I read a couple of articles recently about writing with honesty and being true to the essence of one’s self. These aren’t necessarily one and the same. I could write factually, historically, about what has occurred in my life, and likely there is some validity and value in that. I have lived in peculiar times; my personal decades have reflected those changes and challenges. And I have experienced a number of events that have been unusual or dangerous, insufferable yet inspiring, curious and surprisingly sweet. So why not just write about those, the unvarnished truth–put them out there and see how they do?
But usually it is another story that draws me. It is the one recalled by an inner vision, or that simply seeks my attention and pulls me like a magnet. This hideaway of stories is a vast and homely palace where who I am lives, made of bits and pieces of wonderings, snippets of images and visions. It is a place of wonders. It is erected and maintained in my heart and in my dreaming. Call it a writer’s way of being or maybe just a lowly pilgrim’s. But this process of seeking the whole story cracks open much of what I know as truths, at least mine.
It was a brilliant day, the sort we have been waiting for all year in the northwest. I had heard about the trail for years. Walking and hiking are like bread for my soul and body–basic, a daily requirement, a tool in my toolkit. But I have a coronary artery disease diagnosis, and even with two stent implants to keep the blood flowing nicely, I wasn’t certain if I could climb this trail for an hour and a half. But it is considered relatively easy , so is popular with families. There is, after all, only a 700 ft. elevation change. And at the end of that trail, there is the reward of a lovely lake and a grand view of Mt. Hood.
These are the facts of this post so far. Now comes the rest.
The heat dallied, then gradually seeped out of the deepening forest but it was quite warm enough. I was good with sandals and jeans rolled up, a light t-shirt. I climbed with Marc, my spouse, and as we pushed forward l sought to turn out all thought and let nature envelop me. In fact, the goal here was to fully empty my mind–and find refuge from stress.
This is the hard part. It has been a rough start of summer, ragged ’round the edges. Many changes in my family and more to come. Some of it has brought pain, the sort that needles me unless I surrender to work or the joys and passions which overflow the flexible parameters of my life. The harder life becomes, the harder I tend to work, as though I can tame it, put all the unruly things back into their corners. Or smooth out the creases with a strong and steady hand. And in the midst of the work, find solace and release. I have great energy and will but sometimes it seems small match for this adventure we call human life.
I kept on. The trail curved and steepened. I was breathing harder, so paused. Beads of sweat had sprung up on my forehead and neck. I studied others who passed. They looked cool, relaxed. Nearby was a stream which swirled and tumbled, its music buoyant. I examined soft moss that clung to logs crisscrossing the water, then started again.
Each step brought air that was thinner in my lungs, to my brain. My breathing was labored. Perspiration snaked its way down my chest and back; it was as though tears fell from my pores while my eyes stayed clear. My heart, at moments syncopated, began to settle, and beat well if quickly. Clusters of people came and went with their enthusiastic children and lively dogs. How far could it be to the top?
I let many pass, in need of more communion with nature. I was closer to that vivid moment when all falls away and life becomes again harmonious, within and without. Treetops shimmered in the swish and sigh of breezes. Looking up, I felt dizzy with warmth and pleasure. My mind began to recalibrate. My soul sat up.
The ascent went on like that for me, climbing as long as I could, the sweat dampening my skin but my breathing steadier. Then a long pause. My legs were heavier but moving as demanded, and my arms swung so that I fell into the rhythm of it, feet sure, knees a bit cranky but doing their job well. And the forest kept beguiling me with its perfumes and beauties and odd asides. We admired plants, bugs, berries; watched ground squirrels scamper; wondered over cougars and bears. We were moving into the wilderness, though well-travelled by humans there. I kept on, heart shifting smoothly, lungs filling with redolent, clean air. I was well challenged, more attuned. Heartbeats took oxygen to blood and brain; my senses sharpened.
We were nearing the top. Light spilled into shadows. The trees encroached less, patches of sky were more often visible. We gazed out over Zig Zag Valley, an exquisite scene. Such heavenly blueness, like an infinite cape.
