Sadly, Simplifying The Checklist

I have been arguing back and forth with myself in the last few weeks. The problem is that writing is getting in the way of writing. When I started my blog I intended to write about art and poetry but then expanded into memoir, stories of life and observations of nature, nothing earth-shattering or so necessary that the reading community was waiting impatiently for my next blog. I did not write for fame or a certain group of people or to tally up followers. I wrote to hone my writing and in the process probably broke every rule my blogging advisor taught with the exceptions of giving credit where credit is due and meticulous spell-checking.

I wrote about what interested me and I read the posts of others who were doing interesting things. I am amazed at the creativity of the people whose blogs I follow, their discipline and determination to do their best work at whatever they were doing to make their mark on the world.

Recently I wrote about taking up the challenge of painting again and that I have done. I have found a renewed energy in seeing what I can do and thinking about what I will do next. However, my poetry sits neglected, poems asleep between the covers of the “Works in Progress” folder.

The argument I am having with myself is a sparring dialogue back and forth over the fence: How do you want to live your life in the present? How do you want to proceed with the remainder of your years? What is most important to your development as a poet and artist? What things do you love to do most? Is blogging a detour from your goals? And the shame voice weighs in – Are you a quitter?

I have had my doubts and arguments with myself about my art career as well but I keep at it in one way or another, no matter what. Poetry is relatively newer to me but I set a goal of studying other poets, reading poems, reading poetry criticism and laboring in anguish trying to write it, to make it perfect. I remember more than a few people saying “Do one thing and do it well.” I want to do two things and do them well and I find that life is full of duties, distractions, responsibilities, obligations and expectations. One needs a lot of time to do two things well.

I am on the serious downward slope of middle age. What I want to do now is be the best painter and printmaker, the best poet I can be while I am here. I also want to read more, spend more time with family and friends, meet new people and be more attentive to the ones I know. I want to100_1605 ride my bike more and explore the back roads of Arizona and the other western states. I want to be more present in nature even if it’s just the field outside my door. So I am going to take a hiatus from WordPress for awhile. I may chime in again someday, probably later than sooner.

I loved how each blog I followed was different, each person unique in their outlook, the variety of skills this community of writers, photographers, journalists, book artists, illustrators and poets present to the world. I truly am grateful and mindful of the kind human beings who have read my posts and do wish them all the success and fulfillment they want for themselves. I have checked off one more thing on my list of things to do – to say farewell.

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Of Faith and Geese

Fall has come quickly to Colorado, moving us to ask our annual question “Where did the summer go?” (We never seem to ask “Where did the winter go?”) Nature does not pay any attention to our timetable – if the hay is not in and the geraniums freeze then so be it. The sunflowers and thistle have gone to seed which causes small clouds of finches to fly in front of me as I bicycle along the roads which are littered with innocent skunks who tried to cross at night. The grasses in our field are now yellow and red-purple and sway in a northwest breeze. Recent rains have dusted the mountain peaks in brilliant snow.

While biking my usual loop around the western edge of town I pass a church with a steeple too modest for the building’s size, looking as though it was put on as an afterthought, like remembering your raincoat as you leave the house on a cloudy day. The steeple leans away a bit from the winds that come from the mountain passes. It is the only visible flaw in an otherwise perfectly bland and box-like church. Surrounding the church are fields where I often pass small flocks of Canada geese feeding in the grasses. I can ride within a few feet of them while they stand perfectly still. They are wary but seem to sense I am no threat to them.

A Foam Print From Long Ago

I have no faith or, I should say, I have no faith left for the edifices and organizations made for a God who seems to have deserted us. Like most human beings who once attended church and have read the Bible, I have questioned the existence of God or whether he existed once and no longer does. I ask myself what if I am wrong about my decision not to believe? In any case, my faith manifests itself in the certainty of the seasons and my belief that our earth is heaven despite our tendency to destroy each other and the environment.

I listen to the low, reassuring calls of the geese to one another, see the protectiveness of the elders for their young and their reappearance with new family members every spring. I watch the formations of geese honking through the morning mists and I am reassured by this enduring pattern of life.

