Out of Our Bones

“And Let ourselves be carried

to the river

that is without the least dapple or shadow—

that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—

in which we are washed and washed

out of our bones.”

–Mary Oliver

The falls of Minnehaha creek have frozen, and on a sun-filled Sunday, Riley and I slip and dangle on hand rails, past the don’t enter signs, down the ice-packed steps to the river. This January thaw has swarmed the park with people—cyclists, joggers, parents gripping the taught arms of bundled and unsteady toddlers. We’re all in need of stretched muscles, some tart air in our lungs.

At the bottom where gallons of water break and the creek resumes, we dodge the feeble fences posted round the pool, join the dozens crowded on uneven rock and snow and ice. Many have arms slung around shoulders for pictures, some are climbing, all are just trying to keep their balance. Awkwardness is the great equalizer, and as people slip and dart in unexpected directions, arms flail in desperate circles, squeals echo on unpredictable ground, no one is above fighting to remain on their feet. Most of us don’t. A stranger offers her mittened hand as I step from one ledge to the next, and I take it because we are all rather clumsy and helpless. The scene is all the more welcome and vulnerable because of it.

While the people below clamber, the falls are frozen in time, chilled into a single instant. The cliff ledge is sheeted in blue-pillared walls of ice, a rocky rim of speared stalactites, layers of arrowed water stopped rigid. The surrounding trees and brush are steamed white with frost, and the waterfall itself, the concentrated mass of river perpetually plunging in its singular, unvarying form, pristine as glass. I am at the foot of its marble foam, the billowing and spray of its impact locked in massive mounds. Crawling up and over them to get closer, they are knobby as popcorn balls.

Above me towers a fierce and sleeping energy—a rampage of motion suspended over my flimsy skull. I imagine the crack that would send water crashing through, dismissing me like fallacy. My hands brush over its gritty sleekness, and I can see the water still tunneling through beneath the ice, flashing and shadowing, its falling as gentle and hushed as a never-ending breath. I am stroking a slumbering beast. There is that blush of risk I crave, and I wonder that I am not devoured.

My mittens and the knees of my blue jeans are wet from clinging and crawling, my hair is knotted on my neck, and instead of feeling powerful for my conquering, I am only better reminded of my feebleness. This is how it should be—how easily am I convinced of feeling otherwise? In my potential, I am invincible. I am the gathering capacity for greatness and ambition and achievement. And then there are car rides with Christian Wiman’s words, his reminder that we are dust drawing our nature into the dust, our ambitions hollow as ghosts; and mornings with Ecclesiastes, a chasing after the wind; and afternoons standing beneath a waterfall. This body is at the mercy of the world, and the best this soul can do is be in awe, to take contentment in its small, enduring way.

Behind the falls, I crawl into its cave, chandeliered with icicles, the light through its walls glowing blues I’ve never seen. Nothing roars or surges or crashes. I sit within this cavern, imitate the language of winter, and be still.

 

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A Midnight Clear

“Life’s cruelty joins the world’s beauty and our sense of God’s presence to demonstrate who we’re dealing with, if dealing we are: God immanent and transcendent. God discernible but unknowable. God beside us and wholly alien. How this proves his mercy I don’t understand.”

-Annie Dillard

 

It’s been nearly a year now.

At this time last December, my cousin was sitting in a living room twenty miles from mine, his gift wrapped in reindeer wrapping paper, me fully expecting to stand shoulder to shoulder with him for Mom’s photos, sit beside him eating honey ham and potatoes at the same house on East Silent Lake we’d spent all the holidays before. I was expecting to spend a few days sitting around the fireplace in my uncle’s living room, playing spoons or reading Mansfield Park, but I haven’t stepped foot in that house for over a year because it was in that room that they found him without a pulse and a gun still hooked in his hand.

