Before the Spirit of ‘The Long Man’ 

I sit on the western bank

of the river my ancestors crossed

both Irish and Cherokee.

The wind blows cool

in the shade;

a cup half-full of water.
I have been a month in the desert

sleeping in red clay

beside twisted trunk 

barely leaves

canyon crack,

deep and impossible,

low sagebrush 

one and one and one. 

Each a chapter of hope.
But today this body 

made of dust needs The Great River 

soft and rolling, moist wind making 

curls

everything green and growing.

Grass, weed, wild thing

sprout without care

laughing at the morning sun;
they do not know

what it is to be 

the only tree.

11 thousand feet up

Our son and his fiancé have a puppy. He’s six months old and along with our old dog Bo, he and his humans have come with us to camp in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. There are no campgrounds here.

We sit beside a lake with a view of the snow-tinged mountains. My husband and son play catch on the rocky shore while his fiancé and I bask in the sunshade—she in a hammock, me in my beach chair. At my feet in front of me, the puppy sits erect, watching the boys with their ball. Suddenly, he falls over and I laugh because I think he has just fallen asleep and toppled like a baby. But he yelps. Afraid he has hurt himself in his sleepy topple, I quickly feel his head and neck for a tangled collar or sharp twig. But when his yelping stops and he poops lying down, I call out instinctively, “He’s having a seizure.”

Everyone comes running. I check his pupils because I don’t know what else to do and see that he has drooled. We are almost 12-thousand feet up with no cell service. I snap into Mamma mode and calm everyone with the idea that his now sleepy state is not out of order after a seizure. They soothe him with words and soft strokes and we all wait for him to recover. He sort of does, lifting his head a bit, but then he appears so limp I say, “Check his pulse.” Although I don’t know what a puppy pulse should be, his seems way too slow and when my son calls his name, he doesn’t even flinch or open an eye. At this point, even I am crying. My son and I say—at the same time—“I/We better just go.” He and his fiancé charge down the mountain in her car, to cell service and/or the nearest vet hospital.

Todd and I clean up our picnic by the lake, sniffling and sobered. We decide to pack up and leave the mountain and head toward the hospital or the kids’ home. I start to cry and say to Todd, “I don’t know if I can drive down this mountain.” But there really is no other option, so I take a deep breath, think like a Mamma, and clean up camp.

While Todd is over a small hill, striking the kid’s hammock site, I get a $230 fine for not dousing our morning coals with water. Evidently, you douse, not bank, in the Rockies, so I humbly take my licks from the over-the-top, hall-monitor-type Ranger (who honestly seemed thrilled he had “smelled our coals from the road”) and we finish packing up camp in time to drive down before dark.

We head out like a parade: Todd pulling our tiny trailer, and me in my son’s four-door packed with gear. Did I mention the road is made of dirt? And definitely not intended for two-lane traffic, except in rare cases when there are more than half a dozen cars up here—like during snowmobiling season or this Fourth of July weekend—when Chocos-wearing wilderness types come up from downtown Denver. Seeing even one other automobile on the road was enough to strike terror in every blind curve. There are no railings here, no road signs, no pavement, no lights. The sides fall so drastically, and the turns are so sharp that I resort to birth breathing. I lean forward, hyper focus my attention on the tiny trailer’s taillights and my right edge of the road—shoulders hunched, hands at 10 and 2.

The tears come and go as I do my best to be the grown up in this situation but between my intention to not go tumbling off the side of the mountain or run headlong into another car, my mind wanders. I think of my son and his fiancé and the little girl they nanny who passed away last week in a tragic swimming accident. I think of my soon-to-be daughter-in-law weeping beside the puppy and remember her frantic call to me last Christmas Eve morning when her mother was suddenly in ICU, fighting for her life. I think of their 6-month old puppy and how they have lovingly raised it, and how we all stand beside and watch the parents they will surely become. The road blurs and I have to stop feeling. I have get down this mountain.

Slowly the descent becomes less drastic and finally the road finds itself a stop sign, becomes paved, and we are at the outskirts of a town large enough to paint lines on its road. I am sobbing now, full of relief, fear, grief, gratitude and compassion. How will I help the kids? What will they need? Will I be able to offer them a safe place? Is their puppy even still alive? I do not know. But I made it down the mountain, with every hysterical inner voice all but silenced by my brave intention. I am strong. I am compassionate and I am an adult, capable of navigating both mountain road and intense emotion.

*

Two hours later, after another less-harrowing drive down more mountains of paved road, we reach the kids. They are shaken, but showered from camp dust; they and the puppy are okay.

My soon-to-be daughter-in-law and I cry right there in the driveway…about the puppy, about the little girl who passed, about her mother who did not, and about whether or not any of us is strong enough to pick ourselves up after such tragedies. Then we hug, in the most knowing of ways, share a glass of tequila, and join the boys on the porch. The sun slants low, the dogs play at our feet, and we eat take-out from tin trays, laughing again, back inside the rest of the story that belongs to today.