The Geese

The belling of geese foretells autumn
as they fly in that efficient wedge
over the church with the leaning steeple.
This morning they gleaned the sod
under the blue vault of Heaven.
These congregants gather in the field
of late summer flowers, leading goslings
christened in dew, not yet in black collars.
Under feather cowls, eyes of black peer
at We, The People, and watch for Eagle.
The ganders lead the bishops and brides;
the least are priests in this procession.
Soft flutings say “follow me” or “I am here”
calling close their throng of young,
for under lake weeds and muddy murk,
along the shore in high grass and rushes,
lurk mouths that rise and part the waters.
The insistent rise and call of notes,
from brassy honkings to low murmurs,
query and answer back and forth.
The changing light, a frozen dawn -
“Where are you?” is the gander’s question.
One night and they are gone.

Judy Robbins 2013

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The impressive Santa Fe easel, the Julian easel for outdoor painting, paints and brushes, canvases and boards lay unused in my studio, reminding me for over two years that I had given up. The fire to paint had reduced itself to an ember and my attitude was one of discouragement and futility. The latest recession had hit most artists hard. Galleries were closing everywhere and it seemed everything arts-related was retreating and folding into itself including any belief that my art mattered, even to me.

I had not stopped making art, turning instead to a new technique in printmaking that I had learned in workshops over the course of more than a year and starting to explore paper collages. It seemed the printing kept me interested and curious about the possibilities of ink and paper and kept my imagination churning away. Still, I could not bring myself to paint.

The most difficult barrier for a serious artist to overcome is self-doubt. We see the art in galleries and publications and think “This artist is being promoted. Maybe I should try that.” It is good to experiment, to push oneself in other directions and new techniques but assimilating current trends in your own work is not the answer to overcoming self-doubt – it is a symptom of it. If the art doesn’t work, if it doesn’t feel right or look right and it leaves you feeling as if you are just thrashing around in deep water then leave it in the studio. Appropriating subjects and styles from other artists makes it look like that is what you are doing. Trying to duplicate the flavor of the month will leave you frantic. The only thing you should be taking away from artists you admire is to aspire to the high standard of quality in the work and their example of a disciplined work ethic if it is there.

I recently re-read an interview in the June 2012 issue of The Sun (thesunmagazine.org/issues/438/water-water-everywhere). Ran Ortner, a painter based in New York, won the first ArtPrize in October 2009 for his “Open Water No. 24″ painting, selected from 1,260 other works. He was interviewed by Ariane Conrad. Ortner had a lot to say, backed up by thirty years of painting, a lot of living hand to mouth and doing his research by reading about art and philosophy. Here is a quote from Ortner: “When you ask collectors what they’re looking for, they say they want to fall in love, they want to feel. But the academics are leery of feeling, and they make the rules, so the contemporary art world is cerebral and favors conceptual approaches. I don’t oppose the emphasis on intellect and concept – in fact I like it very much – but I do feel the passions are underrepresented. Humans are deeply emotional beings. We don’t rationalize our way into love, we fall.” Ortner’s well thought out and perceptive comment reflected what I felt but could not articulate as well as he has.

As an artist and collector, you may have visitors to your studio or gallery or encounter a work yourself that elicits a visceral reaction to it. People will say they “love” a piece and they very often mean it. It strikes them like a bolt of lightning and their eyes light up with the delight of recognition.  As Ortner proposed, you cannot rationalize love nor do I think there should be an attempt to elicit love or twist emotions out of people through manipulation. If you do try for an emotional response it may not be what you counted on, especially from an informed viewer. Personally, nothing turns me away faster, to name just a few examples, than sad-eyed puppies, children in vintage clothes and those galloping horses in Day-Glo colors which have been way overdone.

On either side of the art fence, conceptual or realistic, trying too hard for a reaction – shock, disgust, nostalgia, sympathy or sentimentality – is not an honest or sincere appeal to the audience. The appearance is that of an artist trying too hard – subjects and themes chosen by some artists look as though they think they have figured a way into hearts and minds without knowing their own hearts and minds. You simply cannot predict the feelings or tastes of a viewer. As Ortner states: “Our job as artists is to become powerfully personal in our work, and if we touch the source, the most central wound, the deepest of wells, we actually touch the universal.” To be an artist you must explore the personal – question yourself, your motives, what matters to you.

