We woke up to rain. Big droplets clinging to the rhododendron and sunflowers outside the bedroom window. Every day on the weekend I ask myself the same thing: Should we stay home and clean, or leave and spend money?
It would be a stay home and clean kind of day.
Usually I welcome fall with open arms. If the fact that we named our daughter ‘Autumn’ is any indication…But this year I’m just not as warm to fall. The summer was long, and scorching. One of our farm cats perished in the 108 degree heat. More positively, we managed to get some family time in with loved ones. Long overdue visits and quality connections as we somehow managed to not even get the Coronavirus. Several times, I thought we had. This most recent time impacted A’s experience at preschool — she missed her first whole week. Over a cold. But we rolled with it. Rolling with it is just the way now. Things change all the time. With headlines like, “National Guard Deployed to Drive School Busses in Massachusetts” and “UN is seeking $606 Million in Emergency Aid for Afghanistan After Taliban Takeover,” we’re living in a totally new reality. Disappointments are common place.
I started gardening this summer. With a lot of cooperation from my fiancé and our neighbors, a plot of food erected itself, now in view from our bedroom window, beyond the rhododendron and sunflowers. My life is layered and rich. We have tomatoes and peppers piling up in the kitchen, and are running out of freezer space. I’m going to miss the days of summer…stretching on and on. Brown shoulders. Blackberries. Golden sunsets.
With the rain, the environment feels to have shifted beyond its allotted amount while we slept. The moon when I last looked was half full — now it appears almost completely full. It is waxing and ready to shine. Last night, a coyote was howling — more like yelping — and it wouldn’t stop. I went outside to make sure it wasn’t down with the chickens, having a feast and tipping us off with its cries. Barefoot on the dry pale grass, it felt like no one was aware of this animal but me. It was ten o’ clock at night and everyone else was sleeping. I shone my cellphone flashlight in the general direction of the coyote — like what was that going to do? When I went back inside and crawled into bed, the yelping suddenly stopped.
Maybe the coyote doesn’t want summer to end, either.
This pandemic, hanging over us like a curse, feels just a little lighter in the summer. We can pretend that things are sunny, even when they’re not.
Then I came across this quote, which I felt echoed the changing season:
“Historically, the Waxing Gibbous Moon symbolized the concept of ‘final steps.’ It is a time of the month in which people strive to complete their projects, just as the moon strives to become full. As such, it represents the hardest part of the month for many people. How the Waxing Gibbous Moon behaves is instructional for our lives. For instance, it doesn’t require the hard work of change. Instead, it trusts nature and energies and always transitions to the full moon, without fail. Thus, we should try to do the same.”
The words were an antidote. Meant to counteract the insecurities I am currently feeling about Autumn being in preschool and, more specifically, my routine changing as a result of that. I used to be on the farm all the time, now I will be in town two days per week, minimum. A temporary sacrifice to provide Autumn with her Montessori preschool experience. I don’t want to give up my work-from-home life, but when quotes like the above one jump out at me, I’m sensing that I need to adapt. I need to have some faith that something good can come from being in town. (It just goes against my instincts. Hashtag hillbilly.)
I will leave you with this, “Through the unknown, we find the new.” If you, like me, are feeling negative about the future because you just can’t predict it; then what better time to attract the things–and places–that feel right to us? My life is a blank page, waiting to be filled with all the right things. Finally, at thirty five years old, I feel like I can trust myself to choose wisely what will ground me. No matter where I am.
I am here to share a recent micro-victory: A piece I wrote for “Grief Writes”–a community designed to express grief through words and writing–was selected for publication in The Purpled Nail.
My gratitude goes to the Grief Write community and The Purpled Nail for reading between the lines to the meat of the story: my love for my grandmother. This is an extra vulnerable piece, but I am sharing it with you because after 10 years of blogging here, you feel like family.
At the beginning of June we went home to visit my roots. We drove the four hours from here to Northern California. I didn’t just see my dad, but I revisited the land that, in some respects, raised me. The waters that taught me how to swim. The trees that taught me how to climb. The land that taught me how to respect it. Or at least, how to see it. How to listen.
Autumn and I spent one sunny morning away from the campsite and on the sandy banks of the Smith River. Usually extremely cold in early June, the water was fine. The deep jade pools were manageable to swim in wetsuit-less, because the snow melt had been so little. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’d worn my blue one-piece Speedo just in case. I also brought along my mask and goggles. Plus one extra pair. The others stayed with the children on the shore, while my friend Alice (we’d worked together at the Oregon Caves) and I swam and snorkeled.
We traversed the widest part of the river. A front-stroke and dive ever so often to catch a glimpse underneath the glasslike water. We took our time. Reaching the other side, sea-lioned atop two slabs of rock, we waved big mama waves to our little ones–who now appeared even smaller–on the sandy shore. They waved back.
We leisurely swam up stream, underneath Second Bridge, and my body pointed–briefly–in the direction of home. My true north. Alice didn’t know it, but a roaring gorge was further up the canyon. An impassable part of the river for most, and certainly for me. A passage that a male cousin of mine rafted down once, and swore he’d never do again. A passage that Dad ran on an inflatable air mattress. So many stories. So many laughs. So many dives this life of mine has taken.
I dove to the bottom of the river and dug my palms into the satiny sand. Eyelids safe inside my airtight mask, I let the sand sift through my fingers, certain that no other person had touched this exact pile of sand before. My feet rested on the bottom. I briefly wondered if Alice might want to play underwater tea-party, like us kids did when we were young, in this very river.
But Alice was floating on her back under the bridge. And in a few short weeks she’d be flying back to Germany.
The river back home, near our farm, was shoulder high and a little murky.
I pushed up from the riverbottom with my right foot, darting toward the surface, light filtering through the water the same way it did in nearby redwood groves. Coming up, I blew hard on the snorkel, and water blasted toward the blue sky. I was a little out-of-practice, but it was coming back already. The snorkeling.
(I was a fish. I’d almost forgotten.)
Back on the shore, Alice and I nursed the little ones, and dug our legs into the almost-hot sand. Satisfied smiles rested on our faces. A man and two women around our age showed up. They shook their towels out on the sand and pulled out their phones.
