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Why I Write

New York writer and slam poet, Maggie Estep died yesterday. I have barely read or listened to her work, but her death makes me sad. Maybe it’s because she represented everything I think of myself as not: outspoken, impulsive, creative. Or maybe it is because we were nearly the same age, just turning into our fifties. Like thousands of others, I am sure, I’ve been reading over her past blog entries and I was totally taken back when I read this: “I don’t’ actually LIKE writing.  It’s HORRIBLE.”

What? I’ve never heard a writer confess that they hate writing. I’m totally intrigued.  “Say more. What is it that you hate, and is it similar to what I hate?” Like the hours and hours that go into thinking about writing, with nothing to show for it? Or, the berating voices that come into my head just at the moment I type the first letter? The ones that say, “You’re stupid”. “You have nothing original to say”. “Why not just go and give the dog a bath instead of wasting your time sitting in front of a blank computer screen?”  Why not admit that much of the time writing is just fucking torture? Why not confess the truth that I’d much rather be out with my chainsaw, clearing the forest?

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Ranch Creek after the Rain (photo by Wayne Olts)

I have to add a disclaimer here. I am not well versed in the craft of writing. I know very little about proper grammar. I can’t spell for shit. I don’t know anything about form or style. I never took a writing class or participated in a workshop. In high school, none of my teachers, that I can recall, exposed me to the poets: To Shakespeare, Keats, or Dickenson, or walked me through the door of language and into the magical world where anything is possible.

Avalon School was a school of survival. I learned how to stay out of trouble, which may, or may not, have worked to my benefit. I was a straight “A” student in High School, but when I went to college I received a “D” on my first paper, written for an English for dummies class that I had to take due to low SAT scores. And I think the professor was being nice. I should have received an “F”. Nevertheless, I was devastated and immediately thrust into suicidal depression that lasted for most of my freshman year.

So why write?

Many writers give their reasons for writing. Like Maggie Estep, they say they write because the alternative is death. That they have to write in order to make sense of an otherwise very confusing and often disturbing world. I am not so sure this is true for me. I wouldn’t die if I didn’t write, but I would be difficult to live with.  Or should I say, more difficult to live with than I am now?

In truth, I write because I am in love with the world. I write because there is so much beauty around me – beauty that I take in with my senses – that if I don’t give some of it back, I will fill up and explode (I guess this is kind of like death). Smell is particularly crazy making. Wet grass, sage, pine, and the musty scent of water in the desert make me want to jump out of my skin.   Sometimes I eat dirt because it smells so good. In all seriousness, I ask, “How does one go about expressing such things?”  Is it “balmy”, “aromatic”, “fragrant”, “ambrosial”? Is it like the irresistible, unexplainable, pull of pheromones of my husband’s salty skin after a day of hard physical work?

When I was about fifteen, my father took me to the Grand Canyon. It was summer and a big seasonal monsoon had just passed through. The sky was electric and the clouds moved quickly over the canyon, casting silver shreds of light along the edges of the sandstone stratum. I could barely contain myself. I wanted to jump into the canyon. It took willpower to pull myself away from the edge, away from danger, away from death.

This is why I write. So, after all, I guess it is about life.

So pardon me, dear reader, if I don’t do it well. Please forgive me for not adhering to the rules of the trade. For indulging myself. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope that we can continue to share pieces of our stories. That together we can taste the magic. That we can be with those, like Maggie Estep, who have stood on the edge, and that we can keep each other from jumping over. That we can live as long as we possibly can.

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve written in this blog, so rather than try and quickly whip something up, I thought I’d post a couple of letters I initially wrote for personal friends about my recent solo trek on the John Muir Trail. I received such encouraging responses from these letters, I thought they might merit sharing with a wider audience. In any case, it feels really good to post them here as a reminder to myself of just how much this hike shifted the hard machinery of my perspective. Things really look different coming off the trail. More precious, slower, indifferent to the chatter of newsreels and political gossip. The first letter was written before the hike, and the second was written shortly after the hike, but both were inspired by the hike and thus, the title, “Letters from the Trail”. Thanks for reading.

Nevada Falls, Yosemite

Nevada Falls, Yosemite

Letter #1, Sent July 25th, 2013

Dear beloved friends,

I have known, for some years now, that when I turned 50, I would hike the entire length of the John Muir Trail. I would make the trip alone, without the distraction of company and with plenty of time to walk at a pilgrim’s pace.  Now, almost a year has passed since I turned 50 and so the time has come. Over the last few months, and within very small pockets of free time, I have been busying myself with trips to REI, staying up late ordering supplies online, putting together a multitude of individualized zip-locked baggies of light weight (and hopefully, somewhat satisfying) meals, and finally packing and addressing boxes to send to my four resupply locations: Tuolumne Meadows, Reds Meadows, John Muir Trail Ranch, and Onion Valley.

McClure Meadows

I know, once I actually get on the trail, I will become abysmally lonely, especially on those sharp, cold nights when there is nothing but darkness between me and the infinite sky. But the mornings, I expect, will bring the promise of a new day. The nascent warmth of the early sun, the expectation of what’s around the bend, and those first steps on the trail are some of my favorite sensations. And, within days, a routine will be established and the loneliness will dissolve into an accepted quietness.  This is what I experienced during a weeklong, solo trip I made about five years ago from South Lake to North Lake. But, I’ve never been on the trail for a solid 28 days and, Lord knows, all my expectations might be dust in the wind.  The only thing that is certain about walking the trail is that the cadence of each slow step, boot touching earth, is one of the most comforting sounds I know.

