on seeing in stories

Telling a story again, years on, puts your values on display, backlit for effect. The producer interviewing me for an NPR (Snap Judgment) radio segment today and tomorrow has a vision of being able to have listeners see themselves tracking alongside me in my first actual search (in early 1986). When I first wrote about this in 1992 for the book manuscript that became Point Last Seen, I was working from notes compiled right after the search. Although I changed everyone’s names—my standard practice for nonfiction—I used time sequences from the day. In my mind, though, once these were set down, aside from remembering when it started (five minutes prior to me going to work at the visitor center), I forgot them.

Knowing she wanted to focus on this for the field portion of the interview, I reread my book last night. But in the field today? I still didn’t keep the time stamps foremost in my mind. I know the progression and the key events and the way things turned out and some of the feelings, but other aspects of it are not at all handy. This makes me wonder how the mind chooses what to value from a life event and what to forget or not care about.

In a related manner, a small songbird flitted into the campsite where we were standing, and she asked if I knew what it was. I didn’t. Birds are not my thing. I adore their songs and their presence—am comforted by them, too—and I know the names of maybe a couple dozen all told, but that’s it. This has been true since I can remember, and I have never made the slightest move to remedy my non-knowledge. How is it that I, who have made a whole life of learning to be in the outdoors, feel not just no urge to add the birds to my store of information, but instead prefer to live alongside their mysteries and not knowing? I am deeply gratified to not know but just enjoy, and I am not sure why.

It also became evident that, as a tracker, I see details that other people–even when they are staring at the same thing–simply do not see. For one example, I stepped on a rock today to demonstrate how grains of sand from my shoes would then appear on the rock. We both were looking at it when I did this and removed my foot, describing what I was doing for listeners (not as easy as it might first sound!). As we watched, a single grain of sand fell off the rock to the ground, and I pointed it out as one of the myriad details a tracker sees and yet holds in abeyance, so to speak, in order to focus on the details that make the trail itself easier to stick with. She was paying as much attention as I was, but she did not see the sand grain fall. The concept made sense, but the visual acuity that comes from long hours of close observation did not back that up. In another instance, a single ant was working its way as we walked alongside. I adjusted my pace to avoid stepping on it (a decades-old practice and common nature now), but said nothing. The ant, though, is part of why I try to give voice to these arid places. The ant, of whom I know next to nothing except that it exists, is as dear to me as anyone I have ever loved. It is in my family of beings. It walks alongside on its own endeavours, as I do on mine, and even the briefest glance its direction reminds me that I am a child of earth. With too many siblings to name or even know.

Seeing deeply makes the desert a congenial, even welcoming place. Giving voice to that, however, is more difficult in an aural manner than it is when I am writing. Writing works in league with me and holds a place marker for any reader who wishes to go out and step on rocks enough times that the grains of sand which land and fall then become visible. Speaking such an experience is far more nuanced a task, and one for which I need a great deal  more practice before I can hope to evoke such experiences for listeners. I am humbled by how each medium of communication has so many layers of meaning available to it, and grateful for this opportunity to work alongside someone so skilled in telling stories not on paper, but radio waves.

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on solitude borne up by all souls

Were it not for the kindness of strangers, friends, and loved ones (human and not), I could not imagine my own existence.

The self, it seems to me, readily and daily fissures the bounds of body and soul in which we presume ourselves to be singular and individual, apart from any others while here, and it so easily flows into all that is around (and within) us. Porous we are, spirits taking fire from beings we may never know, bodies and minds connected to all that is at depths we cannot fathom or touch.

There is something deeply comforting about feeling one’s self alone amidst such an ancient and enduring gathering, for our solitude is sheltered and made verdant by all the souls who have ever—or will ever—exist. When we feel ourselves most alone, we most fully join these legions.

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on doing

Do what you can when and where you can for as many as you can every day.

For years now—since my middle teens—I have lived by this trusty old motto and one other:

Be gentle. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden. 

