your reminder

surrender is a sunset,
that time of day when there
is nothing left to do but to accept
answers from the sky.

this is the trail
where I had a run-in
with a crayfish,
a fury so small
I almost missed it entirely.

I crouched low enough
to see its dewy eyes.
It shook its claws at me
demanding an explanation,
to which I had none.

Hi, I’m always just passing by.

When I was younger
I left three layers of skin
on the pavement here.
the burn was a better
reminder than any timer.

the clouds swirled over my head
like a bruise,
and I dared to be broken.

Linden

The sign says Greenspire Linden
It tells you the tree is hearty,
built to last in urban areas.

I’m as wild as a horse
in suburban ones.

We don’t belong here
in the middle
of impeccable lawns.

I crush the thought,
a mosquito that bit
through the protection
covering my arm.

I tell the thirsty
to please be quiet,
so I can surrender
to strength in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite spot is your favorite spot

35267152_10217184344425649_608698351625437184_nThe mountains are calling, and I must go. Cool, but when I can’t make it to the mountains, I’ll happily settle for my favorite nature spot, which is ten measly minutes away from my house.

It’s a grove that’s tucked behind a woodsy, unincorporated community. It features a dusty, gravel trail wrapped around a man-made pond people enjoy fishing in. There’s a grassy knoll I sometimes force myself to scale. I call it Three Trees Hill even though there’s way more than three trees that greet you at the top of it. I’m super lazy with titles.

I like this spot because there’s no more than four to five people there at a time. And everyone winks at each other like we’re all in on some big secret about being there.

Today I sported my new favorite shirt (this blog has a few of my favorite things). I bought this shirt from a street cart in Boston. It’s royal blue with white lettering. It says: WICKED SMAHT.

I know, how touristy.

But there’s brilliance in running in a shirt like this if you’re particularly self-conscious about your body. People will judge your form the second it appears in their plain view. Because that’s what we do. We’re trained from the womb to assess each other’s sacks of flesh and bone. How much control we have over it and how much work we put into it.

Here’s the fun part: when people assess my body and assign a term to it while I’m wearing this shirt, they’re distracted by the terminology I’ve thrown out at them without any introduction, without vocality.

WICKED SMAHT.

I catch three walkers and a cyclist scanning the words with their eyes. They seem to accept my projection, offering me sly smirks in return as I run toward them, breathing in heavy, inconsistent breaths.

After I get over myself and my total win of a shirt, I focus on the residue of the day. Today was a good one but a hard one. At work, I received the most amount of feedback I’ve received in a while. I felt the full weight of it still sitting on my shoulders and wrapped around my neck like an itchy scarf.

I just started a new job, and I’m relearning the way I’ve been doing things for the past four years. My new job calls for me to be free-falling, fun, inventive. It’s what I wanted, but in starting off, I realize I’m unsure what to do with all the white space that clashes with the constraints of time.

I’m a writer. I can make magic when I put my mind to it, when my mind isn’t trying to unravel me and wear me down. I’m one of those fortunate souls who has known what I’m good at and what I like to do. But when I’m writing about a brand new topic I’m unfamiliar with, I can feel myself scraping around in the dark for information. When words leave my fingers they feel clownish, contrived. I don’t want my reader to think I don’t give a fuck.

Because dear reader, I give a fuck.

So here I am running and thinking about writing and readers, and this deer pops its head out of a patch of pussy willows, or what I’m calling pussy willows because it’s fun to say. The deer flicks its ears and pretends not to exist. My stomach backflips at the sight of this doe-eyed discovery. 35329201_10217184348265745_1398846757835636736_nThis is the part where I try to concentrate real hard on the stress I’m clenching in my body’s tightest sections. This is the part where I give myself away to the deer. My favorite spot is your favorite spot. You can see deer anywhere if you look closely.

And if you look deep enough into the eyes of a red-winged blackbird you’ll find murder. Because they’re crazy this time of year. Trust me on this one. You’re probably interrupting their bone session if you’re anywhere near them right now. In flight, they look as burly as football players, with fiery red shoulder pads. Don’t mess with these bad to the bone birds.

I run. The wetness on my back is soothing, reassuring. Maybe I can outrun the mosquitos’ thirst. Maybe I’ll see my work the way I see the flutter of wings, rotted bark, or insect eggs on leaves. I’m waiting to catch my breath, and then it floods my lungs. I’m a blur, whirling through curls of green.

