Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Heading North

Despite the best efforts of the Mojave to hold me fast with its beauty and dear people, I leave today for Bend, Or. Thanks to my son, Matt; and my beloved friend, Fred K., every object I own is in a 5X8 trailer and my Vibe.

I carry with me the silhouette of the Joshua Buddha, 395 sightings of the moon; pressing my face to the rough bark of the old Joshua west of my cabin and breathing in its fine scent and the kindness of friends and strangers. I carry, too, the solid joy of knowing my second novel, Going Through Ghosts, will be published by University of Nevada Press in Spring 2010; and being half-way through writing, She Bets Her Life: women and compulsive gambling.

When I came to this medicine desert, I was one month away from my last casino bet. I was in the grip of recurrent opthalmic migraines. And raw terror. And no hope. I knew it had something to do with the withdrawal from the gambling that had had become my refuge and my reason to live.

I found a group of gamblers who didn’t gamble. I listened to their stories and heard my own. But they said little about the ferocious nature of gambling withdrawal. I hunted the internet, ordered books, but nowhere could I find information about the terror I was walking through.

I began writing She Bets Her Life. Slowly, my pain began to ease. Slowly. I came across information that made sense of the fear that at times had seemed a descent into psychosis. Slowly, I found the women of Scheherezade’s Sister occupying my thoughts and emerging on the page. The Sisters are a circle of women who meet once a week for Double Decadent Brownies, good coffee, talk and listening. Each of us, like Scheherezade, tells stories to save her life. We grant ourselves a reprieve of twenty-four hours, no more, no less---again and again.

I take the Sisters with me. They are becoming as dear to me as my Mojave friends, D. and D. I owe them and this desert for my life. I owe them this book.

My email stays the same.

Up the road, m

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


...and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn't worth a dime
And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights

---Leonard Cohen

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

---The Guest House
Jelaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

I woke this morning from a strong dream. I took my coffee out to the back of this cabin. There was a waning 2/3 moon above the old Joshua tree. Doves and sparrows swarmed the bird feeder. I opened my notebook to write the dream.
I heard my son yell. "Coyote!" The young black cat was hunting lizards. Coyotes hunt young cats. I looked up. Coyote ambled from east to west about twenty feet from me. The beautiful arrowhead face. The calm gaze. The deliberate settling into the shade of a blossoming creosote.
I began writing the dream. "I am in a dark interior. I know the place. It is the old city, an old life and an old love..."
Twenty minutes later, I wrote the last line: Oh," she says, "I was with him two years ago. That's over."
I look up. The coyote is gone.

Tonight, the uneaten black cat is curled up on a red cushion. I am back from a long sundown walk. Nighthawks had hunted in the soft air. My friend called as I walked. She told me of speaking river to a committee of drought. I headed west as she told me the story, my eyes on the ground to avoid the sun’s blood glare. Something shone in the sand. I stopped. It was a perfect owl feather.
I crouched and picked it up. "I just found an owl feather," I said. "You are Minerva."
She laughed.
“It’s yours,” I said.
The signal began to break up. We said goodbye. The nighthawks arced around me. Nighthawks. The merciless surgeons of twilight.

I cut away. Three bags of what once seemed indispensable go to the Joshua Tree Hospice second-hand store. I throw away pages of thirty-year old writing---warnings about our cruelties to each other and the earth that have turned out to be oracular; the epiphanies and sorrows of a woman waking to the reality that she had regarded herself as “less than” for most of her life; calls to awakening, to knowledge, to action. I tear each page in half. This is a ritual annihilation.
There will always be more words. As long as I draw breath. The words come through. I release them. Loss is the essence of a sending.

I go forward. North. This desert has been demanding and generous. There have been no work and few friends. There have been glare and molten heat. There has been nowhere to run from loneliness, inexorable aging and the imperatives of the only true teacher---the body. There have been Deborah’s open gaze; the good silence of the Joshua Buddha; my youngest son’s intermittent presence, and constant wit and kindness; dawns and twilights infused with mineral light. Through all of that, I have come home to imperfect shelter and been grateful.
Next Wednesday I drive north alone. I will go home to a little one bed-room house in downtown Bend, Or. There is a wood-stove and a half cord of lodgepole pine. Forests stretch to the south. I will live in a city---and the company of tall dark trees.
I am already lonely for the hard Mojave. But, that is the nature of a sending.



