For My Mother, Myself.

This morning, I sat in the very clean office of the surgery wing of the university health system. Unlike the kelly green of its other spaces, the green here is more, subdued spruce with amber accents and frosted glass dividers. Once ushered into an exam room, I sat, watching briefly, long, vinyl blinds sway against the bright light of early June and wondered, why, would you ever close them on a day such as this, after a winter this long. I imagined it as an office or bedroom, the view from it, over the old farm fields, now the research sites of agricultural study. The sky today is big, warm, filled with billowing white clouds. Something about the sky here, just feels Northern, on the edge of great woods or great water, just out of sight. I’m not sure how the clouds tell this story, but they do.

After the nurse left, I disrobed, glad I have been exercising this week, regretting not plucking a few stray hairs that in a few moments, a stranger would see. I’ve been getting breast exams for almost a decade now, in part because I am a worrier, a hypochondriac, but in larger part because my mother died of breast cancer, before she was 60, and her mother, nearly a decade earlier in her own life. But the disease is one that is not easily mapped for me. My grandmother was never someone I knew, she gave my mother up for adoption, and so, we only know that she died and when, and of what. She died before age 50 and left 6 children behind. As a child, I focused on why she left my mother, now, as a grown woman myself, I think more about what it was like for her to leave the others, the ones she held, cared for, and had to leave too soon.

My own mother, eschewed altogether, the Western Medicine model of treatment for breast cancer. After all, she only found out about it on a fluke, not having ever considered the need to get a mammogram. When diagnosed with a tumor nearly an inch big and growing, she did no surgery, no radiation, no biopsy, no chemotherapy. Instead, she did her own version of healing, a reliable path she had walked so many times before for fibroid tumors or chronic fatigue, nursing her own loss and abandonment by making tinctures of wild-crafted herbs she’d collected in the desert, diving into the mystery of Chinese medicine, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture, hypnosis, and also, her first love, Buddhism, the one place she could quiet her busy, Gemini mind.

I have a noisy mind too. Lately it’s been consumed with thoughts of the future, the next steps, big life choices like career, family, marriage, which all seem equally distracting and yet, somehow completely uncertain and passing me by. By my age, my mother had three children, was getting ready to leave one man, and find another, to get back in school. Around 40, she moved us to town, started perming her hair, taking speed-walking classes, singing in the university choir, making a whole new set of friends, inventing herself anew, losing 30 pounds. By my age, perhaps, my grandmother too, had many children and was married. I know she also was a woman who reinvented herself many times: professor, woman umpire, government intelligence agent, starter of her own political party.

Today, the kind woman PA explained two risk models: models of my chances of having breast cancer, both in the short term and longitudinally. She told me what to eat, how much to exercise, to stop drinking, she told me how often I’ll be checked now, and how, she told me my options, we made a plan: mammogram, MRI, mammogram, repeat. She felt each breast, all the while, we laughed about the weather, the long winter, about Michigan, and how there was so much snow this year in the UP that she couldn’t go ice fishing with her nephew as usual. We remarked how far away the UP is, and how beautiful. My breasts, tender under her fingers, made the fear rise up in me.

She also told me today that by the time you can feel a lump, it is 1 cm large, and that a mammogram is far more sensitive than our own abilities, likening it to detecting a grain of salt on a blackboard. An image that will stick in my brain, surely. She told me that by the time a lump is 1 cm big, you’ve had it for 8 years. 8 years. 8 years.

My mother wasn’t afraid, like I am, she just didn’t believe in the Western paradigm. She was suspicious, didn’t like how prescribed their methods are. She felt she’d rather go her own way, than go through chemo, radiation and surgery only to feel like shit and have a compromised immune system for the rest of her life, she said. I respect that. I respected her choice, though many would not. It was her path. But I couldn’t help but think today, her lump was an inch big. How long had she been carrying that destructive fruit? How much more time would there have been to heal, if she had known sooner? Could I, would I, still have her here? In turn, I imagine her there in the room with me, all the questions she would ask, all the ways her perspective, her unending curiosity would actually shift the physician’s perspective. Her bright eyes and sharp mind filled strangers with natural sweetness, made them open up. She’d know their life story by the end of it, because that is who she was. But, would she support my path, of discovering my own health through this regimented, structured, but perhaps institutionalized way?