I have to stop running at some point. There’s a cotton candy pink sunset sitting on the horizon like the ultimate dessert of the day. I thank it, think of it as a reward for working my problems out here. The water and sky accept my honesty. They pat me on the back with their long, wisps of arms.35296111_10217184344225644_7128660158099488768_n (2)The four other trailblazers and I stand still as deer in our respective places along the trail, wordlessly uttering our silences. Together, we eat the sunset.

A Meeting with Bob from Beyond

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This part about life is true-ish: you can spend your day, or at least some of it, being focused, doing what makes you happy, or spend your day thinking about never having it or obsessing about losing it.

I’m walking down a nature trail. I’m talking to myself. As people pass me by, I hush up because I am too much of a puss to let them know I’m talking to myself.

I have today day off of work. I feel bad about days off, but I really enjoy them, like a lot of people. I try to have plans on those days, which doesn’t always work out. I want to use them to their fullest.

Please be patient with yourself. You smoked a little bit. You forget that you get a little paranoid when you smoke alone. And maybe that’s why you’re talking to yourself at all, so that it feels like you’re with someone.

 I think that you came here for a reason. You want to explore what is going on inside you without anyone else around you. I think this is a healthy thing to do. Recently, you’ve been overly connected to social media, and you’ve been feeling hyper and stimulated. Even when you were in Costa Rica, you were still checking your phone. You’re never free of technology.

Social media sometimes feels like a box, like a way to keep people inside. There are people who take advantage of social media for the right reasons. They want to share with others, give to others. They want people to come along with them for the journey. Follow them through this jungle, on this mountain, through those moments when they marvel on the face of their first child.

Voyeurism has consequences. What about the other chunk of people who are standing still? Just watching someone live their life? The viewer doesn’t even have to dream it up. It can happen right before their eyes. They continue to watch and watch and watch. We have become a new form of TV, this relentless watching of each other.

Today you’re distraught. You lost your journal. It’s this purple, silky thing that you got from Barnes and Noble about a year and a half ago. Let’s be honest; most the thoughts in there weren’t worth sharing with others, but they were worth mentioning to yourself in the moments that you wrote them down. You write in it for your future self. So that you can immerse yourself into what it felt like to be a younger version of you.

I am 27 years old. I miss my journal because it was for me. No entertaining. I could see myself thinking and rethinking in it. Messy. Not the best words I could come up with. Organic. Diary entries. Pieces of poems. I wrote one on Mother’s Day about my mother and how she says the word “fuck” better than anyone I know. She gives it grace.

I wrote about going down to southern Illinois with my dad to watch my sister graduate. I don’t think I finished that entry. I was waiting for it to settle on me, and then I lost it.

A bearded man and his dog just passed me, so I had to stop talking just now. I recently wrote a short story about this man who talked to himself in his garage at night, seething about the government. The only thing that calms the voices in his head is fishing.

I come from an entire family of talkers, and lo and behold, I’m a talker. But I’m also a good listener. Some people don’t need another person on the other side, and this terrifies me. I know someone who doesn’t need another person to listen. I can leave my phone on the counter and walk away for 10 minutes, and they wouldn’t know the difference. No interjections or counterpoints necessary.

Being around non-talkers used to be a big issue for me. Spending time with my boyfriend’s family, for example, made me feel uncomfortable, exposed. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I filled up the silence. Open mouth, open floodgates. I mean, sure they said things, but everything was so matter of fact. Not at all like therapy. Like live wires. Everyone wearing their emotions out all together at once.

I have to pee, but I’m kind of nervous. I’ve had some bad experiences with peeing in public lately. When I was in Costa Rica, I really had to go. I was at a resort, and I found this sort of remote-ish place by the beach, which obviously wasn’t remote enough. A hotel employee had caught me hunched over a pile of sand. He started yelling at me in Spanish, and I was already going, so I kept going. I was drunk, but horrified that he kept yelling at me, not even turning around and waiting for me to finish.

I pee quietly behind some bushes. A mosquito bites my ass.

Now, I’m looking over a pond covered in lily pads that bounce light to each other as the water moves underneath them. There are hundreds of dragonflies flitting in between them, dipping their butts into the water.

The fisher in my short story, the one with the voices in his head—he’s addicted to painkillers and alcohol. His kids keep finding him passed out in the bathroom. His body fails him. He was the funny one, the one who made you feel sane. Everyone’s favorite uncle. His kids and their cousins used to dog-pile on top of him every Christmas. Now he can’t even remember his kids’ names.

The intro of the story starts with a text message. A wrong number. From some guy named Bob who wants to go all-night fishing. The narrator is lonely, so she messages him back for the sake of conversation. She evens sends a fish emoji. The conversation ends once the mysterious texter figures out they are texting the wrong person.