One week of intensive addiction treatment for free. I was poor. I knew it was time to take a break from main-lining my favorite drug. The clinic was famous. It was the favorite place for more than a few You Know Whos to dry out. I was one of the Who the Fuck Are Yous.
I drove south from Flagstaff on a brilliant June day. My drug-of-the-season had written from Algiers to say that It wasn’t working. Though our age difference wasn’t a problem, the generational difference was. “You’re horrified by political and cultural crap I just take for granted,” he wrote. “Hey, I grew up with it.”
My heart went hollow. Nothing new. That organ should have been not much more than a cicada shell. So, when the invitation came for a week of free shrinkage, food and shelter in a desert town, I thought Why not? Hardly the thought of a woman who had reached, as they say, bottom.
I found myself sitting in windowless rooms with people whose hearts were far more dessicated than mine. It occurred to me that being addicted to the millisecond when the guy I wanted bent in to kiss me for the first time, was a luxurious misery. I looked at the other drawn faces, the earnest eyes of the therapist and wanted only a window through which I could see the desert---in which ocatillo were blooming like slender torches.
After we had all cried and raged and earned a little temporary peace (call me a cheap date), I left before the free and intolerably fat-free dinner. The temperature had dropped to ninety-five. I walked out a paved road till it became dirt. A dry river-bed lay to the southeast. I dropped down into it and stopped. Shadows had begun to ease in. A boulder that might have been a two-ton garnet lay ahead of me in the shade. I sat down.
The river curved to the east. I lasted a few minutes on the boulder before the mystery beyond the curve, as always, drew me forward. There was the root-lace of a young cottonwood, snake tracks, a shredded 4-inch-high heel gold-lame sandal. And a few hundred feet downriver, there was another curve in the bank. I went.
And went. Around curves into the fading light, into gray-blue shadows pouring across me like mercy, into forgetting why I had come there. It was growing dark and yet there was always another curve.
I moved forward. There was a patch of damp sand. The scent of monsoons under a dry sky. A tiny pool reflected what was left of the light.
The Hassayampa River runs above and below the Arizona desert. You could take that as a metaphor, I almost did. Then in that instant of seeing the sky shining in the sand, I understood that metaphor was drier than the boot-tracks I’d left behind me. I bent to the tiny pool, traced its edges and ran my wet fingers over the stream of loneliness that ran from my throat to belly. An arc of silver rose just above the eastern mountains. I stepped into my footprints and walked back to my motel.

My road pal Everett and I sat in my beater truck in the parking lot of a Salt Lake City Circle K at 6 on Easter morning. Rain sluiced down. I’d picked Ev up in the SLC bus station twenty minutes earlier. We were fueling up before we took off on a six day casino and desert roads trip.
He turned on the radio and handed me two donuts and a big cup of near-useless coffee. “Hard to believe the Mormons made it out here without drinking decent coffee,” he said. “They must be...” The mellow sound of NPR cut him off. “Here goes,” he said. Bob Edwards brown-sugar voice said, “And, here is Susan Stamberg with NPR commentator Mary Sojourner.”
Instantly I knew I was hunkered down in one of more than a few intersections of heaven on earth. I listened to Stamberg interview me about my short story collection, Delicate and I figured I was one of the luckiest women in the world. I’d self-published the book. Her interview guaranteed I’d sell a few. And kick some corporate butt, since I’d vowed to sell the book only in independent bookstores. How much more could a carbed and caffeined woman want?
The radio voices faded. I started the engine. “Forward,” Ev said, “into the gorious unknown.” A few hours later we touched down in the Rainbow casino in Wendover. By the time we’d gambled until our eyeballs spun, snarfed down three plates of the all-you-can-eat Spaghetti Special@ $3.99 and listened to Damien and Natalie Lowe tear up the lounge with old Jackie Wilson tunes, I figured I’d landed in the second intersection of the divine and the corporeal. And, knowing there would be more seemed almost than I could bear. Almost.
Three hundred bucks and a scant night’s sleep in our hypothetically free room later, we headed west and north on the second most Lonesome Highway in America. Ev drove. I rode shotgun, which meant hunching over the topo map, tracing lines we knew were dirt roads and saying gleefully, “Turn here. Turn here.”
There was the abadoned double-wide near Montella and a battered kitchen table full of polaroids of dark-haired people with Basque names. There were mountains named Ruby. There was the joy of mutual nickle dalliance in Jackpot and the misery of three rotting Blue Grouse carcasses at the end of a dusty road. And then, we were headed west to the north portal to the Black Rock Desert.
We spent two days in the Black Rock. We saw two other trucks and almost no planes or contrails. We wondered if we had fallen into a crack in the world. Then we knew we had.
We’d been checking out the dark seams in the eastern mountains. We had long ago learned that In a landscape that seemed too dry for life, what seemed to be shadows on a mountain’s flank were often the entrances to water and lush green and tiny pale blossoms that seemed more light than flowers.
The dirt road faded into a two-track and was gone. We parked, hoisted our day packs and headed toward what we could now see was a hidden canyon in the low range. “Check this out,” Ev said. He pointed just ahead at what might have been a shadow in the sand. “Water.” Not quite water, but a patch of damp sand. And trickling into it from the mouth of the canyon, a tiny stream.
“It’s under us somewhere,” Ev said. “Let’s go see where it starts.”
We followed the stream up into the little canyon. There was a big cottonwood, rusted-out bedsprings of an old camp and the stream racing wild as any bigger river over cobbles and twigs. Ev went ahead. I crouched by the water and remembered an old lover Dead Bill teaching me to read rivers, not on the water, but by watching barrow ditches after a hard desert monsoon. “Look, there’s an eddy, there’s a rapid, there’s the smooth stretch.” We had tossed leaves into the brown water and watched some of them make it, some of them sucked to their end in a killer hole.
Ev called back to me. “You won’t believe this.” I came around a curve in the canyon and found him pressed against a water-fall no wider than his out-stretched hand. “This is it, this is where it all begins.”
“Yeah,” I said, “the Beginning.” He laughed. “Grooooovy.” We both knew that my cosmic take is stronger than his. He stepped back and I leaned back into the cool water. Ev looked up.
“No,” he said, “I’m wrong. It all begins up there. That’s an easy climb. I’ll let you know what I find.”
He spidered up the canyon wall and over the edge. I heard his delighted laughter. He looked down at me. “Who knows where it all begins,” he said. “The stream runs across a bare stretch where it shouldn’t be possible for water not to dry up. There are little flowers. You’d love it. Too bad your back is fucked. I’d spot you but there are a couple tricky moves.”
“Thanks,” I said, “for the pep talk.”
He grinned and backed away. I took off my shorts and shirt and sat in the damp sand beneath the waterfall. I don’t know how long Ev was gone. I don’t know if I drifted into a small dream or not. There was a hawks’ cry. There was something scritching in the rocks behind me and I was completely without fear or longing.
What I remember most is that when Ev returned we walked back down the canyon and followed the stream till it was gone. And that whole time, we were quiet. What was between us didn’t need words, only shadows and shifting light, only watching the color of the sand go from umber to pale gold.