We had our phones too, of course. We had all snapped a few photos together, snorkel on my head, dry hair. I’d taken a few photos of Autumn exploring the shoreline. The same shoreline I’d first dipped my toes into.
We politely tried not to notice as the two women, probably our age, took off their layers and walked to the edge of the shore. Tip toeing on the river rocks, they held their phones in their hands. “Jump in!” Their companion hollered. “It’s not cold when you get in. It’s cold when you get out.”
I shivered, thinking: he’s totally right.
The women waded into the river carefully, up to their waists. They could have been locals. I’m sure they loved this river. Who was I to judge. Then one of the women tipped back her head just enough to wet her hair up to her hairline. She motioned for her friend to take her photo. They wanted, we all gathered from the shore, to capture that slicked-back, wet “look.”
The background was striking: deep pools of emerald-teal water. But from this vantage point, having just come from that same water, I worried that the women were missing something. Not seeing. Not hearing.
It wasn’t long before they got out of the water and huddled together on their towels, noses in their phones. I’m not saying I don’t relate to them, I do. I do relate to them, and that’s what I’m saying.
Just not on this day.
On this day the snapshot I took was scooping two handfuls of silky sand into my palms, and letting my past filter through my fingertips.
On this day the snapshot I took was my inhale/exhale through the snorkel as my body cut through the surface of the water.
So the contrast of these two things: the realness of that, of what I’d just experienced, and the falseness of a pretty photo, well, it got me thinking. Doing it for the ‘Gram is fine. But doing it for yourself is 100% better. It’s something I’ve always known, and now I feel compelled to share. Whatever it is, I’m in it for the realness of it. A pretty picture is just a bonus.
I have this thing where I ask myself: Do I need to make my world big today, or do I need to make my world small today? Big days are off-farm days. Small days are days like today.
I am mostly a small day kind of person. For me, it’s not about adding things, it’s about subtracting them. (Of course I sometimes–maybe even often–forget this and try to fill the void with material things or quick distractions.)
In-between housework and Zoom calls and farming and writing, I have been reading a book titled “Hare Krishna in America.” I am neck-deep in the memoir-writing process now, and I have a three day retreat upcoming at the end of June. Going into that memoir rewriting retreat, I want to better understand what Krishna Consciousness is. What Krishna Consciousness has meant to other Americans. I write about my narrow slice of experience with Krishna Consciousness in my memoir extensively, but I have always lacked a birds-eye view of the religion (or cult; even the label is controversial). The author, E. Burke Rochford, Jr., immersed himself in Krishna Consciousness in the late 1970s. Rochford worked to maintain his position as an un-bias journalist, while experiencing all that one would experience undergoing the transformation–the journey to becoming–a Hare Krishna devotee in America.
The scenes that Rochford describes echo my experiences. They tell me that those memories I have written down are true. In many instances, Rochford is referring to temples whose grounds I have walked on with my own bare feet. And perhaps most astoundingly, he describes Krishna Consciousness as a sect of Hinduism that branched in large part due to beliefs of inclusivity: Hinduism as a religion adhered to the idea that only members of a certain caste could achieve spiritual liberation.
“Caitanya preached that all people, regardless of their caste or station in life, could be self-realized through their activities performed in the service of Krishna.” E. Burke Rochford, Jr.
It was no wonder why my twenty-five year old father, who was set apart due to a disability he suffered, in conjunction with a near-death experience, was (and still is) drawn to Krishna Consciousness. Given the background that I am learning about, through this book and other personal stories I am reading about online about Krishna Consciousness in America, it is easy to see how Dad extracted so much meaning, and so much hope, from the Movement. Many Americans, disillusioned with their own culture, did and still do derive meaning from Krishna Consciousness.
In a final act of transparency, my good friend who will also be completing the writing retreat with me in June, is writing about her childhood raised in another counterculture, one that is more commonly perhaps than Krishna Consciousness, referred to as a cult. That group was the Children of God. For fourteen years I have known this friend and we have connected over many things but this, somehow, the shared experience of being raised in very strict religious households or communes, was never at the center of our dialogue. Until now.
~ ~ ~
I have been having a hard time sleeping at night. I just don’t want to sleep or go to bed. I find it boring. Life is so much more interesting right now. My creative and emotional energy is high. I can’t quite put my finger on why. So after I nurse Autumn to sleep, too tired to write, I’ve been watching This is Us, an NBC family drama streamed from Hulu.
In it, the character Randall is reconnecting with his biological father, who disappeared from his life almost as soon as he was born. (If you know anything about my personal journey, it is easy to see why I feel kinship with this character. I, too, lost a biological parent very early on.) Anyway, there is a hilariously embarrassing scene where Randall is trying to express an artistic part of him that he believes is somewhere inside him, because his father was so artistic, he must be too. Randall is clearly trying to win his fathers approval, and bridge the years between them in a very short amount of time. It is painful to watch, because Randall sings a song and plays piano in front of a live audience, and totally bombs it. His intentions were good, but Randall momentarily lost sight of his strengths, of who he is, and how to best express himself. The vulnerability in that scene is heartbreaking, and heartening.
I can relate.
Sometime in 2013 or so, I took my poetry in front of a live audience. I didn’t rehearse like I should have. I think I cried. I think I’ve cried every time I’ve recited my poetry in front of a live audience. People I knew and loved were there. They told me “good job,” but, probably, they felt kind of sorry for me. My performance fell flat.
I should have asked myself that day, “Do I need to make my world big today, or do I need to make my world small today?”
I am a small day kind of person. Recently, someone asked me what my “happiness trigger” was. My answer: peace and quiet. Does that count?
I don’t know if it’s the Hare Krishna in me. The little calm devotee. But I am getting more and more comfortable with who I am, and saying “forget it,” to who I am not. I am not a performer. I am a writer. It is time to edit. To cut. To whisper. To be quiet in my surroundings, and loud and performative on the page.
My mind is poised toward this writing retreat, and my daily happenings are becoming more and more narrowly focused toward this one goal of sharing my story, my memoir, with the world.
Dad nearly drowned in the mouth of the river in Fort Bragg, California, but that was before I was born. He spent the rest of the summer in the hospital. That didn’t stop him from loving the ocean and water. You can’t trust it, he said. You can’t help but love it either.
