Tree Of Life

 

A poem for the season of Ascension and Pentecost...

 

 

Like whispering silk, the elm

Like Bridal Veil the birch

The Groom is gone...the Groom is come!

His Body is the Church

 

The Marriage Bond aspires

to realms beyond closed doors

A new vocabulary transcends

Past covenantal laws

 

Like Eden's fruit, the Vine

Transplanted now in Heaven's Acre

Wind whistles through the golden pine

Like tongues of fire, the sanguine acer

 

 

 

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Tree Song

I don’t know why the caged bird sings. But I think I may have finally figured out why the others do.

I take walks every day down a wooded path behind my home. Sometimes so many birds are singing it sounds like a choir. Other times there are only one or two at each turn of the path. Occasionally the songs sound like a dialogue, sometimes a Bach canon. But most often the sounds are clearly ecstatic, a brimming forth of some secret joy.

I believe I have discovered the source of that joy. Each bird is singing about how beautiful its tree is. How delicately shaped each leaf as it twists in the breeze. How the broad canvas of the whole creates ever evolving shadows on the ground. How the Fibonacci architecture of the branches leads right up to the sky.

Birds never sing about what time they have to get to the bird feeder, or whether they need a bath, or the bird next door, or even that tree they saw two weeks ago. They only sing of the beauty in front of them.

Each bird sings in its own language. Birds are very smart; each knows all the languages of all the birds. But when they sing of trees they sing in their own tongue, the one they hold in their heart.

And when they fly to the next tree, birds sing about how beautiful that tree is. And I agree with them.

I have never seen a tree that was not beautiful, from smallest sapling to startling senior. And unique – no tree the same as any other– even the aspen trees (which reproduce by what is called root sprouting and are in a sense one tree) are genetically identical but never quite the same in appearance. I wonder sometimes if  the beauty of trees has something to do with their uniqueness—and if we were more aware of it in humankind, we might see more beauty in each other.

Do the trees listen to the birds? I think so. Do they appreciate the praise? I’m not so sure. The lives of trees seem unconcerned with birds, or squirrels, or humans. They have their own purposes in their long lives.

What beauty do trees sing about?

I doubt we will ever know.

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Intimacy.

The wipe of lipstick from the man you’ve just kissed, or who refuses the wipe to publicly parade his delight in the dalliance,

The time graced between two siblings to sit on a sunny afternoon and chat without boundary or brass and be in the deity of the day,

And the late-night message from a colleague you adore working with, giving you a last crumb of information that’s vital to your work …

Acts of intimacy are more than those shared between two people indulging in sex, no matter how sensual, passionate or lustful. It isn’t only within the tantalising kiss and touch in pulsing pep and pizzazz, teetering on the tips of goose bumps upon goose bumps. While wonderful and glorious and erogenously insatiable, intimacy is more than that. Much more.

Intimacy is in the sharing of toast in the tranquil of sunshine reflecting off aquamarine seas, and the chasing after your lunch partner’s napkin that’s blown onto the floor.

It’s in that ultimate kiss where the son smacks purposeful lips on his mother’s forehead, a symbol of protection and guardianship, and in her flicking through his shine and tangle of mess and curls for no reason other than him being close by. Because she can.

It’s in the exchange of clasped hands where skin on skin is silky soft as polished surfaces suctioning in secret, smoothed from any tiny ridges and valley patterns that may beetle from fingers and palms.

Intimacy is the powerful exchange between friends over late night text after a long, long day, in the knowing that they have your back. Always. It’s in the familiarity and friendship, affinity and affection.

Intimacy is at its most striking when a parent must carry a sick adult-son whose death is imminent, and the son giving in to his need for dependent care.

Deep intimacy when stripped bare, exposes vulnerability, as a heart skinned to its core. It’s an unconditional exchange that comes on the tail of desire to give, to protect beyond every conceivable boundary.

