Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Carl Sandburg, Under the Harvest Moon
I sit alone on my balcony, underneath this year’s Harvest Moon, which has risen in mid-September to a golden globe of soft light. A streetlamp in front of me competes with the moon’s glow. The sounds of the busy highway ricochet off the cluster of these apartment buildings and the concrete parking lot below. A skunk has left its scent on one of the wooded trails nearest me. I have chosen to ponder my existence here this evening.
I am caught up in my loneliness and my grief only in moments like these when I take inventory of what a woman my age should have accomplished at this point in her life, according to societal standards. In truth I have made my choices. I have repeated mantras of my own belittling words that have kept me small and stuck to imagined obligations of what an English teacher, a good daughter, a bossy big sister, an eccentric aunt, and unmarried woman should act and look like. I should not forget that I also have struck out on my own. I have done my best to blaze my own trail, camping out at this stage in my life in an apartment complex tucked into a hillside of the surrounding landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am working on letting my old thoughts and words die. They have acted like a broken record inside of my brain for too long.
I moved from the Midwest this past summer, uprooting myself from everything and everyone I’ve ever known, and resettled in the green basin of Western North Carolina surrounded by her ancient mountains.
The oppressive heat and humidity of Illinois did not drive me away. Nor did I move because I resigned from my high school English teaching job of 16 years. Nor did I move because I sold my large three-bedroom, two bath, all brick home in an affluent neighborhood. The only explanation for my exodus is that I was called by some ephemeral dream that hovered in my consciousness right before the dawn.
In this dream there is an old woman with long white hair. She is resting on a four-poster bed covered in white linens. White flower petals surround her. The bed is in the middle of a clover field. Tall, leafy trees, luminous moss, and a mix of slick and feathery ferns surround the field. She both intrigues and frightens me. What does she want? Why is she beckoning? I sense there is something inside of me struggling to break free and she has the key. I step forward and she disappears. She is now deep in a cave and then in a dark hollowed out grotto of a rotting tree. I must walk through darkness to get to her. I have no source of light, yet I instinctively know light will be provided if I just take that first step towards her. I hesitate. She is both death and life to me, and I’m not sure I fully want either.
Maybe I am simply having a midlife crisis and my decision to move is just that: a random decision to try something new. To get out of my rut and to take myself off the bell-to-bell schedule. To leave behind my need to use the restroom in the five minutes between my next class. To walk away from a crowded hallway of teenagers who text or listen to their music on cell phones, staying connected to their social media and disconnected from their social graces.
I am 41 and my body is starting to show signs of, “The Change.” My skin sometimes flakes off like powder when I take off my jacket or brush up against the curtains I open in the morning. My dark brown hair is manufactured out of a bottle and painted on by my beautician every six weeks. She covers the silvery cascades of age, a sign I am marching closer towards death. I found two pencil dots of dark pigmentation on my left cheek the other day. My mother calls them, age spots and I’ve also heard them referred to as liver spots. In any case, they will not leave the spot they have marked and appear as speckled paint on a drying canvas.
Acne pops up on my face. My joints ache more than usual. My connective tissue crackles and crunches in the mornings and whenever I bend down to pick something off the floor. I feel dizzy when I stand up sometimes. My thoughts haze over like the mists on these mountains, lifting only when I have poured myself a cup of coffee or have awakened from a short nap. I have had night sweats on occasion and had to peel myself out of my clothes and then out of the bed just to dry off before falling back asleep.
All of these aging symptoms are alarming when they happen, but they creep up on me ever so slowly. I do my best not to become so wrapped up in the decimation of my body by hormones. I’ve been through physical change before: all of those years as a pre-pubescent girl who became devastated and confused at those intervals she began to ripen into a young woman. Here it is in a reverse order. Maybe the inner, intricate, microscopic material that is at work in my own decomposition is also the prompting for me to make this drastic change and turn my life upside down and move away from all and everyone I’ve ever known. “Go now while you still have a chance! Run! Flee! Be free!” my body screams to me. So, I turned in my letter of resignation, sold my house and as many belongings as I could, and headed towards these mountains. Mystery beckoned me at a biological level.
I stayed in one place far too long. I fell into a trap by never allowing myself to be free from the archetype of an old school marm with wrinkles around her eyes, hair wrapped tightly in a bun, and a shirt buttoned up past her clavicles. My paycheck did not include the expected overtime of grading papers on Sunday evenings or chaperoning a school dance. My mind did not permit me to think of a life outside of the school system. I continually repeated high school over and over again for sixteen straight years. The only difference was that my students stayed the same age and I kept getting older. I have no husband. No boyfriend. No partner to lean on and share my frustrations and joys with. No child in whom I can see my younger self reflected. My biological clock is ticking so quickly that I feel it may stroke out over a loss at coupling and reproducing. I married myself to my teaching job instead. I stayed up late at night worrying about someone else’s son or daughter and I never got busy making one of my own.
With that recognition, my body tightened and encased itself in bitterness and regret. My eyes looked out the windows of a beautiful day while I chained myself to a school desk. Had I always repeated myself to young ears that were tired of hearing me talk? Some vital part of me was dying and I was permitting it. I did not feed my desires. I did not listen to the call of my body. I denied myself most sexual pleasures and sensual delights. I kept putting others’ needs first in hopes that as soon as I made them happy I could then go out into the world and make myself happy. I listened to my 16 year old student tell me about her fears of wanting to have sex with her boyfriend, afraid to ask her mother to make her a doctor’s appointment, or to go to Planned Parenthood to get on the pill. I watched as teenagers in love would pet each other, lean into one another, and linger too long in the hallway as they watched their beloved walk into his or her next class. I envied their freedom to express their desires so visibly in front of others.
