Riding Through Woods on a Snowy Evening

There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.                        -Kathleen Norris

 My grandpa bought the 160 acres behind my parents’ farmhouse so that when he came in the November he could hunt turkeys and shoot trophy bucks. But most of the year the land sits quiet under snow drifts. Subdued and still.

Much of it consists of thin woods, slender sprouts and silver-barked birch trees. Narrow deer trails wind like tunnels into the brush off the main trails that were cut and carved out years before I walked them, dark round droppings spilled like berries into the dips and tracks left by delicate hooves.

Gray, gritty brush surrounding the miles of open meadow that spreads itself below the crest of the tree line, opening itself so wide you have to turn your head both ways to take in it all. Rolling in a waving sea of gray-brown prairie grass poking like stubble through the white, the shallow frozen creek cutting through the bottom of the open field, a grove of pines blocking the northwest wind that burrows under coats and into your skin, sharpens the inside of your nose.

It’s a threatening beauty that impresses through intimidation. The starkness of it is enough to knock you back, its sheer endlessness enough to shrink you into humble awe.

I’ve always considered the land best witnessed on horseback, the smell of leather and animal sweat and alfalfa under your seat. I’ve been riding the same horse since I was nine, and when I was home in January, after months of being away at school, I heaved the worn saddle onto his warm black body, thick with staticy fuzz he’d been growing all winter. He is stomping the frozen, hollow-sounding ground and bobbing his high head, eager to be out, to have a purpose again.

When we are on the end of the trail and the meadow is framed between the two oaks that mark its beginning, my right hand is holding the reins under the curl of my fingers, the other is on the horse’s taught neck, his ears spring-coiled forward, twitching at every rustle of wood, every bird and gust of wind. Paused, but charged with the air that tastes deeper and fuller in the bottom of my chest. He can taste it too, and when I lean into him, my hand giving him the full length of his head, he bolts forward in voiceless, touchless obedience, pure willingness; the power in his legs pounding with a terrifying force, striding longer and faster until tears whip the outside corners of my eyes.

I don’t bother faking control, the thought of such only makes me want to cling on for dear life, knowing an animal this wild can’t be held back any more than the wind or the movement in the trees. So I move my body with his, raw energy pulsing into me until control’s no longer the point. We are the ground and we are the air and we are the gruesome aliveness that just simply is. And while the familiar, hear-racing fear spills into me and grips like the abruptness of stepping into January air, it is this that reminds me of how shockingly good and costly it is to feel.

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Sitting in It

Darkness itself isn’t daunting. Rather, people fear what they don’t know, what they can’t see. We’re afraid of what lies outside of our control. We’re afraid of how the darkness disarms us.

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Twin Cities author, Addie Zierman speak a bit about her new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in Darkness, and I left truly thinking about darkness in ways I’ve never had before. The way Addie puts it, we are so afraid of being apart from light, apart from sight and goodness and everything else light typically stands for, that we too often create our own artificial ways to eliminate the darkness around and in us. And at the end of it all, our artificial light is just distraction from what we don’t want to face.

If you look at the physical make-up of the world for five minutes you realize that darkness is a crucial element. It passes but it never really ends. The night gives way to daylight and the winter will eventually melt into summer, and though there is a season for everything, nobody claims that seasons are a one-time thing. They always cycle back. And just as cities full of blinding artificial light pollute the air, so do our attempts to block out the night pollute our ability to truly see and understand.

In the months after my cousin’s suicide, part of me is tempted to ignore, well, everything. It’s easier to ignore the poetry on my shelf and watch Netflix, it’s easier to avoid friends and people and bury myself in school work, it’s easier to surround yourself with whatever dulls the feeling, distracts, keeps your thoughts from where you don’t want them to go.

But even though it can feel easier, it’s the last thing we really want. Though paradoxical, I think we ache for the reality of what makes us ache. We crave vulnerability and authenticity and lives capable of genuine thought and feeling. We want stories of depth–even if the depths are the deepest and darkest places we can go.

Last week in my poetry class, the professor assigned each of us terms that we were to define and present on in front of the class. Now, I’ve had two years worth of poetry classes and feel fairly knowledgeable in that kind of thing. But while everyone else gets terms like metaphor and personification, I get a John Keats concept I’ve hardly ever heard of before. Great.

And when I come to the professor’s office for help, she looks at me and says that’s right, I gave you a hard one because I thought you’d be able to handle it. 

The term Negative Capability in poetry is described as the ability to stay in a point of suspension without reaching after logic or reason. It’s being in a place of discomfort or confusion or even a place that makes no rational sense, but not avoiding or fleeing that state.

And now that I’ve looked into the concept, I can’t stop thinking about it in my writing or in my life. Where I am in my life is a place that I don’t necessarily have answers or explanation for. I’m in an extended place of doubt and difficulty. I’m in a place that not many can reach me in. But I know that the best thing I can do for myself is to just sit in it.

I will stay in the darkness because I am called to be in the depths. I can be suspended in darkness because it is shaping me to not rely on the perception of control that fails me. I’m staying in with the grief and the tears and the counseling and the poetry because I don’t want want to fear feeling–whether it be joy or pain.

I’m sitting in it because it’s the only way to fully experience the light.