Dad was in a coma for most of one month. When he came to he had to learn to talk again. He had to learn to walk again. He was just nine years old at the time. Somehow, though, Dad still knew how to swim. A photo of him and his parents posed alongside the doctor was published in the Fort Bragg newspaper. He was the boy whose life was almost taken by the river at Van Damme State Park. “Miracle Boy” the headline read.
I came thirteen years later. The daughter of Miracle Boy and Moonbeam.
When I was six years old and he was twenty-eight, Dad took us sea-kayaking off the coast of California. If I remember correctly he was trying to impress a woman who wasn’t my mother. We almost got pulled out to sea and I remember being frightened. Or maybe my memory doesn’t serve me right…maybe we did have fun. But the waves, they were so large and I was so little, how could I have? I just remember fearing for my life, I think the girlfriend did too.
I was around one years old when Moonbeam left us (I’m not looking for pity, those are just the facts). Some man I never learned the name of had lured Moonbeam away. I’ll never know the things he promised her. I’ll never know what tempted her. All I know is she took the Ford Pinto when she left. She didn’t go far—just down the road to Eureka. She wasn’t far, no, but she was gone.
Dad took to doing the dishes by hand, very slowly, with hot soapy water. But this wasn’t so strange because Dad did the dishes before she left too. I think he just liked being in the water.
As a toddler, I crawled around on the sticky linoleum floor. I remember looking up at Dad doing my mother’s job. He was in his work clothes and it was after dark. I saw a flash of myself in the kitchen sink before Moonbeam left. I could almost see her standing there washing my body—a dishwater blond with no face, just legs and shoes like the moms in those old cartoons. Comfort just for the fact that they were there. Dish-doers and diaper-changers and dinner-makers and ice-tray-fillers. An essential tool: missing.
Several years later I had my birthday party at the beach. I invited my entire sixth grade class and to my shock everybody showed up. Dad embarrassed me by bannering long streams of white toilet paper from the driftwood poles on the beach, a marker of where the party was. A store-bought stream of purple tissue paper had not been considered.
A couple of the mothers who dropped off their daughters off looked warily around for signs of my mother. But they found none. I just wanted them to go away. I did not even want them to stay because their judgement and misunderstanding was palpable. They finally left, not quite sure what to think. These are the ones who returned first for their daughters.
Dad warmed hot dogs on driftwood sticks over the campfire and we all ran around like we were still kids, which we were, but barely. My peers brought gifts, tons of gifts, each one of them. Dad bought me the expensive black and white Adidas jacket I had wanted so much. The ocean was lapping at the whole scene, father and daughter, fire and friends. The sun went down while we were still out running and playing up and down the beach. And even though I didn’t have a mother…well I thought life was just about perfect.
I had been so excited about my abundance of gifts but was so busy running and playing that I didn’t notice when tide came in and took my birthday booty— piece by piece into the setting sun. It was all gobbled up by the great inhale-exhale of the Pacific Ocean. And there would be no getting any of it back. It wasn’t far, no, but it was gone.
When Dad was a boy that same beach was at least 70 feet under water. The tsunami of 1964 picked up dive bars and fish n’ chip shacks and set them back down, upside down, right on top of Highway 101. To this day Crescent City, California is the only town in the continental United States where a tsunami has killed people. True story. Eleven people died. You can’t trust the ocean, Dad said. You can’t help but love it either.
Water Signs is an essay from Earthside and Other Everyday Miracles which I am publishing through Groundwaters this spring. I will keep you updated on all the details here on my blog, and also over on my Instagram page! (See sidebar to follow me there.) Thank you, faithful readers!
Remember when you lived on that street I can’t remember the name of now—the one way on the outskirts of town, after you moved back to Crescent City for the second time? You were many years sober by then so our conversations happened around mugs of coffee, your second love.
You had kitschy coffee mugs: Garfield, mugs with quotes about motherhood, one of the lady with the crazy hair, robe, and slippers. You weren’t a grandmother yet, which boggles me now since “Grandma” became your definitive role. Back then your mother-ness extended to me, your niece.
Remember that night? We were jabbering, catching up. I was visiting from out-of-state and we only had so much time. There were lots of laughs. Cigarettes and ashtrays. If we ever watched television it was just the home videos you’d recorded of our childhood: Your boys reciting Jeff Foxworthy. Me doing cartwheels on the concrete pad outside the trailer on Olive Street. Crystal, who was just a baby then.
Without having planned it, WHAM, I dropped the bombshell. The bombshell that would blow up your whole world: your present, past, and future. Probably you mentioned his name. My face must have shadowed. And then your openness, your vessel for others pain and suffering, allowed to me tell you—to tell anyone—what had happened to me right there inside our family. It happened in-between recordings, on set, hidden behind the inescapable patriarchy that permeated our culture and society. I was seventeen and had never told anyone before.
I saw the lightbulb go on behind your eyes. This is the moment you that stubbed out your cigarette. Wait, what?
I saw the quick well of anger and heartbreak rise inside of you.
In a dark corner of your mind, I’m sure you were reaching for a gin.
It was late. Your house was so small. As if turning on my heel, my laughter quickly turned to painful sobs. The burning-apple-in-your-throat-kind of sobs. My racking sobs filled your entire home, probably shook the coffee mugs in your cupboard as you held space for me.
You didn’t call it that: holding space. Poor, white people don’t have vocabulary for our experiences. But other people do. We live through the tragedies, other people label them. People with food in their bellies and books on their bed stands, free from the everyday challenges we’d faced, free to think things through, I guess.
Did you know that by now whole fields of study have been dedicated to our resurgence? There are probably university students somewhere right now discussing the phenomenon of the crashing white, rural American class. You would have hated that sentence I know. It made you crawly when I used words like phenomenon because it put you on the spot. You were an Army girl, a farm girl, and to no fault of your own you were never a scholar. We didn’t have the language to get to the bottom of what happened to me–the scary thing that I told you–so we just cussed a lot that night. Fucking sicko.Rot in hell.
You probably had to go to work at the casino in the morning, but you held space for me. You always did that for others. You always gave more than you had. In the end, I believe, that’s what killed you.
