Sucker Punch

There was a loud whoosh as the bank’s vacuum tubes deposited the clear plastic canister outside my car window. “Is there a lollipop?” Pema asked. She and Ada were in the backseat, angling for a treat. I reached my hand out the window and took the can, then opened it in my lap. There were three lollipops, actually, plus a few Tootsie Rolls beside my deposit slip. Ugh, I thought, waving politely to the teller behind the huge glass window. She meant well.

 

“Is there, Dada?” Pema asked again. She and Ada giggled. I fumbled around, acting like the paper slip was important to me. “Nope, not this time,” I said, closing the canister back up with the candy inside. “Aww…” said Ada, as I deposited the can back in the slot. “Okay,” I said, shifting the car into drive, “now to the post office.” We began to roll forward.

 

“No, wait Dad! Look!” Pema shouted. Having inched forward, her seat was now advancing directly past the translucent can on her left, plainly revealing the candy inside. I cringed. Pema, bless her heart, thought I had made a mistake. “Yay!” Ada shouted. The car continued rolling. “Wait, Dad!” Pema yelled, as if I had forgotten the brake. “No, we’re not going to have lollipops today,” I finally declared, then turned into the street. “Aww…” said Ada. “But why?” asked Pema. I didn’t answer.

 

*

 

Last Tuesday, the Earth Children, Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, walked back to Bone Canyon. It was our first day of the school year, and while some of the kids, like Pema, were with us last year, it was the first time for many of them. It was also, in some sense, the first time for me.

 

Last year, I was a part-time volunteer. I began attending simply as a caring father – it was how I spent my time with Pema anyway – but then I fell in love with the kids and the kinds of things we encountered together. We were like a little clan, or family. I believe it’s fair to say the children came to love me too, and, luckily, Silke was keen on having me. I wrote about some of those experiences last year, but I hardly scratched the surface on their inner sweetness. This year, I will be with the school full-time, and I’ll even be getting paid.

 

Throughout the course of last year, Silke and I also fell in love. Any sane person would step lightly in such territory, mixing work and love life, and I do. But one of the reasons we work together so well is that we hardly talk about it. There is a silent compact of trust between us, and between us and the kids. And yet, the silence is taut with comprehension, like a good story.

 

Every day after lunch with the Earth Children, we lie in a shady spot and listen to a story. Sometimes Silke tells it, sometimes I do. Sometimes we both tell the story, passing it back and forth like a football. The stories often revolve around activities we encountered during the day, but sometimes they’re just fanciful quests or simple joys. As we listen, the leaves in the trees shuffle and the sunlight shimmers. Or sometimes we hear the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm. In the winter, we huddle close around the fire. This has come to be one of the sweetest moments in the day. Long after I’m old, and all these children have grown into adults, I will recall these moments.

 

So, I quit my day job.

 

*

 

On the third day of school this year, the kids and I were scattered under a canopy of trees in a dense forest. Having had lunch and rested, Silke and I were nominally packing up while the kids played with whatever was at hand. The girls were busy riding log motorcycles and falling in the leaves, while the boys were lighting fires with sticks. My hat had already been burned to a crisp, as had most of the trees in the surrounding forest.

 

At first, I just rolled my eyes. Boys, especially in groups, are so plainly aggressive. Girls are too, but they’re usually more subtle about it. Suddenly, one of the girls stood up from her motorbike and got a very, very long stick. Turning to all the boys, she declared provocatively that she had the biggest and longest fire-maker of all. For an instant, we all recognized her boast. Her stick was plainly superior. But then each of the boys began loudly defending their own stick, making increasingly bombastic claims about its violent emissions. Voices were rising, no one was much listening to anyone else, and the game was growing out of control. I was on the edge of jumping in when the other girls, unable to ignore the ruckus, grabbed sticks of their own and added their voices to the hubbub. I remained quiet for a moment and just listened. One girl even grabbed an entire branch that had fallen off a nearby tree, its dry leaves flapping noisily in the air. Everyone was shouting, vying for superiority, or at least inclusion. But no one was actually doing anything.

 

*

 

I’m reading a book entitled On the Origin of Stories. The subject seems plain enough, but the crux of the book is a thorough study of evolution. Why, the author asks, do we tell stories? What is the biological advantage to us as a species? Surely, we crave information, but - and this is the author’s particular focus - why are we so interested in stories that, from the beginning, both speaker and listener know are pure fiction?

 

I cannot share the full scope of the book, which is richly annotated with citations ranging from biology to anthropology, psychology and literature, and which has a broad impact on social theory. Instead, I wish to highlight only two points: 1) storytelling is a form of cognitive play, which allows us to learn about, and prepare for, uncommon situations, and 2) storytelling is about getting attention.

 

*

 

As I drove away from the bank with the girls in the back seat, I was feeling guilty for lying about the lollipops – why didn’t I just tell the truth? Growing up, the word we had used had always been sucker, and I sure felt like one now. But what was interesting was that Pema and Ada could hardly have cared less. They were perfectly engaged in the backseat, Ada with a small stick that she said was a strawberry lollipop, and Pema with an old drinking straw, which was raspberry. They were amusing themselves in a friendly match of whose lollipop was bigger, or tasted better, or lasted the longest. It was hard to keep up, because the game evolved rapidly, turning down blind corners, then disappearing and showing up elsewhere. It wasn’t long before the lollipops, which were still lollipops, were now also babies who had lollipop mamas who put them to bed. Though considerably more cordial, the game was not unlike the firesticks back in the woods. Each back and forth was a subtle move for dominance, or attention, and with each passing remark the ante went up.

 

*

 

There is one child at school – I’ll call him Peter – who has a habit of ending almost every word he says with, “…right?” As in, “we’re tigers, right?” or “we have to climb up the hill to get the treasure, right?” Other children have similar tactics, but his constant repetition sticks out, first like a nervous expression, then as a lovable trait. In reality, he’s simply attending to the level of attention he commands from his friends and playmates. We all do this, whether speaking to an acquaintance at the grocery store or a harried mother with two wailing children. We watch for subtle clues to see how much others are paying attention to us – the direction of their eyes, the expressions on their faces, the tenor in their voices. The fact is, we are constantly vying for each other’s attention, and we have an array of skills to determine if we have it or not.

 

In the process of elaborating his theory, Brian Boyd, the author of On the Origin of Stories, refers to Multi-Level Selection Theory. It’s an awkward name, but it gets at the crux of what I’m referring to - the tendency to constantly assess whether we have someone’s attention, or trust. When we think of evolution, we usually think of competition, but for social creatures like you and I it can be quite different. One on one, competition rules in most circumstances – meaning that competing for your own advantage is usually the best strategy. This is how it is for snakes and owls and toads, and humans in most situations. But cooperation within a group, often against another group, is the decisive trait of a social species, and humans above all others. It is what allows us to hunt in groups, to defend ourselves against predators or cheats, and to build cities and governments. But competition within our clan is still vital, as is obvious from all the social climbing, the castes and aristocracies, that pervade nearly every human culture. In other words, from a biological perspective, we are constantly assessing whether we should cooperate or compete with others.

 

The result, after evolving for millennia, is an impressive ability to read the intentions and expressions of others. No other animal even comes close in this regard. Boyd brings up the point that even the whites of our eyes, called the sclera, evolved for precisely this purpose – so that we can read each other’s lines of sight. Try to follow the line of sight of a dog or a deer. We can follow their faces, but not the small inclinations of their eyes. In contrast, we can determine exactly what our friends, or enemies, are looking at almost instantly. In order to survive, we have become capable of reading the subtlest cues on a person’s face, or in their voice, to determine whether we should trust them or not. Most of us perform these tests in milliseconds.

 

So - why do we tell stories? We do it, in part, to practice the art of trust. Storytelling gives us not only a chance to play with subjects we could not really play with (fire), but also a platform for us to try out our wares. As a storyteller, I can watch my audience and determine when, if ever, I have them, and when I’ve lost their confidence. As an audience member, I have opportunities to practice and hone my skills of observation. If the story grabs me, I willingly give my attention even though I know the whole thing is a fiction, but if it falls short I look away, yawn, or check my email.

 

But we don’t just sit in line and wait for our turn to tell a story. Storytelling is competitive, and in order to attract, and then retain, attention one requires a litany of skills. One of the ablest ways to do this is through surprise. Why do the children constantly up the ante, blasting more and more fire onto the forest and each other? To get attention! It’s not enough to burn a tree down if someone else has already done it. The sky must burn too. The whole earth. And when everything is gorged on fire, what draws our attention then? Water. We must put it all out.

 

*

 

A man I respect, whose work focuses around communication within close-knit groups, like corporate boardrooms, once told me something about myself. He said the door to my imagination, and here he swiveled his finger like a swinging cat door, doesn’t close properly. I hate when people tell me things like this (in itself a telling quality), but I immediately resonated with the thrust of what he meant. My stories, even when I know them to be false, are potent for me. It is not hard for me to differentiate between fairy tales and reality, but it is hard for me to parse them apart, especially when I have other people (like children, or Silke) confirming their reality. For example, charged with the care of a particular doll, I will often continue feeding her long after the kids have left and forgotten all about her. I also don’t believe in magic crystals, but if you give me one I will be sure to keep it.

 

At my worst, this makes me selfish (and a little superstitious), but at my best it makes me an excellent storyteller, precisely because I already believe it myself. I have long recognized that I have a knack for gathering people’s attention. This is most evident in person, when I have the advantage of my eyes and face, my arms and legs, to pull the story into the minds of my audience. I can see it happening, I can feel it - the way we all, including me, are suddenly captivated by the story spewing out of my mouth. But what’s most interesting is that, as the storyteller, I am captive most of all.

 

That’s why I picked up this book.

 

*

 

I was listening to Pema and Ada recount their lollipop stories in the backseat, feeling guilty about having lied, wondering if I should say something or just let it go. Or, if I were to be really fair, I believe I felt guilty for being caught in a lie. I’d like to say that’s because I’m just such a wonderful and honest father, but I don’t think that’s true. Fact is, if Pema had never seen the lollipops in the canister, I would have driven away and never given it a second thought. No, if I’m to be honest with myself, I believe I felt guilty because my story exploded in my face. “Nope, not this time,” I said, closing the canister back up with the candy inside. As I did, I folded the story over my own two eyes. Not this time. I nearly pulled it off. I almost believed it myself. We were even driving away. But then I was sucker punched by my own daughter.

 

*

 

I have the nascent scent of something. It’s easy to think, when I’m recounting something to adults, that I’m just telling the truth, but storytelling with the kids brings out the poignancy of what storytelling really is. The fact is, I think I’m always telling a story, even when it’s true.

 

But I'm only on the trail of all this, sniffing it out. My interest is partly in how to tell a good story, but the trail keeps leading me further, deep into my own psyche. I have long known that I simply enjoy the expression of creativity, with or without an audience. I also enjoy the esteem I sometimes receive after I’ve told a good one. But what I’m beginning to discover is something more like this: I tell stories because I want to believe.

 

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Rattle, Part I

Once upon a time, more than a hundred years ago, there was a little girl who grew up in New Mexico. Her mother was from the Pueblo and her father was Spanish. As a child, the children at school picked on her, calling her names and saying she was just a dumb Indian. Her mother, who felt the European way was easier, didn’t dissuade them. But once a week, after Sunday mass, she took the little girl to visit her family at the Pueblo and so the girl knew some of the old traditions. However, the children there wouldn’t approach her. Looking from afar at her Sunday dresses, they would turn to each other and mock her, saying that she looked like a white devil. On these days, the little girl spent most of the time alone, wandering the old trails and listening to birdsongs.

 

Once, when the two were visiting the mother’s family at the Pueblo, and when the little girl was eight years old, her mother handed over a rattle made from a gourd. “This rattle was made by your grandmother when she was about your age,” her mother said, then nothing more. The little girl was surprised, because her mother usually kept old things like this from her, preferring to buy the girl dolls and toys from the store, a fact of which the mother was proud.

 

The little girl took the rattle on her walk. The wooden handle was smooth and worn, and she could feel where her grandmother, whom she had never met, had once placed her fingers and thumb. The gourd, once painted a vibrant blue and white, was now chipped and faded, but she could still make out fantastic creatures painted on every side. Some had horns and four legs. Others had wings, but the one she treasured most was a long serpent with the head of a coyote.

 

The little girl often took the rattle with her on her walks, and as she listened to the songbirds she would gently shake it in response. Sometimes she simply let the rattle fall to the rhythm of her steps. She grew quite fond of the little rattle, and she often felt like her grandmother was speaking to her through the seeds inside. After a year, she came to her mother and asked her, “Mother, I would like to know how to make a rattle. My grandmother made one when she was my age and I too am now ready.” But her mother responded coldly, “I’m sorry, but I cannot teach you.”

 

Disheartened, the little girl continued on her walks till one day, as she was following a raven in the sky, she came across a rundown old hut made of sticks and mud at the edge of a wood. It looked empty, but she was curious. There was only one window and an old wooden door. She leaned through the open window, which had no shutters, but it was very dark inside and she couldn’t see much of anything. Then she shook her rattle playfully. Suddenly, an old woman’s voice called from inside. “What have you come for?” she asked.

 

“I’m sorry to bother you,” said the little girl. “I was just walking by and I thought no one lived her.”

 

“You were wrong,” said the old voice, “But come in, come in. I don’t often have visitors.” The little girl was hesitant, but the voice sounded pleasant and she didn’t have anything else to do so she opened the old door and stepped inside. It was dark and dusty and it took some time for her eyes to adjust, but soon enough she could make out a table and two chairs made of willow. In one of them sat an old woman, covered in a deer skin blanket. It was much too hot, thought the little girl, who was only wearing her Sunday dress, but she shrugged her shoulders and stepped toward the table.

 

“Have a seat,” said the old woman. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

 

“Is it hot?” asked the little girl.

 

“No, I’m afraid it’s quite cool by now,” said the old woman, “but it’s nice and sweet. I like it sweet, don’t you?”

 

“Yes,” said the little girl, now a little more excited.

 

The old woman turned to a small shelf behind her and reached with two hands for an old clay pot. She set it on the table and the little girl could see that it twinkled in the light, even in the near darkness of the hut. In fact, now that her eyes had adjusted to being inside, she could see all manner of things that seemed to twinkle and shine and move with an unseen wind. The old woman took the lid off and, picking up the pot with both hands, poured the tea into a glass from a small spout that had been fashioned in the side. She handed the glass, which had surely been bought from the store, to the little girl, who picked up the glass and looked briefly at the greenish-brown water, trying not to wrinkle her nose. Tentatively, she took a tiny sip. She smiled, then gulped down the rest.

 

“Good, isn’t it?” said the old woman.

 

“Yes,” said the little girl.

 

“My mother taught me to make it. It’s a mix of herbs I collect by the river. And mint - surely you taste that one?” the old woman asked.

 

“Yes,” said the little girl.

 

Then the old woman smiled, wrinkling the corners of her eyes. Her face was like leather, dark and tan, more worn than the deer skin blanket which covered the rest of her small body. Suddenly, the little girl felt foolish in her Sunday dress, but the old woman leaned forward as if she had a secret. “My mother made it plain,” she said, referring to the tea, “...over a wood fire. But she’s long gone now, and, well…” She trailed off. “I don’t mind a little sugar. Do you?” She smiled.

 

“No, I don’t,” said the little girl, setting the glass back on the table.

 

“Would you like more?” asked the old woman.

 

“Yes, I would,” said the little girl.

 

The old woman poured a second glass and set it in front of the little girl. The little girl reached with both hands over the table, and, setting down her rattle, picked up the glass with two hands. She drank long and heartily. It was a hot day and she had been walking for some time.

