Familiar Landscapes

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“We are a landscape of all we have seen.”
– Isamu Noguchi

There are particular landscapes that stand out in the recesses of memory. Driving down the I17 for the first time and seeing the Sonoran desert come into view…the saguaros, the palo verdes, and brittlebush, and realizing I would live there some day. The wide fields and hollows of soybeans, horses, and oaks are the places of my youth. The steep granite cliffs lining river gorges and pine bring to mind my days in the north woods. And now, I walk among volcanic rock, crumbling welded tuff and ash, a blaze of sunlight lining the cliffs at first light.

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Place is the indicator of safety, and that familiarity of place soothes the fearful animal.

I’ve always felt the flora and geology to be family, places I could gather and listen to ancient stories about how to live in a manner this culture contradicts. To this day, I take my knowledge from the elder trees and the mentor species. There is never a moment I feel isolated from being a part of, because I am so intricately a part of them.

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Friends, too, share this passion for landscape. Their backyards consist not just of green grass to mow or a small garden plot to tend but the unruly weeds and beetles. Many have the privilege of living in a wilder terrain where they can hike at will and never see the same path. Fellow explorers spend their time wandering the Southwest, uncovering their unknown history, writing up bones of forgotten days.

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When I walk a new landscape, I prefer to walk it alone. Like meeting a new friend, I must respect this space and listen intently. The phainopepla reminds me to honor the new day. A quick “qui-qui” shout from a familiar friend, the thrasher, tells me to watch my footing. It’s nearing spring, and after heavy rains the wildflowers abound – the most obvious call to renew, readjust, and most importantly, stop being so serious.

The most meaningful lesson is that the earth is not here to provide lessons, or to owe me a thing. It is not an object of worship, a peak to “bag”, my mother, or my playground.

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While I may glean from place deep lessons and gifts, it is my duty to know my place as an animal among animals, and to live life as not to disrupt this reality. I am called to be a fierce daughter of one loyalty. It is to the saguaro I bow, the lion, the rock, the soil. I am called to be a protector of place, when called, but not the instigator of outcome.

To know one’s place in the most meaningful sense is to be humble. My nameless journey, I am here to serve.

 

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Total Fail…But With Fancy Socks

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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.

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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.

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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.

  1. Failing means you actually are doing something that challenges you. I am willing to take a risk.
  2. Stubborn pride and unrelenting ego are formidable foes. Being humble is being teachable.
  3. My worth is only defined by me. What you think of me is none of my business, nor should it be.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

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Shattered and Joyful

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The woman I was four months ago was close to death. From her bed, she watched days pass, nights eclipse through the shadows. I see her now as I would watch someone moving down a long hall. Her contorted face forms a silent howl.

She comes to me when I hear a song, or remember a moment lost in a blackout. When someone reaches out for help from the grip of despair, I know that grip that constricts everything.

Being new again, to life, is more difficult that I can convey. Light and sound pierce me, like I was rescued from a mine shaft after spending days in darkness. Life itself seems too loud and too close, but I am learning to live with the fullness of it.

As a sober woman, I look at the past as shattered glass – and the fragments do not have to be my weapon. Each one holds a precious mirror of what moments are like if I choose to return to them. Instead, I hold them gently and whisper that something else is being pieced together.

I live my life by hours. Hours are easy. Each one is as full as I can make it, and made fuller when I hold my dog, or watch the Cooper’s hawks at the park, or talk to friends. The road to recovery is hard, but it is full of unexpected joys, small moments where I can actually be present and alive.

Not everyone gets to experience a complete breath without pain.

To be free from pain; that’s a type of happiness.

I want to return to the woman in that long hall and hold her until the howling stops. But for now, I live my hours and nurture them.

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Becoming Impatient, A Virtue

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Morrigan

I woke up angry again. The feeling of it scratched at my sheets and gnawed my arms, so that I had to leap out of the bed to get away from it. That feeling like steal wool against flesh.

Anger is not my normal state. My normal state is somewhere between here and Tijuana. My normal state is anxiety, the way you feel when you fall asleep behind the wheel for a few seconds and are on a hairpin curve. I can be cat-like, prone to scamper. But anger is something else for me.

