Cathartes aura

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I wait at the bus stop, in the grass, as the cars scuff by. There is a hint of sunset behind the road, behind the skyscrapers, and the houses feel empty as dawn. In this moment I look up. Three turkey vultures circle each other; they dance like kites, smooth, their shadows lengthening, their features charcoal-dark, existing only in silhouette.

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Lupine

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Lupine smell like nothing at all. Their hooded flowers feel like paper and like rain.

Tiny ants climb their stems, up and down on the small hairs. A bee lands on a purple bud, makes its way in, and then leaves to find the lupine’s brethren.

In their roots, lupine fix nitrogen, and I imagine the bacterial lives being lived there, just beneath my feet. Lupine are technically a kind of legume, a member of the fabaceae family, and so they have been given the gift of taking nitrogen from the air and bringing it to the soil.

Their name is wolflike, from the same root as Canis lupus. But they, themselves, are delicate, and pastel, the color-makers of many meadows. They are far from elusive–how could one mistake their round whirl of leaves, and their plump bunches of pale pea-flowers? How could anyone overlook the beauty of the lupine?

The Summer Sky

I wander away from the lights. I look for the darkened air, where the bats are felt but not seen. Wildfire smoke smudges the horizon. I crunch over the grass and the gravel until, finally, I am far from the cabin. I look up. Past the smoke, in the clear zenith, vega hangs emptily, spaciously, blue-and-white, on the shoulders of cygnus, the swan. There is bootes and corona borealis. Then there is hercules and ursa major, cassiopeia and aquila. These are the marks of summer.

The wind blows through my flannel shirt. Something screeches–a great-horned owl, perched in a Douglas fir, high up there, on the edge of things. I stare through the gray fields ahead of me. I can sense the openness. It’s like standing in front of the ocean. You can feel it, the movement of air and the bending of grass. You feel that you should speak to it; ask for its forgiveness and its advice. You feel that your ancestors once crept through tall grass and followed the stars like seafarers. Coyotes sing, somewhere out there. A flash of lightning illuminates half the sky. It is silver, and cold, and it makes no sound. Is this why the coyotes are singing? The wind blows faster. Clouds sail in thin tufts across the zenith. I spin around and say good-night to them all, the summer constellations, before they are gone, before I am gone, before I turn the light on again.

My Plastic Free July Journey

This month I decided to participate in Plastic Free July, a worldwide initiative to encourage the reduction of everyday plastic usage.

Aside from being made from fossil-fuels, plastic takes millennia to biodegrade, polluting our rivers and oceans–and their animal inhabitants–in the meantime. Many plastic products are designed to only be used once, which makes their long life-span even more ridiculous. Plastic also wastes our money; though its particles last basically forever, plastic is designed to lose its usefulness quickly. Plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic razers, and plastic food containers soon become crumpled and ripped, and can also leach toxins into your home. They’re not designed for longevity; they’re designed to keep you coming back for more.

Thankfully, there are many re-usable, durable replacements for throw-away plastic (and paper!) items:

🐳 Swap cloth towels and napkins for paper.

🐳 Use a glass or stainless steel water bottle.

🐳 Pack your lunch in glass, cloth, or stainless steel containers.

🐳 Bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store (including produce bags!).

🐳 Buy loose produce instead of the pre-chopped packaged kind (this will save you money, too). A great place for this is your local farmers market.

🐳 Get what you can from bulk bins and fill your own jars/cloth bags with nuts, seeds, beans, dried fruit, grains, etc.

🐳 Stop using a straw, or keep a re-usable one in your bag.

🐳 Likewise, keep a wooden or metal fork/spoon/knife kit in your bag for restaurants with plastic silverware.

These things were easy and money-saving, and I had already been doing most of them. That being said, there were still some areas where I struggled:

🐳 Ziploc bags while traveling:

What should I put my toiletries in? I use sweet almond oil as a body moisturizer and it always leaks, so I’d be afraid to pack it in a reusable bag in case it were to bleed through and stain my clothes. And I use a new one each time because re-using an oily Ziploc is pretty messy. Also, I still put my shoes and dirty clothes in plastic bags because, again, I don’t want my clothes to get dirty.

🐳 Shampoo, conditioner, leave-in conditioner, detergents, etc.:

I’ve yet to find a good homemade haircare recipe so I’m still buying natural, albeit plastic-entombed, hair stuff. Same goes for dish and laundry detergent, and other random beauty products like witch hazel or aloe vera.

