“I know, it’s loud,” I agreed into the phone. “I’m taking the bus to the river.”
My son had called to wish me a happy birthday; I could hardly hear him, and he could hardly hear me.
“I wanted to be lazy and have coffee this morning, and also walk along the river, so I’m taking the bus to save time,” I explained. I did not elaborate that I planned to walk a new stretch of trail that was unfamiliar, and I didn’t know how long it might take, so I was taking the bus now hoping to avoid walking home in the dark.
I got off at the Rio Grande stop. “Sorry, I know, still loud,” I continued. I had walked several blocks beside heavy traffic and wasn’t quite to the river yet. Then I saw what I was looking for. “Ah. I thought Rio Grande would be the stop by the river. But it’s not; that’s Rio Grande Avenue. There’s one coming up now – Bio Park. Apparently this one is for the river.” I crossed the final street with the WALK light; a small truck nearly turned into me. I threw out my hands and yelled, “Hey!” The driver appeared completely unaffected, barely slowing, as if he was bored with my outburst.
This happens often here in Albuquerque. Now that I’ve lived here over nine months, I’m getting better at simply walking defensively, expecting the cars that blow through red lights, turn without stopping or even glancing over, drive in the bus lanes, the bike lanes, pass in the parking lanes. It’s always very loud walking here. Albuquerque’s is a car culture, restored classics, lowriders with tiny rims, muscle cars without mufflers. People gun their engines and ride their horns when driving under the train bridge; I often hold my ears as I cross through that tunnel.
I’m still trying to get used to Albuquerque. Let’s be honest, to New Mexico. I love the landscape, but I’m struggling with some aspects of the culture. Like aggressive dogs barking and snarling from behind fences and walls. Bars on the doors and windows of nearly every home, always locked. Yet every gathering revolves around homemade food full of cheese and fat and love; I so hate cooking, I’d rather eat peanut butter with a spoon than have to learn to make delicious tamales. I want to walk and talk together, unguarded, not cook and eat together.
“I’ve made it to the river,” I told my son. He praised my accomplishment and told me to enjoy the rest of my day. I hung up and put the phone in my pocket. Then, hitching my pack straight, I took the dirt trail to the left.
I started to search for hearts. A friend of a friend collects them, photos of heart-shaped anything, tiny messages from the universe. In my younger years, I collected hearts too – one of those incongruous details you might have learned back then about my contradictory personality, if you successfully ran the gauntlet of my emotional defenses. Few know that I, too, am a heart-spotter.
Settling into the rhythm of my footsteps on the path, eyes scanning the rocks and trees for symbolism, my thoughts returned to another birthday call, this one from my daughter. A passing comment had caught my ear, and now caught my mind: so many people seem to feel the need to have opinions about things they don’t know, haven’t experienced. I knew this rebuke included me; I wasn’t sure if my daughter realized it also included her. At points in some of our recent conversations, I could hardly hear her, and she could hardly hear me.
I remember when I was a teenager, my best friend interrupted some loud, long-winded tirade of mine to interject, “God – you…are…so…opinionated, you just have…an opinion…on…everything….”
I can still see her down-turned face, one hand on her exasperated hip, the other hand passing across her closed eyes, then waving that hand to indicate “everything,” her empty arm held extended, slowly shaking her head at the floor between us.
It utterly stopped me – in that moment. It did not stop me over a lifetime.
The thing is, my friend had opinions, too; often she just didn’t voice them, or she hid them as punchlines to jokes. She later told me she thought I was popular and had lots of friends; not true. She thought I was competitive; I am not. She judged my relationships, sometimes making small derisive comments; my relationships clearly failed, but her jokes did not help. She didn’t understand my perspective, or my experience.
My friend has a kind, generous heart. And yet, she sees the world through her lens, and so that lens casts me in the particular filtered light that makes sense to her. We all do this. Sharing homemade tamales is a lens, as is taking the bus and walking, or greeting my neighborhood through the prison bars of self-protection. What my daughter was wondering sounded to me like, “How can we stop being so opinionated?”
Sometimes we can, and sometimes, it seems like we can’t.
I stopped and leaned against an old cottonwood tree, pulled my water bottle from my pack, and took a long drink of water. I looked around, then took another slow drink.
