On Letting Go

 

The doorman at the building has a list of guests for my friend’s party. He scans the list, looking for my name and I look it over, too. My eye trips over the name of my ex-girlfriend, and my stomach drops to somewhere below my navel.

 

I have known that I would run into her eventually, have felt the tingle of premonition as I walked past her neighborhood. I am half longing for and half dreading our meeting. I feel totally unprepared for it.

 

For the next several hours of the party I’m on edge, drinking beer in a workmanlike fashion, building up the anesthetic buffer of mild drunkenness. Each time the door opens I look over to see if she has come in, my muscles tensing. I know that I will feel her presence like a blow. The anticipation of discomfort is worse than discomfort itself.

 

I miss the actual moment of her entry. I turn toward the door, and she has materialized there in a zone of absolute clarity. It is as if the air around her allows for some sort of super-acuity of focus – all of her features stand out in crisp delineation and the rest of the room blurs softly. I am assailed by the details of her. The fit of her pants, the shape of her rib cage, the profile of her body. She stands like a bow being put under tension, a curve straining forward, rib cage sitting atop the hips thrust forward, her thighs curving back.

 

I abandon the conversation that I am in, and go to her. We hug, and she wants to know how I am and how my trip was. I return the appropriate banal responses automatically – I’m fine, my trip was good – but I feel like I’m reciting my lines from inside a washing machine. One with a really clear glass door.

 

I look into her dark eyes, the irises almost black, merging imperceptibly into the pupils. They dance a little as we speak, but it is not a dance of welcome. Her eyes perform the wary footwork of a fencer, and she holds her smiling features composed before herself, like a shield.

 

Although we parted months ago, both willingly, I have still not really managed to let go. It is the same with all of my exes. There is a part of me that refuses to believe that I have lost access to them. In my mind, all of my former girlfriends have gone off to the Land of the Lotus Eaters. There they remain, warmed and softened in the golden light of re-creative memory, their arms open and beckoning to me. They are always waiting for me there.

 

It is disconcerting to meet them in their real lives. They have moved on, following the meanderings of their own lives, changing, evolving. They are married, with children, happy, divorced, lonely, successful, beleaguered. I am very close with some of them, and I’m happy to accompany them through the passages of their lives. But I feel the tension between my relationship with them as they are, the selves that have evolved and that I know are real, and my relationship to them as they are in the Land of the Lotus Eaters and that my heart refuses to believe might be illusion.

 

Back again in my apartment, I am awash in the flotsam of my history. I open my desk drawers and see the things I don’t really want to keep, but that I could never bring myself to discard – small electronic items, old floppy disks, correspondences, business cards. It’s not the objects themselves that I hold onto so fixedly, but the intentions and fantasies that have become married to them. I can’t bring myself to toss the broken headphones because they are wed to Tom the Composer. Discarding business cards feels like discarding the person that gave me the card, and worse, discarding the person that I intended to become when I collected the card.

 

I don’t want to jettison all those Toms-that-might-have-been, but it takes so much effort to keep them all in suspended animation. I feel the dreadful weight of the accumulated fantasies in those desk drawers. A small kind of panic seizes me as I think, “Sooner or later I’m going to have to deal with all this…” and quickly close the drawer.

 

How much simpler it seems to flee to a place with an empty desk!

 

Of course I know that wherever I go, the desk drawers will inevitably fill up with new items of the same ilk as the old. The hordes of Toms-that-might-have-been will attach themselves to new objects, and call for nourishment. They drain me, those parasites. Holding on to the past takes effort, as does holding on to any weight.

 

It is time, I think, to begin the practice of letting go. So I open the drawers and begin deciding whether each item is something I need right now.

 

I pick up a stack of business cards in my drawer. I look at each card, remembering the person that gave me that card, and the person that I was when I received it. I let the cards fall into the wastebasket by my desk. When the basket is full, I carry it to the garbage chute in the hall. I tilt the basket up, and the cards tumble down the chute. They make the soft sound of fluttering wings as they fall away from me.

 

 


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Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

n the window of my apartment, there is a little fountain that I made. It’s not hard to tell that I made it, because it consists of a fair sized white pasta bowl filled with smooth black rocks, sitting on top of a cement pedestal. A small fish tank pump is buried under the rocks, and sends water burbling up over them.

When I came back to my apartment after travelling, the fountain was turned off, and all the rocks inside were dusty and dry. The larger rocks were streaked with white precipitate. My brother, Christopher, had been staying in my apartment while I traveled. He turned the fountain off because the constant sound of the running water made him want to pee.

I looked into the fountain and saw a rock that I had forgotten about. It’s a brown round rock, about the size of a big yoyo. It fits into the hand with a nice weighty solidity. Carved on it is the word TRUST.

I bought that rock last Christmas. I hadn’t set out to buy that rock. I had been commissioned by my sister Anne to go and find a rock with the word LISTEN on it for my Dad. Dad had asked for a rock with the word LISTEN on it as a Christmas gift, something that he could put on his desk to remind him to pay attention to those around him. Christopher suggested that the best way to use that rock with the word LISTEN on it would be to wing it at my Dad’s head. That would probably get him to LISTEN alright.

I finally found a store that sold rocks with words carved on them. (New York really does have everything). But when I found Dad’s LISTEN rock, I also saw this TRUST rock, and realized that it was for me. This is how my Christmas shopping usually goes – one for you, one for me. On a good day one for you, two for me.

