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.

Bucket List with a Twist

I’m tired of feeling sad. I’m also tired of waiting for the next boot to drop. If you’ve been reading awhile or know me personally, you know the past four years have been some of the hardest of my life. But what I’m noticing now is that a lot good things are happening to and around me and instead of feeling happy or excited I just feel afraid of what’s going to happen next to take it all away. To be fair, when a lot of extremely terrible things happen, these feelings make sense. But when nothing terrible is happening, these feelings become a choice.

A few months ago, I made the decision to stop and promptly failed a lot of times. My most recent effort, was writing out a bucket list of things that would make me feel good to do. But when I was finished and read it over, I didn’t feel good, I just felt tired and anxious. Thankfully, sometimes the first, second, twelfth, or even twentieth failure leads us into the next possibility. And the possibility born out of that, most recent, failure is . . . well, it’s working.

Instead of a list of things to do, I made a list of things I want to feel. I edited it until every word hit right and when I was finished, I had a feeling I was onto something.


My Bucket List with a Twist:

Silly
Awestruck
Proud
Satisfied
Helpful
Beautiful
Determined
Connected
Strong
Known
Loved
Intrepid
Happy
Rested
Content
Butterflies
Successful
The Good Kind of Tired
Optimistic
Fun

So much of life we have no control over. Things happen to us and feelings rise up that have to be felt. But just about every day there’s some point when we get to choose. We can say yes or no to being around certain people, we can say yes or no to doing that thing, eating that food, how much sleep we’re going to get, or what to do that day, and we know before we do it how it’s likely to make us feel. This bucket list is about those moments and consciously choosing people and things that make me feel good.

Right after I got my list written, I made a trip to one of the most important places (because it holds some of the most important people) in my life. And for the first time in a long time, I let myself completely enjoy and give over to each moment without a thought to the future, without getting hung up in the past, and without anxiety over whether or not I’d be accepted/acceptable, or how it could all go wrong. Instead, I focused on each opportunity to feel good, then took it, and savored it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the initial results are in and . . .

. . . yeah, I’m definitely on to something. : )

So, I’m going to keep heading down this path awhile and see what shakes out. Sometimes, I’ll do a full post, sometimes just pictures tagged with words from my list and #bucketlistwithatwist. If you want to make your own list and join me, I would love that! If not, that’s cool too. This one is really just about me shifting myself back toward the relentless optimist I’ve been most of my life. : )

Home

I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been all up in my feelins lately. Last week was both the heavenly birthday of one of the best men I’ll ever have the privilege to know and the anniversary of my dog Why?lee’s last day in my arms. I tried all day to write something beautiful about Kerry and the past four years of sad and how his death snapped whatever I was using inside myself to hold all my grief at bay, sending me on a two year pilgrimage that has only just now come full circle.

He brought me home. Not just back West for our epic and insane road trip last summer to the Eagle Caps (because let’s be real, I’ll always be a Rocky Mountains girl at heart), but back home inside myself–which is the most important place to feel at home because as Kerry’s widow, Doneva says, “You can run anywhere you like, but you have to take yourself with you!”

But I wrote and rewrote a thousand words and none of it was good enough. So I put away my laptop, went outside, and played with my horses knowing that was the best kind of tribute to Kerry anyway. Then, I helped my man put the kids to bed and, as we’ve starting doing every year on Kerry’s birthday, we built a campfire out back, raised glasses of whiskey in his honor, and shared a cigar while we walked down memory lane. And when we went to bed, I felt better. The right words will come when they come; they always do.

The Lipstick Letters: Intuition

When I was trying to decide where to go next with the Lipstick Letters, I was torn between Memory, Perception, and Intuition. I was heavily leaning toward Memory for a long time, but even though I drafted several Memory posts in my head, none of them made it to paper.

Then, a few weeks ago, I went on a weekend alone to rest and sort it out. It was in that long, deep, lovely silence it became clear that my intuition had something to say.

I fought it. I was so sure it was going to say stuff like, “Get off your @$$ and handle your messy life.” But no. When I finally caved in, late afternoon on my first, full day alone, all I heard was, “Girl, you’re tired. Have a good sleep and we’ll talk in the morning.”

I slept from around four that afternoon until seven thirty, got up, had a snack, brushed my teeth and slept from eight until the next morning. And when I woke up, I could hear myself. I could hear myself so clearly it was impossible to deny how much I had pushed my intuition aside to survive wave after wave of grief in the midst of new motherhood.

I listened. And I learned.

My intuition is kind. Instead of being salty about being shoved down and ignored repeatedly for literal years, it was gracious and proud of me for slogging through, giving my kids everything I had to give, and making it to a place where I was strong enough again to go back and start working through that series of terrible losses.

Driving home, I promised to keep listening and act accordingly as much as possible over the following month. And I did!

I reached out when I felt like reaching out. I rested when I felt like I needed rest. And on days when my grief came knocking, I let it in and sat with it awhile instead of pretending I didn’t know it was there. I set a new boundary with my kids to ensure I get at least a couple of hours to cook or clean or lay down or fold laundry without interference each day.