 

“I see you have a rattle,” said the old woman.

 

“My mother gave it to me,” said the little girl, once again setting the glass on the table. “It was made by my grandmother.”

 

“Your grandmother?” said the old woman. “May I look at it?” she asked.

 

“Yes,” said the little girl, and she handed the rattle to the old woman, who took it into her wrinkled hands. “My favorite part is the snake with the coyote’s head.”

 

“Yes, it’s beautiful,” the old woman said, touching the same spots on the wooden handle the little girl had felt with her own fingers. “I can see that your grandmother was quite talented.” The girl was flattered, but she knew it was nothing like the ones she saw at the dances, where they had beautiful feathers and braids of colorful leather. Each one was painted with utmost care. Even at the market, where craftsmen and artists sold their wares to visitors, the rattles were far superior to the old rattle the woman now held in her attentive hands.

 

The old woman shook the rattle and a light breeze crossed the room from the window to the open door. Catching the movement, the little girl looked up and realized that all along the walls and shelves the tiny little hut was filled with rattles. Some were made of gourds, others of leather. Some had eagle feathers, deer or fox skin. There were many shapes and sizes and they were all very beautiful, and now the girl felt quite foolish and wished she had never come inside.

 

The little girl looked for an opportunity to leave, but the old woman began playing the rattle, softly at first, then louder, humming a melody that repeated. The little girl listened, expecting the old woman to raise her voice, like they did at the dances, but it just grew softer and softer till the girl could hear the woman no longer and the seeds in the rattle just barely stirred inside the skin of the old gourd. That was no way to play a rattle, she thought.

 

“I have just made a small prayer,” said the old woman. “And if you listen to it, you will then be free to go.” She could tell that the girl was growing anxious to leave. “My prayer is that you will come back to visit me, and that you will learn to make a rattle for yourself.” With this, she waved her arm to the wall of beautiful rattles.

 

The little girl hesitated. She wanted to learn (hadn’t she just asked her mother the same thing?) But she felt so small. No one had ever really believed in her. She was half-white and half-wrong and her own mother had clearly written off the Pueblo ways. She always felt like an outsider. She didn’t even know who this old woman was. “I’ll have to ask my mother,” she said, not knowing what else to say.

 

“You do that,” said the old woman, handing back the rattle. “You ask her if you can visit your Raven Grandmother, the one who lives in the hut at the edge of the wood.”

 

The little girl stood up, thanked the old woman for the tea, and said she would visit again. But even as she walked out the door she wondered if she would ever come back.

 

Later that day, when she arrived home the little girl told her mother what had happened. “Raven Grandmother?!” said her mother, evidently shaken. She stared intently at the little girl and then grabbed the rattle from her hand. “You are never to go back there,” she said, “Never. Do you hear me?”

 

“Yes,” said the little girl, saddened, but eager to listen to her mother, who walked away and set the old rattle where the girl could not find it.

 

Months passed by and it got cold. The little girl walked the Pueblo trails as before, staying far away from the old hut at the edge of the wood. She listened to the departing songbirds, which brought her some joy, but she missed the company of her grandmother’s rattle.

 

One day, just before the first snow, she was climbing through a cluster of oaks, kicking up the dry leaves, when she found her grandmother’s rattle. She could hardly believe it. The gourd had been crushed and all the seeds had spilled out. Bending down, she scraped through the larger pieces, finding the head of the serpent-coyote, and began to cry. A deep moan released from her throat and she cried long and hard, harder than she had ever cried before. Nothing fit. She felt alone and as if she was crying for the whole world. Finally, having spent her tears, she lay down in the raspy leaves and fell asleep.

 

When she awoke, she could see that the sun had gotten low and became worried that her mother would be anxious about her. She quickly wiped herself off and put the piece of the gourd with the head of the coyote in a pocket where no one would find it. Hurrying back to her mother, she felt strangely at ease.

 

That spring, as the snow receded from the mountaintops and the rivers began to swell, the little girl was once again walking the Pueblo paths when she happened upon the old woman’s hut. A raven was circling overhead. She recalled her mother’s words and was about to turn away when she found herself scurrying up the path to the hut. Reaching the door, she held up her hand to knock, but before she could she heard a voice, “I thought you would come back,” it said. “Please come in. Come in.”

 

The little girl pushed the door open and found everything much the same as it was before. Only this time, on the table were a mishmash of sticks and feathers, gourds and paint in clay bowls, old pieces of leather, new pieces of leather, colorful braids, and long thin strips of something the old woman was using to tie two leather pieces together. There was even a piece of leather in the old woman’s teeth, which she promptly took out, inviting the little girl with a wave of her hand to, “Sit down, please.”

 

The little girl was even more hesitant than before, but she had already come this far and so she decided to sit down. “Would you like some tea?” the old woman asked. The little girl did want some, but she shook her head no. “Well then let’s get started,” the old woman said. “I can see you have little time. Me too.” With that, she set aside what she was working on and handed a small patch of leather to the little girl. “Your grandmother started with gourds,” said the old woman, “but you will start with leather. It is…” and the old woman shrugged playfully, “…easier.”

 

The girl felt the dried leather, almost crisp, in her hand and held it up to the window. The deerskin was mottled in such a way as to remind her of the moon, which only recently her mother had told her was full of craters. “What do I do with it?” she asked. “You pray with it,” said the old woman. The little girl almost laughed. That wasn’t how you make a rattle. She prayed at mass, and with her mother when she went to bed, but otherwise she didn’t think much of it. And anyway, she knew that she wasn’t supposed to pray to Jesus or God the Father. Or was she? “Great Father,” she said, suddenly recalling the broken gourd, with the shattered painting of the serpent and the coyote, “may I learn to heal.” She didn’t know why she had said that, but she did. She looked at the old woman, feeling foolish, but the woman was looking back at her with a simple smile that made the little girl feel warm. “Now here,” said the old woman, handing her another piece of leather, “Quick, to the Mother now.”

 

Did she mean Guadalupe, Mother Mary? She wasn’t sure. She imagined a woman, somehow softer and gentler than her own mother, sort of like Mary, but sort of like a great big heap of earth, with hair like oak leaves and long flowing robes like rivers pouring from her sides. The old woman smiled. “To the Mother of all things,” said the little girl, “give me hands to heal.” Suddenly, she pictured the serpent and the coyote reunited. The little girl sat up and shivered, excited, but a little scared.

 

“Good,” said the old woman. “Now, be quick about it.” She gave the girl a small piece of iron, like a nail, only thicker. “Make your holes round each piece, like this…” and the old woman demonstrated, laying the two pieces, one on top of the other on the wood table, then striking the piece of iron with a heavy rock. When she pulled the iron out, there was a hole in each. “All the way around,” she said, “Each hole is a sacrifice from the Mother and the Father. In this way, they bless us.” The girl did as she was told, striking the iron with the rock. It was heavy, and her arm grew sore after several strikes. “Good,” said the old woman, and soon it was done.

 

“Now here,” said the old woman, working more and more urgently. She handed the girl a long thin strip of something that resembled coarse thread. “You tie it like this,” she said, tying an unfamiliar knot between two of the holes in the leather patches. The girl had never seen anyone tie a knot like that, but the old woman did it slowly enough so that the little girl could follow. “Now you do it,” the woman said, handing the leather to the girl, “in and out, in and out, all the way around. Like the vines of spring.”

 

In and out, in and out, the little girl worked the string between the holes, all the while imagining the bean stalks that grew in her mother’s garden which grew with little spiraling loops, climbing higher and higher up the fence. She was almost done when the old woman shouted, “Wait. Hold out your hand.” The girl held open her hand and the old woman placed a handful of small round seeds inside. She could feel them tumbling into her palm, but as the old woman pulled her own hand back she clasped the little girl’s hand round and folded her fingers down, so that whatever was inside remained hidden. “These are the seeds of life. May they be fruitful for you,” she said. With that, the old woman nodded her head, indicating the rattle. The little girl held her hand carefully over the open hole in the stitched leather and dropped the seeds inside. “Now close it,” the old woman said. The little girl sewed the string in and out, in and out, till the rattle was sealed shut, but not before spying several speckled beans inside. “Now tie it, like I showed you,” said the old woman. And the little girl did as she was told.

 

Three weeks later, the little girl was walking the same trail again, this time carrying the new rattle. She was proud to have made something herself, though she was careful to hide it from her mother. Coming upon the hut, the girl walked cheerfully up to the door, but before she could knock she was overtaken by an eerie feeling. Without knocking or even saying anything she pushed the door open and looked inside. There was nothing, just a dark room with a pile of sand on the floor and an old rat’s nest. Cobwebs covered the shelves and the dust was so thick it looked like it had been gathering for years. The deerskin blanket was lying in a ragged heap on the table and the willow chairs were tossed about recklessly.

 

Where had the old woman gone? The little girl ran her hand along the table, trying to make sense of it. Then she looked at the leather rattle in her hand and remembered. Outside, she heard a raven call and she walked to the open window. The sun was bright and it took a second for her eyes to adjust. She saw the bird’s black silhouette fly overhead and then low across the field toward the wood. There were small clusters of spring flowers and the grass was green all over. The girl watched as the raven reached the far side of the field, rose up to circle a cluster of oaks, and was gone. She sprang out the door, recalling her grandmother’s broken rattle, but stopped just as suddenly. There on the ground outside the door lay a snake, black and yellow with diamond stripes all along its back.

 

The little girl jumped back in fright, but the snake just lay there, flicking its tongue in the air. Suddenly the snake turned and slithered into the open field. The girl watched as it made its way, grasses and flowers bending along its path, and decided to follow at a distance. At the far end of the field, the snake disappeared under the oaks and was gone. The little girl now recognized the small cluster of oaks as the same place last fall where she had found her grandmother’s broken rattle. The crooked, shrub-like branches formed a hidden grove inside, and she recalled the many tears she had shed there on the dry leaves. The branches, however, were brimming with bright green leaves and as she pushed them aside she came face to face with a coyote. The creature looked at her briefly, then lunged for her. Withdrawing in terror, the little girl dropped the rattle, tore through the branches and ran across the open field toward the hut. She could hear the coyote coming fast on her heels.

 

When she had nearly reached the hut, a gust of wind blew and the door swung open. The girl ran inside, then turned to pull the door shut, coming face to face with the coyote once more. The coyote lunged again and this time managed to catch her dress in its teeth as she shut the door on the folds of her dress. The coyote, snarling and whinnying, ripped the dress with its teeth and scratched at the door with its claws, but the little girl held tight and did not let the coyote in.

 

The inside of the hut was dark, but the little girl could hear the coyote prowling back and forth, looking for a way in. Quickly, she loosened the buttons of her dress and stepped out of it, then thrust a chair leg between the door handle and the wall. She turned the table on its side and pushed it in place to block the window. She was safe, she thought, at least for now. But it was darker than ever before. She listened as the coyote circled the little hut, grunting and snuffling as it sniffed her out. Finally, all grew quiet.

 

The little girl, believing she was now safe, began to cry. At first it was just a few tears, but soon she was sobbing and racking her whole chest so that she could hardly take in air to breathe. Her own sounds, echoing in that tiny room, felt strange and gruesome to her. Her face and hands became wet with tears and the dust from the floor made her muddy. She was naked and her mother would pain her about the dress. She felt alone. In time, her sobs grew soft and, lying down on the floor, she fell asleep.

 

When she awoke, it was pitch black. The deerskin blanket was on top of her and she felt comfortable and warm in the little hut. Then she remembered the coyote and, listening intently for any sign of it, she felt along the floor for the table. Satisfied that nothing could be heard outside, she pulled the table back from the window to let in some light, but it made no difference. The sky was full of stars and a soft haze of light from the unrisen moon backlit the mountains. She listened hard for any sound, but only heard the distant sound of frogs chirping along the river. She drew the blanket over her shoulders and sat huddled in the dark for a long time, then finally opened the door.

 

The cool air was refreshing. Her bare skin tingled as she reached to free the torn fabric of her dress from the door. Her mother would be angry with her, but for now she felt the peace that comes with night. There was a light dew on the grass, and as she took a few steps into the open field it wet her ankles and toes. She realized at once that she was headed back to the oak grove. She drew the deerskin tightly over her shoulders, becoming more and more determined as she approached.

 

When she reached the oaks, she pushed aside the branches once again and as she did she heard a small shuffling sound, then a soft mewing like newborn kittens. She was fearful, but drawing the deerskin once again over her shoulders, she compelled herself to go forward. It was dark in the grove, but as she entered she felt a small, soft creature press against her ankle. She reached down and felt it lick her palm. Then another, and another. She realized there were several of them, coyote pups, and the mother, whom she had encountered earlier in the day, was out hunting. The pups, looking for food, nipped at her hands and feet, but she had nothing to offer them. One began to tug on the frayed ends of the deerskin, and the girl tore small pieces of the dried skin and tossed them to the pups, who happily set their teeth on them.

 

Suddenly she heard the sound of a rattle, and as she turned she saw the diamond markings of the rattlesnake she had encountered in the day. The mother away, it had come back for one of the pups. The little girl stood in fright and the pups ran behind her, but the snake moved quickly in the dark, flicking its tongue rapidly and feeling along the ground for their warmth. Drawing the pups to her, the little girl threw off the deerskin blanket and covered the snake. She gathered up the corners, wrapping the snake in its leathery hide. It was a very large snake and the girl could hardly lift as it wriggled wildly to get free, but she held fast and walked out of the grove.

 

The moon was now up and she could see her way clearly through the open field. Listening to the sound of the frogs, she made her way to the river and, swinging the deerskin round, threw the deerskin with the snake across the river. Thinking she was safe once again, she made her way back to the grove. Searching on her hands and knees as the pups climbed about her, she found the leather rattle, shook it thankfully, and, saying goodbye to the pups, hurried back to the small hut and quickly fell asleep.

 

The next morning she woke and, putting on the torn dress, made her way to her mother’s relatives, who took her in with cries of joy and relief and then sent someone to fetch her mother. Meanwhile, they gave the little girl a bath and cleaned her wounds, giving her a new dress to wear so that her mother was grateful to see her healthy and fresh.

 

“You are never to go out alone,” her mother said, but after a few months this rule became too bothersome and again the little girl resumed her walks at the Pueblo. It was now mid-summer and the girl set off at once for the little hut by the open field and the wood. Finding the hut deserted, she walked across the field, which was now nearly shoulder-height with wildflowers and grasses. Approaching the oak grove, she shook her rattle vigorously and called out. But nothing moved and no sound was returned. Pushing aside the oak leaves, she crawled inside and beheld a large, vining plant with wide, angular leaves growing in the center. There was no sign of the coyotes.

 

Curious to see such a plant where it did not belong, she looked along its stems and branches and discovered dozens of fist sized squashes – gourds - growing under the leaves. Her heart was overcome with the joy of it and she made her way back to her mother, resolved to return in the fall.

 

School had started before the little girl had a chance to go back to the grove, but in late fall she finally returned. The hut was the same, dusty and decrepit, and the field was dry and golden. The Raven Grandmother was nowhere to be found. In the distance, she could see that the oaks had all turned brown. But even still her heart was light and joyful as she walked the now familiar path through the field and approached the grove. As she neared, she shook the leather rattle in her hand and a light wind stirred an echo in the dry, raspy leaves still hanging on the branches. Pushing aside the branches, she found the squash plant had withered and died, leaving a web of brittle vines in the small clearing. All along its branches were cream-colored gourds shaped like large pears. She reached for one, snapping it off at the stem. Holding it to her ear, she shook the gourd, listening for the seeds inside, and smiled.

