The Color of Hope

Every year with the leaves comes the memory: walking through downtown Denver with Alan on a no-jacket day just as the trees were breaking bud. The leaves had not yet resolved into the distinct greens of honey locust and ash, crabapple and elm. They were all fresh, pale, bright, Crayola-colored spring green.

Alan: a huge enthusiasm compressed in a small body. Looking up at the trees he came alight. Between one step and another he rose onto his toes, arms reaching skyward, emphatic, like a bird about to take flight. “That’s the color of hope,” he said. (Language is too poor in italics and underlines to express Alan.)

We were in our early 20’s, and I’m not sure what we meant by hope. Something simple, I expect, but not wrong for all that. Optimism? Renewal? Possibility? The world was our oyster, so probably all of the above.

Each year the memory returns with a different flavor, depending on the sweet or bitter herbs that have steeped in it: nostalgia, affection, cynicism, anticipation. This year the flavors have been bright and savory. I’ve looked out the kitchen window at desert olive, sand cherry, rose, all free of blemish; I’ve ambled through the bosque, where new cottonwood leaves glowed against a rare gray sky, and heard Alan: “The color of hope.” A bird, eager to take wing.

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To visit the bosque again was a pleasure after too long away—to walk through the giant metal-and-wire frames strewn like jacks near the levee (sentinels of an old flood control system); to kick up dust on the path between fallen branches and rotting logs; to wander among the tall trunks of cottonwoods. The new leaves were coming in among last year’s remnants. The faded and the fresh rustled together in the wind. To walk the half-mile path again among these friends was a gift.

Hope took a little tumble as my energy plummeted and my heart rate soared. The walk dwindled to a rest.

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First bench. Wooden posts, no back, amid broom snakeweed and globemallow. Cottonwood crowns soar among small birds. No view to speak of, until you realize that no view is the view: a glimpse into the heart of the bosque, quiet, open, uneventful. Dull,  until the quiet seeps into your bones. Then, almost sacred.

An Icarus moment has its gifts. In the heady first days of freedom I was ready to fly close to the sun. Having left the working world with disability, I’d felt 50 pounds lighter. To have the burden of balancing work and self-care lifted: I didn’t realize how close I was to crumbling under the weight until it was gone. The world looked spring-clean, the sky bluer than even a New Mexico sky has a right to. I felt as if I had a clean slate to work with, a fresh opportunity. Oh, the novels I could write, the causes I could embrace, the mountains I could climb. So many hopes. The world was my oyster.

This mini-collapse reminds me that it isn’t, or at least not in that way. A fresh start doesn’t change the limits of illness, which is a continuing part of my story. But then, we are never without our histories; we are never not ourselves.

The bosque knows this. In years of drought, cottonwoods shed limbs. Huge ones: thigh bones, forearms. The forest floor is littered with them. They are home to small, creeping things. The shade beneath them keeps the earth cool and—sometimes—moist. Flowers spring up around them.

The trees do not regrow these branches in the next rainy April. Different ones, yes. But their lives are still shaped by the lean years. The bosque grows differently because of them.

Walking again. I think of Alan and wonder how he is. Our friendship tore apart long ago under the strain of cross-purposes. Even a thick blanket of affection couldn’t protect the thin skins that wore it. We’ve each tried since then to re-connect, but at odd moments, when the other had nothing to give. I wonder if re-connecting is even possible. Perhaps not. Instead we’ve taken thicker skins and greater wisdom into other friendships and handled them better. But then, those friendships showed us different flaws and weaknesses. Life is not an arrow fired toward perfection. It follows shifting patterns of woundedness, strength, and joy, like a kaleidoscope: always different, always the same.

Or like a fire.

Like a river.

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” Solomon might have said it cynically. But I say it in wonder, that the present is both its own, clean thing and the heir of all that has come before.

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Second bench. Not actually a bench, but a tree, a fallen giant of a cottonwood near the edge of the river. Despite the great wound in its trunk it has new leaves again this year. (They are the color of hope.) I could not be prouder if I were its mother.