I let my mind wander back through some choices I’d made over the past several years (another task I’d been avoiding) only to find that so much of what I’ve said, done, not said, and not done, was me in survival-mode. A mode I kept trying to get out of only to have another tragedy toss me back in.

Each whisper I tended to, I felt a little more of the weight of mistakes, the weight of difficult choices, the weight of loss, the weight of guilt, the weight of pressure to do and be more fall away. And even then, my intuition did not tell me to get out there and start rebuilding a new life out of the rubble of the unfinished one I’d semi-started here . . .

It told me to keep writing and sharing, to go get a hair cut, and to remove the gross, old wallpaper in the hallway. So. Yeah. Here we are. : )

I’m trying hard to avoid making these letters about advice. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenties and thirties, it’s just how much I don’t know.) But I have to say, if you’ve been shushing that inner voice out of fear of what it’ll say, then like me, you might be mistaking your thoughts for your intuition.

My thoughts can be anxious, angry, self-deprecating, and flat out cruel. My intuition is always loving, always tender, always gracious, and not just toward me, but toward everyone else as well. So much so, that nowadays when I’m confused about which is which, that’s my go-to way of telling them apart.

Bottom line? I’m beginning to trust myself and my inner knowing again. And it feels really really good.

Hair Cut

“Your hair!” she exclaimed,
as she pulled up alongside me,
shock and a hint of horror in
her tone and wide-eyes

“I know!” I replied with a practiced, rueful smile
she was not the first and would not be the last to ask
“Why did you cut it?”

In a blink
every truth whipped through me:

We were tired,
my hair and I
straightened out by circumstance
when we were born to be curly
.

Like Sampson, I mistook it
for more of me than it was.

I was feeling more like myself than I had in years
but still seeing someone else in the mirror.

Every time I pulled a wad of it out of the drain
I was disturbed anew at how closely
it resembled my thoughts.

My neck was creaking ominously
under the weight

of it–
living life
with so much death–
It had to go
I couldn’t carry it all
not one more moment . . .

“I needed a change.” I replied.

But she’d already seen–
she understood.
Her expression shifted to one of approval.

“It looks good.”
she said.
Then drove away.

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 is SoCo.

Short for Southern Comfort because my identical cousin in Tennessee shipped him out to me 11 years ago and since then, he’s been a little part of my Southern home I get to keep with me wherever I go. He is the sweetest, most snuggly pony and has a heart that needs closeness.

When Tris (my horse of 18 years) passed away, I pulled back fast from any kind of connection—human, horse, or otherwise. And now, four years later, the love is still right where I left it, but I’ve got some big work to do on rebuilding our trust and partnership.

We’ve gone on a few, short rides but mostly, I’m focused in the round pen, on the lunge-line, and on taking naps together—communication and being a warm, happy, reliable presence in his life.

Picking up the pieces after painful losses can be almost as heartbreaking as the losses themselves. I’m still working through my guilt at how I all but deserted this precious pony when he’d just lost Tristan, too. And he’s clearly working through a fear of putting faith in me and being left in the cold again. It hurts but I can’t go back and change it. I can only start where we are now and go forward showing him I’ve grown, I’ve learned, and I’m back for good this time.

These naps and snuggles are some of my favorite moments and fill me with hope for where we’re heading. No matter what kind of relationship it is, love isn’t enough to sustain it, but love can sometimes hold you together while you work out the rest.

Letter from the Bottom

This morning I was looking through old drafts; I have nearly 100 starts I’ve never finished and I’ve been going through each one to either publish or delete. I was surprised when I ran into this poem I wrote in 2018.  It was completely finished but never shared and I’d so completely forgotten it that I really felt like I was opening a letter from an old friend, which, in a way, I guess I was.

I may have cried a little. I spent a good, long while at the bottom, but I’m not there anymore, and reading this poem was a lovely reminder of just how far I’ve come. 

Here I sit.

I’ve asked why,

why me, and

why them.

I’ve tried to climb out

only to slide back down even as I claw at sides too steep

for tired fingers.

I’ve been angry to be here

and sad.

I’ve been desperate to leave

and keenly felt the expectation

that it’s past time to get up and dust off and move on.

I’ve scratched tally marks into my soul–

noting each day as it passes,

the way the moon and stars change position

but I can’t.

And then, just yesterday,

laying on my back and looking up

from my lowest point,

I realized why I’m here

and all my efforts to leave have failed.

It’s not even a secret.

But it was still a revelation–

Rock bottom is where you rest.

where you catalogue injuries and sore spots

where you identify and cast off the heavy things

weighing you down.

where you gather energy and resources for the difficult climb ahead–

Rock bottom is not comfortable

because you aren’t meant to stay

but it is quiet,

and empty

but for your self,

the broken dreams that dropped you there,

and everything you need to leave . . .

when you’re ready.

An Armful–The Contents of the Closet

Written December 29th . . .

“I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.” -Edgar Allan Poe

If you’re wondering where we’re going, no words of my own could say it more accurately and succinctly than Edgar Allan Poe already did. Grief is strange and we do strange things when we’re in it’s grip. For instance, right now I’m sitting on the floor in front of the closet (not inside because I discovered mouse poop once I started pulling things out so a thorough bleaching is going to be necessary before I do any sitting in there) and I’m holding a literal armful of horse hair.

