At some point we beg mercy.
The storms come in one after another. Each one with its own excitement, its own beauty, its own destruction. And we, if we're very good, stand out on a point somewhere and open our arms and maybe even force our eyes to stay open too. See what is coming upon us and what is yet to come.
I have weathered enough to know that I can weather another, another, another. Each one will be easier than the one before, even if it defies pattern and does not underwhelm but exceeds the forecast. But still.
But still, universe, take mercy.
One wonders how much to say. One wonders if there still might be a respite, a recovery, if one might find oneself sitting still after the waves crash in and have nothing more than some wet clothes as damage. All that comes of it, a warm shower; a good story to tell. A story of how wonderful it can be to weather things in concert with a partner who's the right amount of powerful.
One wonders if, on the other hand, the rocks will pierce her organs after she's tossed upon them. Will she even be able to walk again?
I can't do it. Can't go there yet, tell you all the story out of metaphor. I don't think I can write it with that clear voice that lets you still love him too. He's not breaking all my heart; just parts of it; just the ones that really are still so tender.
You can't help but see the breaking bits though. I don't want to start over again but I'm being asked to. And I fear in doing this, in asking me to move out on my own -- no safety net but the kindness of friends and none of them the sort I want to just plunk down my things and kids and say, ok, here I am -- I fear the one asking me to do it will, sometime months or years in the future, regret this, and not a little, but as something indelible he writ, one sentence across his psyche that will prove very hard to rub out.
This isn't written to him. This is written to you. I just want you to know how this feels: how it feels to piece yourself back together in a space that felt safe -- tentative but warm, but loving, but affirming, but accepting, but full of joy and intelligence and passion; to try again and again to create life with someone in whom you see all the characteristics that you most want to see not just replicated by replicated in combination with your own; to scrabble to start something like the community of which you've always dreamed. It's possible to believe a lot in yourself, and yet not really believe in anything; it's possible to remain in a cycle of continuous hope that's continuously dashed. It's something of the Sisyphus story, without ever having done anything quite like that to deserve it.
Maybe I have. Maybe my hubris is to, again and again, claim joy.
Moving out on one's own, in the midst of love, feels like a thin silicone blade, sharp but not serrated, so as not to saw at you. It's being inserted in your ribs just to the inside edge of your right breast, the part where it is flattening out at bit (mine are small, you know; imagine it, if you can). It makes a smooth and complete circle, a hole around your heart, and much though you believe it could happen, nothing is loosed. Nothing falls out. You just feel the chill air, there, not all the time but still almost constantly, in that tiny sliver made by the knife, around and around and around your green-glowing center. You wonder how it is you can still breathe, how it is your blood still moves, how it is your heart doesn't slide out the hole -- but each time the knife completes its circuit the flesh heals up again, coalesces. Not that it's ever failing to be tender. Not that it ever heals completely. Each time it gets the very littlest bit weaker. The knife inserts itself more easily. Your stomach aches but maybe you're hungry? Your jaw hurts but maybe you're clenching your teeth?
You cry. You cry easily and often. Not sobbing, not that; it's not full-on grief, remember. But it's so simple for tears to come. It's just a matter of letting go for an instant that sense that you are powerful, you are abundant, that love is so a conqueror!
Send love. Send hope that the waves won't dash me too. Send mercy.
Lichens and mosses don't root themselves like trees and plants; they attach to a substrate, like rock or branches. Some lichens reproduce sexually, and others reproduce by splitting themselves apart. One of the chief methods of spreading is by attaching to a tree branch that, once it falls, is carried off by water, wind, or birds...
When we think of rooting we often feel the need for stasis, for remaining in one place. The very term "rooted" is so fraught with cultural and social expectations; moving around is seen as wild, a bad credit risk. We hope our children will go off into the world... but then find a place to put down roots. We attach ourselves to our immovable structures, marriages and careers and houses. We see this rootedness as the ultimate goal, a life's work. That's what I saw too; that's what I found for myself. But I was deeply unhappy.
I didn't do it all on my own, but it happened. I was ripped from my soil and left rootless. I broke from the home I thought kept me nourished. I discovered that dividing, breaking, being carried off by the ospreys and winds -- this was joy. In my lost attachments, there was still a sense of belonging somewhere. Belonging where I am, attached to whatever substrate I find myself upon at the moment. Being in the wind can feel chaotic and terrifying; or it can feel like you are flying into a place where magic is real and the goddesses themselves greet you with open arms and wings.
No structure is immovable. No system to which we attach ourselves is completely safe. The more we can let go, the farther it's possible to fly.
Say this and be ready to be swept away in a hurricane. Say this and be ready to be torn apart in the wind. Say this and know that you are not meant to live even in the illusion of lush, nourishing soil. Say this and open your hands and close your eyes and be ready to be torn off no matter how hard you try to hold.
But say it. But open your mouth and gulp whatever wind comes, drink the bitter along with the sweet, hope like hell there's a substrate meant for you somewhere, let go your house and your hoped-for financial security, say to yourself, "let go," and be willing to ride whatever the wind is that's your fate.
In Tarot, the "death" card is not really about dying. You're not supposed to believe, if this card comes up in a reading, that you or someone you know will perish. Death is about, in many ways, fertility, regeneration. In order to gain what's new we have to purge the old. As much as we mourn things that pass away we have to know that the moment of death is the instant of birth. The promise, hope, conception must happen in conjunction with destruction and loss.
I keep dying.
These past three years have been a process of continual burning of nostalgia so that love and life can emerge from the ashes. My identity kept shifting until I realized I could not, any more, identify myself in relation to others or to the things I owned. I shed "Army wife" and "urban farmer" as I shed connections to people I adored deeply but who chose to unchoose me. I lost my house, custody of my children, and majority parenting time. I had to ask myself whether I could identify myself as "mama" so strongly if I lived with my children only three nights a week.
In October, I lost an unborn child.
I have died so much I've wondered about shamanic dismemberment, that process of losing everything that you hold dear so that you can find what it is like to be stripped clean. Once you do so, you can re-emerge, it's said, as a wounded healer. I was put on this path somehow; I don't remember asking for it; all I told myself was that grief was a powerful force. I saw in my own grief a clarity and a ripping open of my previous conceptions. I lost "wife" and became "lover." I lost a secure connection to someone who said he'd love me forever and I found I could make love out of air and water and trees, out of men and women and the energy that burns in my belly.
You know that cells of children you birthed, and yes also the ones you didn't birth, live on in your body? This way I am always mother to my three born children and my two (and more, smaller) unborn ones. I carry my loves in my blood and my skin and my womb. The scientist whose love wakes me up in the morning and puts me to sleep at night will never leave me; he can't; I carry him now in the small of my back and the curve of my cheeks. My love for him, for all of them, is a fire that burns along my muscles underneath my ribs; it is a pulse of electricity in my veins; it is a breeze of breath rolling down my spine.
The death process is for something, isn't it? I lose things and people so I can contain multitudes? When we let things go, doesn't something come into the space to fill it? Energy must be conserved. There is no vacuum.
I've been given this for a reason. Sometimes we can hide from reasons, let them pass over us like wind through our hair, pretend we weren't mussed or smooth it over. These ones won't let me go. They chase me down and if I try to turn my head and pretend it's someone else they're after, they knock into me and I fall down. I lose my breath and have to stay there, looking up at the sky, waiting for my eyes to come back into focus.
I lost my appeal. A month ago the first court decided to affirm Judge Beth Allen's decision without opinion. The decision she based on no submitted evidence; the decision she made against the recommendation of a court-ordered custody evaluator; the decision she made to punish me for unschooling my oldest son. "That's it," I wanted to say. I wanted to be done with everything, give up.
But I know it's not it. It's not done. Less than 24 hours after I posted a fundraising appeal for the further appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, another friend messaged me. She'd just lost everything for a different reason, equally unsupported by legal standards. No basis for the judge's decision but -- I can only suppose -- some vengeance. Not justice; not truth; not fairness. Not right.
The "Justice" card in Tarot is interesting. In the book I'm reading I'm told the word "testament" comes from the word "testes"; men would swear on their future unborn children. "The decisions we make sow seeds in the world... future generation may depend on our choices."
"...all things are connected, and nothing is decided or has an effect in isolation."
I keep getting recommendations to keep quiet. These are made in love and from fear, realistic fear, fear that I will lose more. Fear of others who have come before me and lost horribly. This silence is connected. All of our silences are connected. We are seeking safety; we are seeking the security we feel lies in whispers and walls.
I can't whisper, my voice hews loud like I hew happy. I have lost what I thought was everything and, as with anything, I keep losing; as with anything, whatever I lose is replaced by something new. I lost my legal rights to make decisions about my kids, I lost my house, I lost time with them, I lost the right to take them to school four days a week, I lost the tax deduction, I lost walking to the corner for pizza on a Wednesday night.
I lose what I thought I owned and the energy is re-arranged. Instead of telling people my story I became a collector of stories. Everything I lost came back to me in images and words.
I've now heard so many stories. In Multnomah County, routinely, women judges are making decisions that victimize women who are victims and punish women who refuse to be.
"He strangled me in front of my children and the judge took my children away."
"I lost my children for years."
"I'm homeless, I lost my job, I'm penniless."
Don't stand up. Don't leave. Don't complain. Don't you dare look a judge in the eye and say, I am confident I have made the right decision for my children.