What if, what if. What if she was here. What if I get this thing. What if I’m worrying over nothing and the legacy of this, skips me somehow? My mind, rolls over the question again and again, and I think of my sister, I call her, I tell her to start getting the tests, the mammograms, the check-ups. She’s in her 30s now and it’s time. If our grandmother died at 47, does that mean this cancer was growing in her, at our now ages?

My partner texts to ask how it went. I can’t respond. I don’t respond. I just sit in my car in the parking lot and cry.

When I get home, I read the package the woman gave to me. I pour over each slide in the adapted power point, I check to see if I understand the omega recommendations, I calculate how much I exercise per week, I ponder changes to my diet. It seems scary, how the environment is poisoned and that’s why we all have cancer, even if the packet doesn’t say so directly, they mention it several times and tell you how to avoid pesticides in your food. They make sure to tell you that the most important thing you can do is maintain your “ideal body weight” which, I realize as I read it, is completely insane. It is based on the logic that fats contain estrogens, that they make you prone to cancer. I calculate the body weight index they offer anyway, and take a deep breath, and feel angry, at the surety with which they imply that being fat will give you cancer. This is wrong and I know it. I open the second packet, it is branded by Susan G. Kommen, slick, graphically designed. I suddenly realize I am already inside the business of breast cancer and feel sick. I go back to the first packet, I look at the citations, see if they are current, are coming from scholarly publications. They aren’t. I wonder if I can trust none of it. I wonder if the science is different now. I wonder if diet and exercise are just good general recommendations for us all and they need something to tell people about how to avoid cancer.

I go to sit outside on my porch and look out over my neighbor Dara’s yard. It is resplendent with four kinds of peonies—white, fuchsia, pale pink and one that is two-toned, almost daisy like. There are delphiniums bursting with color and the last of some tiger-stiped iris. Dara is in her 60s and lives alone, mowing her own yard, working full-time, tending to her flowers. The air smells sweet. I think about my mom. I think about what I always think about lately, about how I am getting older, how it is changing everything—how I feel about myself, how I feel about the world, about others. My neck hurts, my wrist hurts, my eyes do not see as well, I am slower, and more patient. I imagine somewhere in my mind, my younger self, and my now self, moving toward older age, passing each other in a dark indiscernible field, an underworld, dimly lit, one of us the maiden, and the other older, headed toward the crone time. What would it be like to look into my own eyes? What would I give her, tell her? What would she give me? The secrets to her fearlessness, to her certainty that more was coming, and most of it good?

I begin to think then about inevitability and culture. The packets in my hands say that I can do lots of things to prevent an untimely death. Those things are staying thin, eating more fresh food, moving my body more. This is what all capitalist culture tells me to do, now cancer is heaped on top of it. They moralize my well-being and tell me the answer is in exercise, in diet and in the luck of the draw. So, I think to myself, if I get cancer and I’ve done all the right things, they will say it is bad luck and not my fault. If I do not, and get it, they will tell me how I could have prevented this. Somehow, I will be a failure. If I get it and have it removed, will my mother, gone all these years, think I have failed, will I? Will it make any difference at all? Will I instead, dance through this precious and perfect life, into another kind of ending altogether? Will I be like my beloved Elaine, who wandered mountains and swam rivers, free of shame, nearly fearless, until the cancer took her as well?

I wonder a lot lately, about what is fate, what is free will, what is really in our control. And if we are all going to die, what is this preservation instinct in us? Buddhism tells us it is natural to fear death. Islam ponders total surrender to God, and a melting into the divine, beyond our bodies. But for most of us, there is something in us, something about ourselves that makes us run from old age, sickness and dying. I would, after all, I’ll admit, love for the peonies to last, they are so fragrant, so delightful. But they too, are fleeting.

 

 

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Against My Own Beginner’s Mind

CW: emotional abuse, trauma.

 

 

The phone rings, and on the other end is an angry man. A man who has called me to accuse me of things because I stood my ground with him a few times. It’s not even a man I love, but, I immediately feel the anger, a twitch in the air that spells collapse.

