Yellowstoned

And it was a shapeless voyage. Underplanned; underfunded. Like that time in my twenties when my boyfriend and I camped up and down the California coast. Freezing our asses off, we’d been whipped into submission by the frigid ocean wind, and—guided by whims— moved east, north, then back toward the coast in a zig zag of unrepentant spontaneity. We landed once in a campground a few miles off I-5 that was so dusty it’s dirt had never heard of rain and yet none of it mattered, being such a small fare to pay Life in order to feel free and unencumbered.

For our original Yellowstone itinerary had to be scrapped because of an unexpected June blizzard, but somehow the girls, mom and I get there and it’s morning—June 15 2008 (Fathers Day)—when we’re stopped at the side of the road watching a grizzly bear eat a baby elk. The snow had melted into the pasture and the bears fur blew in an imperceptible breeze, and as the tiny carcass (certainly still warm) became christened as the backdrop for our first trip after daddy moved, 6 year old Livy cried softly—“I bet the mommy elk is looking for her baby right now!”—in the tender, knowing way that was her trademark.

Because on that day, grief had pierced us. The whims of a man—my husband, their daddy—living 2000 miles away with his coworker and her toddler son reflecting back to us the rejection all humans are petrified to feel.

And I’d withstood the tears of my self and my girls from a year of events that cut the soul. Him using lawyers and anger to abuse my future; using callous words asked of children–“why can’t you stop being selfish and just be happy for me?”–to relieve himself of the shame of leaving his daughters. The girls hyperventilating in anxiety that mommy would also disappear; sobbing into my shoulder, “I miss my daddy” during PE classes full of classmates who could smile in the full privilege of being free from excruciating truths.

There are evacuations from disasters; floods, fires; where nature beckons us to face emotional foes via the tactical dances of physical structures; where something can kill you but it’s not personal, it’s merely the cost of doing business on a planet from which we also eat and survive.

And there are evacuations via tactical dances of psychology. Holes unrecognized moving dads into cold selfishness. Evacuations where something is threatening us, and nothing we can say or weep makes any difference, and we’re forced to accept that it is personal and the landscape of our emotional lives is altered via killing not just our way of life but also our desire to survive in this newly barren landscape.

And watching that field, my little girls and I felt rooted to those truths. Stuck by the still-knife of temporal events which repeatedly wound us until we remain inside them, as if walking beside the ghost shadow of ourselves.

Where the world has stopped being emotionally concerned in the slightest and wields “uncaring” as an emblem announcing they’re proud to be so.

So on that day—on that Fathers Day, on that first trip at the end of a dark year; on that slight hill, next to at least a hundred other spectators—I briefly joined Livy in wondering about that mama elk. And about the world that Mama and I live in. Wondering how we can see this harm and yet still carry it. Wondering about the inherent indifference of it all and how those of us who still care can find the strength to survive this world.

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The 1988 fires of Yellowstone twenty years before had made scars that settled into the landscape. In that 1988 summer, thirty-six percent of the park had burned—trees falling like sticks on each other to rest, afterwards, in permanent homage to the dignity of their past. That year, new aspen groves—waning in the park before the fires—sprouted up miles from their burnt foremothers. The seeds for the shoots had been carried on wind and water and popped up out of soil only days after the fires, so to now—in 2008, on our hasty sojourn through Yellowstone—they could grow proudly beside their ancestors like a lesson. As if Time is a benevolent gift which purposely withholds wisdom for a reason.

Standing near me, my mom—visiting from California for this voyage—lifted Julia in her arms to look at the bear. A pragmatist, mom had sprinkled the year with her visits, rounding out the too-obvious empty spot at our dining table, offering comforts for the day to day life that had kept bigger holes from forming, sharing platitudes—“God never gives you more than you can handle”—she didn’t know were set to the tune of a year with me curled up in the fetal position convulsing in sorrow. For not everyone feels called to answer the same questions about an uncaring world. Not everyone’s 7 year old with a red, puffy face will ask them, “But what if that baby just couldn’t run fast enough?” Sometimes God DOES give you more than you can handle. Sometimes God gives you more than you can handle and then calls you to make it palatable for the little being resting on your hip watching a bear eating a baby elk.

And this baby on my hip was heavy. Seven years old now, holding her stuffed panda Bibble who spent the last year going everywhere with us. Before this baby on my hip was born, I was afraid I wouldn’t love her as much as I loved her older sister. I couldn’t understand how it was possible to do so considering that her older sister had pulled me into desperate things from which I rose up to grow steadier. But this child on my hip would be born in sight of a mom fully in love, parenting myself by soothing my immature worries, evolving towards a better self I didn’t even know I could be. A better self informing my worries of their impermanent nature; a better self that rises to answer hard questions using the magic of knowing there are sights and sounds yet to behold if we can persevere through the agony.

