On Scars and Memory

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It can be anything, really. Today, it was the way the sunlight filtered through the nascent cottonwood leaves and the whirring, rustling sound as they shuffle in the breeze. Yesterday, it was the sharp pang of a small piece of gravel in a sandal, which poked and prodded memories of granite handholds and scraped knuckles.

The heartache of longing for a place is much like the healing of a particularly deep and particularly painful gash. At first, the rawness and sting of the wound seizes your breath in a sharp gasp, much the way you find yourself breathless, diaphragm constricted as your frozen body cannonballs into a pond not yet warmed by the long rays of summer sun. Any bump, any jostle, or even the wrong pressure at the wrong moment reopens the wound.

shot_1327791560222You lie in your bed. It is the same bed you slept in many states away, in a town by a butte, which smelled like juniper smoke on chilly fall nights. But this bed is no longer at altitude, and the room is lit by neither the luminous moon nor the streamers of stars the seemed flung across the black of the sky. Instead, your window gazes at the back of the taco drive-through, and your ears fill with requests for red sauce and extra-large sodas. There are no coyotes yipping and laughing in the stillness, and the hiss of the brakes of the city bus, the sighing of doors as they swing open, and the groan as the bus is brought to its knees permitting easy departure grates against the cut of a move westward and northward. A wound so new that it thrums with the beat of your heart.

You rub salve on the laceration and it begins the seemingly interminable healing process.  You learn the location of the grocery store and the library. You ascertain the pattern of the great blue heron, who nightly wings his way from the river towards the wetlands, as the sun fades into Venus’ belt.  And that very sunset interrupts the healing process, for you are heaved back to the pullout overlooking the former copper mine, wind whistling through ponderosas, feet dangling as you open a slightly sticky thermos of cinnamon and cayenne spiked hot chocolate and squint at the intensity of the last light. The rocks surrounding you exude an otherworldly glow as the heat of the day emanates out into the quickly cooling air. You apply more salve.

And soon, or not really soon, but soon enough, you have a scab.  It may be one you notice only when your ankle bumps the cranks of your bike just so, or when you stumble, night-blind towards the bathroom, fingertips searching for unfamiliar moldings and doorways and find instead the sharp corner of a linen closet. You meet your neighbor over a fence enshrouded in blackberry vines, and talk story as she shows you how to gently weight your hand’s pull so that a truly ripe blackberry will leave its thorny home, while an as-yet-unripe one will remain. And this neighborhood is not your former neighborhood in that white-heat dry-grass parched town that stood on tiptoes to reach for the monsoon clouds as they lumbered closer. This neighborhood smells of barbeque and linden blossoms and mown lawns, the viridity of which was unimaginable in your other former life, unless of course, you ventured beyond the no trespassing signs and whitewashed rocks bordering the golf course by your home.

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Healing continues as you lie on grand lawns listening to outdoor symphonies and sneak ripe figs from unsuspecting branches. The ease with which you can grow food in this place shoves your toes back, southwestward, into the dry dirt and goathead-ridden side yard garden you planted only a year ago. You’d stood, befuddled by the sunflowers that disappeared each night, consumed by hungry gophers. You gazed at the flickering rainbow in the arch of the hose and then watched each drop of water disappear in the same way, sucked inwards by desperate earth.

Weeks and months and then years start to whirl by, unmarked, as the sameness and drudgery of days spent in cubicles steals time as quickly as your now unused whitewater kayak was spirited out of your backyard in the middle of the night. You begin to lock your door. You change houses, and neighborhoods, and even quadrants of the city, and the voiceless scream for less people and more space fades and is replaced by foreign films and Thai food, and sword ferns.  The expanse of the space and the sky that you’d taken for granted is replaced by the infill of city blocks and trees. So many trees. You forget the feeling of panicked suffocation that you’d felt intermittently upon arriving and realizing just how hard you needed to work to get away from all of this.

You are left with a scar, keloidal and pink, dulled to sensation, but functional. A friend asks about it and you relay the story of the injury, adding details and emphasizing what suits you. But in the movie theater, as you listen to the curious clatter of smuggled 22s rolling down the sloped floor of a theater that smells like pizza, your fingertip traces the line of the scar over and over again.

A weekend camping trip eastwards arrives in a sea of sagebrush and you tumble from the car, shins scraping on sharp twigs, hands searching and grasping for silver-green leaves. You shove them under your nose, under your partner’s nose, under your dog’s nose, begging them each to inhale, to smell, to truly breathe the scent of your ambling walks in a world so unlike that in which you now exist. You loop string around your treasure and leave it to dry on the dashboard, which it does, and then proceeds to shed its crisply crumpling leaflets into the crevices of a car which will still cough up dirt if you smack the cushion just right.