In the dark lobby of the Northwestern media building last week, my friend nudged my boots dangling over the arm of a chair and asked how I was feeling about going home for the holidays, and I just thought about staring into my dorm closet full of clothes, trying to think of what to pack. I made the seams and zippers of my duffle bags bulge from clothes I doubt I’ll need, all because last year I found myself dressing for a funeral and didn’t have anything to black to wear. When I think of how ignorant I was, and am, of everything to come, I hate that I’m still scared of what’s waiting for me at home. I’ve never known a way to prepare for grieving, and I don’t know how to prepare for whatever I’ll be needing now.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to write about the light and darkness, mostly because I’m learning to balance, wrestle, and dwell in it all at once. I crave Sunday morning behind the St. Paul stained glass, with its advent candles and poetry, the very word of advent, because I need a word that’s able to hold the longing and waiting for a coming dawn. I read Isaiah 9:2 over and over, uttering how “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

It is days before Christmas. The light of hope is here, and yet the world still seeps in its suffering. These are days when my mother’s friend is killed in a crash, just miles from my school, from a man driving the wrong way down the freeway. The days when my grandmother is failing to sleep while cancer ravages her body, wondering whether she’ll be here to see me wear her diamond earrings down the aisle next August. A time when my uncle, for the first time in twenty years, won’t be wrapping presents for his son. The days of longing have not passed, and the aches of the weary earth still echo in our heavy breaths.

And I guess in the end, the shadows of light come just as they always have: in a star above a land and people of obscurity, around the fragile wicks of candles in the weeks of December, in the day break coming ever so slowly over the lip of the horizon—the light appearing dimly, and then all at once. It is not the mercy and hope in the world that makes me sure of a God. It is mercy and hope despite the anguish. And so I’ll keep praying under a vaulted sky of pale stars, and it is there I’ll be waiting for the morning.

 

 

Of This World

Lately I’ve been spending my lunch break on the steps of the town’s abandoned church, hunched over the subway sandwich in my lap and book of poetry in my hand. St. Stans has been emptied of real services for years, the length of city block it sits on staying mostly quiet as trucks and trailers whir down highway 8 towards main street just four blocks down. Behind me, the double white doors framed in red brick sit locked, and the arced glass window swirls with swampy green stain, a hot and weighty wind rustling around my ears, causing the aged evergreen’s flat boughs to bob like a ship on water. Besides the occasional wedding or craft show, the church, its clock tower, the saintly white busts carved into its sides have been left alone, and I am relieved to be left alone with it.

~

Somewhere along the course of my life, perhaps as soon as I first sucked breath, I became a worshiper of beauty, and I have been stricken with the pursuit of it ever since. I feel how easily it drives me, how inextricably drawn I am to whatever anchors my stomach with awe. I’ve been spending more time in cathedrals and libraries, sliding my palms down the cool railings of marble staircases, gazing open-mouthed at gold mosaic ceilings and chandeliers dripping light, curving upward like diamond-draped tree limbs. I’ve fastened my eyes to the work of poets, inscribing line after line onto the sticky notes pressed against my office computer, by closet, my writing desk. They hang there, make me question the quality of life I’m living, the satisfaction I’ve never been able to grasp.

~

I pull my fiancé through the white arches of the St. Paul James J. Hill Library, stopping and spinning round for a moment to read the names etched into the perimeter of the ceiling—Da Vince, Socrates, Shakespeare, Dante. I ask him whether everyone dreams of being inscribed into history, and he says no, not everyone. I wonder whether they don’t dream or whether they simply resign themselves to the unremarkable in order to refuse the pressure of doing otherwise.

Before penning a word, Fitzgerald declared himself to be the next great American novelist, and Zelda would write how ”she quietly expected great things to happen to her and no doubt that’s one of the reasons why they did.” I wish it were possible to claim a legacy before knowing whether or not I had earned one. And I wish I knew whether all artists and the poets knew they had been selected for remarkable things even if the world never suggested it—whether they knew it but were still disappointed in the end.

~

Charles Bukowski wrote that he had no time for things that have no soul, and perhaps that’s why the idea of money and wealth and social status make me feel nothing, and why poetry and point shoes and paint brushes bring me alive and defeat me all at the same time—like the feeling of the ocean and sand swishing through my fingers before effortlessly slipping away. The deflation of such temporary bliss.

This is what I’ve been longing for more than anything else: to become significant by creating something that is even more so. For my name to be remembered with the beautiful and the troubled and the very real things of the world. I’m not supposed to care about the temporary nature of this place but I do. And I don’t want to leave it without truly seeing it as it is.

