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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True Crime

Burglary. Drugs. The Newfoundlanders in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News shake their heads in dismay. Newcomers, drawn to The Rock by an influx of offshore oil work, are committing crimes that were unheard of before. People accustomed to security have to lock their doors at night. From the way they go on, you’d think crime had been invented last Tuesday. But running through the novel is a story of incest; running through the locals’ talk, casual tales of domestic violence and abuse. Crimes that make your blood run cold are just a way of life. It’s only this new crime, this unexpected crime, that’s a problem. People who thought they were safe feel vulnerable, and they resent it. Clearly the outsiders are to blame.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” The adage isn’t quite true. Really, you forget that the devil you know is a devil at all.

_____________

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The hail had broken skylights in the barn and spooked the horses, Karen told me. She’d come by to see how I was managing in the casita I’d rented from her for a few days. I’d enjoyed the storms: two days of squalls that blew in one after another, shaping the Manzano Mountains behind ever-changing clouds. Curled up with a fluffy blanket and tea, I’d reveled in the thunder echoing off the mountains, the hail hammering down, the rain puddling around prickly pears and cholla. A leaky roof had been a drippy reminder of just how thin the membrane is between shelter and exposure. Still, I’d been safe and protected, and the leaky roof wasn’t my problem to fix.

“Nature really is bigger than we are,” Karen said, casting a rueful eye on the barn.

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Now, on a day of racing clouds, the sun and I were ready for adventure. I bundled up against the wind—layers, jacket, scarf, earmuffs. With sunscreen, water bottle, and camera, I was prepared for anything. I rambled down the jeep track skirting the ranch’s post-and-wire fencing, around the corner, and down a stony hill.

A lone cloud scattered a confetti of hail across the path. I sheltered amid a trio of junipers. The ground was thick with berries and fresh needles that had been stripped away in the violence of yesterday’s storm. The air still tingled with fragrance. The cloud drifted off, trailing a veil of white behind it, and I walked on in sunshine.

At the base of the hill was my stopping point: a gate with strong crossbars where I could perch to rest and watch the land drift in and out of shadow. The scudding clouds turned the mesa from juniper-green to midnight blue, the grasses from dun to sage to white, the earthen track from brown to russet and then back again. The sky was huge. The only sounds were a train whistle in the distance, the wind hissing in the grasses and, somewhere beyond the gate, cattle lowing.

Lowing. That’s far too peaceful a word for the irritated, blaring bassoons I was hearing.

“Something’s not right,” I thought—as if I know the first thing about cow-speak. The play of light on a dead tree distracted me, and I put the cows out of mind. A few photos, a few more sips to empty the water bottle, and it was time to turn for home.

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I headed back up the hill, past the junipers, and up the stony slope. The soundtrack of grumpy cows quieted. Near the home stretch I began to hear the crunch of tires on pebbles on the slope behind me, and then the rumble of a 4-wheel drive. A pickup was approaching, the big, square frame of the ’80’s bobbing at each rut. I stepped off the track at a patch without prickly pears and waited for it to pass.

I’d expected a neighborly wave from some rosy-cheeked rancher. Instead the driver slowed, and three shirtless men turned in unison to leer at me. They must have come prepared for leering. I was wearing thick layers and my sturdiest walking-near-cactus clothes. I looked about as feminine as the Black Angus cattle (and the men had probably leered at them, too). They flicked their tongues lewdly. As the truck passed the man in the half-seat of the extended cab turned to stare. I can still see his teeth, over-large in a jutting jaw, the brown hair plastered against his forehead, the tattoo staining his upper arm. Red water bled from the new-harvested sandstone slabs stacked in the bed of the truck.

The driver slowed to a stop, the man in back still staring, and my stomach dropped. The truck shifted into 2-wheel drive and plowed on.

A deep breath. I understood now why the cows had been grumpy—felt a kinship with them, even, at the intrusion onto their peaceful, oblivious ruminations; the awakening of vulnerability.

Funny. I’d been vulnerable all along—alone in the no-man’s land between grazing range and wilderness. I was prepared for rain, hail, wind, sun, hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration, and cacti. I walked in serenity through a land that sticks, stings, and bites without giving the risks a second thought. Except that I had given them a thought. The risks are so routine that I’d prepared for them without noticing. (You forget that the devil you know is a devil at all.)

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“Nature really is bigger than we are.” I was set to run nature’s risks; I had just forgotten that humanity was one of them. The recognition of truth—that I was alone and vulnerable—hit hard and fast.