Day 19, Hidden Camping Spot, Upper Palisades Lake

And, as I step into my sixth decade, I’m leaving a lot behind. I am reminded of the Manly Party of 1849-50 as they made their formidable crossing through Death Valley; furniture, family heirlooms, and precious belongings scattered in the hot sand in their attempt to fulfill their dream of a better life. I know there is really no comparison between me and these outrageously bold emigrants, but in lightening my load, so that I can consciously and with the least possible resistance enter into the next phase of my life, I have also left behind some precious belongings. Already, I have left my job and status as a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. This was a job I mostly enjoyed and did well at, but felt ready to let go of. Secondly, I’ve left my home in Southern California to create a new life with Joe, the love of my life, in the forested foothills of the northern Sierra. Our new home is a beautiful place, shared by a community of generous and loving people and for this I am utterly grateful. So, at first, I didn’t expect these changes to be all that difficult, but without much warning, I’ve been thrust into a threshold of confusion. I am not quite sure anymore of who I am or what I’m expected to do. How do I make money? How do I identify myself in a new place and with new people who don’t share my history? What are my next steps?

Day 16, Evolution Lake

In addition to all this, as I walk the trail it is very likely that our family property on Catalina Island will go into escrow. This property, as old and rickety

Abe's Liquor Store

Abe’s Liquor Store

as it is, has been the one constant throughout my life.  Whether I was living in Australia, Mexico, or Los Angeles, I always knew I could return to the island for friendship, familiarity, and support. Of course, selling our property won’t prevent me form visiting the island (ugh, but even the word “visiting” implies being an outsider)  but the building – referred to by the locals as the “Perluss Building” — is where I grew up, where my dad grew up, and where my bootlegging grandfather began his legitimate liquor business back in 1933 (and, coincidently, acquired the first liquor license ever issued in the state of California) .

Precious belongings scattered in the sand.

I guess I’m telling you all this just to make the point that it’s been a year of letting go, full of grief and confusion mixed with occasional twangs of excitement.  I really can’t say for sure that I did the right thing quitting my job at CSULA, or if it’s wise to let go of the Catlaina property. I’ve made some mistakes in my life so I’m certainly not immune to making more. I am also having difficulty imagining what my future might look like. None of the scenarios that run through my mind feel totally right to me, so I’m kind of stuck here in the middle of the road.

Day 18, Evolution Basin

Talking with Joseph and Meredith the other night over dinner we got onto the topic of rites of passage. It was reassuring to hear Meredith speak of the importance of the threshold time – the in-between – of a rite of passage. She stressed the value of not rushing through the threshold, but allowing oneself to remain in this rich, but uncomfortable, state of not knowing. That there are gifts to be garnered in this place and if we rush through too quickly, they will surely be overlooked. Or, how I see it, the threshold is where the treasured unconscious content is able to manifest, slowly bringing itself to consciousness.  If we opt for answers too quickly, we risk defaulting into the outworn and constricting patterns that have governed our lives. Of course, I know all this in my head, but it’s easy to miss this simple truth when actually in the soup of it. All to say, I reckon I really am in the threshold, and so I’m supposed to be confused and disoriented (“Yay”, I guess). Another reason I am so glad to be hiking the JMT.  When all else is a blur, walking is one sure thing I can do, and right now I feel like I could walk for forever. Walking eases my fear and calms my mind.  The past and the future collapse into a pinpoint when everything depends on the ability to place one foot in front of the other.

Day 21, Wood's Creek Suspension Bridge

The plan is to begin my hike at Happy Isle Trail Head in Yosemite Valley and finish, 211 miles later, at Mt. Whitney. Although, I don’t normally divulge this much of myself, especially in an email, it feels important to share with you my intent and basic itinerary because I want to regard this hike as an important ceremony and thus, I value your support and prayers.  You have been an integral part of my life.  I do have layover days in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, Red’s Meadow in Mammoth, and near Onion Valley at Kersarge Pass. If you wish to drop by at any of these spots, you’d be very welcomed!

Muir Hut

Below is my itinerary. Of course, these dates may change depending on my physical needs and ability to maintain mileage. My guess is that I’ll actually walk a little faster than planned and will finish on August 24th rather than the 25th. But, I wanted to give myself plenty of time to take it slow and not rush through this precious opportunity.

Most of all, I want to say how grateful I am to my family and friends for supporting me so that I can take the time to make this trip. This is especially true for Joe who is making the biggest sacrifice of all, considering that I’ve been away from home so much already.

With love to all of you. My quivering heart is full.

July 28th – begin at Happy Isle in Yosemite

July 29th – camp at Sunrise Creek outside Yosemite Valley

July 30th & July 31st — Tuolumne Meadows.

August 1st – Say goodbye to Joe (who will have hiked the first three days with me) and head up toward Lyell Canyon. Spend the night at Lyell Canyon Forks basecamp.

August 2nd – Thousand Island Lakes.

August 3rd – Trinity Lakes

August 4th and 5th – Red’s Meadow in Mammoth (will spend the night of 5th at Red’s Meadow or in town and pick up resupply).

August 6th – Duck Pass

August 7th – Cascade Valley Trail

August 8th – Lake Edison Trail

August 9th – Marie Lakes

August 10th and 11th – Muir Trail Ranch

August 12th – Evolution Creek/McClure Meadows

August 13th – Saphire Lakes

August 14th – LeConte Canyon

August 15th – Dear Meadow

August 16th – Upper Basin

August 17th – Twin Lakes

August 18th – Rae Lakes

August 19th – 20th  – Kersarge Lakes (meet Joe and Wayne for Resupply)

August 21st – Bull Frog Lake

August 22nd — Tyndall Creek

August 23rd – Crabtree Junction

August 24th – Trail Camp

August 25th- Whitney Portal

Betsy

Day 18, Muir Hut on Muir Pass

Letter #2, Sent on September 29th, 2013

Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility,” – Gary Snyder

To my dear friends,

It has now been one month since I’ve completed the John Muir Trail. One month since I stood on top of Mt. Whitney, at 14505’, feeling jubilant and crazed with life, set loose like that cold morning wind that tossed my hair and whipped my face. It has been one month now, since descending the highest peak in the lower 48, I walked, finally, through the Whitney Portal and put down my pack for good (or, at least until next time). After hiking 17 miles on that final day, I was altered and in a daze, but when I saw Joe walking up the trail to greet me, I knew I had made it home.  And, yes, of course, even in the midst of all the laughter and kisses there was, and continues to be, an underlying thread of grief of having to leave the mountains behind.  Truthfully, I could have easily turned around and gone out for another month…or two. The temptation of the never-return.

