Three Rhinos: Spirit Animals and Personal Power

The second rhinoceros appeared on the projection screen and the entire class collectively held their breath. Eyes shut tight, it knelt in the grass as several disembodied hands reached down to rest on its face, bright woven bangles shocking against gray flesh. I put down my coffee, afraid I would choke if I started to weep.

“A remarkable photograph, eh?” Our instructor paused at the slide, noticing our intense reaction to this particular image. When class meets at 9AM on a Friday, an intense reaction is a rare thing. We were assured the rhino was all right, rescued after a run-in with poachers–a lucky rhino in what was usually a tragic situation. The next slide brought us back to the usual street scenes and portraits. But after a half-dozen more had passed another rhino invaded the frame, this time eye-to-eye with Salvador Dali. Now I knew that something was up.

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Dali with Rhinoceros, Halsman 1956

 

Before the lecture was over, I had seen at least four rhinoceroses in various forms–sculptures, drawings, actual animals. While some could say that my instructor clearly had rhino on the mind while putting slides together, that didn’t change the fact that the rhino is my spirit animal and I was supposed to be hearing something.

Animal totems have a fairly wide appeal, regardless of spiritual beliefs or backgrounds–they can be a tool to embody strength, action, wisdom, or joy, or a reminder to listen to your higher powers. Almost everyone I’ve known can say that they have a personal connection to some animal symbol, in some way. But it’s often far more complex than simply a favourite animal or beloved pet speaking from your memories. I was a teenager when a friend and I laid down on the thin boucle carpet in a minuscule shop near my town, breathing deeply of the fragrant smoke wafting through the room as we prepared to journey into Spirit. We were both open-minded, having grown up in rather untraditional faiths, but we remained skeptical of what would come next: we were going to meet our spirit animals on their own turf. The circle leader beat a steady rhythm on his drum, focussing our attention on the hypnotic beat as he set us off. At first, it was all me–I was in complete control as I pictured myself in the peaceful stream I had waded through that spring, remembering the gentle trickling of the water over rocks and the cool rush against my skin. I pushed aside stones in the banks to find the opening that would lead me into Spirit, and I crawled through, following the dark path downwards. At this rate, my spirit animal was going to be a lizard, or a crow, or any other number of animals I felt “suited” me because I was dictating what happened. A fox appeared in the dark stone cavern before me.

And then something curious happened: I asked whether it was my spirit animal, and it met my eye, shook its small orange head, and said, “No.” I was a little startled. I hadn’t anticipated meeting animals that weren’t my spirit animal at all. A lizard scuttled across the wall of the cavern, hesitating as he saw me. “Are you my spirit animal?” –and with another quick no, he disappeared from sight. Slivers of light caught the iridescence of feathers as a peacock fanned and again I posed my question. “No,” he said, dropping his tail and retreating into darkness, leaving a single feather behind. I was getting confused and worried–what if I didn’t find my spirit animal during the journey? What if I didn’t even have a spirit animal? The vision had gotten away from me completely–things were happening entirely on their own. Several more animals came and went, some only laughing at my question, others sympathetically shaking their heads before leaving me alone again. Then, I came to another space, a room carved out of the rock separately from the cavern at large. Inside was a massive white rhinoceros, glowing softly in the darkness. His impossibly black eyes followed me as I crossed the threshold. “Are you my spirit animal?” I asked breathlessly, and received only a purposeful nod in return. I ran my hands over his massive head, feeling the rugged texture of his skin, the precious stone of his horn. I wove a crown of jane magnolias and dogwoods to place over his ears and danced around him like a maypole. Rhino never moved out of place, tacitly approving my actions with flicking ears and swishing tail.

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The drum beat changed, quickening ever-so-slightly, little by little. It was our call out. I wrapped my arms around Rhino’s massive head, resting my cheek against the cool length of his horn as we said our unspoken goodbyes and I thanked him for his guidance. I backed out of the chamber, through the cavern, ascended the passage, and then out of the stream. When I opened my eyes, I was in the smokey little shop, keenly aware of the hard floor below me and the growing tickle behind my throat. Through the years to follow, Rhino has been a consistent symbol in my life. He becomes a reminder of myself and a suggestion of power. He is often the “I can,” or the “I should” when I’m unsure or unwilling. I don’t always know what he’s telling me, but I know when he presents himself that I need to listen up. Lately, things have been in flux, rapidly changing as I discover new and interesting things about myself and the world around me–three rhinoceroses in one day can’t be a coincidence.