🐳 Plastic bags for meat:

Sometimes the butcher doesn’t have the cut I want and I need to buy some pre-packaged (or frozen) chicken thighs or ground beef. Meats can be sticky and prone to leakage, so, unfortunately, I put them in horrible thin plastic produce bags.

🐳 Snacks:

Sometimes I want store-bought kale chips, or just one slice of gluten-free dairy-free cake, or some other snack wrapped in plastic, and it’s easier to buy things like this than to make them from scratch.

It’s okay to not be perfect; a snack now and again or a few Ziplock bags a year for traveling won’t do too much damage in the long run.

Plastic Free July has been a good exercise in mindfulness. I’m way more aware now of what I’m doing right and what needs improvement. I’ve decided I’m going to turn Plastic Free July into a Plastic Free Journey, and continue to reduce my plastic usage long after this month had ended.

River

We walk in the time before sunset. “River,” we ask. “River,” we call. The air smells of sagebrush, that fresh after-rain perfume. We don’t see the rain but the wind speaks of it– the warmth it holds, the velvet-soil fragrance, the red paintbrush and wild peas. “River,” we sing above the wind-flow and the slow-moving clouds. Look, river stones, smoothly tumbled, the same red-pink and green-blue of the horizon. The water runs fast. It is the color of dandelion pith. If we stand still enough we begin to drift. The river untangles into a placid stream, slowing, slowing, until it is the stillest place on Earth. It is us–we are moving, faster than the curve of the Earth, faster than the sky. “River,” we say, but he can’t hear us anymore.

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Still Life of a Bedroom

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A jar full of shells.
A beeswax candle.
A jellyfish captured in glass.
A paper lantern from Seattle;
its cranes, yellow, splashed by the sea.
Dried lavender in a vase,
the flowers still purple,
the stems both brittle and damp.
A carved wooden owl.
A Himalayan salt lamp.
A carton of pencils made to look like branches.
A coconut purse from Hawaii,
unused, made only for the shelf.
Two rows of snow-globes,
all from a different country or states,
a collection begun in elementary school.
This room,
blue and bone-yellow and worn-away pink;
shake it, and you can hear the ocean.

 

Concrete Fields 

Every time I return to the town where I grew up, another field has died.

I think, “They can’t build anymore houses. There isn’t any room.”

And then they find room. The grassy lot, once rich with goldenrod and dandelions. The meadow, once overrun with blackberries but open, muddy in the rain, perched over by finches with their talons between thorns. The old field, where the deer bent their heads at dusk.

They call these places unused. Vacant. Potential real estate. They build clone houses with beige plastic siding and windows that look straight into the neighbor’s bedroom. 

Why do we need more houses? Who would want to live here when the open spaces are gone?

Summer Rain

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How soft the rain sounds,

like pebbles flushed through a stream,

click, and click, then all at once, like the inside of a wave as it breaks,

polyphony, the voices and their colors.

the shifting powders of soil, the ants and pill bugs drowned in soup-like puddles,

the robins warmly puffed up, their eyes crossed and glinted as they stare east,

at the corner above the fence

where the sun will be.

 

 

Take A Stone From The Desert

 

Take a stone from the desert. Carry it home with you; keep it safe in the inner pouch of your backpack. Unwrap it carefully. Feel how it has cooled. Turn it over in your hands. Feel the softness of your fingers, exfoliated by wind and stone, and how the rock, too, is smoother than you remember. Flip the lights on so you can see, without a doubt, how the colors have changed. What was once red is now brown-maroon. What was once tea-green is now gray. This is not the same rock you pulled from that ledge of sandstone, but a memory of it.

 

We go to the desert to renew ourselves. This is a land of sky and distance, incredibly ancient but wearing away before our eyes. We are tangled in the elements. Night rushes in. Sweat turns to chills. When the sun rises you are bundled in fleece, but, just as your hands thaw, the day suddenly blooms into warmth, and the sweat returns.

 

Look, there, the ravens circle wordlessly. By the river, Canadian geese honk their morning songs. Wild turkeys roam the sagebrush, laughing. Any sound here is startling and abrupt. When the birds are not calling, it is completely silent. If you stand for a moment, and hold your breath, you hear the buzzing of stillness, the buzzing, perhaps, of time, that very strange quiet that we do not hear in the city.