 

 

the watchtower

I sit with our dog Bo in a tiny spit of shade beside The Watchtower at Dessert View, the easternmost point on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon while Todd takes his turn climbing to the top of Mary Colter’s architectural wonder. From my spot on a rock I look out over the canyon and feel that somehow I have made it. I start to cry; I have made it. I am 52, our children are mostly grown and gone and Todd and I have made this open-air trek across the country to this moment, this immense sight. I wipe my cheek as passing tourists ask to pet our sweet golden and when Todd returns, he takes up the shade with the pup while I climb the Watchtower.

Mary’s work from the 1930s is stunning, not only has she repeated the local Puebloan design, she has set windows of varying sizes at differing heights throughout the rough stone walls of her circular tower. I hear someone’s paid guide explain how she wanted to create a place that allowed visitors to see every angle of the Grand Canyon. And this she has accomplished. Each window is placed with great care, creating an artist’s landscape portrait of a different angle of the canyon’s scene. One window, large and high, reveals only sky—bright blue with scuttling clouds; another shows the deep green of the twisted, squatty trees that climb behind, as if having no notion that a rift in the earth falls away on the other side; yet another live painting reveals a hopeful mesa in the midst of the great crevasse, and yet another shows half sky, half hole in the painted desert.

I smooth my hand along the surface of the undulating stone and peer, straight on, through every single window. Some are at my knees, some at my breast, some over my head, but I stop at each, eager as a child to see every view she intended me to notice. As I do, the tears run, large and rolling, and I feel as if each window holds the view from a different part of me, revealing a different piece of my life’s experience. Each of my little parts can see only the view from their window; they cannot see the whole. I climb another set of stairs to find another round room of window portraits and realize that each younger version of myself holds a distinct view of the canyon of my life—its gaping wounds and glorious vistas. I begin to wonder if the tower is a replica of my heart’s center, holding all my parts in tandem. I cannot quite find the answer before it is time to go.

Hours later after watching the sun set from another vantage point, we return at my request to Mary’s magical tower. The sun nearly gone, we take photographs of the waning light on the side of its magnificent stone. The curve of the tower bends the light to near rainbows. I stand beside it, remembering all the views from the inside—each perspective from each pane of glass as they bend in an ever-shrinking circle up three flights of stairs.

I breathe in. I breathe out. And in the breath I find my higher self holds the greatest view. My little parts have been locked inside a tower at the edge of my canyon, none knowing more than the view from their glass. But today I stand beside, hand in hand with my higher self, and see the whole: the beauty and the ruin, the light and the darkness, the cavernous hole, the rocky cliffs, the tiny flowers that bloom from the craggy rocks. I may not yet know the canyon’s entirety, but I know the sparsely placed windows in the tower offer singular views, ones that only make sense now combined and seen from without.

From within my tower, my little parts see through their glass dimly, but on the outside, fully grown, I see face to face, strong enough to bear the whole.

good morning…

Bo and I took a walk along the Colorado River right next to camp this morning. It rolls soft and gentle here in this bit of canyon. The early sun slanted the surface silver. After our walk we came back and I made coffee and we watched the mountains. They didn’t move. But the wind blew the trees and the light on the leaves made them look like shiners jumping in the bay. Bird song and tree rustle join the hum of the cars up on I-70 and make for this morning’s sounds from my canvas rocker. Other campers stir – each of us alone, yet all together trying to connect to the earth, the sky. The air is dry here and the landscape all but familiar, and yet everywhere there is beauty and belonging. Just now a hummingbird flew so close to my head it might have kissed my hair. New life is everywhere. I am opening my eyes.

…below the canyon

We round the bend toward Flagstaff – or so it seems – and the gorse and fur of the dessert plains suddenly rise into a trio of blue mountains. We pass through them and it is as if that little ridge has buffeted the sagebrush and behind its fortress they have learned to grow into towering pines. The alteration in the landscape is remarkable; as strange as the moment the red, clay cliffs and round green shrubs of New Mexico gave way to the pale, flat lands of “the big country” as Connie-the-injured-cowboy called it. Winding farther on we are suddenly in the midst of a full blown forest, then a clear mountain lake and then our campsite tucked far and away, so serene that when the wind bends the tall trees it makes the music of the ocean. 

…been off the grid so this is a few days old…

Yesterday I stood on a bluff in the hill country of Texas and surveyed the stark reality of a forest trying to recover from the fire it sustained half a dozen years ago. I took a picture of bright green leaves growing from the center of a charred stump and felt a lyrical grief for the spirits of the trees. They were so graceful in their creamy baldness, as if they had survived chemotherapy and lived to tell about it. Beside them, an adolescent deer blinked at us from the side of the road as we headed down into camp.

Earlier that day, in the city of Austin, I watched a proud grakle perch himself on the metal railing next to our table; he was shiny and dark, with a magnificent tail and a crooked left foot that jutted, unusable, out to his side. Then today, a huge buzzard flew over the long rolling road of red and green, encircling a road-kill raccoon; I could see the definition in its fur.

