on tbt – november 1985

We wore shoulder pads back then, in public no less, and posed for stock photos with weapons that didn’t work and everyday cowboy boots that did—with nary a thought of how funny-turned that would look a decade on or ten. The cool thing about throwback Thursdays now is that I get to drag out the old photos and stories just for fun. It didn’t feel fun at the time; it felt like work.

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Alone in a town a long way from home, with my children abducted and me needing money to bring them back, I played honkytonk piano with a band called South Pass in those days, just four guys and me, each of us pulling down a couple hundred a gig when it was good, and big-shouldered western clothes were de rigueur for those smoky old saloons. We donned black leather every Friday and that raised the roof.

In towns like Jackson, at the Virginian or Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, we could play eclectic from the get-go, but in little one-horse towns out in the sticks of Wyoming or Montana, we knew better than that and went easy on the locals’ ears till they’d grown used to the sight of us sidling alongside their conversations and celebrations and flirtations and leave-takings and libations.

In their stomping grounds, we’d start out every night dead-center of country-western, but by midnight it was safe to go rockabilly and by the last set we were burnin’ down the walls with blues and hard down rock ‘n roll that all the patrons were too drunk to object to by then or care about (or possibly hear) anymore. Last call would go down in a sad Van Zandt tune like “Pancho and Lefty” (‘And all the federales say, they could’ve had him any day, they only let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose’) and then a signature original, then we’d pull on Sorel packs and down overcoats and go striding down streets flanked by snow piled to rooftops and beyond in the deep frozen winter (or eerily empty and silent on the two days that pass for summer in those parts), easing down to the closest greasy spoon for huevos rancheros and two pots of black coffee and a run-through of the night’s line-ups and the next until the sun came up and it was time for me to head on to work. If we were at an out-of-town run, the guys would make sure I was safe to my room and no groupies were hanging about, and then they’d retire for the alcohol and kickups they craved and I avoided and whatever else four guys do when not accompanied by a woman who’s never had a nickel’s use for parties. I was young then, and it was a fine job. I didn’t know the world was broken for good for me and would never go back together, no matter how much money I made or how many nights I gave over to the task.

We live forward, too fast sometimes to register the songs of our lives. It’s only a long time hence, when the reckonings have all come back home to roost, that we begin to listen for what we were missing on the way through. I can still sometimes hear the old licks when the lights go out on any small rural town in the west. I can still tickle a keyboard and bring myself to tears with four-part harmony and a stout bass. I can break out of steely-woman piano mode and land on the dance floor for Slap Leather or the Montana Slide and remember bringing down the house with that move on some of those Friday nights. (Who knew a piano player could stir up a crowd to do more dancing and less drinking just by deserting her post for a spell and dancing out the helplessness within?) South Pass, indeed. It was a kind time for me among strangers, and the music still lives—within me and far beyond. I like that it’ll still be knocking about here when I’m gone.

on being and dying while here?

The world kills us all in the end, I believe, so I write to cheat death of its winnings. But what happens when words can’t capture the pain or loose yesterday’s hold on every now? Does a single mistake in a single lifetime never, ever release its death grip on even a faltering soul?

I always thought that if you loved even your attackers unconditionally—and refused to return blows for blows—you could eventually outwalk, outlast, or outwit any tragedy, any betrayal, any shunning or disowning: I really believed you could, that a ‘chin up, nose over your toes’ approach to breathing could actually make a difference, that any person thus embarked could wrestle good from any foes, no matter how determined, any loss, no matter how primal, any wound, no matter how deep. Now I no longer know.

I ask: can there ever be life in the shadows of death? Or is death all there is? And are we, the mere weary travelers, only its fodder?

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on learning the lessons at one’s feet

For the 37 years prior to 11.12.13/0014h, my days have proceeded thus: wake up, get up, work, fulfill duties (to children, spouse, animals, friends, and strangers), work some more, fulfill duties, work some more, fit in some work-related activity (reading, writing, sewing, knitting, tracking, building), shower, sleep, dream (often about work), and then do it all over again. Weekends have never been demarcated differently, except for the fact that ‘work’ then also includes volunteering and cleaning. Vacations have always been about fulfilling duties (usually family) or work: research for a book or project. I don’t go anywhere unless I can use some aspect of it for work.

Now I like work, even thrive on it, and have always been grateful to have it, for the alternatives are grim: for me, worklessness means not only poverty, but white-hot PTSD and crippling depression; I need work to help me hold things together, to make a pretense of survival when I’m breaking inside. But in recent years I have grown weary of work’s constancy, the pace of workplace demands, and the 24/7/365 nature of this sometimes hostile beast. I have carried on, though, because, well, that’s just what I do, and I can be downright hardheaded about such things.

