Pithy Darkness

Kerry Rutherford

It’s not that she didn’t feel safe—it’s that she didn’t feel anything at all. I’m asking now why she dreamed herself back to me from that very time and then made the dream so vivid that I remembered all the details and then made the dream so important that I immediately remembered that day, fifty years before, and not just the details of what happened but everything she felt (and did not feel) and how those things ran like a thread through her life like a fragile bond to the earth plane.

In the dream the children were in a house, in a dark living room, crowded around a television, watching the image of a young girl lying with her legs apart as someone touched her, over and over, as if to arouse her. I kept yelling, “Turn it off. Turn it off! She’s just a little girl, you shouldn’t be watching!” Finally I went behind the TV and pulled all the plugs from the outlet, so no one could witness her shame.

In the tall grass behind the playground, in the real world, my seven year old self had no one to pull the plug as my boundaries were invaded, my innocence taken. In the church my nineteen year old self said, “I do,” to someone just because he asked. In the reeds behind the beach on the Mexican coast my twenty-four year old self said nothing as the boy, whose name I do not remember, had his way with me and then walked away to tell his friends about the easy American girl. The procession of men gets blurry. I cannot remember them all.

Far back in the woods of Kodiak, Alaska, behind Dark Lake, as my twenty-seven year old self took off all her clothes and lay alone in the creek, miles from any man, surrounded only by sun, water, moss-covered trees and bird song, letting it all flow over and around her, she asked for help…asked to be found.

Now, as my 69 year old self witnesses the #MeToo movement, I still struggle to type that hashtag—to put the words into the public domain. I tell myself that my small encounters are not really that big of a deal, that they are not about anyone else taking advantage of me as much as they are about me being unable to say no, to even know that I could be in charge of my own body. What if I make a mistake? What if I offend someone or hurt someone’s feelings? Back then it was easy to embrace New Age concepts about how I “created my own reality,” how the things that happened to me were really my choice because my soul needed those particular lessons.

Why is it so hard for me to accept that people are not always “nice?” That they have dark complexes related to their mothers or fathers, or fears of survival, or unconscious fears of strong emotions that remind them of someone who may have hurt them. Then again maybe it isn’t really about anyone else. Maybe it’s all about me.

Why is it so hard for me to accept that people are not always "nice?"

I understand that I am naturally paranoid when not in close proximity to affirming words or gestures. I tend to believe that my friends no longer like me if I do not hear from them in a timely manner. I go to dark places within myself and spiral down into an existentially black room devoid of affect. But once inside that room, which I am now so familiar with that it is weirdly comforting, I bask in the blankness of it all. Instead of fishing around for the right descriptive phrase (existential crises, depression, melancholy, hopelessness) in hopes that a correct diagnosis will miraculously lead to a cure (which pharmaceutical companies will prescribe for me via a commercial for the latest wonder drug for their newly manufactured designer “syndrome” complete with its own acronym and medicinal side-effects that may include death), I just hunt for the most intense music, or a new novel or movie to lose myself in until it passes. Because it always passes.

The difference now is that I have finally learned to wait. And to wait in a certain way that is compatible with my dark place. I have discovered that rich and pithy images are buried in the loamy soil at the bottom of that dark lake. When I am wallowing in the murky substance which has accumulated, unseen, in some of the deepest places, I no longer thrash around, trying to get back to the surface. Instead I begin to notice things about my past, about old painful experiences, about people who came and went with no discernible reason, and I examine the uncomfortable feelings for clues, tracing them back to the source. Glimmers of understanding and revelatory flashes of insight fill me as I wade around looking down at these lost parts of myself. I pick them up, pressing them to my chest, in a symbolic gesture of love, as emotions wash through me.

When something lets go inside me, down there in the deep, there is a free-floating feeling, like a bubble-wrapped cocoon insulating me from everything. Within that cocoon, I do not look for reasons or labels or to make sense of anything. I just monitor the “weather” noticing the tides and undertow, winds and relative humidity, barometric pressure. I do not say that this undertow forced me to the deep because I needed to learn what it felt like to drown so that I could become a more compassionate person and help the next drowning victim, thereby spreading the “good” and not the “bad” on planet earth, keeping the gods and goddesses happy. I no longer believe in that kind of universe. I don’t need to do any hard work to make connections so that things make sense and fit into a certain system of thought that I had previously adopted to keep me sane in an insane world. It takes too much effort to research all the workshops and modalities that are offered so that I can find the right combination of body mind and spirit practices so I can finally feel good.

I no longer believe in that kind of universe.

This is perhaps the biggest myth I uncovered in my muddy playground: letting go of that quest will ultimately allow me to settle into a place that is neither good nor bad, happy or sad, right or wrong, but is just me. It is who I am: a complex mixture of shades of color, shades of feelings, shades of thoughts, totally unique and not built to be a “perfection machine” but just built to experience myself: a one-of-a-kind, textured and multifaceted being, whose company I never need tire of. And from that place I alone am in charge of not only my body, but body, mind, and soul.

Kerry Rutherford is currently in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University’s Riverpoint campus, studying Creative Nonfiction. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in anthropology from the University of Washington. Born in Seattle, Rutherford has lived in Washington, Alaska, and Indiana. Her short stories, poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Spindrift Literary Magazine, Country Feedback Magazine, Bear River Review, and The Mountain Astrologer.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “Pithy Darkness”

Sometimes I wake up and the dream is flying away, and my mind is frantically searching its data bases for a clue as to what just happened. But it’s gone. I can’t get it back. So I’ve learned to let go, to not stress about it, because the ones that are meant to stay, I just can’t get rid of. They are so vivid when I wake up that I have time to leisurely find a notebook, or journal or some loose paper lying around. I have time to look for a pen (you know there are always tons of them in the container when I don’t need one, but somehow they all disappear when I am full of inspiration or images or revelations from the dreamscape). The stacks of old notebooks and journals and bits of paper that have collected like detritus over the years are full of musings, interior thoughts, and yes…dream images seemingly from the Jungian shadow side of myself. They bump up against the most honest and authentic parts that I hesitate to share with anyone. What will people think?

I was reading Amy Tan’s latest book, Where the Past Begins, A Writer’s Memoir, which is half memoir, half craft book, and was surprised to read that she incorporates her dreams into her writing. She even dreams about music and lyrics. I felt somehow validated. Many dream images make it into my poetry and prose, just like in Pithy Darkness. The dream at the beginning of

the essay was transcribed in 2007 after waking up. The images were so clear and the messages so profound that I wrote as much as I could. It seemed prophetic also because I was on my way to a three-day writer’s conference in Michigan and thought it would be a good place to process the residue of feelings left over from the dream. The first few paragraphs of the essay are from that conference work. Then it sat on the shelf with my other bits and pieces, for years.

For most of my adult life, I have processed emotional ups and downs by writing. I tend to write “into” whatever is going on, starting with what I am feeling, thinking and doing and then see where the pen and paper take me. Last summer I wrote “into” the topic of my emotional cycle of ups and downs, about my existential crises, about the dark and lonely places, and discovered some interesting and new things about myself, things I was certain I would never share with another living soul. I discovered that waiting for my emotional wave to go up and down without needing to “do” anything about it was a liberating concept. Exploring my internal landscape became part of the essay’s interior monologue. Finally, the current #MeToo movement got me thinking about my own issues of being in control of my body. So those musings became the vehicle that created the transitions from dream to revelation. I put it all together last winter into one piece, over ten years in the making.