Thursday, 01 March 2018 10:11

My Anti-Pavlovian Protest

I remember when phones were fastened to the wall, their receivers connected by spiral cords. We dialed them with rotary dials. If you called someone and they weren’t at home the phone would just ring and ring.

We left home without the phones. We found our way or got lost. If we needed to know something, we went to the library and looked it up in a cabinet customized to house cards for the Dewey decimal system. We relied on the great rooms full of floor to ceiling bookshelves, the bookshelves full of books.

I remember the sound of the busy signal. I remember memorizing phone numbers. 277-8088 was our number on Wallace Lane. We knew we had an 801 area code but we didn’t use it. We wrote letters to people far away. Long distance calls were too expensive. I remember dialing 0 to reach an operator, a helpful person, with inflections in her voice— a human waiting to connect us to other humans.

I remember learning the proper way to answer the phone: Hello, Seymour residence, Nan speaking. I was so nervous about doing it right that once I answered the phone the way I had been taught to start a prayer. Dear Heavenly Father I blurted. There was silence then I hung up. I didn’t answer when it rang again.

I remember the day in high school mean Mr. Adams taught us about behavioral conditioning and Pavlov’s dogs who slobbered at the sound of a bell. “If you think you are better than those dogs” he sneered, “ask yourself if you decide to pick up the phone when it rings, or if you automatically pick it up.” That day I decided to decide. After that, when the phone rang at home I would ask myself if I wanted to pick it up. Often I didn’t, so I didn’t. I remember my mom flying in from the laundry room only to find me sitting calmly in the kitchen next to our ringing phone. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked, grabbing the receiver. She didn't particularly appreciate my anti-Pavlovian protest. 

I miss being independent from phones. I miss being genuinely lost. I miss not googling.
I miss the way a field of disconnection cast connection in a more precious light.

I miss cursive.
I miss handwriting.
I miss Whiteout with its tiny little paintbrush.
I miss blowing on it and waiting for it to dry.
I miss trying again.

I miss our backyard on Wallace Lane which was a forest of feral Scrub Oak, my brother Todd perpetually swinging through it. I miss a particular Y-shaped tree which grew close to the house and just low enough for me to grab both sides of the Y and hook my right foot in its crook, then I could swing my body up into its cleft. First, I would hitch up the sides of my long cotton nightgown and tuck the edges into my underwear. From there, I could scramble up the roof and all the way to the top, which I often did at night.

The summer I was nineteen I waitressed downtown at the Hilton coffee shop. We closed at midnight. After refilling ketchups, I would fly on the freeway up from the valley floor back to the Wasatch foothills in my stepdad’s Buick Skylark. The car so sturdy and powerful, I pretended I was in a rocket ship. Once home, I would ascend to the rooftop then wait for the resonance of restaurant clamor to subside. There was no phone to look at then, no Facebook or Instagram to check. I would just sit on the roof for a quiet hour, facing East. I remember the way one green light blinked from the opposing foothills of the Oqhuirrhs. I remember the way the lights in the valley looked like a bowl full of stars.

Published in Revisions
Saturday, 13 May 2017 07:50

Your Place in the Circle

1.3 million years ago and not far from here, the earth changed its shape.

Slowly a pocket of fire rose up from the earth’s molten core and began to swell like a great seed. The fire pushed up towards the crust as if seeking to blossom towards the sun. Magma pressed against the mantle until it burst and collapsed into a molten pool eighteen miles wide. The rim of the pool held the fire within a bowl of earth, a cauldron. Gradually, the fire cooled and the caldera was formed.

As the lava cooled, water began to flow through the black rocks creating clear springs, rivers and streams, lakes and ponds. Weather, caught by the rim, swirled within the cauldron’s skyscape wearing rocks down into fertile soil. Wind carried seeds for prairie grasses, lupines, yarrow and other low-growing plants which grew into tapestries on the plains. Cattails and marsh grasses sprouted near the waters. Birds which had inhabited the land before the caldera returned, and more birds came. They carried the seeds that beget a forest of trees with little tolerance for shade, Lodge Pole Pines yearning skyward with such insistence they scarcely branch.