~

C.S. Lewis protests that if he and I have desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the only explanation is that we were made for another world. So I keep on hungry and relentless, hoping that I’m doing all I can, that I’m leaving behind what I am meant to. I keep emptying pens onto paper and keep turning the pages of books and keep praying this madness of realizing how short I fall of knowing and seeing and loving will eventually collapse into eternity, will bring me rest.

From the Walls of Your Mind

“If you are not learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed.”

-Tony Hoagland

I am leaning against the kitchen counter as Mom pours an afternoon pot of coffee, me gushing about the latest author I’ve been reading. We spend many days this way, and the best part of my coming home for the summer is having access to far more bookshelves than I can fit in a dorm room, stealing what Mom’s been reading, her listening to the essays and poetry I’ve been cramming into my mind in my freetime, on my lunch break, before I go to sleep. I’ve just finished an essay by Wendell Berry—one work out of hundreds of essays and poems and novels.

“Can you imagine having written that much in your lifetime?” I ask her. She pauses while she pours in her hazelnut creamer, quietly adding: “Or having that much to say.”

That notion has struck me and stuck to me closer than anything else, because if I am to contribute anything to this world, I would want it to be a voice. But it’s more than that. I want some way to scorch the world with meaning and purpose and beauty and whatever else actually matters. Or maybe I just want a name for myself—something that achieves the concept of legacy we all inwardly struggle for.  Either way, it’s days like these recent ones that have made me feel more silent, more powerless than ever.

Because in a culture where you’re expected to prove your opinions, experiences, morals, and political agenda through tweets and statuses, remaining silent isn’t even an option. But the irony, or course, is that though everyone has nearly unlimited opportunity to speak publically and influentially, fewer and fewer people actually have anything of substance to say. And when media controls the story and dictates what people perceive as truth, and when the media is controlled by the people who yell the loudest, all you’re left with is noise. This doesn’t make people any less determined to add to it.

~

Zora Neale Hurston asks “What do you hang on the walls of you mind?” And so I wrack the corners of mine, scraping through the cobwebs and dust, searching for the things I know to be true. Looking for what only I can say, wondering if my mind could ever be full enough to fill the pages of books with words people need to hear. Not words they will buy, not even words that will get me published, but words that will stir and churn up the surface of lives.

But I’d be foolish to assume that I have within me some entirely original thought that had never been thought or expressed before. And that’s part of the reason for the stack of books I cycle through on my bedside table, as I keep hoping to learn and soak in the methods of these people who all had something built up inside them, needing to emerge. I pray that by reading and memorizing and imitating the sentences that have survived the oblivions of the world, the words that have kept on breathing, I’ll be able to communicate the truths that are bigger than what I can carry. The truths that aren’t exclusively or uniquely mine, but real.

I spend quite a few of my lunch breaks in my town’s library, running my fingers along the spines of books pinched back to back on the rows of metal shelves. Books on every topic, attempting to answer every question imaginable. I’ve had trouble trying to write lately. I think it’s my idealist nature still questioning whether the things I think are the things I need to say. And every time I walk through these aisles breathing in old paper, a part of me doubts that I really have anything to possibly add. I try to remember how stories matter. How there are things that are worth being said over and over again.

~

To speak about meaningful things, I am pursuing the ability to think meaningfully—that uncomfortable process that most have no real interest in. It means wrestling with myself, with my views of the world, comparing them with those wiser than I, treading water exhausted when I can find no answers and no explanation to cling to. And only the most broken and hurting parts of the world can topple us into that kind of questioning. But the broken and hurting parts are also the ones that mean the most. Look for the parts that grieve us and tangle us and cause us to double over in sorrow, and you will find the truths that make us human. You will find the treads that connect us to every other soul.

Not everyone wants to hear those stories, those truths. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be said.

The Evidence of Living

I grew up forty-six minutes from Itasca state park—32,000 acres of dense forest and lakes, the crown jewel being the knee-deep stream of cold water that will eventually trickle and feed into the Gulf of Mexico 2,500 miles downstream. People come from all over to stumble across a dam of half-submerged boulders and claim I walked across the headwaters of the Mississippi.

