White Canyon Wilderness Wander

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Canyon Mouth, A. Sato

I spent a lazy Sunday wandering through White Canyon Wilderness, a hidden heaven not too far from Phoenix. No goal. No fitness hike. Just a lot of puffy clouds, silence, and the chance to soak in another beautiful view.

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White Cliffs, A. Sato

The best part of slowing down is taking the time to notice what you don’t when you are keeping pace on a long hike.

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A. Sato

Small flowers, delicate blades of native grass, unusual markings etched among rock, moss, and lichen, a hidden petroglyph…these are the findings that can only emerge into vision in idleness.

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I am taking the time to find God in small things. Her beauty is in the intricacies and eloquence of the understated and unnoticed.

 

 

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Christmas in the North Maricopa Mountains

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Margie’s Cove, A.Sato

Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.

My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.

This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.

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After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.

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Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.

Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.

In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.

As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.

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Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been  glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.

Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.

Next morning, I set out on the trail  with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.

Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.

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Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.

Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.

Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.

 

 

Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.

If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.

I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.

In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.

Nothing speaks this truth more than the desert.

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Shooting Stars in the Sierra Ancha

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I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.

As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.

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We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.

The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.

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Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?

 

Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.

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Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.

Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.

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Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.

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If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.

 


Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.

I savor it when I am in the mountains.

 

As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?

When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.

I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.

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Meditations on Water

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The trees reflected in the river – they are unconscious
of a spiritual world so near to them. So are we.

– Nathaniel Hawthorne

I seek out herons each morning, particularly the small green heron that graced the park over the summer. A neighbor saw a male arrive a few weeks ago and witnessed the most beautiful dance between the two herons, a mating ritual. Since then, we have not seen them.

As I sit beside the water’s edge, I imagine those two lovers busily building a nest on the Salt River, a river that used to run wild.

While I was looking closely for birds, I noticed the surface of the water and all of the life embodied in it, from the algae to the variety of insects that skipped over its surface. An iridescent dragonfly rested briefly on drift wood. A snapping turtle poked his head through the clear surface, creating small circles on the once still water – element meeting element.

The solitude of ponds, the ferocity of desert rivers in a monsoon, the arroyo holding deep pools of forgotten rain. These are the sacred moments, the natural movement of water. Water is not simply among us, it is us.

Except, we don’t see it that way. We turn to witness the degradation of dams and artificial pools meant to control, tame, and harness. How have we become so lost that we deny this essential God? Thinking we rule over it because we have the periodic table, we have its power.

We believe that we lord over all things, but the day will come when the tides change, as certain and abrupt as water.

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Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.

– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

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Estuaries are a happy land, rich in the continent itself, stirred by the forces of nature like the soup of a French chef; the home of myriad forms of life from bacteria and protozoans to grasses and mammals; the nursery, resting place, and refuge of
countless things.

– Stanely A. Cain

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A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving,
living part of the very earth itself.

– Laura Gilpin

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To trace the history of a river, or a raindrop, as John Muir would have done, is also
to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body.

In both we constantly seek and stumble on divinity, which, like the cornice feeding
the lake and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself
over and over again.

– Gretel Ehrlich, Sisters of the Earth

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Our bodies are molded rivers.

– Novalis

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?

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.

Transition Zones

Deer at night, Jocelyn Lee
Deer at night, Jocelyn Lee

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Returning II

the way the crow fliesReverie and Acceptance

“To lose one’s self in reverie, one must be either very happy, or very unhappy. Reverie is the child of extremes.” ~ Antoine Rivarol

There is room in me now. Anything can take root. My life on the surface is as wide as a mesa, as empty as a forgotten cave, beneath debris and branches. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something must enter in. Where there was a home, a man – I fill these places with memories as verdant as leaves in a wet summer. There are moments I crave in my bones. Those moments I see behind your eyes – laughing on a blanket, the polished cow skulls and hot red dust.  Moments that comfort me – nestled under a metal roof as the storms of the summer rolled over us and the fire of our beginning was consuming, promising.

But I am just the red flame of wish now.

I see trains – I long for their miles of going everywhere and nowhere in particular. I read of the wilderness I have yet to visit and plan my exodus into a world that neither welcomes nor opposes my presence. I simply become a part of that world. Truthfully, that realization scares me. The wilderness cares little for my memories.

So I walk with them for now. The taste of coffee – the snowdrifts and my grandfather’s plaid jacket, where he stashed a day’s supply of tobacco. Stories told between the dusk and dawn by people with hushed voices and warm laps. I will never know them, just as they will never know me. My life is an amalgam of place and the senses. It is less purposeful than it is full of feeling. I want to rise to the surface of all of the things, these illusions. I want to wrap myself in the warmth of their promise, because it was in that promise, I felt most wanted. The future place was where I belonged, never quite fixed in the now.