The tree’s bark is a landscape of mesas and arroyos worn into it by living. I sit there with my knees drawn up. The river is just visible—glints of light moving behind last year’s grasses. It’s flowing high, which surprises me. El Niño was not that generous with rainfall. Maybe the dams upstream have released water ahead of mountain snowmelt or to meet downstream requirements; water does not just flow in the West.

A century ago the Rio Grande flooded at will—a broad, shallow river in a flat plain, flowing in shifting patterns as silt and sand gave way or resisted. 50 years later, in an era that prized the swift march of progress, it had been dammed, leveed, and jetty-jacked, and it flowed straight as an arrow.

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Good things came of that. But the bosque suffered. Its ecosystem depended on slow, meandering waters with seasonal floods:

Coyote willow and cottonwood, roots questing. They cannot go to meet a river
          which used to come to them.
Wildflowers and saplings cannot grow when salt cedar invades,
          blocking sunlight, hogging water, killing soil with salt in its leaves.
Bitterns and avocets cannot feed in deep waters without bulrushes, cattails, sandbars.
Muskrats and raccoons cannot dabble and splash in swift rivers with high banks.
Minnows cannot spawn in rushing water.
Big fish cannot eat their fill without minnows.
Eagles and osprey cannot eat without big fish, without small game.
          Where are the giant trees they nested in?

Now the bosque is being restored—not to a pre-Conquistador model of perfection, but to something that can thrive in its own way.

“The river is finally beginning to be seen as something with intrinsic value. After 150 years in which it was viewed as a means to an economic end, a threat to property, or a commodity, many now see it as possessing its own worth and beauty.”[1]

The jetty jacks that allowed silt to settle and high banks to form are being removed in some places, shallow channels dug in others. Some losses may be permanent. But the ecosystem of meandering waters is proving resilient—forgiving—and springing back to life.

Walking. One foot, the other. Heart beating. Breath moving. I think of the body’s own ecosystem—oxygen, nutrients, blood, nerves, glands, neurotransmitters—all working together to allow this complex organism to function. And of a smaller system still: the gut microbiome. I have been reading about it. Inside our digestive tracts lives an ecosystem of microbes. It is part signature, part biography. Two-thirds of the microbiome is unique to each person, an internal history of foods eaten or ignored, of infections and anti-biotics, of childhood dirt, of genetic inheritance, of pesticides and pollens. Imbalances are implicated in conditions ranging from lymphoma to allergies to depression (and possibly ME/CFS).

To realize that can be daunting: that you carry the consequences of chance encounters with you, and of your choices, good and bad. It is too late to undo the bad ones. We are never without our pasts; they reside in our bellies. But the ecosystem is resilient. It can be pushed to breaking point, but it eagerly wants to function. It offers that grace.

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Third bench. Worn wood among salt cedar and cottonwoods. A towhee scratches at fallen leaves. The cottonwood trunks and branches are dark against the greenery. (Jetty jacks parody their easy geometry: industry mimicking life to its own ends.)

As happens on walks, hope, consequences, and microbiomes led me to Dorothy Parker. I’d read an article that described her looking back on her life with bitterness. She had not accomplished what she’d hoped or what she was capable of. The life she had lived with intensity had not produced the Great American Novel. Short stories, screenplays, book reviews, and political op-eds aplenty, but no Great Work.

The review’s author echoed that faint contempt for a life that failed to measure up. Yet Parker had worked tirelessly against Nazism and then racism. She marched. She organized. She spoke out. She wrote passionately in the cause of racial equality.

I’m not proposing these as counterweights in the scale of greatness, just puzzling over the scale. What an Industrial Era thing it is—to value a life for its output. What a Capitalist model—to ask, “What work did this life produce for us to consume?” And then, consumers that we are, to sit back like gourmands, criticizing the flavors.

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Parker had been deeply rooted in the ecosystem of her life. She had worked to eradicate its foulest cankers. To have looked back in regret—to say, “Too late to achieve x; too late to be y”—and to count the health of the social ecosystem as nothing… Something in that fills me with horror. I don’t know whether it’s the equation between Great Work and Worth, or the way our culture unthinkingly accepts it as true, and not contingent on its time. Industry, mimicking life to its own ends.