Your time in the desert, your time in the mountains and in the canyons, your time next to the seep willow listening to the canyon wren fades. It takes on the tone of a cyanotype and smells of nostalgia, which in this case is likely the smell of dry dust on empty roads and the bark of ponderosa trees after a morning of sunshine.   You begin to forget street names. You pause in the middle of a story to determine whether it occurred in this town or perhaps in another locale in this grand expanse of a country. You begin to luxuriate in foggy rainy days and cringe under the weight of the heat when faced with dry summer weather. You are permanently paler than you have been in years, but are left with the sun spots and freckles and crinkly eyes of your past.

But once in a while, with the change of the weather, your old scar sears hot once again. The sight of a deserted small town in the dusk. The strains of mariachi music trailing behind a car. The cool scent of dew-laden grass in a meadow in the grey of the morning. You breathe deep and push forward, head down, eyes closed, red dust on the tip of your tongue.

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On Moss and Resilience.

Moss has been making its presence known to me in these past few weeks. It tumbles from tree branches in small clumps, landing on my jacket as I duck my head to avoid raindrops clinging to new buds. It falls onto rain-wet sidewalks and rolls into the spaces and cracks not already filled by soil or flower petals or grass. Lichens clinging to sticks litter my walk and inspire vague plans to create a mobile that will hang in the window, complete with slowly rotating paper cranes on strings. These sticks pile up by my front door, abandoned in the homeward rush towards snacks and dogs and a two year-old’s need to find the potty.

20160220_101130Moss these days also seems ominous to me. It grasps for cadmium and arsenic and holds onto it, furtively, for the emerald luster does not change with the air quality. I pick up pieces and stare at the star-shaped fuzz and wonder at its ability to hold such a heavy secret and continue onwards, seemingly unperturbed. It may be that I need to be a bit more mossy.

In December, while hiking on a small island next to a big island in a northern country, I lay down on moss in order to better see a bald eagle in the cedar towering over my head. My shoulders and hips sank in and the seat of my pants complained of the moisture hiding in my resting place. I leaned back and could smell the smell of the forest. Humus. Skyward, scaly yellow talons shifted as a branch was eased up and down by the wind. Tail feathers gave a shake and with a downward heave and an upward lift, the eagle tossed himself into the heavens, and sailed towards the squalling sea lions below. The moss stayed silent, cushioning my head, hugging my form.

It is moss from which I ran away, 15 years ago, as I climbed into my 1987 Tercel and headed eastward from Vancouver BC, with one day of stick shift lessons under my belt and fifth gear as an admirable goal. The moss and the rain and the gray felt oppressive. Too weighty for me to bear at times, when every strand of every nerve of my being screamed for sunshine and white snow and eastern pines. I ran eastward, and then southwestward, to an ecosystem of granite and yucca and prickly pear, where gleaming green moss was a thing of dreams.

And then, finally, I ambled back towards moss. To gray skies and shrugging Douglas Firs. To raincoats and galoshes and the everywhere grimaces of people facing cold damp weather. But this time, the moss does not feel weighty. It is not drowning me. Instead, it muffles the clatter and clang of train cars as they join at night and the rush and whir of 18 wheelers as they careen through my streets. It calls out, asking for me to crouch down and peer at its intricacy, touch the feathery ends, and respond as moss does- with resilience.

Leap of Faith

It was early, 9:30am at the very latest.  The ravens croaked and garbled from the ponderosas and the sun glowed an eerie purple, tinted by smoke from a wildfire raging west of us.  My hands gripped wood, my sandaled feet clutched at the pegs driven into the sides of the pole I hugged.  My harness creaked as I eased by weight backwards a bit, and down below, a classmate tightened his belay.
Only one month before, I had leaped into the unknown.  I decided not to return to the perfectly mowed lawns, brick walks, and solemn arches of my university in St. Louis.  I strode away from the crumbled ruins of my parent’s divorce and piled belongings- hiking backpack, guitar, social justice books, and sketch pad, into my groaning car and headed westward.

Heat on high to avoid the steaming threat of an overheating engine and windows down to seek cool in 102 degree air, I blew west.  In a motel in Oklahoma City, I woke, or didn’t, as I have a tendency to act out my dreams, and naively opened my door to find a young girl asking for money to get home to her grandma.  In the morning, in the odd filtered light of motel blackout curtains, the only proof of this interaction was my opened change purse on my bed stand.

