The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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Second Chances

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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.

And Love is my redemption.

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Refuge

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In the woods of my youth, I would tell my dreams to whomever would hear them, usually the swayback mare or the barn swallows who built their nests high in the corn crib. As a child of the country, the forests were my refuge. In the woods I was someone, the narrator of my own life, the one I meant to have.

On summer days I would spend hours looking for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. I was obsessed with their seeming insignificance or disdain felt by most humans. For me, they became worlds beyond worlds, an unseen realm of dreamers keeping track of the earth’s secrets. They saw things most mammals cannot see. They recorded the events of much more complex creatures with their own simple arithmetic of rhythmic chirps and bellows.

In these times, I seek out this refuge, but where do I find it? Gone is my Indiana home of wildflowers and forests skirting the edges of farms. In a desert city, there are few places to hide from the chaotic world. A friend of mine used to refer to the human world as the “meat world” and nature as the “fur world”. The fur world is much more than that. It is the place of plants and stone and soil. It is the water world, and the decomposed humus that reminds us of our death.

One of my favorite places in the woods was a natural sinkhole. I would sit there among the saplings and undergrowth, imagining it to be a cocoon, a sacred bowl that contained protective powers where I would feel safe, where I would speak to God.

For so long, I have been without refuge. What I found was false sanctuary in a bottle, running, un-remembering. In this limbo, I am learning to return to the lessons of insects. What appears to be insignificant can sometimes save. I cultivate a refuge among ant hills and alleyways where coyotes run.

And in my cityscape, I listen to the wild beneath.

 

 

 


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Beauty

I was perusing one of my old dating sites and looked at the “online now” list. I noticed that there were several women online, and each and every one of them was beautiful. Young and old, all races and ethnicities, all sizes. Each of them were gorgeous. I found myself admiring them and thinking, “Look at all of these amazing, beautiful women. How can you not love any one of them!”

It occurred to me that I looked at the men on the list with entirely different eyes. I looked at them with specific criteria I want to fill, and therefore didn’t see them as beautiful the way I see the women. Isn’t it true, that when we seek something specific, when we see someone through the lens of scrutiny we rarely see what is before us?

I was discussing with a friend of mine about turning 40 and how our objectives have changed in a mate. While physical attraction is important, it becomes less so in lieu of more noble traits like wisdom, generosity, stability, and kindness. On this, we both nodded in agreement. We have been equally chagrined about all of the men our own age who won’t date women within their age bracket. Surely these guys are following some patriarchal, superficial urge to possess younger women.

But this little adventure in online dating has me second-guessing myself. Have I matured into a different kind of love, or am I still bound by the seasons and pheromones, expectations and lust of romance? Am I caught up in the drivers that cause me to dismiss “the old”, “the ugly”, etc.?

Attraction and beauty seem at odds; they seem to compel and repel each other.

Is there a way to break that spell?

 


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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.

 

 


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Directionless

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I have been feeling quiet lately. More so than usual. There are plenty of problems to solve, decisions to make, people to contact, things I set out to do years ago lined up at the door. Yet I cannot make a decision, make a call, move.

I feel as though complete stasis has set in. Seriously. I just want to be “left alone” – but do I? No. I miss people. I miss genuine connections. I miss waking up to a life that doesn’t feel so in flux. I miss close friendships, doing dishes with someone, having a laugh. And, I realize that this isolation is mostly my doing.

But when there’s an opportunity to be less hermetic, even if it is playing pretend, I take a pass. I go back to quiet.

Even though it isn’t winter technically, it is a winter season of the mind. I just don’t know what I want. I feel itchy and awkward and unlovely.

One of you will say it, so I might as well be the first: midlife crisis?

Maybe. It’s not like I have previous experience with midlife.

Some of it may also be that I don’t use substances to alter my internal landscape or keep me from *all the feelings*. That’s a big part of my life now: being committed to feeling everything, even the discomfort, and not r-e-a-c-h-i-n-g for something/someone when life is freaking hard.

I just want to understand why some people seem to come out of the birth canal knowing themselves so well. You know, people who find a purpose early on and stick with it.

Like the internal compass is set:

  • Career
  • Family
  • Marriage
  • Life purpose, etc.

Some people seem to intuitive have a direction, their “true north”. How do you find that *thing* and not stumble and fumble around for 20 years? That is what I want to know.

Direction.

 


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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.

WildCat_trail2 (1 of 1)But now it is only the campfire that hisses.

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.

***

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.


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Red Fire Days: Autumn in Pivot Rock Canyon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.