Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Path of Cairns

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Last night, no, it was Friday night after dinner (warm artichoke dip and chips as appreciated appetizers when we arrived back at camp after our hike, then around the long table in the dining tent, hazelnut and kale salad, perfect tiny garlic and rosemary potatoes, grilled salmon with butter, dill and lemon, iced tea and lemonade) there was still evening light everywhere and I couldn't rest, couldn't chill on my tent porch, cute as it was with comfy chair and charming side table and a pretty view of billows of purple wild asters and the south end of the Sinking Ship escarpment.

I left camp, out the dirt road past modern cabins and a couple of house. Scared up a jackrabbit and laughed out loud at the way its long ears stood straight up as it ran.

On the main gravel road across from out unmarked campground entrance was a locked gate bearing a sign AGRICULTURAL WASTE ONLY (what?!) and behind the gate, a steep hill with a washout road.

View east from camp: Asters, rainbow and the Agricultural Waste hill

A mustached man on a moped buzzes toward me, smiles to my smile, his young black lab nimble and fast despite his plastic cone of shame. The dog jumps on me for a pet, then gambols off, his high leaping gait like that of a rising and falling rocking horse.

I do a scramble up the hill, looking for rattlers, half wanting to stir something up.

We've seen ground squirrels, including one on the trail the first day who stood up like a trained circus animal, charming us for treats we did not give him and one on the Calf Creek Falls trail who barked at us from a treetop, making us laugh. Birds too, but not much other wildlife (a mule deer pranced by as I write this in the camp hammock) so rustling up a little snaky thrill would be like that good hot sauce on my cheesy eggs this a.m.

As I rose up the hill, the town of Tropic, Utah comes into view and I'm back there now, in present tense. I'm looking for a point high enough for a view of both massive Powell's Point to the east and the red cliffs of Bryce Canyon to the west.

Moped Man's buzzing echos below and I can hear him yell a greeting to someone. He's turned onto the main gravel road that I crossed to get here and his route is now laid out before me in a triangle. The dog is a happy little dash of movement.

No camera with me to capture the moment, no pack with water or snack, I just crawled up here on my hands and and feet for some heart pounding and gulps of air.

I sit on the gravel slope at the top of my hill facing north towards town, watching the twilight sky and thinking again in those old patterns.

Dad, did you have enough time to get some perspective before you left?

He had four kids, a wife to celebrate ten years with, a successful family business, a Montessori school he had founded with a group of friends, former adventures in the Air Force overseas. And flight. I know he kept flying after his time with the Reserves because he loved it.

Cele says to her husband, “Tell her the story about how Ron would come over to our house at night.  Your dad when he’d go flying?  He had to talk to people.”

Chuck turns to me.  “He’d fly at night a lot.  He always wanted me to go with him.  Our next-door neighbor, Al Crump, was a pilot for United and Al said to me one day he would never get in a small plane.  This guy flies a stretch, to California, Hawaii.  And that stuck in my head, don’t do it.  So I kept telling Ron, I’m not going, I’m not going.  But he’d go and he’d fly around and after he’d fly he was on a big high and he’d come ring our doorbell.  He always wore a raincoat and it’d be flapping behind him as he walks around . . .”

“Yeah, with the belt undone,” remembers Weezie.

Chuck continues, “I’d make him a drink after he was flying, you know, before he’d go home.  And one night Cele and I are in bed, the kids are asleep and we’re talking and ding-dong!  And Cele said, ‘Oh that’s Ron.’  I got up, and I didn’t answer the door, I went in the kitchen and I mixed a drink.  I opened the door, put the drink out, he grabbed it and he’s walking around the house, and he’s telling me how beautiful it is and how he saw the Loop and all this.  He finished the drink and handed me the empty glass and out the door and I close the door and go up to bed.”  

Why did he keep flying? Was it this, this thing I find on mountains, this change from the cramped limitations of sea level, this expanded, God's eye view of the world?

Did you get a chance to put it all together, Dad, on one of your late night flights over the city? Your life and what it meant? Did you have a moment to feel both satisfied and hungry at the same time?

But since they are unanswerable questions, I push my mind away. Not feeling inspired on this hill. The view is great, our hikes were spectacular today but I don't have the connecting third point of the triangle.

Uninspired is okay, though. There are lots of other things I am feeling: protected, loved and liked and well-fed. Content.

