Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Monday, August 29, 2011
I was watering the dianthus border, with its little striped magenta and white parasols, this morning. The soil is rich and black and the water sinks in rapidly. I was off in some little reverie, watching the ground slake its thirst, when a sudden darting movement caught my eye. There, atop one of the dianthus flowers, was a bright green Praying Mantis, three inches long, looking wet and quite cross. Clearly, I had disturbed her morning’s nap in the rudest manner.
She scuttled across the top of the plant, her arms held tightly to her thorax in that distinctive praying posture; hopped from the dianthus to the scalloped brick border (a space of no less than six inches); and scurried to the very end. There she sat, her entire body pulsing with angst, her triangular head turned toward me accusingly, while the sun dried her.
I was mortified to have affronted one of my garden’s denizens. I have the same sense of violating privacy when I sprinkle the dust from the rock roses and large white moths flutter limpidly out from the netted branches and launch themselves sleepily into the early morning breeze. Or when the full force of hose water flushes a toad from beneath a big comfrey leaf, with her bead-bright eyes blinking in confusion.
While I call the garden my garden, it is, in fact, quite clear to me that I am at best a passing visitor there and, at worst, a clumsy and potentially lethal trespasser. I try my best to stay conscious of the lives of the garden dwellers, but one misstep can crush a caterpillar that’s fallen from a sunflower leaf or drown a sleeping butterfly. And let’s not even talk about those horrifying moments when, spading up garden soil, I encounter the thrashing halves of worms!
The garden is a delight to me and, in season, a lot of hard work. But to these others, it is a world. Their world, where the leaves of hollyhocks are as big as helicopter landing pads are to us, and the multilayered stalks are high-rise buildings. This is their air space and their network of streets and paths, of which I, Goliath that I am, am completely insensible.
Of all the garden’s inhabitants, none delights me more than the bees. We keep six hives, which amounts to hundreds of thousands of bees. All spring and summer they crisscross the garden, bent on their prodigious labors. When the weather heats up, as it does this time of year, they seek water sources and carry water back to the hive for cooling and for honey-making. I have to be particularly careful, when refilling the fountain’s scallop shell-shaped bowl, not to inundate whole cadres of bees who line the shoreline, proboscises extended, greedily drinking.
Favorite watering holes for these busy creatures are the plates beneath my terra cotta pots of petunias, that line the railing of the deck. These tiny watercourses, some only half an inch wide, seem to just suit the bees’ sense of proportion. They belly up to the water, side by side, all around the perimeter of the plates.
Given their constant thirst and the ambient heat and resulting evaporation, it has become my task to play handmaiden to the bees. A dozen times a day, I go out to check water levels in four different pot plates. Sometimes the water level is so low that the bees are crouching and delving under the pot itself, with stretched proboscises. If I’ve carelessly allowed one plate to go completely dry, its fan club is still hovering, in patient expectation that the spring will fill up again.
This small show of faith never fails to move me. In it I find my humble place in the order of things in the garden: I am She Who Periodically Dribbles Water Into Plates, performing this task regularly and ritually, all summer long. And my reward is the sight of a ring of happily bobbing, black- and gold-striped bee bottoms. Who could ask for more?
Posted by Suzan at 6:16 AM
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Friday, August 26, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable . . .
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
--T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets
These opening lines from Eliot’s third Quartet, “The Dry Salvages,” always bring me instantly to a deep and somber place, psychologically. As a writer, I am astonished that his evocation of a brown river holds such psychological power. In studying my response, I find that it is the simple word brown that conveys such impact. In this one word we discover a season—not necessarily fall or winter or spring, but that season in the land when rains saturate and disrupt the roads and fields, when water courses scour the earth, and mud and turbulence live vividly unrestrained.
It is a time of innerness for both nature and humankind. Animals huddle or hibernate in their deep burrows; trees are leafless, sap drawn down into the roots; and the world of men congregates around heat sources, books and cups of tea or coffee. The rhythms of louring cloud, wind-driven mist and hammering rain insist themselves upon everyone and everything. Those who resist fall victim to the immune system’s hibernation: colds, bronchitis, pneumonia and flu are the rewards for defying nature’s dictates. Those who do not resist often sink into psychic deeps, where old fears, unresolved conflicts and the naggings for self-improvement haunt the waters.