In memory, there are copper bells hanging from an ocotillo. I catch lizards in the Sonoran Desert. Here, there is another new city – its Chinatown chatter and rumbling streetcars. There is the first time making love to him, and the ones to follow. There is the sound of teenagers smashing thin bodies onto still water, boulders of limestone enclosing us. And here, a young self holds a cat in her arms, dreaming of anything to take her away from home, from suffering.

These internal journeys take me away from the intense cravings for liquor, the stress of bills that continue to pile up, the death all around as age comes to friends and family. These journeys are my church of lessons, symbols of my prayers to the holy hereafter. The hawks and ravens show up just as I look to the pines. I watch the fearlessness of the lion and the freedom of wolves; the adaptability of the coyote running through alleyways into the ‘burbs.

I watch the acceptance of wild things, the deep integration into the land and life itself. I wish I could be so accepting. My resistance to accept that there are disappointments and horrors nestled and entwined in the beauty of those memories fuels my reverie. I cut out the weeds. I pick apart the skeletons and keep only what I want, the polished bones I can adorn with jewels. I can keep them as treasures.  My reverie is my way of being on the horizon of the next day. Never here. Never now.steps

Alcoholism crippled my ability to handle life in the present. Growing up in poverty and secrets, I learned to keep my eyes fixed on the West. I knew something wonderful was out there, just beyond what I could grasp… but soon life would be better, safer. In the midst of my disease, I learned to create my own secrets and covet memory. It was safer to believe that I had things under control, that there was love, there was magic. But, truthfully, it was a fragile illusion waiting for anything to splinter the image. Through my drinking years, I married twice. I traveled often. I lived in multiple cities, still holding on to that child-thought that I could be something else, somewhere else. 

No place changed me. I just continued to spiral downward into the grip of my dreams. I wanted to just wake up on the mesa and become a part of what I believed was soul-desolation. I saw myself being carried off on the back of a wild horse, the crescent moon cutting patterns into the indigo. I saw the man I loved – rooted into juniper branches, becoming the breath coming into my lungs – the long exhalation of everything I held on to in my stomach. The tiring ache of years spent hoping for happiness.

Part of coming into truth required me to lift the lace that was draped over the lens. I had to come to know how I ended up here, what I lived through, what disasters were of my own making. I had to let go of the child who waited for something to come and rescue her.

Arriving to self… There is pain and promise in this process of releasing memory to reality. It is a dangerous game to play with life and madness – to hold up one’s cup to be filled by anything and anyone. Some die. Some never return from the other side of reality. Learning to live with acceptance requires leaving a life of memory and reverie in search of today. Meaning takes on the full expression of what needs to be done now. One learns to kiss those darlings of the past goodbye and welcome in a new day.

There is room in me now. I want to be careful about what takes root. In allowing everything to be as it is, I am not denying that young self’s daydreams of wonder, adventure, happiness… I am simply acknowledging that not all of it will be beautiful. I am learning to be with the pain, too. I am learning to love the balance of chaos and contentment. I don’t need to be anywhere else but here.

The End: Honoring Death, Pain, Disease and Decay

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Over the past year, I have been faced with some disheartening news about my cat Freckles, my sole consistent companion since I was in college. He was diagnosed with kidney disease and has been relatively healthy up until about a month ago. Since then, I have watched him lose weight, his coat become oily and unkempt and his insistence upon water out of a dripping faucet much more physical in urgency. Most days, he sleeps in the bathtub, possibly to be closer to water and the promise thereof.

While he continues to eat and enjoy attention, I see his movement toward the inevitable end and have found myself avoiding talking or thinking about it. Being such a vet-phobic and nervous kitty, frequent trips to the clinic produce additional stress on his compromised system and result in him not eating for a day, staying well hidden until he realizes I am not taking him anywhere again. At 16 years, he has aged into the upper level of life expectancy – a senior boy who has had a great life. So why is it so hard to accept his mortality?

While the veterinarian continues to recommend IV therapy, it is costly and would add more stress on Freckles, who is otherwise still purring and getting around. Yes, it might buy him a few more months, weeks or days, but for whom? I wonder if our insistence on extending the lifespan of our pets, despite their pain and lack of quality of life, is simply a reflection of our intense fear of death and decay, of loneliness and release.

Pain is a necessary aspect of being alive. While spending billions every year on prescribed pain and mood management drugs, cosmetics, legal and illegal mind-altering substances, surgeries and other therapies, we have lost touch with the necessity of being aware of our body and our health. I am not advocating for a return to the pre-anesthesia medical model or denying ourselves the treatment of diseases; however, I am advocating that a little bit of pain during emotional hurt, loss and the disease and death process is actually good for us and for those witness to these processes.

Without pain and discomfort, we lose the opportunity to strengthen sinew and spirit. We lose our evolutionary advantage of adaptability. We weaken ourselves mentally because we become used to being in a maintained “false state” where we are not under any sort of perceived threat, even though we are, of course, really susceptible to our own demise. This delusion of mastery over age, health and life is carefully managed through our current medical and behavioral health models.