I'm ready to slide down on my butt, but (ha ha) I explore the hilltop a little more and just past the mass of red yarn (?!) I find tangled in the roots of a pinyon tree like some kind of art installation, I find a gently curving road down the back side of the hill. Richard Dreyfuss finds the way up Devil's Tower in Close Encounters and tells his companions who painted the mountain in 2-D, "next time, try sculpture."

I come back to the campfire, to new friends and warm brownies and ice cream and laughs into the night.


It took the next night's post-dinner solo sunset trek to find what I was looking for.

Our campsite had two piles of stones at its edge, cairns, and just beyond, a break in the fence that separated our site from the national park.

I followed the gentle path into the low scrubby piney wood, manzanita, creosote, prickly pear cacti, juniper everywhere. Deep breaths of clean air. To the west is a rocky dry wash, an empty river bed. I find the skeleton of a large deer, the bones gone clean but for thin pieces of shin and fetlock above the hoof, still carrying ragged dun skin.

I lost the path and paused, struck. I could wander, follow the riverbed, keep the setting sun to my left, no big whup. But tonight I wanted that path. Last night was my time to make my way without my father, not tonight.

I looked around at the beautiful Mojave desert forest and with a shift and a sigh, I saw the pile of stones and understood. One here and one a few paces beyond, making my way and leading me on. Like Cold Mountain's Inman suddenly seeing the familiar in the landscape as he returns to his home, everything changed.

"(Inman) took a wide stance on the rock and stood and pinched down his eyes to sharpen the view across the vast prospect to one far mountain. It stood apart from the sky only as the stroke of a poorly inked pen, a line thin and quick and gestural. But the shape slowly grew plain and unmistakable. It was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland....

"He rocked his head from side to side and it felt balanced anew on his neck stem. He entertained the notion the he stood familiarly plumb to the horizon. For a moment it seemed thinkable that he might not always feel cored out. Surely off in that knotty country there was room for a man to vanish. He could walk and the wind would blow the yellow leaves across his footsteps and he would be hid and safe from the wolfish gaze of the world at large."

The moment I found my way. Sinking Ship in the background. Do you see the pile of stones?

Here is what I need, here before me, left behind by those who did this stone work for me, for us, for all path-seekers, out of love.

I can walk on now, follow the stones, follow the path, search and find what I need. I bolt on, through shade and then warm sun, delighted with the puzzle I follow through the woods, happy to find the clues but happier that they were laid here on purpose to help me.

A pair of nights and let's complete the binary/duality theme and call this my mother's night. Because everything I learn about her confirms her love. They built the school for us, their children. It was built for me, I realize, fifty-one years later, with a simultaneously breaking and rehealing heart. Even greater, it still stands and nurtures children and their children and their teachers.

She taught us to line up our shoes in the closet with a piece of tape on the floor, Aunt Ruth remembers. She holds me in the Super 8 film frame I keep on the bookshelf next to my desk, smiles at me while I wave to the camera. In the home movies she holds toddler Nancy's hand and gently helps her to walk, my mother's face filled with a smile of joy and pride. Swimming with us, dressing us for Easter Mass, picking Nancy up to sit in the off-season ski lift bench between her brothers Christopher and Ron on some hill in Wisconsin.

But greater than the individual acts of love I know of, there is the confirmation as sure as anything I have ever known, as hard as stone and as true as gravity, I am her daughter still. Joy and love, her love, flow in me. I feel them, I know them, they are familiar and right to me, my homeland. Joy and love the only way to look at and live in this hard world.

And I can say it now: Thanks, Dad, you're in there, in me, too. Risk taker, introvert, lover of time alone, tinkerer, lover of fine and pretty things. If he sold jewelry and I would rather eschew possessions, I still appreciate the bling.

They are the ancestors who laid the way for me, and so back I go again to Mary Oliver's poem, "Members of the Tribe." She writes about poets and artists, Yeats and Keats and Van Gogh, who died too young but left her their gifts.

Ahead of me they were lighting their fires in the dark forests of death.

I forgive them their unhappiness, I forgive them for walking out of the world.

I was, of course, all that time coming along behind them, and listening for advice.

I make my way alone and also I make my way with them, dear ancestors.

Thank you

The entire landscape came awake with metaphor and possibility. I hiked on and on, down to the dry river, then back eastward toward Powell's Point. I said good bye and thank you to the cairns, bushwacked on through sweet sagebrush toward a higher point, up toward the light still on the hilltops. Found another opportune break in the fence and it felt like another gift.