Walking. The bosque yields again to jetty jacks. I cross a bike path buzzing with people who do not have to rest on benches. A pause at the bridge over the irrigation ditch to lean with my chin on the rail and watch the water: it flows straight as an arrow.

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I’ve been thinking about all this because of my own transition from “maker” to “taker,” as our politicians kindly put it. What shape does hope take when disability clips your wings? When it limits the mountains you can climb—or the hours in a day you can think; when the swift march of progress as your culture defines it is not yours to take; when your life is less like a shining, green leaf and more like a sturdy trunk missing a limb or two—what is the color of hope?

At this point I have to laugh at myself. We are never without our pasts; we are never not ourselves. Even without illness I would not be an ambitious, driven, intellectual machine who could crank out 2,000 half-baked words a day. I have always been more passionate about balance than about achievement. I have never been as interested in summiting mountains as in admiring the flowers that grow on them—and the play of light under the trees, and the clouds changing shape, and the dashings and flutterings of lizards and butterflies, and in stopping to listen to that chickadee—I miss chickadees—off in the distance. I am now and have always been a mosey-er and a rambler in peaceful backwaters. Even if I had energy to climb a mountain I would never make it to the top, because I would be enjoying everything on the path way too much.

And then the sun would set.

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Last bench. Round metal bars, curved back, near the Visitors Center. Uncomfortable but worth it for the cottonwood it shelters beneath. If I have been walking among elephants, then this tree is a mammoth, an ancient behemoth towering over us all and spreading its arms wide. Its canopy is thick with new life.

I think about my parents. They will have been married 59 years come June. My mom says of marriage, “You can never think you have it made; you can never become complacent. Life throws new things at you every year, and you don’t know how you’ll deal with them until you have to.”

Their marriage hasn’t followed a straight path toward ever greater perfection. It has been a meandering stream with seasons of flood and drought, and odd backwaters. They are still the same people they were all those years ago. They have grown, but they are not perfect.[2] Instead I think it’s fair to say that their reach has grown broader. They have grown more forgiving, more generous, more resilient.

This year, that is what hope looks like to me. Not a clean slate, or a fresh start. Not a bright, unspotted green leaf, divorced from the history of its tree. Instead: a greater capacity to take everything in; a broader embrace. Resilience. Grace. An ecosystem with the desire to thrive.

I head back to the car. In the path, a sparrow is enjoying a dust bath. I approach, and it takes flight, disappearing into the leaves.

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Notes

1 Fred M. Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, and Mary E. Black, Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land, and Water (Albuquerque: UNM Press), p. 150.
2 Sorry, Mom and Dad!

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A Lyrical Manifesto

It’s a train-wreck of a tree.  What chaos that cottonwood must have caused when it fell:  the thunder-crack of its trunk splitting, the roar of its leaves and branches rushing downward, the shaking of the earth when it hit and crushed the saplings beneath it.  And the dust.  The fine, gritty dust of the river bank rising like smoke to hang shimmering in the sunlight.

By cottonwood standards it must be an old tree, maybe 100 years.  It was one of the giants in the bosque along the Rio Grande.  Its crown is broad.  Its trunk is several feet around.  I can lie on it comfortably with room to spare and look up at blue, desert sky through the leaves.  The tree’s own leaves–that’s the amazing thing.

This tree–this train-wreck of a tree–is still alive.

By whatever miracle, the fall, even the wound in its trunk, didn’t kill it.  Its core is sound, or at least sound enough.  Its roots still dig deeply; xylem and phloem still carry their elixir to and from every branch-tip.  The crown has begun to grow upward toward the light from where it lies on the ground.  New shoots have sprouted from the base.

Make no mistake:  this tree is in distress.  But in the nine years since I moved to Albuquerque and began coming to call on it,  I have watched it bud and leaf and flower, its long red catkins sending pollen flying on the wind.  Nine years or more after the cataclysm, the tree still lives.  None of my photos does it justice.  They convey either the massive size or the damage or the tender new growth, but not all three.  Maybe a wide angle lens could do it, but not an ordinary one.  The tree’s story is that complex.  That rich.