When I found the TRUST rock, I had just quit work and didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I was going through career guidance books, and helpful men were trying to coach me on attaining my next set of goals. But a number of women I had talked to who went through transitions told me “just do whatever the hell you want to, and your next path will make itself clear.” I really liked that advice and had resolved to take it, but I had trouble trusting that things would unfold right. I brought the rock as a sort of prayer made physical, a prayer for me to let go of trying to figure out the endpoint and to simply trust the process of change.

On my trip, I tried as hard as to refrain from looking for a “big picture” or a worthy ultimate goal. I tried to stay as present to all of my experiences as possible, not projecting into the future or dwelling in the past. Well, you’ve had the dubious pleasure of following me through the journey, so you’ll know that I was not smashingly successful. I will probably always have a greater affinity with Professor Monkey and Iron Karl than I do with a true free spirit.

But when I got back to my apartment and saw the dusty streaked rock lying in the unused fountain, I realized that the even though I was back in my old digs, the journey had brought me to a new place. The prayer of that rock had been answered – I have a lot more trust in this process than I did when I left.

I don’t trust that “everything will work out.” I figure that right now, I am in a kind of blessed oasis, and that sooner or later, life will lower the boom and I’ll be smacked a good one, and left reeling. I’ve seen too many good people get served up horribly undeserved things to expect that life will always be good if I just have the right attitude. But I do trust that being open to change, being confused and unsure and flexible, is in harmony with the nature of this world. I trust that if we have any purpose here, it must include being who we are in the places that we find ourselves. I trust that if I remain in the joyful, painful present, that if remain open to the experiences of my life without the need to analyze from whence they came, and control whither they are going, then I may just manage to remain alive until I die.

Thanks for accompanying me on this journey.


Into the Vortex

I’m up in the Great Smokey Mountains in a high mountain valley called Cade’s Cove. I’m peering into the Primitive Baptist church, a very plain white clapboard structure. The interior is entirely unadorned, just raw brown wood planks. Ranks of plain pews fill the rough floor from the altar to the door. There is a congregation inside singing a plodding hymn, but with harmony and a tired kind of fervor. I stick my head a little further into the doorway, and an elderly woman catches sight of me. She motions for me to come inside, indicating that there is a place to sit. I decline, and an elderly man also gestures at where I can sit. But I don’t want to sit there, because although I like to hear the singing, I think that I’m going to like it for about as long as a Charles Currault montage, which means about 45 seconds before I cut away to a new scene. I don’t want to be boxed in between Ma and Pa Kettle when I’m ready to leave.

I’m just turning away from the church when I hear a loud bang and rattle, as if someone had hit a big metal tool box with a sledgehammer. I crane my head around looking for whence the sound came. I see a white van which seems to be parked outside of the parking lot, at an odd angle, backed up to a tree. It looks a lot like mine. I realize in a hot rush that it is mine. I’m horrified. This is the second time this trip that I have been rear ended by a tree.

The first time was in Sedona, Arizona about a month ago. To reach Sedona from the high mountains of Flagstaff, you descend down Oak Creek Canyon, a narrow wooded canyon of the eponymous oak. The road swerves slowly, like a water slide for the elderly. At the foot of the canyon, the landscape opens up and suddenly there are massive red and white rock formation set all around, domes and altars and cathedral spires, a completely different landscape from the cool mountains 50 miles to the north. I arrived at Sedona at sunset, which is its time of greatest beauty. The rock formations glowed in the red light of sunset, and I had to pull the van over to watch the day flare to an end.

The town of Sedona unfortunately does not share the beauty of its surroundings. The main strip is given over to the sale of Native American and New Age tchotchkes . On either side of the highway, the town sprawls in low buildings and cookie cutter retirement developments. Luckily, the town is hemmed in by National Forest, so development is limited in the extent of its sprawl.

Sedona is a place of oddly mixed elements, a stew that has not cooked all the way, so that the flavors remain unmerged. There is the tourist trade, so obvious on the main strip. Then there are the retirees, tucked away in the developments of identical adobe shades. There is also a strong hiking and mountain biking contingent. And finally, there are the rainbow people, occupying a low place on the totem pole, except for where they bring in the tourist trade.

The rainbow people are the New Agers, hippies, mystics and crystal healers. Transient rainbow people used to drift through Sedona in greater numbers, from what I understand. They used to camp in the National Forest. Out west, National Forests often allow for dispersed camping, which means you can camp anywhere you want as long as you are more than ¼ mile away from a main road. A lot of transient rainbow people camped in the woods close to Sedona. The powers-that-be decided that there were too many of them in the woods, so they mandated that camping was illegal within about 5 miles of Sedona. And the Forest service has allowed the dirt roads leading to the nearest camp sites to become badly deteriorated. I drove on one to get to a hike, and I eventually had to stop when I encountered potholes of more than a foot. To put that into a class/lifestyle distinction – a VW van could not drive that road, but a Ford Explorer could.

I camped in Sedona in an RV park of modest size and scruffy appearance right at the mouth of the canyon and the head of the strip. The icy waters of Oak Creek lapped the back of the RV lot. There were a number of RV’s in the park that had not moved in years. People who lived in them were long term residents. One woman I spoke with said she’d been there for six years. She had been in the same parking spot for four years. Her RV was a little tin apartment, a vehicle mostly in theory. But now the RV Park has been zoned for high density development, and the owner is trying to sell to a developer who will make a cluster of small stores which will help feed the aching endless need for more tchotchkes. And so the transients, even if they’re only theoretically transitory will be moved further out of town. Perhaps one day the town will set up a little museum to the Rainbow people showing dioramas of how they used to live in the area.