 

We often think of the desert as a place for escape. All wilderness is seen this way; as a refuge from the evils of society. Perhaps we need not to escape those evils, but to face them. Perhaps the desert should be the place we go to breathe, to listen; to lay with our backs curved against sandstone, to watch the stars turn, and wander carefully through the bleached moonlit landscape, its shapes contorted, its shadows moving like clouds. It is in these moments that the best thoughts form. There is no better place to see the relationship between us and time. Our smallness is evident, here, but it is a magnificent smallness. How beautiful it is to see that there is more than us, more than our mistakes and our self-imposed distance from the non-human world. And once we have seen this, we can return to the city and apply what we have learned.

 

We need to see ourselves in the context of the larger world in order to understand who we are and how we want things to change. This is why, in the dry desert air, things start to make more sense. Out here, we learn to rejoice in the things we have no control over. We learn to love harsh extremes and to find solace in our connection to vastness.  We form new ideas in the openness and carry them with us, like desert stones, changed by landscape. Each stone is a different color when we arrive to our city homes, inseparable from its surroundings. We hold the rocks themselves and the memory of their brightness, and both help us understand what needs to be done.

The Piano – A Short Story

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I have been around fur-ones all my life. They do not have fur on the tips of their fingers, but it is everywhere else. On some it is pale, touched but mostly unseen, and on others—the nose-ones mostly—it is an encapsulating seed, the vessel through which they experience the world. As you can see I am one of the wood-ones. I do not experience the world through skin or fur, but through sound.

 
Many years ago, when the fur-ones brought me into this world, I thought I was one of them. I tried so very hard to see, and to feel. I tried to taste the air. I heard the fur-ones speak, their voices creaking, the chords in their throats expanding, the buttons on their coats snapping up, the keys turning, ripping like ice through the metal interior of the lock. I tried to call out to them, but I could not even do that, not of my own will. I could hear, and that was all I could do for myself.

 
The first fur-one to play me was a boy-one. He had never been inside the metal walls before, but I’d heard his breathing sometimes, on the outside, by the hollow tin where the fur-ones threw things. His fingers sounded like stubs of snow, approaching, approaching. The idea of music startled me. He played a very simple piece. For the first time I felt, rather than heard, and it was a glorious warmth, a sun-glow, a something I would call joy. I saw this something, too; the color yellow, or maybe it was gold. I did not have a word for it then. I remember it as something unworldly. Something ancient; a bridge through time. By the time the boy-one left, I knew why I had been created.
I was happy to leave my birthplace. A family of fur-ones brought me to a sunny corner, and they pushed another wood-one in front of me, a four-legged thing with a cotton-heart, but he could not speak. We listened to each other, how we creaked when the air shifted, deep in the quietest moments before the fur-ones rose.

 
Some days we could hear the whistles of the feathered-ones, beyond the net of glass, but most often we heard the scurrying of the fur-ones. The more I listened to them, the better I understood their ways. Two large fur-ones stepped slowly, one with the swish of her fabric bell, the other with the swoosh of his leg-tubes. A nose-one ticked wildly in a quadruple rhythm, one-two-three-four, scat-scat-scat-scat. Similar to these staccato footsteps were those of the girl-one, scat-scat, a duple rhythm.

 
“Isn’t it about time for your practice, darling?” the woman-one said.
“I already did.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“I played when you were outside.”
“Beatrice, you need to practice twenty minutes per day. Remember what Mrs. Patterson said.”
“But Mommy, I don’t feel like it.”
“Come on. Let’s have a concert. Daddy and I will be your audience. Right, Phillip?”

 

Creaking, as the fur-ones sat. The woman-one clapped her hands, a sound like feather-one beaks on tree-one husks. “And now, here to play Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for you on this fine afternoon, may I present, the fabulous and talented—Beatrice!”
The man-one clapped as well. The nose-one nudged up close to me, and rounded himself into a circle by my pedals.
The girl-one began to play.

 

 

 

Some days I like piano. Mommy says all ladies should learn an instrument. She learned the violin when she was young, but she hasn’t played it in years. I’ve never heard her play. Sometimes I think she’s making it up.