I’ve done this on at least six different occasions. And now, home from school for the summer, I feel as though I’m somehow above the flocks of Asians and sun-burnt hikers that swarm the clearing with their small children and selfie sticks, documenting every rock and river bank and family moment they can catch in focus. I am determined not to be seen as a tourist and justify myself as slightly superior since I am native to this ground. At least, more native than they are.

My boyfriend has driven seven hours up for a long weekend and because this sun-filled Memorial day is his last day here, and he has never been, my family piles him into the mini van with my four younger siblings and hauls us up to Itasca.

Reaching the gravel bank, I lead him into the clear water, feel the gentle brush of current against my calves and swing my plastic flip-flops in my left hand. We wade downstream, treading on stones that may end up in St. Louis or Memphis, breathing in humidity and bogs and marsh, watching the minnows flee in front of us, flickering like refractions of sunlight.

Before we have to leave the park, we make a side stop so we can hike the half mile up to Aiton Fire tower—a rickety assembly of stairs and beams, all leading up to a five-by-five wooden hut that looks out for miles over the trees. The sign at the bottom reads “Not for those suffering from dizziness or fear of heights—no more than six at a time.” Mom is perfectly content waiting on the ground.

The stairs are steep, and I don’t even feel bad about quickly losing breath. At each landing, a sign tells you what layer of forest your passing: ground cover, understory, midstory, and soon we’re above the canopy and my feet are still clanking on metal steps. When I stop for rest, I can feel the tower wobble in the wind.

110 feet up and everything seems left behind. The endless green of summer trees bleed into each other across the acres, and even the birds are below us now. The tower cab is a perfect square with wide windows caged in chicken wire, and above the windows are signs that indicate North, South, East, and West. The rest of the wooden walls are scratched and colored with graffiti. Most have left initials and names and drawings like Jimmy + Taylor surrounded by a heart. Others left notes saying things like You did it! and Blake was here and Never stop being inspired. I always try to see how many names I can remember, peak into corners and cracks to find any writings I may have missed.

There’s something so innately human about wanting to make marks, to be remembered. And every time I find those marks I hope I’m somehow fulfilling that longing, in a small way. I think we pick places like these to reach out—ones that draw out breath or press us tight or remind us how feeble and unstable we are in the midst of this world. Much like the flocks snapping selfies by the headwaters and video taping their toddlers and pocketing postcards in the gift shop, we want some evidence for ourselves and for our experiences. We seek out ways to prove a sort of significance, not trusting our senses and memory to be enough.

The wind whips at the heat and sweat on my face, and I lean into it, eager to be swept away. My family soon begins the decent, and I should too since there are others waiting to make the climb, but I don’t want them to. I want to stay suspended in this elevated unsteadiness a while longer. Learn what it takes to balance. Become a part of this landscape, if it will take me.

We are so eager to conquer this world—to leap rivers and clear fields and construct towers into the sky, our grip becoming tighter when we see that even steel wavers. So caught up in proving our aliveness that we forget what it means to be.

I won’t carve my language into this wood, and I won’t post about being here either. As of right now I may stand above the trees, but I know their roots go down deeper than the beams that hold me. I have faith in this world and my place here. May I ever be rooted with it.

The Price of Finding Depth

Today is my seventh session of counseling. It has been three months since my cousin shot himself on Christmas Day. He would have been my age—twenty—in sixteen days.

I’ve grown comfortable in this room, in this red plush chair—enough so that I don’t always have to cross my legs or clutch my own hands in my lap. When I don’t stare at the counselor in the same rocking chair across from me, which is most of the time, I stare at the full bookshelf to his left, the books with spines listing every disorder and mental ailment imaginable, the window next to me that looks out of the reverent, red-brick Nazareth Hall, my view framing a corner of Lake Johanna, the cold and gnarled oaks twisting across gray water.

We always meet on Friday’s, during what the college calls “praise chapels.” It’s a weekly event most students flock to, leaving the century-old campus quiet and deserted.