One diorama would certainly have to do with energy vortexes. (The town already hands out maps to the energy vortexes in the visitor center.) An energy vortex is place where energy is focused so that it is much more intense than in other places, and affects the physical/mental processes of people in and around the vortex. While I was in Sedona, I did my own investigation of energy vortexes. I climbed up Cathedral Rock, a great dome of rock topped with towering spires. When I got to the top of the dome and clambered to a spot between the spires, I found myself greatly afflicted with vertigo. I could not stand up and look straight up the spires. On another hike, I walked into a canyon. As I rounded a turn in the path near a great dead Douglas Pine, I suddenly felt extremely heavy. The sensation was like walking with heavy clothes on through a still body of water. I passed that spot twice on my hike, and both times I had the same sensation.

But I think the clincher was probably my experience with the van. It was morning and I had just had breakfast. I got in the van, ready for a hike, and backed up out of my spot. I twisted around in the seat, looking over my shoulder as I backed up. I looked through the rear window at the tree behind me. I was in the process of backing up and looking at the tree when there was a loud bang, and it was clear that I had just hit the tree that I was looking at. I jumped out and ran around to examine the damage – cracked bumper, dented rear panel, crumpled license plate. I looked around, and all the other campers, their attention momentarily arrested by the loud bang, were already turning back to whatever business was at hand. This was hard to fathom, since I felt that my day was so dramatically altered that it would take a while to become accustomed to its new aspect. But I guess the misfortunes of others quickly fade in our perceptions while our own linger for a long while.

Now one way to explain my accident is that the tree was growing at an angle, the bottom part of the trunk that I hit being about a foot closer to the van than the top part of the tree which I was looking at. Another is that I am a boob and should not be driving, but I reject that one out of hand. I prefer to believe that the accident was the result of my driving into an energy vortex that day, and that the van was drawn into a non-linear acceleration that drew it precipitously into the tree. Maybe the loud bang was the sound of the vortex collapsing and disappearing. This is an important part of the theory because for the duration of my stay I did not see any other vehicle drawn into that particular vortex.

The second time the van leapt rearward into a tree, there in the parking lot of the Primitive Baptist Church, was the result of my being in a little too much of a hurry. I had parked the car and jumped out, only intending to glance at the church. In my thoughtless haste, I set the emergency brake, but neglected to take the car out of drive and put it in park. I was not aware that a car in drive would roll backwards. Now I know that.

Other tourists spoke to me after I had driven the van back into the parking lot and was surveying the damage – heavily dented hatch with the window entirely blown out, door and rear panel creased, bumper shattered. They tried to comfort me and point out bright spots. I was certainly glad that the pilotless van had managed to miss all the other vehicles in the parking lot, and I thank God that it didn’t hit a person. And there was no damage to the frame or motor, so I could still drive it. One helpful woman said that I should also be glad that my wife wasn’t there. Because if I had a wife, and she were there, she’d be yelling at me.

It was only much later when I reflected on this that I wondered why I couldn‘t have been supplied with a non-existent wife that might comfort me. Or maybe one that would have been driving and would have put the damn thing in park in the first place.

Halloween and the Day of the Dead

Sometimes, the days organize themselves. Halloween became Elvis Presley day. The night before Halloween I drove up the Natchez trace and into Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The Natchez Trace Parkway traverses beautiful rolling countryside, the trees now changing colors. I hadn’t expected to see colors on the trees so far south, but here were sumacs and maples blazing red, the greens of other hardwoods shading into browns and yellows. As I drove, I thought of how lucky I’d been on this trip to have caught so many different landscapes in beautiful times of year, to have been in the Northwest at the peak of Summer, in the Sierras and the mountains of the Southwest as the Autumn burst into gold, and now in the uplands of the South watching the lingering Summer move into scarlet and brown. The van has had a succession of beautiful landscapes for dance partners, each bedecked in a set of colors that show it off to striking advantage, each with its own sway and rhythm.

I arrived in Tupelo after dark, and drove around attempting to find the center of town, but was unsuccessful. I did find the camping area at Lake Elvis Presley, however, and drove the van up there. I did not put my envelope of money in the box at the gate, as I often neglect to, preferring to deal with the payment on my way out. This time, I was waylaid by the park ranger on my way out of the bathroom. He was a stringy white haired man wearing a Lake Elvis Presley Park Ranger tee shirt that I immediately coveted. He quivered with indignation. A small dog standing on the seat of his pickup truck quivered, too, whether with indignation I could not tell.

“You didn’t put your money in the honor box!” the park ranger cried.

“No,” I admitted.

“You’re supposed to put your money in the honor box if you want to stay here,” he said, overwrought, and implying, I felt, that I had brought dishonor on myself, and all my kin.

“Okay.”, I said.

“Okay what?”.

Though I was tempted to say “Okay, sir,” I merely said “Okay, I’ll stay”, and gave him the $13 dollars required to camp there. Only a little mollified, he left me chastened and quivered back to whatever ambush in which he lurked, waiting for other scofflaws and dastards who might fail in the timely use of the honor box.

The next day I drove down to the Elvis Presley birthplace, a tiny two room house, really not more than a tidy shack. It would not open for another several hours and I attempted to find anything else amusing to do in Tupelo. Failing at it, I drove out of town to Memphis and Graceland, leaving the two interior rooms of Elvis’ birthplace unviewed.

Graceland is a pretty modest structure for a mansion. It’s a three or four bedroom place with stone walls and a couple of white columns out front. But for young Elvis out of a two room shack in Tupelo, an adolescent just cresting into manhood, it must have appeared a shining example of upper middle class solidity and respectability, the very symbol of wealth and ease. Elvis was 22 when he bought it and moved in with his parents.