Day 20, Upper Basin 2

I loved it. I loved it all. In retrospect, I can even appreciate that with all the snags and difficulties, the nasty blisters, and the discombobulating moments of getting lost and loosing things, it was a true ceremony. The hard times and the pain were perfectly matched by wonder and beauty: The elegant alpine flowers and crystal clear emerald-blue-green lakes, the smooth skin of the glaciated mountains, the electric alpine glow, and the almost frightening bright stars.

Day 22, Fin DomeAs I walked along the trail, even when chatting with other hikers, I often thought to myself, “Treat this as if it were a dream”. And it was.

As you may remember from the letter I sent out back in July, right before I began the hike I was in an uncomfortable state of transition. An in-between state of grieving what I had left behind without really knowing what I was moving toward. My intent for this hike was to honor this threshold space that could somehow hold all the scattered pieces within me, and to allow the unknown to make its way into the known in its own right time. Simply put, my intent was to walk to my heart’s content without the pressure of having to articulate myself or come to any conclusions.

Nevertheless, I didn’t expect that after 28 days on the trail, I wouldn’t return with any conclusions at all. I thought that I’d come back with something to show for my time out there. And people have been asking the god-awful question, “Did you find what you were looking for?”  How could I possibly find what I’m looking for when I don’t know what I’m looking for? No. There were no revelations, no earth shattering insights, and certainly no solid decisions about my future.

Day 21, Lunch in Upper Basin

Rather, what I found myself mostly occupied with, after days and days of walking, was not so much my future plans but the world around me. My inner world started to turn outward. I even felt a little guilty about it sometimes; counting the petals on a flower when I should have been busy solving my personal problems or making plans. But, eventually it became much more satisfying (and a lot more interesting) to focus on the little orchids by the stream than to contemplate the purpose of my life. And, I suppose that the flowers do reflect a greater meaning in their own concrete, yet mysterious way, but the meaning can’t be enforced.

The simplicity of living out of a backpack, putting up a tent, packing and cleaning up camp is so refreshingly true to our human nature! As I bathed myself in the streams and rivers, I noticed the birds were doing the same. As I prepared my breakfast, I watched the birds collecting seeds from the nearby pines. A reminder that us humans are really no different from other life forms. Something slowed down in me so I could take in more of this and, for reasons I can’t fully explain, this newly felt awareness has lent itself to joy. I’m not saying that the entire trek was all fun. There were plenty of times when I felt angry or depressed, self-obsessed, or totally discouraged by the blisters on my feet or the cold nights when I just couldn’t get warm enough to sleep.  But it is no mystery, really, that such physicality and immersion in the concrete world of things takes on a spiritual dimension (especially for intuitive types, like me, who can be so oblivious to the sensual realm). Perhaps, this is what Jung is referring to when he writes, “nature is not matter only, she is also spirit”. I think I get it now, even if just a little, that this concept of Earth-Spirit is not something that can be rationally understood. It has to be felt.

Day 23, Joe and Wayne, Kersarge Lakes

Best of all, I finished the hike with a tremendous gift, which is knowing just how much I am loved. After all the days on the trail, and all the bazillion thoughts, songs, and images that played over and over in my mind, the punch line turned out to be love. This became clear to me on day 23 when Joe, along with our dear friend Wayne, made the tremendous effort to climb the 11,760’ Kearsarge Pass to bring me a resupply that would take me through my final five days. We had planned beforehand that we would meet on August 19th at the Kearsarge Lakes trailhead, but after not having any communication for nearly three weeks it seemed unlikely that our timing would match. Furthermore, the weather was stormy with lightening and thunder, offering a very small window of opportunity for anyone to get over the pass. But, as if by a miracle – and it really felt like a miracle – we met each other at the designated crossroads within thirty minutes of each other! My heart nearly leapt out of my chest when I saw those two ex-hippie looking characters, with way too large packs, gingerly walking down the very steep slope of the pass. And when they finally appeared in full form, exhausted but smiling, they pulled out gifts – a real turkey sandwich, a can of coconut water, two fresh apples, and … drum roll … a bottle of red wine! We had a feast. A love feast. And, we were awestruck. As with any true ceremony, we reached beyond the veil of our humanness and touched upon the realm of the gods.

Day 24, Alpine Glow, Kersarge Lakes

I know it sounds a bit cliché to say that it’s all about love, but even Carl Jung reminds us that there can be no meaning, no apperception of life’s great mystery, nor even the possibility of individuation without love’s intervention. Actually, it’s a pretty radical idea for our time.

Mt. Whitney

Mt. Whitney

“Love ‘bears all things’ and ‘endures all things’ (1 Cor. 13: 7 ). These words say all there is to be said; nothing can be added to them. For we are in the deepest sense the victims and the instruments of cosmogonic ‘love.’ I put the word in quotation marks to indicate that I do not use it in its connotations of desiring, preferring, favoring, wishing, and similar feelings, but as something superior to the individual, a unified and undivided whole” (MDR, 353-4).

As a victim of love, I wish to express my love and gratitude to all of you. Thank you for holding me in your thoughts, for taking the time to send your encouraging words, and for opening your heart to me so willingly. And I wish to express a special appreciation for Joe, who has a capacity for love that continues to shake me up and startle me out of my usual slumbering state. May I never again frown in the face of love.

Betsy

Betsy on top of Whitney

On top of Mt. Whitney

We Are the Land

I place my hands on the ice and hold them there as long as I can tolerate the bitter cold.  It’s old ice – perhaps hundreds of thousands of years – and I am awakened and awed by natural forces that extend far beyond my comprehension. There is something archetypal about a glacier. How else could we explain the allure of its multi-dimensional, crystal blue hue; especially when it beckons us to come closer, to touch it, when all signs read “danger”?  But I am equally stunned by the markers indicating the distance and speed of its retreat.  At its current rate of withdrawal, in fifteen years, this glacier may be completely gone. It’s odd to think that I may outlive it. Ironically, I came to Alaska to celebrate my 50th birthday; to put into perspective fifty years of life against that which, at one time, seemed like eternity.