When we arrived at Mirror Lake I heard, then saw, adults and children splashing and laughing. They were relieved and happy to be cooled by an alpine lake, with sunshine hot and golden on their backs. I felt that feeling I always have when seeing a body of water like this: a great dash of joy, a familiar peace.
It reminds me of childhood summers in northern Michigan where only good things were allowed if at all possible, like boating and swimming and laying in a chaise lounge and reading all day. Sitting around a fire and roasting marshmallows. Listening to birds and catching fireflies.
There was a feeling of being brave back then, and of life so rich with possibilities. And even when the bad times came (which they did, as they do, with a vengeance), there was that muscular power to my belief that all could be overcome. Endured. Healed. It was the feeling of an ancient and eternal love made visible in sky and water, in the mellifluous sounds of life. Way back then, as a child, it made its way into the cells of this body, the synapses of this brain so that I am, unapologetically, a believer. In the supreme design. In God alive. Here. Now.
Mirror Lake may not be the most breathtaking lake I have ever seen. But imperial Mt. Hood reigns if you walk to a grassy spot on one side of it. There, in the brazen mountain sunshine, is the reflective quality that gives the lake its name. I like how it spreads gently among forest and rocks. As we sat in the shade my mind was clarified. The sharp stings of my difficulties had left no poison behind. I was small here at the top of the trail, and yet had my place.
How can I forget that the pain I hold too close slips away when my heart opens wide? I was given gratitude at the top of this trail, in the center of a summer day. This is much of the truth, the real story that sooner or later finds me.
Last week-end, I did something wonderful that I so often do: I took to nature and filled up. I was hungry for the smallest mundane and stunning wonders. It has always been vital to move within a canopy of trees and meditate by running or still waters. To lay my head upon flower-jeweled grasses or lay my hand atop the chill, ancient bulk of rocks that line a trail.
Sometimes it is more crucial than others.
All the work-week long I sit in small rooms and attend to people who bring me eruptions of tears; stories that unravel like epic histories with no beginning or end; silences that throb with such swirled feelings and accompanying consternation that all they can do is… wait… for more language to tame the rawness of the telling.
Grief they carry in on their backs and then hold it tightly as though afraid it will vanish and leave them lonely. Invisible murderous things done by word and hand. Gaping voids where love once lived and then was misplaced or forgotten or ruined. They seek healing, small stitches over wounds that feel good instead of bad, like fine, strong embroidery that will hold for a lifetime and eave no more scars. They hope for magic, the one key that will make the doors spring open and reveal the reward for the suffered moments of lives derailed.
And I am only one woman sitting in a chair by the window, the light falling across folded hands, my eyes seeking theirs, my heart by turns breaking for them and beating strong. I can honor their tellings with respect and attention. I can assist them with escape from lifelong addiction into new freedom from slavery. I can lay compassion before them and hope it is discovered, caught, taken home at the end of the hour. But I am only an ordinary woman sitting by a window, the delicate spring light falling across my shoulders, illuminating their bewildered faces. I listen because that is what I choose to do. I do not flinch, unless you count the closing of my eyes when the pain requires a prayer for mercy. Anyone knows I cannot save lives, unlike the EMTs or surgeons and others fitted with skills and tools I do not have. The only answer my clients receive is that they can and will learn to save themselves. Or will not, as they ultimately decide. I can and will stand watch over them. Steady them when they allow me close. Tell them: risk this step.
I wait to see who braves the 0bstacles in order to move toward a richer life. And who does not. The suspense keeps me alert, drives the quiet detective work. It keeps me awake some nights, revisiting clues, the storylines of these wandering souls: Let me be a good, sturdy signpost, I pray.