Someone told me after I got sober that I have a lot of anger; that he has seen that side of me very few people know about. Repressed anger is something most alcoholics carry—especially women. In truth, all women. Our anger turns to sadness—overripe fruit set to pop its pulp and sicken the air.

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Demeter Mourning

I am not an angry person in that belligerent, obvious sort of way…Male anger. I think I am just impatient, knowing that everyone around me agrees that I need to be patient, but I am not in agreement. That’s the thing.

“If you are not angry, you’re not paying attention.” << My mantra when I was a twenty-something. “If you are angry, you are not living in gratitude,” I am reminded. As if gratitude is on the shelf all alone, as an urn with special cremains from angels.

No, I say. Anger and joy can co-inhabit. Gratitude and disdain, equally so. Gratitude MUST know the contents of my grief for me to even recognize the grace of being alive, the love that still remains. Gratitude respects a good sorrow.

We live in a world that is not set to stop for us to exhibit one thing or another in perfect order. Feeling states are not art exhibits, and rarely are they exclusive.

I’m waking up in anger because the world is not slowing down for me. Or for you.

It can be trite. I know I am growing older into middle-age womanhood. “You can still have kids?” “Why don’t you just focus on your career?” “Ever think about getting a job?” <<<Countless questions about being a 45 year old, childless, in recovery, poor woman writer.

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Durga

It pays to have women friends. I’m sure I’d be a lot angrier if I didn’t.

Holding this breath like a wish for desire only exasperates, and then the pace of one day to the next just doesn’t stop for anyone. How many things have happened over the past few months? Years? Did you expect them? Were you patient for them?

I am impatient. I don’t care for the scheme of things, and if I could raise the wild places out of their peril, the wild beings away from what is certain apocalypse, why would I choose patience?

If I could find that place I envision, the kindred partner, the freedom to roam, would I jump? Yes, I would.

There is the very real now versus the prospective future of waiting games and being patient. I choose to embody the now. And, maybe, just maybe that anger upon waking won’t make its appearance.

Stillness

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In doubt and uncertainty, in times of strife and fear, to whom do you run?

We exist in a time of constant chatter, distractions of all kinds that aim to keep us locked in attention to the external. If and when we get a few moments of inward, contemplative silence, it is immediately filled with worries and anxieties, oftentimes about personal things like our finances, our marriage, our kids. Other times we worry, and rightly so, about the world.

Fear can be a good teacher, but a dangerous master.

When anxiety becomes my modus operandi, I feel it in my body (most notably, with heart palpitations and tension), but I also take this anxiety into everything I do, how I interact with the world. Our culture itself is in a continuous fight or flight response, and the mechanisms of this cultural machine keep us exhausted, unable to take our focus away from the demands.

I long for silence.

“When you move silently, then you are that which God was before nature and creature, out of which He created your nature and creature.” Jakob Bohme

If you get beyond the “God” and “He” references, you scratch the surface that there is something powerful in this. It is to say, we are NOT the programmed worrisome, anxious creatures we believe ourselves to be, but that we have that original capacity of stillness, of silence. Yet, we veer off into the elsewhere of distractions and addictions.

In other words, we are responding to (and collaborating with) a movement away from Life in obedience to industrial civilization. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The justification of a mad world is that humans are just full of greed and brutality. Many of us accept this, to integrate it into our being so that we cannot even trust ourselves.

This is the ultimate lie.

When we allow ourselves to leave the distractions, we come to our true selves in silence. This desire for stillness often happens through adversity – when we are desperate the eyes open and we begin to see.

We come to our full attention when we listen, deeply listen. Listen to the ancestors, to other beings like birds and snails and moss. Listen to canyons and rivers. Listen to the truth that precedes us, that essentially is our Source and true nature.

 

 

Hello, It’s Morning

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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.

What calls to you upon waking?

Rabbit

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Sonoran Desert Sunrise – A. Sato

The desert keeps her secrets.

I am back, pre-dawn, scrambling up a hot jumble of granite boulders. Burning my hands, then knees, all to investigate scat, what appears to be a busted lamp someone discarded, a broken mano, a dead ground squirrel.