“We are the land” writes the Native American writer, Paula Gunn Allen. “Illness is a result of separation from the ancient unity of person, ceremony, and land, and healing is a result of recognition of this unity”.

Over the years, I have tried my best to understand the truth of what Gunn Allen is saying. If the glaciers are melting at such a profound rate, are we not also losing something of ourselves? But, how can I, a white, Eurocentric, and displaced person, possibly grasp this notion? James Hillman says I can’t.  Speaking of us European descendents, he says our eyeballs and ears were made in Europe and that we will forever see and hear through European eyes and ears. And, in any case, he asks, “Doesn’t it take centuries for a settler to hear the earth of a place, to become soil-soaked?”

Maybe so, but there is one ingredient that we all hold in common, whether European, Middle-Eastern, Asian, or Native American, that Hillman forgets to mention, and that is the spontaneous feeling response that comes from listening to another’s story. Feeling. That non-rational, ego suspending, wildly uncontrollable, awful, and beautiful feeling. Feeling dissolves all dualities. It reconnects us to our bodies, to each other, and to the land. When the story is told and heard, feeling is present.

And here, I turn back to Gunn Allen when she writes, “Perhaps we can best characterize this relation by saying that the stories are the communication device of the land and the people. Through the stories, the ceremony, the gap between isolate human being and lonely landscape is closed”.

How many of us have come to the ceremony, broken and cut off, only to go out onto the land and return with a story? Stories of the shadowy vales of life, the ecstatic mountaintops, and the impassible rivers?  Of long dark nights and early morning sunrises? Stories of mysterious desert mirages, visions, and coyote sightings? The story is the ceremony that closes the gap through feeling.

And this is why I tell you my story of melting glaciers. Perhaps my heart is melting, too. The glacier reminds me that I will also die, as will those I love, and there is immense sadness in recognizing this loss. But, when the heart melts there is no room for opposition, or even rational judgments. All fluids leak out and flow into the body, through the feet, onto the land, and into each other. And who knows? Maybe these tears of mine will return someday as snow to form later into ice. After all, we are the land.

I’m very excited that Ecopsychology Journal is featuring my article, “Following the Raven” by offering two weeks free access. Please check it out!

 

 

L.A., My Friend.

“Matter in the wrong place is dirt. People got dirty through too much civilization”. – C.G. Jung

“This identity and my heroic idealism had to be abandoned, for there are higher things than the ego’s will, and to these one must bow”. – C.G. Jung.

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The academic year at CSULA is about to begin and I won’t be going back. I won’t be sitting in the auditorium listening to the President give his opening week speech. I won’t be submitting my syllabi for the fall quarter. I won’t be rushing late into a faculty meeting. I’ve finally severed myself from an eleven year, full-time (and three years adjunct) position as a professor at the university.

I’ve been trying to get out of Los Angeles for the last 20+ years. I’m not a “city person” and the noise and chaos of L.A. has wreaked havoc on my nervous system. I hate L.A. I hate the noise, the traffic, and the smog. I hate the never ending intensity. I grew up in a small town of 1500 people where you didn’t need a car to get to the grocery store, post office, or school. In Avalon, we never locked our doors or worried about being mugged at night. At my core, I’m a simple, small town girl. The city is just not in my bones.

But, oddly, now that I am finally leaving, I feel conflicted. Do I really want to leave L.A.? Maybe I’m not just a simple, small town girl after all. Rather, I am also a mature woman, full of complexity, laden with conflicts, and one who carries the full weight of knowing that, indeed, she has a shadow.

Los Angeles is part of my shadow and I think I might miss it.

Of course, one cannot rightly consign personal shadow to a place. The place is not to blame. But something beyond my awareness has kept me in Los Angeles for all these years and it is worth considering how this might reflect my shadow.

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As a self designated, “nature person”, I always feel like an unwanted alien when in big cities. Yet, as a nature person, the city has given me a much needed edge. You’d think that living in the wilderness, like I often do, would make me dirty. But, in truth, I have gotten my dirtiest in Los Angeles. The city makes me feel filthy alright; it makes me anxious, angry, impatient, and downright mean. It takes this sweet nature person persona and turns her into a bitch. The city highlights a shadow aspect of myself that I’d rather not see, but so desperately need.

To amplify the dichotomy between beautiful and pristine nature and the ugly and tarnished city is to further the split within ourselves between what we consider “acceptable” and “despised”, or rather, between persona and shadow. But, as Jung reminds us, everything is nature, and as much as I hate to admit it, this includes even those forsaken strip malls I love to hate. Where else did this shit come from if not from out of the ground and formed from our own distorted connection with the unconscious psyche?

“So far as we can see, the collective unconscious is identical with Nature to the extent that Nature herself, including matter, is unknown to us”, writes Jung (LT, II, p. 540).

And, following Jung’s thinking, everything unknown to us is “shadow”.

So, I am beginning a new phase of life. One which does not include Los Angeles and all its glorious dark shadow.  I will have more time and space to focus on my wilderness work with the School of Lost Borders and to further pursue my interest in ecopsychology. In other words, I will have more time to be “myself”. Hallelujah!

But truth is, I was myself at CSULA and in Los Angeles. Perhaps even more myself in that dark kind of paradoxical way of the shadow.

(I am still not going back)

I love my work as a wilderness guide. I love witnessing the power of nature in people’s lives. I love the story-telling and mirroring that brings to light the beauty of our own natures – our human natures – as mirrored by the surrounding trees, birds, sky, and sage.

