Change Is In The Wind

After a temperate fall in Boone, a cold wind was headed our way, but I had aimed to be ahead of it, preparing to drive south and east toward the North Carolina coast and my new digs in Wilmington.

In Greek mythology, the name of the god of the North Wind is Boreas. He comes blustering in, an old man with a conch shell and fierce intent, icing everything in his path. Last week, as I coordinated with my realtor and with electricians and propane technicians, I was also keeping an eye on the weather forecast, knowing by Friday, the day I meant to depart, the weather was going to change, with temperatures taking a nosedive into the teens by the weekend.

I was down to the wire, getting the house winterized so pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst in my absence, getting the propane heater repaired, having the electrical panel replaced, packing up the rest of my belongings, trying to be strategic as I selected what to load into Roadcinante.

Thursday afternoon I got the last mail that would be delivered to my house and found one of those letters from the NC-DMV that strikes fear into the hearts of every North Carolina driver – “Your license plate has been revoked and you must turn it in immediately” – due to a lapse in liability insurance. Of which there had been none, not even one second.

“But…I’m leaving tomorrow!” I wailed into the abyss, but the abyss did not care. I emailed my insurance agent. I missed her call letting me know there was an issue with Roadcinante’s VIN number, and by the time I got her voice mail, the office had closed.

Meanwhile, sudden weather warnings were coming that the sky was going to open up and dump snow, beginning…Friday morning.

I did not sleep much Thursday night. I kept checking the weather reports, saw around 3:00 in the morning when the National Weather Service issued a Winter Weather Advisory, noted that snowfall was to begin by 6:30 a.m., with a possible accumulation of up to 6 inches.

Roadcinante, parked out in the driveway that is halfway up the mountain where my daughter and son-in-law and son live, sat patiently, awaiting her fate.

Recall Roadcinante is a BIG girl and now I have loaded her down with a lot of boxes of books and manuscripts and other heavy stuff. Recall she has rear-wheel drive and on slick snow-covered roads is as likely to become a scarily-oversized toboggan as she is to be a safely managed vehicle. Recall my white-knuckle adventure on the hills way back in northern California this past summer (“From Grade to Grace“). See me becoming ever more panicked.

I was up by 5:30 Friday morning, and it was already snowing, big fat flakes that quickly covered the ground, and blanketed Roadcinante’s windshield. At 7:30 I decided to drive Roadcinante down the steeply winding gravel road and have my daughter follow me to the bottom.

Coming down from their place, I keep Roadcinante in first gear, sliding a tad on what my kids cheerily refer to as “The Death Curve,” breathing through it to keep my cool and making it to the bottom unscathed. Then I ride with my daughter back up to her house and to my Honda Element, Merletta.

Merletta has no issues with the NC-DMV, nor they with her, so I have a legal vehicle to drive into town. Beasley and I are waiting at the insurance office when they open, and the nice receptionist gives me a letter correcting the error. I drive to the license agency which is basically empty because of the snow, and a sweet-faced blonde woman takes the document, taps on her keyboard for about five seconds, prints out another document and hands it to me, smiling as she says, “Here ya go! Merry Christmas!”

I had been all set for a long bureaucratic nightmare. I was ready to cry if I had to. But I am delayed in my departure by a mere twenty minutes. In wonder, I drive back to get Roadcinante and leave Merletta for my kids to use until I come back to pick her up in a couple of weeks. I get Miss Kitty Witty from the vet, where she’d spent the night and gotten dosed that morning with a nice dreamy sedative to help her with the long drive ahead (Miss Kitty HATES being transported by anything with wheels).

The snow keeps coming down, and the roads are slick. I press on past the edge of town. I see a couple of accidents where cars have skidded into each other.

Beasley settles down onto his blanket and goes to sleep. Kitty Witty, unaffected by her injection, howls and cries.

Heading south on Highway 421 I pull into the right lane behind a huge tanker truck. Ahead of us in about ten miles will be an 8% downhill grade several miles long that I am sure is snow-covered. There is a virtual white-out in my rear view mirror as Boreas sends heavier snows in from the north.

