As with any expedition, I had plans. I had expectations to see the bighorn sheep that inhabit the rugged, austere Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. There is something about expectations that lead us to …elsewhere. I wanted to see them. Having spent days wandering the Basin & Range areas of the Southwest over the past 11 years, I never spotted them.
It’s good to have goals. That is what compels me to spend nights in the desert freezing my ass off and days, getting burnt by the sun. Still, being fixated on an outcome lends itself to inevitable disappointment.
What I did experience was something else. The difficulty of traversing the range made me realize the limits of my body and the courage of my resolve. I climbed up into those volcanic crags hoping for something that never arrived. The answer might be patience. My pain and frustration was a demonstration in surrender.
To paraphrase Annie Dillard, any good hike will do. The more arduous the terrain, the more determined I was to continue on. It wasn’t a smart decision. I could have lost my footing. There are endless possibilities. What I did find is the stark answer that I am not any more entitled to what I want than the next animal.
On the rocks, I watched clouds and the agave and brittlebush that shift in the wind. Spectacular sights are random. They are miracles in their accidental nature. A woman who spends 24 hours alone in the wilderness is not deserving of miracles. Things appear with time, patience, and silence. Gifts arrive when the receiver is most open to them.
To be mad as a hornet. To be at the boiling point. Hot. Seeing red. Anger is so poetically expressed that it is a gut-punch to see and feel it. It can burn with the hottest lava and remain for days among tumbled embers.
They say that anger is actually fear. It’s suppressed fear over something, at some level, that manifests as anger. Usually it triggers our feelings of lack of control. It disrupts our security. There is always a perceived threat that lies beneath the surface of anger’s object.
I woke up yesterday to its small flames under my pillow. This little flickering friend likes to ignite each day. Sometimes it waits patiently for midday; other times, when it is especially cruel, just as I am about to sleep. It’s there, and I don’t like its presence.
I have tried to rival it with logic.
Love has tried its best to hold the anger, tight as a fist wrapped in metal.
God has been asked to enter in and sweep it out onto the street.
Yes, I have asked my friends how to expel it. There good words of wisdom, I have tried, but it remains.
Now, I walk with it uncomfortably.
Each day I start my practice. I get out my list. I name the pain, the fear, how it still hurts. I call it into being and I give it my own name, my part. I hurt myself in the absence of the offender.
It’s an old wound, this anger.
Like a friend, I must ask its true name. What is it I need to face? If it is something to be changed, I ask for the willingness to change. If it is something that is outside of my control, I ask for the ability to let go.
It’s practice. Anything hard takes practice and a simplicity of repeating steps. I’m not sure when the anger will be lifted. It will, though, eventually. It reminds me that pain, like pleasure, is fleeting. But when the pain is self-made, the first realization must be one of choice. Do I let loose this small dragon, or do I continue to stroke it?
Today I am choosing to let it loose. I always have the option to pick it up tomorrow. For my serenity and recovery, I hope not.
Recently I came face to face with failure. It didn’t seem like such a big deal because it had to do with a hike. I have headed back on a trail without finishing before, but this was something I was determined to accomplish…and didn’t.
On Saturday I set out to hike Picketpost Mtn on the Tonto National Forest, close to Superior, AZ. Those who are familiar with this hike know that it is a hard one, mostly because you have to rock scramble on loose, crumbly rock and steep terrain. I was woefully unprepared.
Loaded up with water, my camera, lenses, and lacking the right shoes to keep a grip on the boulders, I set out on the trail. I’m used to quick elevation climbs at this point, so the gain wasn’t causing me any issues. I thought, this must be why so many people turn back, because of the steep climb. Who knew? As I climbed, the views became more dramatic and expansive. The weather swirled in the distance and the wind swept the desert scrub and tiny wildflowers.
I stopped at several key points to take some photos and realized that I had too much weight on my pack to be balanced. I had to be especially careful not to slip and to move my weight from back to front, as not to pull myself backwards.
Why did I want to do this hike on an impulse? I knew that it was a challenge and I have known a few of my friends to do it, but it was much more than that.
I wanted to set out to find some reserve within myself to make me feel good enough again.
Again? Have I ever?
There are times in my life that I have felt on top of the game – what game – the game of feeling better than or at least equal to. Mostly, I have always felt like I never measured up and related to anyone, like I missed the instructions that allow me to finish things with confidence and success as I saw my peers do.
