Archive for the ‘work’ Category

Where things get interesting

March 10, 2018

the sign near my therapist’s office


from Paris Review Issue 91, Spring 1984 “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction 78”

The two roles [writing and preaching] are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Everything’s connected; everything’s changing. Pay attention!

March 8, 2018

photo by Annelise Makin


This morning I saw three juvenile bald eagles. Their graceful swoops looked more to me like play than competition. But I still have a lot to learn about bald eagles.

The moment after I watched them disappear into the blue, my elation collapsed. “I am an apex predator who’s terrified,” I thought to myself. It seemed, suddenly, a horrible waste of evolutionary preeminence.

Our mind has as many possibilities as the sky, which can bring winds and sun, stars, and magnificent birds. Into mine the next thought arrived, sweeping up like the eagles:  of Bandelier National Monument and its Frijoles canyon where indigenous puebloans lived from somewhere around 1000 AD until 1500 AD.  Last year I was privileged to learn and then to share with park visitors a little about how the inhabitants might have experienced their lives.

For my guided walk of the canyon’s pueblo, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs, I chose to structure my observations around the theme of time. I knew even then that I was interested in the subject more for what I didn’t know about time than for what I did. Like the tarot pack’s Fool, I was walking off a cliff, cheerfully hoping the steps would arrive when I needed them.

I would start my talk with historical time – covering the history of the park service and gesturing to the pueblo revival buildings built by the CCC – then move to geological and biological time, which led to agriculture. When we reached the first kiva, constructed in the circle the puebloans had brought with them from Chaco, I would talk about cosmological time as they would have brought the Chacoans knowledge of the night sky with them as well.

Since new rangers are thrown into their talks much like early christians were to the lions, that’s about as far as I initially dug into the excavation of time. But I remember the feeling of dissatisfaction I had those first few weeks. There was something just out of reach, a lesson that would, once grasped, allow me to articulate the feeling I had when I walked through that canyon –  of something that was intangible but also singularly present. It was like an echo one wasn’t sure one had heard.

When rangers do their walks, supervisors pummel them into working out their transitions from one stop to the next. At first, when you’re trying desperately to learn everything from geology and botany to hiking trails to excel spreadsheets to coworkers’ sensitivities, the harking on seamless transitions is a form of torture. But by leaning into that struggle to link the stop at the creek to the next stop, the kiva, I found the door into the realm I’d been sensing.

Archaeologists know that the puebloans had fields scattered on the mesa tops. Given the scattered rainfall patterns, having plots in various locations ensured a greater chance of harvest. But they also would have had plots in the canyon bottoms, using either irrigation systems or hand-watering the crops vital to their tribe’s survival. When we were stopped at the creek, I’d ask visitors how they would feel if their job was to water the corn plants. Would they be irritated because they had other things they wanted to do?  In our culture, that would be a normal reaction since there are so many other tasks we are push ourselves to accomplish.

These indigenous people, I suggested, knew that their tasks, no matter how small, were intimately connected to their lives, to their tribe’s success, to the lives of their ancestors and descendants. The corn itself was understood and celebrated as a gift from their gods. Through their acts of tending it, they were living in sacred time, where they were the center of the universe – in the middle of a circle – not strung out on some linear spectrum where some work was more valuable than others.

As it is with any circle, I can’t be sure exactly where this thought had begun, only that once I possessed it, it encompassed and enchanted everything else, carrying me along to the kiva’s circle and to the concentric circles etched again and again in the walls above the cliff dwellings. And the theme of sacred time led me to my final, and favorite, stop – the Macaw petroglyph.

I loved the chance to ask visitors what they thought the image was. “Anteater,” I’d get more often than you’d imagine. “Horse” or “donkey” were others.  Each guess, no matter how far-fetched, offered the opportunity to remind them how people couldn’t draw what they’d never seen. Since anteaters weren’t native to North America and horses & donkeys were not reintroduced to North American until the Spanish arrived, those possibilities were eliminated. And it also built to the significance of what they were seeing: a tropical bird native to rainforests 3000 miles away.  Since the brilliantly colored macaws could fly and talk, they were considered birds of spirit, and their feathers were objects of trade. But the person who drew this image didn’t see a macaw feather, I would point out. “He saw the whole macaw.”

