Montana Wolf

Friday, November 14, 2014

Solo Power


The sun had not yet surrendered to winter gray in the Pacific Northwest; she rose into an azure sky through a frigid blanket of air named the polar vortex. I donned long underwear and loaded the kayak, despite friends' pleadings not to hit the water alone. I understood their concerns, but going solo brought me closest to spirit. Me, my camera and binoculars, no chatter, free to follow instinct. Besides, I was never alone. The drive into the Cascade Mountains was soul balm; fifty elk lazed in a meadow, their frosty breath puffs sparkling through the sun.

I arrived the wooded shore of a small lake on the flank of Mt. Baker. As was usual for a nippy, shoulder-season day, no other humans were around. The weather showed her raucous side as gusts kicked up whitecaps. I reckoned the high altitude windchill to be around 25-degrees. Yes, I assured myself, I would put in. Yes, I would head into the wind to the east end of the lake. For a strength-building, elbow re-hab workout, but mostly because that's the end of the lake that called to me.

I wore one glove, freeing the other to press my camera shutter. Gusts stopped me still, despite digging hard into the water to paddle. Then the wind momentarily died. I raised the binoculars and confirmed that the three distant white objects were not pelicans swept far afield by the approaching storm. They were Trumpeter Swans. Accustomed to their sedate behavior on winter valley feeding grounds near home, I'd never seen them on a high altitude lake. Here, they took on mythical proportions. The wind cranked up and blew me backwards. I paddled between gusts to stay in place, shooting shot after blurry shot.

I had halved the distance between us when the sun suddenly spotlighted their pearly plumage against shadowed trees. They floated, cloud-like on the water of their protected little inlet. Three graces, I whispered, come to dispense Caritas (Latin) or Charis (Greek).  Writers and poets throughout the world had referred to the Three Graces as the emanation of the Goddess: Aglaia, Brilliant; Thalia, Flower Bringer; Euphrosyne, Heart's Joy. This, the power of solo. That space to give the invisible an opportunity to materialize.




They were, on this blustery day, what my soul beckoned. -- the grace defined since pre- Christian times as "beauty, kindness, mother-love, tenderness, sensual delight, compassion and care." I gained access to their still inlet in time to see them lift into the sky. I sat in their wake as their wingbeat blessing rode the wind.




Calm Between Gusts

The Graces circled three times and disappeared onto the opposite end of the lake. I leaned back into the kayak seat, breathing the pocket of repose. Cattails rustled. Stunning Hooded Mergansers dodged and dove.  Mystery and mythology merged; all hearts beat as one.

Alas, the mountain spine readied to devour the waning sun. Shadows nudged as the short day pushed me towards riled waters. I stroked towards home, a paddle-pushing wind at my back.






Monday, November 3, 2014

Spirit Exhumed: Remembering Nora May






Everyone knows Halloween. Not as many are familiar with the traditional roots that surround it -- that the spirited costumes are linked to world-wide belief that this is a time when the souls of the dead return to visit. Treats are offered to appease, lest there be tricks and consequences. It is also a time of seamless communication with the dead. Thus, Halloween is followed by November 1st and the Day of the Dead, when altars to the dead are constructed. Rituals include a place setting at the dinner table for the deceased. Favorite meals and libations are taken to the cemetery (camposanto) and placed on the dead's grave. Any departed one you miss will do, even a precious pet; or perhaps there's someone with whom you have unfinished business and you want to clear the air over a bottle of their favorite single malt scotch.

Trumpeter Swans Return to the Skagit Valley
Corresponding to the Day of the Dead is the Celtic New Year. Like Janus, our January 1st God of Doors and Gates who looked forward and backward, November 1st marks the new year as we look back and forward. Thus we enter a time of new beginnings as the old dies. Dies, but is not forgotten.


So it was that on the Day of the Dead I was driving across the Skagit Valley and excitedly spied the first group of Trumpeter Swans, arrivals from their summer Siberian and Alaskan homes. So it was that I placed the past few weeks of my elbow break into a perspective to carry into the next season and fresh writing. So it was that the voice of Nora May, my great-grandmother, became louder in my ear from beyond the grave. For you see, until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Nora May. Then, these newspaper clippings surfaced from the early 1900's (the spellings are as they appeared in the original article) --

"Breaking into the basement of his own home last night, Albert Dunlap at 7 o'clock this morning brought a sordid drama of domestic unhappiness to a culumination in a flash of vivid tragedy when he murdered his wife, May Dunlap, who was sueing him for a divorce, and turned his revolver against himself, dying instantly."

Another article:
"Only last Friday Dunlap was released from jail, where he has served a 30-day sentence of intoxication and assault and battery on his wife. While in jail he wrote a letter to his wife saying that he would kill her when he was released. As he had made similar threats before, no attention was paid to the contents of the letter." Nora May was dressing out two chickens for her four children and her mother-in-law. She descended the basement stairs to add coal to the furnace. It was Thanksgiving Day.  