Then in 2009, I discovered Facebook and happily embarked on connecting with people beyond my ordinary circles—human beings working for social and economic justice, environmental wisdom, and all-round goodness—and this became an important coping tool for workloads that consistently, insistently gutted my days and commandeered far too many of my nights. Off the clock, round the clock, I worked on, using social media as an escape valve from the life I had built. Work a while, need a break, take it on FB connecting, breathe, and go back to work. The escape valve was enormously worthy and valuable: I’ve met some of the highest-quality people of my whole life in this e-world, and some of those relationships have slipped their beginnings to allow connections face to face. They are of a deep and enduring nature, too, and not limited by the shallowness ascribed to such media by some commentators. I’ve also participated in petition campaigns (online and in-person) that have had good effects—slowing down the Keystone XL pipeline, stopping a planned execution in Mississippi, ensuring that a dying man wrongly convicted and held in solitary for decades be released from prison, putting a bright light on miscreants in many places—and I know for a fact that these connections and efforts matter right now. So, too, do the campaigns for which I donate money or time or simply shift my own consumption patterns to support companies that pay livable wages and tend the environment as if it belongs to us all. The information I get here is worthwhile, worthy of my time and attention, because it comes to me via thoughtful, compassionate, gracious human beings doing everything they can to make our world better to live in for all.

But engaging in social media for my own safety valve and remaining open while there (the only way to breathe, for me) also means that I am slammed every day by things I can’t do anything about. And when work is pressing so hard on a body every minute of every day, these knowings—as critically needed as they are now—can leach energy from the soul within. At some point in the last two years or so, work ironically became my escape valve from social media, and the tight turnings of my existence on these spaces sped up (astonishingly so, re: productivity in both), and the delineations between one space or another vanished. Everything was work. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously long for a sabbatical from my life. A stopping place. Respite.

Completing the terminal degree in my field didn’t help one whit. If anything my workload increased, and more of it involved doing things that are only of limited value to anybody anywhere ever: applying for jobs, trying to write for publication in genres required for an academic career even though those narrow parameters kill off most of the reasons for writing in the first place, not writing for publication in genres looked down upon by academics because I’m applying for academic jobs, being judged negatively for engaging in social and political struggles in ways that make establishment academics uneasy, etc. ad nauseum. As a term employee for the federal government and then adjunct teacher, I found myself overworked, underpaid, and beginning to fray some at the edges. I’m slow to learn, though, and stubborn about following through on my commitments. But the longing for respite grew. “This side of the grave, too,” I began to say to myself in odd hours.

On 11.12.13 at 0014h, I stopped and set aside all my daily habits in one fell swoop. For one year, one month, one day, and one minute—to precisely 12.13.14 at 0015h—I intend to live by my own lights and whatever lessons I can find at my feet each day. Originally I’d planned to stay awake and have a glass of wine to celebrate this auspicious occasion, but I’d spent so many hours of the previous night working that I was tired. So I entered this new realm sound asleep. And rose with the sun alongside my husband to care for the animals who live here with us, only this time we hied out for the hills, just us two, tracking an old injured dog and then a series of small creatures and coming alongside a schedule no longer driven by an intemperate need to work myself into the grave. I’m done with all that.

IMG_8134I still have responsibilities and will meet them. I still value social media and will connect there. I still have dear friends and family and will love them as truly I can. I still believe there might be a few academic jobs for which I am fit and vice versa, and will likely still apply. But around and amongst all that, I’m also well embarked upon a sabbatical from all habits of thought and action for this specified period of time.

Once I’ve mulled and figured out what I can best contribute with my limited resources, I’ll join in once more, all burners rockin’ hard. For now, though, I’m going to spend some time doing first the things that feed my soul: writing, tracking, being and caring for the beings alongside, re-learning how to open myself better, as Albert Camus once put it, to “the gentle indifference of the world.” In other words, learning the lessons at my feet that I, for 37 years running, have marched over willnilly in quests largely undefined. This may be, it seems now, the work of a lifetime.

on the mislaying of plans and beings curmudgeonly

IMG_npl8468All of last night and now apparently some significant part of today are to be devoted to coming alongside the stray, aggressive, injured, deaf, old, unneutered male dog who decided to colonize our homestead at dusk. My working plan then was to sleep outside, let him get used to our smell, and understand we’re not the enemy. It’s twelve hours later and that plan is in tatters. We have a little more information than we did at dusk (that he’s deaf, unneutered, and more than a little curmudgeonly), and he’s taken the food and water we set out, but that’s about it.