I want to be behind this guy in the tanker truck. I can watch for any skidding and adjust my vehicle accordingly. Or so I hope.

Cresting the top of the mountain, just past the exit to the Blue Ridge Parkway and right before the downward grade, with cars and trucks inching along carefully, I take a moment to gaze out over the mountains below, and the view takes my breath clean away – the white snow making everything fresh and new, falling softly on our anxious world, whispering as it traces the tops of the surrounding hills, coats branches and leaves, blankets the ground in a quiet embrace.

I feel an invitation to breathe, to marvel, and I accept that invitation.

I drop Roadcinante to second gear, turn on my emergency flashers, and take my time, thrilling a little at the slight dizzying sensation that comes from driving head-on into whirling snow. Everyone makes it to the bottom without incident.

The snow, much lighter now, continues on through High Point. By the time I get to Asheboro, when Kitty Witty finally quiets, the snow has changed to a cold snapping rain that does not stop until about nine miles from my destination, my friend’s house here in Wilmington. It is chilly when I arrive, and a slight mist is falling. We hurry to unload only what I need for the night. Red wine and a roast pork dinner and conversation and laughter ensue.

I sleep. Beasley sleeps. Kitty Witty finds a spot on the bed and sleeps, but not before giving me the kind of side-eye only cats can give when you have deeply disappointed them. We wake to a brilliant sunny morning.

There are other cats in the house and a small chihuahua named Bruiser. Beasley is a little smitten with him but gives him wide berth, since when they first met Bruiser snarled and lunged to make sure Beasley knew what was what. Now they are fine, and Bruiser trots right under Beasley in order to get at that bite of roast chicken that fell onto the floor. (Kitty Witty, on the other hand, took one look at Bruiser and said to me, “You have got to be kidding.”)

It is Christmas here. One of my roommates, Garry, is a brilliant decorator who has made the whole house glitter and shine. My other roommate, Julie, whose house this is, has given me a room with a deck that looks out over marshy canals.

This morning I watched out my window as the sun peeked over the trees. Later I saw a large white egret come soaring in over the grasses to land in the water. Tall pines reach up toward the clear blue sky. Out on the road Spanish moss drapes graceful live oaks. It is cold here, too, but warmer weather blows in later in the week.

Meanwhile, my work is the same as ever – to tell the world as I see it, to name wonder when I meet it, to invite you to ponder and marvel with me.

With gratitude for your company here, I sign off until the next time. Wishing you bright holiday joy amidst the beautiful deep mysteries of this season.


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On the Move Again

I’m so grateful to all of you for sticking around for “the rest of the journey” and want to say, “Welcome!” to those of you who are newly joining us. It’s been quite the ride, I can assure you, and it ain’t over yet!

Next adventure? My house is for sale, and I’m moving down to the coast, to Wilmington, North Carolina the second week in December where I’ll be rooming with a dear friend of many years and working on the Chasing Light book.

Wilmington and I are old friends, too. When I lived in Cary (2000-2003) I’d frequently hop in the car and drive the couple of hours down to the beach, park my backside in the sand, and read, nap, watch the waves, listen to the gulls, and breathe in delicious ocean air. The winter after my mother died I rented a condo and spent five months there, every day traversing the cold windy shoreline with the dogs. One afternoon I looked out over the ocean from my perch on the deck and saw a whale calf so close to the shore that I could hear the exhalation from the blowhole.

I have deep appreciation for Wilmington’s arts community, for the outdoor activities and the beautiful Atlantic Ocean, for the fun downtown area, the opportunities afforded by the university and community colleges. And did I mention fresh seafood?! (Swoon…)

Also…I’m taking lots of time to say proper goodbyes to my little mountain house (and the deer and the owls and the raccoons and possums), and to the mountain community of Boone. So many dear friends here! So many memories – fourteen years’ worth – and so much creativity and life. Breweries and sustainable farms and artists and musicians. Writers and dreamers and social justice warriors. My son and daughter and son-in-law, about four ridge tops over.

