Monday, February 25, 2013

Breath and Bones: Memoir Excerpt #4

           By mid May, there is no refreezing of melt water in the villages far north of the Brooks Range. Yet on one spring visit to Kaktovik, an Inupiat village on Barter Island, snowdrifts cling to weathered plywood houses like a parasitic disease that won’t die. It is evening, half past ten and the sun is at my back. Polar bear hides hang from drying racks, and a cold lather of sea foam pounds the expansive shoreline.
            The landscape, hardly resembling an earth shaped round, yawns before me, flat and desolate. A burning wind scours the tundra pulling me to the outer edges of town where I walk in search of the village cemetery. Is it gruesome to enjoy the exploration of unfamiliar places where the dead are housed; those who occupy a plot of ground that rubs shoulders with the living?  I’ve always been a curious apprentice to death, stalking crosses and stones, fascinated with the dates and ages of fellow travelers in the long and unbroken human line. People die away like cotton grass, and over space and time are forgotten. I had lost my father two years prior, and wondered how many years would pass before I'd forget the lines in his face. In this patch of frozen ground lies the mourner's simple effort at remembering.

            The tundra stretches out infinitely, so flat and white it is hard to detect the line at which the sky meets earth. Earlier, a public safety worker, cruising the ice roads in his heated pick-up, warned me to stay within the village boundaries because polar bears often wander the periphery, searching for food. He joked about the luny kass’aqs (like me), who, on their visits to the village, walk the ice slicked roads at thirty below (what in heavens, for?), or worse, the athletic types who go jogging in latex running suits. Crazy white people who will get their asses in trouble.
            Ablaze with curiosity, I keep walking. The wind blows hard, a relentless pounding. The ruff of my parka, made of thick polar bear hide insulates my face and is akin to being deep inside a cocoon. Only I can hear myself speak. Finally I see the cemetery, erected on a barren patch of drifted tundra. Weathered drift wood crosses, with names and dates come into view.  Bleached white whale bones stick up out of the snow, marking an old whaling captain's grave.

          The ground around me seems to be swirling, as if covered in the smoke of breath on ice. Snow, as fine and light as silt fills the creases of my parka. I realize this landscape is oblivious to anyone who walks it, just as it is to the Eskimos who have inhabited this harsh place for so many centuries, who have struggled and thrived, carving out meaningful lives.
             At breakfast the next morning, an old man tells me a story about a hunter who had died on a late summer day many years prior, in that short window of time when the ice had finally melted. They had nowhere to keep the body fresh for the scheduled viewing and service a few days later. Out of necessity, the body was placed in a walk-in freezer at the village school. A new teacher, starting her assignment in August, opened the freezer door and nearly passed out from fright.              
             "Typical bureaucrats, the health board flew in from Anchorage with their clipboards and worried faces," he said. "They performed their evaluation, and decided not to cite the village for a bad meat violation." He said this with a straight face. 
            Sometimes death is funny.
            Then he added. “Now we have a vaulted locker out in front of the health clinic.  It’s our new mini-morgue. Holds bodies til’ the ground thaws.” 
            If it ever truly does in the high arctic.
            The evening before my departure, I walk to the cemetery again to smell the brisk air...and to practice death in advance, perhaps?  To say a small prayer for long forgotten souls?  To unlearn and unravel deep-seated fears?  To embrace and be at peace with the inevitable?            
            The cold wind catches my breath. I hear a crunching sound behind me like slow, heavy footfalls. I slowly scan from side to side. The crunching sound gets louder and for an instant, I freeze. Bravely, I throw down my hood and spin around on my heels to face the imminent danger.
                  There is none. No polar bear. 
                  Nothing but the wind, and a wide vessel of sky urging me home.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Negative Rays

    Color is a sort of medicine;                                           

when the sky is blue, we stay...but

when the sky is exhausted, turns ashy

& dull gray

we turn away.

some would call it a gray-out

those endless never-

go-away days of split-tones & 

 washed-out faded displays

This is how the winter's land speaks here 

and to fix the blue in place 

is to look away

from the plain truth of the day, and those       

sad & mousey-pale grays.

Exactly when is it we become a color

between black and white?

To the long and arduous snow: 

humbly you are accepted, you & 

your unwavering allegiance

to non-color and gray. 

You don't take credit for the trials

you create, trials that dig deep holes 

in our psyches, nor

do you care of the civilized sun 

that glints black stones, 

brightens our faces

and takes no prisoners, away.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Morning Light

Morning light comes late                                            

she puts cinnamon in her coffee

sits down and knows.  

she knows. she can feel it.

a soft cloak of fresh snow

has covered the earth

while she was dreaming of

riding her bicycle in the rain.

Sounds dampen, the pale morning moon blurs

she thinks of icebergs, blizzards, glaciers

how dire and heavy and foreboding

or, how blue and breathy and sublime.