When we hurt, naturally we want to take action to remove or relieve the cause of hurt. We learn something about our physical being, our surroundings and the threat that caused the hurt. We may internalize this as a lesson and avoid such situations in the future. We may even pass something on to our children, resulting in the next generation acquiring more information for survival. We gain an understanding of what we like and what feels good by these elements being juxtaposed against what we do not like, what is dangerous or what feels bad.la loba

By synthesizing pleasure and anesthetizing pain, how far will we go to strike a perpetual state of feeling good? And, will our willingness to adapt, grow and act as our own teacher and advocate against those who are managing our pleasure and pain states wane? As animals, we function best when we are fully engaged in controlling our bodies, minds and emotions. When we subvert our survival instincts – if by only even minute levels – we allow the state and corporations to take away our right to experience and express pain through illness, disease, aging and death.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional… er, sorry – also inevitable.

In most Eastern religions, suffering is seen as something akin to the human condition. Even the sages and bodhisattvas experience some suffering. Through meditation and study, reducing our human tendency to form attachments and expectations encourages a reduction in the frequency in and severity of suffering. Generally speaking, suffering is perceived as a given state of being aware of and in resistance to a life that will most certainly end.

Suffering can be a part of the human experience that enhances our life – after all, if we did not greatly grieve the loss of a loved one, how might our depth of love be altered? Is the fact of finality not an aspect of intense love, pleasure, communion and affection that allows us to have these feelings?

I was raised in a Baptist church and as a child I recall being intensely frightened of the idea that when I died, I would go to Heaven – you know, Paradise – where I would live FOREVER. I remember thinking about the enormity of what would never end, what would be an unending amount of time, drifting in an Elysian Field never to arrive at any destination – just eternally blissed out. That scared the hell out of me! How can something never end, I thought. It went against what my body knew as truth. How boring, to live forever in the same state. I like an ending to anything, even orgasmic rapture. I consider that child, so afraid of manufactured happiness, to hold the key.

If we are always avoiding pain, nullifying our aches and using any means (including enlightenment) to subdue the reality of our demise, what will we miss as individuals, families and societies? Where will our rites go, and how will we recognize a life well lived  if there is a struggle to maintain a baseline of absolute balance?

Dying is painful. The body decays and then shuts down, but not without discomfort. Is this an abhorrent thought? Learning to let go to the transition of any loss and fully experience that ache is the fulfillment of the life cycle. Even if we personally seek to avoid pain, what are we denying our peers to witness, honor and move through to cultivate their own wisdom and understanding?

The bodies of the ill are sequestered away in institutions where we sterilize and anesthetize. While machines hum and bland art hangs on ultra-white walls – where everyone speaks in hushed tones with serious looks and padded shoes, we fall to sickness and death. When we die, we are dressed in suits we loathed to wear in life, made up with rouge that would offend Dolly Parton and are propivped in silk, posed like some fly pinned beneath glass. When my grandfather died, I thought he looked like a stranger. Where was the garden dirt, the disheveled hair, and why did he smell like baby powder and not tobacco and sweat? This was a man of the earth, not the air, to be pomp and pretense. This was a very real man, not to be belittled and made into some digestible piece of fiction. He died, and we gathered in denial of what is so difficult for the living to accept.

Life is alive on the nerve endings, on the shallow breath of  fight or flight and the mating call and mourning song. Being fully aware is frightening. A broken limb or a gash to the skin, and we cannot escape our body-limitations. Pain can be a teacher. Pain makes us soft to the hearts of others, aware of our own sweetness and fragility. In addiction, watch how that light dims. The addict is a perfect example of pain avoidance. We penalize the addict for doing the very thing we want to do: anesthetize.

My old cat may be in pain. He still holds a fire in his eyes, a curiosity and enjoyment of sitting by the window watching birds. To deny him his life / death process would be vanity and selfishness. It hurts to watch our loved ones transition and experience pain, but pain is in itself not bad. I have watched animals take their last few breaths, with broken bones along desolate, winter highways. Still, there was nothing in them that said they’d prefer to be dead before that last breath was ready to leave them. As living creatures, we want to live. Mercy killing is insulting and unjust. Life leaves the body when it is ready. We spare others and ourselves the experience of transition and a reverence for the dying process by intervening prematurely.

The last time I visited Indiana, I spent some time talking to my grandfather and other ancestors at their grave sites near a beautiful cornfield lined by oak trees. In my hand, I held the written prayers of wind, dirt and laughter – seeds I threw into the June windstorm. I know their transitions – some of them painful, some of them prolonged – were beautiful aspects of their life narratives. Their endings, the way they transitioned and even the diseases that facilitated the end to their lives, all comprised the next generation and what we have to learn – to struggle against – and to embrace. Ultimately, I live the song of suffering as much as the song of happiness. I wish no less for you.