And these dear old grandmother mountains, soft and round and comforting in their constant protective nearness.

In the midst of packing up I’m also writing chapter summaries for the book proposal I’m working on, trying to maintain the momentum gained at the recent Carmel Writing Retreat, and, oh, my, what fun revisiting all the places I’ve traveled, the wonders I’ve seen, and the characters I’ve met.

Twelve months. Twelve-thousand miles. Mountains, deserts, meadows, forests. Lakes, rivers, and oceans. Plains, cornfields, and wheat fields. Wide-open highways and badly rutted dirt roads. Moonlit nights and sun-stirred mornings. Frost and snow and wind and rain, dust and sand and stifling heat. And the Superbloom!

Now, the inward journey of putting together the story of my pilgrimage – the long side trips of mental meandering that were too lengthy for blog posts but that a book allows for, even invites. How I traveled back in time while moving forward, attempting to meet long-dead loved ones by visiting long-ago haunts. My exploration and discovery of locales I’d never visited and my attempts to find my new place in a world that, no longer peopled by so many family members, often feels alien. How I drove to the other side of the continent for a surprise pre-arranged meeting with myself.

Finding my way back from the far country of grief and loneliness, traversing rough passage through doubt and fear and my own resistance to releasing the past in order to take hold of the future.

As I work on the proposal, I may have questions for you all from time to time, seeking your input on what is meaningful, what is helpful. What you want to read and know more about. What you connect with.

Where your heart sings and where it breaks.

I know you want to think about and talk about things that matter. About life and love and loss and the meaning we make out of all of it. About mystery and hope and wonder.

You are a wise bunch. I do so look forward to hearing your reflections.

Speaking of things that matter, I’ll leave you with advice from Jacob Thompson. Jacob was the terminally-ill 9-year-old I mentioned in my last post who had asked for Christmas cards for his last Christmas, knowing he would not make to December 25th. The world responded. Check out his Facebook page for more details. 60,000+ cards from all over the planet. Video greetings from celebrities, drive-by parades of hundreds of law enforcement officers from all over the state of Maine, drop-ins by sports teams. Letters. Homemade gifts from kids his age. Stuffed animals. A visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus. A grand Christmas feast.

Jacob died this past Sunday, a week after his big party. In sharing the sad news, his mother asked us to remember the words he lived by, wisdom born of having spent half of his life battling cancer. Jacob, obsessed with penguins (two of them paid him a visit in the hospital), adopted the motto, #LiveLikeAPenguin, as a reminder to “be friendly, stand by each other, go the extra mile, jump into life, and be cool.”

RIP, sweet boy. You changed the world for the better in your short time here.

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Follow Your BLIS

I am writing to you from the lovely Vagabond’s House Inn in the charming seaside village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I am so jazzed to be back on the California coast. The air is clean and cold this morning, and the clouds are deliciously gray. Once in a while the sun peeks through. I am cozy in my room, up early (since 5 A.M.) as I’m still on east coast time. I lasted until 7, then had to slip into my Uggs and toss on a sweater and wrap a scarf around my neck to go forage for coffee and found the Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company open for business. I brought a large black coffee and a hunk of sour cream coffee cake back to my room and snuggled in to do Merl Reagle’s Sunday Crossword.

I’m here in Carmel for a five-day writing retreat that starts tomorrow (Monday). I’ve come with my usual mixture of trepidation and hope – self-doubt a still-too-constant companion, but I’m learning to just step past it and keep going anyway, even when I can’t see the end product (in this case, a completed memoir that holds together). I keep reminding myself that writing – like living – is a process that I can trust, and if I can’t fully trust, well, then, I can at least practice trusting. (Come to think of it, that’s also a good definition of faith, not unlike one that someone once offered as “living as if it were so.”)

I flew out of Charlotte yesterday morning on a nonstop flight, which meant I had 5 ½ hours on the plane. The man sitting next to me was reading a book, Fifty Things to Do When You Turn Fifty. I was reading my own book, Rob Spillman’s new memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, but couldn’t help glancing from time to time at my neighbor’s book. Fifty was nearly fifteen years ago for me (Good Gawd…) but my normal anxiety kicked in to check and see: Did I do it right? (Probably not.) Did I miss anything? (Almost certainly.)