Of course, in the modern world, we “worshippers of the machine” have come to believe that we are superior to these moods and suggestions of the natural world. As Eliot suggests, we use the river for purposes of commerce or delineate it as a frontier between artificially assembled tracts of land, be they counties or countries or continents. Engineers in their cleverness find ways to drive underwater pilings, create spans of stone or steel, and thus bridge a river now only seen as inconvenient, or simply forgotten altogether.
When we encounter the threatening depths and relentless currents of the brown river within ourselves, psychologically, we can tame or bridge them pharmaceutically or explore the sunken, twisting paths of habituation, in an effort to skirt them. But this leaves us uneasy. Always, the eyes of the soul flick furtive glances at the unhonoured and unpropitiated river, in a kind of nervous vigilance.
What does he want, this dark, silent and relentlessly flowing god? What does he ask of us, should we wish to propitiate him or consult him regarding the meaning of our cohabitation of Earth? We squat on the riverbank, hands tucked into our laps against the cold, and ponder the brown breast of the deceptively noiseless flood.
I think that Eliot is suggesting that the river and the sea into which it flows represent Time: “time not our time, rung by the unhurried/Ground swell, a time/Older than the time of chronometers, older /Than time counted by anxious worried women/Lying awake, calculating the future.” The brown river god menaces us because, like all natural phenomena, we cannot control it—and we ignore its passing at our peril.
My garden, this morning, was Edenic with luminous sunflowers, agapanthus in huge blue globes, mint and oregano giving up their volatilized oils to the sun, cosmos clustered in white or pink constellations, and the glossy, pendant breasts of eggplants. The rampant wild rose that has honored me by taking over half of one quadrant of the courtyard garden was ripe with the apple-like scent of rosehips. Bees plied the fountain’s tranquil water.
Why, then, in the midst of watering the tomatillos, with their jaunty little green paper lanterns of fruit, did I suddenly think of Eliot’s brown river? Something deep in the psyche blinked its sun-dazzled eyes and turned its nervous glance riverward. I have lived immersed in nature long enough to know that something subliminal but potent was lurking. Waiting; watching and waiting.
Every year there comes a morning, still warm, still basking under a clear and tranquil sky, when something—Is it a whiff on the wind of the incipient decay that heralds fall? An absence of certain birds and butterflies that habitually sing and flit through the spires of evening primrose?—something, I say, whispers of a turning of the season. Quite suddenly, the slight riffling susurration of the wind’s river announces an epiphany. The brown god is instantaneously present in all his “daemonic, chthonic/Powers” and I stand helplessly watching as, with one wave of his brown arm, one more summer of my life is swept away toward the shoreless sea.
Posted by Suzan at 5:53 AM
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Monday, August 22, 2011
In the Beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Genesis 1: 1-3)
People sometimes say to me how lucky I am to be so creative. Well, yes and no. In the first place, it’s less luck than the hard work of education, discipline and practice; of a certain kind of allowing--the willingness to release control and risk failure; and of picking myself up after failure and trying again. This process involves heat and pressure, deep in the psyche, an annealing, metamorphosing and alchemical transformation best described by the diamond-hard word rigor.
Secondly, I believe that I am not uniquely gifted and that all people possess creative ability. And thirdly, it’s not always evident just how lucky it is to be creatively gifted.
The central importance of the action of creation to the human psyche cannot be overstated. Universally, in all cultures, the world begins by an act of creation. Similarly, in a profound sense, our lives as individuals begin when we are able to break away from all the givens of our enculturation and create something original, something which has never before been and which could not have been created by anyone but oneself. Such an act brings one to self-consciousness and elevates one above the level of the herd, which acts through instinct, habit, cultural expectation and taboo. Anyone who has witnessed the joy and delight of a child in the act of creating an original drawing understands the central importance of the creative act to human development, self-definition and self-understanding.
For three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the words from Genesis, above, evoke a defining moment when from nothing came something, through a pure act of creativity. Think of the fingers of God and Adam touching, on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as a consummate image of this moment when pure energy manifests materiality.
Other cultures and religions, in their own creation myths, possess narratives explicating how the material world first arose. For example, the Greeks did not believe the gods created the universe. It was the other way around: the universe created the gods. The earth was formed before there were gods and the sky, Ouranos, and earth, Gaia, became the first parents. The Titans were their children, and the Olympian gods were their grandchildren.