Here on my balcony or on a hiking trail along the Swannanoa River, I catch glimpses of that past life. I realize that all of my old selves, from childhood to yesterday, have died and been memorialized in capsules of images and emotions that float through me at random times.
I am haunted and revisited by those memories. And why shouldn’t I be? Memories are the hallmark of the tiny deaths we go through to stay alive and to transform into our wholeness. They act as threads on which we can pull in hopes of revealing more of our underlying story. Tug on them enough and they can tell the story of our lives. Stash them away and they lay dormant until they are ready to flood our brains or link up with our emotions and flow through our bodies. Some random melody in an elevator or scent on a hiking trail can float into our consciousness at any moment and trigger an image from childhood or a difficult relationship. They dislodge from some tucked away spot inside of us and awaken our inner world.
The other day, I received my temporary North Carolina driver’s license and purchased my out of state license plate. The slip of paper and the piece of metal are markers that I moved far away from the blue Midwestern sky. All of my previous memories are connected to the cornfields, pasturelands, and woodlands of my youth. I signed my name on the official form and I felt like I had given up a part of my identity. In my mind, I was still the gangly 16-year-old who became nervous making left-hand turns in her 1978 AMC Hornet her parents bought for $500.
In a Kundalini Yoga class at the local yoga studio, I rested in sivasana, corpse pose. As the music drifted from the speakers and the teacher’s voice faded away, I felt a wave of light move over my eyes. In a flash I was a 10-year-old girl standing outside of the car at the small town airport where my father worked. The sun was shining brightly on my face and I saw the silhouette of my father as he walked into the office to pick up his paycheck. Clover and dandelions dotted the grassy spot that ran alongside the concrete runway and chain link fence. When I sat up for meditation, two tears slid down my cheeks and I tasted their saltiness as they seeped into my parted lips.
These memories of mine dance in between my waking hours and mundane activities. I see an old flame’s face pop up on my social media feed and I can still feel his tender yet passionate kiss. He pressed his lips so tightly on mine that the only way to breathe was to fall into him instead of pulling away. At a job interview I am asked to give a scenario where I handled conflict between an administrator, colleague, or a coworker. All of my anger rises to my throat and heats my ears when I think of the assistant principal who broke union rules and insulted me in front of others. I put a spin on the story. I decide to keep it general. I leave out all the nuances and details. My teaching career has been over a little less than three months. I have not processed the grief from that memory, and many others from that time period. It is too fresh. Too raw. I cannot handle its wildness, so I tread the surface and stuff it down inside of me and cross my fingers that I get called back for a final interview.
On another day, I walk my dog on the Mountain to Sea Trail and inhale the sweet scent of the decomposing leaves. I stop to rub the tips of my fingers along the soft pelted fur of gathering moss. Instantly, I am standing at the edge of my childhood woods. My cloth tennis shoes crunch along the gravel road behind my house. They hit damp, dark soil as I enter into the embrace of the oaks, maples, hickories, and thicket. The tall, wispy grass growing alongside native plants on this morning’s trail transforms into the grass of my childhood. I can almost feel the soft, cool grass that lived under the maple tree in the front yard of my childhood home. Grass that lived in the shade and dappled sunlight of summer, not too different from what I see before me. Grass that made friends with the roly-poly bugs and large ants that crawled over and under it. Grass that came right up to the edge of the peeling and chipping blue paint that covered the concrete front porch of 1011 South Pembroke Street. That grass. Those bugs. That tree. All dead now, but alive with me in this moment.
Tonight, on my balcony, all of these realities become blurry as I encounter my former selves through sporadic images. Snapshots only made possible by those moment-to-moment deaths that propel me into new skin, new bones, new growth. I see my six-year-old self squint when her father takes a picture her in fresh Easter whites and a big straw hat. The maple tree’s shade is of no use to her early that morning as the sun sprays into her eyes. The maple tree does not judge her when she wears her Wonder Woman Underoos to splash in the kiddie pool and her cousins mock her when the soaked costume underwear reveals her tiny behind. I realize I am not as much haunted by my memories as much as I am comforted by them even when they carry a twinge of bittersweet melancholy.
And whatever became of the old woman in my dreams? She is still there, but now she dons a brown cloak and carries a walking stick. I have no idea how I have reached her. Maybe I have found her on one of the hiking trails along these mountains. I must have followed her through the dark cave or stuck my head into the hollowed out trees in search of her. In either case, she is not as fearsome as I once believed. Her toothless smile morphs into a crescendo of sweet laughter. I have been a silly child for I can see she is a benevolent trickster. She stands by the creek’s edge and pulls out a black sack. I am standing beside her now, no longer afraid. She opens the sack and pours its contents into the running stream. Out pours golden coins. I start to cry. She points at them as they pile up on the rounded stones in the creek bed. A few get loose and roll into the stream and sink to the bottom. Still, golden coins keep pouring out. There seems to be no end to them. I look at her and she gently laughs in a nurturing, knowing way. She nods at the coins with her big crooked nose and turns and shines her twinkling eyes in my direction. “Mirth,” she cackles. I look at the stream and I see that the coins are a mixture of my tears. My memories. My life. A new way of being.