I drifted through Graceland with my audio tour tape player excitedly spouting details. The décor of Graceland is largely 60’s and 70’s, which is to say outlandish. But just as in the Liberace museum, it was the video that suddenly made Elvis real for me. The video was of Elvis giving a news conference on returning from the army. In the video he’s twenty four, he’s back in Graceland and at ease and – I didn’t expect this – he’s beautiful. I’ve seen many handsome men, but only a few beautiful ones, and young Elvis is one of them. Mostly it’s his smile. He looks at the camera, a little slow, maybe sullen, his eyes hooded like two dark storm clouds, and suddenly the smile breaks over his face and it’s like a glorious shaft of light from behind those clouds. It’s a smile so playful and infectious that you just want to go with him and do whatever fun thing that he has in mind. That’s the thing with young Elvis – he looks a little rebellious, but really he’s all about having fun. He’s not Brando or Jimmy Dean, born to suffer.

On the grounds of Graceland are scattered remnants of hobbies impetuously embraced and quickly discarded – slot cars, target shooting, racquet ball, horseback riding. The impression I got was that Elvis never moved much past the surge and giddiness of late adolescence or early adulthood. All the décor is in a style that made the teenagers in the tour groups say “cool!”. And his later costumes with their capes and sequins and American eagles have the bravura of adolescence.

Maybe this is why late Elvis seems so sad to me. Early Elvis is joyful, but late Elvis in the preposterous jumpsuits seems vague. Is it that his flowering young manhood was a happy combination of factors that all peaked synergistically during his time of beauty, and that later simply got out of synch with one another? Did drugs and the isolation of fame lead him out into some personal wilderness? Did he simply never let go of adolescence even when he reached middle age and could no longer hold onto it? I don’t know, but I’m glad that for a while we had young Elvis, gold lame Elvis, the joyful and sexy Sun King.

The day after my Halloween at Graceland it rained and misted. I’ve been lucky with weather this trip and I’ve rarely been rained on, but for the Day of the Dead, rain felt appropriate. I did not expect to find myself on the battlefield of Shiloh that day. I had driven out of the Buford Pusser home and museum and saw the signs for Shiloh, and so I turned the van that way.

I went into the visitor center and looked at the film that they showed, noting that General Grant seemed to have sported a beard that he purchased in a novelty store. I’ve been in several visitor centers in National Parks that show movies, and they often feel ironic. “Look”, the movie says “Here’s what you could see just outside the door, if only you were to leave the theater.” Of course, in the case of Death Valley it was so hot outside that going out of the theater meant baking your head like a potato, so staying inside in the cool dark made sense. And at Shiloh the landscape does not reveal the drama that played out for two days 137 years ago, so the film helped to set the stage.

The rain fell off and on, and white mist played over the wide meadows as I drove over the battlefield. The trees were turning rust and yellow and the landscape is rolling and graceful, hushed and a little melancholy in the rain. Here, in April of 1862, an army of 40,000 Confederates launched an attack on an army of about 43,000 Federals. They caught the Federals off guard, still in their tents, and pushed them back. Some of the Federals found a defensive position in a sunken road, and lay there firing at the Confederates. The rebels charged through a peach orchard, and were repulsed again and again by Union fire, the blossoms of the peaches falling on the bodies of the dead and dying. A shallow pond lies near the sunken road and wounded from both sides crawled there. I don’t know whether the truce of wild animals around watering holes held there. I do know that the tour says that they made there way there and they bled together and that the water turned red with their blood.

The fighting around the hornet’s nest, as the sunken road came to be called, went on all day, tirteen separate assaults surging across the fields, repulsed. Finally the Confederated lined up all the cannon they could muster – 62 pieces – about 300 yards away from the sunken road. They shelled the Federal troops until they retreated, and then they captured several thousand of them.

With that, they pushed up to where the Federal troops had formed a final defensive line. With daylight failing they waited for the next day to launch their final attack. But in the night Union reinforcements arrived, swelling their numbers, and at dawn Grant launched a counterattack that took back the land the Union had lost and forced the Confederates to retreat. In the course of two days , the same piece of land had changed hands twice, and both armies ended up about where they started. Except that in killed, missing, and wounded the Federals took about 13,000 casualties and the Confederates about 10,000.

It was warm after the battle, so General Grant ordered the dead to be buried quickly, the Union troops and the Confederate troops placed into separate mass graves. After the end of the war, in 1866, the Union troops were disinterred and placed into individual graves in the National Cemetery at the top of the hill. They left the Southerners where they lay.

I walked through the cool drizzle to the marker for the fallen Confederates. The sign said that there were about 700 men buried there. The drifting curtains of heavy mist muted the sounds of the place, and I placed a small rock on top of their collective tombstone. It was a lava rock that I had picked up someplace in Idaho, brick red and jagged, bubbles and pockmarks bearing witness to the sudden violence of its birth.

I drove back out of the park and toward Nashville where friends waited, and a comfortable bed.