Along the Rio Grande, cottonwoods and willows form dense, cool buffers on either side of the river. This is the Bosque. The Woods. According to “Beauty of the Bosque” by Ruth A. Smith in American Forests, the cottonwoods of the Rio Grande “have been growing in the bosque for more than a million years….” Anyone who has lived around wild, unmanaged cottonwood trees knows that in spring they release their seeds, fluffy with cotton that lifts them into the West’s winds like a snow squall, sometimes for days – until an actual spring rain or snow drench the cotton, dropping the now-heavy wet seeds and sticking them in place on the muddy clay soils of the region.
More than a million years. And now there’s a problem.
It started in the 1950s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with managing the Rio Grande’s seasonal ebb and flow, controlling its flood plain by eliminating its flooding. The prevailing opinion was that rivers should be harnessed for industrial and community development.
But a bosque needs flooding. Cottonwood trees need inundation to flourish; they need the river to flood, creating mud flats in which their seeds can sprout and grow. Flood was part of the culture of the Rio Grande ecosystem. But it hadn’t been discussed, so it hadn’t been understood. Now the old cottonwoods, known as “the heart of the bosque,” were dying. And no new seedlings were germinating and taking root to take their place.
Putting the lid on my water bottle, I stowed it back in my pack. My eye fell on a dead cottonwood leaf at my feet, dried to the exact dusty tan of the clay soil of the trail. Cottonwood leaves are heart-shaped.
“Cottonwood leaves don’t count,” I’d been told of the heart scavenger hunt for the friend of a friend. “She’s already got cottonwood leaves.”
I lifted my gaze from the trail. And I saw the dying bosque, dried dead leaves covering every inch of the forest floor. Hundreds of thousands of millions of leaves – hearts everywhere, fallen hearts, broken hearts, trampled hearts, faded hearts.
I saw that opinions are hearts. Because opinions are beliefs. Each heart thinks it knows, believes what it knows, through the lens of its culture and environment. But if those beliefs and experiences are not articulated, not offered, not requested, or not shared, they cannot be understood. Life and growth cannot be nourished without understanding.
If they’re not shared, cottonwood leaves don’t count. None of ’em. Sharing and beginning to understand – that’s the messy flood, where new beliefs, new hearts, can grow.
I’ve been doing this all wrong, I thought. Walking down Coal or Lead, over the train tracks, turning right at the river, coming back up Central Avenue. So loud. Always so loud. By the time I get home from my walk, my walk has turned to dust along the busy streets, and I don’t gain the solace of the river and the bosque.
Opinion, I thought wryly. Experience, I answered myself. I like this left hand turn instead. It’s quieter.
I followed the trail, away from the paved bike lanes, under the canopy of dying branches, walking among the quiet of old leaves, hearts strewn along the way as if asking me to remember their stories. I saw a small side path that opened wider through a vertical wall of red willow canes. I stepped through onto sand, a beach-like sand bar reaching far into the slow water.
A couple with a dog played directly in front of me; the dog was off leash. Without hesitation, I picked up an old, twisted cottonwood branch, a walking stick about as thick as my arm, and walked far to the left, to a quiet area screened by more red willows. The dog started to run my way. I stood with the stick, and it turned back immediately to its people.
When the dog had not returned after a few minutes, I settled, sitting and eating an apple from my pack. The sand was thick and soft, the same dusty tan color as the clay and the dried cottonwood leaves. Above the bosque, an army of small white clouds covered the sky, mimicking the leaves covering the ground below. Traffic double-crossed each other over a distant bridge, the roar just a low humming rumble. Leaning back on my pack, I could block the view of the bridge with one bent knee, the other leaned into it like two cottonwood trees. I pulled my hat down low over my eyes, the sun shining off the river. Ducks flew over in a whisper of quick wings. Geese called vaguely to each other from much farther upstream. I grew comfortable and sleepy.