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Currently, I am hosting a month-long training in wilderness rites of passage with the School of Lost Borders. Today, eleven brave souls will return from the Inyo Mountains where they underwent a vision fast, which includes four days and nights of solitude and exposure in a remote wilderness place. I am eager to see their shining faces and euphoric expressions as they return from the threshold.

Yet, this I know…

When a group of people gather for any length of time, no matter what the setting, they eventually get on each other’s nerves. They get anxious, angry, impatient, and sometimes downright mean. In other words, they get dirty.

And with this, the real work begins. If we, as a group, can hold all this in the spirit of ceremony with love and without rejecting any of it, true transformation happens. The shadow finds a home and all our gritty complexes finally have room to move about freely without harm.  We become more true to our natures. We become more fully human.

We can’t escape the city, but we can acknowledge that it is a very real and important part of our collective psyche.

Thank you, Los Angeles, for having been such an ally.

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Ceremony Becomes Us

I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

The stones are placed in a circle. All are Catalina stones and I recognize the smooth green soapstone, the enduring white of the quartz, and my favorite, the red and black garnet. It is important that the stones are here, placed alongside the cornmeal, for they represent a part of me. They are a part of me. These stones, like the land from which they came, hold four generations of memories, stories, and dreams. For me this includes memories of long hikes on the wild backside, wet wintery days and Levis covered with mud. They stir dreams of waking to the sunrise on empty beaches with no tent, pad, or pillow; just the soft, warm sand and a thin sleeping bag to ease the evening chill. And many memories of my father and his small Cessna, gliding through cumulous cloud caves with the blue, sun sparkled ocean below. As I look down at the stones, memories flood me – too many memories –and so I am grateful that the stones can hold them in place.

But we are in the western foothills of the Sierra, someplace near Grass Valley, and not on Catalina Island. This is a landscape that is not mine but is slowly reaching in and weaving itself around my arteries, like a vine working its way up the rain gutters of a new building. This is the place we have chosen to wed. My story is being woven into his and his into mine. This place, where we stand, also holds memories of four generations, of life-long friends, many loves and many losses, cherished trees that have fallen during heavy winter storms and new promising sprouts that show up in spring. The stories are palpable here. They live in this land.

Ceremony

What is this thing that we call “ceremony”? How could this simple act bind two very separate lives, collective memories, and entire histories?  We created this ceremony, we planned it, but once it got started everyone present knew that it took on a life of its own.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve been creating and sitting in ceremony as part of my involvement with the School of Lost Borders. We have a saying: “Trust the ceremony”, which essentially means that we can depend on that which is much greater than ourselves – greater than our individual selves – to bring about the changes, the bonds, and new openings that we seek. It is true. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Even when it all feels so mundane, or when personalities are out of sync, or the weather is troublesome, the ceremony always pulls through.

Still, what is ceremony?

I’m not talking about ceremony as verbatim ritual. Many of the so-called ceremonies I have attended throughout my life have been nothing more than a collection of repetitious acts, and as meaningful as reciting the phone book. But when people come together with a clear intention, complete presence, and open hearts, something remarkable occurs.  A space is created – a threshold – where old perceptions are suspended, making room for the unexpected new.

Although I am not Native American, nor make any claim that we non-natives should practice Native American ceremonies, I find Laguna descendent, Paula Gunn Allen’s description of ceremony to be useful:

“The purpose of a ceremony is to integrate: to fuse the individual with his or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other kingdoms, and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond this one. A raising or expansion of individual consciousness naturally accompanies this process. The person sheds the isolated, individual personality and is restored to conscious harmony with the universe”. – The Sacred Hoop.

Ceremony marries all the disconnected pieces and unites them. Thus, there are no separations in ceremony, no rigid categorizations of superior and lesser, no hierarchy between people, or between humans and the rest of creation. In a world that has been compartmentalized by the compulsive need to exert power and control, ceremony is that which brings all things, human and non-human, back together in a web of inter-relatedness. In a word, ceremony brings about wholeness.

And, wholeness is not to be confused with monotheism. Wholeness does not support “there is one truth, the only truth” absolutist thinking. Rather, wholeness suggests continuity and belonging. As Gunn Allen implies, wholeness means to be fused with our community, with our environments, and with the worlds beyond our own (notice that she uses “worlds” in the plural). When these many layers of existence are aligned there are no discarded pieces – whether the pieces are perceived to exist inside or outside of our skin – and each piece provides meaning in relation to the others. When there is a drought, some may say, it is because we are not treating the land with respect. Or perhaps, we are not in right relationship with our neighbors or with ourselves. As Jung mentions in his retelling of the rain maker story, maybe we are not in Tao. Whichever tradition one functions within – modern, tribal, Eastern or Western – disease is not just an individual problem. It is relational on every level.

And ceremony is the only cure I know for the disease of separation.

On my wedding day, the many parts were present, including those parts of myself that I’ve despised and denied. They emerged like furious demons from the underworld. The self-doubts and insecurities, all wrapped up in my fear that I am incapable of giving and receiving the love that is now being presented. Who am I to partake in such a gift? But the ceremony made space for it all, demons included. Ceremony widened the circle so that all the elements could move around and breath, stretch their legs and loosen their grips. What was once felt as fear turned into open invitation. Although I don’t quite understand it, something shifted and the pieces fell into place with a soft, but distinct, snap. Not that I’m no longer tormented by my own complexes and fears, but I now know they are no longer just mine to contend with. They belong to the circle. As Rumi writes in his poem, The Guest House,

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

It is no wonder that when in ceremony, people are more emotional, more expressive, more creative, and more likely to show their wild and unruly selves.  In a culture of intolerance, these are the parts that are most often left out, pushed down, and exiled. In the spirit of ceremony nothing is out of place. And that, which was once harmful and self-destructive turns belly up and morphs into a great gift – a new delight, as Rumi calls it.

