I was stuck in the heart by a porcupine.
My husband Derrick first spotted the porcupine of which I speak while we were raking leaves last October.
“Porcupine,” Derrick said. He pointed up into the trees near our garage. I turned from my pile of leaves and followed my gaze from his finger to a dark, bulbous ball in the top of a maple tree.
“Nice!” I said.
“I still can’t get over the fact that porcupines spend so much time in trees,” I replied.
“Really? You didn’t know that?”
“Well, I never really saw… ANY porcupines when I lived Milwaukee. Maybe roadkill on the highway? Which, to me, indicated that they spent more time on the ground I guess?” I answered.
“I suppose,” Derrick mused, as he tossed a rake full of leaves toward one of our piles. “Most porcupines I’ve seen have been in trees.” Derrick has also lived in the woods pretty much his entire life.
The first time I recall seeing a porcupine in a tree was over 15 years ago, in the high branches of a maple along Highway D in Sugar Camp, Wisconsin. These seemingly awkward animals are not only adept climbers, but they regularly feed in the very tip tops of trees. I remember marveling at this tree-centric existence and realizing I really didn’t know much at all about porcupines.
In 2017, Derrick and I moved “up north” and eventually bought our own little house in the woods. Our wildlife sightings are now delightfully more frequent and diverse than when I lived in the city. Porcupines are just one of the wide variety of animals that we have caught a glimpse of on our trail cameras, walking on our property, and looking out the windows of our home.
A few days before Halloween 2019, Derrick found the small porcupine huddled against the house under our living room, near the door to our walk-out basement. Startled, but safely distant, Derrick backed away quietly and slowly without disturbing the cowering creature, then came in the house to tell me.
I went down to the basement and opened the door a crack to take a peek at our squatter. The porcupine was about 4 feet from the door frame, nestled between a tipped bucket and the exterior wall of the basement. A grey and black quill-covered body was curled into a ball, snout buried down into its chest. It was no bigger than a volleyball.
The porcupine spent two days under the living room beside the pile of buckets before moving on. Eventually we realized that he had relocated to a log pile near the garage. The porcupine became a regular resident and we began to search for it any time we were outside. Typically, we would spot it in the top of a tree, somewhere between the house and the garage. One day, the porcupine spent most of the day perched atop a log pile watching Derrick as he worked outside.
We began referring to him as Porky-mon. Or just Porky. (It’s true we didn’t try to sex the porcupine; I have no way of knowing if it was a male or female. If we ever find out for sure, I’ll let you know.) Soon, scanning the trees became automatic. Sometimes we would find him gripping his claws to the swaying tree tops. Other times, waddling out and back on the branches. If we were lucky, we would see him climbing up or down the trunks, scooting his round body a few inches with each pull of his claws.
Ranger Derrick’s method to search for a treed porcupine is to look for a “basketball in a tree.” If you are looking for an owl, he says, “look for a football in a tree.” This tactic actually works rather well, and allowed Derrick to located a Great Horned Owl in a tree at Big Bend National Park a few years ago.
In November, the snow began to fly. It wasn’t long before a shriveled handful of brown leaves was all the remained of Autumn and over a foot of snow covered the ground. This is the season of visibility in the woods. Each fresh layer of snow provides a blank page upon which the winter wildlife write stories of their movements through the season.
One day, Derrick and I noticed troughs of tracks on either side of the driveway. Examining the trail, we could see that it was not just the usual deer and squirrel tracks, but porcupine tracks as well.
Porcupine tracks in snow are especially distinct; in deep snow, their quilled body and tails drag and graze snow cover, creating unique markings parallel to their paw prints. Judging by the tracks, Porky was regularly crossing the driveway. To do so, he had to navigate the snow walls formed by the edges created by the plow when we cleared our driveway. These snow walls were already over a foot high and seemed somewhat steep for an animal the size of a small dog. I dug a few inches into his crossing points with my gloved hand, trying to make the approach a bit more gradual. I knew this wild animal didn’t need my help, but I did it anyway.
I even considered painting a sign and hanging it tree along our driveway. “Caution – Porcupine Crossing”. Not that we have much traffic other than us on our ¼ mile long rural driveway…but I felt like UPS and FedEx needed to know the score, for Porky’s sake. I decided that if I actually saw him on the driveway, I would speed up my sign production. In the meantime, we continued to take joy in the gift of our wild neighbor.
I was thrilled to be witnessing the evidence of Porkymon’s travels. Up to this point, we had seen the occasional “basketball in the tree tops” on our property and had some porcupines waddle in front of our trail cameras, but this was first time we had the pleasure of watching one so regularly. We have seen fisher on our trail cameras as well; the only animal that specializes in preying on porcupines. We hoped that that perhaps Porky’s choice to den so near to humans might help to keep potential predators away from him for a time.