After 20 minutes or so, I heard a gentle voice from down where the people had been playing with their dog. Sitting up, I saw a different dog scampering through the sand, heading for the water’s edge – and me. I immediately stood with the stick. The dog made an easy arc and turned toward me. A young man came jogging through the soft sand after the dog, calling softly to it, and to me, saying, “She’s really friendly. Don’t worry, she’s friendly.” Meanwhile, the dog had reached my sandy nest, and I kept turning, keeping the branch between us. The dog did not seem aggressive, but did not stop trying to reach me. She seemed more curious than anything.
The man called her over to him, and she went readily. “You know,” I called back to him, “people always say that. They always say their dog is really friendly.” He continued to pet the dog, but looked up, focused and listening. “And that’s not always the case. People don’t think to ask me what my experience of dogs has been.”
He looked at me with the same gentle kindness he had shown the dog. “What has your experience been with dogs?”
“Being chased, menaced. Having my kids chased. A dog lunged at my toddler in the stroller – he was at the dog’s face level, you know? Having a pit bull – not the dog’s fault, but it was a pit bull – run up, silently, at me from behind while I had my baby in a backpack, so that I had to keep whirling around to keep it in front of me.” I had picked up my pack while I talked, pulling my jacket back on.
“Those experiences sound scary.” He patted the dog, rubbing her sides.
“Yeah.” I watched him pet the dog. The dog laid down, relaxed. “So some people’s dogs are friendly. But some people raise them to be aggressive, you know?”
He smiled. “She’s a puppy still. I’m trying to teach her, we can’t run up and greet every friend we see. I like to bring her here, let her run, let her be off her leash for a little bit. But she still gets a little excited.”
I cocked my head, watching her. “I know they have those dog parks, but they seem like places the dogs get way too excited.”
“That seems like where they do get aggressive sometimes,” he agreed. “I think some people, that’s the only time they take their dogs out at all. I try to get her out here a couple times a week, up in the mountains once a week, but….”
I nodded. “It seems like you’re doing a great job of training her. Those light eyes – is she part husky?”
“Part husky, part coyote, part shepherd. She likes it in the wild.”
“Yeah, she must like it in the wild,” I agreed, my own light eyes shining. “I do too.”
The dog whimpered quietly once, and the man stood up from where he’d been crouching over her. “But you were having a moment here, in the quiet, and we interrupted,” he added. “We’re going to head along the trail. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s helpful to hear, and to remember.”
“Thanks for listening, and talking,” I replied, smiling at his dog, and then at him.
They wandered away happily, over the sand and into the woods.
I stood, looking out over the quiet river. In my opinion, an excellent birthday.
This sand bar was a flood zone. That’s what made it so soft, the flooding, unprotected, the friction of resistance giving way. It’s what we need to flourish. It’s what our hearts need, to be flooded, with feelings and then with understanding. After all, it’s the full, green leaves that feed the trees; it’s our hearts, shaped by our beliefs and our experiences, that feed our lives. What shape my heart takes is up to me.
knot on a cottonwood root in the Bosque Trail, size of my curled hand, which is the size of my actual heart
I’ve been reading “The Book of Joy,” about five days the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent together. Both in their eighties, their friendship is relatively recent, yet open, warm, and blatantly affectionate. Archbishop Tutu had invited the Dalai Lama to his 80th birthday some four years previous; the Chinese government had decided the meeting of these leaders should be prevented, and so, pressuring the South African government, the Dalai Lama was denied a travel visa. Now four years later, the Chinese government could not stop Archbishop Tutu from attending the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebration – in Dharamsala, India, where he lives in exile. And so Tutu arrived, and the two spiritual brothers spent their days together discussing the nature of suffering, and of joy. Joy’s path, they found, led through the valley of sorrow and grief, that deep place where compassion is born.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jacky has been missing for weeks. Many weeks. His mommy has been distraught. All the usual steps have been taken since he’s gone missing. A reward was even offered for his safe return, a last desperate offer like a sobbing plea to an indifferent god.
The grassy courtyard of our apartment complex has been eerily quiet…except for tentative bird calls, one to another, wondering if it was safe to come out.
The “Missing” posters blanketed our neighborhood – on the mailboxes, lightpoles, seemed like on every corner. You’d turn, and there’s Jacky…except, of course, Jacky’s not there.
