“Therefore, the places in which we have experienced day dreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
When I was a young girl, I used to spend many hours sitting on my grandparents’ porch, gazing at the wide field across the road. The field seemed enormous then – and frighteningly as vast as space itself. I remember a distinct sense of loneliness as I looked across that empty space and watched the sun descend. At the same time, just under the loneliness, a sense of hope, of fullness.
It’s been 6 years since I have been back. The old house is now in the possession of another family. Things, as they do when we age, seem smaller, more contained.
The last time I was there we said goodbye to my grandfather and buried him on the edge of yet another field, familiar as home since the bones of many family members rest there, too.
Before returning to the desert, I sat at the edge of that field, among violets and freshly mowed grass, and breathed in the enormity again, the space that made me feel so small against it.
I was born a child of the woods. Open space, more than the darkness of dense pine stands and overgrown creek beds, seemed to contain the elements of childhood fear: exposure, vulnerability, and enormity. In the woods I was never alone. I was surrounded by brother trees and sister animals – deer, feral dogs, squirrels, cows. In their life was a recognition of my own.
But something happened. I grew to love vastness.
Throughout my adult life, my choices have always led me to the assurance of fields, prairies, deserts – perhaps to finally embrace the price of life, complete vulnerability to it.
As I now gaze across another vast terrain – one of thorn and rock – I still seek that fullness, that hope I felt as a girl on my grandparents’ porch. To meet the emptiness feels like surrendering to something more powerful than my hemmed in perception and fears.
No matter where I am, the edge of a verdant field or beneath a burning sun on blackened rock, there is always space – and in this space, possibilities beyond the imaginings of a girl and the regrets of a woman.
Up ahead is a small path that winds through a secret canyon. There I see the morning open up to sky. A cliff drops to the world below, some 2,000 feet to the belly of Sulfur Springs Valley. Plunging mercilessly, the creek follows stone, pulled by the heavy hand of the mountain’s descent. Water has cut through this lonely gorge for centuries, but my eyes are new here.
Many times in wild places I find myself staring at books to locate the botanical name of an unknown plant or identify a set of tracks, but on this morning I put the books away and set out for wonder. Wonder is of course the root of knowledge, but how often do we pause at wonder alone? Do we move so quickly from a state of awe to information that we miss something, a primal yearning and appreciation for that, which, unspoken by man, undocumented by the hand of scientist or layperson, slips our grasp of respect?
Wonder… is it missing?
Wading through waist-high sorrels and ferns, I crept deeper into the places where morning had not reached its hand. I imagined fairies dipping down to drink from a curled leaf. It seems possible here, where the verdant life of the forest has not yet been dimmed. And why not think of fairies?
The dripdripdrip of new rain on cold stone created a soundscape and I was mesmerized again by the passive yet strong pull of forces moving us, the trees, the water, the stones to the last leap of sky.
The Pinaleño Mountains, the Grahams, Mount Graham, or Dzil Nchaa Si An (Big Seated Mountain, Western Apache), is a remote “Sky Island” in Southeastern Arizona, offering more than 7,000 feet of vertical relief – a true wonder among Sonoran/Chihuahuan desert low lands. This range has many names, many claims, even in modernity. Pinaleño, meaning many deer, seems an appropriate name – the area is rich with mule deer and white-tailed deer, suitably designed for the steep ridges and cliffs, angles no biped can maneuver with such grace.
This September, however, no deer were to be found in the obvious landscape of sight. The once lively meadows of fawns, does, and the occasional aloof buck were even bereft of the usual scat pellets I might expect on such an inviting landscape of open parks with brooks lapping against the wild blue bells and yarrow. The Pinaleños are a dreamy place, to be sure, a place where all are drawn by watersong and starry views.
As the silence was broken by an ATV, I realized why the deer were in hiding. A bow hunter and his monster of mud and plastic came through the forest. He stopped long enough to shout a question at me, lamenting that he hadn’t seen a single deer all morning, as his ATV engine pierced the air and echoed down through the gorges. Deer are wiser than we credit them. Their behaviors often change with the seasons, with our malevolence, with the pressing weight of sound and intent.