That anxiety of late – ever since I became an orphan and moved forward into my parents’ slot on what I call the “Disassembly Line,” – has had an undercurrent of fear that I’m running out of time, an urgency to hurry and have my full say, to make my mark.

That’s one reason I am so glad to be here for this retreat. I’m going to put myself in the hands of our retreat leader and my fellow writers and trust they will give me good feedback, make good suggestions, offer loving observations. (Again with the faith?!)

I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport yesterday around noon and got my baggage, found the car rental place, and drove off with an upgrade since they were out of the cheapest, smallest compacts I usually get. The Volvo SUV is so far above my pay grade that at first I couldn’t figure out how to turn the danged thing on. See, there is a slot where a key that isn’t a key goes, and then a button that you push that says, “Start/Stop.” Easy enough, right? But I kept pushing it and the radio came on but no engine. Start. Stop. Start. Stop.

Finally, a light came on that patiently related, “You must press the brake pedal to start the engine.”

Geez. You could have told me that the first time! I’m looking around to see if the young woman who brought me to the car is still around. I am ready to say, “Sister, I just come off the mountains of Nawth Car-o-LINA!” But she has already moved on to the next customer.

Next hurdle: the side mirrors. The passenger side was folded in, so I got out of the car and popped it back out, but then, back in the driver’s seat, I could not figure out how to adjust either one so I could actually see. I looked for buttons, knobs, dials. Nothing. A thing that looked like a button but wasn’t, marked BLIS. Bliss?? How about FRSTRATNG?!

In the end, I gave up, driving off without being able to fully see cars approaching on either side, which was disconcerting to me, because Roadcinante spoiled me, what with being equipped with enormous mirrors with inset magnifiers, so I can see everything behind and around me.

But once in traffic, I noticed these little lights blinking at those side mirrors. “Oh, my God!” I said out loud to the car. “You’re telling me when it’s safe to change lanes!”

Well, if that isn’t going on faith, I don’t know what is. “Okay, car. Talk to me.” And it did. (May I just say how quickly I got used to this car that also comes with one of those new-fangled backup cameras that tells you when you are about to incur lots of damage costs by backing into someone else and you will wish you had not declined all that extra coverage the car rental place was selling?)

FRSTRATNG now means “For Real, Starting to Rightly Appreciate This Necessary Gizmo.” (Gizmo was one of my dad’s favorite words.)

Driving down I-280 South toward San Jose, things started to look familiar, since I was just through here this past June. Then south of San Jose I saw the exit for Coyote Canyon Creek Road and slowed down as I cruised past the northbound overpass beneath which I’d parked that first day of triple-digit heat, stuck in stop-and-go traffic with Roadcinante overheating if I turned on the AC, and the 110°F heat blasting the dogs and me if I lowered the windows to circulate air.

That was one scary day. I remember pulling into the shade beneath the overpass and turning off Roadcinante. I remember firing up the generator and turning on the AC unit in back and pouring more water for Connor and Beasley and how they lapped it up. I remember both dogs panting, lying on the hot floor, and watching them carefully and feeling helpless, so helpless.

When I drove past the spot yesterday, I teared up, missing Connor all over again, and missing the magic of the journey, even the scary parts, missing who I was when I was on the road.

Later, nearing Carmel, I passed by a sign that had made me laugh when I’d seen it back in June: “Lightfighter Road.”

“Okay,” I’d said then. “You got me. I’ll try to do better.”

I admit, sometimes I shut down bliss when it is trying to find me. I’m cranky that way, but I hope I’m trainable.

“Follow your bliss” is a phrase made famous by mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, but it is not the shallow American-consumer-I-should-have-whatever-makes-me-happy-concept, rather it’s what happens below the surface,what remakes your heart and deepens your soul, what makes you a fuller human being. How you are willing to be all-the-way awake to the world, even when it’s hard, even when it’s sad.