Searching for Porky in the trees close to our house was something I was often able to do on a daily basis because I work from home. The home I work from is a small house situated at the top of a wooded ridge. The main living space is an open concept with vaulted ceilings and is windows all the way around. A room that is more windows than wall. Being on a wooded ridge, the windows look straight out into the trees about 12 feet in the air.
This room is part of what sold us on our house. We never tire of our incredible view into the woods. Each season presents a different “décor” to the space. In the summer it’s a cocoon of bright green leaves. In fall, an explosion of red, yellow, and orange between the evergreens. In winter and most of spring, it is an open view down the ridge toward our marsh, into the tops of the evergreens, and between the bare branches of deciduous trees.
My home office is in the corner of this windowed room. I stand at a podium desk my Derrick built for me, looking out at our bird feeders and into the trees.
If Porky were to feed on any of the trees on the ridge-side of the house, I hoped I could potentially spot him from the vantage point of my workstation. And one day in early December, I did.
It was a frigid morning. Even the animals were covered in ice. Two deer were bedded down on the ridge below our house, their ice-dusted heads nuzzled deep into their chests. Their fur was white with frost.
Derrick and I sipped our coffee and looked out into the frosted forest.
“Porky!” I cried.
Sure enough, there he was; balanced on a high branch of a tree, his quills dusted with white. Through our scope (yes, we keep a long-distance scope in our living room for wildlife viewing, who doesn’t?) we could see our prickly friend up close.
A light snowfall faded in and out of the cold, white day. Porkymon braved the icy wind in the tree tops for hours. He seemed unphased by the fact that he was continually being covered in white ice. Every now and then he would shudder his body, shaking each newly-fallen layer of snow off his quills.
Throughout my workday, I spent my breaks feeding our wood stove and staring out the window at Porky. He inched his round body down the narrow branches with precision and care, the grip of his claws intended for these precarious positionings. He gnawed and nibbled away at the branches, leaving tell-tale marks where his sharp teeth had scraped to expose the light tan cambium layer beneath the outer bark.
As December unraveled toward the holidays, Porky sightings became an almost daily occurrence. I began to take a certain comfort in the regularity of these sightings. Each brought sparks of joy and delight in the gift of just witnessing the porcupine’s presence. I found myself thinking about what our quilled resident could inspire and teach me.
In some cultures, porcupines are believed to bring messages of encouragement and advise us to evaluate or reinforce boundaries, to protect the self and / or embrace the true self, or to seek peace and personal space. I had no idea that the concepts of boundaries, protection, vulnerability, and maintaining a “safe space” would take on a whole new meaning just a few months later, when 2020 would reveal its ghastly path.
But back in December of 2019, I felt Porky was reminding me of the importance of protecting myself and my time and space for the sake of creativity. I had been working hard to maintain a writing habit that was both fruitful and manageable, but was still working out some kinks. I found myself making excuses for not writing, getting distracted, or convincing myself that I wasn’t ready to write this or that for whatever reason.
Granted, there is some validity to the idea of being “ready” to write about something, especially if it is a difficult topic. But there is a difference between not being “ready” to write about something and just not frickin’ writing. I began to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things I did want to write. Which occasionally lead me to analysis paralysis of what should I be writing, instead of just writing.
All of these demands and pressure we put on ourselves in the name of “doing it right.” Sometimes, it’s just about doing it.
I also wasn’t giving myself credit. I had been focusing on my writing. I had spent much of 2019 compiling my first full poetry manuscript.
By the way, there is no secret set of one-size-fits-all instructions for how to assemble a book of poetry. (At least, not that I was able to find in any of my manic midnight internet searches.) I finally had to come to realize that my process was just that, my process. And my process looked something like this (steps condensed for your convenience):
- Write a poem called “Pink” in 1st grade that was well-received by my teacher and parents. Enjoy writing and continue developing my writer’s muscles as I grow up, with the support and love of my family ever at my side.
- Have a high school English teacher who encouraged me to keep writing, to read widely, and who give me my first copy of James Joyce Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (Thanks Ms Bolle!)
- Attend St Norbert College and earn a BA in English with and emphasis in Creative Writing. Have a poetry professor who does not giving up on me and my stubborn resistance to revision, no matter what a pain in the ass I may or may not have been. (Thanks Laurie!)
- Decide to go to graduate school to become a better writer. Earn an MFA in Poetry at the University of Southern Maine – Stonecoast and spend the next 10ish years intermittently ignoring, questioning, editing, and adding to the poetry manuscript I completed for my thesis.
5. Realize that if I want to write a book, I need to f*cking write it. Start by figuring out what the hell I’m working with.
6. Read. Revise. Write.
7. Write. Revise. Read.
8. Make lists and attempt to organize poems into files labeled: “Ready” “Almost Ready” “Needs Work” “Does Not Fit” and “?”
