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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Her silence and wild
falling is a compass
of hunger and memory.
Jennifer Sweeney, The Snow Leopard Mother
Recently, my grandmother of 94 found herself in a situation many older people find themselves in, and that is whether or not to sell the family home.
Home is not just a place in the suburbs where one might insist on features such as a pool or a bigger garage. Home for her is the trials of young marriage, of saving every penny, of building one’s home – not by contractor but by hand.
Ghost in the Forest, Thomas Dodd
In this way, identity is not something we are given, but something earned. We are bruised into Self and sustain so many tumbles and twists before our personhood is built into recognition.
To think of Self in this way, we are always tumbling and rebuilding with the raw materials of experience.
During my 20s and 30s, there were a few consistent materials of Self that I made use of: alcohol, chaos, and movement.
Removing these qualities has been less like wrecking ball demolition and more like decay. One brick crumbles, then another…but it has been a slow process of abandonment.
Standing now, I am heavy. No longer defined by these things, but still so filled with their ghosts and swallow nests, ribbon and rotting wood.
“To know who you are, you have to have a place to
Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Giving up that which once sustained me was essential to survival. It allowed me to grieve the Self that survived hurricane and tornado. There were roads and windstorms. I chased and chased my house, the places that could only reside under the skin.
At 42, I find myself lost in an in-between state, just as my grandmother. A narrowing of definition, the container that once held me has changed. In its place, something else.
When I speak to her, Ada Lenora, she tells me her room at the nursing home makes a reasonable home, yet lonely all the same. Photos of my grandfather line the walls and her comfy chair, which accompanied her to the facility, sits like a token in the corner.
We drag our homes alongside us sometimes, unwilling to abandon, unwilling to rebuild. Despite the crumbling walls and fallen beams, it is possible to only see its former beauty.
We are limited by our containers. These homes that collapse make – at best – facsimile selves. I would rather bear the spirit of a tree, dipping my roots in water…quenching the thirst of Self with memory.
Life can ax my limbs but my roots remain.
My last conversation with my grandmother ended with her telling me (as she has told me before) how much she misses my grandfather and how she often expects him to walk in and lean down and give her a kiss as he would do when coming in from the garden.
When I think of my time in Indiana, I think about the trees of my youth: dogwood, tulip, walnut, cherry – their stories contained in leaves, bark, chlorophyll under the nourishing sun. Many of these trees no longer stand.
The last time I was home I sat on the stump of the former cherry tree, planted by my grandfather many years ago. I dug my toes into the loose soil. There under the earth, I hit knuckle-bone of root and breathed in the green humus of life.
The onyx hour of those forgotten gods of the earth who haunt the fire.
It’s 6:55 a.m. and the first light of morning appears above the familiar hills and peaks of the South Mountains in Phoenix, Arizona. I have hiked into the western edge of the San Juan Valley, currently closed off to bike and car travel and thus creating a secret spot, an oasis of quiet for now. Many wild species have taken advantage of this unusual pause in humanity. Javelina run across the pavement, shitting on roads and under ramadas. Coyotes yawn, unmotivated, along rock walls.
My presence is neither startling nor appreciated. Wary gazes and increased movement attest to this.
From a granite boulder, I watch the light fall across a cluster of cholla and brittlebush whose blue-gray leaves are the color of calm to me, if color could be assigned to a state of mind. Six coyotes take their places along the opposite ridge, watching me as I watch them. Together we listen to the old morning song of a grandfather Great Horned… all owls seeming ancient, a forgotten species of gnarled bone and pale-faced time.
Looking at the Sierra Estrellas, I consider my place here, or rather my lack of place. As the city swells itself into a greater beast, highways dig their tracks where stands of mesquite and creosote fall. We make way for more neighborhoods to plop their massive girth atop old habitat. The mountains, oh the mountains, wait patiently for human time to tumble, our animal selves to collapse and with it, all of our concepts and ideas.
Is this the mountains’ dream, or is it just the dream of a tired misanthrope?
Coming here, I am a stranger. By saying home, do I make it so? Many people would say yes, but I have my doubts.
I grew up among tulip trees and farms, verdant hills of hay and soybean, ponds and cattle. I slept beneath the field’s wide skies and woke with dew on my sleeping bag. I rested with the song of whippoorwill and cricket. I never had to long for the smell of rain, the touch of moisture. I spoke to deer. I sang to yarrow. I wandered the woods, consumed with its treasures.
Given that watery upbringing, it might strike you as odd that I am now not only infatuated with the Sonoran desert, I am distinctly and inseparably tied to this arid place.
The rain I follow in small hollows of granite, fleshed into pockets against long washes, is water enough. These tinajas, now known to me as intimately as the smooth flesh of deer—the food of my people, the bane of every Midwestern driver. I rest here, against the cool stone, as the heat of the morning warms my skin.