Here’s what happens for me: I feel my skin shift, my body changes, I get still, get heavy, almost cold. I feel my breath slow. I feel my voice drop; I try to intentionally stay steady, keep calm. He gets even angrier when I suggest that this feels confrontational. Then comes the panic, because I know he will call again and I won’t want to answer and that will make it worse, so much worse for me, because then, I am the scornful woman.

When it is over, I first feel sadness, then disbelief, the blood rushing quickly for days every time I think about it, and I try not to…think about it. Then I feel the rage, and the outrage. But it isn’t too long, this time for almost a week, before I begin to feel something else. It is as if, the back-garden gate has been opened and I feel myself slip out into the night. I have come to know that this unlatching, this quiet opening is the self-destruct button. Suddenly I find myself searching everywhere for my own mistakes, I seek them in more mistakes.

When I was in my 20s, well, my whole life really, and my brother would go into his violence at me, screaming outside my window, rattling my locked door, calling me and calling me and calling me, filling up my voicemail with screams, I learned the contours of my own self-destruction. In my 20s I had a man I could call, and I’d go see him and let him get me, sometimes, usually, blindingly drunk (it doesn’t take much for me) and take me to bed. We’d dance in his living room until my whole world was about motion and circles. He’d pull me tighter. This man wasn’t good for me, but he loved me in some kind of a way, or it was something that looked like that, and it was easy. It gave me all the things I was looking for—intimacy that was at a safe distance, validation outwardly, and simultaneously, an inward confirmation of my worthlessness, because, I, I knew better. I was supposed to know enough to only be in the arms of someone who could really love me. Somehow, I couldn’t ever get there. It took me a long time to get there.

I started with therapy, with Al-Anon, with cutting ties with my brother. It took me years and years and years of tears and mistakes to come away from that time, from a lifetime of histories and moments of fear, and anger, and unfair accusations, for not loving a man the right way, the way he wanted. And, he wanted everything, he wanted every last bit of me. He wanted to devour me. He said it was because we’re family, because he loved me, because I was strong, because he admired me, because I was all he had. He said it was because I was mean. He said it was because he was helping me succeed. He said I was selfish. He told me I am an ice queen. I am. I became ice to survive.

Today, it is a sunny afternoon in early April. It is finally, a warm, spring day. I wrap myself in a robe and put on some Andrew Bird, I look at the crocus coming to life, I soak up the sun and stare as high into the sky as I can. I try to become less immovable, to melt too. A sparrow visits, the dog curls beside me. I wonder, even though, now that I can see it coming, will this wound ever truly heal? I sit on the other shore, of a night of having slipped out of the gate. My body and mind are tired, and I’m washed up on the rocks. My limbs are heavy. And this time, I know why. I felt it coming, and I let myself slide into the spin. I know the dance steps so well. I knew it was moving fast water beneath me, the destruction almost felt good. This time it was just one too many glasses of wine, and a dinner party with wonderful people, telling my friends who I can trust, why I’m hurting, why today, I feel broken. This time it was coming home alone, to wait for the man who lives here with me, who loves me, actually loves me and does his very best not to own me, hurt me, or make me freeze into ice. He is not someone I am surviving. He holds me, but not too tightly.

And yet, that hollow, that place, that empty, wailing place, it is still there. I feel my fingers toy with the latch and I look out over the fence. I hope I will not open it again soon.

I am happy to be home.

New Places

New places. Intersecting the softened edges of my own difficulty, worn down by years of practice in new places. New places.

I have a little chair here, in this upstairs room I rent. It has been in my family for generations. The wood is carved and lovely, though it needs repair. And the upholstery my mother had redone when I was a child, too, is old now. I sit in it and drink tea. It faces a large window where I have a corner of sky to look out at over the 96 bridge. To the right is an old warehouse, it is busy and rehearsing its routine of noise. Out of view is the railroad track, so close that the sound is too loud to be comforting. Instead it wakes me in the dark. Beyond the tracks are three smokestacks. A trinity of thoroughfares: highway, train, work.

