tadpoles

The annual reprieve is here- monsoon season. We desert dwellers look to the sky, to the dark clouds which form in the afternoon hours with hopeWe need this, the nourishing rains, the plummeting temperature which follows in its wake. In an instant lightning rips across the sky, big fat drops kiss our face and we clap our hands in gratitude. Yes. 

The desert hangs on to nothing, and water rushes and rushes, trying to return to the sea. It flows down alley ways and pooling only when contained. In a flood zone at the end of my street, the dusty embankement has given way to lush Johnson grass stands and puddles. But even in monsoon the water is not always enough.

I noticed the wriggling tadpoles after the season’s first big storm. The desert toad laid those fertilized eggs remains unknown to me; I’ve never heard their mating song at dusk, or seen one hopping around in the grass. But there they were, thousands of tadpoles in the seasonal water stand. Undulating and undulating, some of them clumping together, some perpetually pushing forward, on and on. Countless miracles, nearly in my own backyard.

But then things dried up. The puddles shrank, retreated. The tadpoles become a writhing mass in the small amount of remaining water.  I prayed to the God of Rain to bless us thoroughly and quickly, thousands of tadpoles depended on this. I prayed to the God of Frogs that they may develop preternaturally quickly. My prayers went unanswered; yesterday they had evaporated along with the puddle, leaving behind only a greyish film in the center of a mud ring.

It made me hate the kind of world were thousands of beautiful creatures live and die in a breath. The waste, the injustice.

But then today the rain returned. Again the streets flowed, water pooled, and there are tadpoles once more. Well developed, survivors transplanted from other puddles perhaps. I watch them undulate with a renewed sense of gratitude. With a renewed sense of hope.

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movement

I am packing boxes, surrounded by dust bunnies, wrapping paper, and the odds and ends that baffle any sort of organizational schema. Should this be in the “kitchen” box, or the “buffet” stuff? Keep it or throw it? What did I need this for anyway? The animals pace, smelling domestic upheaval in the air.

Yes, it is once again time to move. I have predictably timed this transition for the hottest part of the year. Highs temperatures are said to be 111 degrees on Saturday.

Most pictures are packed away yet one photo remains, taped to the inside of my bookcase. A smiling image of my mother presses the infant me joyfully against her cheek. I look to her image as though it were an icon, Our Lady of the Uhaul, Patron Saint of Gypsies and Restless Humans Everywhere. She who loved this shit. She who couldn’t live in a house more than two or three years. Houses were places to leave your mark, and then leave. Enter, refurbish, enjoy for a time, exit. When she wasn’t moving her own family she was shuffling her mother around: Now, she needs a senior apartment! No, assisted living! A senior apartment with some assisted living services! No, something closer to me! And so on.

I pack and remove, unwinding my life in this tiny casita, a cozy abode with blue-green walls and saffron ceilings and windows, so many windows. The light streams in at all hours of the day and if you catch a beam just right in the winter it warm you straight to the core. When I arrived here two years ago I nearly wept with joy because it was so perfect for me. The person I was. The house I needed.

The promise came true. What was broken down and dead healed over and woke up. I grew into me here. My life is now as vivid as the paint on the walls.

And now it is time to go. I have a new chapter to begin, and it will be in a different house. One that can better shelter me, now that life has become so full. So bright.  

 She understands. 
  
 

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.

 

Alan (4)

he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way

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His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

a survivor

I have become preoccupied with survival.  The art of endurance, of strength, of balancing precariously between life and death and miraculously making it.  I pour over manuals to learn and re-learn wilderness navigation techniques, insurance against getting lost. I do presses and pull ups and push ups in the rediculously-early morning, a rehearsal in pulling myself up and out of impending disaster.  I lose myself in memoirs of surviving avalanches, plane crashes, sinking ships. I run down city streets to prepare myself for climbing mountains. I tie myself on to ropes and learn to climb on delicate foot holds, squeeze precarious handholds, and fall, when necessary, safely, gracefully.  I practice breathing deeply, so when I feel fear building up I can just as easily let it slide away, the back and forth of waves crashing on a beach then being pulled back to sea.  The study of survival is a preoccupation which eats up, in its various permutations, most of my free time.

My degree of obsession seems funny to me because I am already a survivor. I have fallen, bruised and bloodied, to the lowest levels and climbed back up again. I have lost myself in the darkest realms and found my way back to the light.  I have worked through searing pain. I have made it, am making it, again and again.

Survival isn’t an endpoint, but a gateway. It only matters if there is a promise of life beyond the blackness of the rabbit hole. Every battle needs its prize. So perhaps these survival exercises I perform in relative comfort are more than preparation for future challenges.  They help me relive the story of my life and unleash the wisdom loosely folded in the challenges and the failures and the victories of my past.   In the consuming rituals of knot tying, trip planning, pushing and pulling and repairing and strengthening, I am reminded daily that I am a warrior, and mine is a life worth fighting for.

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Anna’s Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, February 2014

water was everywhere

DSC_0336I remember the rain, the gentle yet relentless rain, a percussive background to your rattled breaths. You were leaving, and water was everywhere.  Tapping against the window.  Filling your lungs. Running down my cheeks. Even my dreams were of a tidal wave.

Later that day, the sun had set but the rain persisted. There were beads of water clinging to the body bag as you rolled from your home into the car that took your body to the scientists that could learn from you, and from the terrible cancer that never flinched.  One of your final mandates had been to hang  Christmas lights, and the lights stayed on continuously during our vigil through your final days.  The droplets on the plastic bag reflected the glow of multi-colored orbs, a million tiny rainbows glimmering in the darkness

Its raining in San Antonio today, two years after you died. I stand outside and let a few drops of rain kiss my face.

I have lost you, but still, there is snow and ice and rain and steam and babbling streams and crashing waves. I seek waterfalls in the desert, I soak in my bathtub in the quiet of the night. I breathe billowy puffs of air in the cold. The water still holds me, and and clings to my sadness with the light of a million tiny rainbows.

 

JANELLE MARIE SHINER

8/29/53-12/13/11

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a sweet contradiction

The holiday season harbors a sweet contradiction.  We gather around full tables.  We feast until our stomachs protest, until we collapse on the couch in a food coma.  We eat and we drink and we enjoy the bounties of the year, the gifts of our family and friends.  It feels good, so very, very good.

And it is a simultaneously a season of longing. quiet moments masking an internal cacophony of regret and longing and grief and sadness.  We miss the ones who are far away, the ones we have lost.  The ones that are gone, the ones that were never here. We want things to be different, we want what we cannot have. 

This Thanksgiving I remembered my friend, who died 17 years ago in a car crash. She has now been dead as long as she was alive. I was mourning her absence, feeling the echoing hole that her departure left inside of me so many years ago, and in that moment of missing her a turkey vulture soared above me, the Great Purifier. Call it God, call it science, but there is a mysterious force around us and above us.  Something which takes the dead and decaying and turns it into life, into that which sustains us. And in a strange dance we can transform grief into merriment, our losses into the joy and essence of life

Life is an undulation, it is a gentle swaying between the dark and the light.  A step forward, a slide backward. So we gather for another holiday.  We hold each others hands while old songs play on the radio and we laugh about the days which live on in our memories and collective recollections. We are sad, but our grief allows us to feel more poignantly the joys of what we do have.  We can taste the sweetness of pie and the tartness of the cranberries and we can take it all in, every bite.  In this way we honor the ghosts that haunt the quiet moments, but embrace the living, embrace our life.

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Ozark butterfly, July 2013