That can pose a risk and to some, it’s a huge peril they can’t overcome, or see as the waiting monster ready to latch onto their feet and drag them well down into the depths of despair. Opening up and being vulnerable to the intimacy unlocks a siphoning window to be sucked into hurt because of being exposed to feel and connect with others.

As with most things, stepping back to see what’s what, smelling the roses if you like or watching the severed tops of an old olive tree hacked back with a chainsaw to a few thick limbs coming off the smooth, grey trunk, stark of olives and foliage, watching it bask in the autumn sun as if reaching to nourish its new growth. Taking that pause to reflect … it’s one of the graces we’re gifted with that we sometimes forget we have.  

Appreciation. Introspection, being honest and grateful for days so full of everything, even if the everything is clogged in anguish or memories that bleed from shattered hearts as rain blanketing in thundering storms. Intimacy if it’s permitted, allows for a debauchery of vulnerability that can ripple into forever as the most glorious, fabulous and wonderful,

As the most intricate spider’s web laced in early morning dew,

And the first flush of begonias hanging as fleshy flowers like little chandeliers, in all shades of the artist’s palette.

The key is to be open to it, allow the intimacy to stream in. Accept the risk, for the rewards are immeasurable.

 

Life is short. Break the rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly.

Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile.

                    ~ Mark Twain.

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Travel Notes: The Great American Desert

 

The Plains had always been peopled by nomadic groups going back to the Clovis hunters. The Indians still lived out there and seemed to be successful. Vázquez de Coronado and his Conquistadors were probably the first Europeans to fully experience the Great Plains. He and his expedition were on a fool’s errand looking for fabled cities of gold. He and his people marched from Mexico well into eastern Kansas before he gave up and went back. An early explorer, Edwin Thomas with Major Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition, labeled the Great Plains as the Great American Desert in his published account of their trek across this empty space. For years that description stayed in the public perception. Mountain Men and fur trappers would venture out onto the plains and into the mountains but not many others. Long’s expedition concluded that the plains were "unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture."  Free Enterprise turned a blind eye toward Long’s and others’ admonitions and in 1821, William Becknell pioneered the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri across the plains and through the mountain passes into Santa Fe, in what was then just becoming independent Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail turned out to be the interstate highway of its day. It became a military road in 1846 when the US Army marched down the Santa Fe Trail to occupy New Mexico during the Mexican-American War. New Mexico (actually named after the Aztec empire, not the country) became part of the United States officially in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. 

While I could not happily live on the Great Plains, I have always been fascinated by the tree-less and seemingly empty expanse. In April 2019, I struck out on my own expedition to follow the Santa Fe Trail across the Great American Desert. This account is just a small part of the story. The full story of the trip is HERE and my description and experience at three historic hotels I stayed at along the way is HERE. (My travel hobby is “collecting” historic hotels.) 

I left home travelling north and east from Bernalillo (founded c. 1620 and reestablished 1694 after the Pueblo Revolt) following the old Royal road from Mexico City to Santa Fe – El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – and picked up the Santa Fe Trail about forty miles along the way. 

Going east across the plains, my route was mostly on two-lane, black-top roads and I tried to avoid interstate highways as much as possible.  This was the high plains. If you ever wondered what was out there on the horizon as you crossed the plains on the Interstate highway or by train, I can tell you now that there is practically nothing out there. That being said, for a photographer or an artist, it has a stark beauty and a lonesome appeal.

The few hills that one sees at first as the road leads away from the mountains soon change to an incredible flat canvas where the sky takes over as the most prominent feature.

I could not live here but I am struck by the mighty presence of absolutely nothing. There are ranches out on the plains scattered every twenty miles or so and there is occasional traffic on the highway, but one has the notion of being entirely and utterly alone.

On earlier trips across the plains by train I have talked with travelers from Los Angeles and New York and Chicago -- people who have no problem navigating and experiencing city life –- and they have a sense of awe and almost bewilderment at the endless expanse of emptiness stretching to the horizon.