There were three smokestacks in Providence too, over the river. Iconic images of New England’s industrial past like an open wound and a badge of pride. Strangely, I miss that river and that place. I say strange because I fought New England for years. I turned my shoulder in futility against its grey winters and naked skies. I was so sure it was temporary. It was. Of course it was.

Tonight K calls on the phone from there. It’s been a painful, tear-filled week for both of us, one of breaking and loss. I can hear the sounds of her kitchen, and feel the sun in the windows and the air rising up from the still bay down the street in this early fall time. I know that air, and that light now and it has become a part of my vision. Her voice is comfort. The stories she tells are important. She puts the kids on the phone and they tell me all about their new lives, X in 1st grade, E is in kindergarten and tells me she is good at math and she is making sculptures. When we first met, E was a toddler who curled herself up in my arms and dried her tears on my shoulders. If it was another year of my life I would be in that kitchen and we’d have a glass of wine and talk over everything—our love and our worries.

Home is a word I think of a lot lately. The kind made of dust and sage and juniper I rub against myself in the Sangre de Cristos to know I am home. The ringing streets of my West End neighborhood, slick and imperfect. The joy and survival of walking Nia every season of the year, in light and in shadow.

And now, this place. The colors have only just begun to change. Out of the utility of saving money, getting a little exercise, not hunting for parking, I’ve been riding my bike every day to school. I listen to podcasts in my headphones and try to use that time to mentally prepare and unwind from my days on campus. My whole life has become about this program, precipitously, quickly. It’s a bit terrifying to have little sense of who I am outside of something I only recently entered into. There doesn’t feel like much space for much else. And even while it is a self-reflective process, I often feel flat and staid within it. I feel translucent.

But then, on maybe the 20th ride home on my little red bike, I see it all anew. Suddenly, I see the mirror reflections in the slow river, luminous red maples hanging in the late afternoon light, afire from within. I see channels of sun filtering down through dense trees. I ride by a park and smell the stands of goldenrod, and slow to watch a deer pausing in a meadow. I feel my body, and the sound of my bike as it rumbles over the small bridges I cross. I take that last turn and that last push up and over the bridge beside the highway, the hardest part of the journey and the moment I know I will be home soon. Home. A place. This place? But home is a feeling isn’t it? We have home by practicing it. The moment when something mundane becomes holy. Suddenly I don’t want this ride to end, but to go on and on into the dusk.

The truth is, my companion died this year. For the last decade, I practiced my home and my knowing by being with her, across states, and cities and years and losses and new beginnings. Her need for a walk was the thing that forced me out, into the world. I know I would have never done it on my own. She was ever cheerful and warm, bounding through snow up to her chest, chasing falling leaves in autumn. Now, I am not sure what to do. I don’t get up and walk with her first thing anymore. She is resting beneath the elm tree and under the lilacs, looking east forever.

But in the repetition of my 25-minute ride to school, beauty begins to open up again before me. It is how I am coming to know this new place, not through its words and gestures, but by its silences and repetitions. It is a place, in some ways that I do not want. Instead I want my sister and her babies in my arms, I want their endless laughter; I want huge skies; I want the big cold Atlantic ocean; I want my loved ones from all of the places: my western ones with their wide-open hearts and my eastern ones with their tight-willed loyalty and strength that held me up through every hard part of the last few years. I want their determined, sure grip on my life, the ones who know how to maneuver small boats in swift wind. The ones who held me in place. I want the tenderness of my family again. I want my lover, who is steadfast and adores me beyond my own conception of what love even means.

And also, I do want this. The growing, the deepening, the newness, the opening doors of what I can do and offer to the world. I want the ideas we share in these cold rooms. I want the magnificence of the brick and ivy of here and the glittering brilliance of the minds and bodies inside of this place. I want to come to know myself better through them, through this.

And so, I do my best to lift myself up out of the sorrow of new places.

I do it through practice, which as best as I know is repeating something until it becomes something else. I put K’s calendars on my wall—reminders of changing seasons, of the passage of time, of the turning of years across bodies, across my own body, across our voices, through our held hands and glances. I decorate my desk, with a picture of my grandfather with a huge kite on the shores of Lake Michigan, a painting of Taos in winter, a piece of art my mother made: blue, sharp, empty, Himalayan. I fill my eyes with you, my beloveds, who are so far away. I sit in my little chair to watch the leaves begin to fall, and wait for another winter to arrive.

