ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Beauty, Mystery and Community - Gary Ferguson's "Carry Home" Bridge

When my sister and I told our beautiful Hungarian stepmother that we would honor her request to wait to scatter our father's ashes until she also passed away, we didn't realize "Dad" would be sitting on the bookshelf for 17 years.  We also didn't realize that when she passed, the sense of grief would be twofold.

Over the years I consoled myself, joking that Dad wouldn't mind being nestled between the books he had written, and his presence had surely comforted our bereft and beloved stepmother.  And now, on the wake of casting both their ashes into the salty sea air of San Francisco, I think back to scattering our mother's ashes among the Ponderosa pines nine years ago. 

A few weeks ago, Gary Ferguson and his wife, consultant Mary Clare, stayed with us while Gary was on book tour for his new book The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness. The book is about Gary's remote journeys into the wilderness to honor a promise to his wife Jane before she died - that if anything happened to her, he would scatter her ashes in the wild locations she loved the most.

Over dinner and red wine, Gary, Mary and John and I talked about the complexity of life and love, and of death and grieving.  "I learned the importance of community," Gary said, "and of the need to honor the mystery of it all. Beauty, Joseph Campbell reminds us, is what nudges us toward a new vision of ourselves as we come out the other side of grief. Community, mystery, and beauty - these three things formed the bridge for me."

I found beauty in the seagulls wailing over the soft wash of waves on the seashore, just as I found beauty today in the snow layering the boughs of the Ponderosas, the way their trunks bend to the wind without breaking, the way the earth holds their roots, and my mother's ashes. 

But perhaps the most mysterious beauty of all is found in the way the human heart can choose to heal by choosing to love again, and again, and again.

Wishing you beauty, community, and a New Year imbued with the mysteries of the heart.

Note: Gary Ferguson and Mary Clare have begun a new venture, The Carry Home: Life Changes and Here You Are, offering retreats and programs designed to help people traverse life's changes with vision and integrity.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Contemplating the Dark and the Sweet with Chickasaw Writer Linda Hogan

Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan gives us both these things in her essays and poetry and novels—the dark and the sweet.  Today is a good day to honor the gift of Linda’s words—the insight that enables us to take that which is bitter and find sweetness.  

Send white lightning prayers of gratitude shooting through the heavens to her today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, and each day that you feel her presence, each day that you count your blessings as you read her words.

Today is a good day to buy at least one of Linda’s books.  Perhaps Dark. Sweet. filled with "forty years of life." Or People of the Whale.  Or The Woman Who Watches Over the World.  Or Power or Dwellings or Solar Storms.  Or Rounding the Human Corners.  

And then do just that—round any sharp edges from the words that find their way from your tongue, to the world.  Begin again to dwell in that place where you are the best you can be - for Linda, for her great-granddaughter Jayla, bring a deeper way of knowing into all that you do. 

These things will honor Linda at a time when we need to be the ones to watch over her, the ones to hold to the light all that Linda holds dear - family, earth, animals, truth, spirit. Reach out - to an elder, to a child, to a grandchild, to a great-grandchild. 
Send love to Jayla as she travels to the spirit world. Believe in the mystery, in the ecosystem of the heart. Linda's poems often start outward - with a larger but intimate vision - and then she moves inward, Once, I was... It is from this place, I believe, that our compassion takes root, from knowing and loving ourselves. 

 At West Side Books a few weeks ago, when Linda greeted John and me, we spoke about our grandchildren, and her return to Colorado, and the mountains we love, even about tribal issues back in Oklahoma.  "I have been working with Indigenous knowledge and Native science," she told the audience, "working with people who are returning to an older knowledge about their own ecosystems."  

Linda reminded us that, "History is the word that always leads ... now another country is breaking this holy vessel... we are so used to a country that does not love enough. History has continued to open the veins of the world."  

I am reminded that the current of love that travels through our veins connects our hearts to the world - that our families and our own backyards are merely microcosms of the larger ecosystem that sustains us all.  In Linda's poem "The Eyes of the Animals," Linda tells us that the eyes of the universe look back at us with the true knowledge of who we are.  

 Human, woman, man, child
this world even your self
you must learn to love.  

NOTES: Read about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) at National Geographic.  Read Linda Hogan's bio and more about her work with TEK. Read less about the tragic story of Jayla's death, and more about the family's story of her life in Last Real Indians.  DONATIONS for Jayla's family may be sent to P.O. Box 392, Pine Ridge, SD   57770. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

At the Heart of Place with Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Susan Tweit and Page Lambert

PLACE was the topic that brought Julene Bair, Susan Tweit (Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey), Dawn Wink (Meadowlark: A Novel), and me, together for a "standing room only" panel at the recent Women Writing the West conference in Golden, Colorado.  Each of us talked about the power of a particular place in our writing.  

For Julene, it was the west Kansas farm of her childhood that drew her as her nostalgia shape-shifted over the years into guilt as she realized her family’s culpability in the draining of the Ogallala aquifer that had, for millennium, given life to the prairie.  “When I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt…there had once been sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.”

I could almost feel the sand sifting through my own fingers as I read The Ogallala Road: A Memoir ofLove and Reckoning, my sense of Julene’s “place” moving from the larger Kansas prairie to the intimacy of the creek bed.