There are several interesting stops along the way. Two of my favorites are the US Cavalry forts that guarded the trail and imposed an illusion of order and control.

Fort Union – New Mexico

A few miles east of Las Vegas, in New Mexico, was at Fort Union – an important military post and supply depot on the Santa Fe Trail. At one time there were 4,000 people residing at the fort working in a military capacity or as outfitters and suppliers for the Santa Fe traders. The officers’ families were also in residence.

Fort Union is a grim and ghostly ruin today. Built of mud-brick adobe, it has slowly given way to the elements. There were actually three forts here. The first was a temporary outpost. During the Civil War a second earthen fort was built in the starburst shape equipped with artillery that never saw defensive action. There was a significant Civil War battle fought about thirty miles west at Glorieta Pass where the Santa Fe Trail begins to descend toward the town of Santa Fe. What exists here now is the haunting relic of the third and largest fort, built after the Civil War.

When I visited it was even more ghostly due to the fog and April snow showers. It was cold and miserable, and I imagine the soldiers stationed there were pretty miserable at times. The fort kept two crews working in the nearby mountains just cutting firewood for heat and cooking fires.

 

The Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible at Fort Union. Unlike the popular idea of single file wagon trains, the freight wagons usually went four or five abreast, so the ruts are spread out over a wider area.

Fort Union exists today as a National Monument with two park rangers on duty. The weather was miserable, and they were not very busy when I visited, so I had the place to myself. The fort is huge and was complete with warehouses and repair shops. There were enlisted men’s barracks, officers’ quarters, a large hospital, and (of course) a jail.

I could spend much more time at Fort Union. It is a photographer’s dream and seeing it like this in a spectral fog only made it more enticing.  I’m sure I’ll be back on a more pleasant day.

I was really just starting out on my trip. I crossed into Colorado at Raton Pass near Trinidad and continued on along the base of the Rockies to the old coal-mining town of Walsenburg where I spent the night at the La Plaza Inn, sort of a cowboy/workingman’s hotel from 1907.  The next day I was truly on the plains. I eventually reached the Arkansas River and followed it and the trail eastward.

Fort Larned

I hurried on my way through the Arkansas River towns and stopped at Fort Larned, another old cavalry fort about halfway across Kansas. This was a military post established to protect the middle portion of the Santa Fe Trail. Instead of adobe, Fort Larned was built of local sandstone and survives very nicely today - probably one of the best original examples of a US Cavalry fort.

One easily gets a feel for what military life was like in the mid-1800s at Fort Larned. Not much happened so it was a bit tedious with the usual daily tasks. Kansas in the summer is hot and humid and cold and windswept in the winter. The freight wagons came and went. There were no real “hostile” Indians by this time and the fort didn’t have a wall or even visible defenses. Unlike the much larger Fort Union, this was a trail-side outpost and waystation.

The Officers’ quarters were reasonably pleasant, and many had their families living with them. 

 

Life in the barracks was not as grand and the enlisted soldiers had plenty of tasks to keep them occupied. There was a hospital and repair shops and livestock that needed to be tended.

 

The fort was decommissioned in the late 1800s and became a cattle ranch for a while before coming under the authority of the National Parks as a historic site. Being made of sandstone, the fort’s buildings provided a ready tablet for early visitors to carve their names or messages in stone. Once the fort closed it was too tempting. People wanted to leave their names to show that they were there. I guess we are always seeking immortality. Some examples show some real dedication to the effort.

 

 

There’s even a cryptic reference to Kaiser Wilhelm in a couple examples. The fort closed before WW-I so it must have been a visitor (or a spy?).

I took a lot of pictures and spent enough time at Fort Larned that I was running far behind schedule. The rest of my day's trip across Kansas is something of a blur. I stayed in Marion, Kansas, at the 1886 Elgin Hotel – an amazingly restored three-story stone structure that offered a great stay. I slept soundly in the Dwight Eisenhower Suite.  

