Crux

Think of the slow trickles of change: water dripping on sandstone. The sun arcing between horizons. The moral arc of the universe bending. Little squabbles getting louder, little silences stretching longer. The nagging ache tugging at your attention. The sapling inching up and out, year by year.

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Water. Sandstone.

And then the onrush—of change, awakening, realization: the sudden sum total of incremental movement. The stone gives way, and waters rush through the gap. The calendar flips (where did the time go?). An old paradigm crumbles, and you wake up to new, fairer laws; divorce; chemo. Hatchlings peep from a nest in the tree high overhead.

The onrush is the stuff of drama. By that I don’t mean emotion—I mean of stage and screen, the dramatic arts. A story, enacted around a moment of crisis, catastrophe, or awakening, when you look up and know the world will never be the same. Drama— serious or comic—comes from that turning point and the question, “Now what will you do?”

The themes of turning are archetypal. Love. Betrayal. Loss. Wonder. Overcoming. The speed or forcefulness of the action has little correlation to the depth of the crisis, the strength of the awakening. The same human can be reached as deeply by a touch as by a tsunami. A car chase, earthquake, or explosion could just as easily be a lifted eyebrow, a gasp, a turned page, a quiet resolution.

Or even a walk through a garden.

The view toward Civilization, November 2016

A garden tells a story around primal themes: civilization and wilderness, safety and adventure. My own garden, as tiny as it is, journeys from indoor ease to the patio’s domestication to a Western “wild” land beyond.

I’m not particularly good at garden design. I cannot envision a “look” of particular plants with heights and colors and bloom seasons all carefully coordinated. But I can picture a mood, an ambiance, and use it to craft a tale.

Lately I have resorted to something simple: naming the garden beds. I used to name them things like “that one bed” and “that other bed.” The garden did tell a story, but more the kind one hears from eager eight-year-olds, with lots of “um-um-um”‘s and tangents and no coherent plot, but plenty of bonus super-heroes. And trains. Endearing, but more because you love the eight-year-old than because the story hangs together.

Focusing the names has helped me to focus the story. (A rough draft of it, at least.) The names themselves are not romantic. They’re embarrassing enough that I never thought I’d put them into print:  the Hot Bed of Intrigue, the Bowl of Sunshine, the Wayside Picnic Area. But they provide the discipline I need when I’m pruning or planting or wandering a nursery.

The Threshold, the Bowl of Sunshine, and the Wayside Picnic Area, November 2016

And isn’t that the biggest difference between a good story and a bad? Or between a story and real life? The disciplined choice of details. No drama includes every moment, every sensation, every thought that led to its heart—to the crux of the action. It weeds out all the chaos and dust and trips to the bathroom. Everything that distracts from the archetype’s particular manifestation in story gets cut away.

 

A few weeks ago I was wandering my garden, coffee cup in hand, thinking of ambiance and story and detail. A slow mosey one direction; a slow mosey the other. A peek at the buds fattening on the sand cherries, the little bluestem’s winter plumage, the seed heads of blue grama grass fluttering. And then I saw it—the tiny counter to expectation, the unexpected blip on the radar. A moment I almost overlooked.

The crocus.

A crocus!

The first one of the year, blooming two weeks early. On a day of drifting clouds, with winter breathing down my neck, a crocus bloomed.

Why was that dramatic? We know it happens every year, as surely as we know the lovers in a rom-com will kiss. It is in the very essence of the thing. We know about change; we believe in it and have hope in it. We clock the extra minutes of daylight after the solstice. But deep down our experience is of sameness. Today is much like yesterday, which was much like the day before. Something in us whispers, “As it is now, so will it ever be.” When hope and continuity are at odds, which one wins?

And then—the sandstone gives way. The paradigm shifts. The flowers bloom. The first crocus is proof: no demon ex machina will come to whisk our springtime away.

With that one exquisitely chosen detail perspective changes. It telescopes out from the tiny to the vast, from immediate concerns to something exponentially beyond your ken. Suddenly you know: the earth moves. And you find yourself clinging to a tree for dear life.

I ended up laughing wryly at the carefully orchestrated paths and discoveries of a garden, at the carefully orchestrated tension of stories. Departure, journey, climax, arrival—what a small drama a story is, to be told once and then considered over. The big drama lies in repetition—the journey yet again around the sun, the pulse of life in response, the heartbeat of the years. The drama is not that a heart beats once but that it beats over and over and over. The magic lies in the cycle, the return.

In the opening, once again, of a flower.

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!