Susan Tweit, a gifted and scientifically trained observer of plants, ironically turned to the stars in her first memoir, Walking Nature Home, to get her earthly bearings.  “Like stardust and the other materials of life itself, we are in constant motion, changing shape as we pass through our lives…”  In her new memoir Bless the Birds (the story of her husband’s terminal brain cancer), we move through many landscapes—from the high plains of Wyoming, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, to the sterile halls of Denver’s hospitals.  Yet it is in the moments when Susan turns to the words in her husband’s journal after he has died, where I feel the deepest connection to Place—not a geographical location, but a place found only in the heart—the place where Susan’s world of the living crosses through that invisible veil and she finds herself again rooted to memory and emotion.  

I knew when I read the opening in Dawn Wink’s novel Meadowlark, that for young Grace, Place could be either comforting, or menacing.  “Grace went down the hill and straight to the corral, through the gate to Mame and put her arms around the mare’s neck, pressing her cheek against the warm gold of her buckskin coat…She lifted her eyes to the sod house just beyond the fence and saw a shift of movement behind the window.” 

How then, is setting or location different?  When narrative, story, brings a place to life, it becomes the Place where something happened.  Keith H. Basso, in his book Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, gives wonderful examples of place names such as these:

Widows Pause For Breath; They Piled On Top Of Each Other; Two Old Women Are Buried; and She Carries Her Brother On Her Back. 

These are not only geographical locations, but entire narratives rising up from the landscape, moving easily between the centuries.  For Dawn, the story of Meadowlark rose up from the very ranchland where Dawn’s own mother spent summers as a child.  And it was this same ranchland that yielded the answers to Dawn’s questions.  “I walked the land and listened,” Dawn tells us. 

When I first moved to Santa Fe, before moving back to Colorado, I forgot to listen to the land—forgot that, just because I did not yet understand the language of the New Mexico desert, did not mean that the land was mute.  Then one day I saw the tracks of two coyotes circling a desert shrub, and saw frantic rabbit tracks and tufts of fur and blood. The land was telling me a story, and I began to listen.  That place became The place where the rabbit died. 

For each of us, and with each new story, Place will be different.  At its heart will be everything that has ever been born, lived in, or died in that place, everything in the past, everything in the present, all energy— every sound, smell, ray of sun, every shadow, every sorrow, every joy. 

Notes: The Denver Post book review of Julene Bair’s memoir The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning begins like this: “To write a sweeping story, it helps to have lived many lives within the one allotted to you.  And to skillfully root them in a particular place.” For updates on Susan Tweit's next memoir Bless the Beasts, read her blog.  For the latest in Dawn's writing life, read her blog Dewdrops

Thursday, September 11, 2014

LOVE + LUST, and Other Profound Desires

Once, I listened to a man tell of how he bandaged a topless dancer’s bleeding finger after she cut it while stroking the edge of a mirror during a performance.  Listening, I felt sick to my stomach.  I had that same feeling once when walking down the sidewalk in Las Vegas, trying to avoid stepping on the dozens of tossed-aside postcards that littered the streets, lascivious photographs of young women staring up at me. For a good time call.

I didn't want to walk on their faces. She’s someone’s daughter, I thought. Someone’s niece. Someone’s mother. I found a restaurant with an outdoor bar shaded by palm trees, green ferns and flowers.  I sat on a stool and ordered a ginger ale.  The land beneath the city felt dead, suffocated by cement, devoid of spirit, even as fountains sprayed a river of water a hundred feet into the desert air and glittering neon lights dwarfed the sun.  I took deep breaths and focused my attention on two birds flittering among the branches. 

Later, I wrote a poem about the young topless dancer, and her bleeding finger, and the man who bandaged it.  When OPEN TO INTERPRETATION sent out a call for submissions to writers and photographers for their upcoming issue, LOVE+LUST, I sent in the poem.*

Editor Claire O’Neill writes in the book’s Introduction, “More than 2,500 photographs were submitted. Of the 31 images chosen, only one is devoid of a person. Why?” she asks us. “Maybe because love and lust relate to our very core as humans.”  She goes on to quote Paulo Coelho: “Profound desire, true desire is the desire to be close to someone.”

I thought of Jennie Field’s novel The Age of Desire, about the author Edith Wharton and her scandalous, 1908 love affair with a dashing young journalist.  Twelve years later, in 1920, Wharton would write her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence.  “Is it—in this world—vulgar to ask for more?” asked Katherine Mansfield after reading The Age of Innocence. “To entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul?”

When my contributor’s copy of LOVE+LUST arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I shied away from browsing through the beautifully designed book. Uneasy, I glanced only at my poem and the photo it had been paired with before closing the cover—a stripper in a glass booth.  But last night, I took the book to bed with me and began reading.  Across from each of the photographs, presented individually on the left, were two companion poems on the facing page.  I paused when I got to the cover photo of the snake, and these opening lines by poet Melanie Richards:  Her version of the story/remains untold: forked/tongue whispering to her/from the branches….

And so it is that we are still trying to tell our version of the story.  Let us never stop.  Let us seek the wildness in our souls, in our human cores, but let us also stoop to pick up the photos of the discarded women. Let us reach out to staunch the bleeding, to strive for closeness of the most profound and yes, most godly nature. 

*NOTE: Wharton’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence was recently listed in The Guardian/The Observer as #45 in a list of the 100 Best Novels.   My sincere thanks to Carol  Muske-Dukes for her poem, "To The Muse: New Year's Eve, 1990," which inspired my poem, "For Carol Muske's Light-Eyed Drunken Girl."