And in the bright sunshine of that June day in 2008 that bear’s fur blew in the breeze, floating in air I didn’t even know was moving. The heaviness on my hip and in my heart cloaking the lighter qualities of this existence, qualities which fall under the spell of the great mystery of why we’re even here at all. Was it God? The Big Bang? The Big Bang being on of the greatest mysteries of all. If that event had obeyed the currently-accepted laws of our physical universe, it would’ve created matter and anti-matter in equal amounts, so condensed as to annihilate one another, leaving only energy. But that’s not what happened.

And my feet were standing on All of the unknowns. Near burned aspen groves that were direct clones of groves mammoths and camels had (probably) grazed on 10,000 years before. Under the worry and the dizzying brutality of a world we can’t deny exists. Unable to utter platitudes about God to placate via falsehood.

And suddenly Julia climbs out of grandma’s arms and crunches gravel to come closer and whisper to Livy, “Maybe that bear is also a mama with babies to feed.”

And I smell my baby in my arms. See the dirt of this planet under her fingernails.

And Livy’s looking down at her sister, and her red eyes give pause. Her small hands clutch her ratty, stuffed panda bear as her agony slowly opens the gift so generously offered by the sister she adores.

And it’s Father’s Day 2008 in Yellowstone, and we stand in a tree-filled meadow of green (under the morning ease of our effortlessly-generous star) within earshot of strangers, and foreign languages and motor homes, and tripods, and park rangers directing traffic, and wade through tangible experiences of predation, holding gifts of love for one another and our concern for our world now poignantly growing together inside the shadows of a burned landscape where groves of trees were now in full bloom.

Come see me, Sophie

Come see me, Sophie, as you’re walking the blue twilight between worlds.

Come see me, in that dream land, when the pain disappears and the body absorbs into stars, and we can behold the sun as it rises on this first new day.

Come see me,
From your world beyond breath, when the boldness of your heart finds itself again, and in the unburdening from flesh you can see the magic of who you are.

Come see me, Sophie, watching the tears of a Sophie-less morning,
Then scamper off to the world you now belong to,
catching joy like butterflies,
looking back to see me (one more time)
Quietly calm in the salty stream
Daring the world to make me forget

For as on the lawn that day with my hand stretched out was forever and when you reached back to me, you painted me into wholeness, your eyes holding the wonder of the blue sky and the deep green, making Time stand still and Life splashed in colors while the clouds watched and danced across the sun.

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IMG_3247

Sophie was an old girl I cared for for several years. She’d had been adopted as a senior dog—when I met her dad and his three dogs—from a post off a FB rescue page, joining sled dogs Greta and Tala. And I don’t know if she just liked me, or was like this with everyone, but she was old, and naughty, and demanding, and mesmerizing and charming and made me laugh so much even as she started slowing down. It was always something with that dog; every moment with her was a guaranteed memory. On one walk, they’d all been sniffing for a bit as dogs do, and Greta and Tala were ready to get going so I looked back to see if Sophie needed some extra recovery time–she was clearly limping from bad hips at that point–and when I do I see a “rope” hanging out of Sophie’s mouth. What the…? Well I walked closer to discover the “rope” was a rat tail attached very confidently to a large dead rat that I could only get her to drop by walking so fast she finally had to decide between dropping the rat or breathing. I’m sure she wrestled with the choice for as long as she could then opened her mouth to take a deep breath, and dropped the rat.

Sophie went downhill very suddenly when I was caring for her in July 2017. She wouldn’t eat the pre-cooked steaks or chicken her family had left—she was in decline but they thought it was okay to go on a hasty honeymoon to Montana—and though I cradled her back end with my sweatshirt and steadied her front with her leash to get her out to sit in the side yard even this long-favorite activity made her stare into space in impenetrable sadness. On 7/11/2017, on the evening visit–her parents were rushing back from their trip; driving all night—I sat with Sophie on the dirty concrete, stroking her head, tears dripping down and said goodbye, telling her to come see me from the place where she was going to which I couldn’t yet follow. And I left for my own home and her parents got back in the middle of the night to send her off and that morning, before I even knew they’d gotten back, I was woken up “saying” the first lines of this poem. Which I wrote down and fell back to sleep. And cried when I found out it had indeed happened.