In the poster photo, his inky black hair stuck out, unruly and shining; his dark eyes didn’t miss a thing. Jacky’s picture on the missing poster was not adorable, though; I mean maybe it was, I wouldn’t know, really. Because Jacky’s a damn cat, and I don’t like cats.
To be fair, I don’t like dogs, either. It’s all of them; I’m anti-pet. I love wildlife instead. Pets drive wildlife away. Pets often kill wildlife.
And Jacky killed birds. My birds. The birds in the long-needled pine tree by my porch, in the gambel oak outside my living room window. He and his adopted brother, Elron, a hefty kitty with dull, crossed eyes, oddly split paws like baseball mitts, and long, cream-colored fur, roamed the tiny courtyard like a hairy George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men,” Jacky doing all the smooth talking, Elron petting the birds a little too hard.
Yeah, but Jacky was the killer. And I really detested him for that. That and he loved to poop in my tiny garden along the back wall. But so did Lenny. I mean Elron. Whoever. It killed my flowers and rendered my herbs inedible, showered and over-fertilized as they were with cat urine and feces.
The damn cats didn’t even live indoors. Their mommy, a sweet young woman who lives a couple apartments down from me, called them in each evening as she came home from work, a high soprano singsong of their names: “Jack? Jacky? Jacky Jack? Elron?” Why do cat people always call their cats in with that operatic falsetto of endearment? And why was Elron always an afterthought? He was probably sitting right there near her porch and she didn’t notice him; Elron’s kind of like that. Anyway, she’d call them in and feed them and cuddle them or whatever you do with cats, and then in the morning, there they always were, huddled in the courtyard grass, Jacky looking guilty and defiant, Elron always kind of dozy and confused. I’d look at them, distrustful, then sigh, locking my door and going off to work.
It’s when I would come home from work that Jacky’s surprises waited for me. A wet pile of cedar mulch in the middle of my otherwise dry garden. Beside my sunny back steps, the delicious smell of warm cat poop, a place NOT to sit and relax after work. My front porch mat wadded from a leaping cat landing on it and skidding across my porch into the large potted plant (that one seemed like Elron, to be honest). Shredded spider plants or similar potted spikes if I left them out to get sun and air. And my favorite: stepping into the courtyard and stumbling on the scene of a grizzly crime, a dead bird clutched in black cat claws on the grass in front of my porch, the body reluctantly abandoned without haste or remorse as I came up the walk.
I shook my keys at Jacky, who bolted away.
Then over the winter holidays, the unthinkable happened: Jacky disappeared. Unthinkable for his mommy, and probably for Elron; for me, Christmas had come early. I’m not a cat killer or someone who sets out traps for strays and calls Animal Control. Cats aren’t worth all that bother. Besides, more will just come to take their place anyway. I was just so glad not to interact with Jacky for weeks. Months. Nearly a season without him.
I went to work, I came home: no garden piles. I traveled, I returned: all was as I left it. I passed an electrical box on my walk to work that had graffiti written on it in black script: RIP gato. A small smile would tug at my lips.
But as the weeks continued, the corner posters began to feel somewhat sad. RIP, gato, I’d think when I saw them on my way to the market, knowing by now that no reward would bring Jacky back. When my neighbor came home in the evenings, she just called out quietly, “Elron…,” who, being Elron, was always right there, waiting for her. No real need to call.
I wondered how she was doing, Jacky’s mommy. Would she adopt another stray? And how was Lenny functioning without his George?
I came home one evening to find Elron sitting awkwardly on my porch, almost hanging off into the periwinkle vines. Cat didn’t even know how to sit lazily on a porch without Jacky. I shook my keys at Elron. He slowly turned one of his eyes to look in my direction, his gaze unfocused. “Go on,” I said, which he did not understand. I waved my hands at him. No response. Elron had either had the most loving upbringing of any cat ever or he had significant brain damage. I walked past him to my front door, turning the key in the deadbolt. He rose expectantly.
“No. Go home,” I said, and used my bag to slowly steer him toward the stairs. He plopped down onto the periwinkle instead, missing the steps. I felt bad for him. “Go home,” I told him again, bothered by his incapacity. He looked up at me and then all around the courtyard, confused. For a minute, I wondered if he was looking for Jacky. I went inside and closed the door.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“One is reminded of one’s humanity and one’s fragility,” said Archbishop Tutu. Relationships, loss, sorrow; sometimes, we find ourselves like Elron, don’t even know how to sit lazily on our porches for the weight of our heavy hearts. We look around our homes and all that is familiar, and we feel confused, bereft. Or like Mommy, all the musical trill gone out of her voice, calling without really calling, gathering without joy.
