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.

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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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Garden of two goddesses

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Just us girls. Camping in the wilderness without the Seans. Two Seans. I have a Sean, and Alexa has a Sean. It just ended up that way. I told her when she was single that she didn’t necessarily need, but could use a Sean to keep her warm at night. It wasn’t hard to look. We all grew up in the same town a few miles away from each other on blocks named after trees. We’re good people. Or at least I like to think so.

But back to camping and rocking out in nature with our vags out. Not really. I mean, our vags are in our pants, but they’re as swampy as a bowl of French onion soup after hiking all day.

I built a fire for the first time ever, and we roasted seasoned vegetables over it. Mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, red peppers. Alexa used lemon and garlic powder to season the vegetables and slapped them down into a homemade tin foil bowl. She wrapped them up tight. She calls these things “hobo pockets,” which as a word is mildly offensive, but quite wonderful as a meal.

I feel full and toasted around the edges. My center is as mushy as the potatoes we gobbled up. We weren’t sure the potatoes were ever going to cook. But they turned out to be worth the wait.

I’m thinking about that phrase “having a friend at the end of the world.” I know there’s a movie with a similar title. But I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about Alexa and me. We’re two friends, and it’s not the end of the world, but if it was, I think I’d be okay on this melded, moss-freckled rock in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest.

Alexa came up with the idea to go camping without our doting, lovely boyfriends, so we hopped in her car and drove the five hours, just to say we set up camp and lived. And lived we did.

At first the ground was hard and refused our stakes. We forgot to bring a hammer. We used our hands, grunted with our entire bodies. Alexa used her car’s window scraper. And I used a wine bottle, which wasn’t the brightest idea. We dragged the tent farther into the campsite, and eventually we landed on a spot that would take.

Unfortunately, the only camp site that was available when we arrived was the one next to the outhouses. This is our luck. And so, the wind wafted the worst smell known to man, his own excrement, of course. Nothing hangs on the nose more than our own shit. It’s kind of funny, actually. Alexa and I like to think of ourselves as regular older poopers, and the campsite fits. And the thing about bad smells, as Alexa reminded me, is that you get used to them the longer you’re around them.

Alexa packed up a real feast: pita chips and hummus, buns, vegan sausages, and loads of vegetables. She bundled everything together in a basket like it was a Christmas package for us to unravel together. Complete the scene with an open fire.

I am overcome with gratitude and s’mores-layered love for my friend who always thinks ahead and crosses items off lists. This is a very true characteristic about her. She’s punctual, prepared, and sometimes a little anxious about how the future will play out.

As a whole, Alexa is one of those people who has a feeling but can’t quite put her finger on how genuinely beautiful of a person she is. She has had to grow up very fast in household with a single mother with severe untreated depression. In the beginning of our friendship, I recall a cynical, but loving Alexa who doted on her mother and her every whim.

Eventually, she loosened the string around such a tightly bound tangle. She, as an only child, did this much later than some. But like all of us, there comes a time when we have to let go of our parents’ hands for their sake and our own. I know this from Alexa and myself, and well, a lot of people.

I realize as we roam the Garden of the Gods wilderness — dry, dusty, and laundered in long, thick brush —  that I’m proud of my friend and myself for getting along in world we define as our own.

Last night, we ventured down the gravel road leading away from our campsite. We let our heavy heads sag from our necks as we surveyed the stars that were so close to our faces they could stick to our flesh. We were standing on the inside of a purple marble. The stars blinked. And some of the blinking stars turned out to be planes.

I peered into the pitch black road. I was suddenly cold and hyperaware of the darkness, but held onto the lantern, the stars and planes, and the length of time it took for me to realize that I couldn’t possibly die alone in that moment standing next to Alexa. She would be there to help testify the life I lived and the life she played a significant role in.

(Alexa. Wearing a checkered hoodie and green rain boots, about to walk her her golden retriever in the rain. It’s the image I’ve come to associate with her more than anything else.)

But this trip has given me so many more images to preserve like jam. There was a moment last night when we were talking. We had a bit of wine, and all of a sudden Alexa broke out in a sweat and laid her head on the picnic table. She told me she was scared she would pass out. I was overcome with a sick, frozen fear, and my mind raced. We were after all in the middle of nowhere and without cell phone service. How smart of us, I criticized in my head.

I ratcheted back and forth to conclusions. Food poisoning. Altitude sickness. Some wild bacteria. I finally reached the conclusion where I would be no where and nothing without her. I asked her if she needed me to run for help. But she assured me she just needed to rest her head for a while.

I thought maybe it had been my fault. I had been telling her about my family and struggles. Maybe it was too much to hear. That noise makes me dizzy too. Sometimes I feel I say too much and the weight of words fall on Alexa, who takes the brunt of my conscious fears and levels of distrust. I said nothing and wondered if I was too heavy of a friend, and then Alexa lifted her head, and said, “WHOO, I think I just needed a good sweat. I feel better.”