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Stealing into the Night

It was a dark night. No moon. Pema was stirring next to me in an unfamiliar bed. Was she awake too? The cat mewed, shaking the last remnants of a dream from my head. How long had I been lying half-awake? Grumbling, I turned over. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to do anything about it. And why was this bed so hot? I had nothing but a sheet covering my legs and chest, but I was sweating in all the creases. I couldn’t make out the rumpled form of Pema next to me, but I could feel her inch her way towards me. She raised her leg and set it over my hip. I flung it off - be gone, foul leg of the hot night - but it was back in less than five seconds. Mid-night wrestling. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or not. There was a soft rasp at the door. The cat mewed.

 

I rolled over to my side and stuck my butt out, hoping to block Pema’s advances with a stiff back. On occasion, I’ll even steamroll her back to the middle of the bed if I have to, but I was satisfied with the narrow purchase I had on the bed, at least for the moment. Plus, I had that beautiful void on one side. As a child, I would flip my pillow in the middle of the night just to feel the coolness against my cheek. I felt a knee in my back. A foot. Silke was asleep on the far side. At least maybe she was. It was hard to tell.

 

I drifted, my stream of consciousness latching onto a dream I had sifted through earlier. There were five of us in a large room with iron railings surrounding a large pool of water. It was dark and the setting was flooded with a strange green light, like a warehouse at night. We knew there were fish in the pool, big fish. Something kicked furiously at my side. Pema. She was scratching her skin violently, angrily. I turned over. “Pema?” I said out loud, “You awake?” She squirmed into my chest, her little body fitting into the pocket of my fetal posture. I wrapped an arm around her. She is so darling. Then she bucked and began to sob. “Daddy…!” she said, peeling into a high-pitched whine as she scratched her butt.

 

“Hey Pup,” I said, “Do you want to go wash your butt?” A familiar scene had replayed itself off and on the last few nights, a persistent itch on her bottom that sometimes woke her up at night. I had a plan.

 

“Yes, Daddy. Now.”

 

“Okay, let’s go,” I said, prepared for the urgency.

 

“Carry me.”

 

“Okay.”

 

I threw the sheet off my body and rolled toward the floor, my bare feet touching the dusty planks of wood. “Come on, Pup,” I said, grateful for the coolness of the night air, glad, in a way, to have something to do other than not sleep. Pema got on her knees and scooted toward to my open arms. I lifted her in a motion so practiced between us as to make it almost effortless. She nuzzled into my neck. I felt strong. I am strong. Clutching Pema to my chest, I passed round the foot of the bed, determining my position by feel and the length of my stride. A mental map of the room lay vaguely before me, the door about five or six steps away. Silke lay somewhere off to the right, making no sound. Maybe she was asleep.

 

Stepping into the open floor space, I judged my position against the mental map in my head, taking cues from the scant light seeping in the windows. “Hold on, pup,” I said, believing I had reached the far wall. I held my hand in front to feel for it. The door rattled in place.

 

“I’m going to have to put you down for one second while I get the water,” I told Pema.

 

“Okay,” she muttered.

 

Last night I had stashed a bottle of water and a small plastic bag with three leaves of aloe near the door. I crouched down and felt for them now, finding the water bottle on the floor, the plastic bag on top of a few soft pieces of clothing. “Got it,” I said, standing back up, “Let’s go.” With the bottle and the bag in my left hand, I reached down with my right and pulled Pema back to my chest, then groped for the door. Feeling the smooth, brass knob, I clamped down with the two free fingers in my left hand and pulled back the door, sticking my foot in the crack to block the cat from bolting through.

 

The door hinged on the right, knob to the left, so as I shuffled through I also spun around in reverse so that, Pema sweeping the outside in my right, my left hand traveled the shortest possible distance in space. I released the inside door knob, felt over the latch with the back of my palm, and groped for the handle on the opposite side, now facing the empty hall. Silence. I shut the door behind me. The latch set with a click.

 

Pulling up a new map, now of the hallway, I passed the stairs on my left and set myself in space against the wall on the far right side where, if my footsteps were correct, another door should be. It was. I opened it with a mere shove as Pema hopped down and reached for the light. Bing! Lo and behold, the whole world was still there in all its former glory. The shower tiles, the curtains, the porcelain toilet. Nothing had ceased for even one second. I rubbed my eyes. My pupils shrunk.

 

Pema was on the toilet, leaning over her knees. I dropped the bag of aloe onto the counter and unscrewed the water bottle, now so evidently blue. “Okay, should I wash your butt?” I asked, breaking the silence. “Yeah,” Pema answered, grateful for the resolution, the mere act of doing something. Her condition, which remained mysterious, had at least given us the chance to settle into a routine, after which she usually fell back asleep without further discomfort.

 

I gently rinsed Pema’s behind with water as she leaned over the edge of the toilet seat and grasped my leg, a posture so intimate and common to our daily lives. Life is full of small things like this. I could sense that Pema was relaxing. I breathed a little easier. “How’s that?” I asked. “Good,” she answered, a simplicity in her voice. I reached for the toilet paper.

 

“Dada, look,” Pema said. I followed her eyes out the screen window. The stars were unmistakable against the black, moonless sky, a patchwork of constellations so vivid as to almost feel them. Behind them, the great dusty sea of the Milky Way unfolded in a vast arc. Crickets chirped noisily in the bushes nearby. I smiled, then wiped the damp toilet paper across the back of the gleaming white seat. There were rose petals in the trash can. The air was soft and cool.

 

“Do you want aloe?” I asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay.”

 

I reached for the bag and split a thin line in the green aloe skin with my thumbnail. Dreams don’t have this potency of color. Neither does daylight. Mashing the pulp within, I smeared it across my fingertips and applied it delicately to Pema’s irritated skin. “How’s that?” I asked. “Good,” she answered, in the same passive tone as before.

 

I placed the aloe leaf back in the bag and turned on the faucet. A soft rush of sound filled our ears, followed by a gentle gurgle. The water was cool. “Do you want to wash your hands?” I asked. “No,” Pema answered. “It’s probably a good idea,” I suggested, leaving the faucet on as I reached for the blue towel hanging on the back of the door. I caught my face in the mirror. Me. Pema turned off the water and regained the silence.

 

“Do you want a bite to eat?” I asked, offering the towel to Pema. We were awake now, and I felt the stir in my belly. Plus, I didn’t want the moment to end. The whole world. Just the two of us. “Sure,” Pema said, happy to go along. She reached out her arms. “Carry me,” she said. I smiled. She hit the light switch as I pivoted her on my hips, and we were out the door.

 

Advancing slowly across the hall, my eyes readjusted to the darkness. I felt carefully for the stairs. The floor was bare, but the steps had been tacked thoughtfully with strips of carpet. I shook my head. How had they known? My toes arched up, then out, as the ball of one foot, then the other, leaned forward and effortlessly caught us in balance, easing all two-hundred and fifteen pounds of us six inches further from the stars and one step closer to the earth. It was as if no one had done anything at all, as if I was merely descending a staircase in the middle of the night with a five year-old child. My ankle pivoted at the bottom, the cold tile floor seeping into my footstep. “Do you smell that?” I asked, a whiff of cat food having reached my nostrils. “Yes,” Pema whispered.

 

I stared blindly into the sea of darkness before us, across to the kitchen. The entire downstairs was black save for the faint green light coming from the kitchen stove. The tile countertops, the inlaid butcher block, a vase of flowers - everything was bathed in tiny, phosphorescent light, revealing only shadows. A cricket chirped, then stopped. The refrigerator clicked.

 

I took a step forward, now with a third map in my head. Keeping the wood stove a safe distance to my left, the couch to my right, I advanced through what should have been empty space toward the kitchen island. The air was still and a thick odor of fruit greeted us as we approached, along with a steely scent that reminded me of insects in a basement, or the taste of metal. At last I felt the edge of the island and leaned over, setting Pema down on the counter. “Hold on,” I said, reaching to my left for the light switch. I glanced at the clock, 1:31, and flipped the switch. Once again, as before, the whole world filled with crisp yellow light. It was all there - the color, the tile, the dish rack, the cupboards. I smiled. Life, so magnificent.

 

Off to the side there was a large glazed bowl with a butternut squash and two bananas. “I get the bananas for you,” Silke had told me once, “I don’t like them.” That was kind of her, I thought, but I wondered where she got the idea. I rarely buy bananas. Pema doesn’t like them. Still, they looked awfully tempting lying there in their thin, soft skins. I grabbed one for myself and held the other up to Pema. “Want a banana?” I asked. “No,” Pema shook her head. I shrugged and set the second banana back on the squash.

 

I spied a loaf of bread on the counter next to the sink - store bread! I set my banana down and reached into the translucent bag, scuffling up that telltale sound. I wasn’t sure if it was Silke’s or not. She has roommates. But when I felt inside, I cringed with delight. The bread was cool and moist, almost gummy, like the store bread of fantasies. I pulled out a small slice - it appeared to be rye - and offered it to Pema. Her eyes lit up. She’s so used to my dense, homemade variety, all brown and full of seeds. She grasped the delicate white slice eagerly and put it to her mouth. Smiling, I picked my banana back up and glanced at the clock, 1:33. I peeled back the yellow skin and took a bite. My whole face was on fire with love. Pema returned the sentiment with smiling eyes. Off in the corner, a cricket began to chirp. I swung my hips left and right to its catchy rhythm. Pema laughed softly, then squiggled left and right on the counter.

 

Other people’s food.

 

 

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Tears

I was walking along the Rio Hondo when I saw something lying on the side of the road, a dead skunk. My moral compass twitched, then flat-lined. Too bad, I thought, but there are plenty of skunks around here, both dead and alive. I intended to pass by, but as I approached I saw that the animal’s mouth and belly were spastic with small movements and I stared with a curiosity bordering on revulsion.

 

I once encountered a dead squirrel so avidly devoured from within by insects and their wriggling larvae that the carcass appeared alive. I recalled that image as I looked at the skunk, which surely looked dead, but as I stared a bit longer I saw that the skunk had faint spasms all over its body - teeth gnashing, upper lip curling, all four legs moving erratically, belly convulsing. Its eyes were closed, but there might have been something moving underneath, like in a dream. It was hard to tell. I came to think that the animal, though surely dying, was in something like an epileptic state, its nervous system fighting desperately to keep itself alive.

 

I was hale and hearty, a man about a midday walk simply for the pleasure of it. Cars passed by on the road as if no one, or nothing, was dying. The river gushed with fresh rain water. Marsh grasses, just inches beyond the skunk’s reach, were green and abundant, teeming with sunflowers and pale blue chicory. Raptors soared overhead. So did scavengers. Everything, all of us, underneath a hot sun. It was a small, glorious day, and here this little skunk was fighting for its life. I felt a connection through the heart, then moved as if to touch it. But then I stopped. I didn’t want to get too close.

 

It must have been hit by a car, I thought. Seems like I find a dead skunk on the road every week or so, second only to snakes, but usually they’re flat dead, not in the throes of dying. Skunks are slow and, having few natural enemies, aren’t eager to evade anything. It’s amazing what two tons of steel will do to shield one from this brutal reality, but now, as I stood flesh for flesh next to this skunk, I felt vulnerable. Then I noticed that the skunk, and the pavement around the skunk, appeared wet. I had a fleeting sense that maybe it had drowned, maybe only moments ago having pulled itself out of the ditch several feet away, or perhaps the river on the opposite side of the street. It would have been moving much too fast for its little feet. Can a skunk swim? But my mind was just grasping. I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was blood after all.

 

Then, as its limbs and belly continued to heave spastically, I watched as its tiny throat swallowed then gasped for air. It was breathing irregularly, rapidly through the mouth. The rest of its body appeared to move as if without any coherence at all, its former coordination and dignity long gone. Nothing matched up. Everything was flailing and erratic. And yet, dying but not yet dead, it had still needed to clear its throat to breathe. How often had I done the same? How often had I swallowed a bit of saliva and mucous simply to have a clearer draw on the breath of life? So thoughtless, so simple, yet, as I stood there watching the skunk’s convulsions it occurred to me how graceful and complicated that one movement was. I too swallowed, as if sympathetically, feeling the cascade of muscles along my jawbone, the slight change in pressure in my nasal cavity, the undulation of my tongue. Everything fired in precise order.

 

I’ve watched infants learning to eat. Swallowing is not a ready-made skill. It takes months, years really, to hone a coordinated palate that can manipulate food, both solid and liquid, within the mouth. Infants aren’t even able to breathe through their mouths till about three or four months old. Yet, all of us learn these complicated movements well before we learn to walk or pinch. And here, amidst all the chaos of dying, this skunk, as yet still living and therefore needing to breath, somehow fired its nervous system, so evidently in disarray, in that cascade of elegant, synchronous movement. It swallowed. That one movement was darling to me.

 

*

 

Some months ago I came upon an old juniper tree on the mesa. Twisted and gnarly, it was not much taller than me. Its trunk was gray and brittle and most of its limbs were ashen and lifeless, as was the desert floor. But two of the tree’s limbs, rising like arms above my head, were filled with scaly green leaves and small purple berries, under which formed a brief shade. I had spent most of the morning and afternoon roaming the mesa and was fairly tired by that point, it being not quite evening. I rifled in my pack for my water bottle, looking, as I did, out beyond the gorge to the Hondo valley several miles away. I had about an hour’s walk to get home, which I would take slowly, savoring my fatigue.

 

Leaning against the trunk, I casually dolled a sip of water out to the tree, a gesture I’ve become accustomed to, but which I take lightly. After all, what’s a half-cup of water to a tree? The bark sopped up the water instantly, leaving a dark stain. I turned the bottle to my own lips and drank. Though it looked half dead, like many such trees on the mesa, I knew that this one was quite vigorously alive, probably several hundred years old. True survivors, these plants. As I reached further into my pack for a bite of some leftover watermelon, I appreciated the old, if rather stoic, company. Then I saw something move out of the corner of my eye.

 

Three darkling beetles were congregated on the spot where I had just poured water onto the tree. Where had they come from so suddenly? I smiled and glanced over the dry earth. There were a few sage plants at a distance, but mostly it was just a pile of sand and gravel. Then I saw another beetle walk out from behind the cluster of roots at my side. I poured a little more water. They were a welcome addition to my solitude.

 

I pried open the lid from my container of watermelon, watching the beetles, their tiny butts sticking in the air as their mouths burrowed into the wet wood. I couldn’t for the life of me tell what they were doing, but it sure seemed as if they were drinking. All four of them were attached, as though fixed by the jaw, on the wet wood.

 

I placed a piece of watermelon nearby, curious to see if they would go for it. The bright red flesh and watery texture of the fruit was a sharp contrast to the sand and gravel. I ate a few pieces and watched. The beetles are long and black, about the size of a walnut, with hard, sleek shells that, coupled with their slow, clumsy movements, give them the appearance of a tiny desert tank. Two were still drinking when the others began circling around, seemingly blind, till one finally stumbled into the red fruit and latched on. The second was close to follow and within a minute all four were permanently affixed. It was a small cube of melon, hardly a bite for me, but it seemed like a tower of food next to these small creatures. I took another bite and imagined the sweet liquor draining down their throats, just as it did my own.

 

Suddenly, a tremor shook my breast and I glanced about furiously for a second before spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird above, which then settled quietly onto a branch. Amazing how those things can throw up such feverish energy. Then, my gaze having shifted to the branches above, I noticed for the first time a small brown lizard, a skink, clinging to a branch overhead. It didn’t move a muscle, but its little white throat pulsed with air. There was a flurry of insects nearby, like tiny electrons circling an invisible nucleus. I stared, smitten at my naivete. A raven, evidently circling nearby, clicked its throaty “gwaugh-gwaugh.” Here, I had thought I was alone, but that whole tree was alive, an ecosystem unto itself.

