My new favorite word. I love the way it rolls off the tongue. Say it a few times and you’ll see. You’ll want to find excuses to use it.

I’ve been repeating it to myself the last few days, since I discovered it’s meaning quite by accident.

It all started when I my friend lent me this book as fun fiction to read. Once I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it down. While the story is enthralling, it’s the metaphors that I really love. But this isn’t a book review so I’ll continue with what happened and how I fell in love with this word.

On Saturday morning, okay more like noon, I finally pulled myself away from the book to go to town for errands. I was at this part in the book where the characters had brought in some lighting for a photo shoot to get better pictures of a shadowy area. I had wanted to leave much earlier to get back and enjoy the warm and sunny (crazy right?) day outside getting things ready for the start of my summer program. On my drive to town I turned on NPR . The show This American Life was just getting going. Ira Glass was talking with Heidi Schreck about her play on Broadway about the constitution. And within a minute of listening, she says something about how certain aspects of the constitution are a penumbra. WHAT? It means something?! I had never even heard this word before three days ago and even then, only as someone’s name! Just what are the chances that someone actually SAYS that word right after reading a book with that title?

By the context in which it was used, I understood it’s meaning immediately. I then thought about the part I had just finished reading and the character by that name, and if you haven’t checked out it’s meaning with the link above yet, it basically means ‘shadowy area’ or ‘the shadowy area between dark and light’ like around an eclipse or in our, often vague, constitution.

Are you still with me? I hope so. This felt important somehow. Whenever you have those really odd coincidences (to which I always say, “there really are no coincidences.”) I have to wonder what it’s telling me, what am I supposed to see or understand? Why was I being presented with this word/idea right now? Often I know these moments are reminders that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be and this was one of those.

I realized we are in a penumbra right now! Here in Upstate New York in early spring we are between the darkness of winter and the light of summer (and it’s been a dark winter up here too). It is always the toughest seasonal transition for me. While I always want winter to end, I am never ready to move out of hibernation too fast. And as a gardener, it is the process of gearing up for crazy business that doesn’t end until October. I love it once I get in the swing of it. I even get excited once the first seeds are started in March. But then the snow keeps coming and the wind howls in transitions and I want to stay curled up on the couch, by the wood stove, reading whatever I can get my hands on (or watching more episodes of West Wing).

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I LOVE the penumbra area of things. I love change and the trepidation of the new and unknown, the things in that shadowy area that we can’t really see. This applies to my shamanic studies intensely. For this is the exact area we are studying, in ourselves, in others, in the universe. We are trying to move things from darkness to light whether that is an illness, our wounds and trauma experiences, or just our ability to see things more clearly. We are trying to shine light into those shadowy areas of the unknown.

In the book, they need the photos because they are creating a 3-D image of a place. This is what happens for me when I think about a penumbra. The concept becomes multi-dimensional because it is there metaphorically and physically in our world every day, just like the sacred wheel of the four directions (we’ll explore that another time). I recall the sections in Carlos Castaneda’s writings when his teacher, don Juan, has him sit in the desert at dusk to watch for entities. He tells him that this is the best time, the time the veils between the worlds are the thinnest. Of course Carlos is terrified, but obeys and has many incredible experiences. Try it yourself. Find a comfortable place to sit with your back against a tree (ideally not against your house) in a park or somewhat isolated area and stay there quietly until it gets dark enough that you can no longer distinguish shapes. We do this exercise in my summer program. It can get pretty wild fast. Just like sitting Zazen on a meditation cushion, one of the first things you experience is yourself; your fear, your expectations, your discomfort mental or physical. This, of course, influences what you see in the half-darkness or penumbra.

I could even say I think this is one f the reasons I became a gardener and outdoors person many years ago; because it gives me a focus, a direction, a goal in the penumbra areas of my thoughts, days, seasons, life. What do you do with the penumbra areas in your life? Share your thoughts in the comment area or on social media. I’d love to hear!

Happy Spring!


I live with my husband, Jeff ( on 34 beautiful acres in upstate New York. We share the dream of living "the good life" as described by Helen and Scott Nearing in their book by the same title. We have been refining that process at this location since 2003. I've been practicing the art of living well and close to Mother Earth with the help of teachers such as Tom Brown Jr., Carlos Castaneda, Lynn Andrews, John Jeavons, Scott & Helen Nearing, Jon Young and many herbalists including my first teacher Donna d'Terra. Join me as the adventure continues on many levels...


  1. Doreen Carter

    Invigorating writing of the search, idea, history of your new word. Especially like the history and narrative of your experience, well done.

  2. Jeanne

    As a semi-retired educator, this post reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with middle schoolers about awareness and attention. Once you know something, you are now attuned to an awareness of that and will see it “suddenly pop up everywhere!” I also love words and language, along with the wonders of the interconnectedness of this universe. Thank you for your gifts and I look forward to attending one of your workshops! (I also saw you lived in SF–so delighted to hear some old names of locales I enjoyed while raising my daughter in Berkeley…coming of age ceremonies at Zen Center followed by bonfires on the beach or bangers at Pelican Inn, full moon adventures at Zen Center…thanks for bringing up happy memories!)

    • Suzanne Johnson

      Ah – you’re welcome! I loved hikes to the beach from Green Gulch! So true how once there is an awareness of something we see it everywhere. I look forward to meeting you soon!

  3. Bella

    I felt invigorated by your post. I strive to learn one new thing each day. I learned something new today! 🙂

Comments are closed.