I have had enough. I am telling my story and I will tell anyone else's who will give me heed. Please spread this story along. Send me other stories. Remake me. Refill the void.
"Did you see the article about how the trees communicate?" asked my friend Heather. "I thought of you immediately." Through fungus, she goes on, and of course I've seen this but not on the internet.
I find the article. "When I say, 'Trees suckle their children,' everyone knows immediately what I mean." goes the caption, beneath a photo of a white-haired man at the roots of some fantastical tree. "PETER WOHLLEBEN," the caption reads. I'm supposed to be launched into dreamland but instead I'm incensed.
This seems magical -- I love magic -- but it's at best science read through romantic bias and, at worst, complete misinformation. dreamy misinformation... well-intentioned misinformation... the worst kind.
I've seen this before but in my own writing and conversation. I've been working on an essay about this topic: the mycorrhizal networks within the roots of trees, based on Marcus' PhD research (his supervisor was the one who coined the term "Wood Wide Web" -- this man's book is probably based on her work). Only... my essay controverts most of what Peter Wohlleben is asserting. Yes there are networks but the research shows they are not performing anything like Wohllen suggests. Only in the rarest instances do trees "nursemaid" seedlings in a way that benefits them.
"You have to be careful, though, about applying too many human structures onto organisms like fungi. That's what some scientists get caught up doing and then it's hard to see the results of research for what they really are: biology without account for sentimentality." That's a line from my essay (written weeks ago, before I read this piece, predicting it, because I was reacting to the work that inspired it). Another line I didn't write but which informs my whole book of essays: "Everything is just trying to survive."
The forest operates in some ways like an organism but, unlike the components of an organism, each tree and fungus and moss and fern and lichen and animal in the forest is acting out of self-interest rather than being governed by homeostatic master controls. Everything that lives in contact with another organism is doing so for food or shelter or reproduction; every like organism is in competition; biology is not romance. Biology is Ayn Rand.
Biology is magic, it is absolute magic, but scientists (when it comes down to the nutmeat of the thing) don't believe in magic. Maybe the good ones do. Because magic doesn't operate like a romance. Magic is unsympathetic. Magic does not give without taking. Have you read a fairy tale? Have you read anything? Have you observed the way biology demands: without wishing?
In magic every dear thing is obtained by hard work and to save a life you must give one. No the trees do not send up shoots to find sun to be kind to their buddies; they are fighting bark and branch and leaf to live. I have seen ivy dig into the trunks of trees and choke it; I have seen termites devour a tree from its heart. Those beautiful pear mushrooms are eating the Garry oak alive.
The fungi are benefiting the trees but they are not doing it for the trees' benefit. The "mother" tree does not "suckle" its "child." The trees coexist but you cannot say they do so gladly. Biology is not romance!
Everything is just trying -- coldly, determinedly, casting its spells without pity -- to survive.
I tell this story as part of a larger -- a very large -- essay on many things, love, loss, geology, marriage, riding my bike, polyamory. I tell this story today in honor of Indigenous People's Day. It was originally told by the Klickitat.
Let me tell you a story about a mountain. Three mountains, really: they're now known as Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. Three mountains and a natural bridge, the Bridge of the Gods. That's where the story I like to tell starts.
On the Bridge of the Gods was the sacred fire, the only fire in the world. People would come from the East, from the West, from the South, and from the North to get fire to take back to their people. The fire needed tending, and Loowit, an old woman, a nurturer if there ever was one, she tended the fire. The great chief of all the gods was Tyee Sahale, and like most ancient gods he was generous but blessed with little forethought, he was quick to give and quick to take away. That's the thing about gods, isn't it? At first they'll give and then when you coddle and coax them they'll give more until they realize you can't handle such gifts can you? Then they need to do something utterly rash and irreversible. Something that usually ends up hurting them just as much as it hurt you but these are the wages of being a god.
Sahale loved Loowit for her nurturing ways, for her generosity, for her loyalty to her task. He -- godlike to the last! -- gave her a gift. She'd never asked of course, not for anything, she hadn't expected to be repaid for her work. She was like a zen master up until this point, doing the thing for the thing's sake. In the zen book I was reading all summer it is likened to burning like a bonfire, "leaving no ash" or "no smoke." If you are truly doing a thing for itself you do it with your whole being and nothing is left. No trace.
He gave her immortality.
But immortality is tricky, isn't it? It's not the sort of gift you should just hand off to people without checking to see if they wanted it first. Some people look forward to the end and others aren't happy enough to go on forever like that. Forever's a long time you know. Loowit wept. "I will be an old, ugly woman forever!" she cried.
Sahale couldn't believe what he'd done with this gift to Loowit. I don't really know a lot about Sahale but I know a lot about gods. So I like to imagine he was privately angry, set off a thunderstorm or two, and then mollified. Thinking, of course, I am, as gods are, beautiful. Could I live without my considerable charm? He gave her a wish and -- well, if anyone knows anything about interactions between gods and humans, they would have predicted this, so he probably knew what she'd be asking -- she asked to be young and beautiful.
Thus spake Sahale. Zap! Loowit was gorgeous! Strong and young and brown-legged and with breasts like those proud rocks the gods might hurl this way and that when they got into an argument. Naturally a woman with god-made youth and beauty would spark the interest of the gods themselves, and Sahale's sons, Klickitat in the north and Wy'East in the south, came to fall in love with her as fast as anyone could. The way I fall in love, pow, zing, pizizz!
CHOOSE! they demanded of her. In their godlike way.
How could she? This woman locked in her old age and plain face for years and years and years. She may have taken her nurturing as her passion, she may have traded away the spark of sweet love for loyalty. She may have told herself, I don't need this any more. Is love even real? Is passion? This is what women tell themselves when they go for years and years without seeing that stunning light in the eyes of a true lover. They wrap themselves in their rich, fulfilling duties of home and hearth and children, they sing songs of warmth and wood and write poetry to plates of hearty stew.
Knocked suddenly into the light of love -- oh my! A woman blooms not like a rosebud but like a forest of firs in the spring, each one bright on the ends of every branch with new growth. Like a hill of vineyards, like nine hills, plump with purple fruit hanging low and masculine below each vine. Everything is possible! Choose? CHOOSE? Who should CHOOSE???!!? Imagine my voice thundering across the canyon. Echoing through the hills. My arms raised and outstretched, arguing with the true-blue sky.
Loowit could not choose and so the brothers fought. They fought and fought, over her, as if that could do any good! What would they gain by winning? All they did was destroy, destroy, destroy. They hurled rocks across the mighty river at one another, and surely some of them ended up sloshing the channel with their enormity. Throbbing huge and proud, phallic symbols for the millennia to come; lumpy and stolid, chiseled spaces for climbers to span as their muscles spring under their browning skin.
The brothers Wy'East and Klickitat fought, and fought, and fought. They hurled rocks and set the forests ablaze with Loowit's sacred fire. Villages, too; whole lands burned to ash and smoke by their competitive rage. They left the lands to the north, and to the south, ravaged. They left the people scattered or dead. All because Loowit could not choose. Tyee Sahale! Oh how he must have wept. How he must have regretted his decision. Now there is a big mistake. What can be done, oh, you great god, you great chief among the gods? Your loyal fire-tender has become strong and brown-legged and wavy-tressed and the object of the wildest, fieriest passions. Your sons have been burning like a bonfire utterly other than zen. All they leave is traces, traces everywhere, weeping, stunning loss, desolation.
Sahale put an end to all that and made them mountains. Wy'East, Mt. Hood, proud to the end, over what I still don't know. Just, proud. Loowit got to be beautiful too as a mountain; her perfect cylindrical cone; they would call her, when humans started traversing the globe, the Fuji of the West, symmetrical. Snow-topped all the year round. As gorgeous in stone and tree and canyon as she had been in skin and teeth and bone.
Klickitat, Mt. Adams, was sad, he bent his head, sad to see his love covered in snow.
I decide to start calling the mountains by their Klickitat names.
This week I spent hours reading the position statements and angry or passionate or defensive or confrontative comments on Facebook. It is about guns and violence and abortion and mental illness and heroes and villains. They were all marked by a single thing and that was certitude. Everyone knows how to fix this problem, no one knows how to fix anything, we've had enough, we're not backing down. We're all so certain.
I've never been so sure of anything myself. It's the same thing I've been sure of for years, that this social system we operate within is broken deep down inside and the only fix for it is to pay people better for all the work, all the people, and have a real, airtight, all-the-way safety net, paid time off for all ALL mothers not just the ones with advanced degrees and good corporate jobs and lots of it, real safe happy childcare where kids can play and be loved, way less money spent on family law and way more money spent on family housing, no more calling child services and all the time helping overworked moms with love, no more school-to-prison pipeline, less testing, less homework, less prepping kids for college in third grade, more walks in the woods and bike riding after school and everyone gets four weeks of vacation and we build little houses and sidewalks or dirt paths instead of highways and lobbyists and let's teach kids how to identify edible plants in the woods instead of how to hide under desks from gunmen and let people take bottles of tap water onto airplanes for crying out loud and I'll teach you how to can tomatoes and tell stories about Japantown and come over to your house after work to make chili and you can knit something while I slice mushrooms and we'll turn waterfront park into a giant vegetable garden and hold the beer fest in a bar somewhere else because who needs to get drunk and forget their problems any more?
