On Demand

Album Leaf No. 2

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Afterward, it felt like a parable–the kind that begins, “The realm of God (or enlightenment, or whatever awakening you please) is like…” In this case, like a woman who ascended a mountain looking for wonder. I did that, on a clear July day. I had rested all weekend to hoard energy for an outing, and by the Monday holiday I was hungry for stomach-dropping heights and grand vistas. For awe.

I drove an hour up the steep, winding road to the crest of Sandia Peak. At the base of the mountain, the car’s air conditioner roared. But soon prickly pears and rabbit brush gave way to piñon and juniper, then ponderosa pines. I opened the windows; wildflowers splashed the roadside with scarlet and orange. Higher still, amid spruce and fir and aspen, I reached for a sweatshirt.

There wasn’t much wind at the top–a rarity. I brought out camera and canteen and walked the short path to the knife-edge of the peak. From 10,678′ above sea level I looked down more than a mile to the city of Albuquerque, out to Mt. Taylor 50 miles west and to the horizon beyond that. There they were–the stomach-dropping heights and grand vistas.

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Just not the awe.

I don’t know what went wrong. I had gone shopping for it in the right place; I had laid out the right coinage. But awe did not descend on me like lightning. Wonder did not leap inside me like a fire. I looked on the scene with enjoyment: “There’s the view, all right. Same as always. Very nice.” Then disappointment. This was my one chance at an outing for months, and it had fizzled into the merely fine. I wanted something to nourish me through the hours on the sofa, and fine wasn’t going to do it. Fine won’t feed you for months.

But you can’t force wonder. You can’t command awe. After a while I trudged back to the car and started the engine, eased it into gear and down the mountain.

A couple of miles down, I pulled into my favorite picnic area for lunch. I found a table surrounded by big-tooth maples, white fir and spruce and ate while the wind set aspen leaves to rustling. Rain had fallen recently, and the greens were clean and vibrant. A columbine gleamed red and gold beyond a broad stump. Chickadees began calling; an Abert’s squirrel barked in the distance. A car drove into the picnic area, drove out again without stopping.

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After lunch I lay down on the picnic bench to rest before heading home. The tips of the aspens and spruce darkened and lightened between drifting clouds. A swallowtail butterfly meandered by; hummingbirds chased each other, chittering. From high in the trees came the scolding of Steller’s jays, a warbler’s song. A lady beetle ambled across my sweatshirt. As blue sky turned cloudy and back to blue again, ease soaked into my bones. The wind rose. Soft. Cool. It stirred up the fragrance of Christmas, the clean, sweet resin of fir.

From nowhere, wonder leaped high.

Out of Reach

Album Leaf No. 1

IMG_0881.2aEvening on the patio.  The garden walls and house walls stretch up to a troubled sky.  “Rain,” whispers the wind.  But heat says, “Not here.  Not yet.”  In the desert that means, “Maybe not at all.”  The scent of moisture in the air is tantalizing.

From across the wall I can hear traditional New Mexican music — a tease of high trumpet, just on the edge of earshot.  A live band, maybe in Old Town Plaza or at the museum.  I used to keep track of the concerts, even knowing I couldn’t attend, but I haven’t lately.  Still, it’s lovely to picture the crowds wandering around the plaza with their ice cream cones, enjoying the music in Friday night ease.

The dog behind the walls next door has a new squeaky toy and is working hard to find the squeak.  Luther was the same with his toys — intense, puzzled.  Excited over the Great Mystery of Squeakiness.  Let down once it was solved.

The breeze carries the trumpet to me again.  It’s been joined by a couple of tenors, a little bit of cowbell.

Cowbell.  I snort into my iced tea.  Because what we really need is a little more cowbell:

Is the schtick all that funny any more?  I can’t tell.  But with that brief moment’s laughter I’m engulfed in a paradox:  that you can both be walled off alone from the world and joined to it by the things you share.  The cultural references, the memories.  Small things:  “I, too, had a dog who loved squeaky toys.” By the empathy of Friday night enjoyment, the communion of fellow-feeling, even if you’re not present with the others feeling it.  Maybe even if you’re the only one feeling it.

Metaphysics.  It’s fine in its way, but is it enough to overcome the physical barriers of walls and illness?  (Walls and illness: forever linked in my mind.)  I don’t know.  Tonight it is.  Maybe that’s all we need to ask.

IMG_0879.3aAs dusk gathers, the tip of one cloud catches fire in the last light, just out of reach of darkness.  The dog has conquered the squeak in its toy and is pawing at the door to go inside; the Great Mystery of Peace and Quiet isn’t really its thing.  I settle into the cushions on the Adirondack chair, listening hard past the crickets, hoping to hear just a little more cowbell.