I’m what you might call a Jill of All Trades. I am just okay enough to do many things, but never that superstar that gets kudos. As I get older, I don’t get the attention I used to get from men, and the women I know are so wrapped up in trying to work and raise kids, few of us can do that bonding to help bolster each other up.
We all struggle with feeling like we’re lacking something. The hole of the soul we might fill with the thrill of the chase, alcohol or drugs, a winning streak, that final triumph of a pursuit that goes well. Now that I am sober, who or what can fill that eternal void of the restless soul? What can define me?
These are the questions of an unprepared woman looking for answers.
On the nasty precipice of that mountain, I had a fast fall when my footing gave way to loose rock.
I slid down quickly.
It all happened and I had NO control. Gravity did her job.
My blessing was a strong Manzanita tree who cradled me, cut and bruised, but still intact. I was able to gather my wits and crab-crawl my way to a safer bench.
You would think I would have thrown in the towel after that, but no. I climbed and tripped, cried and inched my way up and away into the setting clouds until I could no longer take it. I was hurting and scared. The storm was coming in and dark would soon be upon me, and there was no way I wanted to navigate that mountain in the darkness.
I came back down to the ground without completing the climb.
I am still disappointed, but I realized some lessons through all of this.
Failing means you actually are doing something that challenges you. I am willing to take a risk.
Stubborn pride and unrelenting ego are formidable foes. Being humble is being teachable.
My worth is only defined by me. What you think of me is none of my business, nor should it be.
If I act as if I am someone who is already whole, I am. What a paradox! Thinking about the ways I am not *there yet* only result in mental gymnastics. My actions change my thoughts.
If it isn’t required and doesn’t bring me joy, don’t do it. Life is full of necessary pains, so why add to it? Have some fun.
And, on that note, I bought myself some fun socks:
I find myself sitting on my bed today ugly-crying while listening to a Don Henley tune. You know things are bad when you pull out every loser song you can think of to drown your sorrows in the finest pop of the 1980/90s.
Broken hearts. They suck, don’t they?
My expectations got a little grand over something that wasn’t real. It probably never was real, but being a fanciful creative, I thought it was. This is why magic can get in the way. I was talking to my dogs about what a great life they have not having to worry about crushes and broken hearts, confusion and angsty lust. They seem to be so contented, why would they bother to delve into the disgusting world of modern romance? Why do I continue to do it!
It’s ok, I say to myself. Everyone gets hurt from time to time, and what was I thinking? It’s ok, I say, but it is not. Being in the first year of recovery, my heart is an open wound. “Don’t go there,” wise women warned. But I did. I lost face.
This is not the morose post I intended it to be, because I still find some humor in my circumstances. At 45, I should know that wishing muddy water would become clear by wading in it just won’t work. Still, we wish. I wish.
I think there is humor in pain and wisdom in wading. Instead of crying, I compiled a sweet list for lonely hearts on what to do when your heart is broken. Here’s to us! xx
50 Things to Do When Your Heart Is Broken
Listen to Don Henley songs.
Dress like Ozzy and say it’s your new look.
Send him/her queen size panty hose, an emu, double-headed dong, rank cheese, or whatever you fancy – it’s the thought that counts.
Practice slipping on banana peels so you can do it authentically.
Compose a limerick.
Find a hobby, like Irish dancing or ghost busting.
Become obsessed with Fran Drescher.
Make your own pasta.
Know that this too shall pass (like stool).
Try on bathing suits (that hurts worse than the broken heart).
Grow your armpit hair.
Flirt with everyone. (That 79 year old mailman is looking less decrepit these days.)
Go to the movies alone.
Make a collage of hateful thoughts.
Listen to your mother.
Laugh at inappropriate moments.
Get to know your home town.
Put lipstick on a pig.
Go gay, or a little gay, or straight, or just be gay. It’s all good.
Get new underwear.
Use 80s slang in the office.
Adopt a shelter dog (just do that anyway).
Volunteer (stop thinking about that asshole and volunteer).
Reenact Casablanca with puppets.
Tell everyone he or she is dead to you, then wear black to every gathering.
Get more sun. Energy vampires probably don’t like the sun either.
Do that thing you always wanted to do, but were too scared to do it.
Don’t drown your sorrows…dry them, like beef jerky.
Lend a listening ear.
Be the sexy mofo you are.
Change a habit.
Make a list of why you are a great catch. Believe it.
Get your heart broken again.
Pan for gold.
Take lots of bubble baths (water is cathartic).
Stick with your friends.
Focus on creativity, whatever it is for you.
