Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Way

Mondo the cat was taken by a coyote yesterday. The details don’t matter so much, and the gnashing of teeth over what might have been done to prevent it have given way to the finality of loss. 

Mondo walked over our sleeping bodies like climbers trace the ridges of mountains. He lay next to me at five in the morning and touched my lips with his paws telling me to wake up. He watched nature shows with me, often more attentive than I to animal action.  He was, to me, my family, and neighbors, a loving eccentric who bounded across the yard just for the fun of it.

And he was a hunter of lizards, packrats, and birds. He brought them all inside so we could share the spoils of the hunt -- not something I appreciated, especially the packrats. He was also part of the desert food chain and territoriality. At least once a bobcat followed him up to the back door of our house. There was a great horned owl that roosted in the giant mesquite of our backyard who waited for his chance. Coyotes patrolled the front yard, eyes on the porch.  Javelina bristled when Mondo got too close, curious, and personal. 

 Mondo lived a full, happy,  predatory life. He fell prey to the cycle. 

His absence leaves a hole in our family. Sad. Very sad. He leaves behind his sweet sister, Simone. 

As with all creatures who lived fully, his example is one that teaches me to enter the grief, to open to the sadness, to breathe and remember the pain of loss that accompanies life in the this world. I think of the wounded civilians in Syria, desperate mothers of sick children, the homeless men and women in Tucson. Pain is no stranger to many in this life.

It is what I do with that pain that does Mondo justice. He was part of the cycle. His time came, just as mine will come. It is his unbridled love of life, his love of us, that remains. Now it is my work to open, to open, again and again, to notice this lovely desert day, to embrace friends and those I love. Rejoice.

I have known three great teachers in this life: one, a yellow dog, and two cats— one tabby, the other a black long hair named Mondo, for the size of his heart. All left me broken when they passed, but left a legacy of joy.

As a holiday song goes, “It is because of the dark that we see the beauty of the spark.” Now that’s a Christmas thought worth celebrating. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Finding Will

He was down here somewhere, but ahead of us, probably already in line. It was still dark at 5:00 AM, and we were on our way to meet with Team Colleen and then ride together over to the start of the El Tour de Tucson. 

We were already late, and barricades blocked our going west, toward our first destination of the day. We were directed by traffic police into an alley from which there was no turning around and we were going in the wrong direction. One might say we were off to a blurry and half-baked beginning.

When we got there, there being Chad and Emily McGlamery’s home where we were assembling, we transformed into cyclists -- funny, tight clothes, shoes that are no good for walking -- but this is how we need to be to do what we have to do. Then we set off through the darkness to the start line.  

A year ago, I and a small group of bike buddies, including a wild man from Indiana, had gotten in line toward the front of the sub six-hour group. Today we were back in the six hour and more group.  No problem; we were going to hammer today, to find that man from Indiana.

We, not the royal one, are Mark and Eric Streeter, Team Colleen, and myself. We are riding to remember that wild man, Will Streeter, Mark and Eric’s dad, my friend. It is going to be a long day, one hundred eleven miles, around the city of Tucson.

But we are in good hands. Team Colleen has been doing this kind of ride since 2008. They are going to help us find Will. As the day goes on, we will tire, we will work, we will run into the wall that says “Quit!” and we will be fed by the generosity, the selfless help offered by the expert cyclists of the Team Colleen. 

Colleen, an avid bike racer, died of cancer. Her husband, George, took his grief and turned it into a legacy of helping patients and family affected by cancer. He took Colleen’s passion for cycling and created a team of domestiques to help these patients and family deal with the cancers by setting goals and working toward them. “The fight is the victory,” is one of the mottoes of the group. 

Will understood that and was waiting for us learn it. 

With blinking lights on our bikes we rode through the quiet city over to the start line. Once there, raucous music, bright lights, and a small army of cyclists came together to create a festival atmosphere. I thought I might have caught a glimpse of Will of my way to the porta potties. 