The first praise chapel I went to after Christmas, I stood and listened while a peppy worship leader belted out a Hillsong ballad about “victory over death,” the whole auditorium on their feet and clapping. I fell into my seat after about five minutes and wept, my hair like a curtain, my face in salt-soaked hands the rest of the hour. I haven’t been to a praise chapel since.

My counselor and I don’t always talk about him—sometimes we talk about poetry and art, or we discuss blogs and books we’ve read. But he always comes up. I try not to be surprised by the fact that I always have more to say.

I tell my counselor the question that I asked my roommate last night while she was sprawled on the thinly-carpeted dorm-room floor doing theology homework, clacking on laptop keys, the white Macintosh apple glowing in my direction.

Are you satisfied with your life?

She did not hesitate when she said yes. When she asked me the same, I responded that I don’t know whether I’ve ever been truly satisfied by anything. That I am always seeking, always trying, always groping for something more. And it’s exhausting.

My counselor looks at me quiet with focused eyes, waits while I feel my face wrinkling up in frustration, my palms sweating in this blanketing room that smells of the red hard candies on the desk. All my life, I tell him, I’ve always seen the worst fate possible as feeling and experiencing life shallowly. But what I’ve forgotten until now is that the deepest depths of the ocean are the darkest and loneliest places on earth.

It is saying these words aloud that makes me crush a plush Kleenex against my eyes, stop while I try to control my voice and breath. My counselor tells me I feel isolated from people because I feel and experience things in ways that most twenty-something college students do not. He says I am “burdened by insight.” His statement flattering and lonely all at the same time.

When I walk outside, it is April and it is empty and it is snowing—light, gentle flakes, not so much falling but rather chasing themselves around my head and the mass of steely sky. I walk through a world in slow motion. The air is fresh and spills down my throat like ice water, settling somewhere deep inside of me, cleansing me. I can smell the water stirring in the lake behind me, the weather-worn dirt that is finally exposed. I tip back my head, stop on the walk overlooking the campus courtyard, stand utterly still.

Later today I will have classes, and I will read books, and I will think thoughts about all kinds of things different people want in my brain. But in this moment, my thoughts are mine and God’s. I am my own. I am being laced in white, and I am healing in the only way I know how.

For the Old Soul in Me

We settled on Riverview theater for date night because my best friend loves the place, the website referenced the 1950s, and because tickets are a whopping $3 each. But it was actually being there that made me never want to go anywhere else ever again.

To get there, Riley and I drove through a part of Minneapolis neither or us were familiar with, or vaguely recognized from Guthrie shows and afternoons at the walker, the MIA. We kept along the train tracks, the street dark as we wandered further away from the bright lights of the skylines, the tops of buildings lit up like match sticks. But when we turn on 42nd street, the whole corner of the theater is made up of blinking lightbulbs and is impossible to miss.

We pinch into a spot in front of the Riverview café, windows full of lanterns and candles and couples holding hands and sipping wine, and as we make our way toward the line that has formed around the block, and I start to feel like I’m in a small town that’s managed to keep the urban out—like I’m a part of this neighborhood everyone has just sort of emerged from, like I could have just walked here from down the block.

We stand with other adults for the late-night 9:30 showing, me with my beret and red lipstick and vintage heels over wool tights, my roommates black dress and cardigan, Riley holding my waist in a blue button up, the rows of yellow light flashing around the movie titles reflecting off the lenses of his glasses. We stomp the sidewalk in the cold, feeling the buzz of being out on Friday night, waiting for the doors to open, listening to strangers’ conversations in front of and behind us.

A policeman is standing on the corner chatting casually to a woman near the front. They exchange their childhood neighborhoods, and the policeman tells her the street he grew up on, that he brought his first date to this theater nearly thirty years ago. I hope this is what the 50s felt like. I hope that it felt like excitement for simple things and the willingness to wait for something good and sharing memories with strangers and feeling like you share something with them anyway. I wish I felt like that more often.

When the doors do open, we rush in to the heated building like everyone else, pay for real tickets on red paper, hand them to the usher who rips them in half, lets us keep what he doesn’t throw in his ballot box. While Riley buys real-butter popcorn, I find seats in the fast-filling auditorium.