I found myself thinking about it the next day, vaguely unsettled. I remembered a time in my early 20’s when I’d narrowly avoided a car accident: a badly loaded construction truck had dropped a concrete road barrier in front of me at highway speeds. A split-second swerve, too fast for thought, into a lucky gap in the next lane, and the danger was past. I was shaken for a couple of days, even though nothing bad had actually happened. I just saw how easily it could have. The illusion of safety was stripped away. I glimpsed what a fine thread life and happiness hang by, to what extent safety is just a habit of thought. It was a hard lesson in truth, about the limits of our control.

The only real crime The Three Leerers had committed was to remind me of that truth.

It doesn’t hurt to be reminded, I suppose—to stop and re-assess the dangers in your personal landscape and see them for what they are; to think about how to approach them. Do you take up offensive or defensive arms? Do you close down, or carry on as normal? Fight, flee, or freeze seem to be the basic options. I wondered whether there were others—more tree-like options of growing and deepening.

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I often say that I identify as a Quaker but seldom flat-out say, “I’m Quaker,” precisely because I don’t have those options figured out. The Friends’ peace testimony—their refusal to use violence even to defend themselves—is their hallmark. I’m not sure I wouldn’t respond to push with shove, if it came to that; not sure I would refuse to take up arms in a pinch. I see the point of the testimony: to stand firm and say, “The cycle of violence stops here,” even at the risk of your own life. I get it. I just don’t know whether I’m brave enough not to fight. I don’t know whether I would be willing to see an assailant’s humanity—to be that able to choose love.

Later on I went for another walk, not in an act of courage or defiance or anything; just to go for a walk. I gathered colorful pebbles for my garden as I went. Would I have hurled them at an enemy at need? (I’d have missed.) I didn’t have to find out. The cows had no reason to low.

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Back in Albuquerque, I found myself continuing to think about that incident—the veil lifted on danger and the weighing of responses—as news stories dropped one bomb after the other through the last months of 2015: suicide bombings in Beirut; the Paris attacks; the Syrian refugee crisis; 4-year-old Lilly Garcia, shot in a road-rage incident just down the road from me; the Planned Parenthood and San Bernardino shootings; the Chicago police shootings; two local teens shot in a week in drinking games among “friends”; mass shootings in East Texas, New Orleans, Savannah, Jacksonville, and on and on.

I heard my news feeds go up in arms, with talk of safety and protection, of closing borders. I heard a rising noise of anger and Islamophobia. But what I was seeing were acts of violence claiming lives every day (sweet Lilly Garcia, age 4). Our response was discrepant. We were only demanding large-scale action—carpet bombs and travel bans—in a few cases: the ones by “new devils,” the devils we didn’t know. Outsiders.

We know plenty of old devils here. We just seem to know them so well that we’ve forgotten they’re devils at all.

When I think of The Shipping News and The Leering Men—the anger toward those who expose vulnerability—I wonder if the same mechanism isn’t in play. The everyday crimes committed on our own doorsteps: I believe we’ve learned to take them in stride and pretend that we’re safe, because safety is a habit we’re fond of. I’m understanding the crime of terrorism afresh. The lives lost, the families and communities shredded, the physical and emotional wounds—those are the immediate, horrible impact on relatively few people. The broader crime is to rip the illusion of safety from entire cultures; to make you aware in new, raw, visceral ways of the truth of your vulnerability to things beyond your control; to keep you reacting with an animal’s instinctive fear, even when you yourself are unharmed; to prevent you from tapping into deeper, more human values.

I don’t think we’re really afraid of the danger. We live with danger every day (9,967 U.S. deaths to drunk drivers in 2014; 30,888 gun deaths in 2015; an average of 1,300 deaths and 2,000,000 injuries annually from domestic violence). But perhaps we are afraid and angry—and eager for scapegoats, in all the old, despicable ways—because our vulnerability has been exposed. It’s not a comfortable truth. I believe we in the U.S. are used to thinking of ourselves as an invincible superpower. The truth, of course, is that no one is ever invincible. But it’s no easy thing to have an identity of strength shorn away, revealed as illusion. Trust me—I’ve been ill for 20 years. I know that. You wonder who you could possibly be without your physical strength; you’re afraid you might be no one. Strength makes a lot of things—resourcefulness, compassion, patience, respect, complexity—easy to bypass, because strength is easy.

Fight or flight. Fight or flight. The animal’s most basic, instinctive response to danger. I just wonder if there aren’t other options.

_____________

On my walk I stopped to check on the trio of sheltering junipers. The violent hailstorm two days previously had shredded them pretty badly. But really, they were fine. Unfazed. They’re anchored in a whole other world than the one of passing squalls. Earth. Stone. Deep water. A small family of scrub jays had been feeding on the berries when I walked up. They startled away, squawking, and I smiled. The trees were still feeding their neighbors; still willing to shelter this woman who doesn’t know enough to get out of the rain.

The air sang with their fragrance.

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