We lined up in the dark. Some things have to be done while it is dark, and this was one of them. This was not a routine day of work and school;  it was a soul day, a day to drill down past complacency, comfort, familiarity. We were going deep to see and feel  life at its most intense.

Patty, Tom, Kathe, and Megan, bless them, brought coffee, warm clothes, and enthusiasm, en theo, with God. We began the wait as butterflies began to circle in the lower regions. Both Mark and Eric looked nervous. We knew Will had gotten here earlier than we had and was somewhere ahead of us in line. We would not see him until we were ready, until we were purified, depleted, scrubbed clean of doubt and distraction.

As the sun lit the sky, we got on the bikes, heard the National Anthem, and began the long roll-out after the gun. The stops and accordion starts of a 6,000 rider mass start gave way to speed and the whistling of wind through wheels, the turning of chains, the positive clicks and thunks of gears finding the right ratio. Our little peloton was a tightly knit, well oiled, speed machine. Chad, Pat, John, Kathryn, Mimi, Emily, Karina, Brian, and others took pulls on the front. We sliced out way forward, closing the gap on Will.

Eric and Mark’s buddies coached them on the finer points of eating, drinking, and relaxing while your front tire followed the wheel in front with only inches of separation. The boys listened and learned, went past old limitations, harnessed channeled their fears into forward motion. We were gaining.

Then we hit the river crossings, the hills, the long rollers that sap legs of snap and strength. It was starting to hurt. Shannon, John, and Ben stepped up to provide a helping hand on the back to get up the longer grades. We all need friends in times like these, and we will never catch Will without accepting help, support, giving in to being carried sometimes. 

Forty, fifty, sixty, seventy miles roll by beneath our wheels. Somewhere the muscles start to tire, to cramp. Eric drinks more than he wants following the advice of the group. Water needs to fall on bushes, porta potties, convenience stores. We listen to the body as it gives us more than it wants to. We push past the easy efforts and enter the zones of pain, of the body begging for relief, but push on. 

The peloton eats up Rattlesnake Pass, where a year before, Will and I had wept from the pain of the effort. We became brothers of shared vision, of pushing past what was easy , of sacrificing for a vision, a goal.

The rough patches of Silverbell led us to a view of the Tucson skyline. We were closing the gap. Will had wanted to finish this ride under six hours. We were going to catch him if we kept this pace. 

As we made the final turn onto Sixth Avenue, the finish line rose ahead of us. The peloton fell behind and Mark, Eric, and I led the charge. We went as deep as we could, and, somewhere in there, caught Will and he caught our wheels. We pulled him in to give him the gift of gold. His sons had come to remember and to give back. They had succeeded. The memory of Will swirled around us as we crossed the line. I felt infused, surrendered, depleted, full, rich in joy and grief. We had made contact.

While the pain of losing does not go away, it can transform into action and service. Will was about learning, teaching, and giving. In order to be strong enough to do that, he pushed himself past perceived limits. I connect with him when I follow his lead, his noble example. 

I will continue to chase him and, once in a while, if I really commit and push myself hard enough, I will catch him. In doing so, I feel peace and joy, the support of a brother of soul, his two sons, and beloved bride.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

All Souls

Tucson, while a surly city on the one hand, has some seriously redeeming attributes. One of them is the All Souls Procession that winds through city streets the first Sunday in November. Do not make the mistake of thinking Halloween here. The ASP is sacred, a tribute to the dead, more Tim Burton than M. Night Shyamalan.

I was in bad emotional shape a few years ago and joined my friends David and Chris in honoring their son of sixteen years who committed suicide in their back yard. 

At the beginning of the procession I wondered just what it was I was doing here with all the monstrous skulls, skeletons, flowers, drummers, dancers, freaks, and fellow mortals. There was an urn, a ten-foot tall caldron that would be burned at the end of the procession, in front of where I stood waiting for the long walk to begin. A priestess of the urn approached me and asked “ Would you like to remember someone by writing their name on this paper and placing it in the urn? It’s a way to let go while connecting to your grief.” 

More out of conformity than real intention, I wrote down my mother’s name, and immediately felt stricken with sadness.  