I watch dragonflies clash into each other. It sounds like the crinkling of candy wrappers. A pier moves underneath my feet. An elderly couple shuffles next to me and onto a bench that’s bolted to the pier. They look out across the water, past the lily pads. The man is wearing a baseball cap with the word “veteran” on it.

“Do you see the lotus flowers?” he asks me. I look toward where his wrinkled index finger points. Fleshy pink petals poke out from the water.

“Yes, they’re beautiful,” I say. Suddenly, I feel like a tourist.

“Where are you from?” the stout woman asks, peeking out from the side of the man.

“Northwest ‘burbs,” I say.

“Terrible drivers over there,” she says with a half frown.

“That’s why I’m here. To slow down,” I laugh.

“This used to be a lively place,” the man tells me. “Every summer, people would rent out boats, and there would be concessions. Tons of people. Now it’s a ghost town.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“The state didn’t want to pay for it anymore,” he says and nods.

He points again. “Look at that barn swallow,” he says.

I watch a brown body pierce the air like an arrow. Then it dips and dives, making sharp, acrobatic turns.

Since fishing is on my brain, I tell the man that I tried fishing recently, and I still have yet to catch my first fish.

“Oh, have you been up by McHenry? Plenty of good fishing spots over there,” he says.

“I will be sure to check that out. I’m gonna get lucky next time, I can feel it,” I say.

“You will catch one, Sweetie,” the woman tells me.

I thank them. Their encouragement pulses inside my chest, and I am aware of the sun’s warmth on my face.

“It was so nice meeting you. I’m Sarah,” I thrust my hand out formally. I’m not sure why, but then I realize I want to touch their hands.

“I’m Sandy. And this is Bob,” the woman says. Bob smiles.

Freaks of Nature

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The giant sequoias inhabited me, and I don’t want them to leave. These mutants — with their fire scars and boils protruding unapologetically on their red skin; with their unreachable branches, their impossible girth and height — are the impenetrable towers in command of the Giant Forest located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. One could only dream of climbing them. One could only dream of owning them, too. Many entranced settlers have tried, but have ultimately failed to claim ownership over the goliaths that long ago claimed themselves along with their mesmerizing, green kingdom.

To get to the big trees, we had to twist up the Generals Highway with its endless hairpin turns and rolling foothills covered in playful poppies and gangly lupines, which look like cornhusks with bright purple bulbs. The highway runs alongside the Central Valley, climbing toward the Sierra’s snowy peaks. We drove slow enough (or else!) to notice what was buried in some of the tight curves — slender streams of water spilling alongside jagged cliffs. Sean pointed out pine trees on some of the highest cliffs with tips slipping into the clouds. Once we had reached an elevation of 6,000 feet, I had to remind myself to exhale the large gulps of the thin mountain air I held in my lungs. I tried to read what I brought for the long drive (Patti Smith’s newest book, “M Train”) and managed to take in no more than two pages in my wordless marveling.

I remember the first one I spotted. Even in a forest filled to the brim with firs and pines, the Sierra giants are easily identifiable. I let out a big eek, like a child laying eyes on the Disney World castle for the first time. As trite as this sounds, seeing that first sequoia was a fairytale come true. It was enchanting, yet at the same time I invited its freakishness into my heart immediately, accepting its enormity. I grabbed for my phone and recorded the drive through the Giant Forest, trying to still the view, instead of shaking with excitement.

When we arrived at the Giant Forest Museum parking, I rocketed out of the rental car, but froze in my footsteps. There were three massive trees congregated together beside the lot. I stood there with my mouth hanging open. Sean urged me to hurry up so we could start a trail, as there would be plenty more trees to see. I couldn’t help but want to greet and study every single one, which was just as hideously beautiful as the next.

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Just outside the museum stands the ginormous Sentinel tree, which is “average” in height compared to others. The Sentinel is covered in barky boils. Carved into the right side of it, is a scar shaped like a church steeple.

The Giant Forest was named by John Muir, the famous Scottish-American explorer, writer, engineer, environmental philosopher, and early advocate of the American wilderness. He is known for his preservation efforts of Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other areas. Muir along with others, such as George Stewart, the editor of the Visalia Delta newspaper, who led the movement to create the national park — hell even the U.S. Calvary — have worked hard to protect the sequoias and the land they stand on.

I learned that many people have been bewitched by these beasts. Settlers into the 1890s set up shop and built hotels, stores, gas stations, among other facilities. Finally, the Sequoia National Park was created to protect the giants, ending all Sequoia logging activities. Still, it wasn’t until the 1970s people began to truly realize that their presence was affecting the trees’ ecology and beauty.