Cousin John, one year younger than me, must have heard everything that through the thin bedroom wall. In fact I know he did. He told me as much years later. Said he’d pressed his ear up against the wall listening to every word I’d said, welling up with anger, maybe tears. Cousin John is one of those sensitive men—men with single mothers tend to be. Yet another gift that women like you give.
Do you remember the day you died? What was it like? Was it sunny? Cold? Did you argue with people that day? Hold space? Both? Did you start the day out watching FOX news? Looking at old photographs in your albums? How many cups of coffee did you have? Did you eat breakfast? What did you eat? I want to know. I want to hold space for you. Come back from the dead and tell me.
Years later you admitted that my “telling you” had a hand in your decision (if you can even call it that—the swift, perplexing fall from grace) to drink again. It was a single poke that sent you closer to the edge, eventually to fall from maybe ten years sober. At least over five. (I need to get my facts straight with the family.)
I myself never felt guilty for that. I can’t take that on. I know there were others things, too. Men, maybe, who drank. You thought you could “be around them.” You couldn’t. No one could. You thought you could walk down the wine isle at the grocery store. You couldn’t. No one could. “And what are we drinking with the steak?” A waiter asked you with a wink, mentioning a wine pairing. You couldn’t. No one could. The billboard with a cold, sweaty beer on a hot, Sacramento day. (You didn’t even look at the billboard but your brain saw it and stored the information.) You couldn’t. No one could. A career waitress at a casino, you served drinks day in and day out. You couldn’t. No one could.
It was your genes, expressing themselves. You couldn’t. No one could. I myself was never a drinker, but I have my “things.”
Do you remember the day you died? Was it a pleasant day? Did you catch the sunset? Call your boys? It was springtime, I know that. Cousin John called me, it was two, maybe three, a.m.
It must have been warm in Oregon because I stepped out on the back porch to take the call, having been alerted from sleep and knowing John wasn’t calling to casually chat.
“She’s gone,” he managed to get out.
“Hello? John? What?”
One never says the right things in these moments.
We spread your ashes up on the hill above the farm. Your baby sister and her husband handled all the arrangements. Rented the town hall down by the river. Sprinkled photographs of you on the tables and designated a childhood friend to make the centerpieces. They managed to serve one hundred people pulled pork, potato salad and fruit. I don’t know if it was pork. I didn’t eat. I was juggling the newborn baby and rubbing John’s back, trying to be a friend to him. Suddenly he was hard to get through to.
You meant a lot to a lot of people, so a lot of people were there. Later, in photographs taken above the farm on the hill, someone said the plume of your ashes looked just like an angel when the boys blasted it into the air.
It was the kind of thing you anchor to in times like this.
I didn’t know what to believe. I was reeling—angry—from your fall from grace to death at 61. Alcohol poisoning, the coroners report stated. I was thinking: one little sip—one little slip—then blip, you’re done. You were getting sober again. You were always getting sober. News would travel through the family grapevine: Dort hasn’t been drinking, 3 months now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 1 ½ weeks now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 5 months now! Honestly I stopped keeping count. There were so many starts and stops. But that, dear one, is what made you beautiful. Most alcoholics I know don’t even try.
This was not your legacy. Don’t get me wrong. I am using your lessons to guide my voice. There is a point I we are getting at. I promise. Hang tight.
You were always transparent about your alcoholism. You were almost curious. You talked to me about AA. How they make you have a sponsor. That they wanted you to pray. You struggled with both of those things. You weren’t vulnerable by nature. Not open with those who you weren’t close to. You just wanted it to be done and dealt with but you lived with a drinker, your second husband, and that, I believe was your biggest downfall…not leaving him to save yourself.
Vodka in the freezer, you told me. You couldn’t. No one could.
You always gave more of yourself than was even there. Leaving ghosts of yourself behind for others to feed off of. Always wanting to give more, more, more. A pleaser, left thirsty.
I am using your lessons to guide me.
I was so distanced from all of this at the memorial. And now that I’ve said that about your second husband everyone’s going to hate me. At the memorial for me it was just this: one foot in front of the other. Don’t slip like she did. Your message to me seemed loud and clear: Keep your head up, don’t look down. But everyone else was crying and carrying on, while I was in some state of blissed out focus. How was I going to explain this? What was going on with me?
Back in Oregon it took me many months to come around to how I really felt about your death. I saw posts on Facebook, “I think about her every day. I am so sad. It just makes me want to cry every time I think of her.”
Why didn’t I want to cry? I did think of you. I looked through the scrapbook you sent me, your script written in black Sharpie: Love you always, sweetie niece, it read.
I thought of how much you had going for you. I thought, don’t slip. I thought, dead at 61. I thought of you, as a girl, going off to Germany with the Army. Your glory days. You went from California to Connecticut to Germany. You made good friends—eased the awkwardness of socializing by drinking. Most of us do. For you it was different.
You had a boyfriend out there in Connecticut. I wonder if he was as different from you as the Connecticut boyfriend I had was from me. We looked the same: white, young, scrawny. We partied together and all of that. They thought we were “pretty.” They could never know the rural swamp from whence we came. We never knew the dollar amount of the steak on our plate. That the cost of that plate amounted to our weekly grocery allowance.
I remembered that night you held space for me. How when you ran your hand up your forehead—holding the bangs out of your eyes briefly—I saw we had matching widow peaks and dark, thick hair. I saw we had the same oily, pocky skin. I could have been your daughter.
I did think of you. Fact I walked out on the porch one day and said your name out loud. It was a rough day for me. I was weighing this and that. I was torn between saying “fuck it” and staying on the strait and narrow. I was grappling with my “things” like we all do.
Exasperated, I asked you for a sign. I toy with spirituality, having given some of it up with I paired up with an atheist.
“Just, anything,” I told you, in a way I hoped was sincere.
I held my coffee mug in both hands. The one that reads “Mom is just Wow upside down.” I latched on to the wisdom that you taught me–dare I say telepathically–with your death: Relationships matter. Don’t do what I did. Don’t throw it away for the brief, frequent explosion of addiction and harm. Turn to the light. Every time. Walk away, completely, utterly committed, from the things that threaten you. Physically. Emotionally. Walk away completely. Don’t look back.
