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Wild Love

I woke up early this morning to a message from a friend informing me that Mary Oliver had died.

Three days ago, my husband sent me the following image from a beach in Vietnam:

He was quoting my favorite Mary Oliver poem, entitled “I Go Down to the Shore.” It’s a brief, simple poem that has given me ineffable solace in difficult times. It is one of the only poems I know by heart.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I first became aware of Mary Oliver several years ago when I listened to her interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, recorded in October 2015. She read this poem in that interview. I was immediately captivated by her. I felt a closeness to her. She reminded me of my grandmother, who recently passed away. Granny was also a poet, extremely intellectual, a nature lover, sharp and humorous. They were both so damn practical.

When my husband sent me that image, I printed a photo of Mary to go in the front of my journal. I was inspired by Austin Kleon, who selects a Guardian Spirit to watch over each of his notebooks and who also wrote a lovely post in honor of Mary today. It seems fitting that she remain my guardian at a time when I am grieving and letting go of so many things: the loss of my grandparents, proximity to my family and friends back home, the safe, familiar layers of self I’ve shed to make room for the flourishing and the new.

Mary wrote often about wild love.  She expressed such love for the beauty of the world and its inhabitants; she had a deep compassion for herself and for others. May her wild, loving spirit reside in the corners of the life I’ve constructed and in the work I have to do. May her words resonate in my heart this coming year and beyond.

Dear Mary, you were loved, you are loved. Thank you for your gifts and for rescuing me from despair. In your honor, I will go to the woods, I will walk and scribble, I will listen to the world.

Buttercups

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I’m dreaming of you again. In my dreams, I’m looking for the lamp, the one mother brought home when you were little. That day, we rubbed and rubbed it, and you plucked a golden buttercup from a field, placed it inside, and made a wish. You giggled as the blossom’s “blood” smeared onto your fingers. You dropped the lamp in this forest, the forest I wander nightly in my polka dot skirt, the skirt you said made me look like a princess. ”Princesses don’t wear polka dots,” I said, a week and two days before we buried you beneath a wreath of buttercups, my fingers smeared golden with blood.

Photos and narrative part of a collaborative project with Matt Bokan.
Model: Katie Bokan

2018: A Year of Magic

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The Magician, The Wild Unknown Tarot 

I’ve been learning the tarot for one year, a practice which began last New Year’s Eve when I was visiting home and joined two dear friends, Andrew and Anne Marie, at their kitchen table for a reading. Andrew had purchased the same deck that’d been sitting neglected on my bookshelf for many months, and I took this as an invitation to return to the cards. We drew a card for each month and one to encapsulate 2018; none embodied the energy of the past year quite like The Magician.

2018 was a year of magic and my challenge was learning to receive it.

Last year, I experienced a transformation; I am not the same person I had been. That year, I learned to let go of a number of habits and beliefs that had been causing me deep suffering for so much of my adult life: confusing shame for anxiety and mental moments for facts, fighting against my feelings rather than accepting them, tuning out. The year brought many other blessings. New friendships came unexpectedly, adding layers of love and inspiration to my life. I spent an hour each week for many weeks with a therapist, a kind and nurturing woman who turned my understanding of human emotions upside down and who showed me how to love and accept unconditionally – myself first, then others.

I learned what true compassion can feel like and how finding seeds of connection in others can transform relationships. I also learned to tune in with the deeper tides of experience that flow beneath the surface of consciousness; in other words, I connected with my inner child.  Throughout the year, I repeatedly drew the same tarot cards: Cups/Sea, Mothers/Queens, The Moon. The sea and the subconscious were so dominant in my mind and spirit that I had them etched into my skin so that I would never forget. I still see my dreams in shades of seafoam, the mysteries and magic of life in the crashing tides.

It was last year that I was thrown by chance onto the stage and rediscovered how theatre and the act of making a show can be deeply medicinal, spiritual practices. Through theatre, I reconnected with my physical body, from which I’d been disassociating for years but hadn’t known it. I performed in another play and won a Best Actor award. I took up drawing again, played many hours of Dungeons & Dragons, studied the tarot. I directed a short play and through that experience uncovered yet another unexpected and powerful friendship.