 

*

 

I once spent a morning with a little boy I’ll call Justin. I was watching several children actually and we had the run of the backyard while their parents met inside. Most of the kids were Pema’s age, so they took easily enough to playing together and didn’t require a lot from me. And thank god, because Justin needed special attention. He was still in diapers, not quite two, barely verbal, and it was evident that I, a complete stranger, terrified him.

 

I was shocked when his mother had first left him with me. “This is Joe,” his mother had said to him, leaning over her knees while Justin’s older brother, Shay, ran off to meet the other kids. “Hi Justin,” I said, plying him uncertainly. Squatting down to eye level, I picked a small white daisy, an early spring flower no bigger than my finger, and held it out to him. He looked at it tentatively, his eyes wet and fearful. When I had first made the offer to watch the kids, a favor to a friend, I had thought I would just be overseeing a small group of familiar kids, so as his mother handed Justin over to my care I became a little tongue-tied and uncertain. He didn’t seem ready, or willing, but his mother didn’t seem to mind.

 

No bond had been created, but neither did Justin cling to his mother. As she walked inside, Justin kept his distance, preferring to stand alone. The older kids were gathering containers and mud, barely aware of the two of us. Justin was too young to engage in real play with the other kids, though he eyed them, and his big brother, curiously. I was determined to make good with him. I made myself small, sitting on the ground, approaching him with another flower, an intricate leaf, a stick. The texture of the earth can be so healing. But every time I tried to get close he moved away. It was still early spring and the chill of winter was in the air. Justin was shielded by a thick layer of clothing, which gave him the padded appearance and gait of a duck. Tied to his jacket was a pacifier, which was, like the steady stream of snot coagulating above it, permanently affixed to his face. Behind all this, Justin’s eyes stared at me nervously. He seemed alone, so painfully alone, and I gathered that he had felt so quite often.

 

My heart was aching for this poor child, whose mother evidently didn’t find it troubling. She was glad to be relieved of the kids for a few hours, and surely she needed it. But Justin was a mess and I sensed none of the warmth and playfulness that comes from most kids. In fact, he seemed to know that his mother would not come for him, and he didn’t even attempt, as most kids might, to scream and find her. He just stood there, surrounded by thick layers of clothing, eyeing the other children, but making no move to join them. And he cried.

 

Justin was evidently scared of me. Yet, in that foreign backyard he had no one else to appeal to. His older brother, Shay, who had his own challenges connecting with the kids, would occasionally run off in anger or frustration, then come up head to head with Justin and pull on his arms while thrusting a sneering grin in his face. It wasn’t a particularly loving encounter. I searched my soul for what to do.

 

As Shay ran off again, I picked up a small plastic cup and walked over to Justin. He kept his distance but was close enough to observe me. I sat down and kept my eyes to myself, making as if I just happened to be there. I scooped some gravel and dirt from the earth in front me, shook the cup and listened to the sound of the rocks scraping against the hollow surface. Then I made a show of pouring it all back on the earth, which made a different sort of sound. I repeated this over and over, calmly, giving Justin space, but trying to leave a window for him to observe.

 

I could see that Justin was interested, but he was also tentative. So far he had only managed to stand and stare. I wanted to give him a chance to get out of his mind. I placed the cup at my side, near him, stood up and walked away as if I had something to do. To my joy, he walked over and picked up the cup, then squat down and began scratching it on the earth. His pacifier hung limply in his mouth, then tumbled to the ground, forgotten at least briefly. Pleased, I picked up a metal measure cup and did much the same thing nearby, then offered that within his reach.

 

We managed to scrape together a few satisfying minutes like this till Shay, eyeing the measuring cup, came up and snatched it out of Justin’s hands without so much as a warning. Standing back up, Justin immediately fell to tears. Much of his face was smeared with snot and dirt, and his cries were throaty and wet. I knew he was still tentative with me, but I walked over and picked him up anyway, doing what I always do with children in pain, making soft shushing sounds and rocking back and forth. It didn’t help. He was too scared of me. What was so sad was that he didn’t squirm or resist. I could simply sense in his eyes a deep fear or discomfort. I had the feeling that I was only making it worse. I set him back down, wiping off the pacifier, which had grown dirty, and offered it to his hand. I knelt close by, in case he wanted attention, but also giving him space. How do you console a child who is terrified of you? How do you answer a cry with patience?

 

*

 

There is a brief moment before a sneeze when my entire face fills with excitement. It is an incredible feeling full of simple pleasure, like pooping when you have to poop, like breathing when you have to breathe, or drinking when you’re truly thirsty. These simple things literally feel good, at least to me, and our bodies appear to be designed to encourage these obviously healthful activities.

Have you ever felt your face when you cried? I mean the literal physical sensation, the crinkling of the eyes, the pull of the cheeks and lips, the collapse of the sternum and chest?

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Imagination, Media and Sacred Technology

I was taking a panoramic video of the idyllic surroundings - Pema playing naked in a shallow stream sparkling with blue crystals; Silke napping underneath a tangled mass of broken tree trunks and driftwood; the soft orange and cream hues of the volcanic ash that formed the curved, perforated rock walls of the surrounding canyon - when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a stone leaped from the shore into the stream next to my naked feet.

 

“Whoa! A toad!” I shouted, then almost fell backwards.

 

I hastily snapped a photo, deposited the phone in my pocket and shouted for Pema. “Pema! Hey look! A toad!” It was dark green with a thin gray stripe down its back and calm, reverent eyes. Pema stood up, pink and naked in the small river. She was engrossed in her river fairy house, complete with grass dolls, but my shouts had piqued her curiosity. She began lumbering towards me, but before she could reach where I stood the toad took a second leap, then another, landing safely on the opposite shore and becoming, to all appearances, just another stone.

 

“Where Dad?” Pema asked, sidling up next to me.

 

“Right there,” I pointed.

 

“Where?”

 

It was only a foot and a half away, which I found comical. As I leaned forward, extending my finger - “Right there,” - I heard Silke shuffle in the background. “A toad?” she said groggily, “Where?”

 

“Oh, I see it!” Pema shouted. Then she pointed too. Silke crawled out from underneath her cave of broken trees and into the sunlight, her age written plainly in the slack lines of her sleepy face. The toad jumped. Pema clutched her belly gleefully and stepped back to avoid it. “Right there!” I shouted. “Oh,” said Silke, the sound swallowed by the gape of a yawn. She moved a few black and gray hairs from her face. “Now I see it,” she mumbled, and her whole expression lit up, ruddy and cheerful, like a child.

 

The toad, now back in the water, sat calmly while the three of us hunched over our bare toes to get a good view. The toad blinked its eyes and its white throat undulated softly, rapidly. About the size of my fist, it was streaked with gray and green patches and had small bumps all along its back and legs. Water trickled by, and the sand, driven by the small current, constantly tumbled past the toad’s legs and against our toes, causing the mica, which had sparkled magnificently enough on the footpaths, to flash a pure crystal blue under the water. This was our second day at Bandelier, a national monument, or park, preserving the canyon, the surrounding meadows and forest, and, not least of all, the vast system of caves and stone buildings once inhabited by the Anasazi, the cliff dwellers, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians.

 

I reached my hand down slowly, curiously, wondering if the toad would allow me to pick it up. I’m not sure what made me think I could catch it (I had, to my recollection, never before held a toad, or a frog), but I was suddenly stricken with the urge to try. My hand slowly approached. The toad hopped. I snatched. Then it hopped again. I leaned forward and snatched again. No luck. Pema laughed. Silke rumbled. Then the toad and I performed the classic toad-human maneuver well described in stories of old, wherein I splashed noisily through the water, hands grasping wildly, while it, with deadpan expression, stayed one jump ahead of me. Pema and Silke laughed righteously. Finally, my brain caught up with my eyes and arms and, anticipating the toad’s next jump, I reached near the landing spot as it arced in the air and quickly diverted it to my grasp. Gotcha.

 

Satisfied with my prize, I immediately began soothing the poor creature, which was surely frightened to all hell. Holding it gently, but securely, it squirmed in my cupped hands as I brought it over to Pema. I could feel its ribs push against the sensitive nerve endings of my palm as it squeezed its face between my thumb and forefinger, trying to escape. Bringing it down to Pema’s eyelevel, I could see that one of its eyes was a little blurry, and I feared for a second that it had gotten injured. Pema and I watched as it blinked. One, then two eyelids opened, then closed. Its iris, rectangular like a goat’s, became clear again. “Wow, Dad,” Pema said, as we leaned in. She held her finger out and touched the top of its head. Its flesh was cool and soft, like wet jelly, and I wondered what my hands, dry and warm, must have felt like to it. Then its two front feet wiggled out, and I could feel its strong back feet pushing against my cupped fists.

 

We had had a good look, so I decided to release it in the stream, just in case it wanted to rinse off before moving along. I put my hands above the twinkling surface of the water, and opened them. The toad flopped awkwardly, if not gratefully, into the river, pulling its legs underneath like a tight bundle and sat there recuperating in the water for a second or two. Its little throat undulated constantly. The three of us watched intently from above. Then, as if nothing much had happened anyway, it casually hopped for the shore. Venturing a couple feet away, it located a shady spot under a few graceful arcs of grass, and returned to stone. It may have wanted its freedom, but it didn’t have much else to do.

 

Silke turned back to her driftwood cave. “I’m going to get my bag,” she said. Pema loosed her curiosity and tacked upstream, returning to her fairy house. I stood up and stretched, taking in the surroundings once again, the succulent leaves along the shoreline, the tangle of tree trunks sheltering us like a fortress (there had been a flash flood a few years back), the mingled canopy of deciduous and conifer trees. There was an arc of blue between the canyon walls, and the dappled sunlight along the river felt ambrosial. I had been here before, many years ago, and the same unmistakable sense of warmth had filled my chest back then. I don’t believe in magic, but this canyon, whose walls billow and recede in soft, feminine curves, filled me with a possibility just beyond my ken, something unspeakably warm and bright. I could understand why people chose to live here thousands of years ago. It feels like home.

 

Behind my reverie, I could hear Silke’s bare feet stepping noisily into the water, thumping in the sand, then rustling through the tall grasses on the opposite shore. She’s such an oaf, I thought. Me, Jack Sprat, and here my wife can eat no lean. She threw her bag down with a thud, then shouted, almost simultaneously, “Rattlesnake!” I turned just in time to see her skittering down the shallow embankment, as if on hot coals.

 

*

 

The day before, the three of us had packed the car by midmorning. We had originally planned to go backpacking in the mountains, but the monsoon rains were still coming almost every day and we didn’t want to suffer through five days wet and cold with only a tent. So we decided to take it easy and car camp near Tent Rocks instead, a few hours south, near Santa Fe. The canyon would be great for day hikes, and if the weather got real sore we could just retreat to Santa Fe and get a hotel room. Normally I cling to my plans, but my routine had gotten sour of late and it felt liberating to just play it by ear.

 

Pema was already sitting in the car when I suggested we circle up and say a brief prayer before our trip. She hopped up without the least hesitation and the three of us held hands under an old elm tree. I said the typical things - thanks for the time, each other, the food, the car, keep us safe and joyful - then asked if Pema had anything to add. “I’m thankful for that we get to do this…and the food…and these friends…” she said, echoing a familiar monologue. “Thanks pup,” I answered, then turned to Silke, who added, “May we discover something new.” We looked at each other, smiled, and ran for the car.

 

*

 

As I drove down the gravel driveway, buckling my seatbelt, I turned to Silke. “Hey, what about Bandelier instead?”

 

*

 

The expression of imagination, or creativity, is, I believe, one of the most direct routes to joy and tranquility. At least, it is for me. This can be as elaborate as a lengthy work project or the majesty of a Shakespearian play, but it can be as simple as a song, recounting a brief story, or forming a pile of like-colored rocks. It could just be dinner. Whatever it is, and however it manifests in our lives, the creative expression of imagination tends to leave us feeling whole, useful, like we belong. It is one of the primary qualities I wish to elicit in my daughter and the other children in my care, not because I want them to become famous and successful, but because I want them to be happy. And the best way to cultivate creativity in others is, I believe, by fostering it in myself. There is a reason my daughter never asks me to watch a movie, and that’s because she never sees me watching one.

 

I don’t mean to pick on movies, or newspapers, magazines or books for that matter, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses. I have subjected myself to as much media influence as any other person in America, but in my young adult years, driven mostly by rebellion, I chose to eschew TV, the newspaper and most media sources. I largely think that was a divine accident, and I don’t ask that anyone agree with me. It’s simply my belief that, having rejected the intense stimulation of media into my stream of consciousness, I freed myself up to engage with the world in front of my face and that ultimately led to a greater sense of fulfillment in my life. That is, I’m happy.

 

I’m happy because I know it. And I clap my hands. In other words, I sing. I rub my hands together and feel the coarseness of my fingerprints. I look at the dirt. There’s all kinds of shit in there, and it’s not just brown. I look at the leaves in the trees, the sky, and I try to notice the differences from day to day. I can spend hours simply feeling a piece of wood. Now, this isn’t special. It’s not better. It just is. But I’m enamored with it, and the fact that I require nothing so much as a patch of earth and a few healthy minutes to create a stirring sense of wonder and joy within me. But I can enjoy a good carpet too. Curiosity feeds me. Observation captivates me. In response, imagination and creativity spill forth almost effortlessly. I want the children in my life to feel that happiness too, to feel wanted and needed, like they fit, and this is the most direct way I know how to do that.

 

As a child, I used to play a game when sitting in the car on a long road trip. To pass the time I would clench my right foot (the good foot) whenever the grass outside my window stretched the whole length of the window from left to right. Broken up by any interruptions, say a driveway or another road, I would release my right foot and clench my left. Full green, clench right. Broken spaces, clench left. I would shift back and forth, often easily enough, but as the roads we traveled varied, and the speed of the car increased, the precise moment of transition became narrower and the tension grew. Ultimately, I made mistakes. To counter them, I allowed myself to make “stops” or “saves”, which required a full green window long enough so that I could clench and unclench my right foot midstride, while mentally saying “stop.” I could only stop the game if I had more stops than errors, though at some point the ultimate goal became acquiring copious amounts of stops, which I gathered furiously by rapidly squeezing and un-squeezing my right foot while repeating, “stop, stop, stop, stop, stop…” as I passed a long section of grass. You can probably read into that game, most notably the maze of asphalt and concrete inside the dense, inner-ring suburb of my youth. Needless to say, I got pretty good at that game. It occurs to me, just now, that this might be the first time I’ve ever told anyone about it.

 

*

 

Silke was still shaken, but even before she made it across the stream her nervous tension was giving way to laughter. Me too. My body was dumping dopamine into my bloodstream to make up for the energetic blast of testosterone I had received when I heard Silke shout, “rattlesnake!” My muscles relaxed and I could sense that everything was alright. She hadn’t been bitten, just frightened. Pema was at a safe distance.

 

Turning to look in the grass, I spied, plain as day, a thick coil of snake about ten feet from me, slowly retreating in the opposite direction. It had dark brown-red stripes up and down its back, and was as thick as my forearm. I couldn’t easily make out its head, or its tail, and it was hard to tell how long it was. Much of it was still coiled up, and the grass camouflaged its movements, which appeared to be in several directions at once. “Wait a minute, that’s two snakes,” I said, trying to make sense of it all. “Wait. Maybe it’s three.”