If you are an oil painter you may remember the joy you first felt when you took up the medium that gave such luscious color and texture and the startling realization that what was in front of you could be rendered on a canvas and emerge as some resemblance, depending on your talent and execution, of what you saw. You could paint for years like this. However, there is a next step in the maturing of an artist and that is to think deeply about your paintings and their subjects. You must be ruthlessly honest about why you are doing what you are doing in order to gain the confidence needed to go on. I can think of some questions you should ask yourself and answer from that “deepest of wells”: How do I (the painter) feel about this painting? Can I look at it every day and not grow tired of it or cringe a tiny bit in the center of my being when I look at it? Do I love it? So much so that it would be hard to let it go? Am I painting for an imagined market?arizona-02 020272958_192304414156304_8349596_o

When I finally picked up a brush again, at the urging of a supportive painter friend, I looked back on all the paintings I have done over the years, the ones I was most proud of and in love with, the ones that no matter what anyone else said I knew to be good paintings. I looked into at least one of the wells and experienced quiet and saw the simplest and seemingly emptiest of places. When I look out at the endless space or the loneliest bend in the road, the shadows of clouds moving over the landscape and the life that exists without my interference, I realize that this is what I love to paint. The feelings of self-doubt were generated by the marketplace of art but it was really self-questioning that I needed to process and which helped me better understand myself and where to start again. By doing what I actually love I can leave behind the “if” and “maybe”, those crippling uncertainties.

We are never really complete in our evolution as artists nor can we be. Creative minds are constantly turning over and producing ideas. My experience has been that if an idea sticks for a year or ten years then it is saying something about you and to you and should be addressed in some way, in some medium, through your art. When viewers stand in front of your work, they are not saying “I want to rationalize or try to understand the message of this art”, they want to be moved in that “deepest well” of their being and recognize that part of the universal that includes all of us.

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There Is Only One Way Out

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff PalaceOne of the Cliff Palace towers at Mesa Verde.

We can’t say we haven’t been warned. The ranger, a woman who would be considered elderly anywhere else wears her uniform with authority. She lists the reasons we should consider carefully before descending the trail to the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, giving us a chance to change our minds. We are gathered around her in a group of about 40 under the intense sun of southwest Colorado, some of us regretting we did not wear a hat (me). We are all tourists whether we came from a few hours away or an ocean and continent away. I hear languages I can’t identify and regional accents of the United States.

As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tourist is “one that makes a tour for pleasure/culture”. I would add we tour because of our insatiable curiosity to see the different, to stand in the actual presence of our history and to leave, if only for a little while, the routine, the ordinary, the crowded and close, the safe and predictable. I would guess that we are also present in this place for the open blue skies and the incomprehensible space of this part of the country and the mysteries hidden in its canyons.

Americans have been ridiculed for decades as boorish, loud-mouthed tourists, unaware of cultural differences, tasteless and disrespectful in our attire and intrusive with our questions. I have seen the images of large Americans in baggy shorts photographing the pigeons on the Piazza San Marco but now that everyone dresses like an American it is hard to tell who is from where unless it is their language. As I look around me everyone is dressed in shorts and T-shirts and sensible shoes except for the man from Arkansas wearing overalls. He looks flushed and asks if there is a railing. In this tourist group we are all polite and friendly, offering to take photos of each other. The Americans are their usual unvarnished and open selves. I find companionable comfort in being with them.

I mentally check the list of reasons the ranger gives that might prevent me or others from descending: bad joints, iffy hearts, decreased lung capacity, not enough water (me), fear of heights (my husband), symptoms of altitude sickness. The latter condition seems evident when I see people meandering through the parking lot between moving cars as if they are in a daze. With a little leeway in qualifications, I think I am ready to go but my anxiety increases when the ranger says that once you are down there is only one way out which involves ladders. It increases a bit more when she tells us there was a fatality last year. The group grows quiet except for the very young.