I expanded into the world, seeking connection and contributing what I could with the energy of The Magician, my ambitious ally. The love and passion I sent out returned in the form of new connections, a sense of community, and opportunities which are filling me with such thrill and anticipation I hardly know what to do with the feelings.

Here is the magic I came to see: the universe is abundant and cyclical as the sea. Its gifts are boundless. When your heart is open and loving, you will find that there is so very much to receive.

On Shame

I used to say, “I have anxiety.” Over time and with the support of some wonderful people, podcasts, and books and moments spent in sometimes very uncomfortable silence and meditation, I came to a deeper way to understand my difficult emotions: by recognizing that behind anxiety is most often shame. And everyone experiences shame, it’s so very human. But sometimes that shame feels really powerful. Sometimes it’s just so damn loud and its voice drowns out the voices of self-compassion, self-love, and kindness. What happens when instead of having a shouting match with our shame, instead of getting all teacher on our shame, we just sit with it and listen? What if we let shame scream its totally well-thought out, fact-driven ideas at us and then smile back, seeing shame as the sad, hurt little person it is – because our shame is us, but only one part of us – and then we say, “I hear you. That really sucks. I love you?” What would happen then? I don’t know for sure but on this long, quiet subway ride home, I’ll listen, and maybe later I’ll let you know.

5E Adventure Review: The Boneyard

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The Boneyard by Adam Hancock is a one-session D&D 5E adventure for levels 1-4. It’s horror themed, combat-heavy, and a great choice for Halloween season. I ran this adventure earlier this week for my husband and friends, making up a party of three 3rd level PCs. Hancock gives clear suggestions for scaling encounters up, but I found that some of the lower-level encounters worked as written for the group due to their small size and our friends’ limited experience with D&D.

The Boneyard is marketed as a 3-4 hour adventure, but my group is chatty and they take their sweet time with e’rything. Because I obsessively kept pace, we wrapped up in about 5 hours. This brief, atmospheric adventure is only nine pages long and is presented in a clean, well-organized format. The boxed text is concise and descriptive and includes a few NPC quotes, which I always appreciate and find helpful for setting key encounters. I never had trouble finding the information I needed from the module in session.

Minor spoilers below, but not enough to give away any loose ends for my players. And boy were there loose ends. This is my kind of adventure. 

The Adventure:
The Boneyard takes place entirely in a sprawling graveyard and has an excellent hook: the PCs meet annually at The Boneyard to mourn a fallen friend, Valos, who died in a red dragon attack years prior. Or whomever and however the DM wants. Details aside, the PCs return each year on the anniversary of their friend’s death to visit his grave and honor his memory. But when they arrive that night at dusk, things are amiss: the graveyard is locked and under repairs after a recent earthquake which ripped the earth apart and disturbed many of the graves. The PCs meet an unnerving gravekeeper named Drel and get into the graveyard one way or another, only to find that Valos’s grave has been exhumed. There is a haunting encounter here that my players bypassed entirely because they don’t trust nor go near anyone or anything, a byproduct of playing so many one-shots, in which things are never what they appear and someone or something is always trying to kill them. Anyway, it’s a cool encounter and I’m sad it didn’t happen.

The PCs must then investigate the graveyard to determine what happened to Valos’s body and to return his bones to their resting place. They encounter a number of undead creatures in the graveyard, which is sprinkled with horrific clues. The wandering undead table is varied and includes scaled options based on the level of the party, potential story clues, and even Valos’s skeleton and restless spirit. The party meets a number of distinct and compelling NPCs with enough detail to get the DM started with characterization. These include a hired spy who has information on what’s happening in the graveyard and a mysterious woman named Rasha who whispers to them from the shadows of a dusty mausoleum.

The final showdown occurs in a cavernous underground crypt with a cool terrain feature that makes for interesting combat. Turns out the baddies behind the undead scourge have a terrifying “pet” at their defense, which our party’s cleric turned for the duration of combat; good for them, sad for me. The battle was nonetheless epic and did not require modifications to up the flavor or cool factor. I have a habit of altering almost every big bad encounter I run, but this one was already pretty cool. When I ran this adventure, the party included a moon druid, a fighter, and a cleric: a strong and well-balanced group, which was good because this adventure has a lot of combat! Even so, it presents an interesting story, a ton of mystery, and great NPCs. The party kept the culprits alive, creating the potential for recurring villains!