Now, fourteen year laterI know more about how a dry streambed might be in the aftermath of a flash flood. I know there is a way a woman can be stripped down to bare grit. I know that she can survive, pick through the debris left by the flood and keep what didn’t kill her.
I live in a cabin on a mesa in the western Mojave. It is early March and seventy degrees. An old Joshua Tree rises behind the back of my cabin. I moved here in June. My first act on coming to the cabin was to free the Joshua trunk from a snare of rusted barbed wire and brads left by a previous ingrate. My second act was to stash groceries in the fridge. My third was to head out into BLM land five minutes from my front door.
Mountains rose in all directions. The sand was red-beige. I moved through clusters of Joshua Trees and skirted the openings to burrows. There were plastic bags waving from the creosote, moony pebbles and luminous desert lilies. There were rusted-out truck chassises and kids’ school papers dated 2005 and, though it took me a while to catch on, there were watercourses lacing through all of it. And no water.

For three years it had seemed there was no moisture left in me. I’d been abandoned by every drug I’d ever loved and some I hadn’t. There was to be no more gambling, no ghost of a lover, no shelter in work, no shelter in my illusions that I was an honorable woman, no shelter in my own body---I was driven frantic by unpredictable frequent migraines. All my fixes had stopped working, a more absolute dead end than if I’d been simply soldiering through not using them.
Ev and I had parted. I couldn’t blame him. A consuming affair and binge gambling had toppled the living architecture of my brain as though it was a row of dominoes. What had been left behind was a mean and boring woman. Nothing inside. Almost nothing outside.
I walked the desert every late afternoon and evening for 245 days. For months I carried a brain I wanted to tuck into the hollow in a Joshua stump and leave behind. There were no mirages. Just sand and rock, sky and wind. I’d run clean out of metaphors. I kept walking. Slowly, slowly, I began to see more and more. Rain fell four times. There was a blizzard and eighteen inches of snow. I kept walking.
By the third rain, a gentle rain, the delicate silver the Navajo call female rain I could smell wet desert. After the snowstorm, I found shining puddles and new channels in the dark sand. A stream of pure color ran down the north side of the highway - opal and rose sky running into the the wash below. A boulder held a pothole. I touched its surface and traced the lines of my face.
Last night I walked out to an old dead Joshua. I visit the tree most every evening. As you step off a dirt road and head southeast, you see what appears to be the gray shape of a hooded monk. I stopped and spoke. “I’m back, I’m glad you’re still there.” I moved forward. The Joshua Buddha did not move. Powerful concentration can be like that. Stillness. Only a soft breeze moving across your face.
Sometimes the transformation occurs within a hundred feet of the monk, sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Last night I was within thirty feet of the quiet figure when it became a bare stump jutting up from downed trunk of the Joshua.
The western light had gone saffron, the eastern mountains were pure dark. I bent to the stump and pressed my face to its rough surface. “Thank you,” I said. “You know.” I sat on the big fallen trunk. There is a deep crack in the bark. In it lies a tiny spine, the white bones perfectly articulated. I touched the spine, no more than a whisper of my fingers. “Glad you’re still here,” I said.
I drank water. The light cooled. When it was time to find my way back, I walked toward a sliver of waxing moon. There was just enough light to see dry watercourses and the lace-work of my own tracks. It happens everytime. No matter what new unmarked path I take across this desert, there is the moment when I move down into the dry bed of a tiny wash, find my footprints and follow them home.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

She Knew

...kiss the snake so that you may gain the treasure...