The ancient Egyptians believed that creation began before the gods, as well. In their Beginning was Atum, formless, whole, encompassing maleness and femaleness, complete and perfect within itself. To ease its loneliness, Atum begot two children of itself, Shu, the god of air, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. These two, in turn, begat two children, the goddess of Heaven, Nut, and the god of Earth, Geb. These two then begat Ra, the Sun, and Thoth, the Moon, both sons. Again, Nut became pregnant and, after a difficult and prolonged pregnancy, gave birth to four children: Osiris, Isis, Nepthys, and Set.
Isis and Osiris were said to have fallen in love inside their mother’s womb. They not only were sister and brother, but wife and husband, queen and king, goddess and god and the founding mother and father of Egyptian civilization. Osiris invented and taught agriculture, writing and the arts. Isis taught spinning, weaving, feminine adornment, dance, ritual and magic. Together, they reigned over a Golden Age that brought order, abundance and beauty to the earth.
Several world cultures picture the world’s beginnings in a primordial egg. In Polynesia, for example, the first god born from the egg was Makemake, who created himself in the primordial form of a man with the head of a bird. Around 1000 C.E., sculptors on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, began sculpting huge heads of volcanic tuff, more than a thousand of them weighing sixty tons or more, to anchor and manifest the divine energy, or mana, radiating from the gods and the ancestors, chief among them Makemake On the other side of the world, the Orphic tradition in Greece, dating from between the eighth and sixth century B.C.E., also held that the world was born from a cosmic egg.
From these narratives of creation, only a few among thousands, we see that creativity is fundamental to humankind’s conception of itself. The foundational act, the primal inspiration, the primordial invention, is rooted in creativity. Before the creative act, nothing is. After it, the world is born. Thus, the individual act of creation partakes, in its original essence, of the sacred and the numinous.
The arts are one way that humankind expresses its creativity. Throughout human history, the creativity of the craftsperson and artist has been understood to partake of godlike power. Anyone who has sat before a blank piece of paper, a white canvas, a lump of marble or an empty stage, and imagined and from that imagining, created, knows the wonder and power generated by the creative act. Such a person is witness that from nothing comes something. From nothingness, a poem or novel, a sketch or painting, a three dimensional image or a drama or dance production is born.
Man, as a cultural animal, is born at the moment when he ends his total enslavement to the laws of nature, and this is possible if the will, understood . . . as energy at the disposal of consciousness, is able to go beyond instinctual conditioning and point out new roads to travel (Aldo Carotenuto, The Vertical Labyrinth, 66-67).
What lies behind this marvelous creative ability? How are we humans able to manifest this godlike power? What is the nature of the creative act and of the inspiration that propels it? Are some of us more gifted in this regard than others? What are the attributes of the creative person? How is such a person fostered and encouraged, developmentally? What happens inside the human brain, when something new is being generated? What is the impact on oneself and one’s culture of the creative act?
Defining creativity is not so simple as it might seem. Many books have been written, many studies conducted, in attempts to define this errant and freewheeling phenomenon. It has been viewed from neurological, psychological, experiential, spiritual, mystical, and cultural standpoints. Like individual facets of a crystal or the anatomy of the elephant explored by blind men, however, each of these explorations is both exhaustive yet incomplete. Creativity, its living wholeness, eludes our quantifying and qualifying efforts. It must be experienced in those white-hot moments when knowledge, skill and inspiration anneal, to be understood.
Why do we study creativity and debate its basic constitution? Because all of human culture rests upon it. All the endless problems of human existence depend for answers upon the ability of the human being to create, to move beyond accepted boundaries and to step boldly into the unknown.
History tells us that this courage to create is not without its penalties. Because it oversteps culturally accepted boundaries and taboos, the act of creation is just as likely to bring censure as praise. Therefore, the creative person must be armored in courage as well as inspiration, in order, as writer James Joyce put it, to create “the uncreated conscience of the race.”
For example, Copernicus conceived the heliocentric theory of the solar system, thereby initiating the Scientific Revolution. For his pains, he was mocked by the scientific community of his day and he therefore kept his communications about his theory as a secret to be shared only with a handful of enlightened correspondents.
All those who have something new to say pay the price of hatred and are subject to the law whereby no one is a prophet in his own country. Thus the fear of being creative has a structural foundation in the fear of envy. It is natural and correct to think of external envy, since envious persons really do exist and the persecution that they are able to inflict on us is real. But we should also realize that what actually paralyzes us is our own fear. Man’s greatness thus passes through a confrontation with whatever opposes our creativity from within. The struggle conducted to assert and express oneself is never primarily external: what is essential instead is the resolution of inner conflicts, which are those that give others the possibility of injuring us, and above all, take away our ability to express our true individuality (Carotenuto, Ibid., 63).