Make a mixed tape of empowering songs.
Buy yourself some toys (you know, wink*wink).
Love more, not less. Because you will get way over this, sweetie. You will.
It’s cold…Frigid, to be exact. 36 degrees in the Valley of the Sun is no joke for a desert rat, and this temperature is frosty! I’ve avoided the western Supes for some time because I always thought them to be too crowded, but changed my mind with a little prompting from a persuasive friend. I am glad I did.
Up the canyon, I can hear the quick crack of a raven and the shrill of a hawk, but I can see neither. My leather shoes are stiff from the cold and I can feel every step as we ascend the trail. Ice forms over a wash bed and rock slicks where waterfalls are made during storms.
I can understand why this trail draws so many here. There is a magic that does not diminish with each person who walks this path, whether ancient or contemporary. It’s a building up of shared memory: the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.
I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of pain that morning. One slip on black ice or a tumble off an unsteady rock, yes. That’s the risk you take when you hike, but I wasn’t thinking about that obvious kind of mishap. Life’s unpleasant pains, when we want very badly to avoid them, that’s the sort I was thinking of.
In my not too distant past, I would give way to curiosity. Well, actually, impulsivity. And when there was pain at the ready, I welcomed it because I expected it. It didn’t cause much grief because there is no real investment in the immediate.
Then, there’s the painstaking type of pain, when you put the time into something.
Time, work, more work, more time.
A mountain of moments that, oh my god, require trust and perseverance….And no guarantees.
The grueling time it takes for anything to emerge, and the elements that work away at them, that’s what a mountain is. Those needling storms and ice and the cracking open of heat, it knows.
Fragile animals, I cannot forgot this; we are no mountains. People die looking for gold or the trail they’ve lost. People lose sometimes.
There’s always a choice to turn back. I will keep going.
Second chances, I have had many. Whatever it is, call it God or the Universe, or the Everlasting Energy, has stopped the trajectory of my chaos, that endless comet of catastrophes, and set me back on the path I was meant to be on. Sometimes a bit bruised, sometimes dusty, but when it comes to second chances, I have had more than a few.
Yet, I continued to veer off course.
Some of us test the waters to the point of drowning, and find ourselves in the tide looking up at the stars, never knowing how it is that the tide always sends us back to safety. But sometimes it doesn’t. I know too many who never got a second chance, who just washed away into the distant welcoming deathtide.
When I was in the hospital last summer, it occurred to me that I may not have many chances left. Hitting 40, you realize that the romantic idea of dying young passed you by and here you are in middle age. No smoky car engulfed in flames. No overdose. No suicide penned in the name of lost love.
You begin to ponder all of the crazy neuroses and freak accidents that your younger self never considered, like dying in a horrible washing machine accident or being speared by a swordfish at Pike Place Market. Not so flippantly speaking, death ain’t all that great.
You start to covet your wrinkles and less-than-tight abs a little more. The things you did to bring down the lights seem cruel and petty. Who wants to go down like that?
Nth chances, I am well aware of. I live with a bit of death on my shoulder, just to keep me on my toes. And it isn’t about fearing death; it is just a healthy respect.
Self-destruction, I have put away that book and crawled out the window. When you know, viscerally so, that it can all end (and will) you come closer to life than you ever had before. We are creatures of intimacy. I forgot this for a long time, but it was there sleeping like Rip Van Winkle, and Life pulled me back up to see the stars.
The morning was punctuated by the sudden call of a Curved-billed Thrasher. Thrashers are aptly named, and precede all other desert birdsongs with their single, piercing cry that jolts the weary out of slumber. It was this single cry that broke the spell of my twilight meditation.
Like the thrasher, there is nothing quite like a sudden illness to dolt us into awareness. This has been true for me. While I am relatively OK now, there is a constant hum – a background noise – that is ever-present. Something that whispers to me that I am so fragile, that I am just another animal.
Worry is a habit that requires cultivation, and I have been heavily cultivating it in my habits. But these mornings of autumn chill and the late arrival of daybreak, I am prone to forget my troubles.
“Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.”
― Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
Over the course of my life, I have written extensively about my background. Candidly, unapologetically. Most of my readers know I am in recovery, grew up poor, and overcame a lot of trauma as a child…
I think the word we insist on using now is survivor.
And it is true; I am a survivor.
But here’s the thing, in an email conversation I was having recently with a wise woman, I discovered that this survivor label no longer serves me. In a way, it has limited me to always being the abused kid, the writer-alcoholic, the poor adult hopping from one near-miss tragedy to the next.