So many of the trees have names. Let’s see. There’s Clara Barton with her numerous craters. Presidents Lincoln and Washington. And the fallen Michigan tree.

And let’s not forget, General Sherman, the largest tree ON EARTH. General Sherman is estimated to be somewhere around 2,200 years old with a height of 279 feet and a weight of 2.7 million pounds. I couldn’t wrap my mind around General Sherman.

The giants have that way about them — of boggling minds. The first people to stumble across (and keep stumbling) the giant sequoias had to prove to the skeptics that these things actually existed. A number of trees were sacrificed, chopped into bits, and sent overseas to museums who even with proof had deemed them a “hoax.” What oddballs. What freaks.

Many of the trees in the Giant Forest as well as the 75 groves in total have sequoias with shimmering black bark and hollowed out trunks damaged by fire. General Grant is a tree with a massive fire scar. Sean took a picture of the pine tree located next to General Grant to reference just how large the scar is, and how staggering it is for something with that much damage to live on. However, I learned natural fires occur in national parks all the time, and actually, the giant sequoias depend on these fires. Like phoenixes, the sequoias that actually fall (more likely to fall from toppling as opposed to fire) recreate new life and live on through their offspring.

The museum offered a lot of information on the giant sequoias’ impenetrability. There was a John Muir quote on a wall near the exit that particularly stuck with me. “Everything in nature called destruction must be a creation — a change from beauty to beauty.”

I felt an electric surge down my spine as the trees’ profundity washed over me. Feelings of awe and respect called to all the little hairs on my arms. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my cheeks. Sean squeezed my shoulder. I cried the entire way from the museum to the car. I couldn’t stop.

I know what it’s like to have a piece of me destroyed by fire. Little do most people know, I lived in Southern California for a couple of years, and in 2003 my family’s home was taken from us in a wildfire. I remember the flames licking the mountains, the cold sweat that clung to my forehead. I remember shaking my mother awake, tearing through my clothes, grabbing for my photo albums. After weeks of living in Ramada hotels and camping on friends’ couches, we drove back. Trees with chard limbs haunted the landscape. When we sifted through our home in the dust and rubble, nothing stirred, and no one said a word.

We think clothes, pictures, cars, items of sentimental value define us. But in the end fire burns everything like it’s made of paper — scrolls unfurling and curling into themselves. And even though I knew this, I was still left reassessing who I was and what I was made of without my beloved earthly possessions.

These sequoias are naked to me. They’re defiant. I hardly know these trees, and I love them. And my love for them inspires me to be open and bruised and big.

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TGIF

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Fridays are holy days for Alexa and me. I’ve never written about our Fridays. My guess is that I can’t paint them just right. I’ll smudge em up too much. Or maybe there’s something untouchable about them, something that’s reserved for us only. But lately we’re all about being brave and sharing what is most important to us — and that includes each other.

This Friday we went rollerblading through Busse Woods. Though it was a fairly mild winter, we still couldn’t help but seize the first spring-ish day. Alexa didn’t have work, and I was released into the wild early. We hopped into my little red Mazada, which desperately needs a car wash. We parked and feverishly laced up our blades. Alexa wobbled on her feet, asking, “I’m stable, are you stable?”

The pathway was mostly ours. Our muscles remembered the zigzag movement, the loud breeze blasting in our ears. Busse Lake was calm and stretching out in the sun. The trees protruded their nakedness. As soon as we began sweat clung to the middles of our backs.

Alexa and I talked about our plans. She told me how she wanted to be more spontaneous with her workouts, instead of stuffing them into a strict regimen. I told her I wanted to pick up running again, since this time of year is my favorite time to run. We talked about writing. She told me about her blog’s new look and setup, that she wants to work on a new challenge. Her last challenge was not to eat out in order to save money, and she rocked it. I told her about a recent blog I wrote about Trump that wasn’t very good, just something I needed to get off my chest, and also about this book of poems I’ve been putting together that I’d like her help in organizing.

We trucked through the eight-mile trail. We barreled up hills, rounded sharp corners, forgoing the treacherous sticks and patches of tar on the pavement. There was a point where Alexa was trying “too hard to be cool” and almost fell backwards. My heart skipped a beat as she flapped her arms like a crazed bird. We laughed at the close call, and she reminded me of the time last summer we went rollerblading, and I almost ate shit. I had instinctively reached for her arm. “So you want to take me down with you, huh?” she had asked.

We spotted a few of the famous elk lazing around in the grass. It’s amazing how the enchantment of seeing them in a town we’ve lived in most of our lives hasn’t worn off yet.