In Albuquerque, a diner waitress reproached me for being female and alone at night in the part of town I’d chosen for a stop.  She urged me to head directly to my motel, lock the door, and not open it until morning.  I awoke from a dream, standing in my bathtub wrapped in the shower curtain, sweat pooling on my collarbone.

Mule-eared sunflowers bobbed and swayed in the drafts of 18 wheelers and red rock canyons trailed away from highways.  The sunlight blinded me, turned my already tanned arm the color of overlooked toast, and the hammered the need for water into the crevices of my aching head.

And then, with a whoosh and bumpy ride on a gravel road and oh so many get-to-know you initiatives, I was in the woods for three weeks of orientation at a completely different type of college.  We swam our 40 pound packs through a reservoir and gingerly dipped bottles full at the end of a cattle tank that was our only source of water and was also guarded by a sleeping rattlesnake.  We jumped off of boulders into pools that took my breath away and plodded onwards, blisters coated in duct tape.  After three days of solo, listening to flies buzz outside my tarp and coyotes yip and bark in the night, I emerged, stronger and beginning to feel just a little bit brave.

And now, as I gazed out over the Bradshaw Mountains, the pinion juniper woodland covering grating granite slopes, I felt my breath stick to the insides of my lungs.  My stomach was tight and my knees locked to prevent the wobble sought by my legs.  Shouts of encouragement trailed upwards and I could see the trapeze bar, hanging definitively out of reach of my perch on the tip of the top of the telephone pole.

I climbed the final peg and both feet eked out real estate yet lapped over the edges.  I crouched low, willing muscles to fire and hands to grab.  And then, with a roar of a breath and a shout that was equal parts fear and exhilaration, I jumped.  And with thunk, my hands met grip tape and my biceps contracted and I swung, out and over my outdoor education classmates.  Out and over this new town in a new state in a new part of one my countries.  And back again, away from realities that had left me uneasy and sleepless.  Away from the shoulds and the urges to follow a route that left me feeling complacent.  I leapt and I caught myself.  I leapt, and I hung on.

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Close in the kitchen

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen recently, and the bounty in the garden turns into a bounty in my freezer, my cupboard, and my belly. As beans and tomatoes pour in from the garden and the farm where I’ve been helping out, I’ve been looking for ways to preserve them.  I’ve canned salsa and pickles, frozen berries, broth, and pesto, and dried tomatoes and green beans.  I’ll be writing and posting a bit about salsa in the next week.

For now, though, here are a few pictures I shot while waiting for the water to boil so that I could blanch the beans.  An enameled strainer, our coffee-sack-turned-curtain, and the paper bag that held asian pears mysteriously gifted to us by my husband’s co-workers have found themselves observed and studied.

It is fall- without question and without doubt.  The sting of blackberry briars will soon turn to the mashing and processing of applesauce and woodsmoke will replace charcoal.  But for now, the water boils, the beans turn the brilliant green of grass after a summer of no rain, and our storage capacity fills.

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The Lost Road

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We call it the Lost Road, but that is not its name.  We don’t actually know the proper name of the pavement past the cement Jersey barrier, but to get there, head left from the lake and drive until the road meets its end.

When we first discovered this place, we were days away from packing our lives into a moving truck for the fourth time in one year and heading back to the southwest.  Dreams of sagebrush and rolling mesas mixed with yearning for a city we had not yet left and hopes and fears mingled with the drifting cottonwood and the hum of bees in the wildflowers.

We drove north, over the bridge that spans cities and states, and then headed out towards the unpeopled sand of the northern side of the Columbia River, a place at which we’d gazed wistfully from the river’s confluence with the Willamette.  We passed industry, then a gravel company.  We passed a community of houseboats and then a field of cows. 

Road ends.  Four miles.  No turnaround.  The sign was orange against blue of the northwest summer sky.  We decided to head forwards, agreeing that we could always reverse if there truly was no turnaround.  And there, at the end, was a small parking area, which was more full of broken bottles and bags of trash than cars.  In fact, we were the only ones for miles.

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After climbing the barrier, we ventured along what seemed to be a road, in a sense, or at least the memory of a road.  For a pace, the pavement travelled through torrid blackberry brambles and Queen Anne’s Lace.  And then, in spots, half the road disappeared, leaving a jagged precipice leering over the rocky shore of the Columbia below.  We learned to follow the small paths to the right of the road, which led us down into a meadow, through waist-high grasses and back to the road when it became whole again.

