Thunder, then a long stretch of wind shaking up Cottonwood Mel outside my window. A plane overhead from faraway heading faraway. The dampened drone of the highway in the distance while my sons sleep, the dogs snores, and Miyako the cat performs another one-act play about killing a mouse cleverly disguised as a hair tie.
It’s been too long since I’ve been able to listen to the sounds in between and around rather than the sounds coming straight at or straight from me. Not surprisingly, this replenished ability to stop and enter the clearing — instead of focusing on the trail — comes more easily to me after I’ve been moving things out of the way, specifically lots of little and big things in drawers and shelves. Yesterday, I cleaned out my desk, which doesn’t sound like much work, but indeed it was. I sorted hundreds of objects: coins, paperclips, stamps, greeting cards, and so many pens, markers and pencils I tested to see who was still up to the challenge of making marks on paper. Hauling bags to the car — what’s to find its way to the city dump, what will end up on some thrift store shelf, what’s to land in the home of a friend or family member — I felt quieted, also tired.
Everything I’ve been reading about clearing clutter lately rings through my body with a kind of freedom. Freedom to give up waiting to fit into something that, at the moment, makes me look like a multi-color stuffed sausage. Freedom to acknowledge I will never use the piles of holiday cards I never send. Freedom to say, “I have enough” to the worlds of colored paper. Freedom to release myself from the not-reading of books I bought by mistake and the not-fixing of broken flashlights. For weeks, in between travel and presentations, I’ve been hauling out the old stuff not to make room for the new, but just to make room.
In the end and in the beginning, there’s room for this listening that makes me feel like I’m just a cleared-out drawer of treasures in one of the many houses of the universe, and all I hear is a kind of music.
Every April I land in pure and blossoming enchantment every direction I look. Trees barely hold up their rain-weighted branches of all that’s pink, purple and white in flower. Tulips sing their quiet little songs of cheer. Driving down any particular block, I see no less than 30 shades of pale green, composing out of the whole world an impressionistic painting in motion.
Then there’s the other side of April. Between the poetry month status bestowed upon this month, the urge to stick something in the ground quickly, and all manner of opening out and spreading wide the wings of many events, there’s barely time enough to do what I want to do, which is stop doing all else but wandering down one street after another. There are magnolias still exploding their pink boats on north sides of old houses, forsythia towering yellow into green, and crazy-ass parades of cherry blossoms, pear blossoms, and whatever those ballerina-pink delicate flowers are that I see on quiet little trees doing their annual pirouettes. Don’t even get me started on the fuschia-purple redbuds, and especially lilac.
Every April I over-book myself with commitments and then hate myself for it. I should know better: all of this is fleeting, reminding us how fast paradise turns into a string of 95 degree days when we pray for rain and sanity. Every April I make myself a promise, a little like the Passover prayer we say at the end of the seder: “Next year in Jerusalem” (although for me it’s always, “Next year south of the Wakarusa), that next year, nothing but this. Even this year as many moments of watching, breathing and taking in beauty beyond beauty beyond beauty.
People say you either love or hate the desert. For me, it turns out to be both/and rather than either/or. When Ken and I first drove the many, many, many hours to Big Bend National Park for our honeymoon almost 30 years ago, my first response was crying, but not tears of joy. “We drove all that way for this?” I said. The despair that took over my stomach spread to the rest of me, including my eyes, which made it hard for me to see any value in being there, least of all for my honeymoon. Moreover, I had the very clear sense that this place with its heat, many plant beings made of thorns and needles, rattle snakes (especially the one I almost stepped on) and isolation from humans could kill me if I didn’t pay close attention.
Over our week camping in Big Bend, my hate softened. Maybe it was the wild horses, the eight-foot high bamboo forests we discovered in remote areas, riding a donkey while a little drunk in Mexico, sleeping under the stars, or lying on the ground while vultures wheeled over. By the time we left, I kind of liked the desert: the cooling air in the mornings and evenings, the radical sunshine, the blazing blue of the sky, and the flowering of the cacti. I would return, I decided.
Getting back to a remote place takes time, decades in this case. But the return was now love for the desert unfurling in stretches of wavering light and vertical rock. What was brown, gray, prickly, and otherwise not imbued with water didn’t push me away but drew me closer although I was careful where I stepped or what I leaned toward. It helped that, according to some of the locals, it was the best wildflower
season in 40 years, which meant we walked and drove through carpets of cacti and color, yellow, blue and white blossoms all directions with occasional Octotilla opening its high-off-the ground buds while the yucca went from pink to white to spent beige.
