The sky to the north glowed red last night, a pretty sunset in the wrong direction. Yes, another fire, Flagstaff’s third this season though it’s only mid-June. This one, the Pipeline fire, is roughly following the path of the Tunnel fire that swept through here in April. Many of the people forced to evacuate this time were forced to evacuate last time, and those whose properties survived are surely wondering if they’ll be that lucky again.
But here’s the catch for me, the hard-to-swallow part, after I sort through the complicating issues of climate change and the recent increase in population here that stretches our city’s resources. The catch is, the cause of this fire was a man and a match. More accurately, a man and a bic lighter. Burning his toilet paper. Ignoring every large sign that read No Campfires, No Fire, and Fire Ban.
The line between gross negligence and arson seems thin. It’s the difference between the intention to cause suffering and the rejection of the possibility that suffering may be caused. To cause suffering is an old human habit, so habitual we often aren’t aware we are doing just that. This man, if his story is believable, did not intentionally wage war against a landscape, a forest already struggling with drought. But he rejected the possibility of causing a wildfire. He took things into his own hands. He was from Louisiana and knew little of drought, little of the high winds that shake the Colorado Plateau in spring. And he knew little or nothing of the kind of connection landscape demands of its stewards. He was not a keeper of the flame. He was rootless. He was just passing through.
We’ll have to see what the wind does today. If it blows from the west the fire will run wild. If the east, the fire may hop in and out of old burn scars, including all that it incinerated yesterday, and we may see a push back toward town, or up the mountain, or into the neighborhoods so far spared. Yesterday, the wind was at 50 mph. I drove up from the south and saw what looked like an enormous thunderhead, a mushroom cloud forming to the east of Flagstaff, while the source of the smoke was clearly visible directly ahead of me, to the north. I’ve heard that fires create their own weather, but the only place I’ve ever seen that kind of cloud before is old World War II footage of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Early morning and the town is full of sirens and silent anticipation. People and their possessions are already displaced, and more will be, but the land that gives many of us our reason for living here is altered for decades. Our beloved places are gone. My yard is green enough and shaded by two old apple trees. I don’t feel invincible, I just feel lucky. I’m lucky I can sit here and write this when my neighbors beyond the far edge of town are waking up to another day of uncertainty and hope.
Report from a few hours later: From the center of the city I can see towering sheets of flame up on the mountain, over the Fremont ridge. In all my acquaintanceship with fire, including two years working as a Forest Service firefighter, I’ve never seen flame like this. Up high there, the winds are exceeding 50 mph. A second fire, the Haywire fire, has ignited east of the Pipeline fire. I believe they are now the same fire. I’ll send this out today knowing that every minute brings new news and this will be old news soon. My blog posts tend to be ruminative, and someday there will be time for rumination, but right now this moment of deep uncertainty seems worth remembering and recording and passing on to you.
It’s like a wild animal seen in its natural habitat. It feels congruous. This is right, we say. It’s a gesture designed to heal and make right.
I’m talking about ceremony. That’s how we hold the good and the terrible in one hand. Acknowledgement, anger, empathy, action. Ceremony at its best includes the things we know alongside the things we can only guess at. The profane and the sacred. The things we didn’t know last week and the things we are forced to know now. It widens the circle to include not just present grief and pain but all of history’s atrocities.
To be caught up in the business of the world is in itself healing. When that business is dark, we chant in the darkness; when light, we bathe in the light. But to know we are accompanied, that others have done this before us. This is the lesson of ceremony. The old forms, the ancient words; a habit of body and tongue. Lay a wreath. Place a flower on a grave. Kneel. Bow. Crazy dance. Sing. Make of thyself a vessel to hold the fury, the disbelief, and even the forgiveness.
In the Zen tradition, the full moon ceremony used to bring the wandering monks together to renew their vows, their intentions, and to be with one another, to share company. Telling time by the moon they came together, month after month, ceremony after ceremony. Like a train running the same track, a long line of continuity in a life of unpredictability and impermanence. The ceremony itself is hauntingly beautiful, part call and response, part solo voice chanting an eerie melody. On our knees, up off our knees, down again, up again. Kneeling in deference, in respect to the greater forces of wisdom and compassion into which we are—we hope to be—subsumed.