The Pinaleño Mountains have had their share of embittered discussions. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Vatican – among other astronomers and financial backers – decided to help fund the University of Arizona/Mount Graham International Observatory. Mount Graham, with its low humidity and light pollution, was deemed ideal for such an observatory, and the efforts to build were pushed ferociously into motion.
Among these peaks, in the conifer and spruce-fir forests, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel resides – a species only found on this range and surely impacted by the controversial observatory and the continued mixed use and management practices of a federal forest.
Opposition to developing an observatory should have held some weight since the Pinaleños were, in fact, nominated by the United States Forest Service for designation as a Traditional Cultural Property and considered sacred to many, especially to the Western Apache tribes. As the battle raged, involving the leaders of most of the Indian Nations in the United States and Europe, indigenous rights groups, environmentalists, biologists, and anthropologists, the mountain’s chief harbinger of impact, the Mount Graham red squirrel became the fight’s pinnacle mascot.
Ironically, some of these Mount Graham red squirrels are now being housed at the Phoenix Zoo, kept in a controlled climate exhibit designed to mimic their former Montane forest home. The imperiled squirrels are apparently a part of a conservation program, where, if successful, they will be released “… back into the wild…”
A wild of our imagination, I fear.
And, how can the red squirrel ever win? How can the fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An and other sacred mountains ever be recognized? Among cell towers, telescopes, developed campgrounds along the Swift Trail, the ongoing efforts of wildfire and wildlife “management”, and the continued paving of roadways leading to Mount Graham’s recreational offerings… it’s all too clear.
Whatever Spirit of Wildness kept safe the dense population of black bears, the important prehistoric shrines and stories of ancestors, and the troops of that elusive red squirrel may not be powerful enough to hold back the inevitable future, a future that seems to have forgotten its equally sacrosanct call to wonder, to the sacred, to what is most precious on earth.
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.
“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” – Charles Dickens
“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.” – Gaston Bachelard
Home casts its spell over us long before we realize the gravity of its enchantment. The walls become the blanket between our body and the enormity of the universe. The windows bring in the sun’s warmth and the stars reflect their mirrored points in all directions. We mark the voyages we will take by the courses of our return, the ways we navigate back to home, again and again.
We rise from the same bed every morning, responding to the call of a new day or the single threatening pulse of the alarm. We are performing a ritual when we wake, make our coffee, brush our teeth. We skim the news headlines of the outside world, updates from friends in other continents. We wrap ourselves in our nest of charms and try to escape people whose lives are rife with tragedy. Wars, famines, regimes, brutality… these are the terrible fates of those far from our home.
But what is home exactly, if it is not the static entity composed of brick and mortar?
For every one of us, the definition of home changes. Home has changed for me several times over the years. No longer are we remaining in one home for several generations (or even a decade now), but rather choosing the mobile life of modern nomads, seeking better paying jobs, greener pastures. Perhaps that is why we long for a concept or a story of home, rather than rely upon our grandparents’ concept of place? Perhaps, too, that is why we cherish our symbolic homes of memory, heart, spirit, daily rituals that are veiled in consumption and desire, from that morning Starbucks coffee to the Lake Tahoe family vacation.
Home, therefore, must come alive throughout our day, in the acts that create comforts no longer found on the family farm or in our father’s home.
Home as Memory
“Home is in my longing…” “It was the home of my father, where he grew orchids…” “We built this home when we were married, almost 70 years ago…”
Today is my grandmother’s 92nd birthday. I spoke to her while driving down from my two-day sojourn to the craggy, rugged canyons of the Dripping Springs Mountains, where the last of the Arizona monsoon rains poured through granite and limestone. This is a place where I once followed mountain lion tracks into the chaparral forest of scrub oak and manzanita, searching for that wildness that needs me, that I perceive to need me.
I am never ready to leave these places, these forests of imagination – landscapes that hold more of my devotion than calculated homes in the arms of lovers or friends. Here is a longing of the sailor setting off to sea. Here I am uprooted yet devoted.
What is home?
My grandmother’s voice on the end of the line spoke of an angelic recollection of her 70-year marriage, never quite ready to depart. She spoke of memories of grandchildren dancing with fireflies near the garden, the rough hands of the man she loved for years – those spaces that nothing now can fill.