She felt better, and I felt drunken relief and sober joy.

In the morning, we finagled out of our tent and drank cold coffee. We decided to drive down to a gas station where we’d have service and could call our boyfriends to tell them we were alive. Alexa drove, and we kept cracking jokes to cover up the wrong turns. But soon enough, we both admitted to each other we were lost.

“I don’t remember that barn, do you?” we asked each other. We drove alongside rows and rows of Illinois’ finest fucking corn that started to look like a blurry sea.

Alexa and I have a habit of getting lost together. One time, we almost got locked in a forest preserve, another one in rural Illinois, past dark. We saw a deer on our wrong way back to the car. And Alexa couldn’t getting over me calling it “a total deer.” In most cases, our wrong turns tend to be worth it.

As suburb folk, so much of Illinois is beyond our reach. Barrels of hay, windmills, and busted down barns. Driveways that run deep into low hanging greenery. Dusty, desolate towns. Men on tractors and underneath cars, covered in the grime of work. Women sitting in lawn chairs, smoking. Kids waddling around in diapers. We drove through one town that was completely dedicated to something called “Mule Days.” Signs with mules are displayed on lawns across the town of Enfield, Illinois.

Alexa, a vegan, made quick, painful eye contact with the cows we passed in trucks. I could tell she was also getting nervous about being lost, and told her that we always find our way.

2 and a half hours later, we eventually found our way back. We didn’t waste any time on our embarrassment as we threw water and snacks into Alexa’s back pack. She let me carry the camera, and I let it dangle on its strap from my shoulder.

We climbed jagged steps and grabbed hold of tree trunks to help us along the trails. Our calves began to scream, and perspiration clung to our lower backs. The stones, which were formed millions of years ago, have lizard skin. The red and silver patterns swirl and twist and shine like molten lava. Some stones reminded me of layered paper flowers. The largest boulders could each be their own landmark. They sit on top of each other in clumsy, yet sturdy ways. Leaning, bowing, bending, rolling stones piled and piled one on top of the next.

I didn’t know what I was doing, really, but I snapped picture after picture. We ran into a group of people who were resting next to their horses. I asked to take a picture of this man and his horse. Alexa laughed and told me it was like I had never seen a horse before. I’m pretty much this way in every new setting. It’s all context.

A small creek kept us company while we ate lunch — peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I paced back and forth to prevent the flies from getting too cosy on me.

By the time we arrived to the campsite, we were stumbling underneath the weight of our exhaustion.

Right now we’re sitting next to each other on rocks and writing. I’m sipping wine from a coffee mug, drinking away my body’s aches. It’s getting darker, and after the taste of the stars last night, I’m hungry for more. They could be dessert.

This is the land of the gods, and we’re two awkward, but strong goddesses keeping a close eye on our steps.

Annie Dillard in present time: Thoughts on “The Abundance”

I started reading “The Abundance,” a compilation of some of Annie Dillard’s best, most badass, or as editor Geoff Dyer puts it, “genre-resistant” essays.

Overall, I like to write about traveling, so I find this work inspiring and stimulating so far. I appreciate Dillard’s tendency to sidetrack, to run away with something, and turn an observation on its head.

The first story is about Annie’s travels to Yakima, Washington to watch a total eclipse with her husband.

The first sentence that punched me in the gut was about how when we see something in nature so stupefyingly beautiful, we don’t know how to speak up for ourselves. It’s like those questions we get when we’re in the midst of kissing someone we’re beyond excited to kiss: what am I supposed to do with my hands? Oh yeah, and which way to Earth?

I remember driving through Sequoia National Park with Sean. Climbing and climbing and all those hairpin turns. The green valley sinking beneath the weight of mountains. Mountains shrouded in clouds. I shivered, taking them in. But I couldn’t for the life of me come up with a damn thing to say. I was practically drooling. A dog with her head out the window, overwhelmed by the blur of smell and sight. Dillard described this failing of words as something quite endearingly foolish. She also breaks down the “I could hardly breathe” cliché to illustrate the experience we have when we are overcome by awe.

“I watched the landscape innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out.”

It’s interesting that the beginning of the story starts out in a hotel, where Dillard is preparing herself for her adventure in the sky. She sees a creepy painting of a clown hanging on the wall in the hotel lobby. Only, the clown’s features are made up of vegetables.

“The crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley. Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers; between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of real tongue. The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.”

This is obviously not a usual way to depict a clown, which is perhaps why it sticks in her memory so clearly. We’ve seen them depicted the same way for so long; we don’t question the red nose, the frazzled, rainbow wig, the chalky face paint. What about a clown made of vegetables? Is funnier? Is it sadder? Is it a more pronounced distortion of meaning? It is those unruly and juxtaposed things in nature that stick with us, maybe even change us. It is up to us to describe the indescribable. This is what Dillard seems to say when we encounter something that is beyond the confines of language.