Within minutes the procession began.

I walked and surrendered to the chaos. 

Then David passed me a drum that his son used to play. I like to drum, but had an injured hand, a deep laceration from a stupid mountain bike stunt. I had it bandaged with a glove over it. 

I pointed to my hand and David just said, “use the sticks. You won’t need to play it with your hand.”

So I took the drum and began to feel the pulse of the crowd. Buhm ba buhm buhm. I picked it up, played with a little ganas and started to feel the blood pump through my chest. Some very lithe and slinky young women painted as skeletons with exposed and curvaceous midriffs began to belly dance to the beat.

The are times when carnality and spirit mingle to create something that has elements of both, but is something else entirely. These dancers embodied Earthly delights, but celebrated letting those go while embracing that which endures. Paradox again. Love this life knowing that it will not last.

I laid into the beat and got lost, or got found, depending on how you look at things. 

The parade, my stride, the flying hands on the sticks, adrenaline, oxytocin all came together to define a “zone” of experience that transcended the sum of the circumstantial parts. I covered miles in that state.

I did not notice the blood pouring out of my glove until we crossed the stage at the end of the procession. It had overflowed the bandages, soaked through my glove, and spilled onto the drumsticks and drum head.

David noticed and said, “Don’t worry about it. I like it. I reminds me of my son. He used to drum so hard he left nothing out.” 

No amount of contrition on my part could sway him, and no amount of scrubbing could clean the head of the stain. 

One of the images associated with Day of the Dead is a heart wrapped in thorns with blood dripping off the beating heart, the corazon espinado. It is a kind of Southwest stigmata.

I can’t claim supernatural influence on my hand, but the bleeding stopped immediately after the procession, and the wound healed abnormally fast.

I don’t know where she is or even if she is, but somewhere I think my mother would not be surprised by that or by much of anything that blends this world with the next.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Alchemy (a parable -- sort of)

Head down, angry, he worries the light switch. It only dims the room he is in, failing to complete the circuit for the dark room he needs to enter. He has to pee and finds the placement of switches irritating.

"Where is the ... switch for the other room, the bathroom?" He leaves what he really wants to say, which is "f--king" switch, unsaid. He swallows the curse and deposits it in the muscle of his neck and shoulder. There the profane poison tightens the sinews, twists the brain.

I stand up and step ahead of him into the dark room, reach around a corner, locate the illogically placed switch, and turn on the lights.

"There you go. Sorry for the lack of rhyme or reason to the electrical around here. This place was built in the 50s and has been remodeled a few times. The switches (plumbing, flat roofs, crumbling adobe, and bizarre architecture, I could add) don't match modern expectations (or code)."

He is not satisfied with this explanation and heads off in a huff to the bathroom.

The architecture is just one more thing that sets him off.

He is me, or rather part of me, and he finds what he is looking for: reasons to be pissed off. All the time.

Tonight it is a headache, a hollow tunnel of echoes, of mental cotton, that is goading on the discontent. He feels beset by this annoyance, this wall standing between him and getting where he wants to be.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to be pissed. Drivers on the way here for one. Does anybody actually watch the road anymore? Or have phones supplanted driving as the primary purpose of sitting in a car? Then there is the cash flow. Always more out than in. And, he wonders, why do I have to work so damned hard?

I follow along like a balloon tethered to a tricycle. This trike has squeaky wheels that wobble, and rusty, loose steering. It takes the power of hydraulic pistons to turn the pedals. But we move along.

Some people would call him impatient. Others just ornery. I see him as a prisoner. He is locked in to seeing things only one way, the way he learned a long time ago. The injuries and angers of childhood can be such a heavy load to tote around.

After finishing in the bathroom he heads back to the gathering. Others are waiting for him, in more ways than one. They stand on tip-toe, hoping that it will happen, that the cords will be severed and that he will join them in the big joke.

Once, not so long ago, under blue a moon, he almost cut it. His heart felt it would burst from the river of energy running through it, like he used to feel, somewhere in memory, all the time. Back then, play was easy and even the smallest of moments a drop of magic.