The biggest downside of this adventure is its lack of maps. Still, there were enough details – dimensions, descriptions – that I was able to draw up sufficient maps the morning of the session. For a newer DM, this might be a bit more time-consuming. In addition, I found the villains’ motives to be underdeveloped, a problem I faced when the party decided to keep them alive and interrogate one of them. But because the adventure is so open, this could be developed further; on the other hand, perhaps that’s not so important for your one-shots. One of the strengths of this adventure is its simplicity; details are left open for the DM to decide. On a final note, Hancock includes stats for the grave-keeper, Drel, but they’re not incredibly exciting. Drel is essentially a coward who runs away from every fight, but wouldn’t it be cool for him to have a weird ace up his sleeve? He has a few tricks, but I didn’t find them particularly compelling.

To my surprise, the party didn’t insist that Rasha show or explain herself and so she remains a mystery to them. They did, however, head into town at the end of the adventure and turn in one of villains to the townmaster (they left the other one with Rasha!). It was only then that they learned of the rumors spreading amongst the townspeople: elderly and poor folk going missing and dying suddenly, strange bites on people’s necks. The session ended on a note of uncertainty. They solved one mystery only to learn that something altogether different was going on. And that is what I like most about this adventure: there are two very different storylines happening at once. In my group’s case, this truth came as a dramatic reveal at the end.

Modifications & Notes:
Location: This adventure is highly adaptable and could be set in any modest to large town. I set it in a town called Marrion’s Way, a name I made up the night before the session.

Prop: Before we started, I gave one of the players a letter from a fellow adventurer, addressed to Valos. I aged the paper with coffee and planned to attach it to a bottle of liquor (but ran out of time to buy it). I imagined the players might share a shot at the end of the adventure as their PCs stood over the grave of their friend, his body laid at rest once more. The purpose of this prop was not only immersion but also to give a nudge toward the conclusion of the adventure as written. I have learned that players need nudges. I think it worked? No matter, I liked it.

Valos: To add dramatic flair, I put the PCs’ encounter with Valos in the final battle, so they had to fight their friend’s undead skeleton along with the villains. This seemed more exciting than encountering him in The Boneyard and it saved us time.

Loot: After the final battle, our fighter discovered an ancient relic (a custom set of magical gauntlets commissioned for the guard of a forgotten queen). I liked that there was a pre-written opportunity in the final location to discover something ancient and powerful and decided to make a custom item for one of the players.

In Summary:
Strengths: scaled encounters, clean and attractive layout, well-organized, easy to follow, great hook, compelling NPCs, creepy, interwoven storylines, simple and adaptable
Weaknesses: no maps, undeveloped baddies

Overall Impression:
The Boneyard is a great adventure for low level parties, especially with new DMs. It has mystery, and is well-written and easy to follow. In addition to that, it delivers on its promise of flavorful and interwoven storylines, leaving the narrative open for exploration and play beyond what is presented in its brief nine pages. Make sure to include creepy music, howling wolves and zombie sounds, and candles if you can. This works as a one-shot or thrown into a regular campaign. Highly recommended, especially for this spooky time of year!

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The final showdown
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Letter to Valos
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DM’s assistant, working hard

About the reviewer:
I’ve been playing D&D – primarily as a Dungeon Master – for nearly two years. This review is knowingly shared from a new DM’s perspective. I prefer adventures with a strong investigative and roleplaying focus, am a proud critter, and am always interested in learning and growing as a DM. Running combat effectively and managing pacing are my biggest challenges at this time.

Illustrations: Jeju Island

We had a little love affair with Jeju Island last month. Jeju is a common tourist destination in South Korea and for good reason. It’s not until you leave the noisy, crowded streets of Seoul that you realize you’ve learned to tolerate a low, unrelenting clamor. In comparison, Jeju is tranquil and stunningly quiet. We watched the sunset almost every night to the sound of cicadas and crickets. It was my first time trying naeng guksu, a bowl of tender noodles in cold broth with slices of Jeju black pork and a sweet and sour vinegar tang. Jeju food tastes sweeter and more sour to me than other regional Korean food and I gobbled it all up.