For native peoples, ceremony is a co-creative act writes Paula Gunn Allen, “Christians believe that God is separate from humanity and does as he wishes without the creative assistance of any of his creatures, while the non-Christian tribal person assumes a place in creation that is dynamic, creative, and responsive”. Thus, ceremony is not stagnate, nor bound by a fixed set of meaningless rules. It is creative; and it is creation.  No longer separate from the sun, moon, stars, trees, animals, and stones, we become participants in creation. Without ceremony, it is feasible to think that the world may just come to an end.

Yet, there is one constant in ceremony, at least that I know of, which is love. Not gushy, romantic love (yet, there is room for that too), but the love that extends us beyond ourselves. Even when it feels impossible to love oneself or the other, it is easy to love the ceremony. And that love reaches out, like the branches of a tree and wraps itself around the circle. Through the love of ceremony, we are able to love even ourselves.

And so I say the words, “I do”. They are not just ghost words floating around in a non-material realm. These words are the act itself. “I do”. It is so.  These lives, these worlds, are brought together though ceremony; though love.

*This piece is dedicated to Wayne Olts and Joseph Lazenka and to those from Lost Borders and “The Ranch” who helped to make our wedding ceremony so meaningful and real. And, of course, to my man, Joe, whose love cracked me open in ways I never knew possible, and let the sun come streaming in.

(photos by Gina Jensen  and Joseph Lazenka)

Lately, I’ve been contemplating wholeness. I know that wholeness is something to be desired, but what is wholeness, really? Wholeness is one of those abstract words we carelessly toss around – similar to ego or self – but when asked, it is difficult to come up with a clear definition. When I Googled the question “What is wholeness?” this is the first thing I found:

“Wholeness is a concept that has many meanings in our culture. It is spoken of by New Age gurus, preached from the pulpit, and bandied about by pop psychologists. Yet none of these can give you a straightforward answer as to what wholeness really is”.

Perhaps, it is easier to describe wholeness by what it is not – via negativa – for I can easily identify the moments in my life when I have felt anything but whole; times when I felt alienated from others, periods of self-doubt and humiliation, and those many instances when I wasn’t understood or when my feelings were denied or devalued. It is times like these that my body and mind fall out of sync, scouring against each other like two opposing sides of a fault-line.

We do know from trauma studies that dissociation, or psychic splitting, takes place when an unbearable event such as child abuse or a natural disaster occurs in the life of an individual or community. Dissociation is a psychological maneuver that fragments the psyche into various compartments where the painful material can remain safely tucked away, enabling one to continue living without having to bear the full weight of the trauma. Thus, dissociation is a helpful survival mechanism, but not without great sacrifice. Whereas a traumatized person may be able to function in the external world of work, friends, and family, the inner world may be beset with a host of tormenting symptoms which cramp down on their ability to express themselves and move comfortably through the world. If they were Elk or Caribou, it would be like having fences erected around their migratory paths.

Unfortunately, too many of us know the impact of trauma in one form or another. Yet, within mainstream psychology, little attention is given to the pervasive trauma of global warming, the loss of habitat, or the destruction of wild places. And yet, the wounding impact of these events is palpable to anyone who has ever had connection to place. Each time I travel to my mom’s house in the Coachella Valley, for instance, I become disoriented, uncomfortably altered, and despairing as I watch more and more of my favorite desert places swallowed up by Home Depots, golf courses, and mobile home parks. And what makes this worse is that very few people understand or recognize these feelings. My guess is that this is due to the fact that environmental devastation is so all-encompassing and out of control that it is just too disturbing to give it words. How can I possibly ever be whole when the places I love are disappearing? My best memories live in these places. Where will my memories go when these places are gone?

And, of course, this profound loss is nothing new for those who have lived here long before the era of Manifest Destiny when rapid expansionism buried the ancient teachings and storylines under the rubbish of ignorance and greed. I can only trust that if we pay attention long enough and allow ourselves to listen intensely; we’ll discern the stories that still live deep in the belly of the earth, waiting in dark silence…

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
[he said]
Here, put your hand on it
See, it is moving.
There is life here
for the people.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Although my ancestors are not native to this continent, I feel a responsibility to live as if I am, and to walk lightly so as to not harm the old stories that live in the land. And eventually, as I continue to walk, my own memories of trauma and loss find refuge in the stones, washes, and trees and a new story begins to take form. Something instinctively within me wants to continue the migration toward wholeness and all the living pieces are slowly making their way across the land. Memories gathering into a story. By our stories we are healed.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

And now it occurs to me that wholeness is no different than wildness and wildness is the ability to move freely through this world. In the past, I imagined wholeness to be like a hardboiled egg in which all things are held together tightly in place, but now I understand wholeness as that which is boundless and unrestrained, yet orderly within its own natural system. A plant that is wild is self-propagating, free to flourish according to its own unique endowments. An animal that is wild freely moves according to its own internal patterns. And, a human who is wild tells their story without fear or intimidation.

Speaking of wholeness in this way, Gary Snyder writes,

Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order….To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive” (The Practice of the Wild, p. 12).

It is thus no mystery why the work we do at The School of Lost Borders is so healing. Not healing in a fix it kind of way, but in an expanding, opening way. It is so simple. People gather together, go out alone onto the land, create ceremony, and then come back to the group with a story. It is healing because it reconnects us with our own wild system, knocking down fences, breaking apart dams, removing the barriers of shame and silence. This is our Practice of the Wild. This is our Practice of Wholeness. 

The only cure
I know
Is a good ceremony
That’s what she said

–          Leslie Marmon Silko


The moon woke me. I was sleeping soundly in a remote wash tucked up a canyon in Death Valley, but when the moon rose to its zenith, full and fiery; I could no longer remain in my sleeping bag. I was compelled to rise and walk.  Actually, I had planned to take a night walk anyway, so I was relieved when the moon pulled me out of my sleep rather than me having to force myself awake. The rain had finally stopped and the icy wind had calmed itself to a breeze, so this was as good a time as any.