Tutu advised, “…I think we shouldn’t think we are superwomen and supermen. To hold down emotions in a controlled environment, as it were, is not wise. I would say go ahead and even maybe shout out your sadness and pain. This can bring you back to normal. It’s locking them up and pretending that they are not there that causes them to fester and become a wound.”
The Dalai Lama added, “When I used to get angry, I would shout,” describing his younger days. “When anger develops, think, what is the cause? And then also think, what will be the result of my anger, my angry face, my shouting?” He advises training our minds to take this step back, examining anger as a cover story, an arrow pointing back toward an earlier fear or hurt, disappointment. Toward our sadness.
The writer who recorded their conversations, Douglas Abrams, explained further:
Sadness is seemingly the most direct challenge to joy, but as the Archbishop argued strongly, it often leads us most directly to empathy and compassion and to recognizing our need for one another.
Sadness is a very powerful and enduring emotion. In one study it was found that sadness lasted many times longer than more fleeting emotions like fear and anger: while fear lasted on average thirty minutes, sadness often lasted up to a hundred and twenty hours, or almost five days.
…Sadness is in many ways the emotion that causes us to reach out to one another in support and solidarity.
Archbishop Tutu had said it clearly: “…I think some suffering, maybe even intense suffering, is a necessary ingredient for life, certainly for developing compassion.” Later in their conversations, he added, “It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
The cold weather had retreated, and I sat curled lazily on my couch, still reading “The Book of Joy” by the warm light of Sunday’s late afternoon. A car parked out front, and then I heard Mommy’s high-pitched glee: “Jack? Jacky!”
Jacky Jack the Black Cat was back.
I half-rose from the couch, stretching to look out the porch window. There he was, arrogantly poised in the grassy courtyard, much to my neighbor’s utter relief and joy. She chattered happily along the sidewalk and back to her door, offering food, treats, love and affection.
I felt a small smile tugging at my lips. As I took my trash out along the back sidewalk before going to work Monday morning, I found a huge pile of wet mulch in my garden. Damn cat. All was right in our little world.
You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others.
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The ultimate source of happiness is within us.
— HH Fourteenth Dalai Lama
And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.
— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”
I was reading “The Sea Around Us” when I was offered a companion piece of a very different kind.
“Becoming Ocean: When you and the world are drowning,” her essay is titled. Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago; a denizen of the Great Lakes talking about rising waters. Lake Michigan is not an ocean. But the lake is not her point of reference: her own body is.
Caffrall has inherited PKD, polycystic kidney disease. Her kidneys are riddled with fluid-filling cysts, slowly, almost imperceptibly, flooding her body with the polluted waters of a lifetime, quietly “letting fluid and poison back up into my blood until I die.”
“The ocean and I have a conversation every day, even though I live very far from its shores. It is rising, and I am drowning from within. I have been drowning all of my life….”
— Eiren Caffall, “Becoming Ocean”
The grief of this tragedy pulses through my heart, the saltwater of bad blood inching forward with every beat.
This is how her family has been dying, most before the age of 50. Drowning in their inheritance. Choked with the weight of their broken DNA, unable to rise above. Hope is an organ transplant, not a healthier lifestyle choice. She compares her PKD to the march of climate change across our planet. Her metaphor is slowly drowning ourselves.
My metaphor is self-immolation. Burning myself alive.
As my heart beats this moment, Australia is on fire, another result of climate change. 46 million acres already burned. How do I measure 46 million acres? How do I measure the pain of burning?
The dusty memories of what was Australia are completing a full circumnavigation of the earth. Ash covers us all. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
My life’s losses carry as ash on the winds of my years. It’s such an easy metaphor, it’s ridiculous I didn’t see it before Caffall’s story. My grief, my filter, blotting out the sun, letting me see only red.
Her loss will be her life, slowly darkening as she goes under the weight of too much water.