At 8am, it is already 98 degrees with high humidity, but I come here for the silence and solitude, like they can somehow relieve the heat. At least I will enjoy the quiet. A few minutes pass in this surreal repose until a hiker comes my way. Shit. There is still noise from the road, the distant hum of highways.

The hiker warns me that there is an old guy and some younger women having sex down below the boulders, in the parking lot. We give each other a knowing nod of what’s going on.

This sanctuary, it seems, keeps secrets. The heat drives out most people, but oh…there are the solitude seekers who come in all forms, some to praise the miserable indifference of a July morning among baked rock, and others to find a place to hide their lives from view.

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Watched I – A. Sato

Whatever the situation, I am disturbed, and angry, and ultimately sad. Why here? Why this morning of all mornings? The hiker assured me that he phoned the police and took photos of the guy’s license plate. None of this will change much, but I appreciate his concern.

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear – the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

I pray his sentiment was right when he also longed for man to be an illusion and rock, and I would add all other forms of life, to be the only thing that is real.

The only thing that lasts.

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Cradled – A. Sato

The desert keeps her secrets. But after the rain it is easier to understand her – hedgehogs burst their tiny strawberry blooms. A gray fox meanders the wash where dragonflies dance above muddy tinajas.

Nothing is subtle after the rain.

I follow the delicate tracks of javelinas while fighting off mosquitoes that make a feast of this convenient, warm-blooded host. Scanning the ground, I find a bit of rabbit fur caught in cholla spines. I imagine some plump coyote, lounging somewhere nearby, smiling his sanguine smile with full belly.

Making my way to a clear patch among the cholla, I wait for the welcomed sort of morning traffic: a troop of chatty Gambel’s quail scatter from beneath an ironwood. A mockingbird sings his patchwork morning song. Behind a small clump of brittlebush, two long ears rise. I wonder if it was his friend who became coyote’s supper. Carefully, the rabbit emerges, sniffing the air.

I have a fondness for rabbits. Their fear is understandable and relatable. Our vulnerability to life is sometimes less palpable, but nonetheless just as real.

Coyote deserves our understanding, too. Feed or be someone’s food…eventually. Too often we want to align with rabbit, all of our fears protecting us from responsibility. Sometimes we want to align with coyote, never allowing gentleness to expose us to the inevitable.

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Flesh – A. Sato

The truth is that both coyote and rabbit embody life, all that life entails, all that is necessary.

The sun burns my neck and distorts my view of the world. Or maybe this is exactly how it should appear. Rabbit makes his way back to his den, belly full from the morning’s good measure of work.

As I reach the parking lot, there is no trace of the man or his Mercedes, or the young woman. The distant traffic continues to hum.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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“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 Began Here…

It began here, my desire for this place. The course of its existence ran through me – an energy to move a woman 2,000 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, the fierce shield of granite and water, to a place of obsidian and sky.

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Eight years ago, standing on the edge of old Route 66, I watched clouds pass across the cobalt. I could not remain in my old life. The hard edges of the city pushed me into these skies so vast. No amount of squinting could help me to discern what’s beyond the tall grasses and deep canyons. But I knew I had to find out.

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Soft definition is what I sought; a place where I could be as lucent as abandoned buildings, yet as full as the chambers of my heart.

To be filled with movement… I desired the poetry of pulse and breath.

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To come here meant I could fly into whatever scene I wanted; to be as mutable and impelling as the clouds drifting through the valley. I craved this story. And, the beautiful thing about story isn’t the story itself, but what you can leave out.

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I choose to erase

the details of

my desire for this place.

Some things need to move through. Across dry creeks and coyote tracks, there are only traces, and a place to pick up and start walking again.

Canyon Meandering: Pondering the Fool’s Journey

“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill

To be foolish…00-the-fool
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.

Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.

Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.

But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.

Stay.
Try again.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.

They whisper to us through fear and doubt.

My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.

Where? the goblins demand.
What will it be?

And what if there is pain?

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I awake again to a midnight moon – a fool’s half-moon – in Pivot Rock Canyon.

There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).

To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.

Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.

Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.

It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.

The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.

Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.

At least, no human others.

Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.

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Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.

The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.

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The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.

But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.

Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.

To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.

Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.

Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.

It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.