 

By that point, it was clear we were all a safe distance away and I knew the rattlers were only protecting themselves. They certainly weren’t after us. The toad, however, still huddled nearby on the shore. Its little throat expanded in and out, rapidly as before. Had it known?

 

Silke and I watched as the snakes uncoiled themselves, one clearly departing up into the bushes parallel to the river, another slithering further away into the distance. They were calm and each moved very slowly, giving us plenty of time to watch them, their departure stirring up swaying heads of grasses even as they disappeared in and out of view. Pema sidled up next to me, then took a couple steps up the shoreline. “No! Wait!” I shouted. “Those are rattlesnakes, Pema,” Silke said, straight-voiced, a little surprised by Pema’s brazen steps. “You don’t go up there.”

 

“But I want to see,” Pema whined.

 

“Okay, look,” I said, reaching for her, “You get on my back.” I picked her up and placed her on my shoulders, taking a few tentative steps up the shoreline. I could easily make the snakes out, a safe distance away, their movements calm and peaceful. “See them?” I asked.

 

“Yeah, right there,” Pema answered, excited to see such large snakes. We see garter snakes all the time, and occasional bull snakes, which can be quite big. But these seemed outrageously long, maybe six feet, and as thick as my arm. They were evidently adults, and there was no question there were two, but whether it was only two was never fully satisfied to me. The nearest one was now hidden entirely in the brush nearby and the furthest was almost out of sight, heading for some low-lying oaks. I turned back to Silke, shaking my head at the nearness of our encounter.

 

“Did you throw the bag at them?” I asked, “Or did you throw it before you noticed?”

 

“I didn’t notice anything,” she answered. “I threw my bag down without thinking. They must have felt it. And then, I heard the rattle…and…” she drifted off. I couldn’t stop smiling. Neither could Silke. I had the dawning sense - toad, snake, venom, the warm light of that canyon. I scratched my head, grateful to have Pema in my arms. This encounter was somehow medicine.

 

“You know, I’ve lived in New Mexico for more than thirty years and I’ve never seen a rattlesnake,” Silke said, growing reflective. “And now…” She shook her head, holding her hand out to the spot where the snakes had first been discovered in the grass. It was a bit mystifying.

 

“I know, I know,” I repeated, enchanted, echoing her reflection. “I haven’t seen one either. I…I…” stammering, I left off. Then, another thought struck and I resumed. “I’m surprised there aren’t any signs. I mean, there are tourists walking up and down this path all the time, day after day. Hundreds of them. You see signs all over for bears, and, come on…I mean - it’s a national park!” I held my hand out, baffled at the lack of legalistic notice I’ve come to expect in a well-funded national park. My mind was a jumble. Maybe rattlesnakes weren’t that common. But then how had we just stumbled on two, maybe three, very large snakes. Hidden by the fortress of driftwood, we were hardly a hundred feet from the main path.

 

Fact is, I had seen a rattlesnake before. At least, I think I did. A few months ago I was walking along the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge, over a large rock slide, and I noticed a distinct pattern amongst the loose gray stones. Looking closer, it revealed itself to be a slim brown and white snake, half hidden underneath the stones. It clearly wasn’t a garter snake or a bull snake, but it did have intricate patterns on its back and so I wondered if I had finally stumbled upon a rattler. It was still cold in the gorge, it being mid-spring, and I knew the poor thing could hardly move, if it was even alive. I poked it gently with a stick, then watched as it slowly slinked its way further under the stones. It was alive alright, but tiny, hardly bigger than a toothbrush. Its little tail shook violently, but there was no rattle there yet. Besides, even bull snakes do that. But whatever it was, it enhanced a healthy fear I already had. I walk these canyons and gorges all the time, often alone. It would only be a matter of time till I would stumble on one again, this time an adult, or worse, a juvenile.

 

“Dada,” Pema said, interrupting my reverie. “That’s where I took a poop.” She pointed to where the snakes had been lying still. I raised a hand to my face, sliding it slowly down as my mind retraced the steps. Before the toad had hopped into our lives, before I had taken that video, Silke was still slumbering beneath the driftwood when Pema had stood up from her fairy house and called out to me. She needed to poop. I waved my hand to the shore, right to the very spot we had found the snakes, indicating the glorious bathroom that surrounded us. That could only have been fifteen or twenty minutes ago. That’s why Pema had started to walk over there. She wasn’t just looking for the snakes, she wanted to know what they did to her poop.

 

*

 

There are things that defy explanation. Whether as scientists, spiritualists or simply as storytellers, these mysteries at the edge of our known world are both deeply haunting and deeply needed. They are what drive us, what opens the door to curiosity, observation and imagination. For whatever reason, good or bad, we have a need to feel unique, to believe that what we know is special, not known to the average person. Yet we need others, select others, to share this with. Esoteric knowledge, no matter the form, is a required for life, and everyone, from the lonely academic to the lowly laborer, relishes their uniqueness.

 

I read a compelling theory once, an explanation of the unique speed undergirding the human brain in the context of the staggering power of 21st century computers. The gist of it is this - a computer, no matter the speed, must reach a conclusion before returning an answer or moving to the next step in the algorithm. Even highly elegant and flexible code, complete with probabilities, must be, one way or another, followed precisely. That is the crux of computer technology - it’s always right. It always produces the same answer. The human brain, on the other hand, does not wait for complete resolution before producing an answer, or moving to the next step. Once an answer appears likely, we simply jump to the conclusion. This allows for all sorts of error to creep in, but it also makes us lightning fast and full of creativity. No two people, given the same input, produce the same answer.

 

Have you ever seen someone, or something, walking ahead of you at a distance and recognized them by the subtlest signals? A couple hundred yards out, a person is mostly just a glob on the horizon. Maybe he or she is a little fuzzy, but then somehow you notice the particular gait of this person’s movement, maybe a unique outline of their form, and think, “Oh, I wonder if that’s Bob. I should say hi.” You follow, walking closer and closer, till, now just a hundred yards away, you see a familiar hat, Bob’s hat, and the way Bob moves his arms a little side to side. You smile. “That must be him.” You move towards him, beginning to recount a few details - his wife’s recent illness, the car trouble, the way Bob always has a cup of coffee. But Bob is fast. You wonder if you should shout. Then, as you get within fifty feet or so, why, that’s not Bob at all. They’re not even wearing a hat. It’s just a passing stranger, like your thoughts. You smile and nod, glad you didn’t shout.

 

Have you ever walked in the forest and mistaken a dead tree trunk for a person, or a bear? Have you ever seen a face on a rock wall? The moon? Do you notice the way, once the outline of a duck suggests itself amongst the clouds, your relationship to that cloud changes? What exactly is a cloud, after all? Do you really know, or do you just think you know? Have you ever seen a toad’s deadpan expression, maybe in a photo or real life, and anthropomorphized its thoughts? So hilarious, those toads, just perfect for a pie in the face.

 

Whether you appreciate these sorts of thought experiments or not, it’s evident that our minds have a way of bleeding out beyond our factual environment and suggesting things much before we’re able to fully determine them. This is the source of much stupidity, but also great creativity and possibility. And yet, why do we see human faces in the rocks, ducks in the clouds? We don’t see hyraxes or aurachs, at least most of us don’t. Our imaginations and creativities tend to follow the lead of our experience. Children build playhouses. They make soup and cookies out of mud. They become their favorite TV characters, or the protagonists in their favorite books. Even fairies, magical as they are, resemble the human forms upon which we base them.

 

*

 

I stepped aside the narrow ledge carved into the rock, leaning back conveniently on the steel railing, placing a hand on Pema’s shoulder as a man and a woman with distinct Asian features passed by with courteous nods. There was little room to move around here, a hundred feet in the air, and the final passage to the cave above us was via a forty-foot wooden ladder, which the couple had recently descended. Silke passed by the couple and joined Pema and I on the ledge as we waited for the couple’s two teenage daughters to descend. The man, their father, called out to them in a foreign tongue, presumably reminding them, like any sane father, to be safe. You could see that he loved his girls. Pema had walked up the previous three ladders herself with no trouble, one foot following the other. I trusted her, but I stayed close. One of the daughters, now halfway down the ladder, called back to her father, this time in English. I looked at the man, a good ten to fifteen years older than me. “We are from Thailand,” he said, smiling sweetly. His wife nodded demurely.

 

The two daughters made it safely down the ladder and I escorted Pema past them, smiling courteously, eager to get up before the next group of tourists, now hovering near the top, began to descend. We had been here yesterday. We knew the etiquette.

 

Stepping over the last rung of the ladder, I looked around as Pema ran into one of the small caves, familiar from the day before, on our left. The main cave, about the size and shape of a modest amphitheater, is chalky and white with small pastel rocks, purple and orange, mixed into its surface. Ash, the whole canyon from top to bottom was ash from a nearby caldera, a volcanic explosion five-hundred times the size of Mount St. Helens over a million years ago, which eventually compressed and formed a layer of rock several hundred feet deep. You could feel it. The walls deteriorated with every stroke of my hand. My clothes were covered in it. The floor, the path, the river, everything was coated in a thick layer of chalky dust. Everywhere I looked, the cave was covered in deeply grooved shoe prints, like those on the moon.

 

Off to the right sat a small, reconstructed kiva. The rangers had cordoned it off, but Silke walked right past the signs, poking around the roof. “It’s locked,” she said, indicating the roof entrance that led inside. Apparently she had been here years ago, when you could still climb down. At opposite edges of the cave, two on the left and one far to the right, three small, closet-sized caves were carved into the surface of the wall, whether naturally or by the cave’s previous residents I couldn’t tell. The sign at the bottom said twenty-five people used to live here.

 

 “Live here?” I thought, dusting myself off, “They didn’t just live here.”

 

*

 

The day before, after visiting the caves near the visitor’s center, we had followed the long path along the river to this distant amphitheater, now called the Alcove House. After tucking our heads inside a couple of the smaller caves, giving a quick exploratory hum as we looked around, we eyed each other knowingly. They were worth a deeper exploration.

 

A few months ago Silke and I had stumbled across a large culvert under the highway near the Rio Grande. We were alone and she and I had both looked at each other and pointed - have you ever? Want to…? We did. We sang with the kids all the time, but this was different. Half an hour later we crawled out, almost delirious with bliss, having discovered a common affinity for the environment of sound. Underneath the highway, packed under twenty feet of gravel and dirt, We had had us some proper church. So it was no surprise to either one of us to be exploring these caves with our voices as well as our eyes.

 

Earlier that day we had shared a few exploratory notes in some of the caves near the visitor’s center, but nothing extravagant. There were so many caves and lots of people waiting to get up, or down, the ladders. We kept it modest. Now, as we walked the interior of the Alcove House, we were a little bolder. I released a long, resonant tone in the center of the main cave. A couple visitors, lingering near the ladder, looked up and smiled. There was a nice sound, but nothing to write home about. Then I smelled something. The visitors started climbing down and I walked to the opposite side. There, crouched in one of the small caves was Silke. She was burning some incense, Paulo Santo, as she is wont to do, and she had her flute.

 

I crawled in, curious to hear the flute, which piped some nice notes, but nothing exceptional. Pema, hearing the sound, spotted us and ran over. She climbed in my lap as we began to sing. At first we sang quietly, but then, seeing that we had the whole of the amphitheater to ourselves for the time being, we began increasing the range and depth of our tones. I let out the fullness of my voice. At some point, as we climbed the scales of our voices, I heard - no, I felt - a distinct resonance. It was just a glimmer, but it was like the whole cave shook with sound.

 

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

 

Silke smiled. “I most certainly did.”

 

We began searching our voices more consciously, slowly plying our voices up and down, listening for that powerful resonance. It wasn’t constant, but only appeared with certain notes. Small events informed us, like when I leaned forward to adjust my legs, which were fast falling asleep. In the center of the small cave, the sound carried like anywhere else in the world, but as I leaned the vibration in my chest back to the wall of the cave, a distinct phenomenon occurred which literally shook the bones in my pelvis. Holy shit, I said with my eyes to Silke, who looked back at me with a knowing smile.

 

Silke began chanting deep in her throat, her chin pressed close to her chest. The note, whatever it was, was deep, and I could feel the walls coming alive. I echoed the tone, slightly mellower and deeper, adjusting the minutia of my throat to scale up and down with titration-like precision. I listened to the Aahhh… I listened to the Oooo… I listened to the Eeee… It didn’t take long for us, trading breaths rhythmically, to keep the walls of that cave shimmering with a sound that penetrated our whole bodies. It was as if we were inside a huge crystal singing bowl. Pema sat, enchanted.

 

It was a single note that did it. Climbing up or down scale, the resonance faded immediately, just like a chime or a bell has only one tone. To keep the resonance, it simply required us to keep that pitch, otherwise the walls faded and all the sound was simply in our throats. The human voice. But when keyed into that particular tone, that particular vibration, it felt as if the whole cliff were vibrating with us. The whole canyon was singing along with us, touching octaves and harmonies that, moments ago, we couldn’t even have imagined.

 

I have a remarkable capacity for air, particularly when singing, the pressure of which forces the oxygenated air into my expanding lungs and, quite literally, makes me high. Mostly, I am modest with my voice, but when I wish to, and surely I wished to then, I can release and hold a strong note for what feels like a very long time. At the rise of each breath, as I shaped my throat back into that shimmering vibration, there was a brief moment, like call and response, when it was simply my own voice. Then, as I caught the frequency, I felt as if my whole body was resonating with the inner chambers of the earth. I don’t know how to describe it. I can never fully describe it. The whole earth shook, and when it did I could no longer feel the vibration in my own throat. It was as if I was pushing an energy from deep within my diaphragm directly into the resonance of the world. I disappeared. Then, as each breath ended, the resonance would briefly dim, then abruptly end. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

 

By sharing our cycles of breath, Silke and I were able to continue sounding for minutes on end, maintaining that resonance, till our breaths fell out of sync or one of us fell to joyful laughter. It was intoxicating and when we weren’t singing, we were grinning from ear to ear. Do the rangers know about this? I wondered. Surely the Anasazi did. My eyes drifted over the kiva, only a few yards away, and over the tree-lined river below. My goodness. But before I could drift too far, Pema would shout, “Again!”

 

*

 

That night, as Silke and I sat in the dark at our campsite, watching the stars come out, we debated about what to do next. We had planned to go to Tent Rocks, its sloping canyon walls much like those at Bandelier. I looked over at Pema, who was singing softly to herself in a hammock nearby, wrapped in a sleeping bag. The sound we had experienced earlier that day washed over me. What a mystery. What dumb luck. There was something about those caves, the warm, feminine feel of the canyon.

 

“Let’s stay here,” Silke said. I agreed.

 

*

 

Three days later, having returned for a second day at Bandelier and singing for another couple hours in the caves high above the canyon floor after our encounter with the rattlesnakes, Silke and I were walking alone on a very different path. It was raining and Pema was with her mother for the night. We had shifted our camping trip in order to adjust for that anomaly and were now returning from a long hike along a thickly forested mountain trail. It was getting dark and I was getting hungry when Silke, spotting a thin vein of quartz in the rock, stopped short on the trail. “Let’s go up there,” she said, indicating a brief ledge on top of a rock slide. “I always pay attention to crystal veins.” I rolled my eyes, and followed. There, not thirty feet away, stood the opening to a cave. It was round, just above standing height, and the waning light of day disappeared quickly into a vast darkness. It appeared to be very, very deep.

 

The truth can lead you to the edge. Imagination can make you sing.

