Mystic Writer

Peeking out to see if there is a real world out there...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Crystal reflections

The strap on the crampon won't close, and I try to peer through the ice on my eyelashes to see what's wrong. It's too blurry in the light of my headlamp, and I reach up to try to claw some of the ice free. My fingers are frozen, clumsy chunks of numbness, and I'm only partially successful in clearing my vision. I focus hard on the strap, watch my fingers and move them without feeling, finally hearing the snap of the buckle. I hurriedly pull my glove back on. I can feel the cold of the fabric on the back of my hand and wrist, but nothing lower down.

I swat at the ice around my mouth and nose, break a larger passage to breathe, then clumsily work my gloves through the straps of my poles and resume my hike. The extreme cold has turned the snow to something as hard as glass, and the crampons squeal and crunch with each step.

The rhythmic sounds pull me into a reverie, and I have a sense of July warmth, a weepy humid night. I had called the night a steaming black hell in my first conversation with Lynnea as we yelled over the band in a bar. Despite the heat, our conversation had turned to cold as she told me of her desire to explore Antarctica and I had told her of my love of travel and my nightly winter walks in the extremes of Minnesota winters. It was an incredible conversation, passionate, funny, and in seemingly no time we were being told the bar was closing. More dates followed, and more conversations, ranging all over - math and magic to travel and politics. The days grew too short for all that we had to share, and each morning I would look forward to her first e-mail, and our first phone conversation, and our first kiss in the evening...

A sharp pain over my left cheekbone pulls me back, and I realize I've walked a couple more miles and the trail has turned to the east. The wind that was on my back is now on my left, and the skin on my face that isn't covered by ice is beginning to freeze. I pull my glove off and realize my hand is alive again, touch my cheek and realize it's waxy and very cold. I pull off my backpack and root around, finding a fleece face mask. I undo my hood, pull off my headband, and roll the mask down, wincing as the ice on my eyebrows and cheeks pull at my skin. I hoist my backpack and set off - I hope my left cheek hasn't been frostbitten again.

The first time I'd frostbitten my cheek was on a far below freezing late November day. Lynnea and I had set out on a long hike in northern Minnesota. We were following a trail along a wild river flowing along the base of a series of sandstone cliffs. Snow had yet to fall, and the frigid weather had frozen the water flowing through and over the rock into flows and spears of crystal ice, each structure holding a tiny image of the sun. We walked and climbed along the rocks, bumping and touching, chattering and sometimes quiet, each of us sharing the beauty that we found. In the months we had been dating, I had been trying to keep our relationship from getting too deep - I had only recently been separated from my wife, and I still had a lot of emotion tied up in my feelings about TB. That resolve crumbled that day.

I can still remember the moment exactly - I had lain down on my side to take a photograph of some icicles glowing in the sun, and then I had turned on to my back to snap a photo of Lynnea - she was standing looking up the river towards the low November sun. Sunlight was falling on her face, and light reflecting from the cliffs and river and ice made her glow - her eyes were focussed far off, and I could see by her posture she was holding her breath. Her face was rapturous, and when suddenly her lips parted to let the breath out, I could feel something inside me let go, something warm and tender, and tears flooded my eyes. I don't know what happened next - I know I didn't tell her I was suddenly deeply in love with her. For some reason I no longer remember, I felt I needed to wait.

We kept walking long, finally ending up at a waterfall where we lay side by side, gloved hands clasped and our heavy winter gear lightly touching from head to toe. It was another beautiful moment in a wonderful day, and the feelings I was having swelled to fill my world...

Suddenly I'm having trouble breathing, and I realize the trail has turned again, this time full into the wind. The ice on my face has turned to water and the mask I put on is sodden and it's hard to pull air through. I push my glove up between my face and the mask and look full into the wind. I breathe into the palm of my glove, force the warm air down, and in the brisk wind the wet mask freezes rapidly, and when I pull my glove away, the mask remains tented away from my nose and mouth. I start walking again, feeling despondent and chilled. I try to convince myself that it's just the exertion of pushing through the snow, but a more honest part of myself knows it's the next part of my reverie that is making me tired. With trepidation, I start walking again and resignedly resume my memories.