It seems that while survivor might be a badge of courage, it also assumes some basic things about a person, allocating him or her to a moment in time when surviving was the only goal.
And this isn’t even a post about thriving, although thriving is something most people aspire to, survivor or no. This is about the stories we tell ourselves, and in turn, the world.
Inadvertently, in all of my surviving, I forgot the other aspects of who I am and landed precisely in the middle of the narrative I created these last few years.
For example, how I ended up in Phoenix was not so surprising given the narrative of the life I was creating – preferring the wild fantasy to the facts. A survivor just goes with the pull of the tides, right? No. There was a deliberation of story, of belief.
But what would have happened had I done something else? Hmm.
What would have happened if the life I thought I loathed was just mirroring the story I kept creating rather than actual reality or what could have come to fruition?
I’d say any one of us is capable of re-writing a story in the moment – scrapping the old narrative when we find it going in a prescribed direction. Almost every decision we make is based on these stories, from work to romance; family to identity.
All of this has prompted me to JUST STOP TELLING THOSE DAMNED STORIES. Stop already.
Stop telling stories about being poor as shit, drunk as hell, and even…as much as it hurts me to leave her behind…lost and alone at age 10.
Because these stories aren’t where I live anymore, or what I live.
So expect something new from me in the coming months. Wildly, fervently, freeing-ly new… as I set pen to paper, and begin.
It’s been a while since I have written anything. No poems. No essays. No short stories.
When I look at the newsfeeds of my prolific friends, I feel a little guilty. “Have you been writing,” one friend asks? Another inquires if I am at least submitting work for publication. Strangely, I have made scant progress on anything related to my own creative fiction and nonfiction.
This uncomfortable truth doesn’t take away the tinges of guilt and envy when I am surrounded by writers and artists who are producing circles around me. And, sure, enlightenment says this isn’t a race or competition… but, we all know it is. At least, the business of what we do compels us to be productive. To produce.
Most of us need the feedback, accolades, connection, and (although laughable at times) financial support we gain from taking our work to the streets. Some might argue the value of the creative process is moving through the creative process, as if just doing is enough.
For spiritualists and believers, the creative process is communication between self and Spirit or God. For others, and I would dare say the majority, writing, painting, music, etc. is our means of expression, communicating our deepest, most intimate selves (souls?) to the world (and, hey, maybe even the means to earn a living).
There are also many others whose work is the catalyst for social and political change – a meaningful vision, an ideal.
Back to Me
Through all of the definitions and pressures to produce for reasons both menial and purposeful, I seem to have lost my way. For several months I worried that I was simply bored with my writing. I was restless. I wandered around looking for something I couldn’t seem to find.
Sheepishly, I took all of those “what is your true calling” quizzes. I re-read the Enneagram (Tragic Romantic 4, no surprise). I took all of the career path tests and continued to draw the Writer card. Dammit. My other choices: Clergy or Psychologist.
Writers are akin to preachers, after all, channeling the message of the unseen, unexpressed, and under-appreciated.
“Writers are healers… words are balm,” one friend reminds. The narrative of our pain can conjure healing.
But, lately, I am neither wordsmith evangelist nor wounded healer. Even poetry seems flat to me, a personal chore, like pumicing dead skin. That old glass slipper that once fit perfectly doesn’t seem to encapsulate my big toe now. Bluntly, I am fucking terrified.
Still, in my terror, I refuse to produce for the sake of saying, “Hey, look, I made something!” (says every potty-training toddler).
Another friend lamented, and I will paraphrase, “There are too many photographers and not enough readers.” I argued against this notion of “too many,” but can understand his point.
People are writing and producing art more than ever before with the advent of print-on-demand and the vanity press. We’re all looking for a little appreciation, I guess. To be heard, seen, validated. Through the billions of Tweets and fragments, photos and paintings, the practice of the creative life has been shanghaied.
Let me say it again: the practice…
I’m aghast at the grammatical errors found in professional articles and essays. If the pros can’t even manage the discipline to edit and hone skills, I really cannot rail against the amateur. In essence, we are in a creative frenzy, a race to stay ahead of the ADD public.
It’s as if, culturally speaking, we are still living the message of those 1990s Baby Einstein, Baby Monet, Baby Mozart cds … we believe talent just kinda makes itself. Everyone’s an artist, right?
Practice takes too long. Being unproductive means no attention. And, god forbid, the humble role of the student, of being willing to be taught.