At the end of the trail, we both sighed our contentment. Even though the blades were off, it felt like they were on. It’s weird how certain movements imprint themselves into your limbs, how they stay with your body for a while afterward.

Before going to Alexa’s, we stopped at the Tensuke Market and picked up some plum wine and seaweed wraps for the sushi we were to make for dinner. I was distracted by all the adorable dishware to eat sushi from. I made a mental note to explore this store on my own, as I never had before. The young man who checked us out bowed each time he received and returned our money, which took us both aback.

Alexa showed me how to assemble sushi. You lay out the wrap, slap some sticky rice on the paper, line up the vegetables, wet the end of the wrap, and roll it nice and tight. The end product awkwardly enough feels like an erect penis. How adult of us to notice this. Anyway, then you slice the log into individual rolls. I think Alexa might have cut more rolls than me because I was talking a lot. I can’t exactly remember everything I said, but I do remember talking and talking. Poor Alexa. That shit has to get exhausting. I get really close to her face when I talk, a pesky habit of mine, which I think used to make her kind of wary. Hopefully by now she’s gotten over my bubble-popping invasiveness.

Her dog Bubba was licking his beautiful, big chops, waiting for us to drop food on the floor in the kitchen. Alexa caved into his demands, giving him a meatball for rolling over. Gale was in the living room, focusing on this new sketch she’s working on of a German Shepherd. She was precise, using a ruler to measure out the face’s dimensions. She showed me the sketch of a friend’s backyard that she had been working on. It’s as inviting as the real thing. The koi fish, the grass, the knick-knacks, Stanley the cat’s tail flickering around the shed. Gale has a way of capturing real life and then some. In my room is a framed sketch that she drew of me. It’s so beautiful I was intimidated to put it up when I first received it. It was like she tapped into something that I sometimes have difficulty seeing and believing myself.

Alexa and I went into her room. We wolfed down our sushi rolls and sipped the plum wine. We scrolled through social media, and read about the Bernie rally that some of our friends had attended. And then it suddenly occurred to us: why didn’t we go?

It dawned on both of us that it would have been really something to be a part of the history we were watching before our very eyes. There was Sanders in his element and glowing, waving his conductor hands, hitting on all the big ones — healthcare, college loans, Wall Street, women’s rights, the lead-poisoned residents in Flint, and the U.S.’s dwindling infrastructure, etc. People of all colors, ages, genders, and ethnicities cheered behind and around him, armed with their “A Future to Believe in” signs. Muse’s Uprising began to play. “They will not control us… We will be victorious…”

Here is a man who has dedicated his whole life to people’s rights, who flies down escalators, who talks with his hands. At 74, he’s awakening a tired and angry America looking for more long-term change. Sanders represents all of them. And he represents Alexa and me. We could have been there, standing shoulder to shoulder with all the others.

In any case, I was happy that I was watching the rally with Alexa. When she got up to go to the kitchen for some more sushi, I gave her hug. I told her, “Man I can’t believe we’re alive right now.”

This was also the same night that Chicago protestors shut down the Trump rally. UIC, one of the most diverse campuses in a melting pot city. This had to have been planned? A publicity stunt. But in any case, the protestors had the place surrounded. They shut. it. down. I’m proud of their efforts, but I’m anxious to learn about the next city to replicate the maneuver — next time with people getting seriously hurt. The truth is I’m scared about the chaos, just like a lot of people I know. The Nazi incitements, the violent Trump rallies, the amount of blatant hatred being tossed about the streets in large hoards of people, which is nothing new, exactly.

I mean everyone seems to be calling this a revolution, and the thing about revolutions if I can remember right from the textbooks and people who are alive to talk about living through one, is that it goes beyond the breaches of electing a president. This is something that needs to be system-wide, population-wide. And I feel we still have miles to go if we want this to happen.

Here’s what I know about organized chaos, since I’ve been somewhat versed in it on a micro level — right now is a chance for great opportunity for those who want to help. During this very alarming time in our country my gut tells me that now is the time to start showing extra strength and kindness. Now is the time for the ones who care to start thinking outside the box to finally get outside the box. I don’t know what that means for me just yet, but I’m willing to be open about it and find out.

I petted the extra soft parts on Bubba’s paws, between the pads. I tried to move him so I could have more room on Alexa’s bed, but failed. He’s such a large animal. His humans keep him safe and happy. And he spends the majority of his day just loving people.