And so when the weekly work days are done, I go to the woods or the marshland; the hills and mountains; the coastal spaces. When I call out from my center, the waters answer, mountains echo, and creatures like salamanders, crickets or redtail hawks, deer and coyotes take note but continue their work. I am coming for cleansing, for replenishment and to learn, a pilgrim on my own journey. They see me arrive before I see them; they hear me as I slow to interpret flowers and currents. My breathing quiets. Their noses test the drift of air and find me there.
And I am welcomed.
I finally can stop thinking and begin to emulate a mossy hillock or a luminescent stone caught in seafoam. My ragged life rises and falls with my steps, gets stronger, brightens with refocused vision. It slips along the edge of a pond and stretches in the sun beside snake and snail. It is put on pause by orange starfish clinging to a basalt wall. Yet, too, my life becomes blissfully smaller, is condensed and rolled about so that it changes. I can feel it. The dirt, ferns, bees let me pass over trails. The brush of wind against arm and cheek lifts my spirit above treetops. My feet familiarize themselves with sudden ruts, delight in empty shells or broken branches; they greet valleys or agate-strewn beaches. A banana slug ignores my dance around its path. The birds offer a lyrical call and response and it is as though God, yes, God actually breathes Breath into emerald-hued air.
As I move through shadow and light, all that I brought here, all that is compressed by sorrow, distorted by anger–all that makes humans haunt each other and themselves–has been left to the ether. It has abandoned me to the deep solace of an earthly refuge. I am anonymous, unimportant, yet held close as though I belong just as spider and trillium. And as in that other life–the one that is full of people who create both good and ill will–my intent is to do no harm, to meld with the design.
A moment longer by a river. The water tells me: Do not let the thorny banks encroach. Let life open, soften, deepen you. Bring your thirst, fill up, for there is enough for all. This holy solitude longs for you as you for it. Rest. Then be fearless in love.
The music of the gentling waters comes to me like a symphony and I reach within to a still, small point. Vanish in plain sight.
Then through the lattice of branches and leaves flow many voices: children making their way and laughing, grown people finding their footing. Locating beauty and being amazed. I move quietly and disappear into the sun-dappled sanctuary, taking with me the pleasure and sanctity of many living things, and peace renewed. Reluctantly, I turn to go. As the world returns to my consciousness with all its transformative, difficult knowledge, I am ready. Until I seek the embrace of solitude once more.
Although I don’t usually post every week, recent walks have brought some good surprises to share. Not only do I enjoy recording evidence of spring trying to assert itself, I have noticed that ours is a paricularly art- and literature-loving neighborhood. For starters, an eternally sunny mural. Then I found a mailbox for neighbors to place books for borrowing–what a treat! There was one of many poetry posts to read–this one by William Stafford. Lots of yard-worthy art. I could do a whole post of interesting artistic works fround right by sidewalks. And who doesn’t like seeing red holiday orbs still swinging in branches? Don’t pass over the lovely stones that someone laid across the earth for all to study and touch. And flowers everywhere–too numerous to share here today. Have a happy stroll with me. I’ll bring you more beauties another time.
I live where the big trees live; I know the great privilege of this.
They keep watch as have done for one hundred years,
branches overarching streets as though welcoming royalty.
But those who move through the shade and beauty are only we,
the small, careless ones.
Leaves are scattered, precious gold and ancient fire at my feet,
promises of regeneration on the holy breath of wind.
They cascade down, spin about, weave brilliant auras round us all.
Showy or shy leaves dust trails with their etched tree-hands,
then sail off to bless some other.
I live here on this earth, O Our Majesty, where there is
a thunderous whisper of leaves and branches as I pass.
Above and beyond are invitations: red for welcome,
orange for mischief, yellow for wealth of spirit.
Crinkly brown reminds that even splendor must lay down, rest.
I live where the big trees live. I know the great privilege.
They will watch over me, keep vigil for you.
They do not forget to speak to us in the chill and glory
of the days and nights as we rush, though we should tarry.
Listen and hear: all our lives they sing their primordial songs,
and gather us into the circle as their very own.
Copyright 2011 Cynthia Guenther Richardson
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