One newspaper account refers to Nora May only as "the wife." The other mentions her name once. Even in death she remained, "Mrs. Dunlap," the legal property of her murderer. This woman who garnered the courage in 1917 to have her abuser jailed, who worked to support her children in impoverished conditions, who played piano at church and dreamed of playing for silent movies, has no visible gravestone. There were no freshly-picked lilacs left for her on Decoration Day. No speaking of her name.

So it is on this Day of the Dead I build her an altar of words. I exhume her spirit, that this woman born on exuberant May Day, might live again through our stories. It is important to know that her genes flood my body. It helps me to understand who I am, as I remember Grandmother Velva and my mother. There is much to unearth, through myriad rich layers, right down to the newspaper prose and punctuation that told the tale. 

Once re-membered, perhaps a daughter of the future will be named Nora May, and this daughter will understand the courage and creativity that instills her name. 






Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Blackberry Zen and a Pinch of Hellfire

Heading towards Deception Island. I stopped here to photograph porpoise.
Little did I know what the island had in store.



I've hit single digits on the countdown to CAST OFF. Nine days to garner the lessons of the cracked elbow and broken rib and my unplanned journey into the land of constraint. One-handed peck typing. No photography. Gone was the cadence that attached my words to paper. My pen would not reach, no matter what contortionist moves I made. Erin-the-nurse was too good at assuring no wrist would budge. I have bounced like a ping-pong ball between love and hate: one moment, my spiffy purple cast a protector, the next moment a brig. Bottom line, surrender won, as I allowed my body the exhaustion it expressed, napping often and damping down the fire and air that inhabits my soul. I relegated air to utterances delivered on the wing of an osprey, the cackle of a raven, a chickadee chorus. As for fire, I laid naked in the sun at river's edge. And then one morning I lit the oven and commenced to make a blackberry pie.



Blackberry thickets abound in the neighborhood. Before fruit appears they are a tangle of vicious sharp tendrils that snarl pant legs and tear the flesh. Bloodletting is their MO. That doesn't change when shiny, dark juicy berries swell on the branch. Picking them is a slow, careful ritual. Especially one armed. The sweet explosions that made it to my tongue were the motivation for reaching into the bowels of the berry patch, as my fingers bid, let go, I will catch you. Oft times I lost my balance and the quarry fell to the earth, through a chasm of thorns, unreachable. The slower I moved, the more berries made it into the container. As if to taunt, Hobo prowled around, disappearing into the many tunnels he'd forged into the patch. Teak sampled berries at will, never once getting pricked. Songbirds ate seamlessly as I pondered "Breve orazione penetra" -- short prayers pierce -- watching my mind scramble to make sense of the moment. Comically, yes.

The days before my accident I was at the top of my game. I had sent manuscript pages to editor- Em, prepared to send them off. The summer was intoxicating with her gifts of kayak adventures, new women friends and an island lover. Snowmelt runoff over, I was looking forward to hiking above timberline, into flower-laden meadows, fully engaged with the muses, at the gateway of the invisible world. One slip on a boulder and I was re-cast, dreaming the words "red leaf urgency" and contemplating how the wind dies.

I froze three quarts of blackberries. The kitchen filled with holy aroma as the pie baked to perfection. I delivered two pieces to neighbors and watched the energy as the procession of friends, with whom I would share the bounty, momentarily stopped. Yes, universe? The pie sat on the counter, morphing into temptation at its worst. Heaven help me and my thighs if I continued to scoop luscious berry elixir into my mouth.

Then it dawned: the river. I thought about floating the pie downstream in the spirit of Moses, but didn't want to pollute with a pie plate. So handful by handful, I fed the pie to the rush of water that for months had filled my midnight dreams with longing; swept fears and trees down steam like matchsticks to saltwater's door. Like the Natives that offered tobacco to the spirits, I offered blackberry pie to my wild confidante, and prayed for grace. Not long thereafter he appeared...a Lummi Indian fisherman. When I extended my right arm to shake hands, I awkwardly stopped and switched to the left. No, no, he said. Do not apologize. Understand...to shake with the left is closer to the heart.

I have nine days to journey closer to my heart. Nine, the symbol of endings. Nine days to castoff.


"Then it dawned..." Sunrise out my door. The Skagit River.







Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Deception to Massacre: Alive to Tell the Tale (or Two)


Linda and I threaded our kayaks along rocky cliffs and scenic outcroppings, headed to a favorite deserted island for lunch. It was high tide; strong currents swept across the channel to infamous Deception Pass as I slowed to take photos. The azure day was dreamy-idyllic as I rocked gently on molten waves. I heard them first. A puff of breath every thirty seconds or so. A small, gray fin suddenly protruded in the water twenty yards in front of me. Then another. Harbor porpoises had come to check me out, the first I'd ever seen, as my state of mind continued from earlier that morning. Life couldn't be more perfect, I'd penned in my journal. I'd started back to work on my book the day before. I was ecstatic. Nothing foretold what was about to unfold.