The desert and I had an awkward introduction.
I rambled with the shopping cart wheels and asphalt of my first desert home, where my family spent a short year bargaining with the devils of pipelines and job-promise. My Las Vegas childhood… holding the prize of stuffed toys tight while the adults swam in their longed for loot and oppression.
When I think back on this time, I remember metal screen doors and blinding aqua pools with too much chlorine and chipping paint. Is this also my origin? Or can I claim a desert that has no history for me?
I have friends who can trace their ancestry here for centuries—before the settlers, before the promise and betrayal.
I look out upon these foothills as the city spreads, filling everything with its plastic and concrete. Can I make peace with my body here—like the manicured palms, the asphalt, the ever-encroaching unrest that stitches the hymns of us together?
Animals of great distance—how I love their propensity for movement. We, too, are a moving species and our stories of creation, in turn, create us—give us place to our wandering, order to chaos. We may fall from the sky or sprout from the ground or be born in the image of… but in the end we are animals of movement.
No matter how much our minds long to connect us to place, we have—at some point in time—been the wanderer, the interloper, the dreaded other.
Many wanderers and scientists, story tellers and poets tread lightly on the topic of home. Untethered and centuries away from place, there remains an ache to find home, and so the sweeping topography of earth becomes that destination.
The problem therein is the problem of the wandering animal—the humanity that propels us across the next geographic barrier, the next country, the new.
When I was a girl, my family was too poor to own anything, but the countryside itself was ours, a place of unbridled adventure—a challenge to not be caught between one man’s field and the next. We swam in ponds owned by farmers, slept in the shadows of stone quarries, ventured beyond the boundaries of national forests, and walked the deer paths of unintentional wildlife preserves.
Places we call ours, places we call theirs. Among other animals, these fables matter little.
When I was a girl, I longed to be a woman of movement. I wanted to continue to climb over fences, to follow the call of the spellbound hawk, the night-silent owl, the mouse who made his bed wherever he desired.
My mythology is not to be replicated here. I have no claims to make, no flags to plant. Being in the desert is the closest I have come to feeling at home. A child of coal mines and forgotten lineage, I can only hope to know the stories, my place among these stones.
“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 clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
― John Muir
“To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.”
― Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree
Every now and then I must be reminded of my need to climb. When I say climb, I am not referring to fancy gear and indoor urban gyms with toned bodies and challenge courses. I am not even speaking of the extreme sports element, getting to the top of some massive granite peak or navigating icy slopes in blizzard conditions. When I say climb, I mean the tree in one’s backyard – the nearest limb and UP into the canopy where the intersection of reality and dream waits. I mean the treehouse climb of youth and the rock-hopping, creek-lingering climbs of local nature preserves, forests, and – ideally – home.
Down in the low Sonoran Desert, one could seriously be injured on the spines of many of the native trees. Although, I have been known to take my chances with a Palo Verde or Acacia when I needed to get to a high point. So when I get the opportunity to ascend Perry Mesa and the Mogollon Rim, where the lovely escarpment kisses the blue beyond them, I am the first to bound out of the car and find a Juniper. I have written poems to Alligator Junipers I have known as temporary shelters, dreaming places, relatives. I know both their perfume and the intricacies of their plated patterns intimately.
I am unsure when my love for climbing started. No one in my family seemed too interested in knowing the tops of trees, but my unabashed curiosity and gift of living in the country opened the door to enchantment. My friend Kiva Rose Hardin told me that she often sees Gray Foxes up in Junipers near her wild New Mexican home. I have yet to be so lucky to witness this, but have more than once felt the urge to recline in a late-afternoon soporific repose on the limb of a strong Juniper. I believe that Fox spirit is my own. My foxfire and forest roots tend to light up with verdant curiosity and adventure every time I am met with a new and wondrous tree friend.
Climbing for me is less about personal accomplishment or challenge than it is about connection. Being a tree-loving, earth-kissing pagan, I cannot think of a more divine act than to sit in the crook of a branch and sing, write, daydream or simply observe the creatures above and below. With each pull of the wrist and leg, the body hoists up into heights that could – if missteps occurred – cause serious injury. Climbing requires precision, pace, and more importantly, intuition. Climbing unravels the need for hurry. It requires one’s utmost attention.
Oftentimes, I am drawn to the sky when I feel heavy-hearted, dampened in spirit, with the weight of some problem pressing down upon me. The healing aspect of climbing perhaps is rooted in the physics of rejecting the mortal earth-bound gravity. It is symbolic upward growth. It becomes the Peregrine’s view, the world spread out in a vast yet consumable measure. I get this feeling when I am in a plane – a biped’s false sense of aerial mastery. Is this what the raptors feel? I watch my cat consumed by finding the highest spot from which to pounce. For thousands of years, mountains and other high points served as lookouts or defense refuges against danger.