We whisper apologies to the now, knowing we – in our angels’ arms – can never begin to be present. Everything builds upon itself, after all, stone by stone.
To the paramour of memory, home resides in the photographic stills of brothers and sisters, the grainy film traditions of Christmas trees or holiday exchanges, memorabilia of births and deaths. These conceptual homes drift in and over us. They are never permanent and never quite the same. Memory, it is said, works in pleasant states. We remember with greater clarity those moments of joy than those of pain or ache.
Our brains, in essence, carry the nostalgic home of our past into the future, residing with us as identity, an unfulfilled longing to re-create but to never grasp totally.
Home as Mirror
Home as an object – We are expressed in the things we adore, in the things we adorn. Favorite antiques, a trunk containing our grandmother’s wedding dress, our kitchen table where we share our bread and wine. Objects of desire. Objects that reflect our layered years. From the first snipped locks of a child’s hair, to tea pots, to grain piled high in a barn loft, these things contain a bit of soul. The orchards in July – can you smell them now?
I remember my face pressed against the cold concrete blocks of the root cellar, where jars of tomatoes, green beans, new potatoes, and pickles lined the interior wall – cobwebbed walls that smelled of home, the secret place of my hiding, the fearless place of darkness.
We spend our lives looking for these places reflected in the outreaches of another’s world, in cobble-stoned streets of tourist towns, in the slight hope of recognition. And, when we find them – the traces of familiarity looking back at us, we hold tight to the closing space.
It is the nearness of home we seek.
We look for a spouse who holds within him the odor of crushed rosemary, the scented walls and tumbling paths. We want to find mirrored places: the way a new house reminds us, if only in angles and arches, of who we once were years ago.
Home as Spirit
“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home… for new metaphors for life. It leads home.” – Hermann Hesse
My life has been composed of symphonic wandering – a music of movement. For those of us called to the road, home is a most curious and confusing of concepts. We are nomads, fixed only to our own soles. Many misunderstand us. Even more accuse us of not being drawn to place, committed and devoted to one single plot of land. I would argue otherwise.
In wandering, one may come closer to Self, just as the home can mirror Self. On foot, we may feel even closer to the truth of existence. As strangers, we hold no allegiance to one place, but we are also untethered to stogy, logged opinions and facts. We may walk through the woods and see familiar faces: lupine, dayflower, aster, grey fox, white-tailed deer, bobcat.
Likewise, the strangers among the streets of Denver, Chicago, Portland find their rituals in an old map, a street that beckons, conversation dancing over the heads of commuters on trains. Home is on one’s back, in a deep purse, or simply sheltered in the heart of the adventurous.
There is an underlying spirit to being fully aware in the world.
Ascetics live with very little in order to remove the common desires and cumbersome load of things. People remove the soporific weight of drugs, alcohol, tv, mindlessness in order to go deeper into themselves, into the naked, exposed, yet spirited real. Pagans and mystics, earth lovers and roaming dreamers cannot contain the world within –
It tumbles down into our lives, filling us no matter where we lay our bodies down at night.
Home is spirit, a spiraling sense of wonder within our truest nature.
We are a nation that seeks its rituals and habits, yet has lost the magic of places that claim us, places we give ourselves to and commit to for our lifetimes. But, home is in our common existence and our daily yearnings. It is not forever and never so grounded it cannot go for a walk or daydream.
Perhaps this is the mistake we make – looking for those familiar hills of our youth, as if we can picture them so completely, we might return – just one last time. Home is…
At 1 a.m., the forest is silent except for a nighthawk calling out to an unknown recipient. I turn on my lamp and listen to my dog’s sleeping breath. A captured bark beetle tries to escape my tent, so I unzip the front mesh. I crawl out with him. There are a few visible stars laced between clouds and the coniferous forest canopy. I crouch down and listen for movement. In the distance, a branch cracks. Even though I am unafraid of the dark, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck rise. It’s a visceral response for our kind, with such poor night skills and carnivore wisdom.
