“At times her whimsical fancy would intensify natural processes around her till they seemed a part of her own story. Rather they became a part of it; for the world is only a psychological phenomenon, and what they seemed they were.”
― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
I have wild ideas about life. It started with books. I read the classics: the Brontes, Shelley, Blake, Hardy, Joyce, and so many others. I lived in books, and the world around me become small as the world of concept grew large and unruly. It stalked my thoughts and formed the most precise ideas about all things, regardless of their necessary definitions.
The words, themselves, became real, as real as ascetics who hold up the Good Word and look to some Heaven. The books are my first and last temple.
The words itched under my coat and shoes, and wanted me to draw fangs and hooves in the place of friends and students. Everyone seemed flat in comparison, that is, except these wild imaginings and wild places.
I could see the world as I imagined, among nightingales, persimmon trees, and the low-slung moon above the treeline. There, I was no longer in a place of one-dimensional characters, the mean dramas of humans, but in a microcosmic world of unfolding new buds and the twitch of a cricket antennae.
“..I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark … I go back into the dark! Before the moon I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu
A life in books is an instructed one. In these books the girl survives, the moral of the story is upheld, and justice is served.
The gods of the old and new are remade, and the balance between evil and good, rectified. My life in books has prompted me to wander off into the night to seek truth and has drawn out instincts I never knew I contained.
To dream of such things is to know that it is real. To dream is to know there is another dreamer dreaming these things. Nowhere are you alone in the world that forms itself. And in this wild heart of the untamed word, I am found.
It was 1994. I sat in my grandmother’s bedroom, comprising poems on her old typewriter. The one she used for decades. It was that year I would travel to see my favorite songwriters and artists, time spent on a road that was so unfamiliar to this rural Indiana native.
That summer, I met Leonard Cohen, Henry Rollins, Tori Amos, Nick Cave, and a host of other musicians whose music kept me hopeful that there was a way. A way out.
Not only were these artists meaningful to me, they actually found meaning in what someone – a 20 year old poet – had to say. I spent hours talking over coffee, dodging chaos when opening acts like the Beastie Boys usurped Cave’s more intellectual performance, and hounding after their gifts like the young do. I even had late night calls from some of them who wondered who the hell I was to reach out in such a less-than-adoring way.
As a 20 year old, what loss could I expect from this interest in idol gazing?
There were no idols for me in the cornfields. Nothing, at that time, occurred to me to be worse than what I existed with and through.
Egoless and wonder-filled, I made contact. I rode through storms and uncertainty to meet them – people I longed to be.
It has been years since I have bothered riding tour buses, leaving comfort at the door to follow the lead of musical and poetic influences. Years, too, since I felt that same glistening, abundant hope that I could rise up from my status and be among them.
When Cohen died, it hit me – not the death, nor his honorable welcome to its touch. What struck me is that there is so much need for beacons among us. For those who take the time to call up the ones who are forgotten, to realize our deepest fears and noblest truths.
What gets you through is not what your experience is, past or present, but that which can be…like Diane Lawrence’s artwork for Cohen’s The Future album, the heart is guided by hummingbirds or handcuffs.
I wrote recently that I no longer believed in the value of hope. I take those words back.
So, thank you, Mister Cohen and all those who took the time to make my life bearable, believable, valuable. Our stories find the light, always.
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
“Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.”
― Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
Over the course of my life, I have written extensively about my background. Candidly, unapologetically. Most of my readers know I am in recovery, grew up poor, and overcame a lot of trauma as a child…
I think the word we insist on using now is survivor.
And it is true; I am a survivor.
But here’s the thing, in an email conversation I was having recently with a wise woman, I discovered that this survivor label no longer serves me. In a way, it has limited me to always being the abused kid, the writer-alcoholic, the poor adult hopping from one near-miss tragedy to the next.
It seems that while survivor might be a badge of courage, it also assumes some basic things about a person, allocating him or her to a moment in time when surviving was the only goal.
And this isn’t even a post about thriving, although thriving is something most people aspire to, survivor or no. This is about the stories we tell ourselves, and in turn, the world.
Inadvertently, in all of my surviving, I forgot the other aspects of who I am and landed precisely in the middle of the narrative I created these last few years.
For example, how I ended up in Phoenix was not so surprising given the narrative of the life I was creating – preferring the wild fantasy to the facts. A survivor just goes with the pull of the tides, right? No. There was a deliberation of story, of belief.
But what would have happened had I done something else? Hmm.
What would have happened if the life I thought I loathed was just mirroring the story I kept creating rather than actual reality or what could have come to fruition?