We're all supposed to be in this together. We're supposed to be advanced enough as a race to build community instead of seeing every single other human as a probable adversary. We ALL have pain. Let's tell each other about it later and we can cry but remember that we have enough money to solve all the problems we're just too boneheaded and insistent on our own personal rights to our own personal everything, pain guns cars front yard space on the road country kids spouses, we don't own anything people, this isn't our land, this isn't our very own personal universe, every breath of air is a privilege, work together, that woman sleeping under the bridge could be me, could be you.
The backdrop of the story is intense. I've been going through a divorce and in January things went badly, the judge ruled against the custody evaluator's report and gave my ex-husband the house I owned. I had to move out in a hurry -- I had thirty days -- and I found the first thing I could, a studio apartment across the railroad tracks from the very trendy Pearl District.
My ex-husband has been unemployed, so I also pay child support to him. I've been a bike tour guide for the past 18 months, a job I adore, but it's a job that's busiest on the weekends -- I have to work a full schedule to pay rent, child support, feed the kids, the whole deal. I can't take weekends off even though that's the time the judge gave me with the kids.
I've figured it out. My kids are really smart and resourceful. Everett, who's now 13, is fantastic with his brothers (who are really great at navigating the streets of downtown Portland). I've taught them how to get everywhere -- our favorite coffee shop, Pearl Bakery (they love the fontina and ham sandwiches; Truman, my ASD 10-year-old, loves the macarons), the urban parks (Jamison Square and Tanner Springs), Whole Foods, the bike shop where I work, Saturday Market, Powell's Books. They love Powell's and often spend an hour or so there reading manga. I'll leave around 8 in the morning for my tours, and leave them some of my tips for adventuring. $10 can get them two half sandwiches and a cookie. $5 can get them three chocolate chip cookies and a canele at Courier Coffee. They'll bring their electronics and use the internet. They go on bikes, on roller blades, on foot, whatever they want.
I'm a bike tour guide in this very neighborhood (and elsewhere), and most weekend days I'm leading tourists through the exact same streets the boys are running and biking and blading. I've even seen them a few times as I guide my tourists around the streets. I know so many of the people and stories behind this neighborhood and I know it intimately; I want my kids to, as well, if anything my work can leave them that. Knowing exactly where they are and the stories that went into this place. All the people that came before them and left or were made to leave. I tell the story of Nihhonmachi, Japantown, which thrived in the neighborhood where we walk from the 1890s through December 1941 -- 70% of the businesses, many of which are now empty, or homeless services, were owned by Japanese families. I love that they know so much about this city because so many people know nothing, so many people don't remember what we've done and who we've been, and we keep repeating ourselves.
Lots of times I'm narrating like I do with my bike tours when we walk around and sometimes they tell me to stop tour guiding them already but sometimes they listen. Monroe will say, tell me the story of this park. And I'll say, this park was designed as a visual history of this neighborhood...
They were on foot yesterday (I thought they were on bikes because of the way the officer worded his story). Everett and Monroe, the 13-year-old and 8-year-old. Monroe is brilliant at navigating around the city on his own and could go by himself, but we all know that wouldn't fly in today's world -- I've heard some of the sweet homeless ladies who camp under the Steel Bridge, right next to our apartment, cry out in alarm when they saw him run ahead of us past them (I was too far behind for them to have seen me yet). Truman often stays home because he's not into those sandwiches and he's old enough to be home alone.
So they were just walking, through Old Town/Chinatown (a very very quiet part of Portland) my quite large 13-year-old and his little brother, and a man on a bike stopped them and started quizzing them. Where were their parents? Where were they going? They answered, we come here all the time. My mom's at work. We're going to the Pearl Bakery. They walked a few more steps and a police man who had seen the interaction stopped them too, demanded they give him my phone number and call me. The message was confusing. I was on tour about a mile away, in the South Park Blocks. I was walking through the farmer's market when he called.
When I heard his message after my tour and called him back he told me, in response to, but he's THIRTEEN! (Old enough legally to babysit anyone, including his eight-year-old brother.) "But they look young." I was told I should tell my kids my work number too, for the next time they're caught out in public, walking to a bakery. I panicked for a little while and then reallized, it was fine. Later I asked Monroe what he thought about this. "Bored," he said. "Because you thought it was silly?" "Yeah."
Tourists ask me all the time, tell me about the homeless? They'll seem so concerned. I have a dozen stories about this and none of them feel quite right. "We're failing, we're all failing people every day," is what I want to say but I don't. The number of homeless people in downtown Portland is not out of proportion with any town of similar size; it's just more visible. Some days it seems like everyone is on edge, some days it seems that I see a half-dozen men or women with desperate eyes and bloody sores from fights or meth. I've never seen violence though, I've never seen danger to my kids. Just human desperation lived out in front of them.
There's a woman who sleeps under the bridge, ,the one who called out that day after my eight-year-old, "a baby!" who ran past her. She makes the most beautiful bed. It's elaborate, with a quilt laid out on the bottom and sheets that have a quilt pattern on them, two pillows, a comfy air mattress. It looks beautiful. She has kind eyes and I see her almost every day. Some days when I come through and it's obvious the Clean & Safe people have cleaned out her bedroom and her with it I feel a bit of panic for a minute, that she's gone. But she always comes back.
That's the story. My kids are safe here, but there are a lot of people who aren't safe. I'm worried about them, and I don't know what to do. I'm not worried about my kids though. They have somewhere to sleep. Money for chocolate chip cookies and ham and fontina sandwiches. They know what a canele is and how to get from 9th and Couch to Union Station and how to say "Couch" in Portland.
There's a lot of concern to be had, but don't have it for my kids in the city.
On another day I'll ride through this point and gasp at the tree that's fallen and the stains left on the road. I will keep doing this, day after day, until one in which I learn another tree has fallen and avoided killing my coworker by mere inches. Truly inches, 30 or a few less. The span of these sun-brown hands.
I will learn this the day I have come through this spot again, as I do on the bike tours I lead, three times. Once with my guests on their bikes and then back alone and then, in the van, again, alone. Now I listen to the woods and say to them I honor you, I fear you, I say in my heart and my body to the man who died that day, you live on, I do not know you except for the feeling your body and blood have left in mine; but I carry you in my soul.
Let's tell the story now.
I ride my bike back and forth on the road between Latourell Falls and Sheppherd's Dell several times in most weeks.
Today a man died there. A tree fell on his car... he must have died instantly. That's what it looked like.
I was unracking my tourists' bikes when I saw the cars turning around on the road I meant to use, again, again, as I do so often I can't count that many times. Hundreds. I unracked my bike and rode up to where the obstacle must be. A tree fell, someone said, on a car, and in that moment I tried not to grasp how much that meant. But I heard the wailing then, as I rode through the lichens and mosses and bark and broken glass left behind. The woman was wailing so that I could not help but look for blood.
I saw it then.
The blood on the man who had been driving the car. I won't describe it any more. Someone who must have come by right after the tree fell asked loudly for a blanket, and I rode my bike as fast as I could to get a poncho. I was shaking and shaking and a man -- almost a boy, really -- who said he was a medical assistant came running back with me. "No use," said the one who'd asked for the blanket when we offered help. "I feel nothing." No pulse, he meant, but he just said, "nothing."
The wailing kept on. I never saw the woman, she must have been the sister or lover of the man I did see. I never could bring myself to read the news report but I've been told the woman and two small children lived. The younger, a baby, was unscathed.
I ride past this spot on my tours and look at those trees. Those trees... they're such creature of untrammeled wildness! I have seen alders and bigleaf maples and Douglas-firs fallen across the road. I've seen so many chunks of millions-year-old basalt on the road there too. I've seen the holes made by termites and woodpeckers and probably slugs and snails and lichens and mushrooms. The woods eats the woods here. Everything is decaying even while it's still alive.
This isn't all the story.
I had a premonition weeks ago. Right there maybe even under the tree where it happened. I know it was right after I left Latourell Falls and I kept seeing and hearing and feeling this force I can only describe as, thwump. A body hitting a car. Thwump. Thwump. It was so vicious and visceral I tried to force it out of my mind. I tried and tried to overtake it but still I kept feeling it as I rode back and forth across that piece of road to the next waterfalls. Thwump. Thwump.
I do think the universe is so much more than we see. Something shook so hard there when that woman started wailing. Something shook so hard it ripped open a hole.
I try to keep myself open too. I felt the impact of that tree hitting the car before it happened but did it serve any purpose? I've had to decide there isn't always a purpose. Maybe that's how tenuous our hold on the present is. It rips open and it's not a reason. Like there's no reason this man died. This man drove his car down the road I bike and drive all the time right at the very moment the key bit of tree gave way and the woods ate the woods.
Karen said that she is struck with the randomness, that sometimes there is only an unexpected pause, and then, sudden death. A pause in the midst of what we all think of as life -- and then it ends. As I say all the time, no wonder. No wonder we need stories to explain this.There's no safety, I thought as I put my guests back in the van and drove the long way around to the trailhead at Angel's Rest and got on the bikes again. Riding again to a waterfall that throws itself off an awesome cliff, one made thousands of years ago by a raucous and Biblical flood, a beautiful terrible wall of water. There's no security. The wild is all around us and it can't be tamed. We in our hubris believe we can tame it but it will always rewild, it will always take us and our neatly designed creations back.
