Believe every moment is your last, or close to it. Priorities
shift. A heart might open, unexpectedly, in a new place. A simple, handmade sign declaring, “Fresh Ripe Oranges”
— the hand-drawn beautiful black letters on the white-painted rough plywood — might give you pause in the blast of a noonday sun. Tangents. Explorations. Diversions. Fluff and stuff on the wind.
You lay out a line of words
"When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a wood-carver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path for you to follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Iím sitting in an airport bar in Las Vegas in October, as 5 TVs blare bad music and strangers wander in and out. Iím thinking about the miracle of the land I just flew over, and about graphic design and art and writing, and how these disparate areas converge for me. I'm getting my thoughts ready for the visiting artist's stint in Omaha.
But Iím really thinking about the land, its brutal loveliness, its seduction.
On the flight from Cedar City, Utah, to Las Vegas this morning, we flew to the southwest over the most beautiful land in the world. Peering out the window, I took one hundred and seven photos in 40 minutes.
The sculpted mountains and canyons of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada slipped by below our tiny plane as the sun rose and stretched rich dark shadows across the land, revealing the swells and hollows, the heaves and thrusts; the flat-topped mesas and buttes, the long, sensuous dry washes. The woman in the seat next to me tried to make conversation, but I would have none of it. As I watched the land unfold and refold and crest and dance below me, I felt like a voyeur watching something I was not meant to see, something private and intensely personal.
Then the plane topped a mountain, and Las Vegas sprawled below us, filling the dry valley with ordered rows of houses, green lawns.
On the ground at the Las Vegas airport, I walked out into the bright sunlight, and the tall gray metal floodlights of the airport, with their beaten weathered symmetry, looked perfect and majestic in their towering functionality.
I walked slowly into the airport, and the typography on the wayfinding signs glowed with symbols I knew, and I instantly felt a connection to the bright letterforms shining the way.
I passed the brightly colored slot machines and, abruptly, they seemed ridiculously brilliant and audacious: the red-green-white carnival colors, the bells and noises, the spinning lights. It was as if I had not really seen them before. They were, in their own right, quite beautiful. I was astonished.
This elation, this sense of seeing things in a new light, was a residue from my viewing the intricate and ancient puzzle of the land from high above it. Now, with my feet planted firmly on the ground, everything looked sharp, clean, and new.
As if newly formed. As if newly seen.
"Please donít bother me,Ē says Mary Oliver in a poem. "Iíve been newly born."
Labor Day weekend, and two gallons of water slushing around in the backpack; a brief rain-and-sleet-and-a touch-of-snow storm when we topped the mountain in the late afternoon, thunder crashing; cognac around the campfire as we dried our soaked socks near the flames, Katy serving up a fresh salad of tomatoes, basil, cheese, olive oil, special imported balsamic vinegar that was thick as hell, and wonderful; a waxing moon above the summit peak, bats flying close to camp; and silence, deep silence at night.
Silence that was noticeable, welcome, complete. Not a sound of a plane in the sky. The wind gusted several times during the night, blowing hard, dying a moment later. Then silence, and heavy, cool darkness.
In the early morning, five mule deer stood looking at me as I rounded house-sized boulders. I stood for minutes watching, waiting. When I moved too quickly, they bounded into the aspens — gone.
After bad instant coffee warmed on the campstove, I walked through the long meadow, and dew coated my hiking boots and bare legs as an orange blade of melting sunlight slid like glass down the green pines. I wandered the meadow, taking photos of everything.
Days later, I read this passage by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here. Then at least we can wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise."
That morning at 9500 feet, with new sharp blisters snapping at my heels, I was full of silent praise as I hobbled along behind Paula, as we meandered to the next meadow, and the usual dark questions were gone, vanished. Green moss glowed on the trunks of trees. There was a surprising abundance of water at this altitude, in these dry Pine Valley mountains. Rocks jutted like sculptures out of the meadow, reaching for the blue morning sky. I leaned against one for a long moment and felt grace welling like a spring.
Sometimes — many times, perhaps most of the time — we need to "choir the proper praise" in our hearts and minds, and recognize pure joy when it touches us, when it graces us, dewlike, here and there, cool and beautiful on a bright morning, wherever you are.
When grace comes, I want to be there, awake, alive. I wait, watching. I'll begin with a waxing moon over a summit peak, and go from there.
Some nights, like this sleepless night listening to the wind in Utah, I am back on the edge of Lake Ontario, feeling the crashing of the waves, but resting warm and safe in the furnished apartment by the lake. At night the lake seemed to rise up and assert its presence, invading my dreams. One night I dreamnt of swimming madly through an endless thick blackness, only to climb a wooden ladder at the end and get a steaming Starbucks coffee at a desolate little weathered vendor-house on a rocky gray shore. In that dream, I stared at a small gray bird that was perched as if dead on a railing, the rich smell of coffee in the air.
I remember the clock in the sparse kitchen ticking loudly as the waves crashed at night. For some reason I always left the bright kitchen light on through the night, as if to keep the lake at bay. I remember thinking the town of Oswego sat tensely huddled against this lake, the people and the land and the stark trees and heavy buildings seeming to love and hate the presence of the dark water crashing. I remember not sleeping. I remember the heavy metal door of the apartment and the way you had to slam your shoulder hard against the door to close it, to shut out the wind.—3.06
I grew up in the Midwest. There's that cornfield-and-a-touch-of-woods view inside me: no great vistas, just good solid ground always there, flat, at your feet. Solidity.