***Alexa and I challenged each other to write about this Friday together. Check out hers here! http://alexawynne.com/2016/03/14/the-politics-of-rollerblading/

 

Spike, the badass flower

Titan Arum

He has name. His name is Spike. I saw him with my own two eyes, and he is a massive, glorious beast. Spike is the name of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s goliath “corpse flower,” or the Titan Arum. It took 12 years for this flower, which is actually a collection of flowers, to reach the height 68’’. Let me just say, it’s simply humbling when you realize that one of those dainty flower things can be taller, wider, heavier — not to mention smarter — than a human being.

One Friday, my sister, friend, and I stumbled upon the idea of going to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We weren’t even aware of the hype, or Godzilla-like specimen that awaited us. Once we arrived, it was clear though, the people had come for Spike. His ribbed, purple face was plastered all over the gift shop. He was on shirts and bags. On cooking aprons and postcards. He was the star of the show. Little kids were tugging on sleeves and whining, “Mom, I want to smell the stink.”

What stink? We wanted to smell the stink, too.

Then, there he was. In the center of the Semitropical Greenhouse, reaching toward the glassed in heavens. People were crowding around him, snapping selfies with the monster.

My sister, friend, and I stood with our mouths agape, taking in the near six foot “corpse flower.” The Titan Arum, native to Indonesia, has a rotting flesh smell that attracts pollinators. And not cute little bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds. No, this flower with its nightmare bloom has its heart set on dung beetles and flies. The tall center part of the bloom, the spadix, heats up to help disperse the odor far distances. The spadix heats up to 98F, the same temperature as the human body. Since the flower’s natural habitat is the rainforest, the greenhouse had to be kept to humid temperatures of 75 to 90 percent saturation at all times.

The time of our visit was important. The flower was set to bloom any night (it blooms at night), possibly the evening of our visit. Once we got our fill, we wandered over to the other botanic displays, all lovely and presentable in their own right. But our thoughts lingered on Spike. We stayed until closing. Though the rest of the grounds were hard for us to scope out, the lights were still on Spike when we returned. We took one last whiff and crept to my car in the darkness.

Over the next week, my sister alerted me that there was a Kardashian-like cam on Spike at all times. “Still hasn’t bloomed,” my sister informed me at the end of each day. Then on August 24, Spike stopped working overtime.

When the botanists were asked why the flower did not bloom, they responded, “We’re not entirely sure. In nature, plants have the choice of reproducing or surviving. Spike ‘chose’ to survive, having run out of energy to complete reproduction.”

The botanists talk about plants as if they have actual “choices” to make, and this by far sticks with me beyond anything. Maybe there’s something inside me that is still cheering Spike on; that is grateful Spike ‘chose’ to save his energy for himself rather than relinquish his true power in front of the cameras and hungry people eager to see him perform — to emit a smell so foul that eyes would water, grandmothers would dry heave. “Summon the flies!” we all cheered.

“Nah,” said Spike, and then he fucking quit.

When botanists learned that Spike would not bloom, they opened him up. They tried their best to harvest the pollen, or perform in front of viewers “the delicate procedure of removing the spathe by cutting around the base of the flower just above where it attaches to the stalk of the plant.” (This sounds to me like performing an autopsy on the still living, but what do I know? Apparently, there is a slight risk to the procedure, but it’s not entirely harmful to the plant.)

Gardens typically divvy up pollen so that other plants may thrive. It turns out Spike had very little pollen to offer. And his female flowers weren’t ready to receive pollen. And guess what: there was no rotting meat smell. Instead, a “slight smell” only if you held it up very close to your nose.

The Botanic Garden was simply floored that people, 75,000 to be exact, would come from miles around just to see Spike bloom in person and from their computers and phones. My sister and I were among the many texting each other updates on the flower’s progress. Spike is a natural born conversation starter.

Spike would have been the first Titan Arum to bloom in Chicagoland, but he didn’t. And it’s a crying shame because he raked in a lot of attention. Can you see where this is going?

The garden has seven other flowers just like Spike. “Spike, who?” read the Chicago Tribune headline on September 29. Now, in comes Alice, who debuts today at 7 p.m. The extremely rare sibling of Spike is now powdering up and getting ready for her big show.

These flowers are entirely unpredictable. In nature they only flower once in 1000 days, and the bloom only lasts for three days. Very few people have ever seen them flower. There is fairly little research on them though they were officially discovered in 1878 by the Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari. I think one was featured in a Simpson’s episode.

Spike in the meantime, lies dormant in a freezer, ready to bloom another day (or not). To which I say, that’s okay Spike, you do what you gotta do.

