Clubbed by Beauty

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Steve Almond had an excellent article in The New York Times recently about Elizabeth Gilbert and her new novel.  Gilbert talks about spending time with Julia Roberts before the London premiere of the movie based on her best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love.  “It’s stupid how beautiful she is,” says Gilbert.  “It’s like getting clubbed on an ice floe.”

Zion National Park is that stupid and I’m feeling clubbed by beauty.  “It’s majestical,” a young man said to me today at the head of Hidden Canyon and he was completely right. As you travel down Pine Creek Canyon coming into the main part of the park from the east, or ride up Zion Canyon, spires of light gray rock come into view from behind massive, sculpted towers of red sandstone, and then in the distance a white mesa topped with green pine draws a line across the horizon.  David and I have seen a lot of spectacular in the last few days, but Zion National Park takes it to a whole other level.

Getting to Hidden Canyon was a triumph for me.  Zion is known for having very steep drop offs along the edges of some hiking trails, and this was one.  The trail description makes it clear that it’s not appropriate for people afraid of heights.  That would be me to some extent, so we decided to do the trail and see just how afraid I was.  At one point I had to sit down and think about whether I could keep going.  A nice young couple was coming down the trail and assured me there were good chains to grab ahead.  I grabbed and kept going.  And made it.  I was rewarded with incredible views. The photo below, with the chains hugging the rock wall to the right, is not by me.  There was no way I was stopping to take out my phone and take a picture.

Tomorrow we’re going back to hike up to one of the highest spots in the park, Observation Point. Then we’re heading back down to hike The Narrows along the floor of the canyon.  Not a trail, the Virgin River, with canyon walls reaching up thousands of feet on either side of us.  This is a hike where getting your feet wet is part of the trip.

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Gray Dust, Red Dust

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Yesterday David and I hiked to the level of Mt Washington, the highest point in NH. Only we hiked down to 6,200 feet, starting at 8,300. The North Kaibab trail makes its way into the Grand Canyon through switch backs and rock edged ledge trails, the variegated walls of the canyon showing the history of the earth’s crust as the trail descends. We climbed down through the white-stoned Kaibab formation into the Supai layer, colored with red limestone. As we descended through the layers of earth the dust on the trail changed from gray to rosy brown to red, mirroring the walls around us.

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We met several people on the trail who were hiking rim to rim in a day – in as few as 6 hours in fact. We were more than satisfied with our 4 hour trek down into the canyon. The hiking is as easy as we’d hoped, with flat sandy footing, switchbacks to make the grade manageable and scenery galore.

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Now we’re having our usual morning coffee on a deck. Today the deck is at the North Rim Lodge and we’re watching the sun light the walls of the canyon, layer by layer.

Mountains & Mesas, Canyons & Clouds of Dust

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Yesterday’s drive across New Mexico into Northwestern Arizona was stunning.  Mesas stretched straight lines across the horizon, with steep sides of white and red and variegated rocks.  Mountains lifted spruce and sage up over the mesa tops into the clear sky.  Wide open plateaus dotted with juniper and pinon spread out as far as we could see, climbed into forests of pine, then descended again to flat vistas with ridges of rocks in the distance.  Hard wind drove across the wide spaces, picking up loose sand and whipping clouds of dust into the sky.

Then we arrived at Canyon de Chelly, a sacred space for the Navajo People.  People have lived in the canyon for over 5,000 years, farming the soil of the canyon bottom and building homes in the alcoves of the canyon walls.  Access to the floor of the canyon is restricted to one public trail or a trip into the miles and miles of canyon with a Navajo guide.  We drove along the South Rim, stopping at overlooks, and hiked down the public trail to the White House ruins, the remains of cliff dwellings.  More than stunning, almost more than we could take in.

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The Next Adventure

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“So you’re in the adventure phase of your life,” Joanne said to me.  I met her yesterday at a meeting I was facilitating in Phoenix, and at the lunch break she asked me about my decision to leave my job two years ago.  She was curious about the consulting work I’ve been doing and asked what kind of writing I do.  It was after I described all the unexpected experiences of the last two years, beyond the writing and consulting, that she made the comment about adventure.  “Yes,” I said to her.  “That’s a great way to describe what my life feels like.”

And now David and I are on what is labeled on my calendar as our Southwest Adventure. Tonight we’re in Santa Fe, visiting our friend Marsie, and tomorrow we head off to Arizona, then southern Utah, then back to Santa Fe, for a couple of weeks of hiking and taking in the stunningly scenic geography of this area of the country.

We started our adventure this morning with a short hike.  Afterwards we had lunch at the roof top cafe of the La Fonda Hotel, overlooking downtown Santa Fe, then meandered through the Plaza and some galleries.  When we got back to Marsie’s house, David sat out back on the patio, writing.  He read some of what he’d written to Marsie and me as we were preparing dinner, and I asked if I could use it here.  He said yes, so here it is, an amazing description of an amazing hike.

We hiked in Hyde Memorial State Park, northeast of Santa Fe, taking a 3 mile route, climbing 1000 feet to 9400 feet in the first mile, tasting high altitude for the first time and knowing we were quickly working at our limits of oxygenation.  Resting, slowing our pace, hydrating, all helped and it was a good way to start, lovely to climb on trails of bark mulch and graded pebbles, away from the road and into the sharpened focus of dry air. The edges of everything are razored clean, and the open space between trees, their undressed branches weave muscled lines of bonsai against the sky, the shimmering needles.  The blue is so deep and bottomless as to be flat.  It appears in the same plane as everything in the foreground, but is so obviously vast and distant, literally out of this world, that it stops the mind, effortlessly arresting the chatter.   The breezes, the temperature, the immediacy of the sun on our bodies heighten a sense of being in two places at once.  Something turns inside out on itself before this sky.  — David 

What Counts

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Several months ago I read a column in Poets & Writers magazine about the bounds of realistic ambition for a writer, or more specifically, for a poet.  The writer of the column made a point I make a lot — how many people have ever heard of those we poets consider famous?  Almost no one.  This was made very real for me recently when Sharon Olds, a neighbor of sorts, won the Pulitzer Prize, after winning the T. S. Eliot prize a few months before, and the local daily paper made a big deal about it, as they should.  But a friend who is deeply involved in and interested in the arts had never heard of her.  Really?  Yes, really.