The drive back from our hike was long, and as we neared the city we pulled into a restaurant for a very late dinner. Our waiter was personable in the near empty restaurant, and he fit himself into the shared glow of our day easily. I remember feeling incredibly happy - my arm around Lynnea, her hand on my leg under the table, laughing and telling stories, my mind full of a future with her, and just as we were leaving the restaurant, I said something like "I think my approach to life is something like a tourist". I don't remember why I said that, but I have no doubt it was on topic and should have been innocuous. It apparently wasn't to Lynnea, as she suddenly became serious, and with a mused "That makes a lot of sense to me", she settled into looking out the window of the car. At first my feelings were hurt at the abrupt change in mood, then, as the drive lengthened and all my statements were met with monosyllabic replies I grew frustrated and then worried. When I dropped her off, she was pleasant but distant, and I went back to my apartment frustrated and tense...

The exhaustion of reliving that memory combines with the real physical exertion of miles of stomping crampons into rock hard snow, and I am shaky and weak, The trail is humping along a series of hills, and the night feels black and impenetrable. I still have a couple miles to go and I feel a hint of the greyness that has filled my life since that evening three years ago.

Lynnea and I continued to date, but her odd attitude remained, and slowly my feelings started to fade to something far more confused and frustrated. In February I tried to say goodbye, and she convinced me not to, but we couldn't seem to find any place happy, and not long after that we decided to try to be friends, and for two and a half years we exchanged e-mails and phone calls and went on outings, and finally, almost exactly a year ago, I said goodbye, because it was simply becoming too painful to be always wanting more than I could have with her...

The hills on the trail have turned to a long curving rise, and I know that when I reach the top it won't be long till I'm back at my car. My long reverie past, I suddenly notice that the snow is glittering, tiny points of light showing everywhere, and then I notice my shadow, inky against the blue white of the snow, and I turn and see the edge of the moon above the far off horizon. Suddenly filled with beauty, I hasten to the top of the hill and see the shadows in the valley seep to the edges and disappear. The branches of the trees below have crests of snow, and everything is edged in twinkling brightness.

Suddenly I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the beauty in my life, and for the future I am turning towards. I pull off my mask and hold my arms out wide, spread to touch the moon, then speak a prayer for health and beauty and good to enter my life. Without thought, and with a mounting sense of excitement, I whisper an invitation to the wind, destined for she who can share my life, strength adding to my strength and joy to my joy, and with that whisper still twirling in the wild night breeze, I find a smile and set off again, following my path with strong and happy steps.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The trail less traveled

Several years back I found myself with a couple days free, and having long been separated from the color and feel of stone, I drove like a madman across the great plains from Minnesota to Utah. The first spot that called to me as I entered Utah was a well known area called the Fisher Towers.

I set out on the trail slow, legs and body stiff from more than a day in the car, eyes fuzzy and mind fogged from lack of sleep. The cool air and the warm sunlight glowing from the rock enlivened me, and suddenly a slanted stone face with nothing but sky at the lip pulled, and I gave in. With a couple steps to gather speed, I jumped, pistoned my foot, scrabbled with the other, then with a lunge got hold of the lip and pulled myself up. On the far side, the ground dropped slowly into a valley, cut by deep gulleys and populated with house sized boulders, and on the far side a massive crack in the upper cliff face offered access to whatever lay beyond. It was irresistible.

The valley had hidden treasure - small golden blossoms, tucked in the shade of the boulders but bright in the reflected light, and I slowed my pace to admire as I worked my way across. Reaching the enormous crack, excitement again filled me and I leapt up to the first canted ledge, using the momentum to jump to a boulder, then springing towards a thin ridge of rock that ran up the center. I landed clean, took a long step, pushed off unevenly and the next step caught the ridge with only the edge of my boot, and with a terrible off balanced mix of gravity and inertia, my leg torqued and I slipped off the ridge. I managed to twist to save my face, and a last minute grab kept me from falling further. I hung where I was for a moment, badly shaken, then eased myself to a more secure position to examine things. It looked bad - several oozing scrapes on my bare arms and hands, a tiny gouge in my thigh, and a long razor thin cut starting above my ankle and ending near my knee.