This was the third night of a four day vision fast. By this point, without the distractions of food and all the clutter that fills my life, time had really slowed down to a tortoises’ pace. Although I was wet, cold and hungry, it felt good to sink into the natural tempo of the desert. It is a state of being that my body knows intimately. This simple act of sleeping on the ground and rising to the light of the moon reminds me of my evolutionary origins, which at times can feel as comforting as the warm breath of a lover. And yet, it is an aspect of myself that I can so easily belittle as sluggish, primitive, and unconscious.

So, my intention for this fast was to find a new connection to the moon and to a consciousness that needn’t rely on such bright clarity; one that could withstand the ambiguities of nature, love, and creativity.  True or not, I consider myself a highly rational person having spent the last ten years of my life in institutional academia. I am also dependable, responsible, and even tempered; all qualities that I admire. But lately, this rational side has left me feeling depleted and sterile, and frankly, resentful toward life.  More than once, I actually caught myself fantasizing about personal catastrophes in the hopes of shaking things up a bit and to provide myself with an excuse to be a little crazy (which makes me speculate that maybe our culture’s current fascination with apocalyptic imagery is actually a grotesque expression for a desire to connect with the “crazy” unconscious). There has got to be a better way. I look to the moon.

But the moon is crazy! The moon is nuts. Lunacy. Fickle and erratic. Light and dark. Helpful and menacing. Intelligent and absurd. Ask any woman (or any man, for that matter) how entering into the moon cycle, or confronting the lunar snub of menopause, can make one feel insane.  Nevertheless, on this night, I followed her light along the path to the rocky mesa…until, that is, she forsook me for the clouds and all became dark. I felt shaken and disoriented.  I could not find my way. I stumbled along, walking in circles, getting nowhere. And it occurred to me, “This is what it is like to walk in the realm of the unconscious”.

And then I remembered him. I won’t say his name, but he is my inner guide. He came to me years ago. He is kind and smart and has a hearty laugh.  An alchemist of old. Just saying his name invited a feeling of lightness. Soon after, I arrived at my destination. I said my prayers and made offerings. The rest of the story is secret, except I will say the sun did come up, quite unexpectedly, and it felt like Christmas.

This I now know. The moon is fine.  The feminine is fine too. She is my nature. She is nature. But without the discriminating light of the guide, in this case the helpful masculine, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to find connection to her.  As Helen Luke writes, “when the feminine soil of which she is working refuses to come to life…she has then to learn to start from the receptive, the hidden, the goal-less aspect of Yin, and gradually the true light of the spirit will shine in the darkness, and the intellect too will be illumined and come to its fruition”.

But, to me, it is all best said through poetry.

Moon Poem #4

She takes my scorched hair
with slim hands of soft light
she combs through forgotten fields
of unwanted land, dry and harsh
brushing aside the cinders,
all that is consumed with ash.
In the brightness of her grace
even the old creosote
casts a shadow in this place

How the liquid of the moon
bleeds from beneath the shadows
to erase these hard lines of
barbed wire and rusted tin,
How her waters round out the valleys
like an old bear’s hip
and softens the edges
with mugwort and sage.

Moon, Moon
your name rests upon my tongue
colors my lips
drips down my jaw
onto belly and toes
dreams edge from the deep comfort of sleep
a drop of water falls
a perfectly smooth bead
awakening the tortoise

who moves slowly
not by clocks, or fancy thoughts
but by inner rhythms
of trees and of seasons
to the place of beginnings
of birth, and death, and where
the expectant earth,
waits without time
for the rain,

for the moon

illuminating

the stone

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. To live, you must suffer. – Buddhist teaching.

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. – Thomas Merton

This blog has been thin. Not that I don’t think about writing. It is just that I haven’t given myself the time to drop down far enough below the surface of my thinking to retrieve anything worth writing about. And it distresses me when I realize just how quickly time can pass when living on the surface; especially on the flat surface of a computer screen. The distress intensifies along with the awareness that just outside my office window, along the garden wall, the shadows are lengthening, creeping over the day lilies, zinnias, marguerites, and finally darkening the Buddha sculpture that sits at the west end of the backyard. After a day of sitting in front of my computer, I step outside and feel the chill of the setting sun. Before I even discern the beauty of it, the day is gone.

Let me get this straight. I don’t want to appear as another “wanna be” writer, writing about writer’s block. Nor, do I want to drag my readers into my own dark hole of self-loathing. How boring is that? But, the best way I know how to make sense of this crazy life is to write about it; by pulling out the shards from the pit of these ambiguous feelings and piecing them together. It is a painful alchemical process of creating meaning out of chaos. And, for me, it doesn’t always come easy.

Thankfully, I’m not expected to do this on my own. When it looks as if that there is nothing left to piece together, when my libido has run dry as a desert wash, gracefully and auspiciously, a dream pays me a visit.

But in this case, the dream is horrifying and sad.  It is about dolphins.  In my “day life”, I often see dolphins off the coast of Ventura or on my frequent trips to and from Catalina Island. Their playfulness always makes me smile. But, the dolphins in the dream are not playing or swimming; rather, they are suffocating, crammed tightly into a small stone pool of water. And to make matters more tragic, right outside the pool is the endless ocean. Freedom so near, yet so unattainable.

Suddenly, in the dream, I hear a cacophony of cries and high-pitched screams followed by the sound of gun shots. I look down at the pool and see a few men with rifles killing off a number of dolphins in firing squad fashion. The pool darkens with blood. The sound and images of murder send warning signals up my spine setting off an instinctual fear that I rarely encounter. Later, I am told that the killing is necessary. Some of the dolphins are diseased and the only way to control contamination is to kill off the sick. But I know the disease is caused by the fact that there are too many dolphins crammed in too tight a space. Overcrowding and confinement foster disease.

So, I spend time with this dream. I hate it. I hate everything that it reminds me of: Over population, global warming, the devastation of our forests, the polluting of our water and the overwhelming daily bombardment of newly listed endangered and extinct species.  Not to mention my own feelings of suffocation as I crawl my way through the demands of daily life.

How do I piece these shards together? How do I create something whole out of something so utterly broken?