My Opinion of the Pinyon

“Step Away From the Door”. The voice rings out authoritatively. It is the voice of the Armed Officer, a voice at a drug bust, as if a phalanx of SWAT team members are about to spring through the door following a battering ram, guns drawn. I retreat a bit back into the darkness and the door swings open. A butch and pressed young officer is framed in the light, immaculate, each hair in place, a white ascot at his neck. His gun hand swings up from his hip. Folded between the first two fingers is a copy of the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Guide (South Rim version)

I’m not looking for the visitor’s guide. I’m leaving Grand Canyon and it’s around 10 o’clock at night. All the booths at the entrance of the park are closed, the blinds drawn. The lights are still on, though, so I knocked on the door to ask my question. That’s when Johnny Law played jack-in-the-box, popping out of the booth. (What was he doing in there anyway? Was he alone?) What I want to know is whether it’s hunting season in the Kaibab National Forest. “It is”, says the Immaculate Enforcer. “Bow or rifle?”, I ask. I’m concerned, because I want to spend tomorrow gathering pinyon nuts, and I don’t want to be shot while I forage under a tree. “Bow, elk”, he responds. That’s okay, I figure bow hunters have to get a good look at their targets, and won’t shoot until they’re close. I’m pretty safe from bow hunters.

I’ve been fascinated by foraging for a long time. I’ve gathered crabapples in Cambridge, plums in California, clams, mussels and oysters on Long Island. My obsession with wild foods followed me on this trip. The faithful reader will remember me slurping on sea urchins and oysters back in British Columbia. I’ve also snacked on elk thistle, salmonberries, gooseberries, thimbleberries, huckleberries, manzanita berries, prickly pears, butter clams, and now pinyon nuts. There seems to me something profoundly satisfying about eating food that the earth offers up free for the taking.

On Cortes Island, at Hollyock, where I first studied t’ai chi, we practiced on the soft sand that the ebb tide had exposed. One of the students, Alexander, dug his feet into the sand, unearthing thin shelled butter clams. He picked them up, cracking them with his teeth, prying apart the shell to eat the clam. He looked like a great happy slow moving martial arts otter. Inspired, I dug up some myself and ate them later with tabasco.

Foraging is not without its risks. When I picked prickly pear in Zion National Park, I tried to remove all the little spines from the fruit as I removed its skin. But my patience warred with my desire for its cool purple flesh, and lost. I ended up with several small spines in the corner of my mouth, and one stuck right up in the roof of my mouth. I felt like I was in a nature film – “The foolish raccoon has learned his lesson. He’ll never try eating those prickly pears again.” Close up of Tom trying to pull a prickly pear spine out of his mouth. Of course, unlike the raccoon, I haven’t learned my lesson. I would try to eat prickly pears again – they taste good. I just have to figure out the right technique to clean them.

Back on Read Island, a small Island off the coast of British Columbia, where the Kellers lived in their lodge, I was setting out on a hike. I asked Ralph Keller which of the berries that I might find along the way were edible. “This is a very benevolent environment,” he told me. “Anything that tastes good, you can eat.” What an incredible place! It’s the sort of environment in harmony with a one year old’s view of the world – experience the world by trying to consume it. Meditating on that later, I wrote a long letter about it, which you should all probably be grateful that I edited out of existence.

But like the ghost of an ill-digested meal, it has come back to haunt us all, so here’s the gist of it: When we first enter the world, we assume that we can eat anything that we encounter. But we’re guided by our parents, who instruct us on what we should and should not eat. Spit that out, it’s bad for you, eat this, it’s good for you. As we grow older, we internalize their voices, and form an ego that helps protect us as we make our way through the world. The ego is prejudgment – it allows us to avoid pitfalls, because it already knows how things are. But that protective prejudgment can prevent us from experiencing the singularity of each moment. . The ego that protects us also ends up insulating us. The protective shell becomes constricting, deadening. Perhaps like a lobster, or a crab we must crack that shell, shed it, and stand vulnerable before the world in order to grow to our full size. (A naturalist’s aside – did you know that the female blue crab can only mate in the brief interval when she has shed her shell and before the new one has hardened? When you’re eating softshell crab, you may be in the act of consuming a frustrated virgin.)

It’s clear to me that part of my journey has been about trying to, break through the barriers of my own shell and get in more direct contact with my experience of the world. And part of that process is learning to trust that there is more benevolence and abundance in the universe than the fearfully protective ego expects.

Which leads us back to the unexpected abundance of the pinyon. I’d been on the lookout for pinyons ever since I arrived in the Southwest. I knew they grew in the area, but I didn’t know what they looked like. My hikes around the canyonlands became in part exploration of the different kinds of pine trees and their cones. Mostly, I found cones that the squirrels had already gotten to, and the few tiny nuts I found seemed like an awful lot of work for very little meat. Imagine me wandering by the side of a multicolored canyon, rock spires stretching out into the distance. I’m not looking at the canyon. I’m looking at a half eaten pine cone.

It was when I got to the Kaibab plateau that I finally came across a pinyon pine nut. The cone of the pine had flared wide open, and there sitting in the open cone was a seed about the size of a pistachio nut. I pulled it out of the cone, and cracked it between my teeth. The flesh was yellowish white, the color of teeth, and the flavor very much like that of italian pignoli. I pulled seeds out of the cones, my fingers growing sticky with the pine pitch. I got pine pitch on my lips, my clothes, the steering wheel of the car. The flavor of the pitch got mixed in with that of the pine nuts. Turpentine pesto. Later, as I left the North Kaibab National Forest, I stopped in the visitor center. There I saw a picture of an Indian woman gathering pinyon nuts under a pinyon pine. Under the tree, not in the cones! What a concept!