At this point, as I spun out an imagined scenario of how this ancestral puebloan might have made the trip to central American to capture these birds, how it might have been the most thrilling part of his life, how he’d chosen to commemorate it with this massive drawing and how he might have been known by other tribe members as the guy who would go on and on about the time he brought back the macaws, I could look out beyond my visitors and see much of the canyon stretch below. That people had chosen to live here, to love here, to die here, and to make their art here was, I hoped, as present to my visitors as it was to me.

“Today we don’t all experience sacred time,” I would remind them. “And even when we do, we are able to achieve it momentarily through meditation or through religion. Or we might experience it through art, through music or movies or images. Think of how when we hear a song we loved when we were younger and how time suddenly becomes vertical, not linear. We remember the first time we heard it and maybe another time and another time. That’s how these people lived their lives all of the time. And when we look at this macaw, at this work of art, we have the chance to experience what they did every minute of their lives.”

I wasn’t at Bandelier for long, but something about that canyon moved me, or helped move something within me. I took what I learned there and used it at my next park, George Washington’s birthplace, imagining more experiences that were hidden from plain sight but were waiting, like ghosts, to be brought into the light: the enslaved families and their ways of existing and resisting.

I’ve continued to build a foundation of perception that our contemporary culture would prefer none of us possess. For it is a powerful and revolutionary act to see spirit all around you, to choose your ancestors, and to know how you act in honoring them matters across dimensions your mind cannot access alone.

Those three eagles were not an accident, my Bandelier spirits whisper to me. I will never figure out all the secrets to time, but I’ll keep walking and talking, writing and sharing, and trying to discover new doorways that will, I know, offer more beautiful sights and inspired insights, like steps revealing themselves just in time on The Fool’s path.

ringing in the year: a letter to friends, known and unknown

January 1, 2018

the wide, cold Potomac

Happy 2018.  I hope you rang the new year the way you wished to, in the company of one if not more of the people whom you’d like to include in many more joyful experiences as this year unfolds and the northern hemisphere moves into longer, warmer days.

Brr.  The Potomac here is too briny to freeze outright, but what’s fascinating today is that where the water level shallows, the waves, whipped to whitecaps in the center, slow down in a mesmerizing way kinda like those slowed down frames at the end of Taxi Driver.  In trying to describe it in my journal, my mind hit on the word “gravid.”  I’ve never once used it, but upon looking it up (don’t you love a dictionary?), I realized my mind had pulled out from all the clutter exactly what I needed.  Thank god something in there keeps chugging along!

As the most horrible year on my personal scorecard, 2017 just couldn’t end without one last scuffle.  Toward the end of last week I apparently indulged in the borderline-felonious illusion that my father’s wife might want to engage with me on a level other than the platitudinal.  Thus I committed what was apparently a heinous infraction of some invisible rule book by replying to her e-mail with one carefully expressing my recognition & gratitude for her love and support of my father while also noting that my experience with him had been much different.  Apparently this infringed well past her emotional boundaries, and the two of them both issued nasty e-mails to me telling me, with words undoubtedly served up by their separate laptops’ thesauruses, that I was intrusive and hostile.  blah blah blah.  A nice corporate-retirement touch:  they cc’d each other.

One interesting thing arising from this was when I called my mom to talk about it and she divulged a little tidbit from the workup to their second divorce: apparently my father, in his various nasty stratagems to reduce his alimony payments, had tried to float the idea that I wasn’t his child.  Nice.

That’s what I love about my dad’s version of family:  he always wants to have it both ways.  And the world, with all the arbitrariness of its ways, seems willing to let him do just that.  After many decades of searching,  he’s found a wife whose pension & savings not only pay the bills but who believes as fervently in his fantasies about the world & his participation in it as he adheres to hers.  True love.  Sigh!

Anyway, their behavior isn’t particularly upsetting, although at this moment in my life what I would prefer are fewer confrontations and more allies.  However, we don’t get a choice, and I haven’t got space for allies who are INSANE.  What is upsetting, unsurprisingly, is how much it makes me feel my solitude.  So few to turn to and ask, “Is it me who’s crazy or them?”  That was one of the bright spots of my relationship with my sister, another creature suffering the collateral damage wounding of that familial battleground.

It’s my hunch, however, that, just as my writing has allowed my mind better access to vocabulary words, so the work I’ve done on myself (all by myself) has strengthened my discernment to identify what matters to me, what I can accept as my responsibility, and what I won’t.  Jesus, I do hope that this hypothesis turns out to be true.  It won’t solve all or maybe any of my bigger, worldly problems, but if I keep paring stuff down to what I truly need, the baggage will continue to take up less space.  A very important criteria for nomads.