I said this talking to the waterfall later, the two words over and over whispered so only the water could hear me, no safety. It's a reason to make families and make families bigger and let people love the people you love. It's a reason to thrust myself open and more open, making my connections based on love and wanting to and not anything else.
I have a lot more to say about this, I have a thousand thousand words to say, as I shatter still from the impact of that tree hitting the car I'm feeling like sometimes we all just have to wail because there is nothing else to do. Wail so hard it rips time open.
But then in the breath beyond the wail, the quiet. The woods returns and where the man's blood was will grow lichens and mosses, taking up his cells and, putting them to use, making new. The water of that woman's tears, evaporates, is dew and cloud and redcedar sap and the wild water rushing over that rock. His life force taken away lives on in me, because for an instant of his life, that pause before death, I inhabited him -- it lives on in the woods, who will eat the tree that fell, who will eat the blood left on the asphalt, who will eat the asphalt, who will eat me too.
I've always cried at gay wedding photos.
I don't like many wedding pictures any more, honestly. I'm incorrigibly convinced that we'd be better off without any bonding when it comes to love. The court-ordered custody counseling guy said, 'love is a biological urge lasting two years.' I don't know if I agree with him entirely -- love is a story we tell ourselves over and over until we can't believe ourselves any more -- it can last decades if our stories are rich enough. If the characterization works and the narrator is believable and we keep coming up against interesting problems. I'm not arguing against love. I believe in love seven ways to Sunday. I believe in true love and electric love and love that sparkles my eyes and reaches deep into my soul.
I believe in love that wakes up every day and chooses.
I'm thrilled about the supreme court's gay marriage ruling. Ummm; I'm bisexual. Somewhere right after I turned 40 I, entirely by accident, asked myself a question whose answer surprised me. In a quiet space between wake and sleep I held my sexuality on that level that exists where our conscious meets our subconscious and entered a spark that would be my revelation. I guess... well, should this be about me? I suppose that's how this works. Maybe two years ago I would have been so much more thrilled about a nationally-accepted gay marriage, and I wasn't really identifying as bisexual then, so where does that leave me?
It leaves me here. I don't want to marry anyone, ever, and I'm skeptical there's any good reason for an institution which pretends we're monogamous creatures who can own each other. I don't want to own anyone, male or female, although I sure as hell want to sleep with other free beings of both genders.
I analyze relationships; it's a hobby I have a lot of chance to practice. People travel together for new love and torrid affairs and bachelor parties and honeymoons and anniversaries and family vacations and I'll tag along for your conference -- they come on my tours. I listen to men and women who talk about their wives and husbands and lovers in their presence in the third person and that tells me everything. We're such messy people. We grew up hard and lots of us were traumatized. We don't know how to keep the trauma to ourselves. We bond ourselves to others because of our fears. Because we're afraid to be alone; we're afraid of being left. We're afraid we'll wake up one morning and someone will say "I'm leaving" and we'll have nothing there to hold him, to hold her. A promise then. A promise made before our institutional gods. Our vows; our contracts.
When I started entering into love without contracts I was promised by the man I called the love of my life, "I'll never leave you." I believed him in that surface of my mind in which I allowed myself to live. I promised him, "if we break up I won't write about you." I knew when I said the words I wouldn't keep it.
I can't keep promises and neither did the love of my life. His institutional gods had too strong a hold on him.
Marriage can hold people who are prostrate well enough to their institutional gods but nothing can hold the light in my love's eyes when he looks at me. Nothing can hold the smile that roots at the center of my heart and beams out into my shoulders, my hips, my knees, my wide wide lips, my fingers and toes when he and his heady self overwhelm me. Nothing can hold her moans. . .
The truth, as my friend Jen said, is that nothing holds love to any of us. We are completely alone unless people we love choose us. I've promised never to marry this man I love; I'll make the same promise to this woman. All the contract I can make is that look in my eyes; that smile. That's all that holds me. That's all I want to hold.
When such an historic day ends how can I celebrate it right? I'm glad more people have access to equality. I hope fewer people want this sort of equality.
Now that we've made it equal, can we ask whether we need it at all?
Why not tell this story?
How could I live with myself for keeping it quiet?
Once while I was with my last love, while my children were away, I drank a tea, with ingredients foraged in the rose gardens of Ladd's Addition, meant to send me on a spirit journey. In that journey I remember most vividly two things: naming myself and the people in my life. ("I am Sarah. I love him. I am a writer. I am a mother. I love to run!" I said other things too.) And saying to myself, over and over, "why do people keep secrets?"
I swam in the wild swirling spiraling psychedelic kaleidoscope; I watched the universe empty to blackness, to only my own consciousness. I slowly watched as I reached with the hands of my mind and pulled in artists and scientists and philosophers, like ship's rope pulled in, hand-over-hand. Da Vinci. Homer. Ovid. Beethoven. Picasso. Mozart. This is what I made the universe of.
But after the creation of the universe, the anxieties: my oldest son, my lover's oldest daughter, how they fought against this combination. Money, how little I had of it. My house. "Secrets" was the biggest anxiety of all, how my brain and body and spirit built up pressure behind the ice dam of imposed quiet, how my love and my desires had to be kept in the green walls of the bedroom where I lie, spinning with the newly-made universe in black clouds around my mind. I know now that dams like this build such high pressure that the water goes below freezing. Give it enough and cracks start to form, cracks that the water will force itself through molecule by molecule, creating friction as the supercool water competes to escape the force.
Until the dam explodes.
For years I kept secrets. Eight years of my abusive ex-boyfriend and then, more, I could not tell more than "violent," more than "controlling." I never spoke the extent, not until I published an essay. Still -- who read it? Dozens? Hundreds? I wish I knew. After that was the secret of unhappiness in my marriage. The alcoholism, the screaming fights, the fear. The love, the happiness too; had to be kept secret. It didn't fit the mold.
I am done with secrets. Two years ago almost I wrote a blog post. I called it "amory." I kept saying for months after, "I didn't mean it like that." I'd taken it down within hours. Too inflammatory. What about his divorce? Then, later, what about mine?
The relationship was a waking dream; the relationship was a vivid fantasy that lived so bright in each of our subconsciouses it was almost real; the relationship was attempted, beautifully, lushly, destructively. My post was a prophecy, or it self-fulfilled. It created its own life and wholeness. We all came together in hope and awkwardness, a polyamorous family. We all fell apart.
I'm trying again. Polyamory without limits or vetoes. Polyamory that believes love is not a zero sum game. Polyamory that's raucous, embracing, everyone together now.
I am scientist enough to believe in this, believe I create worlds when I lie on my back in a room painted in green; believe I create life when I wake up each day. For years and years in my secrets, secrets kept even from myself, I prophesied the life I attempt now.
Now I know to listen.
Here is what happened: I am moving into a studio apartment this Sunday.
In journalism I learned the storytelling device like this, tell the most recent and most important thing first. I learned journalism from the old school (very old school, oldest journalism school in the country, so old I think sometimes bones woke up and walked into the J-school auditorium and listened in on lectures, it wouldn't be the first time such a thing had been accused of happening at Washington and Lee University, it wouldn't be the last), and in the old school you're telling just-the-facts from whatever the latest development is in your story, every day there's news.
But I've been a very bad journalist, I've missed deadlines every weekday and twice on Sunday for weeks now. It's been 27 days.
Here is what happened: I was ordered to leave my house in 30 days. It was 27 days ago so that means Friday.
In AP style you use numerals for all the numbers 10 and up. If I was following Chicago style I'd have had to spell all this out, thirteen years I've owned and lived in this house, not quite eleven years of our marriage before I filed for divorce, the boys we have, twelve, nine and seven. The months I've had the boys five days a week while my not-yet-legally-ex-husband had them two: fifteen, although I was flexible. I did let him take the boys an extra day a lot of weekends. The months I parented the boys alone while he was in Kuwait: thirty-six. I don't know how many months he was just unavailable to help me parent, unavailable for a bunch of reasons I won't say but he admitted to in court. It was most of them. Most of our children's lives. Twelve months it took the custody evaluator to come back with his recommendation, a few days before our trial date: he recommended that I be granted full legal custody, five days a week parenting time, and that we both agree to abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs-plus-marijuana during our parenting time. Pages in my pre-trial memorandum, that was only three, single-spaced, it would be the same in both styles; but I wanted to be clear, so I thought three pages would suffice. I just said we should follow the custody evaluator's recommendation.
Given the outcome of the trial I can't imagine more than three pages would have helped any.
Here is what happened: I lost legal custody of my kids and most of my parenting time because I chose to unschool my oldest son.
I am 41 now, given to looking at myself in mirrors and seeing how everything crinkles. I have young skin, young muscles in my legs, young energy. But if I look at my hair I can see the greys. The men in my life are no different, not much, full of things that young-feeling women want in their men. Vigor, vim, laughing and clear-looking eyes. But none of us are young.
At these ages we, the not-young, still come together, still couple. We find our love in old new ways. Old acquaintances met through old friends. Wooed on Facebook or Twitter. We save those old messages, the status updates or tweets that prompted them. Mine said, "I am hungry in all the ways." His said, "I am willing to oblige you."
I read on the internet that chivalry is not dead. I laugh. "9 Chivalrous Habits of a True Gentleman That Make Women Melt," the headline says.