I stopped by the roadside, and sure enough, there were the nuts lying under trees, brown as coffee beans. I decided to spend a morning gathering by the south rim of the canyon. (That’s why I stopped in to talk to Johnny Law in the entrance booth.) I camped in the National Forest that night, and in the morning, I drove up to the National Forest Ranger station to talk about the good places to gather pinyon nuts. The ranger at the desk was very thin until she stood up, when she revealed a posterior that was clearly a two-chair model. She was quite helpful, though. She told me that it wasn’t bow hunting season for elk any more, rather it was the opening of the four day junior rifle hunting season. Kids under 18 with rifles hunting for elk. And me, a 185 pound mammal rooting around under the trees. Perhaps the National Forest wasn’t the best placed to be foraging. I drove back up to the National Park to ask if I could gather there.

The rangers at the entrance booths were all Indian women. When I asked about gathering pinyon nuts, they became quite vague. They turned their round, smooth faces to me, blasé. No, they weren’t sure if I could gather. Maybe only Indians could gather. Maybe I would get a citation if I did. I drove back to the National Forest ranger station, where my palefaced Demeter was unhappy with that answer. She called the National Park and talked with the head ranger. Yes, it was okay for me to gather, as long as it was for non-commercial purposes, and I only took a gallon bag worth. By the way, she said, I had come at a very propitious time. Pinyon pines seemed to produce in an eight year cycle, and I had come at just the right season in a very good year.

So I drove back into the National Park, passing through a different booth this time, avoiding my unhelpful native companions. I parked by the side of the road, and walked a little way into the woods, looking for pines with a lot of nuts scattered underneath. The sun grew warmer as I squatted, scooping up the nuts and tossing them in my bag. The warm dry pine needles exhaled their perfume, and occasionally birds chattered at me, reminding me to leave a few nuts on the ground for them, too.

I could see how gathering pinyon nuts might traditionally be woman’s work. It requires nimble fingers and patience, both of which women tend to have in greater abundance than do ham-handed men. It’s also great work to do while chatting. But most of all, I think that women are better at accepting the idea of abundance, that the earth may at times freely offer its fruits for our nourishment. Men too often seem compelled to go out and pursue abundance, not recognizing that they are standing in its midst.

After about three hours, I had filled my bag, and I drove out of the park. Since then, I’ve stopped to gather pinyon nuts several more times. I always find gathering the nuts satisfying. I’m a three-year-old at a really easy Easter egg hunt. I like to snack on the pinyon nuts as I drive, cracking them between my teeth, extracting the meat and flicking the shells out of the car window.

Ask me for some when you see me. I’ll be happy to share – they aren’t really mine anyway. I just found them lying there in the pine needles, warmed by the sun. Here, try some. They’re delicious.


Fun With Iron Karl

Iron Karl, the Fascist Tour Director, spread the map out before him and checked off all the stops that it would simply not do to miss. Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona. Iron Karl knows just how things are supposed to run, and will accept no less. It is Iron Karl that seizes control of your Dad on a family vacation and will not let him stop the car so that any of the kids can pee. Iron Karl wants the journey to run on time.

Unfortunately for me, Iron Karl sat on my shoulder for a week or so on this leg of my trip. I drove from Las Vegas around the north shore of Lake Mead, briefly through Arizona and up into the painted rock country of Utah. The change of scenery from Arizona and Nevada to Utah is astounding. All of a sudden green hills rear up, their breast torn away to reveal red and white striations of rock. Although twilight was coming on, Iron Karl grimly kept the van pointed at Zion. But my back was getting sore from a long day of driving, and I persuaded him that we should stop at a state park campground.

In Zion, it was Iron Karl that goaded me up the 8 mile round trip to Observation Point, even though my back was feeling sore. Usually, Professor Monkey is my companion on hikes. He chatters about the plants, flowers, and birds. He wants to know their names. He wonders about future hikes and past hikes. He brings along disembodied friends, lovers, family and induces me to hold long dialogs with them as I walk. But the good Professor is easy enough to shut up – I can usually simply try to focus on exactly what I am seeing and experiencing, and the Monkey will be quiet and look, too, if only for a moment.

Not so Iron Karl. Once Karl knew that my back was not feeling right, it became a contest of wills. “Look,” said Iron Karl “You’ve already come this far. Surely you can go a little farther. It wouldn’t do to come all the way to Zion and miss the view from Observation Point.” So on he drove me, through canyons of twisted and tortured red sandstone, over paths chipped into the sheer sides of white cliffs, and the walk became less and less about the dizzying views down the Canyon, and more about if and when I should turn back. I made it all the way to the top, and I took a lovely picture that does not reveal my discomfort. I am sure that Iron Karl was pleased by the picture. He collects momentos the way a boy scout collects merit badges. For him, every trip comes with a checklist. It matters most that all the items are checked off in sequence and on time.

After I returned from my hike, back tight and painful, I stopped by the visitor center. There I saw a van with some familiar looking bumper stickers. Then I realized that the van was familiar, too. It belonged to Adam, a new friend from Burning Man (for you cross-referencers, he’s the one that said “Look, we’re in a Dali painting” in the letter “Lightly Singed“) I left a note on his windshield, and returned to my campsite where I rested in the back of the van, reading, and then soaked in the icy waters of the Virgin River. In the cool of the evening, Adam drove up, still clad in his outfit for mountain biking. For a minute, I had to hate him for his physical well-being. But he was kind, and drove me over to the Pah Tempe hotsprings for a soak, and even let me ride lying down on the way back. I spent the next day at Pah Tempe, soaking in the sulpherous waters, doing a little t’ai chi, and my back recovered quickly.