We start to file down a narrow rock stairway to the path. On a steep turn, I grab a juniper branch jutting out. It is worn as smooth as marble by the thousands of hands which have also reached for this anchor. I am feeling a bit smug. After all, I live at 7500 feet above sea level, bike regularly and have scrambled over many treacherous paths. I should be able to handle this better than the flatlanders. I also don’t want to be left out or left behind. I want to keep up, to forestall the day when I can’t keep up with others and with life in general.

I think that if you are of the boomer generation it is expected that you will keep fit, eat healthy foods because you finally know better, be mentally active or at least seem so and be comfortable with technology. This does not include multiple TV remotes (me). You are not expected to be irrelevant or sedentary in your 60’s and 70’s. It has been an intense course of catch-up for me in the past five years – learning how to use a PC, navigating around all the social media and information options, building a “web presence”, marketing online, trying to get back into shape. None of these things were required of my maternal forebears nor would they be seen climbing onto a bike or into and out of a canyon as I am about to do. Sometimes I just want to give up and live like an old person, with no expectations from anyone.

We walk along a path overlooking a steep drop and ascend the first ladder to the next path. With a smile and an “I’m ok” I pass on taking the hand of a young woman who reaches back to help me up. My denial of being an older woman knows no bounds unless there is a mirror in front of me. The ranger directs us to gather under an overhanging ledge of sandstone and sit if possible. She tells us that personal space is not an option and in this case we don’t mind, even the big Americans used to lots of personal space. There is something reassuring in a gathering of strangers crowded on a narrow ledge, backs and knees touching. It is a trust that no one will carelessly knock you over the edge while we huddle together in the shade.

The Cliff Palace looms silent and impressive with its galleries of stone rooms, juniper beams, kiva pits and granaries. I am most fascinated by the small windows on the second and third stories of the pueblo and imagine people looking out of them, watching for their families returning from planted fields on the mesa above, watching their children playing, watching for visitors – friend or enemy. They watched as I watch now this motley crew that is us, tourists in an utterly quiet place that once sheltered about 300 people. We learn that no burial ground has been discovered, only a few human remains in the trash pits under the common area. They were a practical people it seems.

When the time comes to leave it is by the only way out, three ten-foot ladders anchored in narrow stone passages, almost a vertical ascent to the top. I am nervous and breathing a bit hard but so delighted by my circumstances that I climb, smiling all the way, hand over hand, foot over foot. It is hard but even harder for the sheriff from Florida with bad knees. He is in rough shape. On the way up I place my right hand in the small hand and footholds carved into the rock by the cliff dwellers, smoothed from hundreds of years of use. These people climbed up and down the rock walls daily to work their fields and bring back food. I thought about how impossible it would be for an old person to climb like that, using only niches in the rock. When the practical cliff dwellers abandoned their homes in the fourteenth century, they must have had to leave behind some of the old ones who were too frail to make the exodus.

Perhaps if I had lived then I would have recognized the burden I would have placed on my people and accepted the inevitable. I would sit on the stone walls, listen to the wind and the ravens, remember the voices I loved and wait. But right now, in this time and place, I climb the strong juniper ladders, not wanting to be left behind.

If you would like to know more about the early people of the southwest and the author’s incredible journey to find their traces, I would recommend Craig Childs’ “House of Rain”.www.houseofrain.com

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FOR ALL THE LITTLE PEOPLE

There have been several younger men in my life recently as well as a couple of older ones, most of them strangers. There was Josh, the bee guy who went up on our roof twice to deal with a colony of Africanized bees which were a dire threat to anyone who ventured near. There was George, in his 60’s, who also went up on the roof (after the bee guy was finished) to clean and re-coat our roof. There will be no more water leaks on inside walls for awhile. There was the tire guy who pulled a screw out of my car tire, repaired the leak and put the tire back on – all for $20. Recently Anthony reappeared to iron out our cable problems and tell as many stories as we wanted to hear. Ray is pretty indispensable. He takes care of turning on our water and heat and switching on the heat pad on our roof so we don’t get ice dams here in Colorado while we are whooping it up in Tucson. Then there is Jack, who man-handles appliances through our too narrow doors, hooks them up and came back at 6 p.m. to readjust the dishwasher when a drawer was grazing the handle. Our lawnmower is being tuned up by Joe, the small engine repair guy.

