I dream of four Pileated Woodpeckers.
Leading up to the dream, I have seen a few Pileated Woodpeckers in the past weeks. One crossed the road where I’d stopped up on the Eastern Continental Divide on my way to study at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina in early April. That was two days before I got really sick and had to leave the class I was enrolled in, to sweat it out in my friend Katey’s Airstream trailer where I was staying in the South Toe River Valley. When I was well enough to travel, I flew home. Since then, I’ve been here, doing my best with meds and rest and tea.
But the woodpeckers.
Pileated Woodpeckers are shy creatures, often seen at the edges of wooded areas, banging away on a dead trunk. You can see the open spaces they create, called “boxes” in dead trees when you look up while walking in the woods. The boxes are about 2 inches wide by 5 inches high. The birds are very methodical in their approach to finding the grubs that they eat.
When I see them repeatedly, my attention grows keen. But when I dream about them, a parent with three babies, all the bright red heads bobbing out of a hole in a tree, I get out a book to see what the heck this means. In Animal Speak by Ted Andrews, he writes that woodpeckers denote magic and rhythm. Others say that Pileated Woodpeckers signal the coming of big changes. In Maude White’s gorgeous book, Brave Birds, she writes,
“The pileated woodpecker knows the value and importance of perseverance. She hammers her holes with patience and determination. There is a lesson to be learned from her careful and dedicated attention. Repetition and rhythm offer us ways to anchor ourselves in the present.”
Alongside seeing the Pileated or hearing it in the early hours outside our bedroom window, where the sound of its call mixes with my morning prayers, I have nursed my bronchitis. It is a quality of my personality, for reasons any therapist could discern, to take every illness as a portent, something that bears meaning. I rarely get sick, but when I do, welcome to a whopperdoozie. I rarely get colds. In Armenia, I may have a day or two of digestive upset due to food changes. But generally, I am a healthy human. So, I take illness as a signal of something. All those hours in bed my suitcase of dark thoughts opens. I think through everything I have to let slide, the class I am not taking, the work that remains undone, the due dates for submissions that roll by with my writing unrevised, stories in rough states. I think about my website in an irreparable condition, needing big decisions to be made about how to proceed. Oh, I get f***ing maudlin.
The woodpecker comforts me.
It hammers away at a White Pine in the next yard early in the morning. I hear more than one out there but cannot see them in the dim morning gray.
Monarchs also comfort me though they are not to be seen in the Northeast yet.
But I think of the imaginal cells, the soupy state that is the in-between stage when the caterpillar is inside the cocoon, the pupa stage, when its cells turn to slurry. There is a daunting biological process that goes on within the walls of the cocoon. The new cells, the imaginal cells, are seen as enemies by the disintegrating caterpillar cells and they are attacked and die. But the imaginal cells continue to reproduce until there are more of them than the caterpillar cells. Within the cocoon, the imaginal cells begin to group together, eventually forming the structures that form the monarch.
A monarch is not a monarch until it has gone through that pupa stage, the goo state.
Don’t I know it.
I feel that I have been in a goo state for all of April. I put myself in a place to learn something new, to advance my teaching skills by learning from a master teacher at Penland. Instead, I inhabited this dark time of illness, alone in bed coughing, pondering, letting old unresolved stories from my life bubble up. The new cells of me, the imaginal, encountered these old stories and warred out the hours, vying for my attention, debating over which will be carried forward, to be consumed as food for the new. My old self sees the new as not yet arrived, and so very frightening. My old self sees those old stories as things which must not emerge. But my new self, those imaginal cells that rise forth from a dark time, see bright ways of being.
I am not yet to the bright new ways of being though.
Everything feels in a shamble at my feet. But I have enough faith, thanks to my daily creative practice, (go woodpeckers) to know that there is in fact something new gathering presence within me. This website is going to undergo a bigger overhaul than I had originally intended or budgeted. You are going to be able to sign up for workshops and purchase journals and writing prompts from a webpage different from this website soon.
But what will remain constant is my dedication to Daily Creative Practice. It is at the core of everything I do, write, make, and teach. It is the way through, the thread I follow, the imaginal cells of presence that call me forward through a dark time towards something I cannot yet describe or know.
Pileated Woodpeckers are big, rather awkward birds.
Their distinctive red heads and repetitive calls mark them visible within the piney woods. If you are lucky enough to be near them, you see their loopy path of flight, flying up then coasting down in a pattern I see in embroidery stitches better than words.
Monarchs on the other hand, are all grace.
Two summers ago, my niece Ella brought a net cage of monarch chrysalis to our vacation cabin. Over the week, we studied the green cocoons, seeing at first a soupy mixture encased within. But soon we could see stripes forming, and finally, in miraculous order and at a delicate slow pace, the threadlike feet of the monarch emerge and the butterfly exits the cocoon. We watched it dry its wings off in the fresh air. Then, as it began its first ever flight on wings that were only those imaginal cells one week ago, we watched it lift off to the oak branches above our heads. After circling over our heads, over the cocoon from which it had grown, the new monarch flew away in to its new life.
I know so much is possible for me. And for you too.
I know things take time. I know that perseverance is key. I spent the winter months working on my manuscript for what I hope will be a book within the next year. I know the value of going through dramatic change. And I also know the discomfort of old stories struggling to maintain their grip on my heart. And the new vitality that beckons me forward.
Come explore Daily Creative Practice with me this summer. I am offering Backyard Art Camp in the Berkshires and a mixed media and writing workshop at IWWG.
In July, I am teaching a 6-session mixed media and writing class for the International Women’s Writing Guild at Muhlenberg College. Go here for details.
And in August, Backyard Art Camp runs for four full days of open-air art making in a sacred circle in my Berkshire backyard. Think book arts, singing, and s’mores. Enrollment is filling up for this offering, so if you are game, please take action soon. Go here for details.
May this spring day find you with light on your wings, somehow, knowing that the next steps will be revealed, one at a time.
Until I see you, I will be coughing in to my elbow.
All my germfree love,
YouTube video of Pileated Woodpecker by Martyn Stewart