IMG_9039.2aWhat a story, that crash.  I suppose it’s typical to focus on that and not on the hundred peaceful years that came before.  Stories are all about events, all about plot lines.  Crises and denouements, tension and resolution.  Disaster.  Overcoming.  Even the most subtle stories are about action and movement.  Human stories have worked that way for millennia, and believe me, I see their appeal.  They just don’t do justice to this tree.  Perhaps they don’t do justice to us.

The cottonwood–what about that first century?  Not just the magic of its seed finding water to germinate and grow in a dry land, or its first, whippy shoot branching out one summer into a crown.  But the rest.  The year when its roots deepened and its crown spread.  The next year, and all the years following, when they did the same.  The leaves that turned golden every autumn and clung every winter; the way their waxy sheen caught the light and glittered with every breeze.  The generations of birds that nested and fledged in it.  The whiptail lizards that rustled invisibly in the litter at its base.  The hundreds or even thousands of lives that found shelter in its reaching arms.

And what about the years since it fell?  What about the on-going suffering, the painful effort to thrive, the new leaves bursting forth each spring?  All the things that make that mighty crash matter:  they are backstory or epilogue.

IMG_9041.2Human stories thrive on drama.  They are about going forth and conquering or failing utterly.  They are about personal adventure and one-time, cathartic release.  Growth depends on the overcoming of obstacles in a three-act structure.

Tree stories are about adapting and enduring. They are about ecosystems, symbiosis, interdependence.  They are about cycles and continuity.  Growth is a slow process of deepening.  A tree’s life is generally not about events.  It stands by while others take wing.  But its roots are strong enough to crumble stone.

I’ve become fascinated with the difference between these two kinds of stories–the ones about progress on a plot line, and the ones that deepen in cycles–as I continue to think about chronic illness.  I’ve been ill with ME/CFS/CFIDS/SEID (the name changes often) for almost two decades, and you’d think I’d have grown accustomed by now.  In many ways I have.  But each new phase of life presents its own challenges, and the whole idea of chronic anything….well, the idea is that it never goes away.  A multi-system illness like ME, which affects the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, requires constant management, especially in the absence of effective medical treatment.  It limits your possibilities for action.  Your stories become a tree’s stories as much as an animal’s.  You don’t go forth and conquer your illness–you adapt and habituate.

I’m also becoming aware, though, of how much others’ lives are affected by the kinds of stories we tell:

How often do we apply conquerors’ metaphors to those in crisis?  They are expected to go forth, fight their battles, and then return triumphant.  Story over and done.  But it doesn’t always work that way.  No end credits roll partway through a life.  The story continues.  Ramifications grow.

We tend to turn away from complex aftermaths, I find, as we do from the long, slow emergencies of chronic conditions.  Animals have that option:  to run from distress–or to face it down, snarling.  When we can’t fight or flee, we become discouraged.  So we fight or flee the person whose distress troubles us instead.

But doing so has consequences.  Individual attitudes of dismissal or avoidance translate to large, cultural attitudes.  They turn into a systemic lack of research and resources and to the perpetuation of harm.

I think we forget that we–and others–can live with chronic distress and endure it.  We may not want to believe that people cannot conquer every problem by might or force of will or good behavior. We may be terrified to realize that the most important things to us are beyond our control.  But it’s true nonetheless.

So is this: we can adapt to dire straits, even perpetual loss, and find joy.  There is a lifetime’s worth of hope in that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to conquer my illness.  I would love to leave it in the dust and scamper happily away with all my old energy of body and brain to enjoy a new adventure.  So far I can’t.  But not all good stories feature conquering heroes.  Not all problems fit onto that plot line, or into mythic tales of saints and sinners.  We cannot shoehorn real lives into the stories we want them to tell.  They are more complex than that.  More rich.

IMG_9049.2That magnificent, fallen, living cottonwood will never heal.  Its trunk will never be whole; it will never stand upright again.  There is nothing anyone can do to help it.  Yet its buds are fattening again this spring.  It is in unconquerable distress, and life “leaps greenly” within it.  Both these things are part of its story.  They are part of our own stories, our communities’ stories.  We may not love both parts of the story equally, but we, too, are large enough to give them both room to speak.  We are sturdy enough to embrace complex truths.

We are strong enough to tell the stories of trees.