The creative act is ever a bold one, fraught with peril, overseen by criticism, both internal and external; an act that pushes back the boundaries of the known and exposes the new and the untried, in all its vulnerability. It is this vulnerability that limits the fearful in their creative attempts and exalts the courageous.
What is creative courage? Is it the opposite of despair, or a simple kind of stubbornness? Psychologist Rollo May says no:
This courage will not be the opposite of despair. We shall often be faced with despair, as indeed every sensitive person has been. . . . Hence Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair (May, The Courage to Create, 3).
The decision to live a creative life is a courageous one and always marks a defining moment in the psyche. Each of us must ask him- or herself: am I equal to the task? Obviously, not all of us can be a Copernicus or a Michelangelo. When considering one’s own creative abilities, it is important not to compare oneself with others but with one’s former self, and to discover the ways in which, creative act by creative act, one grows and transforms. The fate of our individuality depends upon this – and perhaps even the fate of the world.
Posted by Suzan at 7:44 AM
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Friday, August 19, 2011
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Some of my readers may have noticed that I post somewhat irregularly. Why, you may wonder, can’t I post the Quote of the Day, say, at 8 AM sharp, every morning? It seems like a simple enough thing to do and would certainly represent a courtesy to readers who must live by a schedule.
I have good intentions, I promise you! This very morning I had plans to finish up the blog I worked on until late last night, and then to let it rise into cyberspace with the dawning sun. I actually hurried through my morning devoirs: feeding the dogs and cats, watering the bees, watering four large segments of garden, vacuuming the house, dusting, arranging a huge burst of glorious wild oats in the big apothecary jar on the marble-topped table and oh! somewhere in there, gulping down some coffee and toast. You, gentle reader, were foremost in my mind, I swear to you.
I was in the act of sweeping the deck, where what amounted to a felt of dog and cat hair had accumulated since yesterday’s ministrations (will these animals never stop shedding?) when I spotted disaster! There on the threshold of the open French door was Panda the cat (think Sylvester), crouching in that posture that only incipient murderers assume, all tense muscles, pinned back ears and an aura dark as swamp water. And within his killer’s clasp, a tiny, helpless bushtit.
If you don’t have bushtits in your area, you have my condolences. They are among the most delightful of birds. Only about four inches long and gray with a brown head, they are somewhat bland, individually. It is their habit of traveling in small bands that delights. They arrive suddenly in the Ponderosa pines around my house, flitting nervously from branch to branch, as they pick at bugs in the pine bark. They are constantly communicating with one another in short little chirps and tsips that are both cheery and bantering. Then, suddenly, one will spot an anomaly in the environment, give a shrill tweet like a very small whistle blowing, and off they go, as quickly as they arrived.
This poor little creature had apparently flown into the house, become entangled in a spider web, and thus become fair game for Panda who, under normal circumstances is a better plumber than a hunter. She was still alive, I discovered, after my shrieked “NO!” frightened off the cat, and her little feet were as bound by spider web as any prisoner’s by shackles. The tensile strength of spider web is said to out-rival steel cable and this little adventure convinced me that this is no joke. I had a devil of a time picking the web off her scaly little feet, where it clung like Velcro.
I could see no blood on her, but her feathers were badly rumpled, with several pulled out altogether. I held her as gently as possible while I smoothed her. Her tiny beak was open as if for a scream and her entire body pulsed pathetically. I lifted one drop of water from the dog’s bowl and dropped it into her open beak. She shuddered, shook and continued pulsating. Three drops later, her eyes lost their look of staring shock and assumed that expression that any wild creature has when looking for an escape route. I offered her her freedom but she was still in no shape to fly.
So I sat on the deck in the shade and held her. I prayed over her. I channeled energy to her. I communed with her wild spirit as best I could, encouraging her to live for another day of carousing with her pals.
Finally, with a blink of her tiny, bright eyes and a shake of her head, she launched herself from my cupped palm and flew. Since several of her pinion feathers were missing, it was a bit of a lopsided affair, but it got her over the porch railing. By the time Panda and I had dashed to look over the side, she was gone.
