons I love you turn back into secrets

and the words I would have said, I can’t remember.

Time turns us back to outside out,

inside safely in.

You will come home

to too much quiet

I’ll look up

and your eyes won’t say a thing.

But after so many years

even this

is familiar.

It will take a little time

but you will be you

and I never could resist you

and I will be me

but that never scared you anyway

and just like always

we’ll roll up our sleeves,

uncross our stars,

rewrite the end of The Queen and The Soldier

and fall in love

again.

First Love

He was the the first boy to touch his lips to mine.
I was the the first girl to write him a love letter.
He was the first boy to ask if he could read my poetry.
I was the first girl to give him my heart.
And he was the first boy to return it in pieces.

And it’s not that we were so great at it.
We weren’t.
It’s not that our love was all flowers and birds singing
It wasn’t.
Our love was clumsy and awkward and
we didn’t understand it
or each other.
Our love was impatient and selfish and proud but
it was first for us both.
And it was honest in a way it can only be
before you’ve learned how it can hurt.

When I saw him again after three years,
just the two of us
sitting on a picnic table
talking toward our flip flops
I remembered it–
that genuine, one-time
innocence of heart we lost together.

It draws us close,
despite everything,
Binding us together through the years
more than the shoe box of photos and letters,
more than the necklace, the hair clips, or the books
ever could have.

Love Stuff

It’s a quiet, snowy Sunday before Valentine’s Day and I’m diving into some of my older poetry about Carl and I. We’ve been together for seventeen years now and somewhere in there, I came to understand what people mean when they say it takes more than love to make a relationship work. I write a lot of “Marry the One Who . . .” posts, but those are all little things. Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely little things; they’re important little things that add up to a beautiful day to day life that I do not take for granted.

But they’re still little.

The big things are how you handle it when one of you royally screws up, what you do when you can’t do life fifty/fifty or even sixty/forty because both of you are running on ten percent, when life changes and you change and your needs change. Whoever you are when you choose each other, you’re both going to change again and again and again and it can be so hard to keep up. Love won’t make your relationship last, but it can sometimes hold you together long enough for you to figure out the rest.

So today, I’m combing through roughly seventeen years worth of love poems and sharing a few on my Black Ink Birds Facebook page, in my blackinkbirds Instagram stories and here on the blog. Some of them are awkward and clumsy, some of them painful and sad, and some of them are beautiful and sweet; that’s how it is when you’re looking at love as a whole.