Thank you!

Got that mountain madness again. Totally high. Scrambled up another rocky hill and took shots of Powell in the setting sun.

Climbed up that... get a better look at this! Powell's Point

Came down off the mountain to the campfire, sweet dessert, songs and astounding stars when the light finally left us. I'd never seen the Milky Way before.

The next day, huffing and puffing up the steep 900 foot climb of the Peek-a-Boo trail, my trailmate John from St. Louis, a lawyer and expert in ultralight backpacking, says, "Breathe in through your nose. Try breathing out longer breaths. It brings more air into the bottom of your lungs."

I reply, "Say that again," and then after he repeats it, "Easier said than done," because thinking is hard in the very struggle up the hill and then I tried it, pushing out more and more of my air, pushing my core against myself to squish out the old oxygen.

In flows the pine smell, the freshness of monsoon rain season, of soft sun-baked sand trail and tall trees pumping out their oxygen for us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, my guides, living and dead. Thank you, ancestors.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


"Take my picture."

"Okay, but you have to set up the shot," because I want her to recognize the difference between too much headroom and just enough and the importance of faces rather than bodies but she needs to find her own way, figure out just how much slant to put on the horizon if you can't get it just so and the proportions of figure to background, all that visual literacy that is only partially taught and like all art, rather felt. But I think she has a good eye and an open heart and a willing ear to listen. Sometimes. And even if it is strange to me, all these selfies and silly Vines that make her and her neighbor friend scream with laughter then howl with embarrassment days later and frantically delete, delete the girl she was a few moments ago, I know it is the making of girl-woman-child hybrid that changes daily, the toughest job she's had yet, to figure out who she is at the same time that the "is" can't stop transforming. I'm just along for the ride, to take the picture and keep giving her slightly more challenging tasks and say "Yes," as often as I can and invite her to ride bikes with me and understand or at least try that she needs to pull away even while she still clings to me at bedtime and kisses me goodnight.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Summer Solstice

The longest days of the year and we're near enough to the solstice to feel the light again, to feel the energy that floods me this time of year, wakes me curious and ready at dawn, makes everything easier, spurs me to make plans, returns my equilibrium, has me considering the beautiful name April, May and June for my next three children, ha ha!

I've missed you, Dear Reader. Forgive my absence; it was a long and busy winter. I really wanted to tell you all about working with the freshman and our February Girl Scout troop trip to Wisconsin and my solo trip to Philadelphia to care for my dear little grand-niece Caroline, but there was so so much to read to keep up with the freshmen and their Lit Circles and many many (almost too many) scout leader fires to put out emails to compose and you just know how life gets away from you when you have two jobs and two Scout troops and two girls to raise.

But I must tell you this: When we arrived at Camp Juniper Knoll, the snow was still thick and untouched under the pine trees. Back home in Wilmette we had only a few patches left, but East Troy, Wisconsin gave us plenty of the white stuff to paint with colored water from spray bottles and if some of those spray bottle were held at crotch level and if Nora some girl wanted to laugh like crazy as she sprayed her name in the snow, then we'll just leave it at that. The air was a balmy 30 degrees, all the girls were dressed for the weather and we were off to a fun start.

"You might need to slide down the hill on your butts" said the camp director as she sent us down to the shore of Pleasant Lake.  No "might" about it; the steep path was solid ice and walking upright was impossible. We sat on our snow pants and slid, whee, like a band of inverted penguins on our butts, twelve girls and two leaders, through the woods  and down, down to the rocky lakefront.

The lake was frozen solid. Ice fisherman had built huts and parked trucks off in the distance. The camp managers had set up a propane cooking stove and melted sweetly scented wax in two aluminum pots. We stepped gingerly onto the lake and ooed and ahed at the layers we could see in the ice, 18 inches thick. The camp directors took turns bravely (so bravely!) holding a piece of sharp pointed metal, a railroad spike? as the girls hammered it into the ice with a mallet. No smooshed fingers, amazingly. The girls found sticks on the shore and wrapped thick pieces of string around them with twelve inches of string left hanging which they suspended over the holes as the directors poured the wax. Have you guessed yet? YES, ice candles! We watched in fascination as the steamy popping wax turned quickly opaque, first at the edges, then slowly to the center. Some girls had found tiny shells on the beach or evergreen needles to toss in the hole with the wax and if the results were not so much uniform columns as lumpy shallow cones, we were still thrilled and enchanted to pull them up out of the ice.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Winter Solstice

Four o'clock in the morning, December 22, I woke moments before the alarm. Dressed in the dark, soft-footed past Randy sleeping and past the girls' closed bedroom doors. Drove to Katy's in the dark and told her about my dream: I overslept until eleven, woke to sunshine and complained to Randy, "Why didn't you wake me!"