These words are no comfort for those who grieve. But, said the Buddha to the mother whose child had died, find me one person who has not had sorrow, and I will relieve you of yours. If I’m not grieving now, I have in the past and will again. This is the great connecting tissue, the promise, the ligament of human life. And if it can turn toward the horrific and encompass that, if we can elucidate our fury, hatred, repulsion, and share that too in the human circle, there we have ceremony. In the crucible of ceremony, our fury shows us our fear, our hatred reveals our isolation, and our frozen disbelief can move, can act, at last.
Word is out: The nature of change has changed. It’s happening at warp speed. Every time I turn around, my animal self feels assaulted by newness. I think this frequent newness is not only what younger people happily adapt to, but something they crave. Novelty is a form of reinvention. Reinvention offers a chance to skip over regret.
I’m trained in impermanence but impermanence itself has changed. Sometimes my heart sinks. I would just like things to stand still for a moment. I know this is, for the most part, an inside job, but something else has happened, fracturing our experience. It all comes at me so rapidly now, like a car crash.
I have two apple trees in my yard, one blooming pink, the other white. At this time of year they are both in full flower, and little by little, petal by petal, leaf by leaf, they change. They become unbloomed. They leaf out. Today the white tree is losing its petals to the wind. The pink will stand for another day or two. This piece of the year always stirs my emotions. First comes the joy. The sheer beauty of the trees whips up something like disbelief, and the strong impulse to capture and stop the moment. Then a resignation as the petals fall to the grass. A dread comes with that, and a grief, knowing I can’t stop this transformation from proceeding. I’d like to freeze the season in its budding warmth and color.
This kind of impermanence is good for the human spirit. Life and death walk together. But this other thing, this new kind of change, feels unnatural. It rattles me. My devices are constantly demanding that I update them, pouring forth warnings of dire consequences if I don’t. The dear old two-lane roads widen to four, so all of us can move faster toward an unknown destination, no stopping along the way. It’s no longer 50 miles per hour with enough time to take in the scenery or buy a keychain in a roadside town. It’s go, go, go, and get there. Set out the lawn chairs and wonder, “Is this all?”
In Flagstaff, the building mania has taken on a frenzied quality, open space gone or sturdy old stone buildings coming down and new cheap housing climbing five stories up. More and more and more, and multi-tasking to achieve even more? What do we gain? More of life’s richness or less? Are we trying to outrun our suffering? Even life’s suffering asks us to slow down, to dig in deeply, to feel and experience it, rather than look the other way and fly by.
Many have said if you want a quieter, slower life, throw away your devices. And take on the quality of an island, surrounded by a storm-driven sea? With luck, if others come along, an archipelago? Remember whole days lost to lovemaking or quiet talk? Does anyone do that anymore? Now it’s minutes that find themselves divided, like the amoebas of the temporal world. Smaller and smaller are the pieces we are supposed to call whole. Like stumbling into a realm of fractions.
The wind quit midday and the white-petaled apple tree is shining in the sun. The pink is heavy with flowers soon to be unloosed. The time it takes me to write this, is time disappeared but not time lost. Time can be so big and full that it stutters to a stop and becomes invisible. Time and familiarity are a writer’s friends. Enter the front door of one minute and leave by the back window, unchanged. Timeless, they say, when all the corners round down and there isn’t a hard edge between passing through this moment and being in this moment.
On the way home from the hospital I take the long way. It’s only long because I drive at 15 miles an hour, all four windows down, enjoying the warmth of a March night down in the Valley. There are dozens of citrus trees on this street. Not as many as when my friend Ann brought me here years ago, but still many. Their trunks are painted white and shine in the dark.
The scent of orange blossoms comes to me as I travel down the road, leaving behind the mechanical noises and smells of the hospital. Ten hours in that building, yet I’m in no hurry to get back to the house where I’m staying. This is fifteen minutes of pure sensation. I feel suspended, timeless in the city at night, the air warm and the orange blossoms of an almost piercing sweetness. It’s one of the rare times today of feeling no responsibility to anyone, and I need it to last a little longer.