 

Rain

I was finishing my lunch by the river, keeping an eye on the dark clouds descending upon the slash of blue up north. After trotting down a steep trail, past two men and three horses, we were deep in the gorge at that point. Pema had already scarfed down her lunch, but Francis, smeared with jam, still carried around a half-eaten sandwich. They were oblivious to the approaching weather. Having changed out of their wet clothes, they now climbed the boulders along the shoreline, transforming them into mountains and naming them after their absent friends. “This is Ada’s Mountain,” Pema declared from the top of a large black stone. Francis smiled. The sun still warmed our shoulders.

 

“We’re going to leave in about ten minutes, okay guys?” I called out from below. I was reclined comfortably, appreciating the stillness before the long hike out. It was only noon, but we had a mile to go and a steep one at that. I had brought the kids down earlier that morning, near the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande, hoping to find the Red River low enough to ford across. Pema and Francis sat patiently on an old tree trunk as I poked around, but after twenty minutes of plumbing the depths of swirls and eddies with bare feet and rolled up pants, it was obvious I wouldn’t cross the river here. I would have to reconsider my backpacking trip the following week. We retreated to a calm pool along the Rio Grande instead, playing for an hour as the clouds gathered overhead.

 

It being monsoon season, almost every day we watched as two or three thunderstorms drifted slowly over the mesa. Sometimes they land and sometimes they don’t, but when they do they often come hard and fast with a shear wall of water. Half an hour later, the sun is back out and we can watch the last of the rivulets of water twist over the sand and muddy the rivers. But just as often the storms pass by, touching us with cool blasts of air that shake the trees and send us running for the clothes on the line.

 

I was still splayed out on the sand a couple minutes later, trying to estimate the speed of the clouds, when I decided ten minutes was too long. “Okay guys,” I said, throwing the last of our lunch in my backpack, “Let’s go.”

 

“But Dada you said ten minutes,” Pema said, more out of confusion than unwillingness.

 

“Yeah, you’re right,” I answered, forcing Francis’s yellow bee backpack and Pema’s crafty owl-bag into my own. “But I’m getting a little worried about those clouds.” I pointed to the north. “We’ve got a long hike out of here.” It would take an hour to walk out, I figured, but I had given us two, knowing we would dally along the way.

 

Francis, chewing the last bite of his sandwich, looked left and right, then asked, “Where’s my backpack?”

 

I smiled. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’m willing to carry it; and yours, Pema. Normally I wouldn’t,” and the kids surely knew that, “but I want us to be able to move quick if we have to.” Francis was still for a second, then smiled, twisting his shoulders left and right. A mile up the steep walls of the gorge is a good hike, but I knew both of them could do it so long as we took breaks here and there. Plus, there were a few spots where the rocks created shelter, something we could resort to if we had to.

 

“I felt a raindrop!” Pema shouted. She turned to look at me and Francis as if to prove it. I didn’t feel anything, but I looked over the black stones for dark splashes. I didn’t see any, but I didn’t care to doubt Pema either. I hoisted my backpack on my shoulders, looked up at the lip of the gorge, and pointed towards the path. “Alright, let’s go,” I said, shepherding them in front of me.

 

Pema quickly sprang to the front, galloping up the trail with enthusiasm. Francis ran after her, loping side to side with the awkward gait of a toddler still discernible in his steps. He has yet to develop the full frontal speed of a real run, a common subject between the two of us. Soon Pema was out of sight around a bend in the path and Francis had settled into a modest trot in front of my restrained pace. “Pema wait!” he shouted, then added for my benefit, “We’re slower, because she’s bigger.”

 

“Yep,” I answered.

 

Our pace slowed to Francis’s plodding rhythm, Pema racing ahead and occasionally stopping to let us catch up. As soon as we spotted her she would flash a smile, then turn and take off. Francis would inevitably shout, “Pema!” and begin to trot after her till, losing sight, he once again resigned himself to my company. “Pema’s fast,” he would say.

 

As I followed behind Francis, I kept peering over my shoulder to assess the approaching clouds, the mottled edges of which had begun to obscure the sun. The light began to fade in and out, then was gone for good as we rounded another bend in the path. Normally it didn’t rain before two or three, but whether it was imminent or not, the clouds were certainly moving fast. I still had an unobscured line of sight to the distant cliffs in the north, no telltale graying of the earth tones, the surest sign of rain, but dark clouds were now well over our heads. Still, to the south, the predominant direction of our footsteps, the sky was blue and cheerful, which kept a lightness in my step.

 

“Pema?” I shouted, not having seen her for a few minutes.

 

“Yeah?” she shouted back, somewhere above us in the trees.

 

“Don’t get too far ahead!” I shouted.

 

“Okay!”

 

I resisted the urge to pick Francis up and run ahead. These kinds of hikes build confidence and alertness, but it takes patience to let a small child like Francis move at his own pace. I felt like my ankles were tied with a one-foot chain.

 

Around the next corner we stumbled upon Pema once again. This time she let us catch up and the three of us paused for a moment to look down at the river. We had left the shoreline only fifteen minutes ago, but the frothy water already looked distant. “Look at that,” I said, “We’ve already climbed pretty high.”

 

“Yeah!” Pema shouted, an exclamation quickly aped by Francis. They were proud. Me too. Looking over the expanse to the far side of the gorge, I guessed that we had come about a quarter of the way up. “Alright, let’s go,” I said, shuffling them ahead of me.

 

The path gets progressively steeper as it ascends, and as we rounded the next curve we encountered a familiar series of switchbacks where, on our way down, we had happened upon two men widening the path for their horses. At first, both men had seemed surprised to find a couple of young children blazing down the trail they had just negotiated with horses, but as they greeted me with ever widening smiles, I realized they were mostly nervous I would report their illegal trail maintenance. Now, as we retreated up the path, the men were nowhere in sight. The dirt was loose in a few spots and one of the junipers, whose twisted trunk we had ducked under on our way down, had been cut down. “That’s a bummer,” I said, touching the fresh cut as we passed.

 

“What’s a bummer?” Pema asked.

 

“Well, those guys cut this tree down,” I frowned. “And I don’t think they should have done that.” Francis, following my lead, touched the tree, his three-year old fingertips passing instantly over a hundred years of growth rings. Some of these junipers, twisted and gnarly, are three to seven hundred years old, though they’re never much bigger than shrubs. The occasional elders can reach a thousand years or more. Green twigs were scattered all around us, and the distinct odor of fresh cut cedar hung in the air.

 

“Come on, Dad,” Pema said impatiently. “Let’s go.” She began climbing a series of large rocks embedded in the path. Francis followed, carefully placing each hand as he guided himself up the rocky incline. I was caught between admiration for these two, who take obstacles like this in stride, and the desire to move faster.

 

“Francis, do you remember…” Pema asked, turning back to us and covering a guilty smile with her hands.

 

“What?” Francis said, stopping short on the rocks.

 

“Do you remember…the horse…” she drifted off.

 

“Pee?” asked Francis, matter-of-factly.

 

“Yeah,” Pema answered, smiling. They tittered, then, encouraged by each other’s audacity, laughed robustly. As we had passed the men’s horses on the way down, Pema had asked why there were three. “Well,” said one of the men, “these two carried us down, and that one,” he pointed, indicating a horse with deep brown hair and two large saddlebags, “She carried the tools. Horses are good at that.” Almost immediately, the horse, a female, began discharging a milky-yellow liquid from her rump, which continued for an inelegantly long time. “They do that too,” the man said, then smiled and walked back up to his partner. Pema was entranced. Afterward, the horse’s visible organs, which continued to expand and adjust without the least hesitation of modesty, had captivated Pema. “Why does she keep doing that?” she asked me quietly, pointing uncertainly. “Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it’s just what she does.”

 

Francis, scrambling on all fours, made it to the top of the rocks, which I took in two long strides. Pema, quieting her laughter, turned and bolted while Francis and I settled back into our regular pace. A strong breeze blew over us from behind and I could feel the temperature dropping in the air. The wind shook the tree branches ominously and I heard a few loose cones tumble down a Ponderosa Pine just beyond the path. “Come on Francis,” I said, “Let’s scoot.” He trotted for a few yards, then resumed the same pace. There was only so much he could do.

 

We passed over a rise in the trail, giving me a good view of the cliffs in the north, which had become unmistakably fuzzy and gray. No more guessing. The rain would be on us shortly. I looked at Francis, who was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The rain was about a mile away, but that would be bridged quickly. We curved around another bend. “Pema!” I shouted. “Yeah!” she answered from behind some rocks up ahead. The clear odor of ozone struck my nose, that unique chemical smell of rain. “It’s going to rain any second now!” I shouted. “Don’t run too far ahead!”

 

At least I could see the cliffs. It would probably come hard, but nothing like the wall of water that makes mountains, and cliffs, disappear. I’ve been in storms like that, the water approaching with the sound of a raging river. One minute you’re dry and the next the sky and air is an unimaginable tangle of water, almost as if you’re underwater. The front edge of a storm is often hail, at least in the mountains, but down here I didn’t expect that. But even the raindrops, which sometimes come in strawberry-sized drops, can land with such force that one’s whole body, and the whole earth, thrums with a percussive energy that is magnificent, dark and fearsome.

 

I felt a prick of moisture on the back of my neck, then another on my palm. Dark spots began appearing left and right over the coffee-colored earth, leaving wet marks on the back of Francis’s blue t-shirt. Looking up, raindrops were clearly visible in the air, falling one by one in slanting, gray columns.

 

“Dada!” Pema shouted.

 

“Yeah, pup?!”

 

“It’s raining!”

 

I took a few more steps, scouting for shelter if we needed it. Suddenly, the drops got bigger and I heard a loud peel of thunder. I scanned for hail, but there was none. Then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Thunder sounded again, this time mumbling something in the clouds far away. The scattered drops that had landed only moments ago dried up and disappeared. Francis’s t-shirt was a uniform sky blue. We kept going.

 

Francis and I turned the corner and found Pema, dressed in a red skirt, sandals and pink top, lounging against a rock. “It’s still warm,” she said.

 

“Are you cold?” I asked.

 

“No, I’m hot Daddy,” she said, taking off her hat. “Here.” She dropped the hat on the ground before I could reach it, half on purpose. Francis laughed, grabbing the brim of his own hat. “It’s shady,” Pema said, justifying her lackadaisical manner. “Yeah, but it might be good for the rain,” I countered, picking her hat up and slapping it against my thigh. I handed it back to her. “Why don’t you keep it on. Now come on, let’s scoot.”

 

We cheerfully walked another few jogs in the switchbacks, Pema keeping closer to Francis and I as I glanced for oncoming rain. Looking across the gorge, I guessed we were now about halfway up. “Dada look,” Pema said, indicating a hollow space in the rocks. We had spied it on our way down, when Pema and Francis had climbed inside. We could still see their footprints in the busied earth, a neat pile of rocks off to one side. I could have squeezed myself in, knees pressed tightly against my chest, shoulders hunched, but it wasn’t raining and we were making good time. I saw no need to stop. “Yeah, cool,” I said. “Come on, let’s go.”

 

We were walking along a narrow stretch in the path when we came to another rocky patch. Pema quickly dashed up and around to the next switchback. Francis slowed to all fours. I waited patiently behind him when I began to hear a scuffling noise behind me. I turned toward the sound, spotting a heavy rain in the near distance. It wasn’t the shear wall of water I feared, but it was advancing with enough ferocity that I finally shed my patience. I picked Francis up with one scoop - thinking, as I did, that he hadn’t asked me even once to carry him - and cradled him in my arms. Taking the rocks in long strides, I moved quickly, but solidly, ahead to Pema.

 

The raindrops began falling almost immediately. The noise was consuming, but I was almost pleased to finally be in it. By the time I caught up to Pema, the dark brown patches which began to appear on the earth had already given way to one big wet sheen. My arms were dripping and thick drops from my hat splashed down onto Francis, who lay smiling in my arms. “You’re carrying me,” he said, bubbling with excitement as I bounded over rocks.

 

Pema was clutching her hat, now soaked, and smiling wildly. “It’s raining Dad!” she shouted over the roar. I smiled too, but then drew serious. “Okay, Pema,” I said as we approached, my feet not pausing for a second, “now it’s time to really scoot.”

 

Within minutes we were soaked through. I walked as fast as I could, taking long, confident strides. We had a little under half way to go. We could stop at another rock shelter, but if we were quick we could be in the car in twenty minutes. I paced myself cautiously - I didn’t want to risk a fall with Francis in my arms - but I’m surefooted and continued advancing rapidly. To my surprise, Pema kept ahead of me, moving with a grace and endurance that made my heart sing.

 

“Thanks for being so strong and mighty,” I shouted to Pema. “You too Francis.” I felt a bit guilty, but the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. “Sure,” Pema said, shrugging it off without the least pause. The rain was coming hard, but not so hard it was unbearable. Francis peaked out from behind his hands, which he was using to cover his face. Our eyes were only inches away, and I could feel the warmth coming off his skin. To my delight, he was smiling. “Are you cold?” I asked. He shook his head rapidly, yes, and I covered him with my bare arms. He settled into my embrace like an infant, balling up as I held him tightly to my chest. “How ‘bout you, Pema?” I shouted over the rain, “You cold?”

 

“I’m fine!” she shouted, plodding without hesitation up the steep, now muddy, trail.

 

“Be careful!” I shouted. “It’s going to get slippery now!”

 

“I know!” she answered.

 

*

 

Thirty minutes later we were in the car, heat blasting, as we rumbled across the cattle guard and hit the paved highway. The hike up had been engrossing, somehow calm and captivating. The kids had been strong. But the road out had been long and muddy and I still gripped the steering wheel with fearful concentration, shoulders hunched, wipers at full speed. Heading down the long hill, glad to be back on pavement, I glanced at the clock, 1:48, and relaxed. I had taken the kids’ wet clothes off, but I was still shivering. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Pema, smiling dreamily, was wrapped in a crumpled towel that had managed to stay dry at the bottom of my pack. Francis, covered in a sweater and shawl, had drifted off to sleep. I smiled. We had hiked in the rain for only twenty minutes or so, but we would have it for the rest of our lives.

A Polymer Blend

“Dada, I’m thirsty,” Pema said, eyeing the glass mug which had just been planted in front of Francis. She looked at me across the kitchen table with searching eyes. Would I get her some, or would I tell her she was fully capable of getting her own? I was asking myself the same question when I remembered something and waved it off. “Hey pup!” I shouted, “Check this out!”

 

I shifted Francis, who was sitting on my lap, to the seat next to me. He frowned, but I countered softly. “I’ll be right back,” I said, “I promise.”

 

It was late afternoon and the small kitchen of our community at New Buffalo was beginning to bustle. Silke had just walked in the door and sat next to Pema, who was finishing her bowl of soup opposite me. My empty bowl sat on the table. Francis, who had just woken up from a nap, had been sitting on my lap, the two of us against the wall, waiting patiently as his mother melted cheese on triangles of pesto pizza. Maurice, one of our housemates, towered nearby, washing some dishes at the sink, and across from us, another housemate, Dana, occupied the small corner table, eyes focused intently on her computer screen.

 

Leaving Francis behind, I walked purposefully to the cabinet, threading the space carefully between Francis’s mother at the stove and Maurice at the sink. Sharing a kitchen is like dancing. Opening the cabinet coyly, I grabbed the small bottle I had washed earlier that morning and quickly returned to the table.

 

“Check it out, pup,” I said, slamming the bottle down to draw attention, “your new water bottle.” Pema’s face lit up. The bottle, which she had selected from a long row of colorful juices at the store, was a unique shape, sort of like an hourglass. It had originally contained pomegranate juice, but Pema hadn’t much cared for it. After sitting idly in the fridge for over a week, earlier that day I drank off the contents and had even tossed it into the recycling, when, noting its shapeliness, I pulled it back out. I had anticipated this very moment. Pema, reaching up, placed her fingers between its bulging spheres and smiled.