The gentle one came from an issue of Grit Magazine, which I remember because they were the first place to publish something I wrote, and I carried that tattered scissored-out quote around with me until it fell apart, and then wrote it on another piece of paper and did the same thing again. Four times in the course of not quite four decades. I am not a gentle soul. The quote gigged me to aim that way anyhow on occasion.

The doing quote, I always assumed, also came from somewhere similar, but I’ve never been able to find the source. Likely I read something like it and tweaked the wording enough that searches are waylaid. Even these days, with Google, I still can’t find it, though, so perhaps I made it up on the hoof somewhere in the long past? Don’t know. Would be happy to get provenance on it, if there is any version available (please feel free to share in the comments below), but today I just want to say it here, because I’m doubling down on my commitment to living by its lights. I have always been a doer and a giver. Having things for myself while others do without hurts me to the bone and hollows out the marrows of my soul. But even when I believe I have been doing all I can? There’s almost always something more I can do.

Today I heard again the story of 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, who has now been arrested twice by the Fort Lauderdale, Florida police for feeding the homeless. Bless his heart: he went to jail for it, got out, and went straight back out to do it again! Now this is the kind of behavior we need a lot more of. I so admire Mr. Abbott and his organization—Love Thy Neighbor—and all the millions of people who every day are doing everything they can for others, so I’m posting these old quotes and a link to his story here. I will also keep this page updated with information, since there’s a Kickstarter project in the works to help pay for Mr. Abbott’s legal costs. But mainly I just wanted to gig myself to live ever more deeply these mottos of my youth.

Thank you for all that you do for those around you in need. Let’s take our cues from Mr. Abbott and find ways to love and help our neighbors (strangers and loved ones alike) more than before, whenever that is possible!

Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP/Corbis

Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP/Corbis

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on coexisting in chilly times

The last insect of summer visited me tonight, coming close again and again to skin of face and hands and arms, in pursuit of tiny hoped-for sips of my warm blood in these 32F-and-headed-for-25-or-fewer degrees: a mosquito the size of a middling housefly flirts with ending its own life sooner, if that’s what it takes to have one last drink.

Little does s/he know that the one around whom s/he hovers tonight? Is sufficiently chilly herself and perfectly willing–even happy–to provide that last libation and not ask for a life in return. Should such a grace be offered, that is.

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on what is in places

Of late and especially this week, I have been mulling on how one’s immediate physical surroundings—and what is required in order to do basic things like stay warm, stay fed, stay washed and clothed and capable, stay safe and alert and carrying on—affect a person’s perceptions of everything. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Foes. Love. Loss. Estrangement. Work. Breathing. Possibilities. What is or what could or might be in our PastPresentFuture. Is it the immediacy or the physicality of place that pervades us thus?

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on going from good hearts to good societies

Every day, and many times during it—no matter where I am or what I am doing—I think about the people who are suffering in places far removed from me: Gaza, Guantanamo, Sierra Leone (and many more), refugee camps in so many places, communities and cities and whole nations hardhit by violence and war and famine and disease and lack of access to basic necessities of life like health care and clean water and sufficient food or places to worship, play, and be. Presumably we all do this—thinking about so many who have not our privileges, no matter what else is going on, right?

I also give whatever I can pull together every single day to help those who are less well off than I am, too—even if it means doing without things that I need or want and sometimes doing that for good (as I have scaled down my lifestyle drastically over the last 15 years so that I can require less and thus give more)—and presumably everyone else is also doing this now, too, right?

And yet, still and ever it seems, the dogs of war and inequalities seem unleashed ever more deliberately every day. How does an individual or family make any real difference when we’re all doing it separately, coming together sometimes in groups for activism or joint organized efforts, but then going back onto our own little lanes on the treadmills that pass for life in industrialized nations? How can we break the commonest of our widespread patterns so that having more for ourselves is no longer a cultural value, and ensuring that ALL have enough to live good and meaningful lives becomes our highest societal aim? How do we make the shift from having good hearts to being good societies? (For all and not just a few.)

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