We have depended on many service and repair people over the years as well as builders, propane delivery guys, plumbers and electricians. Almost without fail they have been friendly and competent. Some exceeded all our expectations in their level of skill. The one negative experience we had was back East, when a plumber who also held some village office accused us of “stealing food from the mouths of his children” because we dared to ask if he would install a Home Depot toilet in our renovated bathroom. I guess he felt strongly about our buying directly from him and paying his mark-up. I have a feeling his reaction was more to do with the fact that we were “people from away” than the actual impending starvation of his children. We managed to find a plumber who was more than happy to work with us and became our regular go-to guy for all plumbing problems.

They were all the so-called working class people because in America there is a class system whether we acknowledge it or not. (If you want to know more about our class system, read Joe Bageant’s “Rainbow Pie – A Memoir Of Redneck America“). Our working class guys probably graduated high school or a trade school, were trained by an employer in their specialty, learned on the job or were apprentices to state licensed tradespeople. I try to stay on their good side as I can’t imagine life without them. None came to my house who were not offered a cold drink, a coffee or something to eat. When we have had crews of builders a couple of gallons of iced tea were always available and baked goods delivered by me at 3 p.m. daily. None left without a sincere thanks for their work.

Remember Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean”? She was convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1989 and will always be remembered for saying “Only the little people pay taxes.” She was probably right. Helmsley was notorious for abusing her employees and firing them on a whim from their livelihoods. Her unnecessary empire would have disintegrated before her eyes if the maids, cooks, servers, laundry people, janitors, mechanical engineers, doormen – everyone who kept the machine running – had been in a position to say “Enough. You are on your own.”

I have sometimes wondered who would be necessary, who would contribute to their own and their community’s survival if life as we now enjoy it should end and phone calls could not be made to the people who fix our problems. Of course, doctors, nurses and EMT’s would always be needed and they in turn would need the people to keep the generators going. In my imaginary group we would need people who know how to harvest and split wood, people who know animal husbandry, carpenters, farmers, hunters and maybe a short wave radio operator since there is no Internet or phone service. We would need someone to salvage books and paper and teach, a blacksmith, someone who knowsImage how to build a kiln, someone who knows how to regulate irrigation and certainly a “sanitation engineer”. This all sounds like the way we started out.

I enumerate the ways I could be useful or even necessary. At my age it is touch and go about whether I would be left out on the ice or not. I depend on too many people who are stronger and more capable than I. So far I have come up with cooking, cleaning, sewing, taking care of babies and children, planting and cultivating a garden and canning. I could gut and clean a fish and probably skin a rabbit. I know how to change a bed with a person in it and could probably start an I.V. if I had to. I can clean and dress a wound. Does anyone know how to make face cream?

Imagining such circumstances and thinking about the skills you could bring to a group (we all need each other) is a good exercise in reminding ourselves of the things we depend on others to do for us, all those ordinary, working people we rely on to make a community function. Leona Helmsleys would not be welcome or needed.

At the end of the day when we are all sitting around the fire (which I can also build and cook on) if the group would like a story told or a poem read, I could do that too.

 

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My Summer Reading List

Usually I see them traveling north on Oracle Road here in southern Arizona, carrying heavy backpacks and wearing the essential hiking hats and boots. They look like they are on a purposeful journey. Sometimes they are on bicycles loaded with gear and sleeping rolls, pedaling uphill all the way. I have seen one quite inventive bicycle – parts welded together to make a platform for a dog who rode comfortably in style under a rigged roof which held the luggage. It provided shade for an old animal who could not be left behind. Last month it was a young man and woman pushing what looked like a garden cart loaded with their stuff. Four dogs, medium sized and extra small, looked happy to be included in the pack on a long road trip with their people. These travelers have stories to tell, I am sure, of why they left and where they hope to go. What a book it would make, contributing to the canon of the Great American Road Trip.

I will be traveling soon – back to Colorado for the summer and well into the fall. Closing down a house and deciding what you can’t live without for six months takes just about every brain cell I have. One of the first things I pack is my book bag so I know how many I can fit in and if there is a tiny little slot left for one more. This old, rectangular burlap gardening bag has served me well. When I come back to Arizona some books will be left behind and new ones will take their place. Here is a list of what I am hauling on the road this year. Are there essential books that come with you when you travel?