I tested things - no muscle injuries and my joints moved without pain, and I decided to continue my hike, though now with a plan of making a loop back to my car. I climbed slowly along the crack to the lip of the valley, then walked along a huge flow of slickrock. It steadily gained altitude, and eventually I could see glints of sunlight and I knew I was seeing the parking lot and I change my course towards my car.

The slickrock ended in a sharp cliff, and I followed the edge looking for a way down, finally arriving at a series of three hanging box canyons that cut through, utterly lovely in their near perfection. The sides were vertical but only about 20 feet tall - getting to the bottom of the first canyon was easy as I could choose a path from any of the three sides, and there were numerous cracks and footholds to use.

Getting to the bottom of the second was a bit more of a challenge as the only access was over the lip where the water had flowed from the first canyon into the second, and the face was largely smooth and somewhat undercut. I took a long time deciding how to proceed, finally choosing the best option and noting that the bottom of the second canyon was deep in the smoothest desert sand. I climbed down about 6 feet, then, arriving at the undercut area and seeing no alternatives, I jammed my left hand into a crack and gripped a knob of rock with my right, lowered my body till I was as close to the floor as I could get, then with a snapping pushoff, I dropped toward a featureless patch of sand, fully expecting a cushioned landing.

My feet hit, the left landing soft and easy. The right did too for a moment, and then suddenly there was a horrible jabbing into the outside edge of my heel, and too late, I let myself roll backwards into the sand, trying to minimize the impact of my foot.

It hurt. It hurt terribly, and I was afraid to look. I lay there on soft sand, looked at the square of perfect blue sky, tried to ignore the pain that pulsed with every beat of my heart. I listened to the breeze rustling the dry plants, then squashed a thread of thought as to whether I could use them as a splint for my leg. I noticed the golden blossoms sprouting at the bottom of the canyon walls, tried to find my earlier sense of wonder.

It wasn't working, and I sat up. My ankle was turning blue above my boot, and I could see it was beginning to bulge a little. I thought about taking the boot off to see what had happened, then realized I might not be able to get it back on. A second later I came to another realization that I didn't really want to know what had happened, at least not until I was back at my car.

I rolled to the canyon wall, braced against it, then stood on my left foot and eased the right down. No grind of bone - that was good. Lots and lots of pain, but it was bearable, and so I limped to the lip of the final canyon. It was nearly identical to the one I had just come down, and I had a moment of real fear thinking I might have to do the same sort of descent. I quashed the fear, then took my time looking for a series of holds that could get me to the bottom.

It took longer than I wanted, but finally I figured out something that might work, and I started my descent, incredibly slowly, making sure there was no possibility of mistake, and finally I made it to the bottom and started heading towards the parking lot across the desert floor. There was no elegance to my walk - I chose the most direct path possible, pushing through creosote tangles and becoming intimate with the endless spiny flora of the desert.

The final half mile was a sharp ascent to the parking lot, and I did it at a crawl. I arrived at the top, pulled myself to my feet, rounded a boulder and stopped. Directly in front of me was a woman - tanned, fit, top of the line hiking gear all freshly laundered. I stared at her, trying to think of something to say, but ended up standing slack jawed, my leg and arms still bleeding, my knees scraped and clothes torn, face bruised and ankle blue and swollen.

She looked startled for a second, then seemed to settle into some familiar social pose, and with an elegant British accent, she commented "I was thinking of going off trail", then, after a pause, she followed with "Would you recommend it?".

I pondered answers, thought about the question, thought about explaining my condition, then smiled, lopsided because of the bruise, and answered "Yes".

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sleeping with the moon

I don't pay much attention to the calendar and only note the days as to whether I have my son or not, but I do pay attention to the sky, and I was delighted to see the full moon on my drive in this morning. Three full moons ago I turned a corner, finally letting go of Lynnea and turning towards a life without the endless pain.

It started with a weekend on the far side of Wisconsin with my cousin Reb - her divorce from Henry had been final for several months then, and it was the first chance we'd had to spend some time together. Talking on the phone with her is fun, but I think it puts her into some sort of literate clever part of her brain, and it never feels very intimate to me.

