You Have to Go Back Down Again

Day 5 Blog Post
January 5, 2017

Head’s up: This is a book-nerd post (the book-nerd is me). It’s also about healing.




When I was 16, I got to be one of 4 high school juniors (along with 3 of my close friends) in an otherwise senior-filled lit class entitled “The Story and/of the Community.” I went to a very intellectually supportive but/and also privileged/ pretty inaccessible high school. One of the incredible gifts (and massive privileges) it gave me was classes like this. But this course in particular was, and still is, one of the best literature classes I have ever taken, including college and grad school. It was a discussion seminar based around texts that dealt with stories about community, but also with stories about HOW communities’ stories, mythologies, and beliefs shape and limit those communities, and how they are passed on or changed. We read Exodus, The Canterbury Tales, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, All The King’s Men, Ridley Walker, Angels in America, and others. At the end of the year, we wrote our own version of the Canterbury Tales for our high school, each printed out our particular story, and went out on a walking pilgrimage, reading the stories aloud to each other as we made our way towards the Flying Biscuit Cafe (best brunch in Atlanta).

The class caught me (and I think a lot of us) when we were about to fall through a lot of different kinds of cracks of both adolescence and adulthood, including sudden and catastrophic losses, personal physical and mental illnesses, family and social stuff, myriad other things. It was, in and of itself, a community, in the context of a larger (tiny) school that was supposed to feel like a supportive community but which, to me, often very much didn’t. Have you ever been in a class where you might laugh till you fell out of your chair crying with hilarity? This was that place.

And it was also the place where I first read Beowulf.

Two things happened when we learned about/ read Beowulf that are still so alive for me today that I can taste them . First off, that book is full of this beautiful poetic thing called “kennings” (I think I remember that word right), which is when you combine two nouns with a dash: a boat-flute, a hammer-song, a knot-gut. I don’t know how to describe the utter visceral magic and pleasure this gives me, other than making some more kennings, so let’s do it: knife-tongue, thunder-mountain, song-rain.

And second was the reading our teacher, Clark, guided us through surrounding the monsters in this book, and Beowulf’s interaction with them. SPOILER ALERT FOR BEOWULF (a centuries old book but you really might want to read it) FROM HERE ON! This story’s imagery, metaphor, archetype, is so alive for me right now that it’s keeping me going through some deep well-dives, cavern-tumbles, briar-blood reckonings I am moving my self through (or that are moving me through myself) right now.

Here’s how, according to my decade+ memory, it went down (literally): Beowulf’s community is being terrorized and slaughtered by a monster, so at some point Beowulf, a warrior, and his crew travel down into the deep caves underground, to find, contend with, and slay the monster. It gets pretty intense, they do some slayage of said monster, and head back up to feast and celebrate.

In the night, as everyone is sleeping off the giant feast, something else comes up and keeps on slaughtering. The community wakes up to devastation.

What happened? Did the slayage not work? Was the monster still alive?

Beowulf and friends have to go on the journey into the unknown danger underground a second time, and this time, they have no idea what they’re even dealing with (I think? memory is a little shakey here) – is it the monster come back to life?

What it turns out to be is the monster’s MOTHER.

What we learned, what I hold onto and remind myself of today, the powerful sinew of the story, is this: it’s not just the thing you have to contend with, it’s the thing that gave birth to the thing. The pain, the cycle that keeps swallowing you, the pattern that keeps hurting or devastating – there’s the journey to change that, to keep it from devouring. And then, there’s the journey back down, again, into the well, into the cave, into the unseeable space, to find the thing that gave birth to that pain in the first place. You have to go down there a second (third fifteenth hundredth) time, to find the origin, the mouth before the mouth.

Today, for me, this is a story about old wounds, traumas, patterns (both individual and collective). Yes, I have to go down into the cave-well and get the thing that’s hurting me, address it, get some relief from its immediacy. And then, when I really just want to rest and feast and sleep, the cavern-dark demand that I go down into the unknown again. So I go down into it again, into the darkness, to find the source of the thing. The blades that gave birth to the blade. The mother of the monster. I don’t know its shape or scope or location, but I go looking.

There is the pain of the wound, and there is its source, both, down there in the cool dark shadow-bell stone rooms and echoes.

There is the thing, and the mother, father, parent, day 15 years ago, or 15 years of days… of the thing. You go back for it. You go back and stand and face her.

And I think I have to stay down her with her until she reshapes herself along the blade at my hip or the brightness of my eyes, until she shifts from something that swallows to something that feeds, feast. You will not devour this place. Compost, the change underground, the shapeshift, monster to medicine. Or until she subsides at least enough enough, until I learn the dance of her pattern just enough, to live alongside her rattling the boards in the basement, and still, fully, live.


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