A few months passed, and I was asked to come sit for Greta and Tala; and I’m not woowoo enough to tell Sophie to “come see me” and be expectant. But I know the unexplainable happens. While positing that a spirit realm is “real” comes with folks saying it’s all just grief and brain chemicals and unprovable notions to be scoffed at, it can’t be argued that even the skeptics exist in the largest almost-nearly completely unprovable series of concepts known as observable time and space (what’s at the bottom of the ocean? Why didn’t anti-matter and matter annihilate each other? What is the universe made of? Why does our DNA make us human? etc. ) and so I’m openminded. And it was during that first trip without Sophie that, after our walk, it was dark and Greta and Tala were hanging in the side yard–Sophie’s favorite place–and I wasn’t looking for her at all but suddenly for a split second something caught my eye at the far side of the yard, scaring me and making me gasp. But then I looked harder and there was nothing. After that trip, it only happened one more time. Was it brain chemicals, grief, wishful thinking? Maybe. But why is that any less of a valid human experience than any of the myriad other things we have no absolutely no understanding of. Folks denigrating placebos as if there was ever any way to separate the influence of the mind/consciousness from the experience of a person.

Thanks for stopping by, Sophie, if that was you.

And thanks for being here with us. You changed the world and that’s true even if science isn’t yet mature enough to prove it.

 

Contrast

[Pic of myself on the Empire State Building, 12/1999]

Nineteen years ago to the day, my ex-h, James, and I were in Reno. We’d driven the 8 hours with our then-2 year and 10 month old daughters, Julia and Livy, to combine James’ business trip with a visit with my mom, who’d driven from California to meet us. Courtesy of my sleepless daughters, we were awake early that morning in our Nugget hotel room with the TV on, and when the South Tower started crumbling it looked—at first–like an innocent puff of dust from one small area high-up. And I can remember thinking the very same thing that Katie Couric(?) was saying: What is that?

“What is that?”

And by the end of that day, America knew what it was and we huddled around collective vulnerabilities, humbled by a shared trauma we couldn’t escape. Enduring together the aftermath of acts of warfare, the pre- and post-9/11 American Story revealing precious naïveté and the injection into our most austere monuments of ingenuity—the tallest buildings, the freedom to feel safe—the visceral understanding that we’re hated enough to die for..

That day in Reno my daughters played at a park that had well-tended equipment placed in a garden setting with those little animals on springs that go back and forth and that spinny thing where you sit on a platform and hold onto bars to revolve into sickness. And while my daughters smiled and laughed, mom and I straddled the two incompatible worlds of children squealing from idyllic fun and Grandpa Bob not dying at the Pentagon by only the most coincidental of reasons. Wondering in clear sublime weather if the death count was in the ten thousands, my daughters unrelenting peals spinning on the same platform as crying mothers strapped into doomed airplane seats. And as coworkers holding hands while jumping to their deaths, their thuds marking a nation’s skin on the inside of her wrists.

Could I ever share with my daughters the reality of this world? Would it break them to know?

And when we returned home to Salt Lake City the next day, I held 10 month old Livy in the calm of night, crying quietly as I rocked in an easy chair from the grief of understanding that being honest about the complexity of humanity is the deep wound we hope to never inflict.

Yet no event ever stops it’s act of becoming. For held within the static nature of a single tragedy is beheld the dynamic experience of myriad humans answering the call to the service of empathy.

And out of box cutters and screams and casually head-down “Falling Man”—[identity still unknown; possible suggestion takes him as an asthmatic sound engineer working at Windows on the World]—were people dying that day comforting each other.

From “What is that?” were Firefighters running up endless stairs they couldn’t see to save the lives of strangers. From frantic voicemails messages were Human beings perishing in a field in PA because they offered their own life to keep others from harm. From rabid murder was the innocence (and tragedy) of American soldiers offering to make right the actions of a foe that had no interest at all in avoiding their own death.

And living always into the fullness of Life is the choice to grow large enough in heart to shelter one another, taking the singularity and solidity of emotion and processing it within the light-magic prism of ourselves.

For the arc of every single story is the growth of Humanity itself.

And into Time bears the witnesses of those so rich in their love for others that their life weaves a connection so strong it evolves to become our universal shield for despair.

[James’ and I had moved to Salt Lake City in mid-2000, and sold our Burke, VA townhome to Stephen Neil Hyland who on 9/11 was killed at The Pentagon; James’ dad, Bob, also worked at The Pentagon in the very section that was destroyed but part of the section had undergone remodeling and was finished but the furniture and equipment hadn’t all been moved back so Bobs normal office was vacant when the plane hit.

James and I divorced in 2007 and when his brother Steve was deployed to Iraq that same year, the girls and I placed our American flag on the middle pillar of our front porch of 1531 Garfield Avenue in Salt Lake City, and it remained there for the duration of his deployment—becoming weathered and tattered and faded; a hole developing on the bottom, front corner (as even the slightest wind had made it catch on the thorny bushes that edged our lawn)—and when Steve returned home, the girls and I took the flag down, folded the frayed fabric as best we could, and gave it to James to give to his brother].