Friday Afternoon

Is it true for all of us, that even our mundane, daily activities seem a bit kinder when there is someone who loves us? I find myself, moving about my yard in the afternoon, the sweet smell of the flowers that are topping, what, honestly are lovely weeds. I almost regret pulling them. And I feel moments of overwhelm, that I won’t be able to ever transform this property, not without help, time, lots of money and man power. It’s still, after so many years, a blank slate in many ways. I put in the lilacs the year after my mom died and in this caliche clay, they are holding on but are not enormous, bloom filled creatures. I doubt they will ever be.

This year, there is green grass because of all the late spring snows which have still left the ground remarkably moist. I dig down to plant sunflowers and cosmos and just under the surface, the earth is cool and damp. Now Nia is buried beside the lilacs, under the elm tree. The tiny house where my mother lived in the last months of her life is whitewashed and feels almost symbolic in its transformation from slate grey concrete to the simplicity and antiqued quality given to it by the homemade paint. Magpies still live here, their blue-black feathers shining in the sun; grackles skirt their way through the small garden, mouths open, digging for things. It is difficult to imagine now, that these newly green leaves on the trees, sparse and puny as they look, will fill out and the shade will grow, enough to put a chair for sitting soon.

I get up in the morning and open all the windows for the first time, and I know today I will close the shades in the afternoon rather than leaving them open to catch all the solar gain possible. I fill buckets with soil—a mix of clay and manure, hoping it will be a better growing environment in the absence of my ability to have compost trucked in here, or time to plant cover that will break it up, add nitrogen. I plant marigolds, a symbolic flower for many cultures—of remembrance. I stack the woodpile, in disarray from winter and my hunting and pecking through it for the best pieces. How quickly the cheat grass has turned to seed. Such a short season of softness. The sun is warm on my back. Perfect clouds, puffy and white, rush across the sky and by afternoon, the wind has picked up. I come back inside and sit in the window to survey the whole scene. I think, as I often do here, I could spend a lifetime making this place into something, making it into a better place.

When I woke up this morning, in a nest of pillows and blankets I’d somehow made in my sleep like a coyote, I had such a sense of missing my mother in a way that I have not felt in years. It was the physical, deep, visceral longing for actual contact. I thought how if she was around, we would talk every day and I wondered what our conversations would be like this year, amidst another round of radical changes in my location, perspective and experiences. And, of course, I know, if she was here I would likely be elsewhere or at the very least, everything would be different than it is now. Now, it’s all up to me on this strip of ground, the steward of a vision she had that I no longer know. I can do my best to guess but there are so many things I hadn’t learned from her yet, so many things I didn’t know I would need to know. It strikes me that the voice of someone in our heads just simply is not the same as their actual voice, of the vibrations it makes as it crosses air, as it stirs inside our hearts.

I find myself imagining my last spring in New England as well, how dry it was for there, but how green even a drought is by the ocean. How it’s Friday and I’d be meeting Kris and her kiddos and we’d drink wine and eat dinner, put them to bed and talk about all the most important things we know. A friend calls from Providence, we breathe through some of her sorrow together. The refrigerator whirs in the other room, I listen to birds. I listen to music. I am filled with memories. None of this is out of the ordinary, just a day here, but I think of this someone who loves me and somehow, the day feels a little different, a bit transformed, perhaps even, a bit sweeter.

My Little Love

I turn on the drier. Close the door to the bathroom, so the sound of the failing bearing won’t bother you. It’s morning and I hear you stirring, head up on the bed, time for a walk. I open the back door, and I am careful to not throw the bottle to the recycling too loudly and to keep the door closed enough to not encourage you to run out. I take a bath, put my hand over the side of the tub to touch your face. You lick water off my hand. I close the curtains to the bedroom at night, no rabbits will distract you in the moonlight.