There is one stage, a massive room of plush green seats, glowing wood walls, blocks of felt lining them in neat rows. I scoot past a middle-age couple on their own date who seem way less uncomfortable getting up to let me past than I feel asking them to. Most theaters I’m used to always feel cold and dark and utilitarian, like a drive-through that gives you your service and sends you on.

But this room is warm, and bright like a fireplace. Melted butter and salty oil waft off greasy fingertips, and people are greeting each other by first names and shaking hands and are here for something more than the screen, which is showing slides of trivia, and the couple next to me is finishing the famous movie lines it gives them. There is no place like ____ “Home.”

The previews show indie films and trailers, and Riley and I place the cardboard bowl between our seats, and when it’s time for our film, the curtains shuffle closed, the lights dim, and drapes of red are pulled back to start the story. And through the entire thing people are connected. We all laugh at the hero’s on liner. We gasp and shake our heads at injustice. We smirk and cheer at the retorts. We can hear the hush of the broken hearted. We are engaged with the characters—we are engaged with each other.

When the credits fall, the crowd applauds. And when we scuttle towards the door, the magic of it drifting out with us. The lobby clears fast, and from the water fountains, we watch them wander back to wherever they came from. The theater workers counting up and closing down. The lights out front are dimmed and the signs are dark. The corner’s quiet. We are the curtain fall of tonight.

 

Riding Through Woods on a Snowy Evening

There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.                        -Kathleen Norris

 My grandpa bought the 160 acres behind my parents’ farmhouse so that when he came in the November he could hunt turkeys and shoot trophy bucks. But most of the year the land sits quiet under snow drifts. Subdued and still.

Much of it consists of thin woods, slender sprouts and silver-barked birch trees. Narrow deer trails wind like tunnels into the brush off the main trails that were cut and carved out years before I walked them, dark round droppings spilled like berries into the dips and tracks left by delicate hooves.

Gray, gritty brush surrounding the miles of open meadow that spreads itself below the crest of the tree line, opening itself so wide you have to turn your head both ways to take in it all. Rolling in a waving sea of gray-brown prairie grass poking like stubble through the white, the shallow frozen creek cutting through the bottom of the open field, a grove of pines blocking the northwest wind that burrows under coats and into your skin, sharpens the inside of your nose.

It’s a threatening beauty that impresses through intimidation. The starkness of it is enough to knock you back, its sheer endlessness enough to shrink you into humble awe.

I’ve always considered the land best witnessed on horseback, the smell of leather and animal sweat and alfalfa under your seat. I’ve been riding the same horse since I was nine, and when I was home in January, after months of being away at school, I heaved the worn saddle onto his warm black body, thick with staticy fuzz he’d been growing all winter. He is stomping the frozen, hollow-sounding ground and bobbing his high head, eager to be out, to have a purpose again.

When we are on the end of the trail and the meadow is framed between the two oaks that mark its beginning, my right hand is holding the reins under the curl of my fingers, the other is on the horse’s taught neck, his ears spring-coiled forward, twitching at every rustle of wood, every bird and gust of wind. Paused, but charged with the air that tastes deeper and fuller in the bottom of my chest. He can taste it too, and when I lean into him, my hand giving him the full length of his head, he bolts forward in voiceless, touchless obedience, pure willingness; the power in his legs pounding with a terrifying force, striding longer and faster until tears whip the outside corners of my eyes.

I don’t bother faking control, the thought of such only makes me want to cling on for dear life, knowing an animal this wild can’t be held back any more than the wind or the movement in the trees. So I move my body with his, raw energy pulsing into me until control’s no longer the point. We are the ground and we are the air and we are the gruesome aliveness that just simply is. And while the familiar, hear-racing fear spills into me and grips like the abruptness of stepping into January air, it is this that reminds me of how shockingly good and costly it is to feel.

With Abandon

On Tuesday morning someone pointed out a far corner of sky that wasn’t shrouded by muddy clouds. Just a small slice—delicate and brilliant. But by that afternoon the short glimpse of robin’s-egg blue had been consumed by the grayness that has managed to consume everything else.