After his day off at Pah Tempe, Iron Karl drove the two of us from Zion to Bryce Canyon, which is about as fanciful a place as you can imagine. The Indian name for it was something like “Valley where the red rocks stand like men”, which is pretty accurate. The canyon is actually the side of a plateau scoured by runoff. (As I overheard one tourist say “Why it’s nothing but a big gully. You give the one behind our house a couple of million years and it will look just like this.”). The soft red and white rock is eroded down into ranks of spires called hoodoos. They look like sculptures made by dripping wet sand down out of a closed fist. It’s quite interesting to wander around in, but I found it almost too fussy. It’s nature at its most baroque.

Once again, Iron Karl took the wheel and headed us to the Grand Canyon, but here I lost him. Neither of us were expecting the Kaibab Plateau. It rises up from the endless plain of sagebrush, “a forested island in a sea of desert” (so says the visitor information center) first clad in Pinyon pine, and then Ponderosa, and golden aspen. We had hit the autumn again. The pines opened up to long green alpine meadows going brown and dry now, their sides bordered with white barked aspen, the trunks rising up thin and straight to a corona of yellow. Iron Karl was struck dumb with the beauty of the place.

Adam and I spent a few days on the North Rim, hiking around. On one hike, Iron Karl and Professor Monkey got into an unholy gleeful chorus. Iron Karl was sure that there was a “best” hike to take in order to most fully enjoy the hour leading up to sunset. Professor Monkey agreed, but started exploring the options, hinting that perhaps the hike that we were on was not the optimal one. This enraged Iron Karl. It simply will not do to be at the Grand Canyon and take a sub-optimal hike! I let Adam in on my dilemma. He was sanguine about the whole thing “I’m sure that whatever hike we take, we won’t be disappointed”. He was right, of course. As we watched, the light of the setting sun fell on Mount Hayden, a single beige sandstone finger pointing heavenwards, and that spire glowed gold to orange to red until the light failed, and the horizon was rimmed with lavender and gray.

The next day, I said goodbye to Adam, who said as he parted “Remember, there’s no right way and no wrong way”. A fitting epitaph for Iron Karl. Then I let Karl go, and went to the south rim, just because I wanted to, not because it was on the schedule. I managed to get on a mule ride the next day. The mule rides are booked months in advance, but you can put your name on a waiting list, which I did. Then I had to show up at 6:15 AM to see if I got on the ride, which just shows you how much I wanted to ride. I did not make the cut – I was the next person on the list. I hung around, looking so pitiful that the guy at the desk called up and got me a place.

When I got to the corral, the Chorus of Cautionary Grandmothers put in an appearance. They’re usually lurking in the background, fretting about the engine overheating, muttering darkly about foolish behavior that will lead to disaster. They wanted to know how I thought I’d be able to ride, me a poor cripple with a bad back. They would prefer it if I simply stood at the top of the canyon and looked in. From behind the railing. Better yet, look at it all from the cool comfortable depths of the IMax theater, just down the road. To appease them, I ate enough ibuprofen to relax an elephant, and strapped on a back support, and clambered aboard my mule “Big G”.

In reality, riding is not hard on my back, but the Chorus of Cautionary Grandmothers needed to keep on checking in for the first hour or two. But their voices faded as I sunk into the experience of riding in that amazing place. I enjoyed the feeling of being on the mule, matching my movement to his swaying, bumpy gait. Riding, you don’t have to look at your feet – that’s the mule’s job, so I looked out over the canyon drinking in the view. We descended through the white sandstone into the red shale and the vermillion something-or-other. We came out on a broad green plateau of sage and rode out to the very edge where we could look down into the dark brown schist of the gorge, the narrow sides rising up from the brown and roiled waters of the Colorado. Across from us, the canyons of the North Rim, behind us the green valley that we had descended, enfolded by sheer red cliffs surmounted with a brow of white.

It was time for lunch with my mule riding companions. I was grateful that none of them were in my head, for the time being.


Snapshots Taken At A Low Point

I had a little downtime in San Francisco. Staying with family, visiting with friends. Eating, sleeping and drinking a lot. In a way, it was a difficult stop travelling, because everybody else was in ordinary time, and I’m still in non-ordinary time. I’m not used to scheduling my day in the way everybody else does. I wanted to visit with everyone, and I wanted to leave at the same time. After two weeks I hit the road, and swooped through some very varied scenery. Here are some snapshots of my progress.

Snapshot: Rock Creek Lake

Driving South from Mono Lake, I decide to camp near the town of Tom’s Place. I pull off and begin the ascent into the Eastern Sierra. I drive around a corner and suddenly there was a hillside covered in yellow and orange quaking aspen. I have driven out of Summer of the valley straight into the Fall of the mountains. The aspen peek out from under the pines, a vibrant understory, a layer of underpainting, a bright silk scarf at the neck of a green shirt. I decide that this would be a great place to ride. I find a stable up near where I camped, and the next day, I take a four hour ride on a large black mule named Ray. I keep whistling “15 miles on the Erie Canal” unconsciously, but none of my riding companions seem to notice. Ray doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. We ascend up through the glowing stands of aspen, into the pines and long, golden/green meadows that stretch up to abrupt grey peaks, dusted now with snow. The air is crisp and thin (we’re at 10,000 feet), and the sky is blue. I reach forward and pat Ray on his warm black neck. His fur feels stubbly and dusty under my palm.