 
But I like to play piano sometimes, like on rainy days, on afternoons when it’s so dark we turn the lights on early. Whiskey sits at my feet. He breathes heavily, huffy nose-breathes, and I know he’s fallen asleep. It’s easy to play on days like that. But not when it’s sunny. I want to go outside, or I want to teach Whiskey how to play hide-and-go-seek.
I stop playing. Whiskey lifts his nose.

 
“Honey, you need to play a little longer,” says Mommy.
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Don’t talk to your mother that way,” Daddy says.
I stand. Whiskey stands too.
“Beatrice.”
“I don’t want to.”
Why do they care if I practice or not? I want to be free like Whiskey. All day all night free to nap or play as I choose. I wish I was a little doggy. All covered in soft fur, with floppy ears and a snout with whiskers.
I am daring. I clench my fists. “You can’t make me!”
“That’s earned you a time-out.” Mommy points to the hallway. Daddy’s eyebrows curve. That is a good way to tell that he’s mad. I cross my arms but my daringness is gone.
There is a corner in the hallway, the time-out corner, where I’m supposed to stand when I’m in trouble. I stomp my feet against the wood floors. Like drums. See, I’m playing an instrument now. See, Mommy and Daddy.

 
“Twenty minutes,” says Mommy. “Think about how you can be more respectful toward your parents.”

 
I lean my forehead against the green-flowered wallpaper. I start to cry. Mommy and Daddy are mad at me. I’ve been bad. I know it. Why do I always do this? I stomp my feet again. Stomp stomp. Stomp stomp. All with my forehead glued to the wall.

 
Last time I got in trouble I refused to eat the liver and onions we had for dinner. I don’t like liver. It tastes like metal, like you’re licking a pure metal spoon, and it’s always really dry. I told Mommy I wouldn’t eat it. Never. I would never eat it again. I would rather have a grumbly tummy all night than eat liver. But Mommy didn’t like me talking back to her like that. She didn’t like my tone. I thought my tone was very grown-up. That’s how Mommy talks half the time. Daddy doesn’t mind as much, but he goes along with what Mommy says. I think if it was just me and Daddy here I could get away with almost anything.

 
But I have been bad. I shouldn’t be mean like that. I love my Mommy and Daddy. And the poor piano. I don’t hate the piano either. I love the whole house.

 
“I’m sorry,” I yell into the wall.
 

 

The girl-one does not like music. She is eager to run instead. Perhaps she is too young. Perhaps she is more a nose-one than a girl-one.
One night the man-one played something lovely. The girl-one had already gone to bed, but the woman-one sprung out from behind the corner, and she said, “Phillip, you never told me that you play.”

 
He pulled his fingers away. “I don’t. Just tinkering around, love.”
“Sounded like more than just tinkering around to me.”
The man-one laughed. It was not a real laugh, but a pressure of air through his nose.
“Well don’t stop. Keep playing.”
“I’m a bit tired,” he said, and he closed my cover.

 
The next time he played, the house was empty, the woman-one and girl-one ridden away in a wheeled basket pulled by hoof-ones. The man-one played the same piece again. I did not recognize it, but I could tell it was something old, something that he was trying to remember, because he paused at certain passages and hummed along with the notes until he found his way. He mastered it just before the other fur-ones returned. Whatever it was, it was exuberant.

 

 

Daddy comes out and cups my chin. “Don’t you like the piano, dearest?”
“I like it sometimes.” I sniffle. “When I feel like it.”
“It’s something that requires absolute dedication. Day in, day out.”
“Daddy, did you ever play an instrument?”
“I used to. When I was a little boy, I played the piano just like you.”
I jump. “You did? You did? What happened?”
“I loved it so much I wanted to become a pianist.”
“A pianist?”
“A professional piano player. But your grandfather told me that that wasn’t a good job, and so I stopped.”
“Daddy, do you still remember how to play? Oh, play something for me, please!”
A short silence, and then the man-one sat down. “This is a song I made up, long ago.” The girl-one curled up on the sofa, and she stroked the nose-one’s ears. The woman-one returned to the room.

 
All the fur-ones breathed softly. Their chests rose and fell together, legato. The music was like a rush of moving air, like the girl-one and the nose-one as they played together beyond the net of glass, soft, and frantic, and young. Wind in head-fur. Wind in body-fur.
The girl-one asked: “Daddy, will you teach me?”

 
The nose-one curled up at my pedals. Together, the fur-ones played.