How Did I Get Here? How I moved to New York to follow my dreams

The other day, I woke up with David Byrne’s voice echoing through my head–“How did I get here?” As the sunlight streamed through my window much like the trickling synthesizer behind the questions posed, I realized that my life has changed beyond recognition in the proverbial blink of an eye. I got out of the bed I never thought I’d sleep in, fed the cat I never thought I’d adopt, walked the door I never thought would mark the boundaries of a space I never believed I’d inhabit. And like some fantastic notion of a life I’d always wanted but never thought possible, I head off each day to a school I’m proud to attend, and live in a neighborhood that swells my heart to call home.

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But for all its upbeat new wave sweetness, the song so resolutely planted in my mind is actually quite melancholy. I marvel at how quickly my life has transformed, but the song itself recalls more of the emotions that kept me in my previous place. Like the “water underground”, so deadly and destructive in its most overwhelming, awesome form, I know what held me back was fear. I was afraid that moving wasn’t practical, that I wasn’t good enough to get into school, that my family would resent me for wanting more than I had. I was afraid that if I took the necessary risks, I’d be left with nothing. Fear is paralyzing, and having a little–a mind-numbing job, a general education, a room in my family home–is better than having nothing at all.

I often looked at people my age, even younger, living in New York City and wondered what they were doing that I wasn’t. They sold coffee or clothing or answered phones or served food, they enrolled in prestigious programs or worked towards higher degrees, they dressed in stylish clothes and wore their hair however they pleased–why couldn’t I? I asked friends and acquaintances who lived in the city how they organized their moves, but their responses were overwhelmingly similar–“I didn’t.” It seemed as if everyone I knew acted on instinct, following their hearts and figuring out details later. But I was too afraid to follow suit, citing practicality as my excuse.

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And then some time in July of last year, everything changed. There was an itch under my skin that simply wouldn’t go away. No class I took, no work I did could banish the awful, creeping feeling that I was wasting my time. I felt like I was drowning in familiarity. So I did the only thing I could think of to push myself to the surface: I applied to new schools. Some were in places I’d never seen with my own eyes, others in places I’d visited and thought of fondly, but all schools I could envision as the start of a new life chapter. It wasn’t an instant fix–in fact, the fear got much, much worse before it began to fade. I can’t even tell you that it disappeared entirely–there are nights I come home and wonder how on earth I’ll be able to sustain this new life I’ve built for myself. The difference is, now I know it’s not impossible.

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Every day is an adventure, full of hope and love and dreams I didn’t even realize I had. I meet fascinating people and encounter puzzling sights. I’m presented with challenges that I’m happy to meet head-on and best of all, I get to be endlessly creative. I’m still adjusting to the freedom I’ve given myself, still learning how to stretch and grow and quiet the fear that keeps me from testing my boundaries. But every step is a step closer, and I’m excited to see where I go next.

If any of this sounds familiar, take the advice that I never accepted: go. Do. Become. Don’t mistake fear for practicality. Don’t listen to the trickle of doubt in the back of your mind–it can become a flood without warning and sweep you away. Don’t drown in your uncertainty. Things will come together when you stop holding yourself back.

Radical Self Love Salon, Plotting a Beautiful Revolution with Gala Darling

Buried under old clothing and long-forgotten textbooks, I recently found two stray pages from an old journal. It was my habit to “introduce” myself to each new notebook, explaining a little about who I was and why I chose to write there–there was a certain romance to journaling, as if each notebook was not only a time capsule, but a public one, unearthed decades or even centuries in the future and transporting someone else into my life. These two pages were my introduction. I wrote about how I was likely perceived by others, who I was from an entirely detached perspective. Not even half a page in, one thing became absolutely clear: the girl who wrote this journal did not love herself. She didn’t even like herself. There was nothing blatantly self-loathing written, no mention of body hatred or bullied shame, just the complete and total detachment of someone entirely uncomfortable in their own skin. “I am completely unremarkable,” 19-year-old Me wrote. “I have no delusions about my identity. There is nothing that makes me special.” I actually cried, not because of any memories stirred up or hurtful words written, but because I genuinely felt bad for the girl who penned these pages.