Cool air, wet streets, fuzzy orange streetlights punched through the slate gray of the morning. Links Hall Constellation faces the viaduct on Western Avenue. I saw a House production of Peter Pan here years ago. We piled our blankets and pillows on the white floor. Virginia joined us; this is her fourteenth or so solstice celebration with Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang. Hushed whispers and yawns. White votive candles flickering. Two drum sets, scattered djembe and other hand drums. Hamid and Michael entered, sat before us and at first there was silence. Then, with a flickering of fingers on the taut surface of drum skin, the bath of sound began.

There were jazzy patterns and back and forth playfulness, Hamid and Michael improvising and experimenting with their riffs on the bells and drum sets. It helped to be able to sit crossed leg, yoga style with a strong straight back, or be able to lie down, ears covered, and sink into the muffled waves of sound. The best part was early on, beats on the soft hand drums, a pattern clicked in and the two drummers sustained it, unafraid to repeat and repeat the chanting groove and I swayed and rocked within it, part of the music.

Shimmering cymbals ebbed and flowed from the beats of soft mallets, hand-held by the drummers to vibrate in mid-air, then dampened against their knees. As the last gleam of sound faded away, I opened my eyes to the glow of a gray dawn from the windows behind us.

A burst of diesel exhaust greeted us through the morning air as we left Constellation for hot chocolate and apple handpies from a food truck waiting outside. "That smell reminds me of morning in Europe," said Katie. "Berlin and it's my semester abroad and I'm going to meet friends at a bar. No worries in all the world. I was happy."

I could remember that feeling -- not the one she had in Berlin, but the one she was enjoying now: nostalgia tinged with joy instead of sadness, recognition of a beautiful connection to a beloved memory. I remember, but in this dim season, my emotions are muted.

It's been a challenge, taking on a full time job at the same time that I volunteered to lead both Mia and Nora's scout troops and also manage the leaders of the five towns in our district. You know I love a challenge, though, and I'm constantly lifted knowing the work I do teaching and leading young girls and boys is grounded in good.

I'm patient with myself now because I know this low mood will pass, I know I'll revive in the spring, I know great things are ahead. Even though the news is often atrocious, the Republican mind spins seemingly without logic or compassion and my phone rang with a sad message from my brother the day after Christmas, I know that relief is waiting up ahead.

Here's what Joanna Newsom tells me:  

The moment of your greatest joy sustains: 
not ax nor hammer, 
tumor, tremor, 
can take it away, and it remains. 
It remains.

Nora is practicing this week for a performance of The Little Mermaid; she works on a Jamaican accent for her role as Sebastian the Crab with a voice somewhere between Russia and New Orleans. Mia is preparing for her social dance class with some trepidation lessened by the thrill of new dresses that make her look at herself in the mirror in a new way. I will fly to Philadelphia over my spring break to take care of my beautiful grand-niece. The girls will go with their father to someplace warm on their week that doesn't coincide with mine. I'll miss them but I'm also happy for them and Randy has promised to take them someplace I have already seen. With his kindnesses and my persistent belief in light (it's a kind of faith, isn't it?) and our daughters' constant delightfulness, with the hope of our first woman president (!!) and a restoration of sanity in the national conversation, I move on, wishing you and yours a happy new year.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Divers," from the album of the same name

Words, music, vocals, harp, piano, mellotron, guitaret by Joanna Newsom; video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; artwork by Kim Keever

A diver is my love
(and I am his, if I am not deceived),
who takes one breath above, for every hour below the sea;
who gave to me a jewel
worth twice this woman's life (but would cost her less
than laying at low tide,
to see her true love phosphoresce).

And in an infinite regress:
Tell me, why is the pain of birth
lighter borne than the pain of death?
I ain't saying that I loved you first,
but I loved you best.

