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.

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.

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.

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.

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.