This morning while I ate my breakfast I listened to Krista Tippet’s interview with physician Atule Gawande, “What Matters in the End.” Gawande is the author of the bestselling book, Being Mortal. The interview is a wonderful listen that I commend to you, deeply thoughtful and ultimately comforting.

I ponder mortality a lot, to be honest. Death has been an early and constant visitor in my life, plus I think I’m hard-wired to question and whine and argue and pick. As I was listening to the On Being podcast, I recalled a Twitter post of Jake Tapper’s that I read this past week, a short tweet that jolted the whine out of me. I retweeted, then shared it on Facebook, then followed Tapper’s lead.

You see, a nine-year-old boy in Maine, dying of cancer, is celebrating his last Christmas early, because he most likely won’t live to see December 25th. The family is asking for people to send him Christmas cards.

A seemingly small thing, but in reality an epically hugely wonderfully enormous thing. What seems a minuscule mustard seed of an idea burgeons into, as Frederick Buechner so beautifully puts it, a “great banyan…with birds in its branches singing Mozart.” Because the human family, invited into a sacred event, RSVP’s with love bombs of cards, videos, artwork, songs, and so much more. And what an honor – how blissful – to be some small part of this outpouring. To join others in holding my candle against the darkness, in truth the most urgent work there is.

(For a major lift, check out the responses to Tapper’s post. )

Jacob’s Christmas party is this coming weekend. Want to send your own card? Make haste. Here is the address:

Jacob Thompson, c/o Maine Medical Center, 22 Bramhall Street, Portland, Maine  04102

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Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

It is early on a Sunday morning. I’m sitting in the empty lobby bar at the Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, the splashy sound of a large indoor fountain echoing in the nearby atrium. Sunday morning diners drift in; departing travelers thread their way past enormous potted trees, the wheels of their carry-ons whirring rhythmically.

This past weekend Queens MFA grads and some current students gathered for a reunion as we brought work samples – our essays or short stories, our novel or memoir excerpts, our poems or screenplays – and received feedback from editors, agents, instructors, and peers. We also heard from fellow writers who’ve been published and listened as they read from their lovely finished works. They are like beacons of hope.

Bars and writers seem to go together. Last night the place was hopping. As I meandered into, through, and around the gathered groups, I heard updates on novel submissions, listened as writers offered and received advice about agents, nodded in agreement hearing familiar notes of frustration with the writing process,  a woman stuck here, a man flummoxed there.

Stopping, starting, stopping. It’s an odd kind of momentum that from close up looks – and, trust me, feels – as if you aren’t getting anywhere at all, unless you remind yourself you are in this for the long haul.

Many of us have projects we’ve been working on for a decade, sometimes longer. It’s all part of the writing landscape, these seemingly endless roads that wind and twine through thick woods, tangled terrain, leading toward a horizon we cannot yet see. Persistence is definitely an essential part of the game.

The bar is where we congregate after seminars and panels and following our workshops, which one fellow writer aptly describes as like being totally naked in front of everyone else, which it totally is. We bring our hard, sad, exhausting stories and try to share that hard, sad, exhausting-ness, and in the process we figure out how to tell the story better, and how to keep reaching for that healing or resolution or revelation, or all three, in our stories, and in our lives, too, since the two are interwoven.

Even when writing fiction, we are still puzzling ourselves out on the page, our lives informing the characters and scenes and tales that most surely arise from deep within us. Even in fiction, we are still asking the big questions of the Universe, seeking meaning, truth.

This draw to congregate, to me, is the real, the essential fabric of the entire weekend. Of course we are beyond jazzed to work with top tier editors and agents. Certainly we get fantastic feedback on our work and great industry tips. We brainstorm together about new paths to find our way into and through the material we’re working on. We practice different techniques and try to see our writing samples in new ways (re-vision). All of these things are so very important for us.

But writing by its very nature is profoundly interior work. Often what ends up on the page has been roiling around inside us like leftover shrapnel from long-ago battles. Like shrapnel, it works its way to the surface and emerges through the skin. It is often painful and always lonely.