I was open to receiving it. That’s what I was doing at the memorial, when I couldn’t stare down a gin and cry. Actually, I was honoring you. Head up, focused on the future.
It’s what you wanted me–what you want all of us–to do. Perhaps others have experienced this phenomenon.
Maybe it was because I was looking for a sign so hard that it actually happened, but just then the wind picked up out on the porch. It was a warm wind on an otherwise calm day. I couldn’t fucking believe it, but I wasn’t going to look away as the breeze carried to one single tree out in the yard. Just one tree. Of all of the trees. And it was the tree that was closest to me, a five leaf maple. The wind blew my hair back just a little, and I closed my eyes, gripping my coffee mug in silence. It was late summer, early autumn, and the leaves had turned but were yet to fall from the trees. When I opened my eyes that breeze—your breeze—was whipping around that maple tree like a whirling dervish or Tasmanian devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoon. I mean it was really whipping.
I even thought to run get my phone to capture the odd, rare event but of course I didn’t. You don’t fuck with something that sacred. You don’t exploit messages from the great beyond.
I watched as that narrow, focused breeze stripped a previously full tree of most of its orange autumn leaves. It was a clear enough message that I thanked you, looking out to see the one bare tree among the others full of leaves. I breathed in, I breathed out. I felt validated and whole again.
I didn’t care what anyone thought. I only cared that I was around to see my grandkids, should I have them someday. So I was willing to latch on to anything, even this crystal clear sign from the no-longer-living. I only cared that I was downloading the accurate message that you wanted me to have all along: Do not mourn me outright in the traditional way. Please just walk away completely from the things that threaten your health. Walk away and don’t look back.
And in-between the lines: Spread the message. Relationships matter. Turn to the light, every time. And this: you are worth it.
Remember that night? You were many years sober. You lived on the outskirts of town on a street I don’t remember the name of. It was your Demi Moore days: short, cropped dark hair. I was visiting from out-of-state. You were a fulltime mom to two teenage boys. You didn’t want them to come home to an empty house anymore, so you were there waiting with your recipe books and kitschy coffee mugs when they got out of school. Even when drinking though, you were a good mom. Excellent even. Clean sheets on the bed and all of that. You threw Thanksgiving together for the family year after year. I remember the time you had us cousins over to make gingerbread cookies during Christmastime at the house on A Street. You set up your camcorder and had the radio on. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which may have been a new song then:
It must have been cold there in my shadow, to never have sunlight on your face, you were content to let me shine, that’s your way, you always walked a step behind. Thank you, thank you, thank god for you the wind beneath my wings.
The sky wasn’t pouring, but it was crying. I decided they were happy tears. Happy tears for our happy trails. The sky wasn’t black yet either. No black clouds were present, but it was loud. The storm will pass, I thought to myself as we marched, our eyes squinting at the rain drops, marching beside serpentine outcroppings lined with manzanita shrubs and pine trees.
My dad was telling me about the painter from Eureka who he had found dead on this trail a couple of years back, a woman, he told me. Of course I remembered the event. It had been him, Brandon, and Miran who had found her. Brandon and Miran had taken off when they’d found the body, practically running, to tell law enforcement. But my Dad kept on hiking. Later, Dad was briefly considered a suspect in the case but quickly dropped based on his reputation: harmless.
Now my dad hiked in front of me, in his efficient hiking-boots (one of the only luxuries he allowed himself) and his ancient exterior-framed backpack that he’d written Hare Krishna on with a thick black sharpie. As we hiked he told me the story again–deeper than he had the first time–which had initially been over a telephone conversation when I was in college in Arizona.
“Brandon found her first,” he said, “then we all saw her. The bugs had gotten to her. Her head was up here in the brush,” my dad pointed, “and her legs were over here, on the trail.”
We were standing looking down at the spot with our hiking boots turned toward where her body would have been.
“She wasn’t very old. But she wasn’t young either. I guess she hurt her leg and couldn’t make it back out. She might have starved to death,” he said.
We continued down the cream-colored trail, there were dark polka-dots where rain drops had hit. I’d traveled fifty miles today to go on this trip with my Dad to Doctor Rock.
We will reach Doctor Rock, rain or shine, I thought to myself and tried to shake the thought of a poor woman dying here all alone.
Eventually, the clouds lifted. We watched the sky turn blue upon blue. Jerry sang Jack-A-Roe in my mind as we watched the sky turn to blue. My dad was telling me about the rocks now, the same jade-colored serpetine rocks that I had to dodge while we drove up the “go-road” to reach the trailhead. My Chevy Cavalier had scraped the heads of those rocks one too many times. I wouldn’t be surprised if my oil-pan sprung a leak. Still, I wouldn’t change the day for anything. I shook it off, but it wasn’t easy.
We stopped at an overlook. We saw hill after hill after hill and valley after valley. We saw ridge after ridge, the fog hugging them loosely. The fog hung over the streams, providing a clue to a water source that would otherwise be overlooked. I felt like a Yurok Indian. Only because I knew it was a scene that more Yuroks viewed than any white man ever did. The white men liked town. We were white men, but we were different somehow. Dad made sure of that.
I was surprised to find the trail wasn’t as long as I’d expected. It only took us an hour and a half to hike in. Dad had been here plenty of times before, I never had but I’d expected it to be a long hike for some reason. Even though the hike wasn’t all that much of a challenge, I could see the appeal in coming here. Out here, the solitude was so great that Rock Creek, where I was raised, seemed like a bustling social center. We hiked at a fast pace, stopping only to drink water. We watched the shrubs and pine trees as they turned from green to scorched black. Shortly after the woman’s body had been found and the authorities had removed it, a fire ran through. And as we kept hiking, we saw that every tree was scorched. We were walking over ground that crunched.
“It’ll all be back in no time,” my dad said.
I nodded, already there were bushes sprouting up. Hope.
In no time, I thought as I pictured the shrubs growing three feet tall in thirty-seconds flat, sprouting hearty trunks and growing and climbing right before my eyes. I laughed inside—trippy.
Soon, the scorched ground gave way to a few hundred feet of rocky slope.
“Yeah, this up here aint a good spot for the handicap or elderly to be walkin’ on,” my dad said.
