Volume 16
An Online Literary Magazine
March 31, 2022


This New Day


Elisa Stancil Levine


We spread a quilt in a circle of redwoods. This is our temple.



hen we started building our house on this mountain I was in my fifties. Without undue discussion my husband and I anticipated the distant future: step in showers; broad doorways; an extra room for future live-in help. We briefly noted, with relief, that none of these were yet needed. And the seasons passed.


Twenty-five years ago I converted to Judaism, magnetized by ancient rituals, especially the ten days of awe. Yom Kippur, the day of reckoning, comes on the tenth day. Each year, in a deep canyon beside the creek that marks the boundary of our land, we spread a patterned velvet quilt over the soft redwood duff in the center of a circle of redwoods and laze through the long day of fasting. This is our temple.


We silently attune ourselves, searching the filtered sunlight for portents, for signifiers. Squirrels leap and cleave to branches, leap again and disappear. A broad monarch butterfly flutters above us and kindly inscribes two perfect circles just inches away, then flies high and away. Beneath the lacy boughs we ponder the power of forgiveness, granting it and requesting it of one another, of ourselves. On this day I am acutely aware that life is uncertain, and just as aware that every hour of any day I forget this truth with ease.


There is no insurance against mortality. I know this. My first child’s death, my own near death, my fiancé’s fatal accident, my mother’s death, each felt alarmingly unique, yet not one was uncommon. This is this. We live, and then we die.


On our kitchen windowsill heart-shaped stones from all over the world are tilted up against the glass, my witnesses and my proof. Of what, you ask? Collections begin innocently, without much thought of ending. And so it is that a large wooden bowl in the pantry overflows with quartzite, limestone, and serpentine. Tiny heart-shaped shells rest in a tray beside my bed. These totems, signifiers of magical realism, turn up wherever I think to look, in Peru or Greece, on a beach or a desert, on my path here at home, and remind me that the time is now to celebrate the profound gift of life.


One day our family will choose tokens, then leave the remainder with our ashes beside the creek, beneath the redwoods, where we forgave and were forgiven, as we lazed on sacred days and dreamed of past and future.


This is this.


Or rather, this was this.


But now my life is turned upside down.


An unexpected diagnosis, showing irreversible brain damage, has me second-guessing everything. For months neurologists trace the cause, in hopes of slowing or arresting the damage. In the meantime this second-guessing is preoccupying, every bit as distracting as a new lover or a newborn baby. My lack of focus shows up every day. When taking a special dinner from the oven I burn my hand slightly and overreact, dropping the entire pan of steaming salmon all over the floor. Beside my computer I find notes from the previous day or two and don’t recall writing them— or why. Simple math equations are hieroglyphics. These and other scary lapses trail behind me and pile up at my feet, like parade confetti, as I move through the day.


Doctors suggest I “go easy” because my brain is struggling. I meditate. I quit all community projects. I resign from two boards. I am giddy with freedom, forced to see that for the past two years, more than my brain has been struggling.


It is very hard work to try to be what you think you used to be.


What is so precious about what we have been, what we have done, what we have believed? Is it habit that makes us cleave so to the past? I love ritual, but blind repetition has no value, no juice for me these days.


My husband appears unruffled. Consistent, calm, caring, he is a lighthouse in this storm. He held me when I cried that one time, when I apologized for not staying well. We devised an occupational therapy grid, an Excel spreadsheet to build brain capacity. Jump rope, balance and weight training, brain games, meditating, Scrabble, vitamins…I do these as I wait for a review of the findings. In this interlude cognitive dissonance flutters around me like a hundred brilliant butterflies. I cannot seem to see beyond them.


And now, as my husband and I wait for more test results, the Jewish New Year approaches. These ten days of awe I vow to see afresh, with my current brain, to breathe deep and be still beneath the fairy ring of redwoods. I will go easy. I will invite intuitive, kinetic attunement—those butterflies that keep commanding my attention—to rest with me a bit before I step forward into this new day.



Elisa Stancil Levine was born in Northern California and grew up beside the American River, the site of the California gold rush. She left high school at sixteen and as a young mother earned an AA degree, remodeled sixteen houses, and wrote for Sacramento Magazine. Her award-winning decorative art company, Stancil Studios, is now owned by her son, James. Elisa and her husband spend hours immersed in nature on Sonoma Mountain, hiking, horseback riding, and running in the forest. Her essays have been published in numerous literary magazines and her memoir, This or Something Better, will be published June, 2022.







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