9. Read. Write. Revise. Read. Put poems aside when frustrated, but don’t give up. Write something new or try working in a different space.
10. Spend time with the poems. Heed the advice given by Irish poet Joan Newmann when I asked her advice on compiling a poetry collection:
“Listen to the poems. The poems will tell you.”– Joan Newmann
Joan was right. Some poems spoke louder than others, but they all had something to say to me about what they wanted and where their place was in, or out, of this collection.
11. Celebrate the completion of my manuscript, To the 4 a.m. Light with a snack spread and wine!
12. Take a deep breath, and start submitting my manuscript.
By the beginning of September, I had made it to step No. 12 and was submitting my manuscript to presses and contests. I was thrilled to finally be sending my first collection out into the world in hopes of publication. But the big job of finishing the manuscript was now complete and I found myself unsure of what to focus on next. What to write next?
I didn’t really need to know the answer to that. JUST KEEP WRITING. That’s the answer.
I realized I needed to once again prioritizing my personal creative time and clarify my goals. I needed to prioritizing myself and my needs as a writer. Porky’s mobile armor reminded me that if I really wanted to protect my time and space to write, I must be ever mindful of its defense. I had to bring my armor, my quills, with me every day.
as well as quills.
So I took stock. I journaled. I asked myself what I needed and what I didn’t need. I tried to come up with tangible steps I could take and started making some adjustments to get my mind, my spirt, and my body all on the same page.
I started attending a meditation class. I attempted to a daily yoga practice. I tried to journal daily. I put aside specific time for writing and for reading. I tried to be more aware of the tendency toward mass consumption in the name of holiday revelry that typically came along with the end of the year and how it made me feel. I went back to something I had done in high school and college, but had become less of a daily habit: carrying my journal with me pretty much everywhere.
I was not perfect. I did not turn into Hemmingway overnight. (Which, is probably a good thing.) But what I did do was decide to just freakin’ do it. To prioritize my writing, my creative work, and define what “self-care” and “wellness” meant to me.
I decided to be kind with myself, as well as firm. If I missed yoga, I just started again the next day, or the day after. If I didn’t write today, I made sure to write tomorrow. And when I did write, I allowed myself to write ANYTHING I WANTED. Without needing to define it or justify it. The more I did this, the better I got at following through. The more I wanted to do the things I was pushing myself to do. I worked harder to maintain the boundaries that helped me to protect the time and space I needed to write. I re-reminded myself of the discipline required for creative output.
Eventually, this renewed investment in my work led me to wish my raw material was more accessible…which really meant my writing needed to be organized. I knew I had a lot of poems to discover and stories to unravel. Many of them were living comfortably in my journals on the shelf in our bedroom. Filled with new-year-new-leaf energy I hauled all my journals out.
I felt I had to, once again, get some clarity on what the hell I was working with. I examined their contents, dated each volume, and began marking sections where I found seeds for poems and stories, as well as even some close-to-complete pieces. By the first week of 2020, I had indexed and catalogued almost all of my journals from the last ten years.
I felt accomplished. I felt prepared. I felt like I was witnessing the beginning of a new era of commitment to myself as a writer. I even edited the daily 6:00 a.m. alarm on my phone to read “Rockin’ the 2020” beside and image of a pencil and paper.
I began 2020 feeling determined and inspired.
And then…well…in the exhausting parlance of our times:
When I wrote my last post back in May 2020, I was overwhelmed with my concern for everyone. I’m still concerned. The last 5+ months feel like an indistinguishable blur of extreme highs and lows, punctuated by a plethora of anxieties, unknowns, and unbelievables. How is it already Thanksgiving? How is it still 2020? Why do things feel like they are simultaneously in fast forward yet and agonizingly slow? I’ve just started calling it the Quarantine Time Warp.
(And no, let’s not do the 2020 Time Warp, again. #IloveRHPS.)
Still, with little more than a month left in 2020, after all that we have shared and suffered in our collective consciousness, I still feel determined. I still feel inspired. In fact, I feel like it’s more important than ever for me to write. To tell stories, share, to connect. To encourage love and light and empathy and compassion, despite the cyclone of division and fear and anger and frustration that has thrashed us about like a toy boat in a typhoon. I still believe there is path to healing. I still believe writing matters.
It’s true, things are still hard, and scary, and difficult. And, currently, neither my yoga nor my mediation could be be defined as “routine”. “Trying” would be more accurate.
Trying to take care.
Trying to maintain boundaries.
Trying to be guided by love.
Trying to write with abandon.
Trying keep my quills sharp.
Quills – Part 2, coming soon.
Also coming soon…To the 4 a.m. Light, my first full-length poetry collection forthcoming in March 2021 from Finishing Line Press! Online pre-sales begin soon. Details in December!