And there is should have ended and blogging should have commenced. However, I made one small deviation up the stairs to my third floor bedroom and there is where my tale turns ugly. I admit that my housekeeping, like my blogging, is somewhat irregular. Combine that with an innate revulsion for killing any creature whatsoever, no matter how small or repellant, and you have—well, you have my bedroom ceiling, which is cabled in webs belonging to an ancient clan of Daddy-longlegs spiders (Holocnemus pluchei).
We keep our unscreened doors and windows open all summer long and we do not subscribe to spraying by pest control companies on general principles, and especially because we cherish our bees. This is roughly equivalent to running a classified ad inviting every flying, crawling, hopping and leaping insect to come to our house to stay--only more effective. Here the Daddy-longlegs and I are in league, forming a symbiotic bond: I do not kill them and they kill most of the rest of the critters that creep or wing through our portals. It's like having my own band of paid assassins.
So you can imagine the state of the webs that net my bedroom ceiling. In little silken hammocks swinging right above our bed are the embalmed bodies of numberless insects, their little legs crumpled, their wings still glistening, as they rock on the gentle breezes. And there are the spiders, which are large by spider standards, some of them measuring three inches, toe tip to toe tip. Rumors that they are venomous are false: they lack fangs or poison glands and must kill their quarry by ensnaring them in what must be among the stickiest of webs. The spiders and I have this agreement: they can stay right there and lay their eggs and renew their clan through multiple generations and in return, they do not drop on me in the night, nor do the rules allow them to drop any of their game on me, either. Fair is fair.
This morning, all the rules were broken. Clearly the bushtit had flown in the open French doors and become ensnared in the webs, had fought free valiantly, killing spiders in the process and littering our bed with countless bodies of a variety of departed species of insects, in the process. Her legs bound by web, the bushtit then apparently fell to the coverlet where Panda took over. Amidst the dead insects were numbers of tiny gray feathers and several smears of bird poop. I can forgive this last. I mean, imagine that you were in the grip of something a hundred times your size that was preparing to eat you. You might lose sphincter control, too.
The upshot of all this was that I had to strip and remake the bed, wash the bedding and vacuum the room. And consequently sat down to write long after I originally had intended. Someone once remarked to me, “You’re so lucky! I wish I had the time and money to sit down and write, every day!” I stared at her. The what and the what?
“The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men/ Gang aft agley,” Robert Burns reminded us, long ago. He also wrote an apology to a mouse that suffices for mine to the Daddy-longleg clan:
I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
And I swear to you, my gentle reader, that, but for a bird, a cat and an ancient clan of spiders, I would have been right on time with my post, this morning!
Posted by Suzan at 12:19 PM
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Monday, August 15, 2011
In my 49th year, I took to wearing sarongs. It was not just that they are cool in the hot California summer, nor exactly that they have no waistband, although admittedly, it was a time in my life when even elastic waistbands had come to seem cruel. Rather, my gravitation to this simple garment--a couple of brightly decorated, intricately bordered yards of Indonesian rayon--was in the nature of a revolution.
I was in revolt against everything that modernism and the patriarchy were dishing out to women as their new and "liberated" roles: the well-tailored power suit, the plugged-in electronic life, the frantic pace needed to encompass "it all" (which is what we are expected to want and strive towards), and gym memberships in perpetuity in order to maintain flat abs and a girlish waist.
Everything about the sarong symbolized revolution to me: its unstructured grace (a wrap and a half around the body and three turns at the waist--et voilà!); the fluidity with which the fabric falls reminding me to move fluidly as well; the erotic hint that it might easily come unwrapped. I lost mine on the edge of the Rio Grande river gorge outside of Taos, once, in a high wind. I took it in both hands as it slipped from my hips and flung it over my head like a battle banner or the sail of a proud ship, and laughed gleefully.
But the revolt went deeper: white as snow, myself, it yet connected me to women of color; having had the many opportunities the West affords laid at my feet from childhood, the sarong linked me to the multitudes of the earth's women who will never own a power suit, nor set foot in a department store where one is available, nor have the money to buy one, should they somehow manage to get there. This is where the real revolt took place: I was realigned in my psyche. No longer identifying myself as a middle-class white American, I wanted to be simply one thing: Woman.