I’d say any one of us is capable of re-writing a story in the moment – scrapping the old narrative when we find it going in a prescribed direction. Almost every decision we make is based on these stories, from work to romance; family to identity.
All of this has prompted me to JUST STOP TELLING THOSE DAMNED STORIES. Stop already.
Stop telling stories about being poor as shit, drunk as hell, and even…as much as it hurts me to leave her behind…lost and alone at age 10.
Because these stories aren’t where I live anymore, or what I live.
So expect something new from me in the coming months. Wildly, fervently, freeing-ly new… as I set pen to paper, and begin.
It began here, my desire for this place. The course of its existence ran through me – an energy to move a woman 2,000 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, the fierce shield of granite and water, to a place of obsidian and sky.
Eight years ago, standing on the edge of old Route 66, I watched clouds pass across the cobalt. I could not remain in my old life. The hard edges of the city pushed me into these skies so vast. No amount of squinting could help me to discern what’s beyond the tall grasses and deep canyons. But I knew I had to find out.
Soft definition is what I sought; a place where I could be as lucent as abandoned buildings, yet as full as the chambers of my heart.
To be filled with movement… I desired the poetry of pulse and breath.
To come here meant I could fly into whatever scene I wanted; to be as mutable and impelling as the clouds drifting through the valley. I craved this story. And, the beautiful thing about story isn’t the story itself, but what you can leave out.
I choose to erase
the details of
my desire for this place.
Some things need to move through. Across dry creeks and coyote tracks, there are only traces, and a place to pick up and start walking again.
“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill
To be foolish…
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.
Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.
Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.
But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.
They whisper to us through fear and doubt.
My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.
There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).
To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.
Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.
Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.
It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.
The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.
Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.
At least, no human others.
Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.
But now it is only the campfire that hisses.
Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.
The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.
The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.
But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.
Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.
To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.
Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.
Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.
It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.
“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…
“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 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.
The man blots his eyes with the sun – he hopes to capture another Lucy
To call from the door. I had hoped to be the chosen actress, but there are C cups
And champagne drinkers ahead of me, and the night dabbles its wand in the thick dusk.
Every man has his prize and the fat girls starve themselves for it.
Even the ugly guys weep their beautiful screenplays – attribute the higher arts
To virtues uncovered by dinosaur bones – a three hour disaster on boats with wine
And we landlocked look on, dreaming of them.
I have read your Mr. Ed resume. I have looked between lines for the cocaine you promised
And the dancing polka-dot bikinis. You were a liar before you arrived, and now you are perfectly
Suited, a dressed banana for signatures and benzo-shocked starlets. You had a runner,
A desert dwelling bitch who couldn’t stand the noise. Vacuum and insomnia, you did her in.
Do you like anything? I have heard you monkey your lines in supermarket aisles,
Pretending your pretty goods can float like the traffic that pours aimlessly into here.
Here is the T-bird you didn’t expect to win, when your name pulled the asphalt dragsters
And we ate the deserts, the cold dog star flashing out need. And we glowed in the sex-light
Of too much wisdom. Out there, I pulled you in. I made you king and kindred,
But we all learn the vengeance – how to float on the polluted red sea of metropolitan slaves.
Honey, you made your address shine and sparkle.
What you promised
Was a fool’s gold, and I, the fool to spin that wheel.
When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.
It had clearly imagined Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.
― Song of Childhood, Peter Handke
And for the first time, he wished he were far away. Lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language, or streets.
― Paris, Texas, screenplay by Sam Shepard
On October 1st, I will be forty years old. The imaginings of a linear life have left me disappointed… the hands, the work, the “deal” – none of it mattered to me. I wandered through a variety of lifestyles, always feeling empty and restless. Restlessness seemed to be the precursor to my entire life – nothing can compare to the daydreams of a ten year old. There would be no sultry saviors, no absolution and no erasing the names. There would be a tapestry of longing and a growing compassion for process.
Recently, I made the decision to be truly honest in my decisions. I have written extensively on the subject of work, place and self-awareness. I have a fascination with those whose approach to life smashes barriers. In my twenties, I revolted against femininity and modern capitalism. I squatted in abandoned homes, I jumped tracks and I traveled with an unabashed, caustic personality that drove me to places I never thought I would see. I didn’t participate in the traditional life. I hoofed it with fellow wanderers and freaks. I saw to it that I would never, ever be owned or trapped.