In the morning, we find mountain lion tracks in fresh mud. The monsoon rains have rolled in across the limestone, across the sandstone escarpment, and through the canyons thick with pine. It is hard to distinguish forest floor from gorge. Alongside these prints are several small hooves, the presence of deer gathered near the mouth of the spring. I listen closely, but it is now morning and I am left with only evidence. The lion is long gone. She won’t stay close to the road, with its morning rush of ATVs and trucks loaded with anxious boys and their guns. The deer girls are scattered across the hills, perhaps missing a fella or fawn. I’ll have to be content with my journal and notes, and imagination.
The following night unfolds in a similar orchestra. The mountains create an illusion of silence, of stilled activity. My city ears haven’t adjusted to their music. I strain to hear the slightest conversation between cicadas – or the complaints of skunks meandering through our make-shift comforts. At 1 a.m., that magic hour, a single coyote opens the night with her bloodied ballad for the crescent moon, for her mates – just one coyote singing solo, waiting for response. I can finally sleep.
The next morning, we find more tracks and, beside the picnic table, a dead junco – in perfect form, as if it had been gently placed on the ground by some benevolent force – small mercies for tender prey.
It’s 10 p.m. in Phoenix. The towers lean over the backyard as I wait for my dog to pee. The July storms tease with their dust clouds. I say a silent prayer for the storms to finally move through. Next door, in an empty lot, a group of homeless men light a fire in an abandoned porch. Cops circle. Helicopters take critical cases to the hospital on Thomas. No matter what I do with white noise, drugs, deep sleep, meditation, the noise never ceases. I strain to find the silence between adagios. I wait for the rain to drive back the life; to quell whatever bravado lives beneath the desperate walls and hungry bellies.
I met a guy who swore he’d seen a wolf in the Prescott National Forest. I knew what he’d likely seen was a large coyote. He showed me a picture of a coyote. Instead of telling him the truth, I just nodded and asked him what he thought of it. Naturally, it changed my life, he said, emphasizing naturally.
Another friend claimed her spirit is that of a fox. She has collage of photos of various foxes above her bed: kit fox, red fox, grey fox, and an odd interloper of an Arctic fox, her cool white fur moving invisible with the Ontario snow.
Above my desk, I, too, have an image of a fox. A desert kit fox I saw while gazing at the spirals and dancing bighorns etched onto rock panels a few thousand years ago. The fox appeared as I was about to embark on a long drive across the Colorado desert of Southern California. It was already 95 degrees at 9 a.m.. The air snapped with its own fury.
On the Mogollon Rim, the surrounding mountains appear as a tintype, a patina. The view of ridges and monsoon clouds frame everything in a dripping emerald and smoke-grey. I walk with my dog out to the edge and find a burnt tree stump to sit on. The landscape has been singed – recently, perhaps a few years ago. Fire rings polka-dot the grasses. Crushed, faded Bud Light cans form an odd little narrative to the pilgrims who come here to escape the heat, caring little for the place itself, or the thousand year old stone flakes marking other arrivals and departures.
These days my mind is equally singed – scarred with too many worries about paying bills and finding a home. It makes no sense to consider these things here. Fatalism settles into my bones. Two years of chronic worry about the why of things, but I am no closer to knowing. Two years of death, loss, situations that burned everything down to bare sinew and nerve. Being here, I ask myself if I am willing. Will I set more years to blaze? Years that will be no more meaningful than a bird falling sudden on the soft dirt floor.
Over the side of the escarpment, a crow is being chased by a stormtroupe of swallows. His protests meet the distant thunder.
“The morning air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet… From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
“Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.”
― Willa Cather
It’s early morning. The sun has not yet ascended. I am in the field – a field of my own imagination and freedom. The night has meaning that I am not obliged to compose. The night is a terrible myth only the healing fields can erase. My siblings are asleep. My mother is nowhere. I don’t know her and she left years ago. My father is at work. I am only 16, but I know how to run a house. I know how to evade misery and I know how to dream.
The horses in the field are aware of my escape. They are sleepy with my visions. I come here to talk to them, to tell them how a girl will one day live in France. I am a wanderer, but I am always married to these woods, to the pond, to the strange flight of swallows and the pervasive faces of Black-Eyed Susans that lean in and surround my victim heart. They tell me I can bend in this. They tell me that the harshness of being alive will scatter my song into fields I can never dream of knowing. The Queen Anne’s lace agrees. She knows I look west – how can I not? The setting sun means that this day is over, and I wanted only just to get through the day then. I wanted the pull of tides and the warmth of the dry earth to tell me that it will be over… soon.
