Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw he cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars. —Vladimir Nabokov I spent late Christmas day and the next morning with Lucia Berlin. Greg made a present […]
This morning, out early to let out the dog who seemed to have urgent need, I encountered a robin in full featherage sitting motionless beneath the bird bath. The bird didn’t so much as flinch as River and I walked past. After I put the dog back in, I kept walking out to the edge of the deck to check on the puffed red body below, holding the idea of its life in my mind, willing it to be well. It moved twice around the base of the bath, apparently trying to leverage a more secure hiding place, until finally, it laid its head down and rolled onto its side. The robin was dead.
I know animals die in the natural world but seeing the bird first thing on what otherwise promised to be a glorious late summer day, put me in a dark mood, a circumstance I admittedly didn’t help by checking the news. Before I knew it I’d gone down the rabbit hole of horrible headlines. Foremost in my sight was Hurricane Florence swamping the Carolinas, with, according to The Atlantic, “18 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill Chesapeake Bay,” followed by Typhoon Mangkhut. It’s as inconceivable as it is alarming that we’re living in the new normal of monster storms, catastrophic flooding, and a summer where much of the West was on fire—all products of human-caused climate change. Ladies and Gentlemen, the future we have been warned about has arrived.
My mind circles back to the robin. An omen? I think. I try to write my way out of my dour mood, but when that fails, I grab the leash and my camera and take River up the road. It’s aspen season in Colorado and the hills are on fire with gold light, as one stand after another ignites up and down the mountain.
But, for my mission this morning I have more than aspens in mind: I want light.
We’ve entered those precious few weeks of late summer and early fall when the world fills with what my friend Luis Urrea calls “Irish light.” It’s the time of year when the sun dips in the sky, angling at a perfect pitch so that everywhere you look landscape glows. Meadows of dried summer grass blooms a luminous golden and pale
brown, and even the waning green of plants give off their own lime light. It’s not the fresh tart green of spring, which makes me want to cartwheel across a thawing meadow, but the green of serenity, the green of a final farewell, the last hurrah.
I walk River up our road until it opens up and the sky presents us with a blue that never fails to put a smile on my face. More light. The walk does my mind good. I think of nothing but the sound of gravel beneath my feet, the sun warming my bare arms, the light that fills the world. Meditation teachers admonish us to discover an eternity in a moment. And for a moment I do. The mountain is achingly beautiful, lit like a 1950s Hollywood starlet, so that each needle, each leaf radiates as if possessed with its own small sun. Chasing light, I let the it displace deeper worries about a world in grave peril.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The natural world offers so much solace, so much beauty. While I worry about predictions and prognostications, that darker nightmares that are to come, I will always reach for beauty, always choose light. To love the thing even as it wanes is an act of heart. For me there is nothing else.
August in the mountains and I can feel summer begin to ebb. At the prairie house, I‘d be staring down the barrel of at least two more months of way-too-hot-for-me weather, while nearly 4000 feet higher this morning’s temperature registered in the upper 40s. Already […]
A month after Greg and I hauled our household 38.4 miles south and west, we are still settling in. Our couches are stuck somewhere in California and we have been walking around boxes and paint cans for weeks. Our living room serves a staging ground for unpacking and sorting, and also as the dog’s other, bigger bedroom. It’s been a month of figuring out where things will go and non-stop organizing—Doing it right, I say, as I methodically label jars of rolled oats and granola, cornmeal, three kinds of sugar and six kinds of flour for the pantry. We’ve ordered so much shelving and storage stuff, the Post Mistress in Rollinsville and UPS and Fed Ex drivers already know us by name. For the first time, even our junk drawer is getting an organizer.
I’m not sure what has gotten in to me. Although I aspire to be tidy, I am tragically messy by nature—a disaster in the kitchen by any chef’s reasonable standard and a harried house-cleaner. Too often, I run out of time and leave a pile of clothes or stacks of books and papers in my wake. My closets look like war-zones, the cupboards are a mess. But something about owning a house has me plowing new fields. In the past, whenever I walked into the squeaky clean house, I got the same goose-pimply, reverent feeling I once had in church. If only, I’d think.
Happily saddled for the first time with many rooms of my own, a persistent voice urges me to invest. So it’s been days on end of methodically folding and shelving, labeling and storing, dividing and stacking. Perhaps this is what it means to put down roots. Yesterday, Greg spent an hour planting three perennials, digging out rock and aspen roots, making room for one Snow-in-Summer I’ve carried with me since my days at the High Lake cabin. Both of us understand, I think, that our circumstances have changed. We’re courting a permanence neither of us has known.
