I rarely take photographs. I tell my students that using a camera short-circuits the pathways that fix an image in my memory. And, a picture cannot bring in sound or scent, taste or dawn warming my back as I pray: For the furthering of all sentience beings and the protection of earth, air and water. I trust what surrounds me. I trust I’ll retain what I will someday need for the Work.
Not all memories make it into writing. Those that do rest dormant until a cue from the imperative to write brings them out. Here is how it works: I walk out the dirt road to the Joshua Buddha. Much streams in through the body into mind, loops through the heart and down the arm to the fingers on these keys: Sunset clouds, rose-gold herring bones against the blue dark. Soft air. A small wind brushing my skin. Saffron light just above the mountains. Coyotes screaming in the east.
I stop near the broken dry well in which lie more than a few of my words. One pewter-light day in December, I carried four journals to its rim and dropped them in. They were the record of a time when “much” was code for love, a time when I didn’t know that code is not necessary for love. I am learning. Clouds, light, wind and coyotes come into that emptied moment.
In four days I will begin a drive north. In the last two months, my life has spun into a new location, a new book and new hope. Jeff Guidry and the eagle Hanble Okinyan touched their story to mine and this circling began.
Come with me. http://eaglewalker1.blogspot.com/ Jeff took the photos of Hanble in her bath. He is a living camera. How else to explain water exploding off the jubilant eagle into spirals and auroras and splinters of diamond ice?
Jeff flies to Denali tonight. “I’ll send you pictures,” he promises, “I’ll have two cameras with me.” I am a camera. I think as I listen to him. So many gifts. I think as I imagine him standing on the glacier. He’ll be wearing old work boots. Standing on the glacier with all your heart is work. Being a camera is work. Light and pure cold and the glacier’s voice will be streaming into him. He’ll raise the camera to his eye and capture. He’ll leave the camera in his pack. And capture.
Later, we will swap stories. I’ll see his words. He’ll see mine. They will stream into our minds, loop through our hearts and emerge in the book we are making. The eagle, Hanble Okinyan will keep us honest. She demands beauty.
By then, I will have driven north on Route 395. I will have stepped into Warm Creek, felt the sand shift under my feet, crouched where the hot spring bubbles up. I will have parked my car at the base of Glass Flow and pressed my hands against the sun’s touch on the brilliant obsidian.
I will have met a friend in Reno. As I come into her presence, my mouth will be dry, my heart pounding---because I will not have brought myself into the presence of neon as brilliant as a Mojave sunset, and jackpots as elusive as a desert mirage, and the descent into what I still long for so often. I don’t know how I will drive past the casinos. Perhaps I’ll be a camera, nothing more.
Then, there will be the dirt road to a low butte. There will be obsidian needles shining in the sand. I wonder if I’ll take one. I have learned a different way to capture. Pages in the bottom of a dry well, clouds become a radiant fish, love shaping and re-shaping itself. Michael, A., Chris and Chris, you know.
Two days later, I will arrive at an unfamiliar house I can already see. My friend has sent me photos. He will step out his front door. He will have seen me from the window of the upstairs room in which he has been making his half of our book. I already know what will be in our eyes.
Laughter. Friendship. And the willingness to go further into the mystery of making.
I began to see that, when it comes right down to it, we are nothing until that nothing becomes so dedicated that it
is like a vessel through which good things can move, an instrument for receiving knowledge and sharing it with
others who might be in need.
---Bear Heart, with Molly Larkin
Eighteen years ago, three trucks drove up the dirt snake of the Moqui Dugway. The road rises 1100 feet on a 10% grade. The ascent can take your breath.
The first time I had driven it alone. It was 1982, I was forty-two and it was the first time I had spent longer than three days alone. A new friend had given me directions. You approach from the south and drive across flat desert toward what seems to be an impenetrable cliff face. Keep going. I followed his instructions. Suddenly the road curved east and I had no choice but to go up hair-pin turns, cliff-face on one side, drop-offs on the other. I remember keeping my foot steady on the accelerator of the rental car and thinking, “If I can do this, I can learn to do anything.”
Eight years later I was passenger in the lead truck. I was not alone. We were perhaps a dozen women and men and we were friends, lovers and strangers. Our trucks were loaded with river gear. We were headed for a trip on the San Juan River.
We topped out and headed West. As abruptly as any human change of heart, thunderheads moved in. There was no rain. The man I now think of as Dead Bill---no longer with rancor, but with affection---drove. I sat in the passenger seat and opened his beers for him.
Lightning slammed down into the pinon-juniper a few miles ahead of us. A thread of smoke rose. By the time we came to the strike, there were no flames. Only smoke rose from the little juniper. Some of us jumped out of our trucks, walked to the juniper and began to pile sand around its charred base. We waited till there seemed to be no more smoke. A soft rain – the Dine call it Female Rain began to fall. We climbed back in the trucks and went on.
It would be years before I would learn that sometimes a lightning strike in the desert makes glass. By the time I looked into a desert museum display case, saw a non-descript chunk of jagged glass labeled fulgurite and found it far more beautiful than the slab of emerald and cream malachite to its right and the wine-red chunk of garnet to its left, I was no longer the woman who had piled sand around the base of a smoking juniper. Had that woman known that there was lightning glass, she would not have asked the group to wait while she searched the ground for a glittering shard. She would have deferred instead to her lover, to his need to get back on the road and to his beer.
She is gone. He is gone. The group is gone, not so much dispersed by lightning, but drifted away on currents of alcohol, pot, betrayal and lies. The woman would herself disappear for five years, carried deep into loneliness by her own addictions and lies.
She would once have said that the disappearances were nothing but loss, and that our behaviors were cruel and tragic. Now, I understand the nature of juniper, lightning, smoke and glass. I see that addiction, lies and betrayal may be no less alchemical than the action of unearthly heat and sand. Now, my favorite chain of words has become: I don’t know.
I don’t know has transformed me from a woman who once would have googled lightning glass and ordered a piece from an on-line store, to a woman who walks the abundant Mojave, under skies from which lightning rarely descends, her eyes often on the ground, hunting for a glint of nondescript glass, knowing she may never find it.
I don’t know moves these words out of what sometimes feels like nothing, a nothing that is both frightening and welcome. I am a vessel formed by dedication, a vessel made from lightning glass.