The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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Everything Grief Demands

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“…he knew even then
he would leave us. Black trees, black vines spilling
across tarmac. The promise of disappearance,
the deepest breath.”

from Still Life with Damnosa Hereditas and Dark Constellations, Sandra Meek

I lost my father two weeks ago at the age of 62. It was unexpected and left my siblings and me reeling, trying to grapple with the reality of the sudden death.

Bargaining is of course one of the most predictable stages of grief, but I couldn’t help but want to strike a deal with the universe. My dad had finally started to come into himself, to soften, to connect with loved ones and the life he wished he had led.

I am sad and sorry he didn’t get to backpack the Uinta Mountains again or make that promised road trip to the West.

The author Haruki Marakami said, “In a sense our lives are nothing more than a series of stages to help use get used to loneliness.” I think that is one of the truest statements on what aging feels like, and I have felt the impact of this unavoidable progression since I was young.

The longer one lives, the more acutely intimate she is with the ultimate truth of life, its essential aloneness. When we lose others we are reminded of the final and most important act of aloneness, dying.

In that, I hope those who die young are spared some of the ache of loneliness. Some folks don’t take to it well, and my dad wouldn’t have been one who did.

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Until You Fall

When people I love die, I dream of them falling. I never know where they are falling to, or into, or out of…but they fall. I try to catch them. They sometimes beg me to, but I cannot.

When they look at me, begging and falling…all I can do is watch.

I think death, or at least the initial departure, must feel like falling through unseen territory. Some welcome the fall, relieved to be weightless and free, some struggle. Maybe they always secretly preferred the earth to the sky.

I am certain I would be one to struggle. The ocean frightens me with its overwhelming and infinite waves – and the thought of free-falling through air is terrifying – nothing like angels or birds with their soft promise, just a dull stone hurdling into darkness.

I have always been an earth beneath my feet woman. Dry earth, rock, root, flesh and bone…things to cling to…none of this ethereal business. You can keep your heavens and waterworlds.

The Thing About Walking

I got up at twilight and headed out on one of my favorite trails, right in the heart of the city. It runs through a corridor of the North Mountains and creates a sense of wildness – even in an epicenter of 4 million.

Walking is myimg_3076 way of coping with hard times. Movement is my therapy, particularly when I am stuck in anger, and I have been angry since my father died. Some reasons are personal; some are sadly becoming more universal.

You see, my dad stopped taking his medications because he couldn’t afford them. He worked in public service for years, but retired without a pension or any savings. He opted for paying his bills over taking care of his health. To think of this makes me enraged. No one should be forced to choose debt over their health.

My rage, in part, is that I find myself in a similar situation: how can I afford insurance; how can I NOT afford insurance? People who work very hard all of their lives end up penniless and desperate. This happens all of the time and no one likes to think of it unless it comes down like a fist upon them.

I pondered these injustices up on that ridge. During this time, I watched as a bulldozer edged the semi-wild, yet most precious terrain, heralding another new housing development.

It is so like us to be plowed under, obedient…

Being here, among city sprawl and the busy lives of busy people, I am reminded of the land around me and all that has been lost…all that modernity has buried.

This culture has bulldozed its apathy upon us. And it is only when our own heart is breaking and the anger demands answers, do we feel the scrape of the blade cactus face (1 of 1) and grieve for everything that has been lost.

Into Another Life

That was not the story I wanted to write. I am tired of writing about poverty and death, the loss of land and clean water, the indignity of making the “lesser of evils” choices.

I would rather tell a story of women washing auburn hair in a cold creek, or one of children with full bellies and the ability to sleep peacefully; of firefly illumined fields and hollows.

But, I am not a believer of fate. Any wreck you pass, there was a cause and an effect. The stars do not conspire against your happiness any more than mine.

While this anger hastens, it is the story I write – it is what I must walk and sing and offer up. That is the burden and release of grief, to bring us down to the last ember.


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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.


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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.