It is writ that lists on the internet must be in odd numbers. I have composed many, many of my own lists but I am no lady. I melt though. Oh how I melt.
I am into re-writing these days. So I re-write this list.
Eight Habits of a True Love That Make Sarah Gilbert Melt
1. Lighting up eyes.
Maybe I come in his door or maybe he comes in mine. If I do I know where the key's kept, or he leaves the door unlocked for me. When he sees me he should look at me and smile most times. Look at his eyes. Can you see the light in them? I never got enough light when I was really, truly young, and I need light, need it in my windows and my heart and most of all, in my eyes, in his.
2. Eating every last bite and the sauce off the plate too.
I do like food. I like to eat it and cook it and think about it. I do not need to be bought dinner. I do not want to have my chair held out for me so I can sit. I want to serve a plate I have cooked while he sat in my kitchen talking to me, and maybe I have washed the dishes too, so of course he can spend time on Facebook telling me the things people have posted there. But when I set a plate in front of him he should tell me if it's not quite right and if he wants more salt or less cracked pepper and he should eat every bite and when it is gone, when he has helped himself to seconds out of the pan on the stove, he should use his finger or his tongue to lick every bit of sauce off the plate too. He was hungry and now he has been filled and in this, at least, I am satisfied.
3. Letting me parent my children.
Oh I know my children are often ill-behaved and usually wild. They swear and ride their roller skates in the house and break things. They'll be frustrating. They'll cause minor shock and major awe. Monroe will say "sorry" and Truman will say nothing and Everett will say something purposefully annoying. It's ok to give me advice if you think I've asked for it. But I don't need you to parent my children. I am not looking for a savior. I am looking for someone to love.
4. Never suffering for me.
I want experience. I want adventure. I want long quiet spaces as we walk or ride bikes or drive in his (if we must) car. I want conversations in which -- for hours -- neither of us will relent until finally, one of us does. I want us to make lists for each other of movies we love and want, with laughing desperation, the other to love, too. I want to watch the horror movies or comedies he cannot stop watching. I want him to see My Neighbor Totoro and a whole lot of Doctor Who. I never want him to compromise, I never want him to consume anything he'd rather not just for me. I want us to turn to each other in hilarity or import. I want us to discover new truths together.
I never, never want him to watch a stupid girly movie. Unless he likes that sort of thing.
The second of November is all kinds of holy. All the cultures in the world are celebrating death -- not death alone I mean, but also the kind of mystical magical spirit that persists after our deaths. All Soul's Day. Dia de los Muertos. Samhain. Annagrace said it this way, about Samhain, it's when "we decide what to feed and keep and what to kill so it can feed us."
And all the things around me seem like they are dying. The grapes are falling to their slow deaths underneath my arbor, the leaves are yellowing and falling to the ground, the figs have splotched into mold and stains on the sidewalk. My busy days as a bike tour guide are fading into slow and occasional rainy midday quiet at the shop, from long long weeks of sun worshiping and brown legs up on my pedals to the slick of city streets between breweries, raincoats and layers of scarves.
Oh but there's life here too. Everything is so busy, my children with their bouncing around the insides and outsides of my house, building spaceships out of bins and baskets, giggling their rainy way to the coffee shop for doughnuts with sprinkles. The mushrooms pushing their fantastical way out of all the decaying matter. If anything's in the spirit of the season the moss and mushrooms are. Reincarnation. Haunting. Fading in and out of reality in puffs of smoke or streaks of ink. And all that.
And I'm in a worshipful mood. If you blow out candles so oversized-for-their-purpose they make me laugh there, looking up at you all crinkly grey and wintery blue, what do you wish for? Is it immortality or godhood? can it be either/or?
I'll wish for this, then: More festivals of spirits and souls and gods and demi-gods. Sirens and mermaids and water-witches and wood-nymphs. More letting our bodies lie in with the lessening light, more hibernation, the sort of hibernation that leaves a candle maybe or a bedside lamp, a fire if we've got one, casting just enough light so we can see the colors of each other's eyes, and some of what's inside them. I do so like to look in eyes. We don't need furs or feathers -- we've got blankets and pillows a-plenty -- I'll get up before you and wash the dishes and make coffee. Watch the rain splatter the windows and pick rosemary and pine needles for tea. In the afternoon quiet after a hike maybe, replete with leather boots and coats and moss-hunting, I'll make something for dinner, something fit only for a hibernator, lots of butterfat and vegetables and bone broths. Crusty bread or I'll bake something.
We'll learn how to do everything ourselves. Build walls and brew beer and identify mushrooms. Pack the cozy house with people we love, like one of my dreams, all unclear relationships but unlike my dreams we all want to be here. I'll tell stories and I'll keep having to tell everyone to listen! if I'm saying something important and you'll tell stories to make me laugh. We'll have the record player and we'll play music from all over the centuries, because that's one way to immortality you know. What era are we from, really? Past or present or future? Earth or somewhere beyond the moon?
That's what I think we need to do. Worship the light, and by that I mean let it tell us what to do, when to rise and when to lie, exposed in all the right ways, under the covers for hours and hours and hours. If the sun doesn't wake us, don't wake, or if we wake, stay there and whisper and feel the sacred healing magic of skin against skin. I believe in skin-to-skin contact, you know. Not just for babies and hypothermia emergencies but for everyday healing. This magic isn't the witch doctor shouting and hollering, hunting for rare herbs and singing just the right words, no, it's the quiet witchy bedtime care, tea made from weeds that grow any old place, the fingertips tracing contours. It doesn't even matter the patterns or pressure points, it's all surface area and time and of course love.
I wrote about this recently, something like, my honey-heart's spilling all over my belly and thighs, it's become a salve that comes off on my fingers, when I touch you, you see into me. So the skin magic works the other way too, and maybe it means I can spend less time running around chasing things. Like Rumi says, "There is that in me that has to be told 50 times a day, Stop hunting. Step on this net."
I've been so afraid but this is what the lessening light says, it tells me, relax your shoulders and let your bow go slack. I keep asking anyone who'll listen, can the net hold me? Do we ever get to know?
The arrows clatter to the ground and I give in. Throw my arms up over my head not in fear but in that other sort of surrender. Now, we wait, whisper to our gods of now and the future, see what it is the light holds for us.
I've been broken-hearted you know.
A way to -- not fix it -- but put some of the pieces in my palm and hold them a bit, hold them and maybe lick a paste out of sticky things and glutinous things, press with my palm to my breast, a way to at the very least make a ticky-tacky art of my brokenness was to do things. Spectacular things! And so I woke up at just-after 4 a.m. on the day before my 41st birthday. It was a bang. A blowout!
I met Rose under the Hawthorne Bridge just after 5, and we rode up over the Terwilliger hills, and down, and up and up. We crested some hill I'd never crested before as the sun was rising. We rode down, down, down and all the way, stopping for peanut butter and doughnuts and peanut butter, climbing trees for apples, picking blackberries on a mountain ridge, pushing our bikes up the steepest hill you can imagine. At Adelsheim we watched the harvesters, their bucket tally cards pinned to their backs like toddlers and I don't know whether it made me angry or whether this was pride; they said of the fastest, strongest man, "eighty buckets already today!"; we watched him in awe running down the rows of pinot vines carrying four five-gallon buckets. It was 11 o'clock.
We helped sort grape leaves out of the tangy-sweet bins and then went in like the plebians, like the useless people, to taste wine like a whole florist's table, like seaweed and plums, like moss and strawberries and allspice. We ate peanut butter and butter and walnut bread and fruit out of the trees and off the ground.
We, our bikes and us, begged a ride home from an architect who rode bikes too, who almost never drove, so in her car we picked the way from an endless assortment of turns and hills and back roads and more turns, more hills, through roads I haven't seen since my 20s. I want to tell you all about the architect but that's her story, I'll tell you about my legs, they were so tired, and they were not half so tired as my tired, tired heart.
My birthday. Oh my birthday! The wind was high that day, wildly dancing, a tarantella, and I woke up several times in the early morning because of its force. Monroe woke too, many times in the night, we were a tangle of restlessness and soreness. It was the morning of my 41st birthday and when I opened my eyes the sun was already lighting the fir needles outside, and I looked out in the yard to see how my skirts were already stirring, Debbie. (I saw it there, shadow spinner!)
I wanted to take the small morning to make coffee and bake things, to wash my dishes, to sit on the porch in the sun and read poetry and those happy birthday messages, I wanted to try to take my tangled thoughts and weave them into something strong and sensual and fit for ritual. I found poetry on Facebook in the early morning and it was all about taking the joy and peace and wonder around us and squeezing it tight in your fist until it made a salve you could smear all over your face and your neck, your shoulders, find joy in the tails off squirrels, the frenetic activity of fir trees, the ripeness of figs, I'm paraphrasing of course. "Joy is not a crumb," there you are, Mary.
On my birthday I wanted to hold on to the dreams enclosed in lost things, I wanted to keep reaching out with my arms like if I stretched hard enough up on my toes I could flick my fingertips along them. How could they not turn around and look me in the eyes then?, I wanted to do all this and still leave room in my wide open arms for all the things serendipity and fate and the gorgeousness of your humanity have found for me. I thought, if I tried hard enough maybe I could fit it all into my heart, joy, hopefulness, love, loss, disappointment, all my heart knows is longing, all my heart knows is the glorious sweetness of purple clusters of grapes. The long-tongued bitterness of coffee. The caramel moon, yes I took that as a gift, the words and the things, the red wind!