Snapshot: Below Towne Pass

I am driving up the grade into the Panamint Range, which is the steep range of mountains on the west side of Death Valley. It is early in the morning – about 8:00. There are many signs warning about the danger of overheating your engine, but I figure at this time of the year and at this time of the morning I should have no problem. The temperature gauge mounts, and I keep an eye on the temperature light. The gauge has gotten about two thirds of the way up – higher than I’ve ever had it before, but still in reasonable range I think. Suddenly, there’s a rude buzzing, and then the oil pressure light starts blinking. Oil Pressure? I was prepared for the temperature warning light, not the oil pressure light. Have I blown a seal of some sort? I pull into a turnout, my bowels clenched in anxiety. Now I am suffering not only from low oil pressure, but also from high anal pressure. I walk up the hill from the turnout, looking for some cover, but the hill offers no contours, and the vegetation is about a foot high max. Squatting up there, I would be the most conspicuous landmark on the hill, and this is a popular turnout. Other tourists pull in, looking at me questioningly. I trudge back to the van, still fully freighted.

I check the oil, and the level is fine, as is the level of coolant. I call my mechanic, but as this is Sunday, he isn’t there. I decide to let the van cool down for a while. After a half hour or so, I start it back up, and the oil light no longer flashes. Very, very slowly I ascend to the summit, and then glide down into Death Valley.

Snapshot: Salt Creek, Death Valley

The Salt Creek Interpretive Trail in Death Valley seems like an elaborate practical joke. There is a boardwalk smelling of creosote, and a series of signs describing the riverine environment and its inhabitants, only there is no water, just a baked cracked stream bed. The first sign talks about how unusual it is too find water in this environment. “Smell the water” it urges, the command seemingly an exercise in imagination. On I tromp along the boardwalk and its cheery, delusional analysis of the water that has boiled off in the heat and the creatures that have fled. I pass stalwart German tourists turning pink in the heat. I am tormented by a huge persistent horse fly. I dutifully walk the entire trail, and find only a few lizards and some mud. If this is the only home of the rare and endangered Death Valley pupfish then I can state with confidence that it is extinct.

[Note to alarmed environmentalists. I talked with a ranger at the visitor center, and he told me that although Salt Creek was dried up at this time of year, that further up the valley there is a lake that feeds the stream which still has water and pupfish in it. However any pupfish that linger in the creek and get caught in its shrinking puddles get baked to death in the mud. Death Valley pupfish en croute.]

Snapshot: Badwater

Badwater will undoubtedly rank as the low point to my trip. It sits in the middle of a huge expanse of desert, and consists of a tepid alkali puddle, and a sign which reads “Badwater, elevation –282”. The tourists hardy enough to brave the heat to come here park their cars at the turnout, then walk down the small incline to the sign. Each group or individual poses by the sign and asks the last person to pose by the sign to take their pictures. I have my picture taken there, too. It’s hard to grasp the concept of being 282 feet below sea level. I’ve been 90 feet below sea level before, but at the time I was underwater.

A woman next to me says “Oh look” and points back to the cliff behind the turnout. It is a red jumble of stone, sunscorched, the life baked out of it, and it rears over the road. Tilting my head back, I can make out a small hand lettered white sign, about 300 feet up. The sign reads “Sea level”

Snapshot: Sunset on Artist Drive

It is getting toward sunset, and I have decided to take the van down Artist Drive on the advice of a helpful ranger. The name Artist Drive conjures up the vision of black clad bohemians hunched over their pads in a small café, their fingers stained with nicotine, scribbling furiously. But Artist Drive in Death Valley is so named for the colorful rock formations that line the road. At sunset, the light mellows toward gold, and the colors in the rocks begin to glow. I come upon a large ridge – a wall of stone, flat topped, dominating the space over the road, filling the eye. The face of the wall is adorned with irregular columns, interspersed with fans of sand that have washed down. The light has caught it full on, and it reverberates with the color of a great orchestral brass chord. It is a Handel trumpet concerto with full throated organ accompaniment. It has the otherworldly glow of 19th century landscape painting. The colors of the cliff face intensify as the sun sinks toward the far mountains, gold and rose, honey and wine. I leave before the inexorable shadows creep up from the base, leaving a single illuminated peak, a shout at the end of day.

Snapshot: At the Liberace Museum

In Las Vegas, I have decided to visit the Liberace museum. I watch a video of the maestro (in one scene he is wearing sequined red white and blue hotpants for the bicentennial) and stroll past rhinestone encrusted cars and pianos, to the hall where his spangled besequined costumes are on display. Here is a cape and suit with so many beads and bangles on them that the thing weighs 200 lbs. Here is the worlds largest rhinestone. I’m totally inspired. What a flaming fag he was! And so lovable. Here was a man so totally over the top that the top disappeared, and he was in orbit, a planet unto himself.

I am reminded of a quote I heard from the gnostic gospel. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you hold back what is within you, what you hold back will destroy you.”. It’s clear that Liberace held nothing back. He was comfortable with who he was, and the whole museum is a tribute to his elaboration of himself, taking things to whatever absurd extreme he deemed appropriate. The video made it clear that he did not take himself seriously, but that he did take seriously his connection to his audience. He loved them, and wanted them to feel that love. He wandered among them like some bespangled and fruity latter day saint.

I was struck by the contrast between the Liberace museum and the Picasso Museum in Paris. The Picasso Museum is overwhelming. Room after room of masterworks in every medium imaginable. A dizzying array of styles. One has the sense of a ferocious self-confidence, and an unwillingness to stop at a point that was merely comfortable. Picasso constantly pushes forward, challenges, reinvents. Picasso moves outward, questing, aggressive. Liberace elaborates the inward, absurd, humorous, comfortable. Picasso the ardent heterosexual, Liberace the coy homosexual. Picasso the challenge to growth and development, Liberace the challenge of self-acceptance and liberation.

Somehow, it seems like it would be more fun to have Liberace as a friend than Picasso.