I know we must abide
each by the rules that bind us here:
the divers, and the sailors, and the women on the pier.
But how do you choose your form?
How do you choose your name? How do you choose your life?
How do you choose the time you must exhale,
and kick, and rise?

And in an infinite capsize:
Like a bull tearing down the coast,
double hulls bearing double masts—
I don't know if you loved me most, but you loved me last.

Recall the word you gave:
to count your way across the depths of this arid world,
where you would yoke the waves,
and lay a bed of shining pearls!
I dream it every night:
the ringing of the pail,
the motes of sand dislodged,
the shucking, quick and bright;
the twinned and cast-off shells reveal a single heart of white.

And in an infinite backslide:
Ancient border, sink past the West,
like a sword at the bearer's fall.
I can't claim that I knew you best,
but did you know me at all?

A woman is alive!
A woman is alive;
you do not take her for a sign in nacre on a stone,
alone, unfaceted and fine.
And never will I wed.
I'll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life,
and ever hold my breath,
till I may be the diver's wife.

See how the infinite divides:
and the divers are not to blame
for the rift, spanning distant shores.
You don't know my name,
but I know yours.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Punto Lobos

It's Halloween and it feels like the last day of light and color before November's wind sucks the life out of me and leaves the world black and white. I've been trying to breathe deep of the remaining mild days and save my strength for the hard work ahead. The last two months have been a honeymoon with my new job; the girls have adapted well to Mommy working and the school seems so warm and nurturing to students and new employees alike. Every day I jump out of bed excited and gird my loins for the challenges ahead, donning my good luck charms. A gold necklace from Mia, a gold bracelet from Nora and my wedding ring from Randy. 

There's another ring I put on the opposite hand, a special piece whose silver is wearing away to reveal the copper beneath. It is adorned with a small faceted black stone and I touch and turn it frequently as I work, remembering the day in January that Randy found it on the hill over Punto Lobos. 

We were hiking together, in Mexico, the girls left behind with Aunt Joan for this special 50th birthday weekend trip. High on the cliff over the beach where no one swims outside the town of Todos Santos. A working beach for fisherman who spend the day pulling the day's catch up out of the sea in their small open craft called "pangas," then approach the beach and wait out the killer waves, wait for the safe moment to gun their boats straight up onto the hard pack sand. They clean and cut their fish right there on the beach, next to the boats. No harbor, no piers. The boats are carried in and out of the water by hand. On a good day, a fisherman will profit between $18 and $30 (300 - 500 pesos.)

Now this beach is gone and the fisherman have no place to work. Tres Santos is a mega-development planned for this site and the desert around Todos, with goals to build luxury condos and single family homes, hotels, shopping districts, a farm and more, funded by the Black Creek Capital Group of Denver. The first phase of the project leveled the mangrove that once bound this beach. The result is a barren plateau. Rain drainage from the worksite (that would normally be absorbed by the sponge-like protection of the natural mangrove) flooded the single sand road that gives access to the beach. The company next built a seawall, banned in many seaside communities for their contribution to erosion and sure enough, a late summer storm swept away most of the beach and the waves now strike the wall. Most of the yellow sand in the picture above is gone and the waterline is right up to the dun-colored construction site in the upper right. The fishermen only have a narrow space to launch their boats. In a desperate attempt to stop more erosion, Tres Santos dumped tons of rocks in front of the seawall. The incessant Pacific waves have spread the rocks across what was once a pristine beach. The new rocks are damaging the propellers and engines of the fishermen's boats.

 A new propeller is 18,000 pesos or $1100, a new transmission is 78,000 pesos or $4700. 

Yesterday the fishermen had had enough and began a peaceful protest to block the single road to the beach and get answers from the company that was ruining their livelihood. Tres Santos sent a couple of security guards with no knowledge of Spanish to photograph the men.

What makes the situation even more insane is that Tres Santos is marketing itself as a "green" project in partnership with the village. Here is video from a promotional event in New York in April to gun up investors for the project. Hotelier Chip Conley, head cheerleader of the project, reads an old story of a traditional fisherman urged to give up his traditional ways by a clueless MBA.

The tragic irony and hypocrisy here are staggering. A rich white man with an MBA who cannot see himself as the clueless butt of his own story. Real fishermen with real families are suffering because of the incompetence of Chip Conley and the businessmen of Black Creek and Tres Santos. The "Three Saints" of Tres Santos are greed, exploitation and destruction of the earth.