During this time, I explored the trends of body and spirit dualism, eating disorders and body image. I exploited every revolting aspect of the flesh in hopes of making them beautiful. I danced and tripped on mushrooms. I would go without bathing or combing my hair. I pushed for a love of flesh – in its complete glory and eventual decay – because I did not know how to love my own mortal shell. I thought that salvation, or revolution, was found in the intersection of love and physicality. I wanted to be in my skin – lovely and horrible, yet completely body-authentic.
Throughout my thirties, I developed an interest in authenticity as commodity and trend. Authenticity became the battle cry of marketing firms and big brands. The migration from body wisdom to authentic identity of personhood was troubling; mainly because of the way the mainstream embraced the concept. The collective consciousness of Gen X was quickly and quietly overtaken by a new promise of being both successful and authentic. More people, particularly young people, embraced their weird uniqueness and eccentricities, and that was wonderful in many regards. However, this co-opted form of authenticity remained sophomoric and typically American. “I have a right to be me” became the empty shell of egocentric pursuits and isolation. More niche and fringe groups formed based on limited cogent forces – the individual became a composite of type. When a question was posed, the individual could simply fall back on adolescence, “You just don’t understand me!” Me went off the charts. Me denominated the market and continues to do so.
“Remember the quiet wonders. The world has more need of them than it has for warriors.”
― Moonheart, Charles de Lint
What would it be like to lose one’s identity? The movie Paris, Texas (screenplay by Sam Shepard) illustrates the need for an endless terrain and a loss of identity. The main character, Travis Henderson, becomes drawn to “forgetting” and being unknown in an unknown land, simply slipping the realities of tragedy, loss and addiction, Travis makes his way home only to choose to return to the land of unknown – the power of movement, following the crack-snap song of power lines that cut through otherwise desolate country.
Tragedy, however, need not be the only impetus for losing oneself to the world. Shamans, prophets and wisdom keepers tread the path of the unknown, the lost one. In shedding former identity, an understanding of place can be attained. One can transcend human boundaries, hearing the songs of crickets and owls and wearing the night like a coat that cannot be slipped. The wanderer becomes small yet great in smallness, silenced yet wise in the vacuum.
Personas can be shifted. Over the past few months, I have considered the random and unsuitable personas I have worn over the years. My general dissatisfaction with a monetary based system has also been a pinnacle factor in my desire to shift from laborer to vagabond. Perhaps persona is a modern development, a modern affliction. Did early man consider his uniqueness? Did he cultivate a collection of property or skills that helped him become alpha, popular and accepted?
There is a connection to the dog-order of humans and other pack animals. Somewhere along the evolutionary process, this aberration of self was developed in order to secure … well, security. With exaggerated limbs and features, bigger-faster-smarter, we rose and challenged. We amended. We edited. We made over and dominated in a pernicious quest for immortality.
You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
― Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads
The paradox of the fascination with uniqueness is that it is made moot by context. How are we unique if not in the reflection of a communal norm? There would be no uniqueness without a benchmark. We are never separate, individual. There would be no concept of identity if we had no place within a larger social order. That is why the most isolated of tribes or individuals have a rich dreamscape that has not been eradicated by comparison. In these worlds, plants become as alive as humans. Stones tell stories. Garbage is sacred. It is a mad world that invites weeds to the storyline.
Since the original concepts of loss of identity and regaining of self have nothing to do with pandering to a value based system, we as a culture have little regard for or understanding of those who move beyond what is acceptable. For example, the unique worldview of a person deeply entrenched in paranoid schizophrenia – without being medicated – perhaps represents the purest form of authenticity. The mentally ill and their schematics and dreamlands create fear and order in a tunnel almost devoid of common experience.
There has been much research on the subject of self and mental illness as well as self and shamanism. In this paradigm, there is room for all forms of perception and reality.
To jump off into cholla with dreams of remaining unharmed…
To climb the slick rock and see antelopes dancing in the shadows of light descending…
To know the names of every plant and rock… to call them when you are alone and need life to follow.
My life is changing. Nothing seems fixed as such – and in this shape-shifting, fluid state, I worry less about my life and my purpose. There is a dignity of ignorance I seek. You see, the unchanged world of beliefs and personas is an unforgiving one. In this static state, you are sick or well, pure or rotten. There is a collective desire to find Elysium in the status quo and the illusion of authenticity.
I don’t want to be clear; I want to be knee-deep and murky. I want to wade out when the songs of the sirens bellow across the turquoise. There is beauty in dissolution and chaos. Nature adores the ever-changing and amorphous. There is no regret in simply living without having one solid version of life and the beyond. Perhaps it is not for us to know. Perhaps being an animal among field songs and flight is a very good life, indeed.