Here, elbow to elbow, we commiserate about how our partners, patient as they are, sometimes fail to stifle that yawn when we talk about our main character for the umpty-hundredth time and how she is driving us crazy with her stubbornness on the page. We mention friends back home who, love us as they do, still wonder if it’s necessary to whine yet again about how hard writing is, or how stuck we are, and also they probably are never going to be as excited as we are about that paragraph that finally comes together or the ending that finally lives up to the label of “satisfying.” But here there is common joy in those small, agonizingly obtained victories.

Here – in the halls of the university where we have our classes during the day, or at a  lunch or dinner table – you hear bits of conversation that leave you feeling a little giddy.

Because these are your people. This is your tribe. And it feels so good to be with your tribe that when it’s time to leave, more than a few of us get misty and sad. We hug for a long time, holding on to each other and to that feeling of being known, holding on to the feeling of being reminded we are not alone in our crazy obsession, our need to document, to say and to keep on saying. We hold on for a long time because we know Monday a lot of us will be feeling a little blue, missing this easy camaraderie.

Isn’t that the way, when we find our tribe? When we find where we belong and with whom? That sense of homecoming and ease? That way of relaxing into the circle where your weirdness and quirks are known and understood, because others have them, too?

While I am here in Charlotte, my  sweet four-year-old boxer, Beasley, has been staying with my kids. My daughter and my son-in-law have Beasley’s littermate, Zeke, as well as a boxer-hound mix named Banjo. My son has an elderly dog named Combo.

Beasley loves to go there, and their dogs all adore it when he visits. When they first see each other, they snort and jump and wiggle. They sniff and grin and race around the yard. Later they snuggle into piles, snoring away in deep contentment.

In the middle of the weekend, my daughter sent me a video of Beasley with his tail (which was never docked) carried low and careful behind him. At one point he looks up at her with a pained expression.

“What happened?” I asked.

“He wagged so hard he sprained his tail,” she replied.

“That is one happy dog,” I said, and we both laughed.

And then I looked out across the small sea of well-loved fellow writers, treasures one and all, and smiled, thinking, “I know exactly how he feels.”

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Bison Magic and a Vision Quest

Back in July, while in Montana I trekked up from the campground where I was staying in Missoula to the National Bison Range, in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation in a setting so beautiful I had to stop a couple times along the way to breathe and take it all in, mountains and rivers and grasslands, all beneath the trademark cloud-dappled Big Sky.

The bison preserve, established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, encompasses nearly 19,000 acres. Visitors are offered two driving tour options. You can take the Prairie Drive gravel road that winds alongside the Jocko River or you can opt for the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, offering stunning views of the Mission Mountains and Mission Valley.

It was a hot day, with that white-kind-of-light bright so that everything – dust, grass, sky – seemed washed through with sunlight, clean and crisp and translucent. Descriptions of the mountain drive warn of steep grades and sharp curves, prohibiting vehicles with trailers. Those of you who remember my encounter with steep grades and sharp curves back in northern California will understand why I chose the Prairie Drive.

The wide easy road snaked along the river. I had the place to myself, allowing me to take my time and rubberneck plenty, looking for some of the more than 400 bison that live here.

Wallows dotted the small rises, signs of where bison had rolled in the white dust, something they do to discourage pestering insects and parasites. They looked like giant nests to me.

At one point I pulled Roadcinante off to the side and used my binoculars to peer at a bison about 100 yards away, resting in its wallow, its tail switching occasionally but otherwise the picture of happy repose.

I would see dozens of wallows but only one other bison along the way, grazing down next to the river, maybe 100 feet off. When I’d reached the end of the road, I turned around to come back and discovered the bison had wandered up next to the road. It stood and ate placidly while I took lots of pictures. The dogs were on high alert, sniffing the air and looking at each other in mild alarm as if asking each other, “What the what is that?!”

I had come to see bison, but most of what I saw in that hour-plus sojourn was grass-covered hills and the meandering Jocko and troops of busy water birds and willow trees. Still, it was hard to be disappointed, as I crept along the dusty road with my windows wide open, the dry heat coming in on a pleasing breeze. The landscape seemed other-worldly, lit from within.

