In a busy city of decision and indecision, power politics and greed, with so many faces just passing by, hearts bruised and beaten, skin thickened by force and cold weather, fragile souls gripping fast to something so intangible that we’ve all almost drowned, I live a life that’s half removed from everything I’ve ever wanted to do. We are born to make choices, we are born to go to heaven, we are just human.
My Old Navy overalls that I wore in the 5th grade had these yellowgreen grass stains on the knee caps, rolled at the cuffs above my dirty Keds, with buttons tarnished. And I can remember a faded photograph of me somewhere buried in my mother’s albums when I was much younger than that standing on top of a huge dirt pile in my father’s driveway, three times as big as me and I was queen.
I was never afraid of rolling in the dirt, climbing trees, or pretending. Back then lives revolved around make believe. Princesses and kings, polar bear adventures, fortresses of our imagination. We were never who we were then but now, now we are only who we are.
With heartbreak and responsibility, with time and pain, we grow. I can’t climb up those jungles any more. I can’t live at the top of forests or galaxies far far away. I can’t be animals in story books with blonde haired best friends who have since disappeared. I’ve become who I am.
Homemade cabbage soup for dinner with parmesan sprinkled on top. Piles of smelly dishes pilled up in the sink from a life that lives too fast. Once clean clothes on the bedroom floor. Messy sheets, dust bunny floors. This is the orchestra of a life being lived, the skin of my days, the twinkle of passing time, the single notes that make up the cacophony of my life. We sleep, we wake, we are shaken, we fall.
In shady alleyways figures bend and end their days hugging those they love, shrugging those they loathe. In these gray moments you can only see silhouettes, black against the zest of life and light. Some figures lean cool against brick walls. Others lean against each other, lightly, slightly, making contact with each other’s hearts. Still others stand with spaces the size of Antarctica between them, so far from each other. Facial intricacies – smiles, eyes, freckles – become invisible.
In these dark city alleys between mountains of buildings and rivers of sidewalks, among putrid dumpsters, rats and cats, amid shops and homes and dreams and things, something floats through the air and drifts between bodies. Out of the darkness comes mystery, emerges enemies, friendships, and lovers. But I grew tired of standing in alleyways, leaning against cold concrete.
I have a distant memory that replays in my mind of cliff jumping into a golden blue cold lake on a sweaty hot sunshine day. The air glitters. My fellow cliff jumping compatriots are laughing. Happy noises and splashing noises from bodies tumbling falling gracefully into the water echo back from the cliffs. There’s so much beauty, everywhere. Just picture it.
We’d stand back from the edge – almost naked in our bathing suits – run across the rock in bare innocent feet, let out a scream of joyexcitementfearforgiveness and plunge our bodies out from the rock, fall fast long and down into the water SPLASH. We jumped for hours. Never got tired of that thrill that splash that cool refreshing feeling.
This memory makes me smile, but also confuses me a lot. I can’t remember if it was real. How weird is it to have such a strong memory, something so tangible in my mind, but there’s this doubt hovering around it that makes me think it may not be real. Perhaps it’s just some dreamful resemblance of an experience of my lustful youth that I’m holding onto created in a lazy afternoon of boredom or sleep.
I want my life to feel like that jump. Every day: joyexcitementfearforgiveness. Over and over again in the late afternoon perfection neverstop glow of the end of an innocent summer.
So in August I went off trying to find that joyexcitementfearforgiveness among the forests and the rocky West Coast. I dreamed of seeing the vastly pointed redwood forests in all their lush and reddish brown glory, so I flew across the country to Portland and made my way down the Oregon coast, hiked through and camped among the perfect redwoods, and ended up in Jack Kerouac’s old hood of San Francisco.
In search of the perfect cup of coffee, the most holy coastlines, redwood trees that end in the heavens, kind smiles and conversations with strangers, the most comfortable tent spot, and adventure specking the sidewalks of West Coast cities.
When my mother, who thought I was crazy for going, asked me why I was doing it, I told her that I was soul searching. I wanted to find myself. Adventure is so inspiring because these unfamiliar places and unfamiliar faces are unexpected. They thrill you. You don’t know what’s around the next corner: it could be God! The word ADVENTURE seems so contrite, it’s for little kids imitating Where the Wild Things Are or National Geographic explorers or North Face bearded men with Go Pros. But I can go on an adventure too and there is nothing wrong with it and I don’t have to be guilty for it. Trees look different, the sun looks different, the air blankets me differently. More softly or more harshly depending on where I’m coming from and where I’m going.
One of my favorite poems (by Gary J. Whitehead called “A Fist Year Teacher to His Students”) has the line: “Be glad, or be sad if you want, but be…” We lose sight of just being. It’s so hard for folks these days with all the noise and rumbling of society (SOCIETY! Cough Cough!) to just BE.