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Somehow, though, those had been feelings that persisted throughout my life. In fact, up until very recently, the idea that I could love myself was fairly repulsive to me. Why should I love myself? What have I done to deserve it? Maybe, if I accomplished this or finished that or adhered to this or became that, maybe I could love myself. But not now. I put all of my self-worth into my accomplishments, and the fact that I didn’t have a glittering professional resume or tales of globe-trotting adventures or my dream apartment in a breathtaking city meant that I hadn’t done anything to prove my value–not to society, and not to me. I was unremarkable, and worse yet, I was downright boring.

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I don’t know when it happened. I can’t tell you what day it was that the sparkling little feeling crept into chest. I’m not sure the exact moment it started dancing in the throat, tickling at my brain. I’m not sure when I started to have hope. But suddenly, after nearly thirty years, possibly a third of my life in the rear-view mirror, I started to matter to myself. Big time. It’s no longer about what I’ve done or haven’t done–there are other measures of a person, and I’m finally starting to register on my own radar.

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Yesterday, in a room filled with pink rose petals and bright July sunlight, I heard this sentiment echoed seven times over. It was fresh, exciting, magical–as so many other groups before us, we had gathered together to discuss a revolutionary concept, joining forces to break new ground. Unlike the salons of my childhood history books, however, we weren’t discussing the fate of the nation or the latest schools of contemporary art: we were discussing Radical Self Love. To the uninitiated, Radical Self Love is Gala Darling’s revolution–it’s about remembering who you are and falling in love with that person, over and over again. It’s about being your own greatest love. “Isn’t that just a serious case of narcism?” you may ask–the answer, truly, is no. As Our Lady RuPaul would say, “if you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” And sadly, too many of us trudge through our daily lives hating everything about them–our jobs, our families, our friends, our cities–when the source of all that unhappiness really is self-loathing.

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In a sunny white room nestled deep in New York City, the eight ladies of the first ever Radical Self Love Salon sat on mismatched pieces of furniture, pulling oracle cards and consulting each other’s opinions and experiences as we plumbed the depths of the fears that opposed us. We meditated and grounded our energies, imagined our best selves and showered our heads in magenta rose petals. And when we finally figured out just what stood in the way of being those magnificent creatures we had envisioned, we burned those hurtles to a crisp. We left that room as stronger people, women fully aware of our capacity to shine brightly. The world is our proverbial oyster, but we aren’t just specks of sand in a briny soup–we are all ready stunning pearls. Radical Self Love is knowing that. And while 19-Year-Old Me might have felt unremarkable and defeated, I know now that nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Universe Provides: Release your fear, and live your love

When I quit my corporate job to focus on building my portfolio, I never expected it to be easy. I knew it would involve cutting back, living leaner, indulging less. I’ve never been good at saying no–my parents raised me to be incredibly self-sufficient at getting what I want. If you have the money to spare, go ahead. Get it. Don’t wait for it to find its way into your life some other way, because it might slip away forever. This mantra was truly meant for can’t-live-without situations–the perfect party dress for an event that weekend, a necklace on clearance sale that sparks your inspiration, a gadget that will make your daily routine that much easier–and eventually, I took it too far. My room is a graveyard of cheap dresses worn once, shoes worn for a week straight and then lost to the void, hair products and makeup that didn’t quite perform as well as I’d been convinced they would. Working in cosmetics, there are many, many, many of these failed products cluttering up my surfaces. I will also admit that I am a first-class retail therapist. Depression, anxiety, and stress all manifest as new clothes, tubes of lipstick, and jewelry. I am not in debt, but I’m not saving either. And because I have nothing to fall back on, the cycle of anxiety, lipstick, and stress continues…