I didn’t bother to mention that the elderly most likely wouldn’t be out here hiking at all. I kept it to myself but was slightly irritated inside. I was twenty three years old. A college graduate. I had lived in and been to more cities and places than my dad ever had. In short, I was foolishly overrating myself. I knew nothing. I stretched to keep my mind open.
Then, when I thought about it more I remembered my dad saying that the Native elders liked to come out to Doctor Rock to meditate and practice rituals. I humbled myself. I watched my feet hit the path.
About that time we heard some noise coming from above us, coming from on top of a strait, granite slope. It sounded like a person jumping to their feet. We looked at each other. We’d both heard it. We looked up at the slope but couldn’t quite see to the top. We waited a few moments, shrugged at one another, then kept on going. I could see greenery up ahead, and a large outcropping of rock. My dad pointed at Doctor Rock. Then he pointed at Chimney Rock. They were rocks like you would see on the ocean, right off of the shore. They were giants, rugged, looking like two heads protruding from the miles and miles of bushy, coniferous forest.
“Tell me more about Doctor Rock,” I asked him.
“It’s sacred. The Yurok’s don’t like no one comin’ here but the Natives. No white man. But I know that the creator doesn’t discriminate against no one based on the color of their skin. It’s what’s in your heart that the creator sees–it’s what’s in your soul. He don’t even differentiate between who’s white and who isn’t. That’s a human concept there, and it aint right. But I know where their comin’ from wanting to keep the white man out. Some white men don’t belong here. I’ve had loggers tell me stories about them getting a bad feeling up here. A feeling like they’ve never had before. They must not be in-tuned, in-touch with the area.”
“Who made this trail?” I asked, ignoring the thought to mention that the woman from Eureka was white.
“They?” I asked.
“They, the Natives.” My dad said.
Soon we were upon patch after patch of morel mushrooms. There was an entire ravine filled with them. We stopped, put down our packs and picked about forty mushrooms, storing them in a plastic Safeway bag.
“Let’s pick more tomorrow Dad,” I whined, “I want to pick a bunch but I want them to be the best that they can be, the most fresh. Let’s pick them on our way out.”
The thunder started roaring in the east.
“We’re not far from the cabin,” my dad replied. His expression said my decision was fine with him.
Soon there was a clearing and the cabin. We stepped inside and ate some snacks. I etched my name on the wall, next to roughly fifty others. Outside the rain poured down, down, down. T. Van Dusen ’09. We ate trail mix and cheddar popcorn, listened to the rain fall, and watched the tin roof of the cabin leak. The rain let up soon enough.
“You wanna go to the Golden Staircase or Doctor Rock?” My dad asked.
I didn’t really know what the Golden Staircase was. He’d never mentioned it until now. My dad continued to tell me.
“Goes all the way down to the mouth of the Klamath.”
“A staircase made of what?” I asked him.
“Gold!” He told me with a toothless grin he couldn’t withhold. I knew he was kidding. I also knew I wasn’t going to walk all the way to the Klamath Glen tonight. That would mean hitchhiking back to my car which was way far out of anyone’s way. Either that or hike against the mountains tomorrow, up hill. Besides, we came for Doctor Rock.
“Doctor Rock,” I said to him.
“Alright,” he said, and we were on our way.
It wasn’t much further and we were there. We hiked through massive fallen, burnt cedars. We hiked through a meadow with pink, white and wine-colored blooms. It started raining again. We were at the base of the rock, facing its beautiful, moss carpeted body. Rain was running off the top of the rock like a woman going at some serious crying. We started scaling the boulders on the bottom. I immediately lost my footing on a slippery rock and smacked my face strait into the boulder in front of me–solid rock to my cheekbone. It would leave a bruise. We reached a clearing; the rain was coming down harder.
“Dad, we really shouldn’t even stand up at this clearing.”
I was thinking of the lightning, even though we hadn’t seen a bolt all day. He knew what I meant.
“Yeah, I agree,” he said. “See that moss over there?” He pointed to a ledge covered with heavy moss.
I gave him a nod.
“That’s where we climb up.”
“I don’t know Dad, it’s too slippery, don’t you think?”
The ledge was steep and very high. I knew that traditionally that’s where the Native’s would go–to the very top of Doctor Rock–but it really was very high and I wondered if there would be shelter for camping.
“Don’t you think it’s too slippery Dad?” I continued.
“Ohyeah,” My dad said, concurring that there was danger.
We made our way out of the clearing. We were at the base of Doctor Rock in a cocoon of rock and shrub-like trees. There wasn’t much wiggle-space, and it had started to rain harder.
“You wanna stay here while I find us a better spot? We’re not going to the top right now, and you don’t want to get your bag wet.”
He went on and I crouched under a rock overhang. Calmly, I sat down between our two backpacks. To the left of me was a rock crevasse, and a huge crack. I could see a clearing next to it. I knew if I did a little crawling I might find a grotto, where the crevasse and the clearing meet. I traveled a little ways, cautiously.
“Terah!” My dad’s voice echoed from inside the crevasse, from where I would have found the grotto. “I’ve found a much better spot!”
The spot was an elongated grotto, four to eight feet wide and over two stories high. Rain trickled down the walls, streaks of it. The streaks were so peculiar looking that I took off my damp mitten, touched the wall and licked my finger just to make sure it was what I thought it was.
The grotto was stocked with a pile of firewood, dead oak. That was nice of whomever, I thought to myself, very nice of them. There was a fire-pit. I built a fire using damp papers from my notebook. It was already late-afternoon, early evening and given the rain, we weren’t going anywhere. Might as well warm up by the fire, I was thinking. The smoke billowed right out the open roof of the crevasse, like a chimney, not once getting into my eyes. I am thankful, I thought to myself. Meanwhile, my dad was moving the firewood pile closer to the fire.
“Dad,” I said, slightly annoyed, “I’m sleeping there, remember?”
“Well, you’re not gonna take up this whole spot are ya? You’re not that big,” he said, joking as usual.
“No, but I don’t want to sleep right next to it,” I said, sounding like a kid again. I did not love this side of me. This side of me that struggled to connect with my father. This side of me who carried around annoyance and resentment from childhood. The rigid side of my otherwise free-spirit.