It was raining in the mostly abandoned campus parking lot I had to cross to reach my room—solid, slow-falling raindrops smearing the lenses of my glasses, pecking their way under my sunflower umbrella, my green turned-up hood, cold and surprising on my neck. I tried to imagine myself a flower stalk, turning up my head to catch the water spilling onto my face, filling my pores, my very cells to bursting. But I only focus on the next step, shrink further into myself, block the impact.

The 6 o’ clock dusk dimming, walls of dark wooly cloud mass, the gray only becoming thicker, I couldn’t tell the depth of the water I was treading in, stepping awkwardly and lurching through on my toes, though my buckskin boots were already stained dark up to the ankles from the wet, my socks squelching under the steady and hollow rustle of water slapping blacktop. The drops hit like mini Saturns, rippling out into infinity while another instantly took its place. Street lamps ignited them like dying suns, burnt orange reflections smoldering and toppling in piercing fractures.

I walked fast and breathed shallow, the air damp and moldy like the patches of acid-yellow grass that refuses to green, the month that refuses to shed it’s winter skin, unfurl the light needed to make me open.

I wanted to force the rain into an excuse to feel alive again, wrestle it into metaphor for new beginnings. But maybe it’s just me that needs to be wrestled with.

When the girl with the pink polka-dot rain boots burrowed in her bag outside a dripping Honda civic, I thought about stealing the rubber boots off her feet so I could stomp flat-footed against the wet and watch it spray out from under me, kick the puddles into streaming arcs. Better yet, abandon shoes all together and surrender the careful confinement of it all. I should have left the umbrella in the lot, should have stood out there until the drops stopped feeling like an intrusion on my skin, shed the layers, felt my hair sting and plaster against excited cheeks, baptize myself out of submission, out of expectation.

But I didn’t.

And all week I’ve been thirsty for the child-like abandon that I lost somewhere in the seriousness of the adult world, that was smothered like a slice of blue in a season of gray. And I know that next time I’ll stare longer. I’ll get my feet wet. I’ll stand there until nothing else matters.

Desert Floors

As we pull off a highway near Phoenix, hazy Superstition Mountains looming over us just west of the horizon, I point out the car window off the road and ask, “Grandma, what’s that tree called?” It’s waxy bark the color of pea soup, it’s trunk curves slender and smooth and graceful.

“Palo Verde,” she answers. “It’s the Arizona state tree. Green stick.”

For the few days I’m able to spend with my grandmother for the weekend, I’m still amazed that this landscape has any vegetation at all. Arizona is a desert. Underneath rough shrubs is red dust, cracked and dry. In metropolitan areas, what they haven’t paved over, they’ve covered with similar colored rocks and gravel. Yet even through that something lives.

Large-pored fruit sags from locals’ fiercely green orange trees, the star-shaped blossoms  saturating the air with their sweetness. Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea flowers grow thick in brilliant clumps, tender, but capable of recovering from both frost and drought.

Even the cacti with their crisscrossed spines awe me, towering with thick limbs lifted up into the sky. Many plants have the means to preserve water in such a climate, but the cactus knows how to be more hydrated than the soil it’s growing in. When rain comes, new roots shoot out to absorb all they can hold, but when the soil runs dry, the roots break off. It has to disconnect itself from the soil in order to not lose its nourishment to it.

There is a quiet beauty to the desert. It’s full of subtle color–warm and always changing in every light and time of day. It’s here I’ve come to get away, to spend precious time with my grandmother, but also to be alone. Maybe to recover. To understand the wilderness I’m wandering in.

I echo the cacti’s version of survival. Looking for but also fighting solitude, I’m aware of how I’ve closed myself off. I struggle with the guilt of the relationships I’ve distanced myself from, mostly due to my own thirst, everything I can’t presently afford to give. I’ve broken myself off from the soil I’ve known because it’s proved too costly. And I’m bleeding myself dry.

But there is rainfall even in the desert. There is cleansing that is so much more treasured when I’m in the drought. For the people, the words, the blessings, the God that pours into me, I stretch out every palm and reach for every drop. My desert floor is cracked from cancer and death and failed friendships and suicide and broken families and too little time. But even on that barren dirt, the rain still comes. Through the cracks, plants grow, flowers bloom, and they suck in every ounce of life. I’m stretching along with them.

And I am alive.