The cabin walls sing:

this is not a plain day.

Though the wind skirls she puts on

her coat, boots, mittens

smells the cold air, walks to the river

where children are whooping in the

magic and ravens watch

from their driftwood perch

We'll get sunburned on the ice! (someone says)  

Maybe in Australia or Bali,
but not here.

She stays warm by

pushing kids on sleds

carrying a baby on the trail

gathering fire wood.

This is not an ordinary day
in all of its ordinariness.

She shuts the cabin door.

snowflakes swirl.

light leaves early.

She stays warm by lighting candles,

by imagining a sky painted bronze,

by gazing at the fullness

of a winter's moon,

her heart a clear river: deep

and gloriously, complete.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Naming is a Powerful Thing

I was kayaking off Danzante Island, on the Baja Peninsula with a group of women friends. The island, located in the Loreto National Marine Park, is only a few miles paddle from the  
coast. I was enjoying the crystal blue waters, watching birds dip and dive above our heads, exploring the craggy desert landscape around the island when our group leader and naturalist, Patty, eased up beside me. 

She pointed to and named things as we paddled. She named cactus, flowering plants, marine fossils, birds. She talked about the volcanic layers of ash and breccia, how faults, uplifts and intrusions had formed. 

Suddenly the vast beauty of the landscape exploded in my mind, merely by her giving name to what I was observing. The landscape imported a clearer impression on my senses, due simply to her distinctive designations.

Later I thought about how her naming elevated the beauty of the experience. Emerson, in his work,  "The Poet" proclaims..." the beauty of things becomes a new and higher beauty when expressed."

Maybe it all comes down to how we place our attention. The writer Proust said that the secret of life is to be found in the arts of attention, what he called exaggerated attention

He wrote very long rambling pieces that described minute impressions and sensations, things other writers before him hadn't done. He offered instruction in the art of paying close attention to what's right in front of you, moment to moment, as a antidote for the dread we may feel that life is passing us by, too quickly, and without notice. 

Does the beauty of a scene or experience become advanced, or elevated through the naming? 

Definitely, yes. Yet another experience taught me the inverse is also true. 

I was driving home after a watercolor class on a sun-soaked summer day. Observing the landscape outside my car window, I saw rich and vivid colors as if for the first time. The cottonwood leaves appeared neon green. The hillside exploded with many shades of green I had never noticed before. 

It felt like an out-of-body experience and soon waned, and I could not conjure it back up again, although I dearly wanted to. But it was gone, rushing away in a few minutes and any effort to bring it back was futile.

Maybe the observance of beauty requires no explanation; maybe at times, a beauty observed supersedes and goes beyond that which is captured in mere language. 

spider web
How many times have we said, I am at a loss for words. Words cannot adequately describe it. Maybe sometimes an experience is beyond words and can't be elevated with them, so instead of descriptive language, you stand quietly, in awe of the beauty and are not compelled to name it. When this happens, one's consciousness and sense of physicality seems to expand without effort.

Like music; I do not know how to precisely analyze a score of music, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that the melody reaches my mind and comes alive through my senses without the requirement of naming or notation.

Both reflections offered a brief transformational experience and that is the power of art and beauty. The beholder is shot out of the ordinary, out of "psychological time" and into another zone not experienced on an everyday basis.

The lesson here, as I see it? Be watchful and conscious of what unfurls, avoid over-thinking, be open to an altering of consciousness that launches us out of conceptualizing and into pure ineffable awe...and, at the same time...

...look at the world twice.  I once read of an Indian elder who advised of the necessity to look at the world twice if you are to really see it at all. Focus your vision on the droplets of water on a flower petal; notice the texture in an old piece of wood. 

Size up an image by making a photographer's box with your hands (I remember doing this as a kid) and only see what's inside the box. Or lay a string on the ground in a six foot wide circumference, and only view what's inside the string. In most of our waking life, do we not really see with clear eyes?

What is striking in both of these experiences, (both naming and not), is I was unable to duplicate these highly pleasurable states. If I'd taken out a field guide and studied the names of flora and fauna of the island, this forethought may have ruined the serendipitous experience with Patty. Perhaps the sensual experience of paying close attention to color in my watercolor class, temporarily boosted my brain's processing of color outside of class. Both experiences cannot be planned or conjured through the will. 

Is this due to the fact that in both cases, I was merely an observer... 

and whenever something is observed, it is separated from the one who is watching?

Maybe so. But in both instances, I didn't feel separate at fact, I felt more alive and connected to the natural world than ever before (maybe I didn't know I knew I was observing). Oh still with me?

This much I know to be true. Beauty is augmented and elevated by words...AND...where words and denotation ends, the real mystery of life begins. 

Hmmm. Always and forever, a paradox indeed!