The sarong was the symbol of that desire. It made further statements: I did not value the place in which American women had arrived (or been lured)--I would never find my true womanhood in a corporate boardroom. Limited as the options are for Third World women, horrifying as their lot in life frequently is, still I felt they had retained something we in the West had lost, a part of ourselves we have neglected unmercifully, like a dog on a chain left out in the backyard in the rain. Something about living on the earth rooted. It had nothing to do with the nobility of suffering, but much to do with how women are capable of suffering nobly. It was not a romanticizing of Third World women, nor a desire to throw off Western civilization and run away, nor a colonization of Otherness. Rather, it partook of a sisterhood of simplicity.
Further, my sarongs are decorated with creatures: the green one has sea turtles, the yellow one, butterflies, and the red one, salamanders. And flowers abound on the orange, turquoise and indigo ones. So when I wear them, I feel linked to the Earth and all her creatures. And the colors--sumptuous amethyst, rich terra cotta, heart-lifting cerulean--are so dramatic, so flauntingly un-conservative, so not-fashionable. This, too, became a part of the revolution--to wear the fantastic hues which civilization has edited out; to stop living in black and white; to reclaim the rainbow.
I made a political statement of wearing these long skirts (for that is really all they are) out in public--to the supermarket, or the chiropractor, to fine restaurants with heels and amber jewelry. I was fascinated by the response: in some cases, people refused to look me in the eye. I found I was causing acute embarrassment: I was different. It amazed me that something as innocent as two yards of lovely fabric could stand between me and public acceptability.
I have seen this same averted glance accorded to people of color, to young people dressed, tattooed and pierced flamboyantly, to the aged, the disabled, the mentally challenged, to gay couples holding hands in public. It was one of the ways I came to understand what a truly hothouse environment of fear we have created for ourselves as homogenized communal beings--how delicate are our tolerances for temperature, light and moisture--like hybrid plants that have shallow roots and no staying power.
Sarongs have become one of my banners. When it’s too cold to wear them as skirts, I use them for shawls and scarves. Snug in a sarong, I feel embraced by a sisterhood that lives simply on the earth, asks little and gives much, and that honors the beauty and diversity of Earth’s creatures and colors.
And besides that, the waistband is infinitely adjustable!
Posted by Suzan at 10:20 AM
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
I love to write strong characters. So I was thinking about the strong characters in my own background, one day, and remembered an incident that I’d somehow forgotten.
Shortly after my father’s death, I was traveling from the Sierra foothills to Santa Barbara, to speak at a conference. I turned off Highway 99 in Fresno, and headed diagonally south-westward, toward the coast. Highway 42 runs through bleak and barren land, which is the northernmost stretch of the Carrizo Plains, a rainshadow desert lying eastward of California’s coast range.
As I winged along through the stark, treeless hills, I began to receive a very urgent inner message: “Go to the ranch.” It could not have been stronger if my father were sitting right next to me in the car.
Now, the ranch this whisper referred to is La Panza --formerly a 56,000 acre piece of former Spanish land grant, lying deep in the Carrizo Plains. My father was born there, as was his father, and his father before him founded the ranch in 1863, after making a crossing by covered wagon on the Oregon Trail.
When the whisper urged me to turn off in Shandon and head out toward the ranch, I was balky and reluctant. The ranch is way-the-hell-and-gone off the beaten track, out in the middle of nowhere. I was on a schedule. I wanted to be in Santa Barbara before dark. I didn’t have time. It was too far.
When the Shandon turn-off came up, I turned off.
I hadn’t been to the ranch in over 40 years, yet I was drawn to it like an iron filing to a magnet. I never consulted a map. I let the power of the old homeplace reel me in. Out in the sagebrush, surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, their roots sunk deep into the aquifer that feeds the spring my great-grandfather first developed, was the adobe ranch house, just as I remembered it. Up the road a mile, was the original stone dairy, with the spring still supplying water to the stock ponds.
I pulled into the dusty yard of a modern house, which had materialized in my 40-year absence, and was immediately greeted by about a dozen cow dogs, sopping wet, and muddy from a hot afternoon’s romp in the stock ponds. In the distance, I could see several more, taking the afternoon sun, up to their shoulders in water in the elevated watering troughs. The dogs swarmed me, putting muddy paws up on my legs, by way of greeting. One jumped into the car, over the seat back into the back seat, and settled in, awaiting a ride. They sniffed me, and circled me, as if I were an alien who had suddenly landed in their isolated world.
