It’s late winter and once again I’m torn by two competing drives, each a response to cabin fever. First, there’s the strong desire to simply get out of cold, wet Oregon, trusting wide open sky as an antidote to the encroaching indoor walls and sunshine to the bronchial tickle the flu left behind.
And then here at said cabin there’s a (sometimes small) inclination to sort through detritus of indoor living.
Both desires are as primal as the two paths of my Neanderthal ancestors: those who pursued friendlier climates, and those who settled down to sort out things, like seeds and families and agrarian life.
Last month found us following the first path, traveling south to a bay in Mexico, where we resorted, mostly by just staring at the sea and basking in warmth. The empty skies and the constancy of waves gave my head a break from its never-ending efforts to create order in my everyday world. The phrase “last resort” came to mind throughout the trip because it felt like one. Covid strategies and stress had multiplied my ill-fated tendency manage the unmanageable. And so this seemed like a last chance to get a break from routine headaches and to downshift my nervous system.
While hanging out at our small hotel, I studied the wildly exotic but ordinary pelicans in the bay outside our casita. For days I watched each pelican as it dove again and again headfirst into the surf, each time filling its beak. After collecting their dinner, these strange creatures simply float on the water, placidly allowing the crazy filtering system in their expanded necks to sort the edible from the non-edible while they bobbled in the sunset and gradually absorbed their nutrition from the sea around them. We have a lot in common, I realized. I was also allowing my unconscious self some time to rest and take in sustenance from life as it is.
The seed-sorters. That’s my tribe, I think as I unpack from the tropical resort. Time to unfeather my nest.
The impulse is right on time. Every year toward the end of winter a need for order rises up. If I were a serious gardener or a farmer, I’d be sorting seeds from last season’s crop, letting go of over-ambitious experiments from last growing season. I’d look forward to the fallow winter cabin time, when snow covers dormant plants and rain creates slick fields of mud and there’s time to pause by the warm fire, taking stock, dreaming, seed catalogues in hand.
It’s in that spirit that late winter weather inspires me to to take stock and sort out my own personal growth experiments. This inclination is especially strong during this past year of re-emergence. Holidays and resolutions are over. I’ve absorbed lots of spiritual nourishment along the way, so I’m filtering out what hasn’t served me. Same with clothes that no longer fit comfortably or reflect my sense of who I’m becoming. During this in-between time on the calendar, it’s also more possible for me to drift a bit away from old habits. To separate the seeds from the chaff, to sort through the detritus of the recent past, to imagine myself into whatever’s next.
I remind myself of all the myths and fairy tales in which sorting (and re-sorting) is a part of the hero’s journey. In classic Greek mythology, Athena orders the mortal Psyche to prove her devotion to Cupid, Athena’s son, by separating all the wheat, barley, millet, and beans in her enormous warehouse. Some ants came along and took care of the sorting in short order. In the famous Grimm fairy tale, Cinderella got her reputation by picking out peas and lentils her stepsisters mixed with ashes. Again, just in time, magical helpers (in this case pigeons and mice) pitched in so that she could make her grand entrance (and her dramatic exit) from the ball.
These ancient tales describe the heroine’s path of discernment. Mere mortals, who don’t have access to magical ants or mice, must look elsewhere—inside and outside—for the help we need to sort the seeds of growth from those that keep us stuck in loops of the past. These days, as the world offers distraction after distraction, it’s more important than ever to do some sorting. Or re-sorting. Like a good pelican, moving at a pace closer to the speed of life.