I fill the sink with hot water, I turn to watch you turn a couple circles and make your body a perfect round shape on the floor beside the kitchen island like you were arranging tall grasses around you. I wake in the night, your breathing is the calming sound. I am out somewhere, and while I turn to my friends, I think of your face, I wonder if you’re hungry or lonely and I head home to satisfy your heart. I drive down the road, I glance in my rearview for your reflection. When we drive down the canyon I open the rear window and you take big gulps of air with a smile. I throw away compost, and make sure you don’t dart out. I put on my slippers and look around for you, to reassure you I’m not leaving. I walk through the house and never turn suddenly because in all likelihood, you are following me like a shadow. I come home at night, we greet each other—you with a wagging tail, me with my voice. I have so many words of love for you. I leave you reluctantly in the morning, tell you to be good. You look at me longingly. This is our dance. A dance of a thousand movements, of a million breaths. I put food in your dish, every morning and every evening for 10 years. I learn how to train you…sort of. Really, we move more like two sides of something. I give you treats and you take them gingerly and delicately, not like the others. I walk with you, nearly every single morning through any possible weather conditions because I have committed to this, to you, to your well-being and mine. There are so many mornings when it is just us two, alone in the world of seasons. We’ve seen the blizzards and ice of New England, we’ve seen the perfect silence of changing autumn maples, we’ve seen downpours in northern California, we’ve seen the mountains of Colorado and played in the rivers of New Mexico. We’ve seen the dust storms and hard frosts of the desert. We’ve felt them on our skin together. You frolick across parks, through sagebrush, down city streets with the same joy. With no resistance at all. You taught me joy.

I plan a trip, I immediately run through in my mind, who will care for you in my absence, who I can trust because I know to you, one human is not like another and you will suffer if it is the wrong one. I learned this the hard way and I could still weep over it. I sit in the sunny corner in the morning and wait for you to come nudge me with your nose, to get as close to me as you can. I drive the country alone, and I am not afraid. I go backpacking by myself, but it’s never really by myself with you and I am not as terrified of bears because you are there. I become the woman I am, with you beside me. I choose landlords based on how they treat you. I test out new men based on how they treat you. You can tell if someone likes you that way and when they are faking that they like dogs just to impress you. You smile regardless; you are always kind. You win them over every time, even if I do not. I wake in the dark of the night, at the end of this road and know I am safe because, though you are kind, your deep growl would scare away someone at the door, alert me to it. There was a man who came into my life once, by rescuing you and I knew I’d love him forever for it. My friends ask about you like a family member. My bed is dirty with your hair. I hate it, and sigh about it daily. I clean up your clouds of fur from floor and couch and gauge when it is time to clean my house based on the amount accumulated. I tell myself I’d have a cleaner life without you but know it wouldn’t be as happy.

In the last days, we sleep together like best friends. I make room for you; you curl your back up against me and your breathing is no longer easy. But still, there is only love. And duty. Sometimes love is duty. You taught me that too. And what pleasure comes from taking care of another being.

This is practice, as best I understand it–what all those spiritual traditions are talking about. Turn your attention constantly to something, right? What other thing in my life have I constantly turned my attention to, in a literally hundreds of moments each day, in every space I move into, or out of, in my thoughts always returning to your needs, your position, your place, my place with you? You were the only one I’ve been able to truly be with each day, as my best and deepest self. Ours was the relationship that taught me how to practice and do my life of duty willingly and joyfully, my highest aspiration. You showed me that it’s not that far out of reach, that Buddha nature is inherent and ever present.

You have been a part of each beginning and ending for all the important years of my adult life. My companion across the uneven edges and dances of my journey. I am beyond grateful. I am still surprised you are gone. And, even more, I am surprised at the realization of just how physical love is, how embodied and simple it can be. I’m learning how much it is about our two bodies together. How every way that I move through my space is somehow connected to your body, your breathing, your presence. Is love always surprising like this? Do we always know it best when it changes or disintegrates?

My heart has been filled and emptied and filled again. The house is so quiet now, and vacant in some way. This is a new kind of silence. I find myself doing this: listening for your breath in the night and waiting for you when I open the door coming home, turning to you a hundred times a day. I find myself in the simplicity of missing you and loving you forever.