When I handed in my notice, I told myself the cycle would stop. I would be out of retail, I would want less because I wouldn’t be near it, and quite frankly I wouldn’t have the money for it. It felt exhilarating. The prospect that I would be free of the consumer cycle made me giddy. I should have anticipated the eventual depression that would lead me back to old habits. When my credit card bill came, I paid it in full, like always, but nearly emptied out my savings to do so. “Never again,” I told myself. …I’m sure you can tell where this story is going. This month, when I got the email that my statement was ready, I couldn’t even look. I didn’t have the money, and I didn’t know where it was coming from. I spent the better part of my month fretting over it, wondering what jobs I could pick up to cover it, who I could borrow from, what I could return… Then, something came over me. I was totally calm. Things would be okay. I had a few freelance jobs, I would be able to pay. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to pay in full like I normally do, but I would at least make the minimum payment and I’d be able to pay the rest when I had more. It would be okay.

And then, something truly magical happened. My tax return came. It covered the entire amount with some to spare. Some of you might read this and think, “wow, what a lucky coincidence,” but I suspect most of you will smile knowingly. I don’t believe in coincidence. Magic happens, and the universe provides. When you put out the right energies, the right energies can find their way back to you. Panic and anxiety are forms of negativity, and negativity is a plague that simply breeds and multiplies. It’s hard to banish fear. Even in our comfortable modern age, fear is pervasive. We may no longer be afraid of predators and illness quite the same way our ancestors were, but each primal fear we’ve chased away has been replaced be thirty first-world worries. I don’t check the skies for giant birds of prey when I leave my house: I worry about reckless drivers, lost phone signals, and anaphylaxis instead. Fear kept me locked in my dead-end, joyless job for too long. How would I get ahead if I didn’t have money? How would I provide myself with a future if I was penniless? I wouldn’t even be able to afford the film and paint I needed to work on my portfolio, let alone take care of myself and maintain a lifestyle I could be happy with. It turns out, none of those were things I should be worrying about. Fear would be my undoing when all was said and done.

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The minute you can push fear away is the minute you start living your life. The surge of energy you feel when you can say, “I am going to be okay,” and mean it is enough to power you through. Fear is an addiction, but positive energy is addicting too. Confidence is exhilarating, and once you’ve tasted it, you’ll never want to go back to that cold, dark place of fear. You are a creature of the universe, and the universe will take care of you if you allow it to. Breathe in–the universe has given you everything you need, you just need to take it. It provides you with oxygen, water, nourishment, but if you allow, it can also provide you with joy, hope, and love. Breathe out–release the fear and negativity that has been growing in your heart. You don’t need it. Do not mistake fear for ambition: fear can drive us to great heights, but we will never achieve happiness if we push ourselves out of fear. Once you replace that with love–love for yourself, love for the universe–you will realize you can do so much more.

When you need something in your life–really need it–the universe will put it there. Several weeks ago, I told someone I needed to read the Bhagavad-Gita in full. I had read parts of it in college, and I’ve always found myself fascinated with Vedic spiritualities, but I’ve never read the full text. It felt like something I needed to do for my spiritual growth. The other day, my sister came home with literature from a missionary she encountered at a festival. She donated what she could with no intention of reading the books he offered, but decided they looked like something I would read and passed them on. “It’s some sort of Indian bible,” she said, handing them off. There, in my hands, was a pocket-sized version of the Bhagavad-Gita. I put my intention out into the world, and the universe agreed by giving me the means to follow through. Coincidence? Maybe, but I prefer to see it as evidence that magic happens when you’re ready. Release your fear, and start living your love.

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Growth and Trust, Lessons from Al Fuentes

Sometimes, we end up at just the right place at just the right time. Such was the case last week, when I found myself in a room with thirty other individuals, trusting our breath and meditating on trees. How I arrived here isn’t important–it was simply the right combination of changed plans and obstacles that landed me the seat, and I knew as soon as the evening began that I was in the right place. “It’s like a group meditation,” my mother had said, as if trying to convince me to go, “and it could be good for you.” It’s no secret that times have been hard. Everyone has felt it, and the more sensitive you are, the harder it becomes. It showed on the faces of everyone in the room that night, a shadow under the eyes, a crease between the brow, a tension in the hands… yet by the end of the evening, they had all melted away, replaced with ease and empowerment.