Every creature on the place but the sheep dog is penned up and will stay there until we can sort out a working relationship. Every bush, every object (including my shoes), and a serious number of pebbles on this five acres has been marked with this old dog’s urine. (He’s out now, of this I am sure. I don’t know how long it’ll take him to make new urine, but for now, he’s out.) Periodically through the night he would limp off a ways and just howl in frustration. And then he would come back, determined to move us out of here. Oh, for the wisdom of a Sunday to creep in about now. Sleep-deprived wisdom and just enough old-dog sense to ease his mind.

p.s. Likely only cactus spines in those front feet causing the exaggerated limp (which I characterized before as an injury—for a creature on foot in these lands, of course, it’s a wound and it hurts). He seems unable to hear anything at low registers, but I whistled just now and he stopped to see what that was. Got a closer look than before and wonder now if someone may not have abandoned him recently. He’s not been fending for himself too long yet. We just concocted a fine meal from our own with a pan of fresh water and set it all beside the place he’s using to cross under our field fence. Now comes the waiting and the wooing from one species not characterized by high trustworthiness overall for a single soul who has reasons long before us to doubt our sincerity or ability to be humane.

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on pack rat PT and reiki and successes in uncommon hours

S/he showed up in our lives one chilly evening three weeks ago, this little pack rat, with a mangled back leg and bleeding haunch and in such shock from whatever had attacked her that s/he couldn’t move. Stewart thought s/he was already dead and eased the tiny body away from the shed, placing it under the temporary dome of a shovel, planning to return later to dig another small grave. When he went back, s/he was sitting up.IMG_8287 Shivering, bleeding, still unable to move, needing help. So he gathered up this little being and hurried inside, and we put our noggins together (all our liberal arts degrees being not one whit of use). You’ll be Orfala, we promised, and this patch of desert we’re borrowing for now will be for you and your kin when we pass on. There’s a rough gentle justice tucked into that vow, especially given that, just two years ago, we wrested this old cabin from a feisty little pack rat who’d had the run of it for years before and didn’t sign off on the deed.

It took two days of reiki and warming before Orfala woke up. On the morning of the third day, s/he was dragging that broken back leg around like a broom and her wounds were healing. I did daily sessions of PT on the leg (motivated by my lay notion that two or three gentle lifts toward her tummy twice a day might keep the blood flowing and the limb from freezing into place), and s/he tolerated that just fine, but it seemed clear that the leg would never be functional and after about three days I quit on the PT. There seemed no point. Reiki can be done from across a whole country, though, so the few feet between her temporary home-bin and my working desk was perfect. (Teaching human history online is a job easily made more palatable by intermittent reiki sessions for a pack rat, by the way.) I didn’t expect the leg to recover, but Orfala seemed fine with pulling it around behind, munching on the corn and peas we offered and making a house of her new digs. It was a good gig all round.

Then yesterday, at a point when happy news had been in short supply for we humans of late, we prepped Orfala’s dinner and eased the thicket of creosote branches up . . . to find a pack rat with a fully functional left back leg going about the business of keeping house as if nothing bad had ever come alongside. Orfala’s now double the size s/he was on arrival, and perfectly, perfectly whole, able to leap and run and even to use that back foot to relieve itches on occasion. It’s stunning, this facility, and how normal it all looks. And is. Both of us humans returned intermittently last night and this morning to peer in again, just to make sure we didn’t imagine all this. Without the early photos—taken not to document injury, but existence—we would not now have any proof s/he was ever hurt.

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So there it is. A pack rat improbably dubbed Orfala has gifted us with hours uncommon in human endeavours: evidence that healing is a miracle of this planet and existence, most ordinary and available freely to all. No degree or pre-planning or even money and experts required. S/he has surely earned the deed on our home and, for the few years yet that we need the use of these scrub acres, we will live on them close alongside (provided s/he chooses to stay on release), learning what we can and doing what we can to surrender our grips on our limited notions of ‘reality’ and ‘success’ and what it all might mean in favor of simply slipping into the wonder of being while here. That’s a fair-sized contribution to a human life for a rodent the size of my big toe. Heck, ‘fair’ doesn’t begin to match it. For matters of such great and infinitesimal import, words cannot suffice.

Cheers to the little pack rat that outruns all my words, and makes of breathing such wonder!