Medicine Words

I’m sitting in the afternoon sun now, eating, inhaling. Mouthfuls of wild mushroom and dark broth—rosemary, shallots, thyme, cod. I dip the dense bread in, that the man who made the soup, brought to go with it. It tastes like medicine. I’m listening to the new Ryan Adams album—a change from the Janelle Monae, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé I’ve been consuming regularly. And that too feels like medicine, a soft male voice amidst the angry ones shouting out everywhere. My body is aching from last night’s wine, used to cover something else inside that I have no name for but which makes me want to cry, what feels like, all the moments of the day. But, the wine isn’t working and the tears won’t come. It’s late winter and too warm, too still, too empty. I’m looking for medicine of some kind. I’m waiting for snow medicine or spring medicine; I’m waiting for a lover to hold me somehow in a way that goes beyond my body.

Just that word even, feels like something I may only understand a little. Feels like a word that likely doesn’t belong to me. In the sweat lodges I’ve been in, they talk about medicine and they pray for it, offer it, to each other and each body offers healing as it opens and begins to contain the heat. I like the lodge as hot as I can stand. I feel this way about baths, about tea. It’s as if I want all the heat of the universe inside me, every morning and night. I want my skin to burn. A few weeks ago, up in the forest with some friends, we had a wassail. A wassail is an ancient tradition, though I’m not sure where it comes from exactly. You heat some of last year’s cider from the trees and you go out to bless them, to cry out to them, to wake them midwinter, to ask them for another bountiful harvest for next year. And you sing. We raised our voices in blessing and asking, together in the deep snow and it was beautiful. And at the place where the wassail happens, there is a sauna as well. There were nine of us in there that night.

And much like lodge, I watched our bodies open up to the night, and to the sound of each other’s voices and the heat. Though many people walk in and out, jump in the ice-cold pond, roll in the snow or pour cold water over one another, for some reason, I do not. I never do anymore. I’d like to say it’s because I don’t want the shock or the cold. But really, it’s that I want only heat. I want, almost, to burn myself up to ashes, or maybe, it is more like a melting, a dissolving, a disintegrating away from who I know myself to be now and to be re-formed as something I might someday become. The crackling of the wood, the red-hot stove, the steam, it makes me feel like I am going home, like I am home.

I felt my breasts changed with age, and my skin still soft, I felt my body across the cedar seat. Maybe this is medicine? Even if I don’t know, I want to begin to know. I want to begin by simply naming the things, I now, in these last weeks, think might be it. A car ride with Suki, and our laughter and her bright eyes, the quiet at the end of the road, my sister’s babies in my arms, where Gisselle says before sleep “Auntie, tell me a story out of your head,” the sound of that perfect breath beside me in the knells of sleep. All this, medicine against the tyrant at the door and his hideous minions, medicine against our fears, medicine against our loss, against our uncertainty, my own trepidation at keeping my heart open, my imperfections and those of everyone else, because, let’s be real, if perfection is a requirement for love, for solidarity, for action, we’re all gonna fail every time. At least, I will. Because I do not have a perfect heart. I try to remember that too, every day.

A Series Of Metaphors

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Have you ever been in a car wreck? Or fallen hard at something? For me, it first came in a mosh pit at 15 when suddenly an elbow made direct contact with my face and I went down, sweaty and stunned, with pieces of my teeth falling to the floor. Next, it came skiing in my early 20s, when my fear got the best of me on a steep face I shouldn’t have been on and I slid, unable to stop, down the side of a mountain towards rocks, breathing like someone drowning. The feeling is almost like shame, the way it changes your inhale and exhale. I think it’s amazing how little our bodies are truly out of control and yet, how there are so many opportunities for the slide, for the impact. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we keep our feet on the ground and when the slip, the fall, the skid happens, a body doesn’t know how to respond. But, also, it does. I think they call this shock and it happens instantaneously. Only now, what’s happening, is that I feel as if some part of my body has just struck that horizon, has just felt the impact where there is none. I catch it when I get in the car and pull out of the drive and feel as if a car is always oncoming and time slows, I brace for the contact. I brace for the disaster. But then, I turn left, and right and the road is clear and my heart flip-flops back into place and I press the accelerator onto an empty road.