 

Silke, Francis and I watched as she unscrewed the maroon cap and lifted the bottle to her lips. There was a simple moment of anticipation as the bottle hung in midair. She drank and we stared. Her little throat undulated. “Ahhh,” Pema said afterward, releasing the bottle from her lips and gathering her breath. She set the oblong figure squarely on the table, the remaining contents sloshing about, then smiled. It worked.

 

Pleased with the result, I made a quick nod of my head and sat back down in the empty chair. “Plus,” I announced, pulling Francis back onto my lap, “it’s made from a special polymer blend.” I waved my hand delicately over the table, palm up, accentuating the word “polymer.” Francis’s mother giggled off to the side, while Pema and Silke, plain-faced, agreed uncertainly. I’m always making things up. Dana glanced up from her computer, caught my eye, then sheepishly returned to her screen. I grabbed Francis’s mug with my outstretched hand and raised it in toast.

 

Francis, enjoying the play, met with confusion as his cup of water retreated down the length of my arm. Following my sweeping gesture with outstretched hands, he shouted a bit uncertainly, “Hey! That’s my water!”

 

“Okay, but check this out,” I said, returning the cup to Francis’s wiggling fingers. “Do you know what a polymer is? A polymer isn’t just any old blend - it’s an organic blend.” I smiled shrewdly, indicating Pema’s new bottle with a thrust of my hand. “CH2, a monomer, you know what I mean?” I spoke the words like old friends recounting childhood memories, then leaned into the table as if revealing a secret. I picked up the bottle, holding it aloft like a priceless treasure. My eyes, like my fingers, wandered over its subtle form. I looked up at Pema, whose eyes shifted from the bottle to me and back, then set it down purposefully.

 

“It’s like a series of chains - that’s what it’s made of. Imagine…” I paused, picturing the microscopic bonds of molecular chains. Holding both hands in front of me, Francis close to my chest, I began wiggling my fingers in rhythm. “When it’s warm, those chains slip and slide like wet noodles in butter, but…” I stopped suddenly, twisting my fingers slowly into a hardening clump. “…as it cools those chains wrap around each other…and…” slowing down for effect, “…get all gummed up.” I glanced at Pema. Her eyes were riveted on my hands and her spoon, forgotten in midair, hovered above her bowl of soup.

 

“Do you believe it?” I asked, leaning back casually. “Pup, your water bottle was once a dinosaur.” I smiled, noting the silence in the room. All I could hear was the soft hiss of the gas stove. Maurice stood at the sink, but the faucet was off. “Can you believe that?” I asked again, as if in wonder, but I didn’t stop long enough for an answer. “Tons of ‘em, pup, climbing all over the earth. Dinosaurs and ferns and even kale - is that possible? There were volcanoes and swamps and huge bubbling vats of….” I paused again. “Pema, I don’t really know.” I shook my head incredulously. “And then guess what?”

 

“What?” Pema asked.

 

“What?” repeated Francis.

 

“All those dinosaurs, and all those plants and algae, and snails and ferns and bubbling vats died.” I frowned. “At least, most of them did. Vast, teeming life, and suddenly it all was all gone,” I waved my hand. “Only it wasn’t all gone.” I paced through the words carefully, as if I couldn’t keep up with all those thundering lizards, running to and fro. “This is what people think. Can you believe it? It’s true.” I cocked my head and shrugged my shoulders.

 

“Well, all those animals and plants rotted and - we’re talking millions and millions of years ago - they seeped into the earth and rotted some more. They sank down, beneath the ground. No one could even see them anymore. We didn’t even know they were there. But then, suddenly, we did know. They were still there!” Pema smiled.

 

“Where?” asked Francis, squirming in my lap.

 

“Under the ground. Except, they weren’t dinosaurs anymore. They were just, well, they were a thick black ooze of life. Oil, pup…oil.” I let the word bubble up and sink in. “Your bottle, a polymer of monomer chains, CH-CH2…” I pronounced the letters and numbers as if unlocking a secret formula, “…is the compressed history of dinosaurs.” I shook my head incredulously, vigorously. “It once roamed enormous uber-continents, feeding off plants and animals incomparably bigger than you or I. Then they got so small you can’t even see them. The mers held hands, forming long polymer chains,” I mimicked the grasping of many hands, looking left and right at invisible people, then stared at Pema. “Till finally they were extracted from the ground - oil, the same thing that runs our cars! It was spun and injected, purified, emulsified, swirled into this beautiful little shape,” and again I picked up the bottle and held it carefully. “Polymers, pup.” I fingered the bulging spheres, the little crevices. I tried the cap, then swirled the water around inside. “Polymers,” I repeated. Pema and Francis stared, riveted.

 

“It’s true. It’s all true,” I said, shaking my head as if I could hardly believe it. “Your water bottle. Carbon! The stuff of life!” I set the bottle down carefully, afraid to mishandle it, and leaned calmly back into my chair. Francis reached out and stroked the bottle with one finger. Dana’s eyes peered over the screen, fixed on the little bottle.

 

“In other words,” I said, sweeping my arm behind me in a broad gesture over my head. I touched the cap knowingly and, opening my eyes as wide as they could go, stared intently at Pema. “Plastic,” I said.

 

There was silence for one brief moment. Pema looked at me, uncertain, then relaxed almost imperceptibly into a smile. Francis, shaking his head in my lap, laughed and shouted, “Nooo…” At that, Maurice slapped the edge of the counter and erupted into a full-bellied laugh, nearly doubling over at the sink. Dana let out a guffaw, Francis’s mother tee-hee’d over the stove, and Silke shook her head. Caught up in the noise, Pema and Francis looked back and forth at each other and the other adults, hoping to catch a glimpse of what just happened.

 

“Wait till I tell you about this one,” I said, picking up the glass mug Francis had left on the table.

Lost

“Okay, pup,” I said, turning around to face Pema, “Come on.” She stood on top of the boulder, now slightly above my chest, from which I had just climbed. It was difficult to see her in the dark, but there was a soft glow about her skin and hair that was easy enough to follow as she leaned into me. I had one foot on a small patch of dirt, the other on the pointed edge of a stone, but I didn’t feel settled. I eased her down off the rock and brought her close. For a moment we were just father and daughter, warm and safe. Thunder came somewhere out of the southwest. There was no rain, thank god, but I would have welcomed a flash of lightning, anything to get my bearing. I set Pema down and looked into the crooked silhouettes between us and the car. A soft blue light hovered around Angele, Silke’s friend, up ahead. It couldn’t be far but it was hard to tell.

 

“Dada, when will be done?” Pema asked, innocent as a flower. “I’m tired.” She was a trooper, but it was way past bedtime and I could feel it in her muscle tone, the way she had flopped into my arms. I was tired too. It had been a long day. How had the night descended so quickly? I felt angry with myself, and confused. But my bewilderment did nothing to escape the dawning fact that we were lost. I looked over the gaping edge of the gorge. There was a light coming from below, probably some campers down by the river, but otherwise everything was black. In the distance I could see the pinpricks of light coming from houses in the Hondo Valley, only a mile away. Beyond that, the black on black silhouette of the mountains rose above everything else. The moon, only a sliver, wouldn’t be out for hours. “Oh, Pema,” I said, trying to brush off blame and regret and remain focused. There were dozens of boulders like this to cross. “Soon, pup,” I said, trying to reassure myself. “We’ll be home soon.”

 

*

 

I had walked the same path earlier that day, over fifteen hours ago, in the light of dawn. A couple miles from home, and about three-quarters of the way up the western slope of the Rio Grande Gorge, there is a switchback in the dirt road. It doesn’t look like much, but by climbing between two creamy-orange boulders one can find an old game trail established by big-horned sheep. The trail, though remote, is easily accessible because of the parking spot created by the switchback, and by following a series of broken paths one ends up at a small side canyon a few hundred yards away.

 

I had chosen that trail in the morning, because I knew Silke would be staying in the side canyon that night. She was preparing to do a vision quest, and Pema and I were to join her that evening for prayers in her sweat lodge before taking her out for several days of fasting and meditation. But as I squeezed between the two creamy-orange boulders that morning, I knew the game trail would be just a brief leg of my journey. It would only take me fifteen minutes to reach the side canyon, descend, and then trail west through the canyon to the mesa top, after which I would veer north for several miles and finally circle back home. I know the terrain well, and it’s not uncommon for me to travel thirty to forty miles in a day, often across a series of roads, paths along the river bottom, scaling over brush and rocks. The only direction I don’t go is straight up or down.

 

After the entrance through the boulders, I made quick work over easy ground, then veered into a cluster of junipers. Uphill was a large boulder and downhill was a cliff edge, with a hefty drop to the river. There was no obvious route, but being accustomed to such obstacles I quickly chose what looked like the easiest path, dropped to my knees, and I began scuttling under the branches. I emerged on the other side with little trouble, save a minor snag on my backpack, which, giving a forceful tug, released from the tree with a telltale snap. Advancing a few feet forward, I turned uphill and regained the path.

 

I ambled another fifty feet over easy ground, avoiding the cactuses effortlessly, then around a bend when the trail disappeared again. This is how game trails are. On my right was a large black and tan boulder which was missing a huge concave facet, so that it resembled a crude throne. From its perch, one could look over a vast section of the gorge, down to the Rio Grande below, up the eastern slope and beyond to the towering mountains in the distance. I thought about sitting down and trying to spot my house, only a couple miles away in the Hondo Valley, but quickly shook off the idea. It was early and I wasn’t even a bit tired. There was a lot of ground to cover before the close of the day, so I put my foot in the seat of the throne and pressed on.

 

*

 

I heard the car pull up through the open window. It was almost five-thirty and the sun was still high. A couple hours earlier I had returned from my walk, quickly showered and packed, and I was now sitting at my computer checking my email. I would have another child with me tomorrow morning, making the total four.

 

I turned off the computer and grabbed my things, a small shoulder bag with a few snacks and a couple bottles of water, and headed outside. I was eager to get moving, but then I stopped at the door, unscrewed one of the water bottles and took a big gulp. As I drank, my headlamp hung within arm’s reach, but I wasn’t thinking of it. I never leave my house without food or water, but I rarely travel with a light. Early to bed, I’m rarely out past dusk, and when I am I prefer the broad spectrum of graying eyesight to the nearsightedness of artificial light. But the real truth is that I just wasn’t thinking. I was leaving all the details to Silke and her friend. I hadn’t ever taken someone out on vision quest. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that we might be walking home in the night.

 

As I approached the car from around the corner, I could make out Pema’s voice coming through the backseat, but not her words. She seemed to be saying something to Megan, her mother. The car door slammed and there were footsteps in gravel. Then I turned the corner. Megan stood at the back door, her hand gripping the door handle. She was wearing a colorful summer dress and she turned to me with a relaxed and joyful expression.

 

“Hey there, Papa,” Megan said, releasing the door handle to greet me. We hugged and I could feel that her body was dry. Even with the shower, mine felt oily and I was beginning to perspire again.

 

“Hey Pup!” I shouted, staring through the car window. I was looking forward to our evening, which would contain all kinds of rich and novel experiences for Pema and I. It’s not every day you sit in sweat lodge, smelling the sweat perfume of copal and sweetgrass, and it’s not every day that you witness someone willing to sit on the earth in silence with no food or shelter. Whatever happened, I knew Pema would take home all sorts of questions and ideas that would, at this age, expand her mind in ways I could only dream of.

 

But Pema just sat in the car and huffed. No matter the excitement of the evening’s activities, she had been with Megan the last two days and she wasn’t ready to leap out of her arms into mine. These transitions can be a sensitive time for all of us, and I wasn’t going to press her. Usually, we would spend an hour or more talking about our day, sharing food or a game, and allowing the three of us to re-acclimate as a family. But this evening I was in a rush and she knew it.

 

I circled round to the passenger side, trying to be calm. I didn’t want to magnify the situation. Tossing my bag through the open window of my car, I eyed the five-gallon jug of water I had filled with spring water - I would be carrying this into the canyon later - then turned back to Pema. I peered through the open passenger window, trying not to rush things, but feeling a little anxious. Megan opened the driver’s side door and sat down, prompting Pema to climb out of the back and into her lap. “Yeah, I’m going to miss you too,” Megan said, taking Pema into her arms.

 

Two minutes later we were off, rolling a bit too fast down the long gravel driveway.

 

*

 

Advancing carefully over a pile of loose stones in the dark, hand in hand, Pema and I caught up with Angele, Silke’s friend, up front. “Watch out for the cactus, honey,” she said as we stepped onto solid ground. Using her phone as a torch, she illuminated a hairy cactus just inches away on our left. It was indistinguishable from the rocks in the dark, but with the soft blue light of the phone its green flesh, covered in tiny hairs, stood out in great detail. Pema had already encountered a cholla cactus, its barbed needles yanking on her skin as I pulled them out. That was bad enough, but this cactus can leave dozens of miniscule threads that break into fragments and irritate like a rash. We only had to walk a few hundred yards, but our pace was miserably slow.

 

“I think we’re below the road,” I said to Angele. In the distance, we could make out the bare earth of the road, a gray line along the black surface of the gorge wall. It was obvious enough, but it looked to be a quarter mile away. It should have been much closer. We had left Silke behind more than an hour ago and in normal daylight it wouldn’t have taken us more than twenty minutes to cover the distance back to the car. We had to be close. But where were we? Angele pointed the phone’s light toward the road, but it was useless. Its pale light died out within ten feet.

 

*

 

“Hey pup,” I shouted over the crackling fire. Pema had just risen and, dressed and alert, was threading her way through the brush in the distance. It was three days since we had been lost in the gorge, and the sun was beginning to crest over the eastern mountains. Silke was due back in an hour. I had been up since early that morning, tending the fire for the sweat lodge that would mark the end of Silke’s vision quest.

 

Pema was captivated by something, so she didn’t even look at me when I called to her, but continued walking toward something I could not see. I walked towards her till, passing round a large hedge of juniper, I finally caught a glimpse of the giant purple balloon rising out of the gorge. With a deafening roar from its flame, the basket of the hot air balloon rose above the lip of the gorge and we could see the people looking over the edge.

 

Having had her fill of the balloon, she turned to me and jumped into my arms. I held her close, feeling her bare legs. They were still covered in scratches, but they were healing. The final plunge out of the gorge that night had ended with she and I rocketing down the side of a steep embankment to the road below. At the bottom stood Angele’s husband. She had finally reached him on the phone and he had come out with his car, shining his headlights in the dark so that we could get our bearing. Standing above the embankment, I knew it would be uncomfortably fast, but I thought we could make it and I didn't want to backtrack a hundred yards through those conditions to a gentler slope. There were risks in every direction, and it had been like that the whole night. I crouched down and pulled Pema onto my lap. We started moving before my butt even hit the ground. Pema followed my lead without question, then erupted at the bottom in terror, shrieking the kind of sobs that accompany long stretches of silence and gasping breaths. I felt like a fool, worse, and it took a long time to assess whether either of us was hurt badly. We weren't, but it had been a hellish night.

 

I held Pema in my arms as the balloon rose high into the air above us. Silke would be here any moment. Behind us, the fire crackled softly. Life is so precious.