Next came my cousin Judy’s husband Tom, silently materializing out of the near distance like a phantasm. A long, laconic cowboy, his presence was astonishingly vivid. Living with only occasional human visitors, surrounded by horses, cattle, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, snakes, rabbits, and lizards, he was an interesting merger of the civilized and the purely wild. He seemed as astonished by my epiphany, in a shiny red rental car and all gotten-up in fancy conference clothes, as I was by his silent and sudden appearance, moving quickly and gracefully in battered cowboy boots and faded jeans.
We’d never met. After it was established who we each were, I told him about my father’s recent demise and my sudden and irresistible urge to return to the homeplace. I thought my great grandparents might be buried somewhere on the ranch, I told him, and I wanted to find their graves.
To my surprise, he knew exactly where they were and offered to take me there. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was ensconced in an open-topped dune buggy, packed in with several muddy cowdogs, with more trailing behind in hot pursuit, as Tom and I bumped over a rutted dirt road, out into the sagebrush.
About a quarter mile from the house and dairy, at the edge of an arroyo, and part way up a shallow hill, was a family graveyard I’d known nothing about. Several marble tombstones leaned, lopsided and parched, in the sandy soil. Low twists of stunted sage had invaded the place. There was no fence to contain the area. The monuments clustered in the blistering heat and desert drought like a defensively-arranged herd of cattle, at bay against invading wilderness.
Two flat marble plaques were incised with the names of the departed from two family streams, the Stills and the McLeans. There were the names of my great-grandparents, great-uncles and -aunts, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. A great mob of the dead, some buried in that forsaken place and some merely memorialized there. There were Abram and Thomas and Aruna; Una, Da Birma and Mentley; Annabella, Ione, and Othor. All the strange names of my Scottish ancestors, who lived and died with ties to this strange place, so desolate, so unyielding.
Standing there in the heat and dust, I thought of my father as a little boy. How he learned to drink coffee from an early age, because the water had to be boiled against cholera, and coffee made the warm water more palatable. About his claim, made to me repeatedly during my childhood, as he tried to get me to drink coffee, “It’s good for you! It’ll put hair on your chest!” Mercifully this prediction has failed to come to pass and has brought me, instead, the echoes of my great-grandmother’s voice, who helped to rear him.
Or how one day, standing in the arroyo with his little brother, Tom, he looked up to see a flash flood bearing down on them, a solid wall of water 5 feet high. How he picked his brother up, and ran with him to safety. Eighty years later, the trauma of that event still creased his voice, and the wide-eyed, tow-headed boy manifested in the room, like a ghost.
In those few minutes in that stark place, I understood more about his character than I had in all the intervening 55 years of our acquaintance. There is no eradicating the mark such a place leaves on one’s character. One can only survive such an upbringing through stoicism, hard work, an armoring of the more sensitive and delicate emotions and needs, and a noble and clearly defined adherence to a strict Code of the West, which inculcated certain virtues: helping one’s neighbor; working hard; being thrifty; making do or doing without; honesty in the face of all temptations to the contrary. A character, in other words, completely at odds with the moral slovenliness of the modern world. A character founded in the innocent belief that all men are basically good, that a man’s word is his bond, and that meeting another man in this mode would automatically elicit the same ethical, friendly, and trusting response in him.
A character and innocence and a friendliness destined to be disappointed and abused.
Standing on that hot and parched hillside amidst the monuments of my ancestors, I saw the scroll of family fate unwinding, rolling down through the centuries, until it bumped abruptly against my own feet and came to rest. Something of the sad and proud burden of lives carved from a relentless landscape, lived semi-parched and isolated, creating from their own imaginations and industry and skill the necessary things, was my burden, too. Their fate was as entangled in my present one as the roots of sage are entangled in their bones. No choice but to follow the urgings of the dead, to uncover the story, to shape the myth, and give meaning to all our lives.
There is no way to understand how it all comes to pass. The lives of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents taper off into the mists, with just bits and pieces exposing themselves in the shifting vapors of time.
For instance, my paternal grandmother, Annabella Ross, told me when I was a child that her ever-so-many-great grandmother was first cousin and first lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots. I’ve wondered so often about this distant grandmother and her association with that unhappy queen, who was hounded and harried by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and finally, beheaded by her.
One thing history tells us--Mary’s four ladies-in-waiting remained loyal to her to the end--no small matter in a political atmosphere of intrigue and murder, in which people could be imprisoned and killed for their allegiences. I’m proud of that distant grandmother and her loyalty to her friend, cousin and queen. I hope that her genes are still part of my pool and that her character is instilled in mine.