But it isn’t just the flowers. The desert is the desert, a place where you have to both give up control over the landscape and pay close attention to what actually is (rather than what you think is) according to the wonderful writer Gary Paul Nabhan,
who we had the pleasure to hearing twice during our trip. Ignore the reality of the desert at your own peril. Respect what’s here, and you arrive.
Yet recognizing that reality, which entails releasing agendas and clearing the mind of ideas about who or where I am, opens the door to the place without doors: the heart-breaking deep blue framing and infusing the mountain forged from sediment and volcano, balancing all manner of ochre and rust, bleached out or saturated with hue. The soft cold touch of the Rio Grande on the toes. The towering walls of time, rock and story
coming together in a narrow canyon that only allows the sharpest light through. The tumbling overhead of the stars and more stars even as the moon obscures some of them. The stillness punctuated by the mockingbird. The mule deer beneath the junipers. The fields peopled with forests of prickly pear, which can also grow just about upside down off the sides of rock walls. The preciousness of water and the ingenuity of what can live with so little.
As a 26-year-old touching the desert for the first time, I was afraid. It was a place I had no reference point for except in the yet-unexplored back fields of my psyche. As a 55-year-old returning, I was satisfied. Life has shown me as precisely as the needle tips of cactus how little control I have over anything, anyone, and even to a great extent over myself. It’s also shown me what magic might spring forward when I fall back into reality, with care of course when it’s in a desert. So we climbed and walked, drove and paused, drank outrageous amounts of water while stepping rock to rock to rock to where the desert led.
Maybe life itself, like the name “Big Bend,” is all about letting ourselves learn to bend, sometimes in a big way over a lot of time, to find our place in the wild and dangerous, the dry and distant, the stinging and blossoming turning of the light.
Despite living with a man who’s all about the stars (as well as the flowers, the grasses, and seasonal migrations of many species), I should have learned the seasonal wheel and tilts of the constellations years ago. Yet all of Ken’s explanations floated into my ears and out the top of my head with nothing to tether one pattern to another. Being star-proof, I could only pick out the Big Dipper and, after a few decades, recognize Orion, or at least his belt.
Then it all changed. We went to a star party at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of far west Texas, and for some reason, the shapes and stories came into focus with a fury and speed that left me breathless. Maybe I had too much noise, and knick knacks in my brain for the last 33 years each time Ken patiently explained, yet again, how that backwards question mark formed the Leo the Lion’s head and back. In the crowd of hundreds gathered to look up together, the marvelous guide at the observatory used a laser pointer to trace the shapes stars make. His talk, Ken’s words buried in me from so many dark nights, and a wonderful book by H.A. Rey (yes, that H.A. Rey) called Find the Constllations have since aligned me what’s right here in the depth of a spring night: Sirius as the dog tag on Canis Major (the big dog), the zigzag woman named Cassiopeia, and the big bear constellation of Ursa Major made, in part, of the big dipper.
In the nights since, I’ve been looking up, trying to remember what I learned the night before. There are 88 constellations, at least according to astronomy today, and while I can’t show you more than about 7 at the moment, I’m excited to finally learn more of what’s parading above and beyond us.
I wanted to go. I didn’t want to go. I figured I might, but probably wouldn’t, yet just in case, I tossed the bathing suit and towel in the car. It was too cold, I was too tired, and my brain played an endless parade of excuses. So it was no wonder that after getting some groceries, I aimed the car south toward home. The battle in my head got louder, and although “going home” had announced its victory over “going swimming,” some things aren’t over when they seem to be over. I suddenly aimed the car west and drove to the pool, totally out of my way and after extensive justification about why it was better to sit in a comfy chair at home with a blanket and a cup of tea.
After I parked and pushed myself through the hard wind and stinging snow, I continued my barrage of reasons why I needn’t do this, but now, since I’m here already, I might as well swim a few laps. Having not swam much since my medical adventure and still being anemic enough to nap twice most days, it seemed prudent to expect little and settle for less.
Once I lowered myself into the water, all bets were off. It felt, like always, so luxuriously refreshing and silky, so energizing and balancing, so much like home. I swam while singing songs and chants in my head as usual, occasionally playing over that little rants until they dissolved away. I aimed for six laps, then figured I’d do 12. I upped my expectation to 15, and since that was so close to my usual 18 laps, I kept going, stopping to sip from my water bottle on one end, glancing at the clock at the other, and in between falling back in love with the water.