"Why can't he remember?" I ask. The mystery is waiting just on the other side of a veil, waiting to be called home.

I whisper something. "Go into the dark. Don't worry about the lights. You will find me there."

He listens, sort of. But the other voices are still too familiar, too loud, and rude. They have a monopoly on his fear and attention.

I bide my time. He is starting to wonder just who I am.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Head of the Dragon

We tell stories in order to live. Joan Didion 

I used to hate yard work almost as much as I loathe grading papers. When my dad would ask me to mow the lawn I would sink into a surly funk. Even the sight of a shovel or hedge trimmers or a chain saw would trigger a rush of rage and aversion that sometimes resulted in my breaking something.

This all started when my father told me I was the man of the house. He was going to Korea. I was four years old. I did not know how to fix things or how to do yard work, but somehow I felt I was supposed to do that. It went pretty bad when I tried to fix a faucet or take out a branch with a pruning saw.

After too many failed attempts to fix things, I took the dark path. You could say I worshiped at the altar of fear, took communion with the wine of anger, and flipped a flying bird at tasks I could not complete.

You could also call it a stage -- a bratty, piss-ant, hard-to-love stage that lasted about 45 years or so.

Last Sunday, after a brisk (read hard and good and full of camraderie) fifty mile bike ride, I decided to dig out a china berry tree stump. While not as thirsty, invasive, or as monstrous as a tamarisk, the china berry is aggressive, opportunistic, and robs the soil of water. There are many species that have spread through the Southwest like a plague; they have pushed out native, sustainable species and threatened whole ecosystems. My china berry is one of them. If I followed my default story about yard work, I would just leave it, let it take over, turn my yard into a gloomy, dust-bowl of a wasteland.

Can't let the tree have that.

As I grabbed a shovel, the dragon reared its head. Mythological dragons, as you know, are not really so much real monsters as they are the twisting demons of the mind. They are the living stories that poison happiness and connection and ecstatic delight of all things, including digging out stumps.

They go something like this: "Hissss. Thissss ssssucks. Thissss is a pain in the asssss. Wee don't like thissss."

One of the perks of aging is that I have learned to change the channel, to pick my poisons, to tune into a different story.

So I wrap  a bandana around my head to keep the sun off my neck, grab my shovel, my loppers, my pick, my axe, my fuzzy security talisman, and head out to do battle with the dragon.

The ground is hard, but those of you have read previous blogs know how to handle that. I break up the crust before encountering the first roots. They are as thick as my wrist and bleed when the shovel breaks the thin membrane covering the woody core.

"It's hhhot out here. We are sweating, tired, grumpy, angry, frustrated. Get mad. Swear at the unfairness of it all. This is just more of why you need to say no, say no to all of them. Tell them to ff -- off."

The dragon does not go quietly and has many heads. I reveal root after root. When they are clear, I take my loppers and sever them. One by one they go down. The stump begins to loosen, but there is a thick mother-of-all-roots, the taproot, that is beneath them all, that goes straight down into the core of darkness, of the Earth, of childhood shadows -- the places where stories are forged, where dragons are hatched.

The battle rages. Roots bleed and moan and spit, threaten, cajole, and flex. The stories vie for attention. A war is fought over the quality of this moment, the timbre and tone of this experience. A newer, but growing voice rises from the fray. "This is not so bad. Stay calm. You can handle this. Look at your progress already. this is a fine thing to do, a way to open your yard, to express your presence in this place.This thirsty stump has to go, or else it will come back, threaten to native mesquite, may kill the aloe."

I dig. Like William Carlos Williams in "The Use of Force" I pry open the very maw of the dragon to cut free the poisonous supply line to the hungry stump. I spread the loppers as wide as they will go, wrap the jaws around the root, and then squeeze the levers together. It takes some strength, but the root succumbs as the loppers bite through with a clean "snap."

I lift my prize from the pit, hold the trophy high, see Hydra, the Cyclops, Smaug, all rolled into one. My treasure is not just the yard, it is contentment. For once in my long life I am taking steps on the long haul toward happiness. It's not so bad after all.