Must my loss be my life as well, given as the fragile nothing of ashes, darkening as I myself come between the sun and earth, between the source and the now?
I have carried tragedy for too long. I have used it for kindling, carried it in my pack as firestarter for each evening’s campfire. Tragedy, my old friend, my constant companion: it has paid the bills as casework with the homeless; it has chosen my life partners and doomed us to failure; it has been the limestone foundation of the old farmhouse where I grew up, tornadoes swirling above, rainwater flooding through cracks below. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
The new earth, freshly torn from its parent sun, was a ball of whirling gases, intensely hot, rushing through the black spaces of the universe on a path and at a speed controlled by immense forces.
— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”
Liquid metals, flowing minerals, red and seething; yet somehow, even the earth cooled. The image Rachel Carson gave was one of heavy elements consolidating into a molten planet while other lighter elements, hydrogen, oxygen, remained as gases, becoming steam. Rock formed. Clouds gathered around the layering earth. And over eons, the elements returned to each other. It began to rain.
What an image. Rachel wrote quite a few years ago; her science may be simplistic compared to what is known now. But the poetry of her imagery soothes my fiery heart.
As soon as the earth’s crust cooled enough, the rains began to fall. Never have there been such rains since that time. They fell continuously, day and night, days passing into months, into years, into centuries. They poured into the waiting ocean basins, or, falling upon the continental masses, drained away to become sea.
— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”
What Australia needs is rain. What I need is rain.
But I fear Caffall’s drowning. I, too, have been drowning all of my life, in the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness of damage and loss. As if the burning core of me could stop the inexorable rising of the seas of generations who will cry and suffer. As if my volcanic roar could keep making more solid ground under my feet, your feet; as if I might be an unending rock of ages for all I love.
But no one is unending. And no one can be the solid ground under someone else’s feet. We are cracked, leaky foundations of aging stone, barely holding up our own house in the storms of this life. Storms of suffering, but clearing into calm, and even joy; tears that fall like rain, rain we need, even as we fear it.
From the moment the rain began to fall, the lands began to be worn away and carried to the sea.
— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”
Eiren Caffall seems to agree, even as she is dying. Because we are all dying.
For years, I told strangers we were dying, the climate was going to make every single thing over, that they just had to open their eyes to see.
In my experience, a life-threatening diagnosis is one that must be faced. Facing it looks like letting go of the world and the life you had up until the second you heard the news of collapse. That life ends. That world ends. And the world is reborn for you alone. It is reborn and it is destroyed. And you are there to see it, stranded, solitary and broken.
But in that brokenness, if you face it, is the power to change everything, because destroying the old world can break open a light that shines on a new one.
— Eiren Caffall, “Becoming Ocean”
I am terminally human. And I’m tired from carrying my tragedy. It has been heavy, and cold, like an anchor dragging me down when I want to rise above.
Carson says the sea contains the means of its own renewal. The impulse I had as I first reached adulthood was to go out into the world, meet other people, and hear their stories. Bear witness to their tragedies, and their triumphs.
And whenever two currents meet, especially if they differ sharply in temperature or salinity, there are zones of great turbulence and unrest, with water sinking and rising up from the depths and with swift eddies and foam lines at the surface. At such places, the richness and abundance of marine life reveals itself most strikingly.
— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”
I have started on this journey; I need to continue. I cannot simultaneously travel the sea and remain landlocked. That old farmhouse collapsed into its broken foundation years ago; I didn’t have to burn it to the ground. I didn’t have to do anything except continue living my life.
Here where I stand, in the warm light of a new day, I am seeking the balance that can save me: mind and heart, fear and courage, respect and empathy.
Lived experience is the best way to feel a thing. Tragedy gives you experience, but not everyone has the same tragedy; we require openness to each other’s tragedies to reach wisdom. Empathy with those tragedies wakes you up, lets you cross into communication, clarity and eventually action.
— Eiren Caffall, “Becoming Ocean”
I don’t know what I was expecting at the contemporary art museum, but a wall of stacked firewood? No, I was not expecting that.