Muh Earl

Some pics belie the tenderness behind them. Because when I met introverted Earl–whose history included the passing of his former owner, the relatives for whom did not find new homes for his cats and Earl was put on the street–his eyes seemed almost too sad to overcome the emotional hesitation.
 
And as a pet sitter, everything is always temporary and short-term. For a few days, I come in, feed, stay for a bit, leave and don’t see them sometimes for a long while between their families trips. And because of this, good connections with sensitive animals who’ve experienced abandonment are challenging to manifest. Since animals become world-weary just like humans, and know better than to get attached. For although circumstances change, once we experience such a loss as Earl had the fear usually settles into even our muscles, so Earl had made his whole body part of keeping distance, revealing his skepticism and hurt as he’d let the other house cats crowd before walking off as if giving up.
 
But I understood Earl. Knew his grief. And in the justified sadness of a sweet cat someone shooed outside as if they were sweeping the floor, I was called to act. So I made time to find him each visit, to sit with him, to specifically bring him into the circle of my attention (even with his extroverted sibs crowding around) because I wanted him to know he was important to me. Wanted to make an event out of “Earl”. Came into the house hollering the refrain “Where’s muh Earl?” so that he knew right away I hadn’t forgotten between trips that he was that tender guy I wanted to see.
 
Because we’ve all looked out upon the world with sad Earl eyes, many of us coming to exist within the immovable sense of not feeling safe enough to trust the world won’t hurt us, for, in fact the world has—Purposefully, Unashamedly—until sometimes we want to even flee from this life. And while these are harsh realities I can’t erase out of existence, I didn’t want to accept that that’s all there is. And Earl didn’t either.
 
For sometimes sadness and grief seem solid as if anchoring us permanently into them. Yet from mutual loss flows a compassion and nurturance for our fellow humans and creatures until somehow, one day, we’re sitting on the couch and old man Earl suddenly climbs into our lap and nuzzles his face in our hair.
 
And there are yet mysteries to solve, but events often become bits of truth constantly discovering itself, and when sweet Earl jumped up that first day—cat hair like love floating delicately around—I think it seasoned us both in what to do with this Life. In how to stand inside the new love we weave into existence as we survive this world more powerfully within togetherness.

Tolkien

[Utah’s “Mount Doom”, courtesy of the 8/2018 California fires a thousand miles away. Even the air knows we’re all connected].

After my divorce in 2007, I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy every year. James (my ex-h) is actually the one who initially said circa 2006 “I bet you’d like the LOTR movies” and he was right and the next year after he moved 2000 miles away to live with his girlfriend and her son, and my children almost died of broken hearts, I bought the books at Barnes and Noble and read them on my front porch.

The books spoke to parts of me that I’d not known were there to the point where the person who wrote them was important to me. What kind of soul, I wondered, would create something this complicated and magical? What kind of life could make this allegorical journey pierce through my grief and trauma so as to feel strength? I had to know, and my wonder brought me to him.

And he wasn’t even a writer; not in the placeholder of those typically dubbed with that label. He was a philologist—studied languages; invented them for his books—and the world he moved in was the academic one.

But his beloved mother had inspired words by encouraging wide reading. Then at age 12, when he endured her death, Tolkien and his little brother became wards of the Catholic Church because their mother had been disowned by her family when she converted to Catholicism thus making his religious allegiance firm. And fast-forward tonwhen in the hospital recovering from a lice infestation, he relived stepping over the dead faces of soldiers and slipping on the blood of his friends in the trenches of WWI that the idea of Middle Earth was born.

As I’d rock in the wrought iron glider James had purchased, I met this man and read his books. As I watched our children play in our neighborhood—James now long gone—then later, inside the bourse, in the privacy of broken hearts, held them when they fell into their panic that I’d somehow disappear forever and they’d be alone, Tolkien made me alive inside the resilience and wisdom born from paths trod of pain. His voice let me live inside worlds I wanted to be called to. Made me lift my sword to a foe that read seemed too big except in newfound fearlessness instead asked me for mercy.

And trauma and grief had settled in to terrorize my girls but through Tolkien’s words and his magical retelling of his difficult life, he bore people of strength and tenderness into possibility.

Only From the trials of his youth did he persevere through fighting greater causes and mightier foes.

And on my porch, rocking in that glider–watching the children I loved more than anything ingesting unwanted trauma; myself inside vulnerability I dared not yet admit—Tolkien taught me that life will be fraught but that when the tender hearts are forced to face the shadows, they get to rise to a greater wisdom.

For though much in life is simply endured, for beauty and love much is also created. And when the tender heart needs a voice, you must make a world for it to live in.