But I also didn’t want to attract spiders by spooning with a log.
“We’ll just get up and gather more wood from the pile as we need it,” I finished.
My dad raised his eyebrows and said, “Hey, you don’t wanna be walkin’ all the way to the wood pile when it gets dark in here. Interesting things happen out here. Scary things. Whhooo-oooo!” He howled.
This is why I like my dad, I remembered, because he knows that I like to be scared. I am his one and only child, and I am thankful. I am his world. Always have been. Always will be. It’s not every kid who can say that.
It took me an hour or two to get dry. Cave fires don’t get very large, pushed up against the wall like they are. I was happy to find something to occupy my time, if an odd source of entertainment. It was something and nothing all at once–getting dry.
Furthermore, I thought about Dad and I, driving out to these mountains, just to walk around. Hoping we don’t see a mountain lion, or rather that a mountain lion doesn’t see us. Building fires and warming our food. Sleeping with only the sound of the water dripping from the trees. Getting closer to God. That’s what I viewed it as–closer to nature is closer to God. Whatever God is. If God was anything like nature, well I could dig it.
My energy had been all wound up. Tight like a braid. I was here to unravel, to grow, to accept, to get closer to my soul. Seems selfish, doesn’t it? In a grotto, a cave which truly belongs to the Yurok Indians and here I was thinking of me, me, me. I needed to talk to God. I wrote in my journal, and this is what I said:
Dear lord, trust me when I say the journey was the sacrifice, the rain. Now I pray for many things. I am one of them, yes, but so are you. By coming here I have developed a story. It has to do with your gods and your world. I will share it and it will spread like a fire. People will read it, and remembering you, will forget about the material world for a moment, they will join me in your cave. And I will remember you, the land as it was, and the people as they were, before all the chaos and the cities. The essence of what it really is to be human, animal, or something in-between. And I will be thankful. Come to me in my dreams, dear lord, Be With Me Like Light. I will see you for what you are, so long as your gods are pure and good. I am on your side, Doctor.
The sun set at eight but it might as well have been at seven because that’s when the cave got dark. My clothing was dry, my dad and I had exchanged words and dinner but I was heading quickly to bed, if early. I retracted into my sleeping bag. I always like to go to sleep early back in childhood when my dad and I camped “under the stars.” Sleeping outside was my favorite place to sleep. Soon, I was in a dream…
“Dad, dad, I think someone was just in here.” I said to my dad (in my dream). He was a few feet away in his sleeping bag and I was mummified in mine. “Dad!” I said again, he was still sleeping. It seemed so real.
“Well, go and find out who it is,” he said back to me, which is exactly what he would’ve said in real life.
It was daylight out. I slowly scrambled out of my sleeping bag and started walking out of the crevasse, toward the paper-white sky. When I reached the outside I was up on top of Doctor Rock. There was a shallow bar of sand amidst the blackened rock. There was a set of child’s footprints in the cream-colored sand and the imprint of a ball. The child had been bouncing a ball. But the child was gone, and the ball was gone.
Suddenly there was a hard tapping on my forehead, on my third-eye. Three or four times it knocked. Bang-bang-bang. I was trying to pull myself out of my sleep. I was trying to pull my head out of my sleeping bag to see who it was–to face the spirit. I expected to find a deer’s hooves, a wooden peg-leg, or a medicine stick—that’s what it felt like was tapping my forehead.
When I finally awoke, when I was actually awake and my head was out of the sleeping bag, the thumping stopped. Once my eyes adjusted all I could see was the wall of the grotto and a single black centipede a few inches from my face.
“Dad. Dad.” I said, just like I had in my dream.
“What.” He said back, not very warmly—more of a statement than a question.
“I…I need you to put some wood on the fire,” I said frantically. The fire was still smoldering, but barely. I was cold, but most of all I was kind of scared. The dream had been so vivid and intense. “Please, just put some wood on the fire and don’t go back to sleep until I go to sleep, okay?” I asked him, clearly alarmed.
My dad knew that I had gotten scared over something, a dream likely, and he got up and did what I said.
“Not until I’m completely asleep again, okay?” I asked again. I could be such a child. But the ball, and the boy, and now this centipede was in front of my face who I knew had tapped my forehead and who I knew actually wasn’t a centipede at all but an Indian Medicine Man with his medicine stick who was waiting for me on top of Doctor Rock. And the only way I could see him would be to climb up there but I wasn’t about to do that. It was dark and cold and slippery and I’m not a grown woman at all, I’m still a child, I thought in my sleepy oblivion.
The Medicine Man knew I was a coward. He didn’t have to come down here to see me shiver in the presence of him. He could watch me from the translucent ball that sat on top of his medicine stick, the ball that—like a gypsy’s—told him the future or the way things were or the way things had been.
Only his were truer, and more ancient, more meaningful, deeper than the average gypsy’s crystal ball. He watched me through his crystal ball medicine stick and he didn’t see my ugly sleep encrusted eyes or the knots in my hair like an old-man’s beard. He didn’t see my frumpy clothes or my clumsy character. The Medicine Man saw my soul and that’s why he reached out to me as I lay in the cave. My soul was brave when I’d said that prayer earlier and he’s noticed a hint, just a hint of curiosity as I prayed, mentioning his God and his World. I asked for him and then he came, but then I got scared and ran away.
Awaken my third eye. That was the message I got. I can still feel the reverberating tap tap tap on my forehead as I write this. And the boy? I haven’t found out who he is yet, I don’t even know how I know he is a boy—but he is. I guess that’s what spirituality is. You know, but you can’t prove or explain it. For some of us, that is enough. That is something. It makes one thing ours and ours alone. Like our own unique journeys are. Explainable things are overrated sometimes. They hold no mystery or soul. Plus, there are one billion true things in this universe that cannot be seen—yet. My dad has always taught me to get out of my head and into my heart—only without ever saying that.
God Bless the woman who’d died here, I thought to myself as I lay down like a mummy in my sleeping bag, having just been visited by a Yurok spirit, clenching my eyes shut, holding myself tightly, and drifting back to sleep as my Dad generously stoked the fire.
I am not a grown woman at all, I thought, I am still just a child.