Ford County Stories – John Grisham, 2009. These stories take place in Ford County, MS. and should be considered part of the genre of Southern Gothic. Excellent stories which could join the company of those of Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and James Dickey. I have already read this book but am bringing it for my husband to enjoy.
Rainbow Pie, Joe Bageant, pub. 2010, Portobello. This is a real life memoir of “redneck America” (see above). The late author takes on a subject not written or talked about very much – the white, working poor of American.
The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, 2009, Ohio University Press, edited by David Yezzi. I have met Mr. Yezzi who is the executive editor of New Criterion Magazine and a poet as well. I trust him.
In The Bank of Beautiful Sins, Penguin 1995 and Beautiful Country, Penguin 2010, by Robert Wrigley. I picked up these books at a bookstore going out of business; what a find. I love his poems. Check out “The Bramble” in Beautiful Sins – a walk into the woods for berries (“my back flayed like a flagellant’s”) where he discovers a gruesome scene from long ago.
My Reading Life, Pat Conroy, 2010, Talese/Doubleday. Many readers may know Conroy’s novels “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides“, both made into major movies. This book is a memoir about mentorship, reading, book collecting and the influence of his mother on his becoming a great reader. He writes so well that this book is worth a re-read which is why I am bringing it.
My Wars Are Laid Away In BooksThe Life of Emily Dickinson, Alfred Habegger, 2002, Modern Library. I took a literary survey course this winter and this book was recommended as one of the best biographies of the Belle of Amherst. I think it is time I read more about her.
Dickinson – Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, Knopf, 1993. A little book, just the right size to stick in a bag for bringing along when you have to wait somewhere or spend the night in a crummy motel.
American Hybrid – A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, edited by Cole Swenson and David St. John, 2009. This book presents its poems as a synthesis of traditional and experimental styles, thus “Hybrid”. It includes biographical information on each poet.
Winter 2012 Prairie Schooner, University of Nebraska Press. Stories, poems, essays and reviews, including a portfolio of Native American poetry and prose curated by Sherman Alexie, one of my favorite writers. This book was forgotten on the bookshelf last year and I happily found it this year.
Crossing The Yard – Thirty Years As A Prison Volunteer, Richard Shelton, University of Arizona Press, 2007. I have read Richard Shelton’s “Going Back To Bisbee” and it is time for another look at his work. This memoir of a creative writing professor documents his role inImage starting a writing program at Florence, AZ. State Prison. Some of his students went on to become published writers.
Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman, Copper Canyon Press, 2007. This is a re-read for me since I want to absorb more carefully what he has to say in his book of memoir and essays on poetry and poets. Wiman is currently the editor of Poetry Magazine.
The Open Door – 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine, edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman, University of Chicago Press, 2012. Another re-read for me since you can’t read a poem just once.
The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman, Oxford University Press, 2006. This is a big book at 1,085 pages and has traveled back and forth a couple of times now. I find that if I read a poet somewhere I can usually find more of his/her poems in this book. I do not have an MFA in poetry. It would be nice to have but for the time being I have taken on a course of study on my own and every good book helps.
What Light Can Do, Robert Hass, Harper Collins, 2012. Essays on art, imagination and the natural world. Hass is a poet, essayist and Pulitzer Prize winner. I picked up this book at the Singing Wind Bookshop in Benson, Arizona, a jewel in the middle of the desert.
Bookbinding – Techniques and Projects by Josep Cambras, Barrons, 2007. I studied hand stitching of books and papermaking in college and would like to tackle at least one project this year. My reverence for books extends to making them.

My book bag is full but “Cather, Stories, Poems and Other Writings” is peering down from my shelf, making me think I might be able to wedge it in. I loved Cather’s “Death Comes For The Archbishop”, “My Antonia”, “The Song of the Lark” and “O, Pioneers”. Time to revisit her, too.

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Water Finds The Empty Places

River after monsoon.We lived below a mountain in a small village in New Mexico on what was once river bottom. The river had long ago become shallow, tame, lowered into the high banks that we would carefully walk down to dip our feet or stand above to watch it wind around the base of the mountain. What was once river bottom was where our house sat and the land was packed with rounded river stones. Cottonwood trees which had fallen as they tend to do, had drifted north and caught on the rocks or tree roots along the banks.