I agree with Didion. We do need stories to live. But I would add that it is better to pick the stories we want to live by, that stories of fear, separation, and control are not the best ones. While I have not yet graduated beyond the need for any thoughts, I like the ones that boost a sense of peace, a willingness to be part, to play a role in rooting out the dragons, unless those dragons take the form of ungraded papers.

Time to again gird the loins, take up the shield, sharpen the sword, and put my pen in my pocket protector. There is another dragon on the loose.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Buzzworm in the Bucket

I find Mondo the cat doing just what he wants, which is what he always does, in the backyard, way past the time he should be inside. Of course, he is still hunting the desert spiny lizards and kangaroo rats in the warm darkness. He doesn’t know it, but there are predators in the same darkness who would like to hunt him – great horned owls, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, for example. 

His yellow, reflecting eyes give him away as I close in on him, my headlamp beaming. He is so focused on stalking something in the aloe patch that he is an easy catch. I pick him up and he starts to purr, the softie. 

I turn and head for the back door, shining my light as I go. Then I see the snake.

“Really?” I think to myself. “Not again.” 

I have something of a history with rattlesnakes. They show up at odd times, just to surprise and mess with me, or so I think. Whenever I expect to see them, I don’t. When I don’t, like tonight, in October of all times, here in the cool dusk, I run into them. I was also bitten by one. They are part my awareness every night, every step I take in the dark in my yard, or on hiking trails, or when I ride a bike in the desert.

“Well, hello,” the snake seems to say, with just a trace of a smirk.

The snake does not seem malevolent or evil as some might infer. He is dangerous though. There, right at the base of a door jamb, half in, half out of a hole far too narrow to accommodate such a beefy body, he is right where someone’s foot would land stepping out of or into the back door. He is in a bad, unlikely place. I wonder how he can seem so comfortable. But then again what do I know of what snakes can do or find comfortable? Heck, a packrat the size of a fat hamster, can squeeze through an opening smaller than a quarter. 

Back to the present…. I need to take Mondo inside, but I also, very soon, need to move my visitor. A wife or a son or a cat could easily be struck by the snake. The potential consequences are such that I am obligated to act immediately. I go around the house to the front door, close all exits for the cat, and warn Megan not to go into the backyard. 

“I was just going to get the laundry,” she says, blithely.

“Hijos…” I whisper under my breath, keeping my errand to myself. 

I grab my snake tongs, go back around the house, and find my friend still there, waiting, it seems, to be pulled from the hole. The only good place to grab him is near his head. As soon as I do, he rattles, writhes, and puffs up. It is a tug of war to get him out of the hole, but eventually, the force of my pulling is greater than his grip and the body emerges – thick and smooth and ghostly in the light of the lamp.

I talk to the snake as I carry him out to the porch where I have a bucket with a lid for just such a possibility.

“You can’t come into my yard. This is my place. If you come back, I’ll chop your head off with a shovel.” (I don’t really mean this, but try to sound convincing.)

The snake drops into the bucket and coils, still rattling. Before he tries to escape the bucket I put a top on it, pick it up, and grab my bike. He buzzes all the way down to the wash as I carry him and the bucket under my arm with the other arm steering my stealthy velo. (Yes, it is possible to ride a bike  through trees and over curbs carrying a bucket with a rattlesnake in it. But you should always wear a helmet and reflective clothing and consult your doctor before starting any snake re-location program. If your snake puffs up for more than four hours, considering getting professional help.)

We find a nice spot, plentiful packrat nests, off the bike trail, in a thicket of tamarisk trees. I open the bucket and dump him out. 

He immediately slithers back in the direction from which we have just come. 

I poke a stick in front of him and he turns to go the other direction.

“That’s good,” I say. 

He might turn out to be prey for a hawk or road runner before he can re-establish a territory. I might get hit by a drunk driver on my return trip. Mondo might catch that desert spiny tomorrow. Something might get Mondo tomorrow. Lots of things might happen, but we have to do what we can to live with the way of things. No?