Large and small animals...predators and prey...lightning, fires...
The forest burning to the ground. Seed pods exploding in the flames. The land making and remaking itself with fire.

Humans came, hungry for stories. At night we gathered around fires to feed ourselves. We gathered under unobscured stars and spoke of gods and how they made us alongside our siblings: trees, grasses, animals, fish and birds.
Our stories told us:
We belong to the earth and a teaming web of life.
We were created and placed here by divinity.
We belong to the divine.

Hundreds of thousands of years passed and we became civilized. We lived inside for longer and longer periods of time. We saw less sky, touched less grass, and felt less sun. We seldom gathered around fires but we still had stories. For a period of time, the one I was born into, many of us gathered around the TV as if it were our only fire. TV told us many kinds of stories, but there was one consistent refrain, retold roughly every 10 minutes. The story of advertising insisted:
You need something you do not have.
You do not have enough.
You are not enough.

The story of our divine origin was displaced by a story of insufficiency.

Decades later, we carry a potent storyteller in our pockets and purses. We've dedicated a large portion of our attention to it. Profiteers consciously harvest our attention like a crop. The cell phone speaks like a small, stingy god: You need, you’re not enough, you lack. What else does it have to say? There are words of courage and kindness, yes, but also others. Some stories hold their breath and suck in their cheeks, posturing, episodes broadcast continually from Channel Me. There are legions of delimiting stories, centered around a small self and lacking the word we. Another series echos what we already think we know, denying us the pleasure of curiosity and the intimacy of not-knowing. Many stories sound sirens of our demise, emphasizing colossal troubles without reminding us we are large enough to face them. 

We are large enough.
We have enough.
We are enough.
.

Return to the caldera to remember our true shape and size. Return to see each other as the stars, unobscured. Return to listen and be heard. Let us gather around an actual fire again, face-to-illuminated-face, and retell these truths: 
We belong to the earth and to each other.
We belong to the divine.
We are related to everything wild and alive.

There is a place for you in the circle, a place for each of us. Let us recall our divine origins. Let us return to the circle together as true storytellers, willing to remake ourselves with fire.

Published in Revisions
Tuesday, 21 March 2017 17:14

The Story of My Life

“The story of my life is the story of trees I’ve loved.”
~Deena Metzger.
( Read her full poem at the end of this post.)

Could you tell your story in trees? In animals you’ve loved? In places you’ve lived? In memorable trips? In lingering dreams? Choose a lens that resonates, grab pen and and set a timer for ten minutes. Try making a list, or let yourself follow a memory. Here’s something I wrote recently in response to this prompt. Please share your own writing in the comments.

The Story of My Life

The story of my life is the story of seeking light. Every place I go, especially indoors, I consider where the light is coming from and orient accordingly. I face the window, the open door, whatever portal there is. In a restaurant, I will request another table, politely, but insistently, because I need light at least as much as I ever need any other form of sustenance.

The way I kept at my concierge job—all those hours spent wearing a polyester pinstriped pantsuit, standing behind a marble desk, pretending that the world revolved around the dinner reservations of the very rich, the way I persisted under that ponderous chandelier was this: I counted the minutes with my eye on the front door.

I was not counting towards the moment of my departure. ( Like the rest of the hotel help I always left through the basement.) Instead, I was waiting for the setting sun to spill through the large gilded door frame. Until that moment, the dark entry with its Persian rug, velvet chairs and VW Bug-sized vahz (definitely not vase,) was stifling. I counted on the moment when the day’s last light would flood the lobby, amplified by those golden doors. Reliably, the palace museum transformed into a spillway of glory. Light entered unabashed, and everything changed.

Light fell indiscriminately on each of us as bell boys, posh guests and desk clerks were all illuminated. The weary harpist performing “Send in the Clowns” for the seventeenth time that day suddenly looked like an angel from old movies. The light playing her harp was gold on gold on gold. Even the young girls working the lounge in floral dresses so awkward that guests often whispered “are they polygamists?” became instantly elegant, their costumes transformed by the glow. For just a few moments, all that was ludicrous became luminous. 