What does it mean to just be? It means that you’re really present, you’re consciously taking in life and breaths and moments, feeling the warmth that comes with the sunshine and the sadness that comes with the pouring rain. It means your mind is not occupied with distant thoughts, huddling in the dampness of the past. You are here now.
So soul searching – or something like it—was the basis of my trip. And I did, I found it, the first night I camped in a completely desolate campground alone in the woods in the dark. I found myself scared shitless, and I found my soul standing there, laughing like a lion, right next to me. It was embarrassing. My soul was there all along, there was just too much noise in between for me to notice.
I have this theory that the fragments of peace and blunder that make up our lives – it’s all just to pass the time. All of it. Look up and you’ll see the heavens seem so far away. You can try to find peace in strangeness, peace in strangers, but the heavens seem so far away. We’re all just waiting. Waiting for what – for our lives to end? For the heavens to move closer, the sky to come crashing down? We’re waiting to see our futures become something – more than they are. Moonrise after moonrise, just trying to fill our four walls with grand heirlooms to show we’ve come from SOMEWHERE, we are made up of SOMETHING, we have meant something to SOMEONE. This dark wooden rocking chair, that turquoise fragile lamp of my grandmothers – I remember her bony hands, her fierce blue eyes that could still look warm. Sadness, not even Sunday night oldtime Bluegrass from the radio can fix. But it’s all just background noise. The buzz. The rumble. The never ending beat.
Do you know that Banksy piece, the graffiti stencil of a young girl placed next to a run-down gas station in L.A. – if you don’t know it you should look it up, it’s beautiful – she’s got this big watering can and she’s watering an old TV antenna that’s growing out of the earth, leaves and all. She’s watering – causing to grow – distraction. Background noise.
The buzz, the rumble, the never ending beat.
I didn’t need to drive a $57-a-day rental car to the Mount Hood Wilderness down a pockmarked dirt road with holes so big that I was sure this little compact car was going to get stuck or I was going to bump the underside so hard it tears open the gas tank and explodes, terrified of getting murdered my some woodsman hillbilly junkie or attacked by bears in the middle of the night, wishing I had a gun, in order to find my fucking soul. It was there. All along. And I felt like a nauseous idiot.
But after that first night of camping alone, once the campground host checked me in at my site just before dusk saying “Oh, I thought you were two? You registered two people…” with a dumb, silent, scary pause, and me saying “Nope, just me,’ and after I tried cooking a Walmart steak over the campfire grill – which I am so proud to say that I foraged all of my own fire wood and built my own little raging fire – but realized that after about 8 hours of non-refrigeration the meat that looked a grayish white like my grandmother’s cheeks probably should not be eaten, I survived.
My favorite day of that West Coast soul searching adventure was the day I drove down yet another bumpy, narrow dirt road, Howland Hill Road, into Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Northern California. The trees that touched the road, right next to me, looked like big gray sleeping giants in sleeping bags from all the dust laying on them. That day I planned to hike into the woods to see the Boy Scout Tree on the aptly named Boy Scout Tree Trail. It was an easy hike, just 5.3 miles of little elevation gain down into a valley of the redwoods where the Boy Scout Tree was to be.
There, far away in the wilderness, lost deep in the fern-lined woods are trees that know no fear. Bark raised with freedom, roots ridden with hope, leaves touched with grace, so much so that they never stop shimmering. These old-growth trees are nature’s most elegant and powerful living things. Solid and still, yet humming with life. Tall and alive and buzzing with the earth’s internal lighting. They are complete in what they are. They yearn for nothing. I felt like I had a lot to learn from these trees and they wanted to teach me.
Sunshine radiates down to provide the simplest form of nutrients for them. They will never be cut down, they are immortal in their glory. I felt like their secret was, fed by the sunshine and the rain, they love their ground.
I had a lot of time to think on my West Coast hikes. Horsetail Falls and Oneonta Gorge just off the Columbia River in friendly Oregon, Ramona Falls with such an epic view of Mt Hood her majesty, and of course the Boy Scout Tree’s one huge base forming into two trunks towering high – I wish you could have seen it all.
Among the redwoods I thought deeply and reflected on my life. Most days, in between and among hard things and hard places, when its dark under the covers and cold, I strive so hard, ivy leaves growing up and down against scratchy brick walks, to feel the light and see the light and still be the light. Red lipstick falling down my face. Eyes turned blue. Freckles burned on my skin and plumb blush stained. Most days I feel like a symphony of sadness. City walls being torn down are nothing compared to these walls. Concrete so thick an air raid wouldn’t even cause all souls to hide in basements. There’s no light there.
Still sounds, rumbling sounds, quiet sounds, sounds that rattle my bed frame and rattle me right out of bed. They are all part of this greater soundtrack.
But out there, in Jedediah Smith among those giants, there was no sound. No beat. No buzz and rumble. My thoughts – rather my soul – was the symphony I could hear.