It was all there, it was all lifting up and away from me on the wind. I went to work, I chased after it, my skirts swirling in the wildness, my skin feeling all the sun and soreness and want.
And in the end my birthday was not, really, not at all, happy. I do treasure the "happy" messages, though, I do feel loved, I am filled by having all so many loves in my life, so many who care for me. Those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter or here. I want to apologize. I am sorry for my spilliness, for my indiscretion, for being sad so out loud.
I did not have a happy birthday, I did get things from people who love me though, I did eat cake, I did blow out candles, I did see the moon painted on the sky. I don't think I'll get my wish! My wish crumbled around my head like the dry crumbs of cake. Days later, forgotten on the counter.
I don't think I'll get my wish, I'll have to make new wishes, I wish to wrap up like wool blankets in the love I have now, to experience all the passions anyone can offer me, to never stop telling stories. To smile and laugh even through the tears that come to me sometimes out of the blue and sometimes, expected. Ordinary.
I didn't expect this passionate life to lead back to ordinary sadness; it's a different sort of sadness than I had before, dull and achy and jaded, this is a sadness that gives me adrenaline! Sharp and stabbing and I'll press my hand to my breast now and lift off the blood that's there. Wipe it in further and treasure it somehow. If I touch you, my hand still red and sticky, you can see into me.
Right now I don't feel so well, but I'm still going to run out there into the world, stand up on my pedals and shout at you if I must. Thank you! I'm sorry. I love you. I love you too.
Every day I look up and watch the underside of leaves. The bellies and wings of birds, banking half-circles. I haven't slept much and when I look down I'm dizzy. I smell ferns. Licorice and it's sweet, toothy. I suck the stems and try to get my balance and think of smiling at you. That makes me dizzy too.
All this looking up in the sky watching leaves and dragonflies and birds is like a stream flowing downhill. It's impossible not to fall in love. Why even try to hold to this rock? I'll look back up into the sky and forget what solid ground feels like. Fall in love as many times as necessary, all the loves, all at once. The sky is my constancy now. Movement is my sense of peace.
Suzuki says we're practicing zen even when we're lying down but I practice best when I'm moving. On my bike; in the dark middle of the night running some trail outside of St. Helens or Vernonia; bouncing in and out of the bike shop so fast one day a guy riding down the sidewalk slams into me. He's sorry but I just want him to go away so I can try and get myself moving again. At home my record player's needle should be replaced and in the meantime I'm bouncing up and down to nudge it so the records don't repeat.
When I'm riding my bike and when I'm running I practice holding my head up so it holds up the sky. I do yoga on the sides of mountains and costumed camp counsellors tell me, "you get it girl," and I get it and I put my left hand over my right and make an oval like I've been taught by reading books about zen. And I run back down the hill and if I keep moving I know I can be still.
I keep moving. I keep moving. I take deep breaths for a moment but I'm always moving, riding my bike through the night streets with people who are young for me but not too young. I mean who is ever too young for anyone? I am not one to judge another person's love. Not any more. And all my little and big falling in love, it swoops me up with it, fall up into the bowl of sky says Rumi. I open my arms wide like I always do. Expose that beautiful heart. Later Debbie will tell me to put a door on it but I'm not ready yet for any sort of closing. I open it and close my eyes and let the sky just lift me.
I'll fall down again and again, in the coming weeks. The sky can't always take my weight. I'm heavy. I'm coming at the sky with all my intensity and sometimes I'm moving too fast. Sorry love. Swoop me up again. Hold on! I'm smiling at you even through my tears. Take me up, I know I'm still moving, and that's what we both need isn't it?
I think maybe if I push my body hard enough I'll stop thinking but of course it never works . 8 august . 2014
Rose is reaching up into the sky for our food, we're eating plums and apples right out of the trees above us on the side of the road. We've been biking almost 20 miles already and it's now evening sun, we come into a long string of nursery farms just as the swifts all take flight from the cover crops, crimson clover, they fill the sky like ripe plums out of reach but these are moving so fast in their wild and free dance. The sun is coming down like magic hour, like light feeding us from the heavens, too, and we're almost there.
We've been told there is a hill into the campground and now we're upon it; the edge of the hill is right at the edge of the sunlight too, when you turn your bike wheels downward you're already in the forest and the temperature shifts like a door opening into a cool home, and so we just take the chance anyone would take in our shoes, on our wheels, we take our hands off the brakes and just let go. We know we're going to have to get back up and out but ohhh... the wind is rushing through everything, our hair our shirts our aching thighs.
It's not the sort of metaphor that makes any sense now. I'm going down-down-down into the forest where we'll build a fire and eat and talk about all my loves until I cannot talk any more, I'll wake up too early, always too early, with my hair smelling like smoke and my voice still hoarse and raw from local whiskey. I'll let it stay raw. Last summer I was talking about falling in love and climbing out but now I'm in, I'm in a love that isn't just cool stream and rocks and water to my ankles but everything, a wash of water that's taken me into the canyon depth. Flash flood and logjams. I can't get out and probably I never will.
So in the morning I haven't healed or solved anything and just put my hands on my handlebars and push that bike up the hill, thinking about it in increments, just to the next curve and then/10 minutes and then/before you know it we see the sunlight and blue sky and nursery cedar trees that means we're out. The swifts and dragonflies are there dancing around in the vitamin-blue sky. I'm not climbing up anything but a hill. I'm not sure what to do with this metaphor any more.
I just ride, put myself on my seat and ride, miles ticking away like minutes since I heard "present-tense love," like days since I stood like it would change anything if I watched you walk away, my thighs are twanging numbly and I know all I can do is pedal, up and down and into the heart of the city where I'll keep all my loves, now I'm counting them and they're ticking away too, I can keep pedaling, the loss swirls over my head like a waterfall and I close my eyes and open my mouth wide and gulp tears or heartache or melted snow, I open my mouth wide and breathe.
At some point everything comes out on my skin.
I've never put much store in secrecy. I have all kinds of secret odes to truth hidden on my laptop hard drive. How's that for irony? Not hidden really, I don't protect anything with passwords or screen protectors. I just haven't shown it to you yet. Ask me something and I'll tell you more than you were probably looking for. Touch me and I'll melt or shy away. I can't hide anything really.
I feel good in my skin right now and it shows and I don't just mean I'm looking hot today. My skin is brown from leading bike tours in the Columbia Gorge and bike tours in downtown Portland and riding my bike to and from work everyday. Some days I ride 20 or 25 miles. Some days I ride more.
My legs are hard from running up and down the paths to waterfalls and riding my bike up hills and, one night starting at sundown, riding my bike all the way from Chanticleer Point to Cascade Locks, I'll bet you haven't ever ridden your bike past some of the most beautiful scenery in the world in the all-the-way dark, down roads so familiar because I drive and bike them sometimes three days a week, down roads so unfamiliar I slow down even on the gentle bends, worried I'm about to double back in the pitch. I ride in high-heeled sandals and a swingy mini skirt on a road bike and every one of the 25-maybe miles feels so good in my body. The summer wind on my legs and bare arms.
We bike tour guides build a fire outside a brewery in Cascade Locks where I have been served Scotch-malted beer by the brewer out of its fermenting tank and we talk about mountains throwing off their brimstone and I sit on a bench feeling the heat of the fire on my skin and we talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll and when we ride our bikes like children to the island at 4:30 a.m. to watch the sun rise over the god-built Bridge of the Gods I feel the cool morning air on my neck and the sand on my thighs.
Some mornings I wake up and want to kiss everything and some middles-of-the-night I spend insomniac hours thinking only of the taste of skin on my lips and if you were me what would be stopping you from just opening your mouth and tasting the warmth and salt and brown and smooth? Nothing of course but some days a want of skin.
I want to tell more secrets, want to run up more mountains and feel every manner of fern and bramble on my arms, want to taste thimbleberries and wood sorrel and kisses, want to wish on Druid's plants for the feelings on my skin every day and more children and childishness in my life and unicorns and to turn my home's life dial all the way up to joy, joy, joy! Look at me in my skin, comfortable but not yet content, prickling with fear or sadness some days but still pumping lungs like pedals just to feel everything, cold/heat/sweat/fingernails/bike chains/tongues/tears, I've said too much again haven't I, can you blame me? I'm at the pinnacle of forty and I have to stay wide open because there is so much in this world left to feel.
It is the waterfall, in the end, I come to for salvation. I've been flogging sadness like a pack animal for weeks now, we've been locked in a death pact, I'll kill you if you kill me. But I didn't want to die after all. My sadness took a breather. Lifted its head and looked at me with its slow-blinking eyes. "I'll wait," it must have told me. "I don't give ultimatums you know."
So I got to keep him, looped the rope around my wrist and let him trail along behind, still following me like faithfulness but only nudging me once in a while lovingly, I'd like to think, but human relations with animals are tricky, aren't they?