At night the sound of bullfrogs in unison keep me company – the earth’s drums. Fireflies light their way through paths of dogwood, sassafras, and walnut trees. Black walnuts, I will learn, are bitter but make wonderful stain for the bodies of guns and the hair of bold girls who hate their golden locks. All autumn I will watch the men of my family boil up the walnuts over an open fire, then use the stain on their muzzleloaders. It’s deer season. The trees are in full fall plumage and the odor of fireplaces and errant embers blankets the terrain. The fields are aglow with gold and bronze –between the black dots of cattle, the wheat and grasses burn across the landscape and rise into the outline of crows and trees, the somber shades of a darkening season.
The family, the home, doesn’t control everything that happens in childhood. I, being the oldest of so many children, never felt contained by the rooms and routines of the domestic life. I felt alone among my childhood walls. In the fields, I was with the world. The sun’s gracious warmth and the nocturnal ballads of screech owls and cicadas filled my young life with a social song of otherworldly friendship – of love that would not come with high price and cold reality.
During the summer months, I would climb over limestone boulders to swim in abandoned quarries filled with years of rain. There was a danger in those stones I knew in every step – the boys who would circle around us girls, staring at our breasts, groping for pleasure in the moonlight of expectation and longing. A fox sprite, I would scramble across each boulder, half-clothed, ignoring the admonitions of danger – the very real causalities of abandoned places where several wanton youth perished or injured themselves with a false step or an ill calculated dive. Still, I would not fear stone as I would fear the circling of humans, the risk of love.
Summers were spent on horseback, exploring the woods that surrounded the 40 acres of farmland I grew up within. My friends and I would spend hours lounging on the mossy earth, making pinwheels from the flowers of the giant tulip trees that lined the yard. Abandoned houses stood exposed in their brick and stone secrets where we found incredible gifts of the past: old school books, clothes, rotting trunks, fabric, discarded chairs…. Climbing the rotten steps and inching our way between holes in floorboards, we asked the Ouija board about our future. Would there be love? Would there be children? Even in asking, I knew I did not belong to the stories of these girls, my then friends. I knew the woods spoke to me of something else – and named me what I could not name myself.
Like a bell jar over these scenes, I uncover the sensory memory – this place belongs to me just as I remain there. I have trouble remembering the names of schools, teachers, and old friends. I cannot tell you one fond memory of high school, but I can walk you through every branch, every cornfield, and every sinkhole with its murky mystery with impeccable clarity – the use of every sense, the body-knowledge of a wolf.
As a child, I waited in fields for some salvation from the human world. As a child, I thought little of erroneous pop culture myths and urban pressures. I knew only these fields that carried a song across veins of stream beds. I collected arrowheads among clay and sandstone alcoves, high above rivers. There were ancient others who understood the seasons and gave voice to the living world. I longed to know these people. I dreamed they would come and find me, waiting there among the eroding banks.
There is something innately spiritual and mythical about land and water, plant and sky. The earth asks us to both dig deep into our roots and find peace but also to explore the limits of life on the surface – to know that life is harsh and lovely, unfair yet fully present. There is very little within me that did not directly grow from the pleasure of place. As the fog of violence entered in, I managed to remain truly connected to hope. Survival was all around me. The young of other species were not spared. They adapted or died. I took this lesson in and held on, used my wits, and stayed rooted in the brutal beauty of life.
I was a girl of fields. I was a girl forced to become a woman too soon. Yet I remember being in those apple orchards with the bees looming between my footsteps. I remember picking rhubarb for cobblers; hiding between grapevines to jump out and scare my brother… these were the memories that formed my identity.
If my writing has some greater purpose or some message to share, I want it to be with the desperate child who has no wild ally, the lost one who has no land to adore. This is one who – unless artificially protected – will not adapt and therefore stands a greater chance of passing the violent lineage on through commerce, procreation, and self-abasement. This is the dominance of a hopeless world of acquisition and subterfuge. This is the one who comes to a visual feast of delight with no eyes.