I was immediately intrigued. It reminded me of home, all the firewood I had cut and stacked behind the ramshackle house with the big fireplace where I raised my kids in Colorado. The house wasn’t so much home, as the fire was. Story time together on the couch, the fire snapping softly; cuddled in a cozy chair with a small boy in jammies, little feet warm and sleepy head nodding. The firewood brought all those memories back as I slowly stepped along the length of the indoor woodpile. It stood cordoned off with a silver cable, my earlier robust life held two feet at bay from where I walked now.
This particular woodpile was built through a long-distance love affair of sorts. Two artists, both indigenous women from opposite sides of the Earth, connected through their written words an idea of hearth and home and family. One envisioned the woodpile for the other; the other chose and laid the wood in neat rows, supporting the one’s offered vision. It was a simple gift, split cedar given and received, given by both, received by both, in physical and spiritual form.
They wrote each other letters, these women who had never met, never seen each other.
The Sami artist in Sweden wrote:
How strange it is, having put you to work without us meeting yet. Not one word spoken.
I am picturing you putting logs on top of the other. Bending your back, lifting…. Small bits and splinters cover the gallery floor…. The sweetness of forest filling the room. An unexpected strength of this sculpture.
She said the exhibit piece, this work, was about dialogue. “An excuse really, for engaging in a conversation, too private for most strangers.”
During these moments,
I perceive the other person as an undiscovered sea,
and I plunge.
It is as a necessity for the survival of our peoples. For the human species. Many men and women of my Nation have drowned alone in their own seas.
I have the urge to talk to another mother. A mother who carries the weight of the past but has her sight on the horizon. Is that you?
What does it mean?
I wish I could see your face. Please tell me, how has it been for you? How old is your child now? Is your body the same?
Is anything the same?
My son is a little more than a year now, and I’m overwhelmed and exhausted.
And all the love. The love!
The Sami artist talked of feeling like she understood nothing before her son came into her life. As if she suddenly woke up with a different brain. “Or is it a different heart?”
The stacked cedar wood holds itself together as if wrapping its arms around itself, holding itself snug, arms to ribs to achingly tired heart. The wood is old, old trees bent to wind and sun, seeking a drink of water and a sheltering hill. The scent is strength, cedar oil preventing rot and insect, giving a soft sheen to the shaggy splits of firewood.
The Dine` artist in New Mexico, the Navajo woman, wrote:
The first time I read your letter I cried. Everything you described is so true to me.
I am so nervous, even though I have been stacking wood all winter – for my grandmother.
And my baby is quiet and calm as long as I am busy and she can watch.
My daughter just turned one year old as well.
I have never been so in love with anyone or could I be as in love, as I am with her.
Indeed I have changed.
She talks of her grandmother. Of it being best her baby never meet the father. Of Dog, her companion and extra guardian of her baby. “Dog and Baby speak a language that I do not understand.”
To me, this is what will make the work complete. After all, who am I stacking wood for, if not my grandma and baby? And what will be our constant from outside to inside, but Dog?
The contemporary museum is a quiet place. I look at the wall of wood, stacked for grandma, for baby, imagining Dog trotting outside to inside.
I remember latching a screen door’s hook, high enough above my three-year-old daughter’s head that she could not reach it. Firewood piled on the front porch. More in the wood shed.
I am indeed changed. It’s good to know.
I feel sometimes like I have been stacking wood all winter. As if I am back there, watching the deer silently cross the snowy pasture, my breath a fog as I bring in more firewood.
That is motherhood. Trimming dead tree limbs and cutting them to length. Splitting the lengths and stacking them under a shelter to keep them dry. Collecting kindling, always collecting kindling. Matches near the fireplace. Ashpit shoveled clean.
Laying the wood on the andirons, a lean-to construction of sticks to get started. Breathing life into the fire in the hearth. Adding more, a little at a time, until it is fully aflame.
It all needs air. The trees as they grow, the woodpile to stay dry, the flames we kindle. The sleepy babies we raise to the scent of wood smoke and crisp snow. The exhausted mothers curled up with babies in front of warm fires.
We learn by stacking a wood pile in preparation for winter, honest firewood become a work of dedication, of love – a work of art. The fuel of a life well-lived. The fuel and the life a dialogue, a conversation we have with ourselves, like our breath hanging visible before us as we step outside in winter.