So much is empty now. Where my life for half a decade has been filled to brimming with noise—with the sounds of sirens and wailing, the sound of wind in icy dark branches, with the smiles of my neighbors and their small dog in the morning, with the nearness of their love and beauty. With the static of junkies in the park, staring and keeping their distance but turning inside themselves to get close sometimes. With the scratching sounds of my neighbor’s lives all around me in their late-night waking. Noise and everywhere noise and then, tiny snatches of quiet that I lived for.

Here the road is dry. Rains sometimes come and briefly there is mud, then ruts, then dust again. I walk it every morning, a dusty little corridor past ten barking dogs and up to a plateau where I wander through sage before making a loop home. On the road, doors are closed; I see no faces. The sky, enormous again. I climb through tendrils of sagebrush, watch rabbit footprints appear in the snow, feel my face turn red and chill, feel my solo breath. I don’t know anyone around me on this street and I sit for hours alone in the window of my house just watching clouds. It is all I’ve wanted and now, again, I am a foreigner inside of it. I am pushed up against nothing, suddenly. And so, perhaps now it is why my body imagines the fall, the impending doom, the break, the slide, the moment when all this stillness ends and begins again.

Coming home hasn’t been easy, as it turns out. It has been beautiful, but not easy. People change, I’ve changed. I only know how much now in the faces of my loved ones here. On a cold afternoon, Suki and I sip chocolate and as I look in her inexplicably steady eyes, I tell her I can’t trust my mind. She laughs. She knows. She fearlessly tracks me, loves me. “Our threads together grow stronger,” she reminds me. I tell her I feel so many breaking around me though and how it seems that so many have been cut since I arrived back here. At first it was with my father, when I thought I needed him most. Then my sister, when I too thought I needed her most. But family is family and like bubbles rising to the surface, a teapot appears and tea and a welcome home. In a warm room, our arms go back around each other and as it turns out, you cannot ever stop loving your family, with all their imperfections and with your own. You may not be quite as close as you’d imagined but those threads are made of a thing that repairs itself over and over again, no matter.

With other things, other places, it is much harder and the hurt lasts longer. After five years away I see some things more clearly and the town feels small. I feel tight and uncomfortable inside of it. I don’t go to town much or really, go out much at all. I am too busy feeling the quiet. When I do go out, I feel even more empty and unsatisfied. A friend and I sip manhattans and talk about Buddhism, that feels good. In that I feel the whirling of love well up but mostly, it is silent. I am silent too. I know it is time to let go of some hands, some embraces, some stories, some places. But they are all around me like ghost towns. I feel like a ghost myself. I bake bread late into the night and let me whole body move with the dough. I cut vegetables, I salt them and ferment them; I melt chocolate and make a cake; I make a pie; I pick grapes and cook them down to nothing and keep them in jars, for sweetness later. I do all these things to remind me that I am here. I try to bring my body back here, over and over again, before the sky carries me away again.

Voices that have shaped me, need to cease and fall silent. I didn’t expect any of this. I expected it only to feel like my body was butter, being saturated in the pan, turning to liquid, wrapping itself around the things added in as everything is turned warm.

I know why people leave home. And I know how that too begins empty and slowly, fills. And I know why we come back and how that is a wholly different kind of draining, of emptying and refilling. I know the quiet and the noise. I love both. I miss Kristina and her kids, Ben and the fireflies, the ocean, Alison, Lucas, the park, Anupama and her husband who felt like home and fed me everything I needed to eat, Susan who keeps me strong, Nancy who always keeps going on and taught me too, to keep going, Louise who was just, my person, Meg, so many. I name them again and again in my mind. I memorize their voices. I keep them, like words on a page. I miss a life I was so happy to leave. I am so happy I am here, even with the emptiness. This too, is a part of the mystery.

This morning as I walked, the sky was blown around in the wind. I too, move like currents of air. A dark wall of cloud covered the mountains but sun shone on me and everything felt rushing. As I got to the little rise, with Nia out in front of me, I saw a tiny flock of mountain blue birds. We have jays here; I’ve seen a lot in the lowlands where the juniper grows but these were different, actual, tiny bluebirds. I maybe have never seen them here and yet I didn’t not imagine them. They lifted their wings in the wind, I breathed as they took off, from the wire of fence and glided through the sky above me. A boon, a thing out of place, beautiful nonetheless.