The last time I visited the hillsides and fields of Southern Indiana, I spent some time at the grave sites of my ancestors. The church cemetery, I couldn’t even begin to show you where it is on a map. I only know how to get there by the blood pulse of who I am, instinct. This is a resting place of farm families and Depression era babies, of Welsh and French miners. The place is thick with ferns and Virginia pines. Everything is tinged with moisture and I am still in love with the smell of damp earth, something my Southwestern home has never been able to provide.
Across from the cemetery, there is a field that has been used by farmers for several generations. Not one building has stood on that soil. I have my sleeping bag and a telescope. Under the barbed wire I slip and find a good place to bed down for the night. Already, the cold has settled in and the cicadas have descended. Grasshoppers share the warmth of my bag – the sky above: blackness and stars. Who can say what home truly is, what defines the domestic? Is it the family, children? Is it a house we work hard to buy? Or a lover to bring us into our own senses through touch and giving?
In these fields I was alone, but I was home. I did not care to run or spoil the moment with worries about my life. It did not occur to me to want to be protected, or in dreams of France or some other country. I nestled into my bag – where the girl met the hold of the earth – and slept like someone who has found genuine belonging.
The alarm goes off. How many days have I missed work now? My blue room has shadows and in the shadows, I see the summer sun waiting for me. I have been in this room for several days. I don’t sleep, only suffer with my eyes closed. My pets draw in closer to me. Their looks of wonder and perhaps sadness reflect the reality of my life. I cling to them, these innocent fur-bearers, as if they were my very life.
And they were.
Their need kept me alive.
Rolling out of bed was like moving stones. One leg over the side – then the other. Dead tree limbs for arms, winter in my eyes. I make my way to the bathroom to vomit again, wash my face, feed the cats and the dog. Life just keeps tunneling into this darkness, blaring its ugly horn in my silence. I pour a drink and lie down on the carpet, wondering if I have lost my mind finally; wondering what life can allow, what edges I can push against until the sharpness bleeds me entirely.
Throughout my life, I have dealt with alcoholism. From the first drink, it was everything to me. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to be courageous, brave… comfortable. You see, I was never comfortable. I was the girl who tried but never succeeded, the one who barely touched the center of any group. I was always out coaxing wild creatures from hiding or creating fantasylands where I was someone else. There was music, art, and the beasts of the forests. These kept me, held me. In poems, I was the caustic blaze of a city on fire. I was a queen to the tapestry of unicorns and other mythic beasts. I was the mad gin-drinking wanton with a revolver strapped to her thigh. I was many things. I was so many, in fact, I drifted far away from the girl who tried.
There are many theories and opinions about addiction, addiction treatment or recovery philosophies. I do know that no animal willingly chooses annihilation without being completely insane or seeing annihilation as something other than death. For the mad, life is worse than death. Addiction is the antithesis of life. Addiction is a rabid animal set loose in the mind, body, and spirit that convinces itself that annihilation can be life.
Like creativity or genius, we tend to view the realm of addiction as fantastic, extraordinary. We make shows about it. We spend billions of dollars on it in jails, courts, institutions, and treatment centers. We have “programs” and pathways out for those “willing” enough to accept the rainbow at the end of the clouds. We have so many portraits of addiction, we have lost sight of the complexity of its enormity, its anonymity. I have friends who – despite everything I have lost or done over the years – continue to deny my addiction. It would be painful to accept. It would prompt them to ask their own hard, troubling questions – to view behaviors better kept locked behind closed doors, in cars, in the mind.
In my pursuit of sobriety, I have come to realize that there’s really no way for me to speak about my own experiences without weaving in a societal portrait of recovery. Likewise, I cannot write about recovery without relying on my intuition and perception, having been in rehabs and “holistic” treatment centers and having participated as a Kool-Aid drinking member of AA and other programs.
When you ask most clinicians about treatment options for addiction, twelve-step programs are the go-to suggestion. Not that their rates of success are particularly good – they just propagandize society’s agenda of compliance, lack of personal power, group buy-in, reliance on outside forces, and a steady push to return the individual to “normality.” And while AA and these programs work for some people – and I do not wish to diminish their effectiveness with those who benefit – I know twelve-step programs don’t work for all. I certainly don’t believe that those who deviate from this model of recovery are doomed.