I know people who drive, who love driving. I never really have. I knew a boy in college who took out his anger on the highways around Hartford, Connecticut at night. He’d jump on Interstate 84 and get his old Chevy up to a hundred and cruise along for an hour or two at that speed while he screamed. My mother loved to drive. She had a map in her head of all the old turnpikes and parkways around New York City, and she preferred these to the newer, more efficient highways. She preferred the green and spacious roadways, the roads less traveled, and when I sat in the passenger seat I could feel her relax behind the wheel, her body moving with the car as if the road beneath us were a broad band of water.
Tonight I’m aware of time being precious. Time with Ann, who is in the hospital after a terrible fall on her face. That time is precious. And this interlude between the mechanical and emotional world of the hospital with its ventilators and DNRs, its glaring lights and calls for a Code Blue; this interlude between that and the confused little dog at home, Ann’s 7-pound pup who fought off the paramedics and firemen who arrived to pick Ann up off the street; the interlude is precious. I relax into it. The neighborhood opens around me and the darkness enfolds me. The sound of the tires and the breeze created by forward movement. All the space in the world and an awareness of it. The heavenly scent that lasts for thirty days, a moment, then is gone.
It’s the third day of March. Eight days ago, Ukrainians woke up to their country at war. Our friend Laura Kelly writes from Bulgaria where she is teaching journalism: 26 Ukrainian students on campus. Palpable dread, distress among students and profs. Refugees coming into Bulgaria over the Romanian border. It feels close and very very real and world scary. One of my students, Viktor, I am especially close with. Just met his parents a month ago when they came from Kyiv for the screening of his senior project. I love this kid, have had him in 4 classes. Viktor tethers me to Ukraine and I am heartbroken.
I contribute to a column for Flag Live! called Letter From Home. This week I’ve chosen to send out an old one, one of the first columns I ever wrote, about the Cold War. It’s a long piece, longer than readers may feel they have time for or interest in. Still, I’m sending it out in its entirety as a reminder. The Cold War itself was long and full of waiting and full of a kind of wonder that I don’t mean to equate with Christmas or fireflies or the first snowfall. It was the wonder of children who struggled to understand what was happening around them, why they had to run to their lockers and wedge their small bodies inside.
By the time my Letter From Home goes to print, there may be signs that air raid sirens and fallout shelters are not the direction in which we’re headed once again. But for the Ukrainians, the nature of the attack on their country is not just in the details, but in the larger context of unprovoked military aggression, nuclear or not. It is, after all these years—all the many years since my own childhood—“world scary” in Laura Kelly’s words, full of palpable dread, and heartbreaking. Here in America, from my comfortable chair, I am still trying to wake up to the fact that here we are again.
When I was five or six, I participated in a project worthy of the inmates of Alcatraz. The other two participants were my older sister and younger brother, and the reason for the project was our aversion to naps. The 1950s was a time when mothers still ruled the earth, and they needed an hour’s respite from their tiresome children. Naps were for mothers, though through some ruse we were made to believe sleeping in the middle of the day was good for us and we wouldn’t grow taller if we refused to comply. For this we had to sacrifice the magic hour after lunch, the best hour of the day to be outside fooling around. We had to endure it inside, in bed, like invalids.
I’m unclear about why I was sometimes sent to nap in my sister’s room. Sometimes my brother was sent to nap there, and sometimes my sister. The bed was high and bouncy, and covered with a blue blanket. It was pushed against the wall, and the wall was painted blue. I remember it as a very blue room. My brother and I shared a yellow room across the hall. Sometimes I slept on the coveted top bunk of the double-decker, sometimes on the bottom. We ran an egalitarian ship over there across the hall. My sister could be a little queenly at times, she of the room-to-herself.
The project involved an unspoken cooperation among the three of us, something so rare as to be non-existent. And because we operated so seamlessly, our individual selves subsumed by the larger body of “we,” the work went ahead quickly. I don’t remember which of us initiated the project because we were a united front from the outset. All I know is that one day, in the wall behind my sister’s bed, a hole began to appear. A sharp pencil was wedged between the bedframe and the wall and this, any amateur escape artist could see, was the digging tool. Other tools were brought in from time to time as the hole grew. Eventually, a spoon appeared, to be used as a tiny shovel. No word was spoken among the three of us. Not even an eyebrow was raised. In fact, to this day, we have never discussed that hole in the blue wall. Maybe this will prompt that conversation at last.