Sources:

chicagobotanic.org/titan/spike_titan_arum

bioscigreenhouse.osu.edu/titan-arum-faqs

nbcchicago.com/news/local/Why-Chicago-Botanic-Gardens-Corpse-Flower-Didnt-Bloom-323375051.html

chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/home/ct-titan-arum-corpse-flower-blooming-botanic-garden-20150929-story.html

bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Titan_arum#p004gx80

Quiet discoveries: Visiting Navajo National Monument

My partner and I were the only ones on the desolate Betatakin hike, one half of the Navajo National Monument in Arizona. I learned Betatakin translates in the Navajo (or Diné) language to “house built on a ledge.”

One of my first observations in my travels through Navajo Nation was that most of the homes were underneath, on top of, or near massive rock formations and hills as opposed to in the open fields and on flat stretches of land. The proximity to the mountains and formations is important. According to traditions, the mountains were placed here by the Holy People, and the Earth People were to live in a way that achieves harmony and balance. I have gathered that positioning is everything to the Navajo, which always was and remains relevant to this country’s history.

The Betatakin trail has three routes. It was one of the quietest hikes I’ve ever been on. We could hear the whiney flies and this elusive insect that sounded like maracas, and that’s pretty much it. I forget how deafening silence can be. The sand was a redish powder that’s soft to the step.

The information distributed throughout the trail was high quality even in comparison to other botanical gardens I have frequented—recently being the Phoenix Botanical Garden and the Chicago Botanical Garden (both great places). My reasoning here is because not only were the plants and shrubbery named, but they were described in great detail for their livelihood and usage. For example, the Hesperaloe, an aloe plant with scraggly hairs, was used by Natives in shampoos. The plethora of information makes sense, given that the Navajo and Hopi peoples were some of the earliest pioneers of natural ointments and medicines. I regret not partaking in a guided tour, which I wasn’t aware of until later.

And I don’t know if this was a feeling that I had but every plant, branch, tree, and bush on the trail seemed to have a place. I felt a little like I was walking into an exhibit or a store, where everything was specifically arranged. And I felt a little like Abu from Aladdin about to disturb the sand gods from their slumber after I pocketed a small stone that was layered like Neapolitan ice cream.

Navajo 2

Navajo 3

Navajo 4

Navajo 6

Navajo 7

Overall, I’m honored to have had this experience on a landmark that will hopefully continue to shape the history of a land that never really belonged to anyone expect for the Native peoples. Looking over the multi-layered cliffs, sifting my shoes through the soft sand, and marveling at the forest sitting in the bowl of the canyon filled me with a profound appreciation. I bow my head in humility to this experience. And not because I think any Navajo person is better than me or I feel personally indebted, but because these are the voices of history’s most spiritual and land loving people who deserve the respect and recognition.

My partner and I enjoyed the bramble trees, rabbit brush, Douglas fir and the whole host of other named and unnamed plant life. I was intrigued by the four or five different lizards poking out of the rocks and sand. I tried to record a lizard who kept extending and collapsing his limbs, making it look like he was doing push-ups. Silly buggers.

The trail was a steep one that winded downward. We were careful with our footing and obeyed the signs warning against venturing off the path. The trip was worth it for what was waiting for us at the bottom. Not only was there a full, green forest sitting in the middle of the 560-foot deep canyon, but there were cliff dwellings, left by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, in the alcove above it. I could feel my heart rocketing around inside my chest at the sight of such a small village. My eyes roamed the sandstone blocks and climbed the ladders from room to room. Seeing a piece of history locked behind a glass box in a museum is one thing, but venturing down a trail to find discover it is an entirely new experience for me. There’s not much left for me to say except for that it was truly breath-taking, a phrase that I try not to use often.

Navajo 1

Navajo 5

Navajo 8

Navajo 9

It was an hour before we came across another group, two older women who were following a Navajo guide. I overheard the women talk about my partner and I who walked up the steep rock steps with ease. One woman huffed her exhaustion and said, “Climbing is a young man’s sport.” And the guide goes, “I don’t know, but I feel like some women can do it better.” I smiled at him and telepathically gave his heart a little squeeze for that sentence.

On our way out we stopped by the visitor’s center. There was an elderly woman decked out in her most intricate patterned tribal gear. She was sitting in a chair, carefully working on a rug. She stared up at me with these big, earthy brown eyes, and I suddenly felt awkward and stupid standing there, not saying anything. I wanted to ask her questions and complement her art. I don’t know, I guess I didn’t want to feel like a bumbling tourist.

By the entryway, there was a man who was painting. On the table were small paintings on scraps of canvas. He had painted red rock formations, hogans, buttes, among other natural scenes on the Navajo land. Some were in front of sunsets; others were cast against a sky dripping with stars. His name is John Bahe Smith. Again, I wished I would have asked him questions about himself. What is it with people too afraid to ask questions about human experience? I regret my silence. But he seemed pretty happy about the sale, and I was happy to give a talented artist my money. I can’t wait to frame my new treasure.