Well, thanks for reading this and sending out good vibes.  I know you’re out there beating back the craziness you’re encountering in your own ways.  That matters.  A lot.

beyond miracles

November 13, 2017

Just a few hours since the Venus – Jupiter conjunction in early Scorpio.  Last night I went to bed not long after reading one astrologer’s take.  Although I’m Scorpio Rising, since the conjunction is occurring in my 12th house, I read the Sagittarius one.  Within his brief listings of possible manifestations, the astrologer used the word “miracle,” so I started joking about it with George the cat.

“Do you have a miracle in your back pocket?” I asked.

He started scratching.

“Well, that’s where your back pocket would be if you had one,” I conceded.  “Check and see if there’s a miracle there.  You know I share whatever good fortune I have with you.”

Being the sort of obsessive thinker that I am and knowing this alignment was coming up, I’d been wondering how it would present itself.  Additionally, I’ll admit, I’ve spent too much time gnashing my teeth that whatever good luck might sweeten my life, it wouldn’t be in the form of partnerships or money.  In my 12th house, it could be as quietly hidden as, say, not stabbing myself with scissors while walking with them.  Too often the words of an old song seems to apply: “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

As I fell into sleep, I thought about what I might point to in my past experience as a miracle.  Yellowstone seemed less like one and more like winning a ticket to a thrilling adventure.  The Indigo Night job, offered 9 months after the interview and 5 days after I’d decided to take in my kitten Bandit?  Yes, that felt like a miracle of sorts at the time.  But more accurately, it was more an answer to my prayers.

Prayers are funny things.  What we’re convinced we need to make us happy – love, money, forgiveness, attention – are what we’ve identified as what’s lacking.  So if we give ourselves love, respect, justice, etc., eventually, in some form, it will manifest.  Can we call that a miracle if like the little red hen we’ve cultivated it ourselves?

So maybe those aren’t miracles.  The miracle was Bandit and my seeing that, my refusal to give him up when it seemed the only logical thing to do since I had no income and my housing was ending.  The miracle was continuing to hope the park service had an adventure in store despite the misery of my first season.  The miracle was holding onto former lovers despite all the ways we’d misunderstood and hurt each other so that now when we need reassurance, we can draw from that deep well of love.  The miracle was allowing my father to help me last winter in spite of a lifetime spent in grief and anger over his cruel neglect.  The miracle is that there are still moments before the sun rises, no matter where I might be, where I believe I have something to offer and that there is a place where I belong.

In my dreams last night, I was absolved of the charges my park supervisor made and reinstated at the park.  As the day begins, it appears more like the kind of joke I was making with my cat.  The miracle is that I’m no longer there, can no longer be bullied or forced into silence.  What happens next will be the answer to my prayers.

sunrise over the Potomac

messages from the world of spirit

November 11, 2017

from this morning’s journal:

Strange dreams and more of them than I can recall.  The final one: I’m traveling with someone and we’re in some Scandinavian country.  My companion is there to visit friends.  The day we’re departing arrives and for the flight I choose the strangest outfit:  a bustier with garter straps (unused), a black down vest, and my grey and white pajama bottoms.  At one point, I wonder why I’ve dressed this way, then decide that since we’ re traveling, comfort is all that matters.

We’ve been staying with my companion’s friends, and we’re about to leave when I realize I never brought my passport.  I can see in my mind’s eye where it is still wedged in my organizer basket.  Now it will be at least a few days before I can leave.  While I’m waiting, I’m still at the home of my companion’s friends.  When something strange and complicated occurs very quickly, I am the only one in the room.  From what I can recall right now, one of the men of the family – husband? father of the wife? – comes into the room and collapses.  Before I can do anything to assist, a large object detaches itself from the ceiling (?) and falls, piercing his chest and killing him immediately.

Faced with the prospect of trying to explain this outlandish chain of events and then being accused with murder, I decide to leave, friendless, without a passport, not knowing the language or the land.

Now for how I interpreted this:

Fear of being accused of something one didn’t do doesn’t come naturally.  At first we believe in justice.  We think the truth will out because our innocence shines as brightly as the sun.  But then experiences teach us something else, something that doesn’t draw from within but is forced upon us from without.  People, hungry for restitution from lives twisted by wrongs rush to satisfy their desire to blame and to punish on others.