Al Fuentes sat in front of the window, a travel-cup of tea at his side, looking every bit the part of the guru. But when he began to speak it became clear that he wasn’t some inaccessible spiritualist at all. In fact, he’s incredibly down-to-earth. Sure, he has stories about meeting enlightened masters in India, but he has equally engaging stories about having his iPhone stolen at the DMV. Anyone who compares one of the most profound human experiences to a cheese pizza has to have both feet planted firmly on the ground and at least one in the modern American world–surely, swamis don’t eat Dominos. To Al Fuentes, Enlightenment isn’t at the top of a mountain somewhere in the Himalayas, or at the end of a long and trying religious path. According to Al, the first step towards Enlightenment is simply taking a breath.

Take a breath. Go ahead, do it. Take a real breath, a conscious, considered breath in through your nose. Think about that breath and all it’s doing for you. Think about why you breathe. Feel the breath filling your lungs, feel the oxygen absorbing into your bloodstream, feel your cells receiving that nourishment. How did you know that breath would satisfy so much need? Trust. Every time you take a breath, you trust that you’ll be getting oxygen, and that your body will synthesize it. Every day, you could breathe over 28,000 times. In any given minute, you might breathe twenty times. That’s twenty demonstrations of perfect trust in the universe around you. Twenty times when you share control over your life with a totally unseen force–you might command the breath, but the universe ultimately decides how the action is fulfilled.

But breathing is a two-part action. You breathe in and demonstrate perfect trust, but you also breathe out. For each time you take in nourishment from the universe, you release as well. You cleanse your system of things you no longer need. You never hang on to the carbon dioxide that your body has produced–it’s a waste product and it would poison you. Almost reflexively, you purge it. There are so many things in our lives that poison our well-being, things we cling to out of habit or comfort. We don’t need them. Think about it: when you read that statement, your head turned over several things that you know you don’t need in your life. Clothing that no longer fits, tech gadgets that no longer serve your purpose, maybe even people that no longer uplift and support you. Letting go can be scary–what if you need those things later on? What if you feel lonely or empty once they no longer take up that space? In reality, you’re only holding your breath. Breathe out. Now breathe in again. The universe restores what you might have lost, and fills those empty spaces with things you truly need.

We share our breath with millions of others, every day–other people, other creatures, other things. We breathe the same oxygen as our partners, our friends, our family. Our exhalations provide an abundance of chemicals needed by flowers, grass, and trees. And in addition to trusting and letting go and sharing the cycle over and over again, we can learn from them. Al shared a story in which several people asked him what they were supposed to be doing with their lives. It’s a common theme–even when I read cards, people always want to know what their life’s purpose is. But this was a peculiar number of people in a peculiar period of time, and Al felt that there was something more at work. He posed the question to the universe and what he received in response–in true universal fashion–was so simple and elegant that it answers for absolutely everyone who has ever dared to ask. Like a tree, we are meant to grow up and out. We are meant to root, to attach firmly to the earth, and grow towards the heavens, spreading our branches to shelter loved ones and touch people around us, to bud and flower and achieve great things, to bathe in sunlight and cast off the leaves that no longer serve us and grow new ones all over again. We are meant to do all of these things, relative to our own stories. My achievements will not be yours, and the people you shelter will not be mine, but as long as we continue to grow towards the sun and spread our branches, that’s okay. We’re both accomplishing all that the universe wants from us. And as long as we continue to breathe–in and out, over and over–we’ll get there.

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You can see more of Al Fuentes’ work on his website, including his blog, testimonials from clients, and his work as a mental coach

Is this Madness? Noveling in July: Camp NaNoWriMo

Caffeine buzz like a fever, hands flying over the keyboard as if controlled by an outside force, you finally get rolling halfway through your second hour in the bookstore cafe. Your word count is finally piling up, after hours of watching it slowly tick up one word after another. Things are finally starting to click. This is the National Novel Writing Month flow, the anticipated fury of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Each November that I participate, I know it will be a headache-enducing, coffee-guzzling, free-falling dive into a brave new world of plot. Sometimes, I have a strict outline–I know how things begin, what needs to happen in the middle, and how everything will end. Other times, I have a handful of characters I want to write about and find that they grow and evolve and interact almost on their own, with very little direction from me personally. Each time is incredibly rewarding, and I come out feeling like I’ve learned something about myself as a writer and an artist that I might not have learned otherwise.