Opposite our house, next to the road leading to the village, were high mesas of sandstone and granite, embedded high up with layers of river rock and huge boulders. Hundreds of years of monsoon rains had eroded the soil into deep chasms littered with the huge rocks that had tumbled into their depths from the force of water. Soil had been eroded from the cliff faces to expose the underlying boulders, too small a word to describe their size. They hung precariously and always seemed on the verge of falling onto the road. Once, after a good rain, a man working on our house caught sight of one sliding a few feet down the slope to rest against a juniper where it stayed for the rest of our years there. There was talk of engineering a barrier to hold back a particularly threatening boulder looming over the highway but nothing came of it. I kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill to keep an eye on things in general and that rock in particular.

Our meek and burbling river, which shrank to almost a rivulet in dry summers, started in the Sangre de Christo mountains to our south. It gently meandered its way to the Rio Grande about a mile north of us, with diversions along the way to fill the irrigation ditches and passed under a road and highway on its journey to the big river. Every July we waited for the monsoons to come and make the river look like a river again.

One day, after a steady downpour which tapered to a fine rain, I turned to the window in my studio to see that the river had become a muddy maelstrom and had risen to the top of the banks. Outside, the odor of mud was the first thing that hit me, as if I had fallen face first into a black swamp of decaying organic matter. The author, Craig Childs, has written about this phenomenon so beautifully in his book “The Secret Knowledge of Water”: “…a raging dun-colored water that smells of all the villages and lives upstream that have been consumed.” (p. 173).

I ran to our bridge, a solid wood and iron masterpiece that was our only way out from the property, watching as gas cans, beer cans, drink bottles, plastic jugs, tires, sheet metal roofing and fence posts were carried along in the brown insistence of water. Enormous tree branches and trunks were like twigs tossed up and down in the turbulence. A cottonwood trunk, about 15 feet long, heaved under our bridge missing the cross planks by a foot. I could hear the clacking sounds of boulders like giant dice being rolled under the water. Within twenty-four hours the river had gentled enough for us to survey the damage and the changes the water had brought with it. Once familiar boulders were gone or re-positioned downstream. New sandbars had appeared. A big cottonwood log which had been tangled in the roots of another tree for years had been torn away. Corrugated metal roofing and cans had to be cleared from the river and sandbars. On a sandy bank I found a pair of eyeglasses.

After a deluge, cars would be backed up on the road leading into town, waiting for the water to cease flooding the arroyo and the metal culverts and flowing over the small bridge that spanned the arroyo. They also had to wait for the road graders to push the mud and rocks back to the edges of the mountains and mesas.

A young man, a father, would not wait and pulled around the line of cars to cross the bridge. He and his passenger were instantly swept over the guardrails and into the arroyo. He did not survive the water and mud that tipped the small car and buried him. When the engineers rebuilt the culverts and bridge after this incident, they worked carefully around the small cross and plastic flowers – a descanso – marking the site of his death. For days afterward, we would see the half-buried car lying on its side in the rock and sand below when we drove past.

If there is such a being as God, we are told he is willing to forgive us if we ask. People who love us will forgive us many times over the course of our lives and we take it as a gift. We even must forgive ourselves for our hurtful ways which is a more difficult gift to accept. Water, with all its unpredictable power, does not forgive the choices of the uninformed or  impulsive to test its power against themselves. It has no regard for the innocent and undeserving or the foolish who underestimate it.

Water changes the land, changes what is familiar to us. It diminishes the mountains through erosion, carves new channels, deepens old ones, rearranges landmarks, opens sinkholes and washes away cliffs. The boulders of ancient riverbeds and the chasms in mountains are manifestations of water. The descansos on the side of the roads and the arroyos, which will fill and flood again, are the memory of people whom the water changed forever.

NB: I owe a great deal to Craig Childs, an explorer and scholar of the Southwest and its history. You can check out his books, writing and photographs on his website: http://www.houseofrain.com.

Monsoon, monotype.

Monsoon, monotype.

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