Reb and I are close and always have been, though sometimes months and maybe years go by without us really opening up to each other. When the times come, they are deep and only slightly guarded, more so on her part than mine. I always suspected that, and this weekend she mentioned that she kept barriers up from me, which makes me a little sad but I suspect I understand.

The weather was gray and weepy, and Reb wisely chose for us to meet near Lake Michigan. Our first several hours together were spent walking the beach in the rain with the surf hissing and pounding and the gulls wheeling and calling lonely.

It was exactly right and Reb and I walked together in the flow, voice, mood, and motion a part of the waves and sand and wind.

Come evening we found a motel and sat talking till 6 in the morning, and after a short sleep we had an early lunch and then another long walk on the beach in a world turned remarkably wild and cold. The waves were playful and caught my feet several times though I tried to avoid them - such a silly game of tag, and such a joy to play.

The drive home was pure flow - endless long prairie and corn fields and rainy gray.

The day after dawned cold and bright and I realized it was my day for Glacial Lakes, a place of profound power and peace for me, and so I left work a bit early and drove there, arriving just before six. I ritualistically chose my clothes - blue shirt and utterly loose and breezy navy shorts. My walk wound up steep glacial kames and down into blue water filled hollows - the slant lit grass was blue and black and endless gold graced by hawks tracing the tight contours of land and I walked well and strong and long.

Just as the sun had set behind an enormous mound of grass covered hill, a trio of deer - buck, doe, and yearling - sprinted up and into the gold swirl corona of light. They leaped right, left, and into the sun, silhouettes of joy and grace, and I cried in grateful abandon.

Later I, still tracing contours and following a line of forest, rounded a corner and found the full moon huge and yellow floating over a hillside golden with the last light of the day, and I laughed in glee. I talked to the moon, intending a wish, but instead offered my love to the moon, then in gusts of silly happiness, I offered to make love to the moon, and there, embraced by trees and grass and the last calls of the day, I found a playful wildness dancing with me and I surrendered to the moment, unbridled and trustingly free.

Later, much later, after the stars had wheeled a bit and more miles had been traversed in darkness, I saw my car, still a long hook of trail away and tucked in a hollow, and I stopped and again looked to the moon, now more austere and silver bright. I looked long, then gathered up my light and gave it to the moon, and then from deep in me, unbidden but true, I made a wish that my far off friend might feel that light...

Friday, December 05, 2008

What I like about you

A couple weeks ago, my son asked if he could have a piece of his birthday cake, and I replied "Only if you eat a healthy dinner and have a good attitude". His attitude was marvelous, and the dinner was as healthy as I could make it, and of course he forgot his birthday cake and settled in to playing with his transformers while I cleaned up.

I settled in with a book on the couch, listening to his amazing repertoire of battle sounds and the growly voices of transformers come to life, and then, after a moment of quiet he came pounding over and with a leap he was standing next to me on the couch "Do you remember what I would like?", he queried. I replied "I do... do you remember what I *always* like?".

In the same tone of my answer came "I do..." and then he was in my arms for a big hug, and as I held him there, I said "There are many things I like about you, and I want to tell you two of them". I could feel his body change a little and I knew he was listening. "First, I like how even though you are strong and muscular, you are also incredibly snuggly", and I tightened my hug and gave his hair a kiss. "Second, I like how you come up with amazing things for your transformers to do, and I like how you can give them voices and make so many different cool sounds".

I could feel a happy wiggle, and felt wonderfully happy myself, and suddenly I felt him bunch up and he said "One thing I like about me is that I'm FAST!" and he jumped up and started to run. When he hit the wood part of the floor in his socks, he slipped and fell with a huge crash, and I winced to see it. For a moment after impact he was taut, and then I saw him relax and he eased down flat on his back - I heard him say as he looked at the ceiling, in a calm, musing tone "Another thing I like about me, is that I'm incredibly tough...", and he lay there for a while, for all the world looking as if that was where he wanted to be.

I like that I can tell him things I like about him, and I like even more that he can find things in himself to be proud of, even after he's experienced a fall. I am truly blessed to have such a wonderful son...