The Muse is Dead… Long Live the Muse
None of this is exactly hot off the press news. And, I am not sure analyzing the state of the arts is going to alleviate my fucking terror at my own lack of motivation.
I’m driven by the same insecurity of silence. I want to have my muse back NOW and sell books that will actually be read. But, I am cursed with having to take my own mad advice.
So, maybe I will wait it out some more and see what shakes. Stay curious. Be zen about it.
Tomorrow I am going to one of my favorite mountains. She and I know I won’t share anything about it with you. Because, at least for now, the practice needs to be enough.
As an October baby, I have always loved autumn. Growing up in Southern Indiana, with its poplar, redbud, walnut, and dogwood tree-covered hills, I naturally seek out places in Arizona similarly rich with plant diversity, and especially this time of year.
For those of us living in the desert, it’s necessary to adjust the senses for less garish autumnal finery. Those gilded colors I came to expect in October are hidden in washes and dry creek beds… with the remnant deaths of monsoon wildflowers, strewn against sand and cobble. The drift of fallen sunflowers and wine-hued amaranth fills the roadside ditches. And, the unexpected glance out toward the Estrella Mountains, where the wide Gila flood plains curve under the trunks of gold-trimmed Cottonwoods, conjures up nostalgia.
But, yesterday I needed the symbolic autumn of my youth, the overt heralding of change. Yesterday, I needed canyons.
So, a friend and I set out to explore one of myriad canyons of the Mogollon Rim, a massive escarpment of limestone and sandstone that defines the southernmost edge of the Colorado Plateau. This is an area rife with deep canyons that spider out and create enormous gorges. The views are so easily lost to bewilderment. With its maze of ponderosa pine and rock, the imagination ponders how easy it would be to descend into one of those unnamed canyons and never be found again.
Our hike, however, led us to one canyon in particular… small in scope and challenge, Pivot Rock Canyon was the perfect choice.
Not really in the mood for thrills and chills, I sought a hike that would allow time for contemplating, tree-gazing, adorning the hair in yellowing oak and scarlet wild geranium leaves and burnt orange fern tendrils. The pace of this hike: easy-going… I’d find its description online, “…good for kids and dogs.” It is a daydreamer’s place, a small, wet capillary in the pulse of an otherwise dry pine body.
Starting out on an old jeep trail, we meandered through a natural park… there, some of the oaks and walnuts had begun to change their hues and a few hallowed aspens danced in pale yellow. The ground was wet from the evening’s rainstorm… the air smelled of fungi, decaying leaves, pine resin… and it was HEAVENLY.
With my eyes fixed on the canopy above, I could have remained – lost for hours, just lying on a blanket spread on the musty, rich earth, breathing in the leaf-rot as if it could be the finest, most sensory-stimulating perfume.
Felled trees arched trunks and broken branches, downward… everything moved in the direction of slope and cliff, boulder and ridge. I, too, felt as though I had succumbed to the fall. A fall.
It is true. I had taken a rather hard fall recently, one that shook the roots and left me feeling like the only direction would be down with the drift, the torrent of summer storms, bashed and bruised – as any living thing – an instrument of greater change.
In autumn, the earth wears its mask of jewels. The harvest is a time of celebration, but only because we know what is around the forest bend – the dark nights that are closed to growth, the severe “Do not disturb,” the fin of the final reel. It doesn’t matter what yesterday’s intention was. It matters not what was felt. Now is the time we near ourselves to the ticking of choice. Accept or not. That is the inevitability of ends.
Looking out across a meadow park, my friend and I come upon a stand of massive oaks and the last of the season’s mullein. The quickening wind moves between thoughts and occasional words. It’s important to hike with those whose need for silence matches your own.
At the end of the canyon, the remnants of an old concrete cistern attest to a once active spring. Above us, the faint hum of motorists along Highway 87 snake their way between destinations. This was not to be a long journey. The canyon, though tangled and wild, ends abruptly after a few miles, joining up with its sister canyons along the splintered map of the plateau’s vast rise.
Canyons have a way of leading us along one adventure, only to dash our hopes with a sudden wall of tumbled rocks, then forcing us along on a different course. The dictates of its severe angles, weather patterns, movement of water… There is a beginning and end. There are lost trails, twisted ankles, water too deep to avoid.
But, this journey was forgiving and I made peace with the hopeful wishes of being human, of falling against those hard edges and angles I was not prepared to meet. I breathed it all in. I took a last look at the shivering leaves, still beautiful beneath the afternoon sun.