Hypervigilance is a disease I carry from childhood. The condition of constant anxiety is one that plagues many of us. The symptoms of such are insomnia, digestive problems, low energy, difficulty making decisions, skin sensitivities, immune system collapse, exhaustion, and the list goes on. Fortunately, nature-based therapies in treating PTSD, addiction, and general mental health issues are becoming more accepted and integrated into traditional treatment options. I have always found the woods to be a powerful source of healing and protection. I marvel over people’s fear of sleeping outside alone. What about bears, mountain lions, rabies,” they ask. “What of people,” Irespond. I have yet to feel the threat to my life in the forest or desert as I have in the comfortable walls of suburban homes and concrete, urban corridors.
“As a homeless teenager, I spent many nights in city parks, climbing up into welcoming branches and sleeping with my legs and arms wrapped around the comforting body of a living tree. I told my secrets to their leaves, and listening to them whisper back with every small breeze.”
Different trees offer different medicine. For myself, certain trees have particular meanings based on my encounters with and observations of them. These are my own myths, of course, and I am not making an academic case or factual report of them… these are simply the healing stories I have created.
Ironwood trees are important teachers for me in that they are one of the most durable, rugged (visibly so, too) low desert dwellers, but they are also quite sensitive to frost. In fact, they are only found in the Sonoran Desert and are one of the longest-lived plants here. I have spent many mornings sitting beneath an Ironwood tree with my coffee and notebook. Ironwoods remind me to take it easy on myself. Even the most seemingly strong among us can be vulnerable to something. Ironwood asks me to find my Achilles heal, that thing that does have the power to destroy me if not addressed. The branches of Ironwood pull in and around its base and trunk, creating a natural defense against predators and a shelter for small mammals and reptiles seeking safety against other animals and the sun. It is good medicine for times when one needs to become introspective, or contain energy for one’s own healing and creativity. Despite its ability to defend, it does not make a good home for birds seeking nesting limbs. Symbolically, I look at this tree as a protector but one that advocates for self-sufficiency, resilience, and transition.
While Junipers are common throughout the West and Southwest, Alligator Juniper is the subspecies I choose. I once walked among the largest recorded specimens of Alligator Junipers just outside of Skull Valley, AZ. When I think of this tree, I am reminded of my favorite places and those big, vast, and unforgettable views along the transition zones between high Sonoran country and the Mogollon Rim, the plateaus and sky islands. Perched on slopes and cliffs, I become a weightless wood nymph, a raptor. I feel unfettered and free to feel and think and be whatever I want in that moment. Alligator Juniper is a noble and strong father. I often feel safest when camped beneath its armored trunk and limbs, to gaze through at the night sky, perfumed of course by the tiny cones mistakenly called berries. Alligator Juniper medicine is that of home. It is not particularly unique or revered in the way some statuesque trees might be, but it is good shelter: strong, reliable, and unmistakably borne of the West. Its scent I equate with a release from heat, an opportunity to sit among branches without fear of thorn or fall. Its promise is that of familiarity and release.
Of course I cannot fail to mention the archetypal Sonoran Desert tree, the Mesquite. Mesquite has been one of my strongest gardening allies. Mesquite not only provides a serious nitrogen fix for the plants beneath, it also offers a delicious food source: the Mesquite bean pods that can be ground into nutritious gluten-free flour. I love the taste – it reminds me of caramel corn. Mesquite limbs are among the most elegant – the tree itself seems to waltz as a silent dance with the dignity of food source, heat, and shelter. Mesquite is a hard wood that grows very slowly, so patience and perseverance are key traits to incorporate into my own journey. Its wood burns hot and thoroughly, a consideration for those who tend to lean toward Type A burnout. It heralds the importance of nurturing oneself and others. I once read a Yaqui Indian story about the Mesquite speaking to a young girl about the coming industrial culture. Mesquite denotes survival and tradition through dedication. It asks, what are you willing to sacrifice?
I was raised by the song
Of the murmuring grove
And loving I learned
When I was a teenager, I spent every moment beneath the Tulip Poplars and Oaks around our rural farmhouse. I remember a few occasions when in a state of absolute despair, I went out and sat on the cool stone beneath the flowering Tulip that reigned over our front yard and sheltered the mailbox. There I waited for letters, hope, and an opportunity to leave Indiana. The tree itself seemed to watch over and embrace this young girl’s grief in the human world, offering some protection among stories, lore, and myth. Now I find myself seeking the company of trees out of joy rather than desperation. It is in them and through them, I breathe, I live. If there were an incantation of love to be written, a marriage bond, a birth, it would be among trees I would choose to welcome such changes.
Now, as I ready myself for another weekend adventure into the deep canyons of the Southwest, I know where I will be found, where I belong. I am the girl of the grove and the winter longing of another spring. There is always home and hope among branches.