Take a piece of paper. A pen. And draw your life. In most instances we draw a line, slicing the paper into a linear horizon, a thrust of causality, segmented by birthdays, achievements, graduations, marriages, illnesses. There’s a lot of talk about how in Western culture, we’ve discarded the rites of initiation that provide true transformation, instead enshrining capitalism’s weak substitutions like the buying of a car or a house. But our desire for real initiations still often depends on a clear demarcation of before and after. A syntactical structure where one word leads naturally to next, punctuation cleaves breath pinned to paper, leaving accumulated meaning in its wake.
My life is not straight and it does not make sense read left to right. It is reticulated, queered by encounters and events that I could not plan for or understand with any human frame of reference. I like to think of my life as a territory that is being continually redrawn - where one event, no matter its location on a linear timeline, pulls all the other events into different topographical formations and physical elevations.
Let me ask you again to draw your life but now with a slight shift in perspective. Do not draw a line. Draw a map of the encounters you have had with animals, insects, birds, weather systems, microbes that have metamorphically rearranged your matter. Draw a constellation of these encounters. What shape does your life take on when it is no longer articulated by the grammar of human progress?
I am not built by birthdays or promotions. I am made by moments of inter-species impact.
At sixteen years old, waiting for the bus in the winter dawn, feeling each breath dense and vibratory with an incoming blizzard. That pregnant feeling was not just the product of the storm. It had been building for months like a migraine’s pressure on your optic nerve. It had been curving photon’s paths into my eyes, flashing phosphines in the corner of my eyes.
When someone – some elemental or animal being – wants to meet us, they put a hoof, a paw, a claw into the territory of our lives and push down, generating a sink in the landscape so that we cannot escape the gravitational pull of inevitable contact. Everything rolls downhill.
The mountain lion had been rearranging my territory for months. There was no way I was going to miss my appointment.
Early in those morning hours, I looked up the pine-tree lined mountain road. Everything was aluminum-bright, polished and blanched of color by the snow-heavy sky. But slinking towards me was the one deviation in color: something blonde and muscled as starlight.
The mountain lion was long and low to the ground. Its tail seemed like an umbilical cord, connecting it to the stone womb of the mountain from which it had just emerged. And it fixed me with its eyes, stitching me to the moment, shifting every moment that would come before and after.
The mountain lion’s gaze changed the altitude of my birth and the shoreline of my death. It shifted the magnetic poles on my life’s axis so that the violence that had happened in my childhood was no longer behind me, it was ahead of me, ready for me to re-enter its barren terrain and find a way to garden in rock clefts, tuck seeds into small patches of moss.
I had grown up with cats and I knew instinctually that to turn around and run was to invite a chase. Instead, I let the mountain lion’s eyes move through mine, through the back of my head, like threading a needle. And we were both embroidered as a single seam into those first snowflakes, the fraying moisture of the blizzard’s beginning. The lion stopped just six feet from me, watching.
Slowly, slowly, I backed up, keeping the thread between me and the big cat taut and alive all the way down to the driveway until, curving back behind trees, I sprinted to the front door of my parent’s home. I was citrus-stung with adrenaline. Bright and tangy with the infusion of the mountain lion’s otherness.
Since then, I have become more sensitive to the shifting topology of my life. I notice when the gradient shifts and my feet point downhill. Suddenly I’m snowballing towards some inevitable encounter. Everything in my life from flat tires to late appointments is conspiring to make sure I am perfectly on time for another moment of contact. Not on time for human events, but for those truly important convergences between species. You cannot plan for those events; you cannot go seeking them artificially. But you can also learn how not to fight uphill when you feel the gravitational pull of these approaching transformative encounters, when you feel the map of your life begin to rearrange itself.
For months before a pivotal rattlesnake encounter up on Overlook Mountain, my body registered an approach. At first, I thought it’s flavor was close to anxiety. A tachycardic hitch. A flip in my stomach sometimes when I went to enter the woods. I had a series of low stakes run-ins with small snakes. I was keyed to snakes. And when the grandmother of snakes arrived, I was prepared for my appointment. My vision had been properly adjusted to her coloring, her sibilant structure against bluestone.
My life is not a line. It is shifting topology of encounters. The map of my life is redrawn daily by microbes and day-lilies and corpulent clouds. Every being has been a geological shift in my landscape, carving different mountain ranges through what I had previously deemed important. A season of encounters with woodchucks eroded my idea of love, revealing a completely new topography. I am rendered malleable, livable, an ecology of shifting summits and fertile valleys, by the ways I make myself available to the irreversible impact of these encounters.
Let the shape of my life continue to constellate itself around these appointments that can only be approached sideways, slant-ways, with our eyes fixed elsewhere. Let me be late for human life and on time for the “out-of-time” others.
This Sunday I’ll be participating in the Rooted Global Village’s Exploring Ecological Entanglement Open House. You can sign up here.
My first novel The Madonna Secret arrive August 15th. You can read more about the book here and pre-order from any online bookseller.
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I am overwhelmed with gratitude by how many of you have showed up here (and throughout the past year across platforms). As someone struggling to balance chronic illness (and just how expensive it is to be sick in America) with writing, know that you are very practically keeping me alive, keeping me afloat. Thank you deeply. I love you all so much.
I had just gotten off zoom with a new writing coaching client, and we were discussing the through line of stories, the choice to tell stories out of linear time and chronology, the way the GREAT BIG MOMENTS are not more important than the small encounters. We discussed how the map of her story may belong on a gigantic sheet of paper with a spider web of connecting lines, wild coincidences, spontaneous serendipities. In her story it was horses instead of a mountain lion or snakes, but to read this immediately after our call felt like a confirmation of the path. Thank you, for you.
I love this! I have been thinking of my internal landscape as a terrain - ideas and stories and experiences to visit and travel to for a bit, and my timeline as populated with different species and beings and materials. Really appreciate the shifting dynamism you call out here - the magnetic rearranging these encounters draw out. We just moved to Colorado during a massive miller moth migration and have been shepherding dozens out of the house into the morning daily.