My mother, in her deepest heart, was a jazz pianist. She had perfect pitch, could learn by ear anything she heard on her cherished records. Satin Doll. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Oscar Peterson. Marian McPartland. “The best by the best,” she’d tell me.

She made music everyday, but I never heard her describe herself as a musician. My mother played only in the living-room of our home in small-town Irondequoit, New York, most often to an audience of no-one. Or to me, who couldn’t stay on key if her life depended on it. My father was a man of his time and did not want my mother working outside the home. She came to believe it was better that way.

I’m way outside the home. I’ve brought my notebook to the open cocktail lounge overlooking the Reno Hilton Casino gambling floor. It’s ten a.m. I left the breakfast buffet, ready to either gamble or write. The little cocktail tables and big soft chairs made my decision.

I open my notebook and hear piano music. A shiny white baby grand sits on the veranda just above me. The piano bench is empty. And, the piano is playing. Under a chandelier made of gold birds and purple globes my mother would have found atrocious.

The piano begins to play Misty , Errol Garner’s classic. My mother’s favorite song. I go to the empty bench and sit next to the invisible pianist. I watch the keys move, remember my mother’s small, sure hands, a cigarette burning perpetually in the ashtray next to her. Morning or evening, bright sun or shadow, she always wore dark glasses. Back then all that was missing was a blue spotlight.

A tall young woman walks by, pauses and looks at my hands folded in my lap. She grins, “You play very well.”
“Thank you,” I say. Misty was my mother’s favorite song. She died five years ago.”
The woman nods. My tears are easy, an old knot in my heart loosening. “My mother,” I say, “was a jazz pianist.”
“Wow,” the woman says, “lucky you.” She walks away into the slot glitter and jangle.

The piano plays on. I consider putting my hands on the keys and don’t. That was her gift. The words, and the empty pages in my note book are mine.
---White Piano, 1999
Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest

Dear Mom,
Thank you for playing Misty and Lullaby of Birdland and I’ll Be Seeing You. Thank you for teaching me the names of your saints: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington; John Steinbeck and Louisa May Alcott; Martin Luther King and Marian Anderson. Thank you for betting on death and insisting on life. Thank you for teaching me how to kiss the snake.

I have filled 320 pages of that empty notebook. I wrote at the roll-top desk that once reminded you of your father’s. I wrote on the battered back porch of the beloved cabin that is now a shell. I wrote on the shore of the Colorado River; on a basalt ledge near Wendover, Nevada; on a sandstone boulder at Muley Point in southeast Utah. I wrote in casino coffeeshops as I slammed down a comped breakfast that I had earned with five hundred bucks of deliriously joyful slot machine play.

If your soul hung around after your death in 1995, you must have been smiling as you watched me. There would have been a conspiratorial gleam in your eye. You might have whispered again what you told me on your death bed: “The biggest sorrow of my life is that the fucking depression kept me from mothering you and your brother the way I longed to.”

I know. I carry your genes. I move my fingers and make what is necessary and what is beautiful. More often than not, at best, my brain and I are in uneasy conversation---at worst, nuclear annihilation. You know.

So when I received the phone call a few days ago that told me that my second novel, Going Through Ghosts had been accepted for publication at University of Nevada Press---with unanimous approval, I felt the ghostly touch of your gifted fingers on my head. “Yes,” you said. I saw you as I had seen you an hour after your death. You were somersaulting through the air. You were laughing with pure joy.

Dear reader,
If you can find Errol Garner’s or Marian McPartland’s Misty, it makes the perfect soundtrack for this love letter.
It took over twenty years to write Going Through Ghosts. It took every moment of using whatever would blur the wars in my brain, of using what was killing me---and it took every moment of not using.
The body and the word have great importance. It is through their support that the true nature of mind can be realized. It could be said that, in a way, the body and the word are servants of the mind.
---Kalu Rinpoche

On May 27, I’ll drive north with a trailer loaded with what’s left of my belongings. On May 28, I’ll pull into the driveway of dear friends in Bend, Oregon. My work in Washington State softened the scars that were left in my heart and body. Without them as a carapace, the brilliant heat and glare of the Mojave are too harsh.
I go toward green and mountains and basin-range desert. My mother’s wise-ass smile watches over me.