 Along the way, we began to see the blackberries hanging heavy in their thorny havens.  Huge berries waited just off the path.  We grabbed handfuls, and fingers were soon stained purple, while forearms screamed with the scratches of the thorns we attempted to thwart. 

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I suddenly became aware of the magic of this place.  It was silent, save the cry of the ospreys, who dove from ramshackle stick nests into the water.  The light was the late-summer afternoon glow of sun from the west, backlighting the grasses and flowers and haloing leaves on the trees.  I was aware of the ache in my heart, the cry to stay here, in the northwest, in the house we’d come to love in the past six months of living there, and in the city that shared so many of our joys and passions.

But we ignored the signs to stay and said goodbye to Portland, only to be met with a reality that was not as pictured in New Mexico.  And so, only six months later, we returned to the city, which by that point was shrouded in rain and reeling from two feet of snow over Christmas.  Much as we were prepared to roll in reverse if the road had ended with no place to turn around, we reversed our course back to Portland, with the hope that perhaps this truly was where we were meant to land.

It wasn’t until the next summer that we remembered the Lost Road, and the blackberries, and ventured back.  We found a path down to the river and scrambled over driftwood to sit and stare at fisherman amidst the fall salmon run.  We brought boxes this time and filled them with blackberries, which have a scent unlike anything I can describe.  They lasted through the winter, eaten in oatmeal, and crumbles, and right out of the freezer.  

We told people about the Lost Road and roughly described how to arrive at its entrance.  One friend took a wrong turn and found herself in the midst of target practice and men who spoke only Russian.  Two co-workers ended up wandering through a marsh at a wildlife refuge.  Secretly, we celebrated each time the road and its magic proved to belong only to the birds, the water, and us.

The next year, we were just shy of five years of love and life and adventuring together.  I made a breakfast picnic, with crepes and strawberries and lavender whipped cream.  I put coffee in a thermos and orange juice in a glass jar, and we trekked along the Lost Road, noting places where flooding had removed more pavement, and where other things remained much the same. 

We walked down to the shore, only to find that there were hundreds of boats waiting for the running salmon, and each one was moored less than one hundred meters offshore.  We chose a picnic spot slightly hidden behind the reeds.  I turned to lay out our bounty and turned back to find a ring, a nervous smile, and a question.  I answered and we celebrated our engagement by picking blackberries side by side, as the sun rose higher in the east and the meadow released the sweet smell of hay.

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We returned to the Lost Road in November, much earlier than usual.  I carried the wooden box with our dog’s ashes and my then-fiancé led our new dog by the leash.  Our hearts ached from unexpected loss and the stress of buying a house and setting up home yet again.  We spread Atticus’ ashes amidst the roots at the base of a cottonwood, which clung to the sandy embankment.  We imagined him watching freighters as they travelled up river and down river, moving cargo to and fro.  We left him there, on the Lost Road, to join the magic and the spirit that was already omnipresent in that place.

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Engagement berries.  The blackberries in our freezer lasted until our wedding the following July, and we returned in the end of August to pick berries, wade in the river, and enjoy the place.  We walked to the other end of the Lost Road, where we found a fence, and a no trespassing sign.  We prefer the middle regions, where cars can’t venture and eagles soar from tree to tree, guiding berry pickers on the path.

This year, we returned yet again, rising early and driving through fields still misty in the cool morning.  We arrived prepared- with clippers for the thorny branches, boxes for the engagement berries, and long sleeves and pants to prevent the brambles from clinging to us for dear life.  We picked with a purpose and filled two full flats quickly.  We hid them in the shade and led our dog to the water’s edge, where she romped and frolicked, bounding from tuft of grass to muddy bank to puddle and back.  We stood and gave each other our wedding rings and said that we were home.  The fishermen served as audience yet again, but they politely averted their eyes.

I sense that one day, we will arrive and find the Lost Road inaccessible, either due to rain and flooding having washed away the last pieces of pavement, or because it sometimes seems that the most special places are the ones deemed off-limits.  But as of yet, it lacks No Trespassing signs, and a morning there continues to produce berries and bouquets of wildflowers.  

Four years ago, the Lost Road was an unknown destination, with dubious exit strategies.  Now, it is a compass bearing for quiet, and solitude, and remembrance.  The Lost Road is our map.  It is a home base for our wanderings and a place to postpone worries and focus on the task at hand, which usually involves picking berries, escaping brambles, and wandering through paths in the dewy grass. 

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