One’s own faith that justice will prevail begins to erode.  Everyone, one learns, has a point of view where they are the wronged person, and even if adjudicating the situation in front of them won’t erase the stain of wrongedness, they will take what small pleasure they can get.  The pleasure will be even sweeter if the accused “thought she was better than we were” (which could be translated as “she was different in some way we couldn’t measure,” ie, an outsider).

What I learn from this, I hope, is not to join in the blood fest of fear.  The pain I’ve endured as an outsider has been hard and beyond my capacity to describe.  Even my ex husband threw me to the wolves rather than negotiate his next wife’s insecurity over our lingering friendship and past dependency.  To justify his shameful behavior, mine had to be wrong.  In his construction, my hands had to be covered in blood; my heart must have harbored hate.

Yes, my heart has harbored hate.  I am human, with the full spectrum of all that’s implied with that condition.  But I have struggled, alone & unwitnessed, to address that particular kind of guilt.  And while there have been too many instances where I’ve failed to master my worse behavior, there have been many others where I have succeeded.  And most of all, I try, try, try to leave space for others to evolve.

“Forgive but not forget?”  Is that the answer?  Let wind and water disperse the resentment.  But we must testify.  We must say there is a better way of being in the world, a better way to understand ourselves and others.  If we don’t, how can we hope to survive with grace the horrible storms that most definitely lie ahead?  And how will we account for our lives at the end if our actions have not matched what we know to be true?

At the river’s edge

October 15, 2017

After becoming acquainted with the ravens out west, I find the eastern crows as tiny as grackles.  Still they’re courageously obstreperous.  Outsized by the bald eagle perched on the branches of the hickory outside my window, they still insist on its immediately withdrawal.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love the bald eagles.  I can’t believe that I can sit here at the dining room table and watch them wheel through the sky or hop across the lawn that stretches down to the bluff over the Potomac.  Wherever I am in the house, I can hear their cascading cries.  This domain of water and raptors is a kingdom I’ve never known.

The crows, on the other hand, have always been with us, like the poor as the adage goes.  Like their cousins the ravens, they are among the smartest animals.  But its their bravery that’s catching my attention these days.  Sure, they know there’s strength in numbers, so they noisily call in their confederates as they make their cries for eviction, but even before the first reinforcement arrives, I see one tiny crow hopping across the branches toward that massive raptor and wonder what he thinks the odds are.

Power comes in all shapes and sizes.  Most often the destructive power we perceive, the power that threatens to crush us, isn’t emanating from one person, place, or thing.  It could be the institution that person represents or a bogey man we’ve built up in our own mental or bodily memory banks.  Someone, or a host of somebodies, who treated us as insignificant in just the same way and once again we are as powerless as we felt during that first, formative encounter.  The story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby is one that reminds me of how I need to be careful about wrestling with demons I perceive when all they are are sticky messes dressed up in tattered clothes.

Not all power is bad.  The eagles need every ounce of their power to survive.  So do people.  It’s when power is wielded without compassion or for the charge of watching someone vulnerable squirm that it’s reprehensible.  My former landlady wrote out an imagined dialogue as a cue card to help choreograph the event when she decided to end our rental arrangement.  It was like a bad scene spoken by a James Bond villain.  She imagined me whimpering at the news that in 2 weeks time I and my cat would have no where to live:  “Where will I go?” I was supposed to say.  Her response to my caterwauling confusion:  “It would have been wise to have had a plan B before you chose to defy the landlady.”

I’ll never be exactly sure what kind of deranged thinking was involved in her scenario, but it’s become clear over the past 3 weeks that it partakes in a degree of paranoia & bullying that’s rampant in the National Park Service.  I realize that in some ways I’ve participated in dressing up the bogeyman.  My parents’ early dismissal of my capabilities left me searching for validation through my job performance, awaiting recognition through the authority invested in a supervisor who may have received his or her position not through merit but through simple elimination of more worthy candidates.  Once I take away the hat and coat and refuse to wrestle with a ball of tar, however, I can only get so dirty.  I will preserve my power, persevere, and one day achieve my own victories.

At this moment in my life, I guess the crow-bald eagle tussle seems refreshingly free of the destructive properties of human fear.  I can wonder at a spectacle that has played out along these shores long before the first humans arrived and will continue long after I am gone.  Like so much in the natural world, it gives me hope that I will find what’s true and essential in myself and find others who have done the same work and have their own gifts to offer.  On a grey Sunday morning in mid-October, looking north across one of the world’s great rivers, it’s what comforts.