As a poet I’m used to a small audience, both at poetry readings, and in terms of readers. Even widely published and celebrated poets have a very small audience in our current culture.  If you touch one person with a poem, the column author I read several months ago asserted, count that as a real success.

I’ve been back out in the world with The Truth About Death, giving readings, one of which was in far northern Vermont, at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, The Town That Food Saved.  (It’s a very groovy little town, at the epicenter of Vermont’s grow local, eat local food movement.)  The local weekly paper had requested a review copy of the book, so I sent one off.  I was delighted by the review one of the staff wrote.  “Most people would not be excited to pick up this book,” the writer begins.  “Such a depressing subject, what can she say?  But this book is so well crafted, the poems so tight and intimate, that it is exciting to read.”  Not only did the reviewer praise the book, she got it.  “Some of the poems are elegies to lost love, but many are fierce as the author courageously faces a new reality, a world without a part of her soul.”  

As happy as this review made me, I was even happier when the editor of the Hardwick Gazette came to the reading and immediately approached me.  I thanked him for printing the review.  “I read the book too,” he said.  “I lost my wife two years ago, and your book really spoke to me.  I’m buying one for a friend who lost her husband last year.”  After the reading a woman bought a copy to donate to the local hospice program.

Yesterday I did another reading and again sold a few books, one to a woman who is giving it to her friend whose son died several years ago.  Two readings in two weeks, a total of 20 people at the readings and 10 books sold.  Not very big numbers.  But in those numbers is one man who was truly touched by the book, and hopefully at least a couple others who’ll see something of their own grief journey in mine, and realize that there is a way to navigate that difficult path.  That’s what counts.

Yom Kippur

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It’s become part of my Yom Kippur tradition to read my blog posts from past years, then add the current year’s reflections. Can this really be my fourth year of posting Yom Kippur thoughts? The eighth year of celebrating the High Holiday days without Eric?

Yes, this is year four, and yes, Eric still isn’t here.  But life is rich with family and friends. Adrienne, Matt, Emilio and Melia were all here.  Adrienne and I attended Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services with Mark and Andi, as usual, and as usual had a lot to discuss about what we did and didn’t like in the service, the sermons, our own reflections as we thought about transgressions of the last year, forgiveness of ourselves and others, and intentions to do good and be well in the year ahead.  The afternoon of fasting at home found us gravitating towards the sun on the porch and in the yard, as it always seems to, our hungry bodies wanting at least some of the last warm sun of the season.

Our festive break fast was joined by friends last night.  We began by remembering those who aren’t still here to celebrate with us, then feasted on the garden bounty of three of us at the table and more good discussions about life and art, endurance and jelly fish and tractors, tomatoes and the after effects of fasting.

After dinner, Emilio wanted to go out outside, so he and I walked out on the porch together to watch the last of the light on the western horizon go from pale to dark.  “The sun is going down,” Emilio said.  “But it will be back.”  He nodded his head.  He’s closing in on 3 years old and is constantly putting together more and more about how the world works.

“Yes, it will come back from over there,” I said, pointing to the other side of the house.  “The sun comes up in the east, and goes down in the west, over there,” and I pointed to the horizon of trees now silhouetted against the low light.  Emilio watched me, alert and listening.  “We live in a world that’s like a big ball,” I said and made my arms into a circle.  “The sun comes up over there, and crosses the sky during the day,” now pointing, tracing the arc of the sun with my finger.  “Then it goes behind the other side of the ball where the light can’t reach us.”  And I ran my finger around the bottom edge of an imaginary circle, Emilio and I sitting on the porch in the middle.

Emilio nodded again.  “That’s why it’s dark,” he said.

On the Subject of Gratitude

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It started with a L’Shanah Tovah greeting from a friend.  “The Year of Gratitude” was the heading of her email.  It resonated.  One way to deal with the inevitable heartaches and troubles of any life, my life anyway, is to be grateful for what is right, what is beautiful, what is comforting and sweet.

As the Jewish year of 5774 starts, I’m embracing gratitude: for the station function on Rdio which delivers an interesting mix of music familiar and new while I move around the house, processing garden bounty, cooking, kneading challah; for the flock of black birds moving through my corner of the physical landscape, flying in a twirling cloud across the yard and into a tall white pine and back into the grass of the pasture across the street, their wings beating in late afternoon sunlight like a thousand lit pages; for my health and the health of most of those I love, especially the almost miraculous continued presence, if not full health, of a beloved sister; for the reappearance of calendula in my garden, which only happened because a dear friend lost a life partner and she loved, the one who died of cancer, these flowers and we were all given packets of seeds at her memorial service in October, and now they’re blooming in my garden again, to my great delight.  I picked a bouquet today when I got home from services and put it on my new table on the porch.  Bright, hardy and simple, my kind of flower.

So gratitude will be my way of approaching another year, after a year in which all the complications of life and love and what needs to be done resulted in me to going to Rosh Hashanah services alone, for the first time, ever.  I cried through much of the service, but that’s okay.  Any truthful contemplation of forgiveness and repentance, of what has been and what might be, deserves some tears.  It’s a New Year.  5774.