Now we're up there at the waterfall. Me and my sadness. I'm just standing at its bottom, no grand gestures like I'll do the next week, no bounding up the hill in my silver ballet shoes to hold my arms out like spread wings, closing my eyes so I can feel the brilliance of the sun sparkling through the part where the waterfall shoots over the edge of the old rock. I'm just standing there and I'm thinking about the zen I've been reading. How hard the waterfall has to work right up there in the spray, says Suzuki, splitting itself apart into drops and it's so much easier when the water is one, one flow and eddy, one pool and current, one being all the way from here to Japan probably, the bottom of Wahkeena Falls out the Columbia to the confluence and out into the Pacific Ocean where it's all everything. Big mind, I'm thinking. Big water.
And that water is sparkling me, now, just a little, spraying gently over my face but most importantly in the breaths I'm breathing in, those drops that are struggling so to get up and over the rock and down back into the oneness, some of them are airborne now and are part of me, I'm thinking of the breathing, inflow/outflow, it's all one, I think, I don't turn around to look at my sadness because I know he'll just stick it out. Go with me anywhere even when I'm letting the waterfall become part of Big me. Big everything. And the thing is that those struggling drops might be working hard but really they've got such joy, you know? They're in me now and I can't help it, I smile, I smile with those drops invisible on my face probably but coursing through me like the way fire bleeds through your veins if you let it.
If I'd let myself look at my sadness I'd stroke him, hold my lips just above his forehead so that my breath was its own kiss, as it turns out you get to keep everything, when I drive home from the Gorge with my vanload of tourists I'm soaring, really, I look up into the sky where an osprey is banking its route over the highway, all my creatures together in their slow dance around me, we're all in this world together now, I blink tears and happiness and I can't wait to touch someone now, bleed my fire and water all over him too. Exhale.
I -- we all together -- have been saved.
The tiredness sets in behind my eyes so that I am almost blind with it, it feels like tears or hangovers or fevers, present and brilliant, dulling my hearing too, sending me into a fog. My back aches, in a total way it rarely does, from the base of my skull fanning out like fingers down the back of my neck, arching the curve of muscles over my shoulder blades, palming the space underneath them, wiping its fingertips back up my spine and sitting there, throb-throb-expand-throb.
I murmur something suggestive though. I am smiling through the dim, arching throb and gloom. I know what it is -- I think -- the emotional turmoil I've felt eventually had to become physical, had to release my heart and lungs and spread through my shoulders, up my spine, into my sinuses and my eyes, and yet -- it released my heart. I take a breath deep into my belly and feel it expand almost unhampered by the clamp of my fears.
* * *
I felt it splinter days ago, I lie in my bed in the middle of the night -- alone, my boys with their father -- feeling it like a vacuum, like an evacuation, like rats skittering from a sinking ship. At first I thought the way to fix it was to show how much pain I was in, wielding raw emotion like a cudgel, but waving that thing around hurt me as much as anyone else. And who wants to share pain anyway? I had to let myself fall off the cliff of panic, let myself be caught, ragged and bruised purple but still alive. Miraculously pieced together.
What's emptied can be filled again and not just by someone else. Sometimes you have to find your breath somehow, gather your strength as best you can and pull it all back in. If you can let a thing unwind you, can you not wind it yet again?
* * *
And here, now, all the pain that'd been strangling my heart and lungs had to go somewhere. As I worked it free, untied the knots that I'd woven to tight, inexpertly, the ends flapped hard and loose, beating flesh and sinew and nerve around it, spreading out like a spill being absorbed by the thirsty sand. At some point you have to honor that. Let the ache feel like warmth, let your breath examine it, interrogate your muscles with their center, heart, let each yank and twang settle into their rhythm, give them the prayer that's their due.
"Away with you," you murmur, calling to them softly, holding on with tears sparking your eyes like saying a fond farewell. "I know your worth," you're saying now. "You held me tight and let me go." And you're letting them grip you as long as they need to, you're giving them time, you're closing your eyes and waiting peacefully, all this ache you cherish, it's your fear, you say to it now, whenever you're ready, fly away home.
It was snowing and I'd found the garden gloves, the ones I'd bought late this summer when I was going to clear out all the blackberries and burdock so they didn't take possession of my yard. It was snowing and I was wearing my garden gloves and riding my bike, and my feet were cold even through the two pairs of wool socks and the way my cheeks felt in the wind and snow? I didn't know whether to love it or cry.
I used to have compartments. I'd put things in them, like the way my goosebumps trail up the insides of my arms or;
It is the problem of second person: the addressee. That is the question. And the way I write second person? I fail to mark transitions between "you," the reader, and "you," me putting you inside my skin. And then there's you.
Making confessions became my game, then, my practice, lopping off a length of truth and handing it to him like something, a peace offering, maybe a token like one you'd hand to a knight going into combat. -- not a war, I mean -- more of a jousting match --.
Be brave. Be more brave than you think you can be.
I am not taking my advice. I am starting essays I cannot finish. I am writing essays I will only keep to myself. Some I read on my computer or in my journal and I think to myself maybe pathetically how, wouldn't it be nice to become a famous and beloved writer, so they can be discovered after my death? I will print them out, I think, because the digital is so ephemeral. I am being ridiculously dramatic, I think. And I write more, even more quietly.
Some of it finds its way out into the world despite myself. My essay, "No Other Gods," will be published next month in the Creative Nonfiction book, Southern Sin: True stories of the sultry south and women behaving badly. It's in print, I have the copy of the book's uncorrected proof here in my sweaty hand -- I tell the story there.
If you read it, you'll know why that one was, I thought, the very hardest story to tell, one I couldn't tell anyone, not even my husband, not all the way, for years. When I opened the package with those words in paperback-print I almost threw up. Here is where I can't type out why it makes me nauseated. Here is where I also say that I am telling the story precisely because it had me so ashamed for so many years.
There are stories I only whisper to myself and it's because they hurt me or my boys too much or might, but you get to know that I'm stripping myself open these days, I'm spinning yarns about being raw and rare and bloody, like this:
And when I say "raw" I mean I'm open like a front door, like a broken cabinet, like a wide hilltop field of new-cut hay, like a body lying on an operating table, torso sliced open hip to neck bone, skin peeled back like the pieces of a dress being pinned together or ripped apart.
Like that. Like that. At least I'm putting the pins in these memories so I can refer to them later. Perhaps I'll find something to write about that's safe. And when I say "safe" I mean appalling but in a different way, do you know "safe" is a different word for me now that I'm 40 and because of a variety of things not-the-least-of-which-is divorce having to forge a new sort of identity.
"Writer," then, that's my identity, writer and mother and striver-not-to-yield. That's it.
I have stopped subscribing to regrets, even though I could enumerate the elements in my life these days I wouldn't have chosen and the total might approach infinity, I'm exaggerating of course but who would want to share parenting like this, one of my marriage counsellors once said something along the lines of, "you can let him do this with the kids in your house or you can let him do it in his apartment," and at the time I thought to myself, she's right, I'd rather not be parenting our separate ways in separate domiciles, then I'd really know what it means to be out of control, and of course at some point in the past six months I swung just past that center line to here.
Here is the place where I spend days and days away from my children, like this time over the holiday break, and I won't say anything like how precious this time of year is to me because that's disingenuous, yes this time is lovely but I'm not thinking of the Hallmark Channel special with the orchestrated candy cane family moments, but more that quiet companionship of baking and sewing and reading and the occasional arrival of grandparents bearing gifts. Not the holiness and the shopping and the capital-T Traditions but the ordinary togetherness, the getting used to each other being around in those short short days. I'm always wanting to do something grand and crashy for the winter solstice but I never do, I do buy candles though, I do light things with matches and turn on the oven more than is normal and bake buttery cookies I expect to be eaten for breakfast and lunch.
I'm pretty sure when I was in that counsellor's office considering the fate of divorce (would my whole wheat sugar cookies be subbed for Plaid Pantry snacks in dad's apartment?), I held off that fate as long as possible because I couldn't imagine being on the other end of the Hallmark Channel movie, that mom baking a tiny bowl of cookies in an empty house maybe with part of a glass of red wine, her lipstick a perfect half-kiss on the rim. Or do the Hallmark Channel heroines drink chardonnay?
I've been thinking a lot about fates lately, there's a part in Adrienne Rich's 21 Love Sonnets that goes "No one's fated or doomed to love anyone. / The accidents happen, we're not heroines, / they happen in our lives like car crashes / books that change us" and then there was a story I read in the dim light at the back of the Schnizter concert hall, about Tchaikovsky and his idea of fate. When he wrote the 4th Symphony, it's said, he was thinking a lot about Fate and his destiny was a Sword of Damocles, strung over his head on a horsehair and ready to fall, "which prevents the impulse towards happiness from achieving its aim, which guards jealously lest well-being and peace should be complete and unclouded," which "unwaveringly and constantly poisons the soul." Tchaikovsky was terrified, perhaps of being found out in his homosexuality. And I guess Rich was terrified, of the coming end of her love affair, and looking back at myself sitting on the tightly-woven tweed of that marriage counsellor's couch all I can think is that I was terrified too.
If that sword over my head was unwavering and poisonous the poison must have dripped out into the marriage, shorting out the emotional connections and corroding the switches. Maybe it was another sword that fell at another time, even though you know Damocles' sword never fell, he gave up being king -- too terrified -- something somehow fell on me in May and June, showing me not a new love but a new window on an old love. This is when I started writing about cliff faces and about all the times I'd ever fallen myself. Fate, doom, car crash? I like to think of it more as a neighborhood I move into and come to love. (More Adrienne Rich.) The car crash is the falling. The coming to love a neighborhood, the cliff wall out?