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Last November, I did not participate. I had a full-time job, a photo lab that kept me in the darkroom for an extra ten hours outside of class time, and was struggling with balancing my personal problems with my professional life–adding a 50,000 words on top of it all was simply a commitment I couldn’t make. Since then, life has calmed down. I still have classes that require a lot of my time, but I quit my job which freed up a massive chunk of my schedule. Summer is usually more laid back, my schedule not quite as full, and not nearly as many challenges to meet head-on. As someone who thrives on challenge, this isn’t always a wonderful thing–I love an assignment, something to creatively think around and find my way through. When I heard about Camp NaNoWriMo, I knew I had to sign up. It’s still 50,000 words in 30 days, but it’s in July.

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So what will I be writing about? I have no idea. But I’ve got six days to figure out my genre before Cabin Assignments are made–a cute little bit of camp kitsch to pair up with like-minded writers for inspiration and encouragement. With absolutely no ideas going in, is this madness? Not at all! Some of the most exciting writing experiences have started with nothing at all. At the end of the day, this is about having fun, stretching creative muscles, and applying yourself to something new and different. It’s an excuse to listen to some new (or old favourite) music, brew up your favourite refreshments, and fall in love with a fresh project.

Magic Monday: Everyday Symbolism — You’ve Got This

Normally, when a stranger on the streets of New York City approaches me, or asks me to do something, I ignore them. It’s an ingrained trait, handed down from one hardened city-dweller to another. But on Tuesday night, re-discovering one of my favourite neighborhoods through the fresh eyes of a friend, things felt different. Maybe it was the optimism of the still-glowing skies at nearly 9PM, or the electric haze of summer post-rain, but when a stranger in shining black shoes stepped out from under the awning to grab my attention, I gave it to him–“Look!”

There, arching a perfect 180 degrees over Tomkins Square Park, was a vibrant, neon rainbow. I gasped and thanked him for pointing it out to me, and while I initially rounded the corner towards our original destination I found myself drawn back to the edge of the sidewalk, angling my phone towards the sky to capture what I could only see as a brilliant sign from the universe: things are going to be all right.

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I choose to see things differently. I look carefully at my surroundings, I find messages and meaning everywhere. There is constant reassurance from the universe all around–even when you’ve made the wrong choice or need to rethink your plans, there are clues everywhere. Recently, I had a series of particularly rough days. I felt alone, exasperated, and just plain bad. Armed with my Nikon D-series, I lay in the dirt outside my classroom shooting some of the plants and odd fields of abandoned construction supplies. Back in the lab, I realized I hadn’t gotten all my exposures as I wanted them and headed back out to the exact spot I was crawling around for the last half our only to find a mammoth goose feather in nearly the exact spot I had been. There were no geese to be seen, and I had only been inside for about five minutes.

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My grandfather was a particularly insightful Pisces who knew What’s Up. About a year before he died, he told my mother that when he wanted to get in touch, his sign would be feathers. At his memorial service, we gave each person in attendance a peacock feather to remind them that while people we love might move on and change state, they are never gone. The next day, my cousin–who graciously opened her home to the service–called us, excited and just a little uneasy, because she found several bright, beautiful feathers laid out on her front porch. “I think Jack was saying thank you.” That mammoth goose feather brought me to a similar state of confused excitement, tearfully decoding the message as I dropped back into my place in the dirt–in this case, I think Jack was saying “you’ve got this–just hang in there.”

We all go through tough times. With Mars recently coming out of retrograde and Mercury slipping back in, things have been more than a little wonky lately. But don’t worry: you’ve got this–just hang in there. The signs are all around you.

Wood Nymphs and Centipede Kings, Exploring the Watchung Reservation

Sometimes, we all just need to breathe. Schedules get cramped; time slips past; places get too familiar. After more than a week inside, quarantined for a virus that drained me of absolutely everything, I was restless and distressed. All of my plans and ambitions had been sucked away, leaving me helpless and confused and sick both inside and out. As soon as my body was strong enough, I wanted to bolt. Armed with my Nikon and a kindred adventurous spirit, I marched out to blaze unfamiliar trails in the Watchung Reservation.