It’s a little daunting. We alternately rejoice and freak out.
Greg openly worries about his “to-do” list while I harbor a darker dread. “The last time I was this happy in a house, the last time I felt—at last–I had enough room” I confessed to Greg last night, “it burned to the ground.”
And there it is. My response to loving something deeply is the creeping fear I will lose it. I had it with Elvis for a good part of his life, and Greg when we first met. And now the house. I can’t believe our spectacular fortune to have found a nearly perfect home—one with land and huge decks, a woodstove and gas range, not to mention—wait for it—a walk-in closet–for a price that is passing as a more than reasonable given the Front Range’s out of control housing market. Don’t count on it too much, that niggling voice whispers, you could lose it. My logic? How could we possibly have found paradise?
For most of my life, instability has been something like a second skin. I’ve danced with it so long, I’m not sure how to give it up.
And then I think about the laundry table and hanging rack I’ve set up next to the washer and dryer—and how absurdly happy I feel in not having to fold clothes on top of the dryer. I think about my closet which has shelves for shoes and six separate bins for all my foldables and how everything in it has a place and a space. How it’s been tidy now for nearly three weeks.
When I think of these things, I can finally have some patience for how long it seems to get settled—because as each day passes, I travel a little farther from the part of me that is certain I will lose it all.
When I found out my beloved Husky Elvis had 3-6 months to live, I started a practice, after my morning meditation, of giving thanks for one more day with him. In this way, we lived the last 18 months of his life together. In marking each day with him, in being present, I was able at last to let go of the fear of losing him. And when it was his time, I let him go with a full and complete heart.
I’m not saying my current fear will pass overnight, but I am making a promise to myself as I type this to remember to have some gratitude for just this one day and for the place I’ve landed. To see what’s here instead of what isn’t. Today, after all, is all any of us really has.
Winter arrives, just in the nick of time.
I’ve been rushing and rushing pulling the threads of my daily to-do lists tight, holding my breath for what seems like months now as I stare down the barrel of a glorious three week holiday break which—Ready-Set-Go!–begins today. Instead of a long sigh of relief, I have a whole kettle of items shoved from the back burner to the front, dozens of ways to fill my between semester days.
And then something happened: On the first day of winter, along with fresh snow—perhaps the 3rd storm of the year–my galleys arrived.
I opened the box, pulled out a book and took the copy back to bed. And I read.
Rough Beauty tracks forty seasons of mountain living; in it, I tells stories of spring and fall and summer and spring–but it’s winters that I wrote of most. They left an impression in my skin—not the shock of cold or the persistent high altitude wind, not the hardship remote living or the inherent loneliness–but the luxury of emptiness, the long curve of nothing. Winters on the mountain exist in my memory as the space between breath, as the moment in meditation just before you realize you haven’t moved or had a single thought or felt the creak of your limbs for a long long time.
This morning, the day dawned a crisp 9 degrees. There’s ice on the single pane glass in the bedroom and storm windows I have yet to close. In the dark before the sun came up, I breathed in the cold and, for just one dreamy moment, thought of my little cabin on Overland Mountain where December meant I often rose to the sight of my own breath and tumbled from bed to put on my winter woolie, hat and gloves, and tug on sheep skin boots to light a fire. Living at 8500 feet, I could not ignore the fact of low light and short days, or the quiet of the winter woods, the feeling of absence on the mountain, the long dreaming nights.
I miss those days. The wide silences, the feeling of letting everything go. It’s harder to do here on the edge of our prairie town, where I can jet to the store to pick up forgotten celery for tonight’s roast chicken and cars hum along busy parkways on two sides; where the snow is never deep enough to force a day at home.
But my book arrived on the first day of winter along with new snow and as far as I’m concerned that is a clear thunk on the head from the cosmos: Time to slow the fuck down. The past twelve months I have been too much in the sun, juggling cavalcades of things. It’s the dark night of the year and we should each revel in it. This afternoon I will put a chicken on to roast and start the bordelaise sauce for our Christmas roast. Cooking always calms me down, always forces me to pay attention to what’s in front of me right now. When Greg and I sit down to dinner in our living room lit with strings and strings of lights, we’ll toast the long winter nights and my new book, which features Greg’s watercolors, holding this life in our hands and marveling at the sheer beauty we’ve made.