Life and death, it would seem, flourish simultaneously all around me.

I noticed this today, more than others perhaps, because of yesterday’s tragic news. Our son’s fiancé is a nanny and one of the little girls she has nurtured over the past year was in a tragic drowning accident and will not survive. I don’t know any of the details because my soon-to-be-daughter-in-law was not present, but the reverberations of their pain have washed over me like the hot, dry wind that blows us westward.

I have given birth four times and have attended others as a doula and I can tell you that births hold a mysterious connection to death. The scent of blood and amniotic fluid mixed with the low guttural groans of labor give way to that miraculous moment when a child emerges from the dark recesses of what seems like death. I have also attended deaths. Two. And the midwifing of a soul into the next life is a miracle akin to birth. But though life and death seem inexorably intertwined I simply cannot fathom what it would be like to lose a child. It is out of order. Nonsensical.

Todd and I are loving our son and his fiancé from the road, checking in when we have internet and trying to be a grounding force in the midst of this storm; we have plans to meet them in the Rocky Mountains in a week or so, but we have no idea what will happen now. For the most part we have carried on with our trip. I have taken photographs and posted our adventures in unfamiliar places, but the shock of this loss for my daughter-in-law-to-be has left me with a keen eye for the other deaths around me. Death is everywhere. As is life.

I believe we are created as eternal beings for whom death is simply an egregious error—and yet the cycle of living and dying permeates the very nature we belong to. Winter precedes spring; death, new life. It is a curious dichotomy, this rhythm that shapes us. It has been said that we cannot know light without first knowing darkness, so perhaps these deaths, that suffering, those losses, offer a foil for the light of our eternal beings.

Tonight the forest sings it so.

…so here’s a rough draft of a “long poem”…a request from my son for a day’s writing on the road…

Somewhere In The Middle Of Nowhere In Louisiana I Thought Of You

Sugar cane, white bungalow gone grey

a shack. I turn

the page in the story I read your father

and there you are

perched like a picture in someone else’s book.

Words scrawl sideways across the pale in disarray

as if the poet meant it that way

I’m sure he did

as you.

 

Southern humidity hangs

in green

weighted with summer. I imagine

you and your girl

sliding those silver Rockies down to the bay

pink with sunset

planning your tomorrows

beside that marble mansion. Candy clouds

close the chapter

childhood sinks, you rise

break the surface with your breath

nimble feet pump, kick. Laughing and proud

she comes

swimming like the weeki-wachee mermaids.

Softer than a siren she sings

calls your name in a way

only you can hear from sea-green eyes

only you can read.

 

I read it too

somewhere in the middle of nowhere

passing Abbeville, stopping for bacon at a quick store

photographing the swamp, the cypress knees, the moss

 

and just like that I know for sure you are gone.

 

The book of literary wonders, long forgotten, sits slack in my lap

I watch your father drive

through fields of sugar cane

sweetness on every side. I finger memories

of him at your age

how he turned when I called his name

swam to me

through pink waters beneath the moon.

 

…and So It Begins…

…so I left you last with a musing about “the reality of the yes” in which I wondered how Todd and I would fare on our month-long wilderness adventure (okay there’s a bathhouse at our campground and a/c in the tiny trailer). Those of you who know us well know our love story and our compatibility and how we partner in everything from parenting to fiction writing, but I am a champion when it comes to anxiety…and so we had to make a stop at my therapist’s before leaving town. “Well,” she said about my anxiety over how we would handle conflicts on the road, “We’ll find out.”

We rolled into St Andrews State Park on the bay of Florida’s panhandle last night at 6pm. Plenty of time to set up camp on a beautiful site, right on the water. 

Trailer situated. Check. Galley set up. Check. Firewood. Check. Attachment for the pahaque tent that perfectly connects to our tiny trailer so that we can leave the door open for our 70lb golden retriever so that he does NOT share the queen mattress that takes up the entire floor of the tiny trailer….not included. 

Ugh. 

We bought the tent used from the nicest guy and he just forgot the other bag in his closet. 450 miles away.

At this point the Florida bugs are making an appearance, a storm is approaching, and we have a gaping hole in our trailer/tent system.  A windy squal whips up and Todd and I jump into action without hesitation. Together we jerry-rig the $300 custom tent ($450 new) to our tiny trailer door. Working in tandem, with nary a cross word, we finagled, suggested–and together, we improvised a way to make a place for Bo beside us. We were a dance.

Later–after grass fed steak, risotto, and a salad of local cukes and tomatoes made from the back of our trailer–as we lay side by side inside this month’s home, I let myself relax and breathe, with Todd, with myself, with god. 

Last night could have held an argument from which we recovered, but the touch of the divine was gentle–it chose to offer me a tender start, one that made it impossible to forget that Todd and I have been doing this for 31 years. Working together. Making a home. Dancing under the trees.