I could stick my forefinger into our hole. It was now more of a tunnel. And then, as mysteriously as it had come, it went away, and nothing was said. Someone plastered it over and gave the patch some blue paint and that was the end of it. Nothing was said. Naps themselves went the way of all things. We found other places to tunnel into, metaphorically, other mysteries to never solve.
I like to think our hole gave us a working sense of how our lives would be. We’d pursue a purpose with great energy and find it gone in the morning. We’d never speak aloud of our passionate endeavors, fearing the loss of them, or the ridicule. And while those things have proved somewhat true, the greater gift of the hole is the ingenious creativity and longing it represented. Without language, with the tip of a pencil and the blunt edge of a spoon, three human beings expressed their human need to be somewhere else and do something other. Driven by curiosity, the need to explore, we found ourselves one forefinger deep into the unknown.
Her face has changed. Her moods are dark in the morning. The distance between here and there grows, or perhaps only becomes more apparent. This is the first time I’ve cried. I don’t cry in front of her. She fell in the yard today. I found her sitting on the ground, the dog whining, the 7-pound dog trying to encourage her to stand up and go home.
The television is on all the time. It takes over the room. I say, “Let’s go to the Musical Instrument Museum. You love the Musical Instrument Museum.” But she doesn’t know what or where that is. “No museums,” she says.
“How about a movie?”
“A movie is good,” she says. “Movies take care of themselves.”
So it’s the interaction that’s gone away, the ability to interact with what we so cavalierly call reality. Instead, there are unfinished sentences, a group of words that trail off as the idea behind their formation disappears. This process of dementia is rooted in disappearance. Ghosts.
She makes her way to the kitchen in the middle of the night to eat ice cream or cookies. She has always done this, this unconscious eating (and in the morning has no memory of it). A pile of crumbs. An ice cream container in the bathroom wastebasket. I call it ghost eating. She is feeding her own ghost, the lost part of her, the part that never reconciled her birth with her life; the part that has tried to become someone, is still longing for embodiment as the mind disappears. Though I know better, this appetite for embodiment lifts my heart.
In the car alone I cry and pound the steering wheel. I’ve been caught in the hole in Crystal rapid with the same feeling of unreality. But at least in the hole there was something to do: get out of the hole. Here, there is nothing. Nothing to do, nothing to say. No museums. Maybe a movie. Always the television.
I give her a Christmas card from a friend. “Read it to me,” she says. My heart drops. Is it that she can no longer make out words on a page? She carries books around like a kid though I know they are only a comfort. For months, she hasn’t really been able to follow what’s inside them. She keeps a book open on her lap, or used to. Now it’s just the roaring television spitting colors and opinions and busyness out into the room.
Early in the morning, before she gets up, I stand in that room and soak in the quiet. What is lost? I say those words aloud and cry. What is lost?
It’s the usual morning thing with my housemate. Out she comes, hair disheveled, saying nothing to me, making a beeline towards breakfast. She eats quickly, head down, then a sip of water—no coffee for this one—and off she goes again to her ground-floor digs. Dinner’s much the same, though at that point in the day her hair’s organized itself. (Such beautiful hair, the color of ginger and chocolate.)
We met, my housemate and I, last winter, just as the weather began to turn cold. I could hear her knocking around down below. No parties, no big commotion, but every so often a thump or a bang that let me know she was home. She is attractive, I must admit. She is also genuinely unaware of her comeliness and this makes her all the more attractive. Unlike most people I know, I find it difficult to live in the presence of those I find attractive. Their loveliness can burn my eyes.
But this one. This one proves the exception. As she crosses before me on her way to her morning bowl of delicious whatever-it-is, or runs off across the yard to her next engagement, I am simply able to admire her, her natural athleticism, her flowing hair and green eyes, her sense of independence. I don’t feel awkward or tongue-tied, though we seem to have very little to say to one another. And when I do find language necessary, I don’t stumble or stutter. I’m comfortable with her. What a good and grownup feeling that is, to be comfortable with those with whom we would like to be close.