Most of the island beach was still under water but we floated over rocks and managed to land on a narrow swath of sand. We secured the boats and looked around for higher, sunny spots to perch for lunch. Binocs and camera attached firmly to my torso, I studied a large boulder for footholds and handholds and ascertained that it would be an easy, fun climb. I was halfway up the steep, slick rock, reached out my left hand and it failed me. I went down on my right (write) elbow so hard that an electric jolt passed through my entire arm. I laid still for several minutes giving the body every chance to recover. Checked my camera. One, two, three...I sat up into extreme rib pain and an arm I couldn't straighten. Not good. I told Linda I needed to get back, not giving words to what I feared the most. My right paddle barely touched the water as I steered through exposed rocks. Oystercatchers flew low overhead as we reached deeper water. Linda chatted away, sometimes out of earshot. I hung on every imaginary word as my body filled with adrenaline and blocked the pain.

Urgent care, nurses, and x-ray technicians followed. The Dr. was in disbelief as he held up the pictures of my right rib and elbow. "You kayaked back with these two breaks?" Yes, gingerly... from the island, across the channel of passing boats and their high wakes and into Bowman Bay, where I bee-lined for the park ranger and asked for help to lift the kayaks onto the car. He asked where I fell, that far-off island I pointed. "Deception Island," he said. Of course, I thought as I rolled my eyes. Deception's currents had me paddling in place a week earlier. I had delayed this trip a day to assure my body was rested. In between my dates with Deception I'd been tossed across a sailboat that had run against rocks in Massacre Bay off Orcas Island. Serious left arm, left rib pain and glad to be alive. I could have launched airborne into the sea. Quite the week. No wonder I'd started to write again.

I've never broken a bone. Now I have two. I sit on the bed in tears, cradling my heavily-casted elbow. "I'm so sorry," I say."What did I do to you?" It's taken two days for the adrenaline to drain from my bloodstream and feel some calm. My mind won't shut up as I backtrack-search for signs and omens. I pick up Tolle's Power of Now to buoy my determination to stay in the present. Meanwhile I can't get my hair into a ponytail and I'm trying miserably to brush my teeth left handed.

I cancelled an appointment this morning that would have taken me across the Deception Pass bridge that spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. Even if I could drive, I'm not ready for that neighborhood. Deception and I, we'll get our meeting of the spirits. Some straight talk and deep listening. As for now I can't put this into words except to say, thanks for the porpoise.

__________________________

Thank you Carole, Hope, Linda, Lynne, Cap, Jeffrey and Joe...my solid ground those first few hours.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Sea-Change Shuffle

Baker Lake, a favorite kayak spot


A gnawed-on pork rib bone and a cold cup of espresso bookend my laptop. I've procrastinated all I can today. What one part of me proclaims to be a well-deserved rest from the written word, another calls an excuse for the whip. As if taking six weeks off from writing is the genesis of original sin. A seasoned editor at several publishing houses recently shared she is going to retire this year. She saw me through two book publications and told me that of all the authors she has worked with over the years I am the most tenacious; her compliment, a blessing and curse.

I arrived the Pacific Northwest on winter solstice to write the sequel to Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey. The universe, with the help of travel aficionado Rick Steves, had other plans, as I jumped tracks to exhume the out-of-print words from the "Land of Enchantment." New Mexico's Sanctuaries, Retreats and Sacred Places 2014 joined the digital and print worlds with 133 color photographs. The most arduous editing task of my life left me exhausted on summer's doorstep.

David and Hope
Hope's Graduation Day
My daughter Hope graduated from a master's program at the University of Oregon in June. I travelled to Eugene, whereupon her dad/my Ex, David, and I joined Hope for the special event. It had been twenty-two years since we had sat together. It was a deeply moving evening of memories, laughter and loving tears. I returned to Washington State and back-to-back visits by friends. Then I embarked on three weeks of R&R, kayaking Puget Sound, exploring thrift stores, hiking and dancing at the Edison Inn, a historic bar up the road where the local folks, from twenty to eighty, gather in the name of fun. Live music begins at 5:30 on Sundays. Perfect.

I also completed an interior makeover of  LaPerla, my travel trailer, adding new space savers like a maple magnetic knife holder. I've spruced up the colors with blue-green kitchen cupboard pull handles, purple window coverings and turquoise cushions. I upholstered a bit. All this as the nagging voice in my head kept asking if I was ever going to write again. You'd think after all of these years I could catch a break.

Gull with Clam
It is not a question of if I will write but how, as my spirit accustoms itself to this lush landscape. It is a time of dramatic evolution, from thirty-plus years in the arid southwest to the northwest's Salish Sea.  I have no answers, except to watch my hand, one click away from the sequel's computer file, my index finger poised to push. The move will not come lightly. I know what the the open folder means -- the possession that my will ensue in the commitment to words and cadence. I know the second Rick Steves interview, this time on Drive Me Wild, will air August 16th. I feel the liquid chrysalis state taking form.

Soon enough I'll toss the bone to Teak, swill the cold espresso and give that mouse a hearty click, intent to mingle play and work amidst the summer's sea change. Just one more kayak, please. And a few high-country hikes.

Kayaking island to island in the San Juans



Day's Gracious End on the Skagit River

___________________________

Thanks for stopping by and giving your precious minutes to my words. Visit www.christinanealson.com for more. Join me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/christina.nealson
And at this especially troubling hostile time around the world, be peace.
Heart,
Christina