It didn’t last long, but we would all wake up for it. Momentarily revived from a trance, we could see each other. Sometimes I would say to the Bell Captain “Look at the light.” or “Isn’t it beautiful? “ before we resumed our tired performance. And before the light left he would smile at me and nod because it was.

The Trees Ask Me Home
by Deena Metzger

soon
I’ll sleep each night
with the breath of leaves
in the bed, the cough of eucalyptus,
the restless stirring of fig and lime,
There is so much life here,
rooster as alarm, hawk as sentinel,
coyote as guard, life
and ferment, death is close by.

When the human species deserted him,
tomatoes were what my father planted,
they were his true love.
With their imperative, he spent
weekends in the sun,
so I learned to talk to trees.
I see the song coming, a wing
out of the nest of bitterness,
light and dark. And further on,
those footsteps in the mulch,
that path through the new grove,
must be mine.

The story of my life
is the story of trees I’ve loved,
some are standing, some fell down.

Published in Revisions
Thursday, 16 February 2017 18:00

What is Sacred?

For a moment I was startled. Perhaps it was the bold use of a "religious" word, or simply the direct nature of the question. As a River Writer, I'm accustomed to prompt lines from poetry, gentler invitations. "You have 15 minutes." said the teacher as he set a timer. Blinking into the clear Costa Rican sunlight, I picked up the pen; then it started to move and didn't stop. There, in a room full of strangers, I leaned in to the question "What is sacred to you?" I've written to the same prompt a few times since. Today's list included shreds of cheese caught in my husband's beard and the navy blue "workout pants" with housepaint on them which I bought in the nineties and wore to gym just this morning. I'm still surprised by these items. I didn't see those pants as sacred when I put them on. 

I'm curious. What is sacred to you? Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes today and find out. Don't stop writing. Allow for surprises. Trust your words as they come. If you're feeling generous, please share your list in the comments below. 

What Is Sacred?

Bison are sacred. Being near them is sacred, standing on the same land with them even more sacred still.

White pelicans with black-fringed wings.

Pomegranates and the acts of cracking and seeding them, separating the seeds from the pith. Eating them.

Grinding wheat, letting dough rise, kneading loaves, letting them rise again, baking and breaking bread. These are sacred acts.

Sharing a writing table.

Listening to true stories, creating space for them.

The act of writing, the act of listening.

Howler Monkeys and their babies in the trees. Their collective morning roar.

The color of the Blue Morpho butterfly.

The people making the food behind the kitchen wall, their hands, the work of their hands, the food itself.

Farming. Foraging. Ellery’s work, Karen’s work. Ellery & Karen.

The first baby turtle emerging from the sand nest, the way he worked for four hours to tunnel through the wet sand. The three of every one hundred turtles who live to see their first year. The 97 that die. The people standing and walking so carefully, mostly silent and watching. The way we kept the feral dogs at bay. The gulls who cried because they were denied their coveted breakfast.

Each thoughtful step.

The Bavarian guides who love all the birds and told us their names, and the Osprey which was the last bird we saw.

Gathering for right action. Speaking the truth, even when it’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult.

All love is sacred, as is unfulfilled yearning. Union is sacred.

All groves, all water, every rock.

The red hibiscus flowers among the deep green foliage.

The intimidating spider and her web.

Pottery made by hand, the tired woman selling it.

The sounds of water, laughter, and wind in the palms.

My daughter’s name, not the one I gave her, but the one she claimed for herself.

Silence, especially shared silence.

Places without cars.

Every place on the gender spectrum.

Every place on the earth where someone sleeps, walks, eats, or cries.

The places where no one does.

Every place on earth.

Tears.

Grief.

Praise.

The ability to praise.

Longing, which equals capacity.

This moment with the keyboard slipping out from under my sweaty wrists, my fingers still typing because I could go on and on, the fact that this moment won’t last. The fact that someday there will be a one last moment for me in this body with this heart and this mind.

The mystery of what may be next.

The idea that even if there isn’t anything else, this is inarguably enough.

Published in Revisions