She hasn’t yet let me come close. Not too close. When I was an amateur in relationship, that was always the draw. The ones I had to chase were the ones I wanted most. A terrible model for intimacy. I don’t recommend it. But just the other day I mentioned to her that I had some good qualities and she should take note. We’d arrived at a little tangle and I thought it useful to the situation to mention my patience, fortitude, and the fact that I owned the house in which we resided. Her response was the usual. She is the mistress of understatement. But something must have gotten through to her because she seems calmer, less fearful. She no longer hurries through her breakfast, and sometimes we spend time outside in the yard together. I happened to notice she’s without a proper bed, and though I have an extra one in the garage, she continues to refuse it. So not all is “Yes ma’am and thank you.” There’s still plenty of that fierce independence. But I think I’ve learned to let go a little and she’s learned to lean in. This is what can happen when a stray cat takes up residence under your house.
The summer after high school I found myself in the backseat of a Rambler station wagon, headed to South Dakota. Destination: the Rosebud Indian Reservation where I was expected to run a church camp for elementary school kids. I occupied the backseat while my traveling companion drove us the 1500 miles between New York City and the town of Rosebud. My job was to entertain this near-stranger’s daughter while she, the mother, kept the car moving westward.
And move we did, fortunately, because pacifying a ten-year-old prone to tantrums and a mom prone to over-indulgence just wasn’t my strong suit. I got out of the car in Rosebud and took a good look around and wondered what the heck I’d signed up for. I’d never seen a landscape so bare of trees, never seen so many skinny dogs, never met a man like Webster Two Hawk. Mr. Two Hawk was a rancher and looked like one, right down to the manure-caked cowboy boots, the snap-button shirt and dusty Wranglers. He explained the rest of the family was out disking the fields, getting them ready to plant, and he was on his way to feed the cows. Mrs. Two Hawk came out to greet us wearing a long flowered dress and a white apron. The smell of grease and cinnamon followed her into the yard. I thought I might have landed in a Willa Cather novel.
My traveling companions and I were destined to spend a little more time together before they took off for the Pine Ridge Reservation down the road. The over-indulgent mother was a minister’s daughter and she’d grown up there. We stayed in a little house between the Two Hawk residence and the church. The church was an old shiplap and plywood building that had once been painted blue. A few stone steps led up to the front door. Inside it smelled of dust and candlewax. I found it depressing and wondered how far away from the building I could organize the summer church camp I was supposed to run. What was a church camp anyway?
An inauspicious start to be sure, but as is often the case with rough beginnings, the summer was unforgettable. I went to my first powwow and danced the men’s dance, the fancier steps that the women didn’t get to do. I was tolerated for this, possibly because I looked more like a boy than a girl, and people were polite enough not to worry about the distinction. Or perhaps because I was white it was understood I’d behave in an insensitive or crazy fashion. I also got to spend some time doing ranch work which I was much more suited for than running a church camp. Mrs. Two Hawk very kindly bought me a pair of Wranglers, skin tight as was the fashion on the rez, and once I was able to squeeze into them I was assigned a position in the back of the pickup where, at a given command, I would pull on a rope attached to a machine called a rake, and it would dump its load of fresh hay and we’d move on.
One of the most memorable pieces of that summer is also the hardest to describe. It was the feeling of sound in my body. Let me explain. The people I spent those two months with were overwhelmingly Christian and quite religious. Everyone went to church on Sunday and because I was running the church camp I went to church on Sunday as well. The service was conducted in the local Lakota language as well as in English, and this in itself kept me in the pews. I was surrounded by this language in a daily way. The kids at the camp spoke smatterings of it, their parents were bilingual, and their grandparents spoke almost no English at all. I like to listen to the language of wherever I happen to be, and though I didn’t learn more than a few words, my ears got used to hearing the elders speak. Then one day, one hot and humid Sunday in that airless old blue church, the whole congregation started to sing in Lakota. It was a familiar song, a church song, but I couldn’t quite place it. Suddenly it came to me: it was the doxology, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.” In Lakota. And do you know, after a couple of Sundays I was able to sing along. The strange syllables made their way into my body. The full congregation in that small enclosed space, singing “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow”—it sank right into me, right down through me and into the narrow planks of the floor. And to hear my own voice singing too—I did feel part of the fabric of that community, even for a moment, as we stood and belted out praise.