In the end, I pulled myself out, happily worn out a bit and wound up more, after 40 minutes (I swim slow) and headed toward the dressing room. Within a few minutes, I was back outside, the wind, snow and wild bluster even more intense, but it bothered me less. I got to the refuge of the car, turned on the heat and exhaled. I might whine all the way to the pool, but I’m clear-headed and joyful all the way home.
I feel as if I just returned from a trip that entailed sheer cliffs, hair-pin turns, long treks through the desert without enough water, and being lost in nightmared woodlands — because that’s pretty much what happened even if the actual locations were only my house and the local hospital.
Long story short: a week ago, I had an upper GI bleed, and became dehydrated and anemic to the point of telling an ER doctor I would kill for some IV fluids. He granted me my wish along with two pints of brand new (at least to me) blood. After two trips to the ER, a bunch of procedures, and lots of doctor visits to hear what happened and what scary amount of blood I lost, I’m okay and healing, and I’m wondering what it means to have some new blood.
Of course I have a renewed appreciation for blood donors, and for the first time as a receiver, I understand quite viscerally why we need to share the love and the blood in this world. At the same time, it’s astonishing to be wandering around with someone else’s blood helping my own multiply itself, and there’s nothing like such an experience to help me know how much we interconnect.
There’s also something about getting new blood that breaks my being open in gratitude, vulnerability, and, most of all, peace. Yet this is not the peace of all things smoothed and gentle; it’s quite the opposite. I recently read Bernie Glassman’s essay “My Wife Died Unexpectedly Last March,” a short meditation he wrote over 15 years years ago in the months following his wife’s death. When people ask him how he feels, he says, “I’m raw,” and then explains:
Raw is letting whatever happens happen, what arises, arise. Feelings, too: grief, pain, loss, a desire to disappear, even the desire to die. One feeling follows another, one sensation after the next. I just listen deeply, bear witness.
While what I went through is nothing compared to Glassman’s loss (and not a loss at all for me), the jangly peace I feel, rough-edged and tender, resonates with some of what he says about feeling raw, bearing witness. I’ve noticed that after big life sweeps — the loss of a friend or parent, a medical emergency, a long stretch of excruciating uncertainty about something essential to one’s life — land us in this utterly alive place where everything is itself, only more so, perhaps as it actually is but as we rarely see. The vibrant blue of the sky pierces everything with light. The photo of my friend Jerry, which I set up a few days ago in memorial, shimmers with his love for the world. The headaches that roll through me, the sunlight on the fake-wood floor, the quiet tropical taste of the banana, the warmth of the tea — they all stand on their own legs. Even the mouse hotel stuffed chair (what a surprise to lift that cushion), now on our porch awaiting deportation, is what it is after months of depositing a mouse a day in our house for the cats to chase.
It turns out that the new blood is actually a song to awaken the old blood of who I am beneath constructed identities and in relation to all others with a pulse. Now that my own pulse is not skyrocketing well over 140, I breathe in the miracle of healing with gratitude and peace for all.
The nights get longer, snow is on the wing, and the days have been overwhelmingly pewter-colored in monotone clouds. Sometimes you just need a little more light, and this year, I’m craving any shard or streak of brightness. In the last week, I lost Jerry, an dear friend (see previous post for more on that), and my mother-in-law remains in a cardiac ICU as our extended family wraps around her, working and praying for a good outcome. Add to this the usual end-of-semester and pre-holidays-rushing-in pressures, and I’m not ready for prime time.
I seem to have gotten through the day of constant crying, followed by the day of crazy anger, all punctuated by intense bouts of forgetfulness or exhaustion. Lucky for me, I recognize from past losses that this is what grief looks like, lots of unpredictability bathed in a warm bath of sadness with big handfuls of crazy thrown in. I almost want to put a sign on me that says, “Approach with care, bearing tempura or cookies.”
Which brings me to Hanukkah, and not just because of the fried food and sweets. This is the holiday of ushering back in the light, a little at first, and then more as we add a candle each night. Usually this holiday is all I need to balance back my winter mojo, but this December, I’m taking no prisoners, so we dug out the Christmas ornaments (including Hanukkah ones), cut a tree from the field, dragged it in, topped it with a squirrel, and strung seven strands of lights around it. As a special memorial to Jerry, I also covered the tops of the cabinets with cedar and more lights.
Beyond these strung lights, there’s the big light we live in and around, and very soon, it flips, lengthening the days and truncating the nights. It’s all fire, one way or another, forging our spirits and lifting our days. My world is Hanukkah-ing itself, and all I need do is hang on, plug in lights and strike matches for the menorah. And remember that we’re all lighting our path in one way or another.