Yesterday Paula and I drove the half hour into the Escalante Desert northwest of town and we parked the car. A brown, shadowed butte stood high and distant to our right, another "tabletop" butte with the top flat and the sides sloping softly down to the desert. We ran down the gravel-sand road through the desert. Coyotes called. We stopped and listened. The power lines popped and crackled along the road. We listened. We began running. A rusted pick-up passed. The driver did not wave or acknowledge us although we were the only people for miles.
Then the sun moved out from behind a heavy line of clouds and tossed an orange pastel blast of light across the green-brown-pastel desert sage flats, up the hills, and lit the very distant snow atop the distant mountains about 50+ miles away. I kept running, seeing Paula ahead on the next sandy rise, a loping shadow to catch, the sun at my back now, my shadow three hundred feet before me. The sunset light shifted and moved into nightfall.
At the car we did not talk much because it was obvious: the amazement at the lightshow, the drama of a simple run here in Coyote Country in the desert. I walked along the road, quiet. —10.05
It's been a long, surreal, horrific week since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the U.S. I've been glued to the news, to the images, to the videos. At first we heard and read that New Orleans had been spared, and then the days went on, the days wrote the terrible story of rising water, trapped citizens, neglected and dying people. Along with many citizens of this country, I am ashamed of the slow, red-tape-tied response that led to Americans dying on American soil before our eyes in the harsh bright reality of network television.
What the hell happened? I mean, what the hell happened?
Yesterday the sky was so blue. On this Labor Day weekend, we (the 7 of us) hiked down from Cedar Breaks National Monument at 10,000 ft., down Rattlesnake Trail; we got down to and walked through the boulder-filled creek that feeds into Coal Creek. Ten miles of beauty, of soaring, sculpted cliffs, of textures and colors of stone so intricate and beautiful that the rock seemed to glow with a new kind of holiness to me — just another place in Southern Utah that goes straight into my soul and stays there.
Walking the creek, I thought about the devastation, the ongoing fight for life in New Orleans and the Gulf area: There are how many homeless now from the hurricane? I'd read reports of a million. How many lives had been ripped apart? And it took the United States a week to respond?
We contributed some money to the hurricane relief efforts. It is a little something, a gesture of help. If we all contribute what we can, I tell myself, it will add up.
Walking through the creek, I felt shame begin to fill me, and a feeling of guilt, too, at enjoying such a beautiful day when such an historic tragedy was still unfolding.
As we walked down the creek, you could see the red dried mud high on the canyon walls, about 30-40 feet up sometimes, a reminder of the historic Spring floods this year. But this is Utah. The water vanishes. The high desert swallows it.
David Brooks wrote in the The New York Times just yesterday, Sept. 4, 2005: "The first rule of the social fabric — that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable — was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield." He usually supports the administration; he is pissed.
Maureen Dowd, in the same paper, wrote: "It would be one thing if President Bush and his inner circle — Dick Cheney was vacationing in Wyoming; Condi Rice was shoe shopping at Ferragamo's on Fifth Avenue and attended 'Spamalot' before bloggers chased her back to Washington; and Andy Card was off in Maine — lacked empathy but could get the job done. But it is a chilling lack of empathy combined with a stunning lack of efficiency that could make this administration implode."
It's appalling, really, when you take a good hard look at what has and how things have transpired. I am ashamed of our nation's sad, slow, killing response that surely has led to hundreds and thousands of deaths. You can never be fully ready for a catastrophe; but you can respond, you can act, you can save lives, you can put caution to the wind and do something.
Bob Herbert, in the same paper, on this Labor Day, writes: "Mr. Bush's performance last week will rank as one of the worst ever by a president during a dire national emergency. What we witnessed, as clearly as the overwhelming agony of the city of New Orleans, was the dangerous incompetence and the staggering indifference to human suffering of the president and his administration."
And Frank Rich, again, in The New York Times, wrote recently: "But a president who flew from Crawford to Washington in a heartbeat to intervene in the medical case of a single patient, Terri Schiavo, has no business lecturing anyone about playing politics with tragedy. Eventually we're going to have to examine the administration's behavior before, during and after this storm as closely as its history before, during and after 9/11. We're going to have to ask if troops and matériel of all kinds could have arrived faster without the drain of national resources into a quagmire. We're going to have to ask why it took almost two days of people being without food, shelter and water for Mr. Bush to get back to Washington."
We as citizens must ask these questions, when the time comes.
Here in quiet Cedar City, a day after the hike, on this Labor Day holiday of 2005, the skies are deep blue again, not a cloud in sight. No wind to speak of right now. We just got back from Rusty's canyon. Stillness out in the canyon now. Stillness, and rock as white as bone in the morning light. Hardly a sound, just a few birds, and the sound of the dogs running in the rocks and sand, the dogs coming back, panting hard, Rudy limping a bit more.
But the worst storm in the history of the U.S. still rages on.
I believe it will rage on for a long, long time.
There are many hard questions that must be answered. Meanwhile, thousands and thousands try to find purchase in the bare, humble beginnings of new lives a week after the storm upended their worlds.
How we as citizens respond to this catastrophe, this calamity, will define the character of the United States for generations to come. I hope we can, as a nation, rise to this task.
Maureen Dowd asks: "Who are we if we can't take care of our own?"
Blue skies here, blue blue blue — but now there's a breeze beginning to stir. I can feel it in the air. —9.05