I traveled in one summer much farther than the 1500 miles between New York and Rosebud. There was no geography to describe my journey, no photographs or souvenirs. But sometimes I stand in front of the window here where I live, a cup of tea in my hand, looking out at the morning dark, and the strange syllables arrive in me, and I start to sing.
Until the pandemic came along, I thought I had a pretty good track record of sticking with reality. Of course there are books, but because every book I read I study, books don’t count as channels of escape. There’s writing, and that definitely doesn’t register as a means of not being here. Writing, as in fiction, as in stories made up by me. I’m not dodging what is, am I? I’m right here. Hello. See? I’m here. Ah, delusion.
It wasn’t until the end of 2020 that something came along to shatter my illusion of ever-presentness. At the same time, it provoked the question of what the heck is “being present” anyway? Is it what we are engaged in now or is it what we feel we should be engaged in? If I always have to be mindful of being mindful, is that being mindful? Or is meta-mindfulness yet another dwelling place constructed by my seemingly limitless personality? Ah, once more, delusion.
Let me just say that what came along at the end of 2020 has been a great teacher for me. It’s helped me decide that to be fully human we need to relax our grip. Enjoy! as the waitress says, setting down our plates of hot, delicious huevos rancheros. I can’t tell you how moved I am when anyone takes the time to tell me to enjoy. And the word “reality”? Don’t even mess with it. It has no meaning besides the one you give it, and that’s no way to run a language.
Strange, the source of our most profound lessons. Imagine a year ago, November’s early darkness in tandem with all the uncertainty spawned by Covid-19. Many of us felt like prisoners at home, where often there was no one to talk to. I put food out for the stray cat and if she dared approach I’d start a conversation with her. Somewhat desperate times, those were. Trying times, to say the least. So when evening came, along with the darkness, it was time to tune in to something and someone other than myself. Isn’t that why television was invented? Never in my life have I been a fan of television, for no other reason than when I was a kid there wasn’t much, and it was all in disappointing black and white. We were allowed to watch one-and-a-half hours of TV a week—a week—and one of those hours was always Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (in black and white). For the balance of my allotment, I alternated between Lassie and Leave It to Beaver.
The thing I stumbled upon at the end of 2020? Two words: Madam Secretary. It is to Leave It to Beaver as Homo sapiens is to Neanderthal. It has the upright posture of a forward thinking organism, while poor Beave is out there in the yard pounding rocks. Madam Secretary has done such a service to my mental health this year, including my ruminations on mindfulness, I would have to say I’m not sure I could have gotten this far into 2021 without it. And by “it” I mean the series, but to be perfectly honest, the real hero here, the real heroine, is Elizabeth McCord. In case you weren’t aware of it, she’s the Secretary of State under President Conrad Dalton (who is effectively and somewhat surprisingly played by Keith Carradine, mostly without his guitar). Elizabeth is sharper than sharp, keenly aware of whatever diplomacy a situation calls for, and most of all, convincingly human. She’s also got great taste when it comes to husbands. Henry McCord is a lovely man, strongly supportive of the women in the family and only fleetingly skeptical of his son. They’re a great pair, but it’s Elizabeth to whom I appeal as one of the better angels of my nature. In a fix I ask myself, “What would Elizabeth do?”
For a year I’ve been asking the question, “What would Elizabeth do?” I suppose it’s my mantra now, and as mantra it needs no answer; just the repetition of it soothes me, and more often than not leads me away from whatever mess I'm in. It’s not prayer, but I feel I’m being heard, and when needed, answers do arise. The weight of going it alone is lifted. I’ve got beside me, Elizabeth McCord.
Does this interfere with a reality I’m supposed to be engaged in, the one that exists outside the frame of the TV screen? I wonder. But I don’t wonder much. When you fall into the understanding that there’s neither inside nor outside the frame, that the whole darn thing is frameless, that there is no meta-world, your wondering sort of stops and you move into something a lot simpler, something called enjoyment.
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