I have lost friends to this disease. Friends who did all the right recovery things – some of them in programs for years, only to fall into severe and ultimately fatal relapse. I have grown all too tired of hearing, “Oh, if they only didn’t stop doing their program,” or “If only they had gotten a program,” etc. When I suggest that perhaps the program alone wasn’t enough or perhaps it was a combination of events that kept the person sober and a combination of events that led them to the end, I am usually ignored or seen as pugilistic, rather than as someone who sincerely wants to understand this disease. To this I ask, why not question our options?
I think there’s always more to the story…
I do not believe in an addictive type or personality. I believe addiction is cultural, a societal make-up easing us into carefully formed facades that serve the root of addiction. Secrets are titillating. We grow up with a predilection for lying. We assume roles – encouraged roles – and play out our secret lives and desires in ways that often lead to addiction or self-destructive or abusive behaviors. I do not believe in a defective individual; I believe we are made to believe that lies and hidden desires are better options than self-awareness, courage, and bold honesty.
We humans like a tidy explanation. Empires and religions are built upon this internal compulsion for reason and logic. And when these fail us, we fall back on the particular recipe of faith we were given. Those who walk outside of these lines and live a little too fully or differently are dangerous – not just to society but to self. Arguably, the alcoholic/addict is a pariah not unlike criminals and madmen. Recovery – the industry of – does little to move away from this otherness.
Recovery-based paradigms encourage the “strange terrain” that embodies addiction, the fatal flaw, for example, that set some up for a life of addiction and do little to critique a culture that encourages the formula for this pathology. Otherness is irrational. Otherness is dangerous. Recovery paradigms have less to do with morality and more to do with conformity. Case in point: it is more socially acceptable to be a corporate thief than it is to be a black dealer. Take a look at any prison and one cannot deny this truth. If society truly cared for morality, and not simply “falling into one’s place,” the spectrum of justice would reflect this.
Recovery – if it is to be effective, meaningful, and lasting – must include this dialogue.
The last night
with him, lying down,
he places his hand
on the space
where my ribs furl
back like wings.
me, to keep me
– Nancy Mitchell, The Leaving
From the top of the slick rock, I hear the last song cascade down through the stadium, echoing off of the canyon rocks. I have been drinking since noon. The wind whips my hair and dress as I walk along, between couples, between vendors selling t-shirts and other merchandise. Some are packing up. I watch the skyline dim – the corners of the night have become an indigo stain, a broken pen. No stars pierce the clouds.
As to my own journey, healing and recovery must involve purging habits and rituals, illusions and expectations. In a broader, more effective discourse, we must understand the concepts of recovery that society wants us to purchase. We must understand the touch we thought would bring salvation or balm. We must understand and embrace the ache that demands something to be filled, attained. Burning the desire itself for normal responses to abnormal society is catharsis. To question whether being found or walking a certain path is what is intuitively right for oneself is essential. Recovery must involve honoring one’s deep feeling ways or views, sensitivities and persuasions.
Recovery or healing is borne from realizing that the flame that shines so luminously in what we want – the fairytale or medicine – exists within. It is in knowing that the answers cannot be constricted to one path, but in many roads of exploration, questioning, and wise uncertainty.
** This is an excerpt from a complete article to be published in July 2014.
The story is sketchy at best.
Owls gathered and the bark shed itself from the oak
As tears pooled into torrents of lodestars.
Tornadoes collided and the princes fell from their towers
Holding the gold of dragons and peasants.
I heard the bells rang thrice and the priests,
Against their rosaries, called, “Lord, bring us.”
I needed no milk. I took to scarabs, those chocolate clocks.
I rode the Cyclops, my brave heart, and called canyons
With the beating thrill of thunder.
The tails of foxes bent into ?s.
The skunks danced and raided –
My good kin.
The subtle mercy – I cared less for it –
Demanded fiction in the burning of skin.
“Kill her,” someone whispered.
Nails bent. A witch walked on water.
Even now, I court Medusa’s daughter –
The maker, the ender.
Someone released the Necromancer.
A writer flew from the hand of a muse.
Poems spoke my purpose.
Poems re-created the real of another’s imaginings –
That was the key to my survival
And to grow my own vine to magic –
Likewise, to misery.