What is your greatest fear?
I have two: 1) I won’t live my true life but will settle for a reasonable facsimile; and, 2) My children will make all the same mistakes I made, rendering the facsimile an exquisitely ironic exercise in crushing futility.
So actually, that’s still just one terrible, double-edged fear.
I’m re-reading my dad’s battered paperback copy of Blue Highways, the very first book William Least Heat Moon ever published. At 38, having lost his wife and his job simultaneously, he left town to see what he could learn along the small back roads of America, traveling a wobbling loop around the country in an old white van he named Ghost Dancing. By the time he had gone 10,000 miles and was looping back toward home, he started to realize he was actually running, avoiding the issues. Avoiding the feelings. Drinking beer instead.
Except he had asked a lot of people a lot of questions. He fearlessly struck up conversations everywhere he went. He asked strangers he met about their towns, about regional history and historical characters, and got unexpected answers about the character of a man’s heart and about what anonymous people living deep in nowhere deeply believed in.
As he drove along through a wooded area of Maine, windshield wipers beating against drizzle and fog, he described how his journey was affecting him:
I lost myself to the monotonous rhythm and darkness as past and present fused and dim things came and went in a staccato of moments separated by miles of darkness. On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension – change is.
Hard lessons come this way, losing oneself in a monotonous rhythm of confusion and foggy avoidance, where dim images and feelings come and go, disjointed moments you notice but don’t understand separated by miles of heavy darkness.
What’s so difficult for me, now having entered my 54th year on the long and winding road, is to have some familiarity with some of the foggy parts of these old highways, but not be able to give directions or travel advice to the people I love most. Not because they don’t want it; I think they actually might, these grown children of mine. It’s because, when marking the signposts of significant change looming ahead, time is not a viable dimension for my struggling travelers. Time is not visible. Speaking to them from my experiences in the past, I’m just a voice on the wind as they speed by.
This is about men who won’t see causes and therefore can’t predict effects.
Least Heat Moon gathered a lot of pithy quotes and pearls of wisdom along the old blue highways. A good life, a harmonious life, is a prayer. Hardships are good; they prepare a man. The biggest hindrance to learning is fear of showing one’s self a fool.
But he didn’t gather those quotes from his parents. They came from his own experiences and travels. A man’s work is doing what he’s supposed to do, and that’s why he needs a catastrophe now and again to show him a bad turn isn’t the end.
This is a truth I know. Time has never been my fourth dimension. I struggle to follow its lengthy ordered flow, except as those signposts of directional change: Here is when I left home. Here is when babies were born. Here is when my father died. Just like on those blue highways, the noticeable signage is few and far between. It’s the journey itself that makes you look for the guidance and meaning.
I wish I could tell them, “Don’t ignore the mile markers.” Tiny little numbers on unassuming poles, they are easy to overlook. They are your reminders, as you stare unfocused and exhausted out the car window of your frustrating situation: life is rolling by.
Mile by mile. Year by year.
The problem of what we’re doing lies in deciding what’s the benefit of history and what’s the burden.
You learn a thing or two after all those miles. What you need, and what you don’t. Who to trust, who not. Why ignoring inconvenient, uncomfortable feelings is as pointless as shooting bullet holes in the road signs.
Those feelings ARE your road signs. Read them. Read them well. And talk about them, with people you meet along your travels. Go ahead and ask, if you’re unsure, for directions, for guidance, for the best bridge to get you over troubled waters…for any small piece of advice. For wisdom, hard-earned, that might be shared.
If your highway doesn’t lead toward wisdom, why are you on it?
To be wise is to have learned life lessons. Not to be holy or magical or special in any way. It is a part of maturity. It is a sign, often seen in conjunction with gray hair and a wrinkled smile, that you might be someone who’s been around, seen a thing or two, and could point me in the right direction.
Travel your own roads, and I will, too. May they cross in my favorite place, the middle of nowhere. On occasion, I have been known to stand smack dab in the crossroads with my arms open wide, turning and looking at the wide, unbroken sky in all directions. There’s always room for two in that crossroads. And nothing but time once you get there.
Then he was told:
remember what you have seen
because everything forgotten
returns to the circling winds.