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Following Deer

“to the seeds,
to the beginnings; to one clear word for which
there is no disguise and no alternative.”
~Brackenbury

I have grown accustomed to mourning and rejoicing in tandem. It seems throughout my life some of the most profoundly joyful moments, good news, and inconspicuous but thrilling arrivals have found their way to me in the footsteps of sadness, change, and difficult times. If there is a lesson in this trend, I am still learning, growing with every new turn and opportunity to respond and adapt.

Just as I was accepting a job offer and entirely new course in life – including a major residential move – a friend lapsed into serious condition, then left this old, dusty world just a day beyond my acceptance of this new path. I was watching deer move delicately across a green meadow, the new morning sweet and endless, as my friend struggled for breath and held the hands of friends and family too numerous to name. Just as I stumbled up a mountain path, where a small doe stood sniffing the air, my family – back in Indiana – dealt with struggles of their own, how to honor an aging loved one’s wishes while serious health issues pressed against good conscience. And all the while my own conflicts provided sullen backdrops against the abundant beauty around me.

 Is it right to be happy when others are not?

How do we fully live while grieving for those who are dying or have gone on?

I grapple with my need to move quickly in the midst of so much emotion. By nature, I am a mover. To remain still, coming from my history and character, welcomes potential peril. I move on, even when my heart is broken and everyone around me lingers, catatonic in hurt. I move with the clouds. I say goodbye as the wind pushes memory and time over ridges, against the horizon. I carry stories. I speak them, and speak through them. I move, too, in the gray space, as everyone naturally moves away from our grasp. Friends, lovers and family circle the wheel, just as I. 

There’s ache in my heart for the many losses faced over the years, for the pains and sicknesses that have plagued those I love, and for the reality that, yes, our limited, linear life becomes ever more apparent as loved ones fly off into hereafter. Childhood, for those fortunate enough to be awarded this innocent time, is short. For many, childhood is merely a time to fight for survival. Fair or unfair, the wheel turns. We mourn. We move on.

As I reflect upon my time in Colorado and the deer that greeted me on my morning walks, I am reminded of a moment of holiness and complexity in my twenties. Holy is a word I choose intentionally. I was facing a devastating loss, dealing with the inevitable end to an ugly situation. I was very alone – not in the physical sense – but the dejected sense of being alone, when surrounded by people who could not or would not understand or acknowledge who I am or the obvious circumstances around us. I was about to walk into a hotel, when I saw a couple of young does rush across the busy county road. The first made it in a daring leap between automobiles. The second was not so lucky. Just as she made it into the first lane, a truck hit her hind legs… and without the slightest pause, continued to drive away. The doe stumbled twice but managed to cross into the National Forest land just beyond.

Without thinking, I left my stunned companion and darted across the road and scrambled under the barbed wire fence. Looking back, my companion simply walked into the hotel and closed the door – a final impasse. I keenly remember an urge to find the doe. I knew she must be in bad shape, if even alive, and I couldn’t stop my legs from moving into the thick green tangle of late summer foliage. I must have walked for an hour before reluctantly turning around to head back. That’s when I saw her. She was on her side, just beyond a thick stand of trees, lying on ferns. I neared and met her eyes. I could tell she was dying. I leaned down and placed a hand on her side as she took her last few breaths.

There was something in the acknowledgment of that final moment of life that was comforting. Sad, yes, but… the truth of being fully there, present and with this transition, soothed my mind. And, something tells me my being there soothed her also.

It is what it is…

Deer vision is unlike our own. They see in the context of movement. What doesn’t move isn’t there or isn’t framed in their visual landscape. Every movement is new. Every motion is a beginning. There’s no need to worry about things that are not felt and perceived. Life and death happen at the most basic visceral level of movement in moment.

From the accounts of my friend’s last moments on earth, he was surrounded by dozens of friends and family. My own family struggles with tough decisions, but they are together – witnessing, acknowledging each other’s feelings. Grief and sadness stand near our moments of happiness – inches away, at times. But these are all feelings that come and go, enter and leave. What remains are those moments of simply seeing each other – real in the music of being real – moving delicately off into fields, through the landscapes of dying and being born. We comfort and celebrate by being witness to the movement of each other – and again, by moving into those new spring meadows.