I'm talking in so many metaphors. Maybe that's the only way I feel safe.
And maybe Tchaikovsky got it wrong (is it that artists are not, ofttimes, the most reliable interpreters of their own art?) but while I hear inevitability in his symphony I do not hear Fate's poison, I hear a stirring of fear and a desperate yearning yes but also a caressing, a slow movement of the hands across the body, like the hand holding the violin bow, and is this perhaps rather beautiful? Do we not often fear what is, in the end, the very most true? The hardest thing, the best thing, the most gorgeous possible thing?
Whatever. I've always been the sort to see something terrifying and do it just to prove I could. Not something terrifying and pointless like diving out of an airplane but -- give me a quest that's full of danger and impossibility, that wrests my heart out of its cage and lets it walk around outside my body a bit, that bloodies my lips or my fingernails and bruises my thighs or my pride -- call it my fate to say "yes" and bite my lips together tight and start running as fast as I can.
It's not that I keep my emotions bottled up or anything, in fact I wear them right there on the skin of my arms or on the edges of all the ways I describe things, you know when I say "the fog lies dark" I mean my heart is in a turmoil of fear and hope and loss and impossible dreams and when I say "colors of the leaves" I really mean I've told myself for years and years that unconditional love was just a fairy tale. That's really what I mean.
Or maybe it's not. In my bed these days I am tangled and turning to find space or almost-empty, I've changed my life and loosed myself from spouse and you know how they joke about whose side of the bed you're on, well. I'm to the point of hanging hammocks for boys and toting fresh-smelling futon mattresses on bikes, of sleeping on sheets still wrinkly with the tang of eco-friendly dyes. I have no side and sometimes when everyone is asleep I arrange myself back down with a child on my belly just to feel a heart beat next to mine.
I have made a new practice of rising early. It happened within weeks of my 40th birthday and I'm not one to make a big deal of calendar dates or maybe I am but my 40th birthday changed me. Is it a practice I made or a solution my body has imposed to fit my heart? I rise early and I walk on dark sidewalks to coffee shops and I'm not looking where I'm going but I hardly ever trip. There are things I say to myself or think of saying before the sun makes light that I could have never written as my own dialogue were I to write a hundred books.
Or maybe they're what I would have written, did write, all along. I will open essays or stories or blog posts I wrote months ago and didn't publish or didn't finish and I'll gasp, because either this was a prophecy or now's a fever dream. What I wrote was "playing in the dirt" and I meant "I'm making a list now and it's really just little bits of you, " what I wrote was, "it was hot" and I meant "there are flames running up and down my calves and somehow I've convinced myself they're from the way I run fast and the heat of the sun," what I wrote was, "maybe" and I meant, "for forever. For fucking reals."
The thing is this blog post was supposed to be partly about fear and sadness and longing. The thing is this blog post didn't come out like I thought at all.
I keep my emotions spilling out all over my edges and I lots of times don't know 'til later what it was I really meant. What it was I thought. Right now I'm in a state of manic clarity and I keep knowing things, how people feel or why and what it is I have to do in these relationships. This is the way I'm telling you I filed for divorce. This is the way I'm telling you I'm looking for a new way to the words that mean "family" and you can't get there any way but through.
My kids are ok except when they very, very much aren't and I'm not doing any of the things I should except that I'm making a new "should." My rules of life are all untied like shoelaces and hell if I care how to knot them back, it works as long as the shoes don't fall off and even then, sit down on the sidewalk, stretch out your leg and flex your toes a bit, put the shoe back on.
This is the way I tell you I'm happy.
I'm standing in front of the crowd here, and it's been hard this morning. Not everyday-hard, but extraspecial-hard, I've been emotional lately and not for the usual reasons. My husband's coming home soon from three years in Kuwait, and transitions are terrifying. I'd rather do anything than transition, and I'm trying to just box that up, put the thought away and seal it with a piece of duct tape, deal with it when I know when his flight will come in. That's how I usually do things, wait until they're right in front of me, then take a deep breath. And GO.
Somehow I know that won't work this time and so I've been trying. Delving into it, then coming up for air and trying to tread water as long as I can. Look a dragonfly. Look a kid giggling. Look it's time for a snack. Get out, dry off in the sun, we'll come again to this pretty deep pool because you love it and so mama can think.
Dude, mama's afraid to think, honestly, and don't think I haven't noticed the fact I'm almost forty and what does that mean anyway. Something. I don't want to call it mid-life but what else are you going to do with a spade but call it that?
So what was right in front of me this morning was Everett, who's going to a weeklong overnight camp. He's going for the second time in his life, but last time I was there to drop him off and say goodbye. This time I had plans -- this event -- and called his babysitter to do it. Called again this morning to figure out what time he could pick Everett up, only the babysitter was at the beach. OK so then 'never.'
It's the last minute and of course Emily can help and he rides his bike down the hill with his backpack stuffed and his sleeping bag bungeed to his back rack. He's awesome. He's awesome, and proud, and I think everything's going to be fine but evidently when he gets dropped off with his health forms and instructions as who's to pick him up in his pocket he neglects to say his health forms and instructions are in his pocket and I have the mic in my hand, about to start hours of color commentary in front of the Portland Art Museum on this emotional, world-changing event I helped dream up and put together and I get a phone call. "Can you come over and sign me in?" he asks. I have to say "no can we figure something out?" and evidently this is when he starts crying. I don't hear about any of this until later.
I've been crying too, happy tears, at how amazing it is, all these families on bikes riding up the hill past the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Oregon Historical Society and to Park Avenue, this storied most elegant part of the Portland Park Blocks, and we're here in this big sweeping gesture of, I don't know, this is normal or maybe actually this is AWESOME! and now I have to shut all this emotion down and be present. Just breathe.
So I take my breaths and I do my emceeing thing and I keep thinking about Everett. I miss a call and I call back (no answer) and Monroe gets lost for almost an hour (but he's here the whole time) and I'm feeling like the world is expanding, collapsing, expanding again. I'm part of this amazing event and yet I totally blew it as a solo mom and I won't be one for much longer and the world of my emotions is pulsing around my head and I'm a failure and a success all at once.
I think at some point I hold my breath and I wonder if I've dived again, or if I'm just imagining a dive. How long can I hold my breath. How long can I put off thinking. I don't know. Can I try?
I tell myself, "Just breathe." But I don't know if I'm ready yet. Maybe I can hold it a little longer.
Everything seems wrong this week, my clothes for starters. I want to pack it up and put it all away, no not put away, give away, throw it in a bin that isn't going to require anything of me ever again. I'll keep the wool that's not too holey, I'll keep the strappy sandals and those pretty dresses, but the rest of it? Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I come home to my house and smell the sticky warmth of figs ripe and overripe, hanging from the tree like bags of gold or bleeding, ripped-out hearts. I eat some and leave the rest to flout their gore. Pour it loose, there, you fruits, spill your guts. No more than I'd do. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I've been writing the wrong things, not for the moment untrue things but not right either, typing and penciling and reading over it again and thinking, "oh how I get to the heart of it" and opening myself or not opening myself and anyway wanting to erase it all away. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
It's not just all this I want to change, but the beating of my lungs and the size of my heart and the way it runs around outside my body. Not just my heart, my brain too, darting off in separate directions with my body slinging itself around behind it. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I diagnose myself; I toss the diagnoses, scoffing; I run too fast and have to walk partway back, panting, shaking my head, letting the breath catch ragged in my chest to blot out the burn below. Can I live all in the red? Can I sew myself back together? Time to change everything?
"Change everything except your loves," the writer says. I don't even know if that's right either but I look for things with which I can fall in love safely: summer, friendships, black coffee, ice cream cones with blackberries and that burn of heat that spark your tongue, children who smile at you with wide brown eyes, protagonists in novels, boys battling with swords, pedaling my bicycle slowly around my city, red and white paper lanterns hanging in a string, with tails. I won't change that, not these right things, no way.
Take back the blog! I'm going to reclaim my storytelling, set a trail through the jungle of emotion and fear under which I've been living. Say this: flash it. Flash this life. Bits of nonfiction, to take back this space, starting now.
Monroe at the border of five and six.
We buy him a new helmet but that doesn't change the way he rides, fists pulling at the handlebar grips like he might pull the bike apart, leaning into it not with fear or competition but with the intensity of love.
It is Wednesday, six days before his birthday when he learns to ride, learns by repetition, back and forth dozens of times on the sidewalk of the street near our house, on the sidewalk near the library. By afternoon he has earned his miles in the street. By Sunday he rides nine miles. Falls exhausted over his handlebars. Then at dusk demands to ride again.
It is not his only 11 mile day in his first week. On his birthday he rides 12. And everywhere he goes he pulls his handlebars, leaning over and talking to himself and singing, making up stories, saying sounds just for their joy. I watch him pedal behind me over my shoulder; I watch him beside me from the corner of my eye; I watch him in front of me, pulling and winding and weaving, everything about him defining a state of ecstacity.
By his birthday we are, all four of us, on bikes; by his birthday we are (as he says) a "team," and on July 10th when I must put him on the back of my bike again he slumps, spent, with the moony look of a new, true, love.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
peek into the past . I could not stop . a response to criticism . september 24 . 2012
>Because I could not stop to listen to your appeals to feminism, to ideals, to economics, I canned tomatoes.