Any solution that might mitigate the dream’s tragic ending feels ridiculously superficial. The dream does not indicate my need to free myself of psychological oppression or inner disease. No.  Rather the dream invites me to participate in every image and aspect of the story: To cry with the dolphins as well as to partake in the shooting.  Both sides deserve attention. Both sides suffer the split. It is a matter of psychological tectonics.

And as far as I can tell, nothing brings about wholeness more than the tears that flow from the streambed of suffering this split. As Robert Romanyshyn recently mentioned during his presentation on Antarctica, perhaps the one saving grace of global warming is that it is melting our hearts and opening us to the awareness of our suffering. Tears add moisture to those dried up pieces of broken shard, making them malleable.

A few days after the dream, perhaps serendipitously, I found a small dog on the road that had been hit by a car. I had just spent an hour in some nasty, finger flipping rush hour traffic when I came across the helpless creature, bloody and limp. It was after dark so I took the dog to a 24 hour emergency vet where I was told it would cost over $800 just to determine if the dog should be euthanized or not.  No go. The vet then directed me to the local shelter where they would do the diagnostics for free. Once I arrived at the shelter and found my way through the night security gates, I handed the dog over to what would most likely be its death. I sucked it up and gave the dog to the receptionists who carried him away before I could even say goodbye. OK.  I am a death dealer.

Soon enough, the sobs blew open like an uncontrollable geyser. For once, I could not minimize my feelings. “It is just a small and nameless dog”, I told myself.  Yet, the tears could not be contained and, at last, the dolphins swam freely.

Swallowed Up

“If he withdrew into the wilderness and listened to his inner life in solitude, he might perhaps hear what the voice has to say” – C.G. Jung

Last summer Joe and I packed up the truck and headed to Montana. Having never been there, we were inspired to visit Glacier National Park and see that big sky country. What we saw instead was a flurry of tourists, many having traveled from the eastern regions of the world to witness this mythic western landscape. I imagine that most of them, like us, were hoping to spot a grizzly bear; that image of the west that is now more legendary than real. Or maybe they just wanted to get a taste of the “Holy Other” that this part of the world imparts; the sense that there is something much bigger, more powerful, and more awesome than oneself.

My heart sank when I saw the cars and Winnebagos lined up outside the park’s entrance. I wanted to turn around immediately and make tracks to some lesser known and less loved place like Battle Mountain, NV or maybe even Trona, CA. I wanted to start a campaign that would outlaw RVs larger than tanker ships, flood lights that can penetrate the thickest of brains, and all cell phone transmitters dressed up as trees. What happened to the West? Is there any wilderness left beyond the boundaries of consumerism and convenience?

My lamentation is not new. Many folks for many years have bemoaned the end to what at first appeared infinite: land, buffalo, gold, oil, and opportunity.  Ever since white man stepped foot west of the hundredth meridian something deeply archetypal, attached to enormous greed and fear, must have been triggered in the western human psyche. Some might suggest that expansionism is driven by evolutionary biology similar to an infestation of a non-native species. Simply put, we are weeds gone ballistic.

But I don’t think that weeds fall in love with a place, or experience the immense sense of wonder that is evoked by landscapes such as Glacier National Park. Weeds don’t write poetry about mountains and rivers or sing songs to the prairies. Nor do weeds experience the range of emotions that belong to us humans. I could be wrong about this, but I doubt it.

When I was a young girl, my father took me to nearly every national park in the southwest. I was deeply affected by the wildness of these places and I always left wanting more. I can vividly remember standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon during a typical summer monsoon and being so overwhelmed by my senses that I had to restrain myself from jumping over the edge and into the great mouth of the canyon. I so badly wanted to be swallowed up by it all. In retrospect, there was something absolutely essential about being overwhelmed and taken beyond myself. It instilled in me a religious sensibility that has remained throughout my life.

Just a few days ago, on the winter solstice, the moon was also swallowed up. It was raining here in Ventura so I didn’t get to watch the full lunar eclipse, but I could imagine Luna being stripped of her dim consciousness by the cold shadow of the earth. In her book, Alchemy, Marie-Louise Von Franz compares the eclipse to the coniunctio, an event that occurs when the opposites merge in the underworld of the psyche; in our darkest and most desolate night of the soul. It is a swallowing up that can either make us go insane, or in the best case, bring about the birth of a new personality.

She writes, “If we take the coniunctio on a purely inner level, it can be said that when the conscious and unconscious personalities approach each other, then there are two possibilities: either the unconscious swallows consciousness, when there is a psychosis, or the conscious destroys the unconscious with its theories, which means a conscious inflation. The latter generally also happens when there is a latent psychosis, and then people get out of it by saying the unconscious is ‘nothing but…,’ thereby crushing the unconscious and its living mystery, or pushing it aside” (p. 164).

In other words, following an awe-inspiring moment such as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or being shaken up by a dream, we might just go crazy, but more likely we’ll convince ourselves it was “nothing but” a dream…or an impulse…or even a bad case of indigestion.  The ego regains its superior position as soon as the eclipse is over.

“In the old days people knew how to dream. They did not have to go to sleep first” wrote Nietzsche.  Western society has lost its capacity for dreaming; for listening to the voices of the ancestors and the whisperings of the spirits of the land. The desire to be swallowed up, to loosen the ego’s grip, is still strong, but not as strong as the need to fight against it. Maybe this is the driving force behind our enthrallment with wild landscapes along with the counter-reaction to control them. The wildness of such places is so vast, overwhelming, and threatening that if we don’t retain some sense of supremacy, we fear we could lose ourselves completely.

Nevertheless, I say go to Montana, or wherever, and allow oneself to be swallowed up by all the gloriousness this wild land still has to offer to our weary and dried up souls. But while doing so, make offerings to the ancestors. Listen to the stories in the land. Pay attention to dreams. Walk humbly with the dead.

Wilderness. The word itself is music. Wilderness, wilderness…We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination” – Edward Abbey (From Home Ground, edited. by Barry Lopez).