Navajo 10

On the back of the piece John wrote:

Fork Stick Hogan
The Holy People made the first hogan—from the beginning of the world—and faced it to the East.

The seeds of screams

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”

http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Munch/resource/171

“This is where it picks up,” my brother says,
strumming his pant leg with long fingernails
lined in the dirt he’s been digging up for years.
He glances at me to see if I’m still watching
then peers at the lyrics he’s scribbled down—
four lines at a time about rising from ashes.

It’s anti-climactic when my brother screams.
To him, screaming is song and second language,
and as he teaches me I marvel at his proficiency.
The guttural sound erupts from a bubbling pit
in the diaphragm, rising from the gut quick as bile.
The acidity sits in the back of the throat, not burning,
but patiently waiting, stalking, until the mouth opens.

When he screams, his flesh remains the same pale
with a hint of peach. There is no crimson waterfall,
soft bleeding of pinks, or plum purple in his cheeks,
I see no pulsating veins bursting like fresh bruises.
His face does not contort into rage, disfigured hate.
He could be blowing candles out on a birthday cake.

Women of horror used to be called scream queens,
and I wonder what kind of primal cue it’d take for me
to emit a sharpness as blood-curdling and skin-liquefying.
Somewhere there’s a scientist with a lock box of screams
and an outdated psychologist who tells patients to relive
their pasts, rehash a few lashings in order to purge pain.

The same people who brought you into the world began
with a scream – a concoction of pleasure, pain, and relief.
And when a baby’s head protrudes from the womb, it’s harsh
and sweet. You break your mother, and she transcends sound,
feeling to reach infinite barriers, beyond pain of femininity.

Once when I was a kid, I was playing before I trapped myself
underneath a door that was yet to be attached to its doorway.
I squirmed in my winter coat, and the weight on top of me
stifled the cry of terror in my lungs; it was barely a whisper.
My mother had pulled the heavy mass off and showered me
in comfort, soothing coos to calm to my close-call tears.

Now the only time I attempt to scream is in dreaming.
I kick like a dog who can’t catch her unconscious assailant.
I wake up and my throat is hoarse, but there’s no memory.

“Before you scream, don’t just throw it out there, focus it,”
my brother tells me. “Then let it flow, give it room to breathe.”

So I gulp air, cradling my own wind close to me before I scream,
and when I do, I call out to all my silences and shake them
like branches of trees laundering seeds ready to be born.

Green pain

When I was a kid I never noticed things like sunflowers pointing toward the sun. I realize now it’s a little creepy – like they have a soul or something. Maybe there was once a time when I sat for long periods and was okay with being myself on some random stump, or rock, or hill.

I used to watch my mom writhe in bed, wriggle like a worm set on fire. There was a music to it. Professionals couldn’t agree on the tune. It meant something different to each white coat. A leech, maybe. Wires switched around or exposed? Suppose there was something swimming around in the abyss of her DNA. They all murmured something different. I used my imagination to color in her pain. I wore it like a new summer hat. I closed my eyes tight, imagining electric shocks pricking my vertebrae or icy cold fingers wrapped tight around my spine. I imagined what it was like to see nothing coming. To feel NOTHING knock me off my feet, or turn off gravity.

My dad’s pain was just as tough to wrestle. I imagined playing hide and seek with him and never finding him. Though it’s been 15 years, he still suffers for the dents in the furniture, the empty cans in the storage locker. I can see it in his face just before he changes the subject or cracks a joke, when he forgets birthdays. Sometimes when I take swigs of drinks, I imagine it’s like kissing him on an open sore on his mouth.

There’s so much noise out there. I contribute to it. I’m just one mechanical wave in an auditory ocean made of vibrating waves. There’s so much noise. People yell over roaring engines, explosions, over a soundless cyberspace that’s just as loud as everything else. The internet’s echo is loud enough to wake me from a sound sleep. But pain is still the loudest of all. And yet, I wear it in the winter, wrap it around my neck like a scarf to keep me warm.

I want to feel the pain, so when that crinkle in the face we call a smile happens, I’m there to see it. Not take ownership of it, just see it. Like a solar eclipse or the sighting of a humpback whale. There’s something insanely beautiful about smiles poking holes through sadness.

When I was a kid I used to spin around in circles and just see a blur of grass. Everywhere, it was green. I was dizzy with green. Maybe I would have realized that if I stopped spinning for one second, I could notice the calmness of things. I could pick out individual blades of green.