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I’ve never been “that girl,” with her eye glued to the viewfinder of a camera, stopping every other minute to compose a shot or snap a picture–until, that is, I fell in love with a 30-year-old Nikon. Now, it’s rare that the hulking metal contraption isn’t stowed away in my purse, wound and ready to expose a frame. It wasn’t until a week ago that I swapped it out for a newer piece of photo technology, since this semester brings digital challenges my way.

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After a week of painted walls and electric lighting, cough syrup and sugar-coated pain killers, being surrounded by lush green foliage and bright blue sky was a welcome change. Filling my lungs with fresh, fragrant air was better than any steroid or antibiotic imaginable. Though certain uphill hikes left me breathless and electrified, it was well worth the effort and endurance to sweat out whatever sickness lingered inside me. It was purifying.

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When you’re deep in the woods, surrounded by the smells of sweet green leaves and damp earth, listening to the music of running water and birds in flight, it’s easy to let go of daily human troubles. We walked together for over an hour into the woods, never once spotting another human being–we began to fashion ourselves as wood nymphs, water sprites, creatures all together different from the human beings we posed as day to day. We were present, connected to the chipmunks, rabbits, birds, and centipedes who crossed our path.

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I am so lucky to live so close to this remarkable patch of nature. In a world where urban sprawl is slowly closing in, where my day is dictated by traffic and transit times, where animals are so unafraid of roadways and travelers, it’s wonderful to have a place like this to get away to, whenever I want. Just a few feet down the path and that world melts away–gone are the highways and the schedules and perils of modern life. All that is left is the wild expanse of wood, green leaves, and water.

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Antimony Blue : creation, faith, and moving forward

I am firmly of the mindset that life is cyclical. Things begin and end and roll around again, always finding a way to complete and evolve. We have lessons to learn and roles to grow into, and nothing can be forced or rushed along, even though we might try. We try things on, we wear purposes and identities like hats and masks until we start to feel uncomfortable in them. There’s a beauty and a sadness in casting them off again, letting the cycle continue and allowing ourselves to get swept back in. It was a slow, creeping realization that one of my cycles had come to a close. It took a while for me to cast it off, because while it no longer brought me joy or contributed to my growth as a person, it paid my bills and gave me financial freedom. For nearly half a year, I spent my days in a fog–I showed up where I needed to be when I was told, I took appointments on time and did my best to assist clients, but my heart was no longer behind it. It was a shell I occupied, and I felt totally vacant inside it. It sounds dramatic, I know but there’s something terrifying about the robotized monotony of a passionless job. My mind needs room to expand, to create and meet challenges or it turns back on itself, becomes destructive.

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So I took a leap of faith. I decided to shed the old skin, to see what I would grow into. I quit my job. It was scary, but it felt like the right step. I started a business, which was also terrifying but has been incredibly rewarding. My creativity has soared. I’ve produced more work in the last two months than I have in the past year, and I’m incredibly proud of it. By cutting out the parts of my life that no longer served me, I’ve been able to explore the things I love and do something I’m passionate about. It might be a long time before I can pull in the amount of money I left behind, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years it’s that passion can get you farther than you’ve ever imagined.

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Antimony Blue was born out of one of these passions–scent is one of my favourite senses. It can make or break a mood, it’s inexorably tied to memory. When I get dressed for an event or plan what to wear on an evening out, I always select a particular fragrance to tie it together. In my mind, scents tell a story and a well-crafted perfume can wrap you up in its tale. When I created the first Antimony Blue fragrance, I wanted to tell a particular story, create a fairy tale that would add a little magic to someone’s day. Each fragrance is blended exhaustively, sniffing and mixing and pouring until I feel like it’s just right. And to make sure that magic stays with them, I took crystal chips from my personal collection and added them to each bottle, allowing them to steep in positive energy. I design each label using my own art, rounding out the vision I have for each scent to create a complete mood. When I’m playing olfactory composer, it transports me. It’s very zen. It’s a totally different artistic medium, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it with people who will appreciate the stories inside them.