Let me write that again. I am holding a LITERAL ARMFUL of HORSE HAIR.

But before I get in to that, let me lay out a few of the things I did to prepare for this moment. Again, it all seems a little insane when type it out, but all I can tell you is that I promised myself I would listen to my intuition as I went through this process. This is what I felt like I needed to do and for the first time in years, instead of doubting or questioning, I just did it.

  1. I brought coffee and water-coffee is soothing for me, especially in the morning and water for hydration because I figured I’d be doing a lot of crying (I was not wrong.)
  2. I put on my husband’s shirt–it feels strangely like armor. He couldn’t come with me for this, I needed to do it alone, but his shirt is a comfort.
  3. I brought a clean notebook and pen to jot thoughts for more in-depth writing later.
  4. And finally, I brought a pair of shoes, not to wear, just to remind me that if it gets to be too much, I can and should get up and walk away for a bit.

There are so many reasons I’ve put this off and I’d planned to come down here this morning and start small, approach the half-asleep beast of my grief nice and easy . . . but instead, I opened the door and looked at all this horse hair and there he was in my mind, thrashing out his last moments, eyes rolling, and obviously in great pain. It’s my worst memory. I have avoided it so consistently and successfully since it happened because I knew just how awful it would be to go back in my mind.

I loved him so much. I’ll never be able to write how much I loved him. And all of our life together he gave me absolutely everything a horse can give.

Yet the one thing I wanted to give him so badly in the end–a quick and painless death, I couldn’t. And it guts me still.

Instead, I watched and spoke soothingly in his ear the same way I did when a train passed too close or that pack of four rottweilers ran up on us, or when bicyclists went by “Easy, easy boy, easy.” and I didn’t cry because I didn’t want my sobbing to be the last he heard of my voice. When he was gone, I stayed with him until his body started to feel cool under my cheek. And then, I apparently cut off almost all of his tail hair like a complete lunatic.

It was the same with the tufts of Why?lee’s undercoat I kept, which are also now in my lap. I can’t think of a single, normal reason to have kept all this, but I remember the horrible feeling as I watched him breathe his last three breaths. I counted them while they euthanized him. Three breaths and he was gone.

Sitting here now, with all of it in my hands, I first thought, Why did I do this? What was my plan? But I know I had no plan. There was no thought to the future at all, just an overwhelming desperation to keep them with me: any way I could.

And one thing that has become clear this morning, is that keeping this hair has done nothing at all to make me feel closer to my lost loves. It’s all become an ugly weight in the center of my home–representative only of the guilt, pain, and fear I felt in their last moments.

Written January 13th . . .

As often as I can, I get up very early and spend time just letting myself remember, letting myself cry, writing my thoughts, etc, and I’ve come to a few conclusions over the past two weeks:

  1. The initial pain was possibly even worse than I imagined it would be, but even that first day, after I pulled myself up off the floor and had a long, hot shower, the relief I felt at having finally opened that closet and acknowledged its contents was undeniable and immense.
  2. I can now say with confidence that I do not want to keep these mementos of their deaths–neither the armful of hair/fur nor the plaster paw print of Why?lee’s I got just after he passed. But I can’t throw them in the garbage either. They need to be laid to rest properly, I’m just not sure what that means yet.
  3. I frequently feel crazy as I move through these intense thoughts, memories, and feelings. Yet, every time I allow myself to do what I feel like I need to do, the relief is instant. My body and my heart know just what they need, it’s my mind that resists and denies.
  4. The longer I hold on to what was, the longer I go without opening my heart to what is and there’s so much here before me to fall in love with.

Written this afternoon . . .

SoCo and I took all the fur and hair and the plaster paw print to the woods this afternoon. It was very cold and snowy and I like to think that maybe a bunny or a bird will find the dog fur and tail hair useful for a cozy nest. I thought it would be incredibly hard to let it go and walk away but when we found just the right spot, I didn’t hesitate. Turns out, before I rode into the woods today, I’d already let it go and walked away–the power these things have held for the past, nearly four years is just . . . gone.

And now, well, I don’t know what now, but I’m ready to find out. : )

The Untended

I’ve been quiet,
but not still–
Wandering the untended places
inside
where grief has taken over the garden.

I arrived with a plan–
to tear it all out
brambles of fear
choking the life out of the lilies
shred it all
and till it down, down, down
where I’ll never have to look at it again.

And plant new lilies
new vegetables
new everything.

Only
I am not new.

And my plan fell apart
another failure
another noxious weed
to add to the growing tangle.

But today
I put my shears in my pocket
before setting off
to my ugly, ruined garden.

I am not new.

This place can not be destroyed
what is buried in good soil
will only and always come up again.

And this is good soil.

But I can tend it.
I can cut back the brambles
to get to the lilies
still trying underneath.

I can pull grief out of the garden
and take it back to it’s place.

It has a place.

They all have a place.

And even where the brambles are thickest
the darkest places
with my shears in my pocket
I can always get through
tend the path
through the wild places
to the garden
and home again.