Then an odd occurrence. I had this nagging sense of not being able to see well, this feeling that I was looking through oil-smeared lenses. I took off my prescription glasses, the ones I’ve worn all my adult life to correct for nearsightedness and a touch of astigmatism, and wiped them, put them on again, but could see no better. I took them off again and just happened to look up while I furiously rubbed the lenses on my cotton t-shirt, and discovered to my surprise that everything appeared clearer.

Stunned, I put the glasses on again. Cloudy. Smeary. I took them off. Sharp. Clear. Beautiful. I was now seeing better without my glasses than with them.

It felt truly mystical, and with my glasses off there came also the sensation of sitting higher, an immediate elevation that involved the feeling of floating over the road. I drove the rest of the way and then all the way back to Missoula without my glasses (which, by the way, according to my driver’s license was highly illegal).

For a while I thought maybe it was bison magic that had healed me, an animal spirit miracle. I was – I am – ever open to that possibility. But I’ve discovered, because I’ve experimented now in various places, including right here in Sugar Grove, that it’s related to how much sunlight there is, and when there is a lot of natural light, I see better without my glasses than with them. (At night, for example, without my glasses I’m still driving in a darkened blurry tunnel – yeah, I did test it out, but only for a moment and on a straight road with no other drivers around…)

I guess the point, if there is one, is something I’ve been pondering ever since I returned home, something I’ve been thinking about as I deal with a little low-level depression and even a tad of resentment, missing my travels and all the wonders seen and experienced, with a sort of familiar ennui descending, and that is this: the failure to perceive wonder is not location-specific.

I’ll say it again.

The failure to perceive wonder is not location-specific. It’s vision-specific.

The Dutch Catholic priest and contemplative, Henri Nouwen, drawing on ideas from Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton, spoke of our work as human beings as moving from opaqueness to transparency, which does not seem so far from French anthropologist and Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary belief that, “In a concrete sense there is not matter and spirit. All that exists is matter becoming spirit.”

(Those of you familiar with Fr. Nouwen, by the way, know he was no stranger to darkness, battling depression all his life as he struggled with his feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and shame.)

Transparency contains the idea of seeing all the way through. There is openness. There is revelation. There is a thin kind of clear and beautifully uncluttered awareness. A way of seeing the world and each other without barriers, without self-imposed vision problems. What is thick and opaque is to become magically shimmering in its translucence.

I share all this because maybe, like me, you have gotten so used to your surroundings that you don’t see them anymore, not really, not with eyes of wonder and astonishment. The familiar ceases to amaze; we avert our gaze to a far horizon where some imagined other more interesting world is happening.

My work while here is clear – even as I wiggle and squirm and chafe at the bit, wishing for another new road to race toward, I am to learn to be still and see where I am, be where I am, and to re-visit and re-envision the simple miracles that are always right at my fingertips. To be still long enough to allow the veil to melt, if only for that fraction of a second, moving me farther along the road toward transparency. For, if I move in that direction vis a vis the world and people around me, most surely I will be transformed, too, becoming less opaque and more transparent in my evolution as part of the human family on beautiful Planet Earth.

Later, I will drive along the dusty gravel Watauga River Road that tracks the lazy winding waterway, I will take off my glasses and study the sharp dance of light points on the water’s rippling surface. I will see the edges of grassy blades and the small busy insects that land there. I will see grains of dust swirl, then settle on the claret-colored hood of my Honda Element.

I will stop and look down at my own hands. In the bright sunlight I will see fine lines and a constellation of freckles and the outline of fine bones beneath the pliable flesh. I will see the several joints swollen with arthritis. I will see the nails gleaming pink. If I am still long enough, I will see how sunlight penetrates the skin on my hands, how my skin will absorb and hold and then return the light in a swirl of photons.

If I am patient, holding my hand up to the sky, I will see that the wonder I continually seek will always be right here at my fingertips.  

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