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I’m not quite sure what my next step is, or what the future holds for me, but I’m excited to see where it takes me. I hope to grow Antimony Blue beyond a handmade indie fragrance company and build it into something that can grow and stretch with my passions and dreams. I’m so proud of the work that I’ve put into it and I’ve had such a good time putting it all together. I was born to do this!

An Ode to my Nikon FG

Sometimes, it feels like centuries since I was growing up–not so much in the passage of time, but in the way things were done. Waiting for a phone call meant circling the kitchen for hours on end, possibly toting the boxy cordless down the hall and back for as long as it didn’t ring. Recording a school show or family holiday required a giant contraption that only my father was equipped to handle, resulting in innumerable home movies that would make you seasick just to watch. Vacation photos needed to be taken to the local photo lab and picked up days later, shared with family at gatherings and holidays sometimes months after the actual trip had ended. We have boxes of seemingly ancient Kodak prints filed in flimsy plastic albums that came free at some of the nicer labs. Now,  I can instantly show the world which latte I ordered today or get instant feedback on which dress to buy. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think of how far we’ve progressed in just a handful of decades.

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My grandfather was something of a technological revolutionary, working on computers back when they were the size of entire buildings, so naturally he was the first person I knew to own a digital camera. For my 16th birthday, he gifted me with a boxy Hewlett-Packard point-and-shoot, equipped with one whole megapixel and then some, less than most phones come with now. At the time, it was a novelty. Rather than waiting a week or more to see evidence of the misadventures of my friends and classmates, we could view them instantly on the little LCD screen. If someone’s nose looked too big, or someone’s hair was blown unflatteringly, we could delete it and snap another. I could collect them on my hard drive, no physical clutter acquired. But then, in the Great Desktop Crash of ’04, I lost them all.

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I can’t blame that crash for the attitudes I developed towards photography afterwards. It was also the social conditioning that came with our march towards Instagram and Snapchat that led me to feel like photography was disposable, something trivial and without consequence. I never took cameras on vacations, choosing to write down my experiences or commit them to detailed, purposeful memory. The camera was cumbersome, and I would rather enjoy living in a moment than stopping to dig a recording device out of my purse, boot it up, and fiddle with the settings until I trusted it to capture the scene. When my last digital camera died in 2012, I never bothered to replace it.

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Then, I found my dad’s old Nikon. Specifically a Nikon FG, with a metal body and several glass lenses, heavier than any camera I’ve ever held before, with a vintage Mickey Mouse strap. Both the camera and the strap were an engagement gift from my mother, after months of researching stats and performance and consumer reports. Sitting forgotten in the basement for years, the battery had died and the roll of film inside had expired, but it was otherwise flawless. And now it was mine. Oddly, there’s something comforting about its weight, the way the aperture clicks into place, the heavy thunk of the curtain when the shutter is hit. Rather than simply capturing a moment, taking the picture becomes its own moment. Each photo documents not only what is in front of the lens, but the ritual that accompanies it: determining the aperture size, focussing the lens, checking the light meter, setting the shutter speed, hitting the shutter, advancing the film… The roll becomes a meditation, a series of practiced movements that produce a sense of oneness with the scene. A zen in which I am merely part of the setting, and the camera is the organ by which I can achieve it. Every exposure is precious, an experiment in light and form, waiting to be revealed when I wash away the excess silver.

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When I open the reel and look at the film for the first time, there’s an anxiety released with it. The negative images feel so alien, not at all like the images I thought I took, and sometimes even after printing I don’t remember the picture in front of me. It’s not exactly how my eye remembers it. But it’s almost always how my heart recalls it. A sense of placid calm, a dreamy anticipation, a distant sadness, these are the real subjects. More than any model or flower or mountain rage, the feelings we get from them are the reason to hit the shutter.

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Since my adventures with the Nikon, I’ve amassed an arsenal of old cameras: a Canon Rebel, a Minolta 110 Zoom, a reproduction Diana F+, each producing a totally different sort of image. But when I pack my bag for adventures unknown, it’s the Nikon that finds its way inside. Our love affair isn’t over yet, and despite the age gap between us, I suspect we have many years of tenderness before us. I might find myself out with another camera on occasion, but nothing has been able to replace the feeling I get with my Nikon in-hand.

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