All my life, from the time I was a tiny girl, I’ve dreamed of going to Scotland. I read every book in the library about the country and learned its folk tales and legends and history. I finally arrived in the Highlands of Scotland, a few years ago--that land my long-dead grandmother must have traversed so often on horseback, at night, in desperate, mad dashes ahead of pursuers, as Queen Mary moved from castle to castle, evading capture, in one of the greatest chess matches of history. When I first set foot on Highland heath, I felt, for the first time in my life, fully grounded, at home, at peace.
There’s no way to know how this comes to be. It is one of life’s mysteries how the ancestors speak through our blood, walk in our bones, know through our brains, feel through our hearts, informing us still, as if the centuries had not rolled past. As if we sat, face-to-face, before a peat fire, chatting. As if all this knowledge and wisdom and all the desperate fears were imparted yesterday, over tea -- or stranger still, as if we were our ancestors, returned from a long voyage to the New World, back on home turf again, our vision of the world expanded, but glad for the comfort of familiar hearth and home, the familiar bleeting of the new lambs in the emerald fields, and the knelling of the church bells, down the glen.
Posted by Suzan at 9:26 AM
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Friday, August 5, 2011
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Yesterday morning, at 3 AM, I came downstairs to find my old dog, Misha, lying stiff and cold under my writing desk. He had been ailing for some time and his demise was always in my thoughts, and so, I was not surprised. I got out my journal and began to write out my sorrow and loss, and to remember the wonderful friend who has graced my life for nearly a decade.
Misha came to me as a rescue dog who was snatched from the jaws of death by my friends Karen and Abbas, just minutes before he was to be euthanized. When he arrived he bore some completely bland name--Fred, perhaps, or Barney. Half-Pitbull and half-boxer, he was a beautiful brindle who pranced rather than walked, and who executed a perfect arabesque when lifting his leg. This last trait earned him his lasting name, Misha, after the nickname of the Russian dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
We did all the usual dog and person things: walks, snuggles by the fire, more walks. He learned a smattering of tricks; enjoyed the dog bones he earned; left crumbs and hair all over the carpet—the usual doggy behaviors. We had a good relationship but I was still grieving over the death of my Rottweiler and somehow, the bond with Misha wasn’t strong, a situation of which we were both aware.
But then one day, during a howling blizzard, I went out to get firewood. At the edge of the porch, my feet slipped and suddenly, I was launched into space. I fell four feet, landing flat on my back on the graveled garden path, knocked out cold. I have no idea how long I lay there. But when I came to, the falling snow had blanketed me and, to my utter astonishment, Misha was standing beside me.
But standing is too pallid a word for his stance. His four legs were spread in defiance of the fierce wind. His head was held high, with ears pricked and nostrils flared. And he had positioned himself along my side, to shield me from the driving force of the wind and from as many snowflakes as his body could deflect. I knew in an instant that he was prepared to stand that way all day and into the night, if necessary.
That was the turning point in our relationship. Finally, after more than a year, we bonded.
So yesterday morning when I saw his beautiful brindle body lying stiff-legged under my desk, there were really no words to convey my sense of loss. Around 6 AM I posted a quote by Emily Dickinson as a brief memoriam. Beyond that, there were no words to express what I was feeling.
So imagine my dismay, as I slumped, disconsolate, in my armchair, upon hearing what sounded like a shallow breath. And then another. And another! And my astonishment as, Lazarus-like, Misha slowly but surely rematerialized from the Land of the Dead!
I have no explanation for this, beyond medical marvel or pure miracle. To hear his tail thump-thumping against the parquet was the most heart-lifting music! To have him rise and stagger rummily about the room was the most beautiful dance! My friend was back!
And there are really no words that can express either the sorrow or the joy of that experience. I always assume that, as a writer, I can express the inexpressible. But I am mistaken.
With Milan Kundera I say, “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace." I know that each day with Misha, now, is a gift, pure and simple. Of course, it always was, but it’s easy to forget how precious and how brief a life can be. And when his time comes, I hope I will be as steadfast beside him as he was beside me, in the wind and snow.
I stand corrected. How glad I am to announce: rumors of Misha’s death have been greatly exaggerated!
Posted by Suzan at 9:26 PM