Why is a raven like a writing desk?
The riddle comes from Alice’s adventures at the mad tea party. When Alice is stumped, the Mad Hatter admits he doesn’t have an answer. I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about the riddle of late. It repeats at random moments in my head. Some questions are like that, I want to tell the Mad Hatter. We take them out and ponder them, even asking other people for the answers, and when no answer comes we just keep living the questions.
My daughter, Ten, has been cast as a raven (a crow) in the spring ballet. First she takes a turn as a party girl in December’s Nutcracker. I’m also looking forward, this fall, to Thirteen’s rendition of a hound in his ninth grade’s Hound of the Baskervilles and a handful of band, jazz band, Tiger Choir and orchestra concerts. Who are these extroverted offspring who play and dance and sing in public? Are they really the same children who on the weekend feel a little put out if they can’t stay in jammies and play or read quietly, maybe not venturing farther afield than the basement?
Extrovert/introvert. Yang/Yin. Light side/dark side. I am reminded of another riddle, the one Thirteen told a few years ago when he was dressed as Yoda for Beggars’ Night, a tradition in our Midwestern city that requires children who want candy to go door-to-door the night before Halloween armed with a joke. “How is duct tape like the Force?” He asked the question time and again at doorways up and down our street. Laughing, candy bowls in hand, the person answering the door would invariably shrug, “I don’t know,” and my son would quip, “They each have a dark side and a light side, and they bind the galaxy together.” Like the Force and duct tape, we have both the dark and the light … and we’re bound together by these contrasts. We’re made more interesting and complex by them.
When my words don’t flow, I turn to my yoga mat—so many mysteries are explicated for me there. On the mat in a class there’s the spirit of community, especially at the opening of the practice and again at the end. Somewhere about twenty minutes in, I’m transported into my own space. The room, the teacher, the other yogis blur and I travel inner landscapes, breath by breath. Stand on the right leg, cross the ankle of the left above the standing knee, fold over and touch the earth. The physical glow starts deep in my hip, sometimes as a pinch, more often as a release, and the stretch travels into my low back and down my leg. A deep breath massages the soft tissues and the joint yields; I stretch further. The pose, a preparation for an array of advanced postures, is often called Desk and Chair.
I practice the pose more often than I sit at my real writing desk. Piles of bills, filing, and to-do items patina its surface. But it doesn’t escape me that it was my father’s writing desk before it became mine, twenty-six inches high or typing height, built of sturdy lumber with a hard rubber top. With all of those other items in my home office demanding my attention, writing too easily gets pushed aside. So writing practice, too, requires community. I write where I can declare my intention publicly and appreciate the way that keeps me committed to task. Sometimes I select a table at Starbucks, others I’m ensconced in my Writing Circle, each of us working away for the hour we carve out to co-create.
When writing or yoga flow, the effort feels welcome. When either is stuck or a struggle, the challenge oft-times overwhelms. Everything can feel off or wrong. Dark. Bakasana, Crow Pose, is such a pose for me. This challenging pose requires an inward focus, yes, but also an extrovert-like willingness to go beyond the comfort range of warming up and flexing the body. It’s an arm balance: start in a squat and climb the knees onto the upper arms, squeezing the knees against the upper arms and floating the feet off the mat. The pose feels overwhelmingly hard and since I haven’t learned to allow it, my crow stays perching and doesn’t (yet) fly.
Still, a raven is a good totem for a writer—like other bird totems, the raven is a messenger. The raven carries messages from inner places that may seem dark or unnavigable. The raven invites introspection and change from within. A writer who works from the inside out discovers and uncovers authentic voice, truth in memory, and sometimes even answers. As the journey to a finished piece of writing, or even just one that’s ready to be shared, is long and often scattered with unsuccessful starts, the road to Bakasana is marred by bruised upper arms, fear of falling on your face, and shaking hard while attempting to climb the knees onto the backs of your arms and support your tucked body on your own two hands.
Emerging from practice, I uncurl from around my computer to share my words with my Writing Circle, anticipating feedback that will make my narrative cleave together. Challenged by my yoga teacher to simply, “Climb right on up into Bakasana,” I come more into her world, accepting her support under my hips or her gentle encouragement to try the pose again, this time launching from a pair of blocks or walking my feet up the wall.
The writing desk and the raven, the writing and the yoga, the basement playtime and the plays on stage—both enrich the spirit and nourish the journey, in the quiet on the mat and the clamor of the coffee shop, in the communities where I practice and the times when it is quiet solace that I crave. I encourage my children and myself to enjoy whatever moment we’re in. And I think that there’s nothing crazy or random about the Mad Hatter. Sometimes juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated items cracks open a whole new understanding of the world. In this case, the answer to the Mad Hatter’s riddle is no more complicated than a raven is like a writing desk because we are creatures that need both quiet, introspective time and opportunities to sound aloud. It is not either this or that, it is both/and.
A funny thing happened while I was writing this post—one of my Writing Circle comrades wrote a piece about how the crow flies and used the very same words: both/and. We were each a little freaked out hearing the other read, but as you might imagine her piece is a very different story than mine. I invite her to share it here or I’ll link to it if she posts it on her blog, when she’s ready. Meanwhile, I’m honored to be in such good, thoughtful, creative company.
Tonight it’s a new moon—time once again to plants seeds for the cycle ahead. With much love, Rxo