When Dillard actually sees the eclipse, she describes its alien-like appearance, its fleeting definition. She and a bunch of other observers who have gathered to watch don’t know how to take it. They scream. She screams. It’s terrifying because it doesn’t make sense to see the world in this way.

“From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began.”

It’s suddenly dark, like the sky closed a lid. It’s soundless and unsettling. Like there’s nothing, “no world at all.” It feels like death; like they’re all dead and floating, Dillard describes.

“Abruptly it was a dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. For the hole where the sun belongs is very small. Just a thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth tolled down.”

She grabs for a definition, but realizes that it isn’t within the common vocab of the human experience. Those especially who lack an understanding of astronomy, she says, will not be able to understand its magnitude in these more tangible terms. But then she goes on to point out scientific theory fallibility, which can’t account for all the sheer wonder found within a firsthand account, an unknowing eyewitness. You don’t have to know numbers and figures to experience the fullness of such a phenomenon. The knowledge you have may actually get in the way, or “blind you” to experiencing something in a new light. With any given experience we have to make sure that we ourselves don’t become eclipsed, she seems to say here.

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.”

I also just read “The Deer at Providencia,” which is about Dillard’s travels through the village of Providencia in Ecuador. This section focuses on one overarching image — a deer that has been captured and tied to a tree. It desperately tries to escape, cutting itself on the ropes. It’s a violent scene that made me want to stop reading.

“Its neck was no thicker than my wrist; it had been rubbed open on the rope, and gashed. Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves. The raw underside of its neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the skin. Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw.”

She watches the deer tire itself. It goes on for 15 minutes. During this time, Dillard’s unfazed expression at the flailing deer is also noted.

Dillard’s travel companions, who were all from big cities, were taken aback by her detachment of the scene of suffering they all witnessed.

She asks them, “Gentleman of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know of it?”

One man explains, “If it had been my wife … she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another. She couldn’t bear to see a creature in agony like that.”

Later when Dillard arrives home, she looks in her mirror. Taped to the corner of her mirror, is a newspaper clipping of a severely burned man, someone who had experienced devastating burn not for the first, but for the second time in his life. Every day, the clipping explains, he lies awake in pain wanting to die. Dillard reads this same story every day so she knows that pain like his exists.

“I read the whole clipping again every morning. This is the Big Time here, every minute of it. Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Providencia in his dignity, what is going on? And copy me on it.”

It’s an interesting take on suffering that I think a lot of people disagree with. Is it enough to know? Is it enough to read the newspaper? Shouldn’t we alleviate? Many of us would argue, yes. A lot of us (especially women, as the city gentleman seems to hint) would go running toward the deer or at least squirm in anguish at the sight of something so horrific and sad.

But I think Dillard makes an interesting statement that not a lot of us can accept for some reason or the other. Suffering happens, and the majority of it goes on with our input or non-input. She seems to say no being (animal or non-animal) has more or less dignity than the next, but also seems to remind us that their suffering is a part of nature. That there is no full-proof explanation for why one suffers and why one does not.

The world is never entirely cured of some things. This is the way it functions. Mothers suffer from autoimmune diseases. People are burned in accidents. Deer die in sad ways. Etc. This is a difficult concept to face. Dillard argues that we need to face it, be present, and understand it the best we can.

What I like most about Dillard’s travel log style, is her presentness, and that she does not have a “conqueror” complex. She does not demand something of her environment. She lets it speak to her and through her. With both stories I’ve read so far, from her point of view, it is not in her interest to control the experience while she is experiencing it. Rather, she is there to simply experience and see where her presentness of the moment carries her later on the page. When there is a gap in memory or capability she injects her own special brand of wildness. These are the parts of her stories where the bottom suddenly drops out, where everything seems the same, yet inverted.

Rooster goes Cockadoodledoo

My nephew’s name is Sky, and I see sky for miles.
I thank the universe for letting me be so close to the clouds.

Sky likes the touch of leaves and sunshine on his pale legs.
To him, the forest is filled with long reeds and stems
to caution and laugh out loud at.

We veer off track, and as I push him through grass,
long, slim skins skim his knee.

His instincts kick in, and he throttles into his seat
in horror or fits of giggles.

There is no in between.

Then we play peek-a-boo through the mesh of the stroller,
the window to his gummy soul.

We’re strolling past a farm, stumbling upon a chicken
that’s actually a rooster. We surprise him,
so he ruffles his neck and straightens.

I’ve never heard a cockadoodledoo in broad daylight,
a mere two feet away from my face before.

My nephew can’t speak yet, but I’m hoping he’s internalized
the sound and syllables, and how off-key the noise
is with expectations.

His eyes pop, and the bird’s eyes pop;
its wattle snaps to attention.

Wordlessly, they exchange thoughts while I sprout feathers.

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.

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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.