Foot note: Here is an alternate experience which I find deeply moving, written by the members of the Yurok Tribe near Klamath, California.
I didn’t grow up to be who I was supposed to be. I wasn’t supposed to have oily hair or a messy bun. But I’ve settled for it. I wasn’t supposed to have unemployment, compromised driving privileges, trust issues, or a dying cat – that’s some other woman.
I didn’t grow up to be tame-haired and golden. I didn’t grow up to be worshiped by a man, doted on, a traffic-stopper, a perfect-in-every-way kind of girl. I’ve never been that.
Not only have I been to therapy, but I’ve walked away from it (that’s worse, it means I haven’t been helped yet). But this story is full of half-truths. You know, maybe I did grow up to be who I was supposed to be (how could I not? I was in control the entire time) (even that’s a half-truth).
I was supposed to be a role-model, for one. All nice girls wish to be role models, that’s how you know you’re good. But I couldn’t even pull that off (half-truth). You know you’re fucking up when a child asks you, “Are you a kid too!?” Eye.
Things have gotten better since then. I feel in control (half-truth). I accept the messy bun. I let the teenage neighbor kids see my climbing-out-of-the-car-with-two-paper-bags-of-groceries-clumsiness. I wish sometimes the girl could look at me with that want-to-be-like-her-when-I-grow-up-awe. You know the awe. But I don’t think I am that woman. I’ve accidentally watered the flowers in a see-through gown, waving at the neighbors. I’ve fallen in a hole chasing after the dog. I am someone else, slightly off-set of that woman. The alternate. The sister story. The girl with the hair falling in her eyes, needing to be washed. The girl with the floor needing to be swept, scrubbed. The woman in the gray dented station-wagon. The woman with the budding, not blooming, flower garden. The woman with $4.50 in fines at the library. The woman who just signed up for the Adult Reading Program (because she hopes to win a tote-bag). The woman who used to work in retail and now works in manual labor. The woman with a college degree, who makes $11 an hour. The woman who would rather paint and write more than anything. The woman with a few pretty dresses that she never wears. The woman who has many friends over the age of fifty. The woman who is apprehensive of parties, but loves them once she gets there. The woman who thinks she knows herself so well (but has a lot to learn). The woman who writes personal stories on her porch in the sunshine. The woman who wishes for tan legs, but won’t pay for them, or sit still long enough for them. The woman who wishes for the luxury of travel, an open road, snacks, a band to follow, cold beer…a bunch of things that aren’t really her, but maybe…The woman who has a defrosted chicken for the crockpot. The woman whose man will be home soon. The woman with her dog barking and her cat purring. The woman with the messy bun, fresh face, bare feet, tall grass, summer sun. The woman, the actual woman, I was meant to become.
In writing I worry
I have said too much,
I capitalize on
the funny parts
the sick parts
the sad parts
I leave out how
my Dad religiously
kissed my forehead every
morning before school
or that friends
said “we can’t afford
to keep feeding her”
which only made
I leave out
the parts where
I was a happy, jolly
normal kid playing
make-believe and house
I leave out the parts where
I do not go hungry
But I remember
the good times
when I do the dishes,
the innocent times
when I sweep the floor,
the carefree times
when I call for the dog,
“I wanted this”
“This is all I ever
I write my past
I plot my future
“I’ll be the husband
and you’ll be the wife”
I remember saying
“I’ll go to the store now
to get the groceries”
It will be so much fun
It is all I ever wanted
It will be so much fun
I recall, hand swirling
in a vat of dishwater,
igniting the suds
It will be so much fun
to be grown
It is all I ever wanted
This becomes a mantra
for the sane
It will be so much fun
to be grown
It is all I ever wanted
I’ll go to the store now
to get the groceries
It will be so much fun
I work on a farm now, helping care for hundreds of chickens, plenty of pigs, a handful of sheep, a field of cows, and three goats that are up-for-grabs.
My boss, a young woman not much larger than I, is southern-girl-polite, patient with me as I learn the ropes, and incredibly tender with her livestock. She is teaching me how to use power tools, perform animal husbandry, and push a little past what I think I am physically capable of.
So much of what I thought I knew about the world is being called into question. Namely, what I am good for: sitting pretty? Moving things? Growing food? Personality traits and body parts have taken on a whole new meaning. I can’t fall back on pretty, no way, no how. I don’t even put on makeup before I start my day. (So, if you know me at all, you know that everything has changed.) The one thing I have going for me is that I don’t mind getting dirty.
What used to bother me so much about customer service was the shallowness, the trivialness. I have none of that now. My boss is stone-serious about what we do. Because what we do matters. Believe it or not, I’ve only had one or two jobs where that was the case (working for the National Park Service was one, working with incarcerated youth was another. My post office job, well that was somewhere on the border.)
I’m working harder than I have in years, but it’s a different kind of work. It isn’t so mentally exhausting (not nearly as mentally exhausting as writing!). I whip around on a four-wheeler all day from one task to another with nobody asking me to “smile more,” with nobody’s wonky energy to pick up and take home with me.
I’ve loved all my jobs (maybe that’s a stretch, I’ve had a lot of jobs) but I often regret that I haven’t stuck with one and, you know, Started Making The Big Bucks. But this job? This job is legitimately good for me. This job is wholesome. Educational. Amusing (those piglets!). Active. Empowering.
I kind of feel like farming found me. Although I did apply for this job, I also applied for about 10 different State Park jobs before getting turned down and, miraculously, getting a phone call from my new and lovely boss Jenni. And I’m glad I did get turned down by the parks because my exposure to nature at the farm is probably ten-fold what it would’ve been and I’m learning skill sets that will last a lifetime (I can’t believe I’ve made it to 31 without knowing some of these things!)
My values are being turned on their heads. Not all my values, but things like: what makes me a beautiful and valuable human being? What do I really contribute to this world? What does environmentalism really mean to me? And am I willing to act on those values? Where did that jerky come from? How was that animal treated? My former touching stones (shopping for clothes, getting dolled up, watching mindless movies) are eroding beneath me. It’s kind of scary, but exciting. This is just the start of something bigger, a drop in the bucket no doubt, but I am evolving and changing as a person and a woman and I am trying to get a foothold in this strange yet real new world.