The next morning, I continued on my way to Columbia, Missouri, and eventually spent most of a week in St.Louis with friends and relatives.

 

The trip home was fairly uneventful. I was getting a bit tired of Kansas, so I made few stops and was glad to get back into New Mexico to see a few hills again. I spent my last night of the trip in Cimarron, New Mexico, at the St. James Hotel (1872) and stayed in Jesse James’ favorite room. With twenty-six murders or killings in or around the St. James, the place was the epicenter for the Wild West. Almost everyone from Buffalo Bill to Zane Gray spent time in the St. James and it seems some never left. One room is sealed off -- the spirit wants to be alone.

*     *     *

    

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Kindly Create

In the movie version of Harvey, the character of Elwood P. Dowd says, “Years ago my mother used to say to me... She’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’—she always called me Elwood—‘in this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

I do, obviously. It is one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite films. I don’t see six-foot-tall rabbits (or none I’m admitting to). But sometimes I think that something like his transformation may have happened to me. For years, I was smart, but being smart didn’t make me a writer.

Twenty years ago, I decided I was supposed to be a writer. I thought about writing. I read books about writing. But I wasn’t actually doing any writing.

So, feeling the years slipping by, I quit my job and headed out across the country, intending to write a book. Yet mile after mile, I wrote nothing, except a few emails about the amazing scenery and how often I got lost. Eventually, I gave up and turned toward home.

A thousand miles or so later, a butterfly got caught in my windshield wipers. I slowed down and got off the highway at the next opportunity, coaxed the little guy onto a sheet of (blank, no doubt) paper, and set him onto a patch of grass near some woods. He couldn’t fly anymore, but he could walk. I watched each slow, painstaking step until he disappeared into the brush. Then I got back in my car and on the highway.

Moments later, a poem came to me about the butterfly. Quickly, I dictated the words into my recorder. It wasn’t great poetry. But it was the first creative writing I had done in a long time.

That night, I sat at a desk in my hotel room and began to write. I didn’t stop until I had finished the entire first act of a play, and then, over the next few years, finally a book about that trip:  A Transcendental Journey.

Since I wrote A Transcendental Journey, so much of my life has revolved around taking care of family—a time that has also been the most creative of my life. I think there is a connection.

I began The Marriage of True Minds, my first novel, while I was taking care of my aunt Margaret, to whom it is dedicated. I edited the novel while staying with my friend Don in what turned out to be the last months of his life. The final piece of the story was based on the eulogy I wrote for my brother Michael.

A few years later, when both of my parents were diagnosed with health issues, I moved in to take care of them. My writing during those years consisted mostly of short pieces. But I think it is some of my best work.

After my parents passed away, I was lucky to be able to take some time off. I thought I needed it—needed to get back to being the person I used to be. I never did. I don’t think now I will. And I wouldn’t choose to if I could, as a man or as a writer.

In a year, I wrote drafts of two books, plus half of a third. Two were published this year: The Island of Always, an extension of The Marriage of True Minds, and Painting Sunsets, a story for young artists. The third book comes out next month.

I don’t really like the word caregiving: it is too one-sided. Caring for someone is a shared experience, often both deeply rewarding and deeply draining. But in each case in my life, I feel that some reflection of that shared experience, and of the person I shared it with, has gone into the work.

As a writer, my instinct is to wrap myself up in a solitary world—to live in the one I am creating. But I have realized that what works for me may be the opposite: turn out, see the world, do what needs to be done for the people in your life. And as you do, trust that the wheels are turning in your creative spirit.

Caring is the wildest fuel for the writing fire.

You may quote me.

A version of this piece first appeared in Publishers Weekly.

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I am absolutely one hundred per cent sure of that! Seriously! Just having a dog thoroughly reveals t...
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