Touch

I woke, barely half-conscious in the dark. I had been dreaming, but as I grasped for what of, all the details slipped away. There was just a lingering feeling of elsewhere. Pema stirred at my side, digging her foot into the backside of my knee. Was she awake? Quickly, my mind stitched together the completeness of me. I was asleep. That is, I must be awake. My daughter was at my side. A pale block of light came through the open window. Not yet morning. The curtain fluttered, and a cool breeze ruffled my skin. Would Pema be warm enough? Then, finally, like a soft light approaching through fog, it dawned on me that a sound was playing in my ears, a soft falling rain. Following the tether of my ears, my mind climbed out the window and beheld the dark purple clouds, illuminated at the edges by the gibbous moon. I was asleep.

 

*

 

I had been in the kitchen for nearly two hours when Francis and his mother walked in. I was preparing food for the coming week while Pema slept, and a pile of dishes now sat by the sink. The pressure cooker hissed softly at the edge of the stove. It was not quite eight o’clock.

 

“Hi Joe,” Francis said, evidently wide awake and alert. “Where are you going?” This is usually one of his first questions.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” I answered, opening the door of the oven, which produced an off-color, metallic squeal.

 

“You’re going to your room?” he asked.

 

“No,” I said, bending over to pull a hot tray from the oven. I stood up and placed it on the stovetop. “I’m trying to get some things done before Pema wakes up.” I began stirring the contents, a roasted cereal made from ground oats and wheat berries, then looked up at Francis who had been deposited on the counter next to me. “Where’s Pema?” he asked, his next most common question. His mother reached up to rifle through the cupboard. “Did you hear the rain last night?” she asked.

 

“Yeah,” I replied, a soft smile on my face as I recalled the pale moonlight, the breeze. I bent down to return the tray, then grabbed another. I stood up and looked Francis in the eye. “She’s still sleeping,” I said.

 

*

 

I woke again. It could have been hours, maybe minutes. Either way it was still dark and the sound of gently falling rain played through the open window. I listened more consciously. Rain in the desert is rare, but this was the rarest of all. Around this time of year, as anvil-shaped clouds roam the mesas and valleys, it usually comes in torrents if it comes at all. Only once or twice a year do I witness the steady, gentle thrum of a sustained rainfall. I turned onto my back, eyeing the curtain above my head. Gauzy and white, it seemed to glow with a faint blue light. The hem danced slowly across the window sill, adjusting constantly to the shifting breeze. Suddenly, it lifted high into the room and I could feel my skin prickle with gooseflesh. Through the screen, I saw the silhouette of the cottonwood tree out front, its massive branches swaying in the wind. Pema rolled onto her side.

 

*

 

Closing the oven door, I turned to the roving, metal island in the middle of the floor, full of pots and pans, upon whose butcher block counter I had left my breakfast. Dropping the spatula in a mixing bowl, I looked at Francis, who now sat at the kitchen table with a bowl of oatmeal.

 

“I got a big piece!” he shouted, holding up his spoon for his mother and me to see. On top of a thin smear of milky-gray oatmeal was a sliver of sliced date, thick and maroon. He had been picking them out.

 

“Nice,” I said. I picked up my bowl, a breakfast of sautéed veggies with two over-cooked eggs on top, and took a step toward the opposite table.

 

“The dates are mixed into the whole bowl, sweetheart,” said his mother.

 

“Will you sit with us?” asked Francis.

 

*

 

Pema grazed my hip, then fidgeted. A strong breeze covered us as the curtain, hanging in midair, was sucked back into the screen. “Pema,” I whispered, feeling her shift uncomfortably next to me. She didn’t answer. The wind quieted and the curtain fell limp, the hem once again stirring innocently over the windowsill. “Pema,” I said, but again no answer. I felt her arms flail wildly, as if she were angry at something. I reached over, slowly brushing her with the back of my forearm, but she didn’t respond.

 

*

 

Mouth wide, Francis allowed his mother to scoop the last bite of oatmeal into his mouth, then hopped off the chair. He ambled uncertainly for a second or two, swinging his arms, looking for something to do, then stepped directly in front of me and began to say something, probably “Where’s Pema?” But before he could say anything I reached out and gave him a ticklish poke. “Blaht!” I shouted. He giggled and twisted his body, first left then right. His mother laughed and then stood up to wash the dishes.

 

“Bling!” I shouted, firing my tickler rapidly, but at long enough intervals to allow a sense of calm to sneak through. “Blim blam!” Francis laughed joyously, happy to have my undivided attention. I worked him good, a few good jabs around the belly, then soft pokes around the neck and ears, keeping him on his toes. “Blark. Blip. Bim bop!” His arms followed, trying to block my advances, but I was too quick for him. Finally, he doubled over into my lap in a riot of laughter. I snuck a couple final shots on his back, then eased up. Rolling, Francis made his way up my legs and sat, like a king, on my lap.

 

“Where’s Pema?” he asked.

 

“She’s sleeping,” I told him, “but I should probably go check on her soon.”

 

I could feel Francis’s weight shift easily over my legs. Accustomed to my hefty five year-old, Francis felt like a featherweight. I let my hand fall on his shoulder, his leg, and he drifted back into my chest. I began rubbing his head, then his ears. “Pema loves it when I do this,” I said. “Something about the ears.” I pressed each one gently, pulling slightly in each direction, tugging on his earlobes. He relaxed into it, and I could feel the youthful alertness of his body hang limp, as if his whole body was drooling.

 

“Well goodness moodness,” I said, “You’re awfully snuggly today.” But I was really talking to myself. I relished the moment, so rare, to be physical with Francis. “You know,” I said to Francis’s mother, “I hardly get to do this.” I could feel the pressure of his warm body against mine, and I could almost have cried.

 

*

 

My whole life I have been a bit awkward. I am the kind of person who sits at a table and knows where everyone’s knees are - in order that I don’t accidentally touch them. Most people don’t notice, because why would you? And, of course, I’m pretty good at covering it up. But if I’m sitting next to someone on a bench, there’s a surprising amount of conversation I miss because my attention is focused on where my thigh is, my elbow, and where theirs are. I am excellent at not touching people.

 

There are probably several good reasons for this, not least of which is that my mother died just after I turned one. I was passed around from family to family for the next two years until my dad finished school and remarried. I don’t have much conscious memory of that time, but as I’ve watched my own daughter at age one, two, three, I’ve begun to sense how deeply that must have affected me. And, who knows, maybe I’m just genetically predisposed to this kind of thing. I’m a bit stuck in my head.

 

The fact is, my marriage broke apart pretty much over this exact issue. My wife, Pema’s mother, wanted vastly more touch in her life, ranging all the way from holding hands to sexuality, but I was unable to really meet her. It’s not my tendency. I can push myself, and compromise, and we talked about this and explored to great length, but in the end there was no escaping the fact that my natural tendency is to withdraw. In fact, I often loathe touching people. It makes my skin crawl. The internal atmosphere in my mind becomes toxic, hyper-aware, until I can’t take it anymore and I withdraw. It is a very childish feeling, all-consuming, and I’m not proud of it. It saddens me, because I see that I am incapable of some of the simplest gestures of intimacy so common to any species of ape. Touch.

 

To most people my awkwardness is largely invisible, because I’ve trained myself to hug people in a greeting, to hold hands at a meal blessing, to calm my mind. I’m not just some incapable robot, and I value these subtle displays of intimacy, but still, after all is said and done, there’s no escaping the fact that my tendency is to keep to myself, and it’s the people I’m the closest to that really notice, including the children in my life.

 

*

 

I awoke to the feeling of Pema shifting uncomfortably in the bed next to me. It was still dark, but the rain was quieter now, accentuating the sound of the drips falling off the gutters and downspouts. The curtain hung over the window, still as ice. I reached over and brushed Pema with my arm. “Pemalina,” I said, “you awake?” No answer, but I could sense her arm reaching down her leg and scratching. Bug bites, I thought. “Pema,” I whispered, “you’ve got to stop scratching.”

 

“No, daddy,” she whined, finally acknowledging me.

 

“I know, pup,” I answered, “It’s hard.”

 

She turned onto her side and backed into me, pushing a little forcefully. I wrapped her in my arm and held her. The curtain shuddered and a cool breeze descended over us. “Do you hear the rain?” I said.

 

*

 

After his ears, I began slowly massaging Francis’s head, then neck. I tugged gently on his hair, then released. His mother was rummaging in the cupboard again. She is training to become a massage therapist.

 

It’s not that I don’t like touch, or that it’s always awkward. It’s mostly that I don’t like it with strangers, or when it’s sudden. I like to ease into the familiarity, the intimacy. There is a certain barrier I have to cross, like a river, but once peaceably on the other side, I can relax into the gentleness like anyone else. There are some things that can’t be said with words, and I understand how deeply important this sense is. I once feared that my awkwardness would pass onto Pema, but I don’t believe that’s happened. She and I are intimate in almost every imaginable way, and she has plenty of other healthy adults around her too. She strikes me as a wonderfully healthy child. Still, I wonder.

 

I began rubbing Francis’s shoulders, then slowly each vertebrae down his back. I could feel the heat of his body, the alertness in his limbs. He was relaxed, but poised. I rarely get to do this, not only because of my own awkwardness, but because Pema will usually nudge her way in. She doesn’t like seeing other children cuddling with her dad.

 

*

 

I awoke. The rain had stopped and the curtain hung limp. Behind the curtain, the pale block of light was growing brighter, and I no longer felt the hazy uncertainty of night. Day was beginning to creep in. I lay for a moment, listening to the sound of drips falling off the gutters and tree branches. During the rain, the noise had been a sort of gray wash, but now I could hear the individual tones of each drop landing on the gravel, the dirt, the rain barrels. Tchahnk. Plunk. Dwoip.

 

I picked up Pema’s hand, which lay idle over my hip. It was limp. She was fast asleep. Placing her arm gently over her own body, I turned and reached my foot for the floor.

 

*

 

I love Francis. He knows this. Still, I regret that I’m not able to express that more completely. As I looked around the kitchen that morning, I knew I had made a small advance.

 

*

 

My mother, god rest her soul. This isn’t her fault. I have to remind myself of that.

 

*

 

The oven door squealed shut and I set down the spatula. The cereal was done. It was almost 8:30 and I was surprised Pema hadn’t woken up yet. “Ok,” I said, grabbing a bowl of fresh cereal with raisins and milk. “I’ll see you guys in a little bit.”

 

“Joe, where are you going?” Francis shouted.

 

I rolled my eyes and laughed. He knew where I was going. As I walked out of the kitchen, he turned to his mother and asked, “Where’s Pema?”

 

*

 

I opened the door gently, stepping over the raised threshold. Pema, still in bed, reached over her head in a big stretch, then rested her drowsy eyes on me. “Hey pup,” I said, setting the bowl on the table. “I made cereal.”

 

I walked over to the bed, Pema following me with her eyes. Usually I hold my arms out and she climbs up. Then I carry her over to the couch, where we read books and eat breakfast. But for whatever reason, I reached out in a feigned stretch and nudged her gently with the back of my skull, my shoulders. I climbed onto the bed and pushed her gently with the broadness of my back. She responded by dragging her leg over my side and then tucking under me as I shifted the bulk of my weight into my hands and knees and rolled over top of her.

 

“Look pup,” I said, spying the open window. “Did you know it rained?”

Space and Time

“You good, pup?”

 

“Yeah!”

 

We were shouting over the roar of the cascading water. Pema secure, I lifted Francis up to the next ledge, then found a handhold for myself, a foothold, and yanked myself up. Smeared with a thin skin of water, the rock was grimy in my hands, and the sprigs of grass that poked here and there were covered in dew. Pema smiled at us expectantly - she had a few moments to take it all in first. Francis and I craned our necks. Two waterfalls, each about twenty feet high, thundered above, flecking us with drops of water. The sound, a riotous mixture of bright, surface tones combined with the deep resonance of stone drums, utterly consumed us. Francis, no taller than my waist, turned to look at me, the fullness of awe in his expression. Behind him, a glob of water landed directly on a penstemon, a thin, spindly plant with red, tubular flowers that erupt in a star-shaped flare. Casually, it bobbed back and forth over the earth.

 

The waterfall. We were back.

 

*

 

The week before I had taken Pema, Francis and Ada to the same waterfall. We had had an elegant time of it, but I elected to stay near the surface. The water had been flowing gently that day and the small eight-foot waterfall at the lip of the canyon was all we needed for a few hours of restful play. Just beyond that waterfall, however, the water plunges another two hundred feet down the wall of the canyon, stumbling over boulders and tree roots, carving pools into the earth and leaving piles of sand, occasionally falling off steep ledges. It’s not one waterfall, it’s dozens, and eventually the water plunges into the icy river on the canyon floor.

 

The acequia that feeds the waterfall is a man-made ditch, a diversion from the Rio Hondo, a mountain stream that flows rapidly out of the Sangre de Cristos in the east and drains through Arroyo Hondo, the small valley that forms the community in which we live. Taken several miles upstream, the water flows along the southern edge of Arroyo Hondo, irrigating the pastures and gardens of a hundred or so homes, and finally drains, via these spectacular waterfalls, back into the Rio Hondo, which itself joins the Rio Grande about a quarter mile further.

 

Here, at the termination point, the acequia passes the last house in Hondo, a small green cabin, and, with no more work to do, and no more mouths to feed, it tumbles down the canyon. Depending on how much water folks are drawing at any given time, this termination point, the waterfall, can be a trickle, as it was the week before. It can be bone dry, as it often is in late summer. Or, on this particular day, it can pour with such force that the sound alone instills fear. The waterfall trickling into the pool the children had played in last week would, on this day, have knocked a full grown man over instantly.

 

*

 

“Up there, pup,” I said, indicating a large, wet rock in the middle of the stream, between the falls. I was shouting, choosing my words carefully. The roar of the twin falls was almost deafening, and while Pema and Francis, five and three respectively, tend to accompany themselves with constant chatter, the immensity of the falls instilled in us a reverent silence. Pema had been here before, as had I. Still, we were both awestruck. Francis beamed as if he had never seen anything like it on earth.

 

Holding out my hand to Pema, who was able to do most of the climbing herself, I helped her over the small rivulet at our feet, making sure that she was safe on the rock island, and then turned to Francis behind me. He smiled and raised his arms. Putting my hands under his armpits, I lifted him over the current and placed him on the rock next to Pema. We were about halfway down the wall of the canyon at this point, a hundred feet or so from the top.

 

With one big stride I was on the rock island too. I squatted down to my ankles and the three of us, huddling briefly, took it all in. Mere feet from the twin falls, I could have held my hand out to receive a somewhat heavy-handed high-five from the falling water, though it would have taken considerable strength to keep it there. The stray drops from above and the splashes from below were enough to make it feel as if we were in a rainstorm. It was a hot day, and within moments our hair, shirts and pants were damp.

 

“I want to get down,” Francis said, a quaver of fear in his voice.

 

“Okay,” I answered. Had I been alone, I would have stayed there for quite a while, but I was sensitive to the kids’ needs. A bit of fear was healthy. I hopped back to the shore and turned around, reaching out to catch him under the armpits once again. In my arms, Francis felt secure. I felt secure. Watching the white, foamy water rush underneath, I set him down safely at my side, then turned to Pema. “Me too!” she shouted. I held out a hand for her, allowing her to make the leap herself.

 

*

 

A child’s trust is something you have to earn. As a young father, I face this fact repeatedly, but it was a particular lesson of the last year with Silke and the Earth Children. Till then, all the children I had spent time with, like Francis, were Pema’s friends. They were my friends. Slowly, almost unconsciously, as the kids and I aged we formed a bedrock of trust that allowed us to do some amazing things. Simple things too, but if our bodies and imaginations were up for it we could tackle just about anything. I think of those children, the children that grew up with me, as if they are my own. Not only do they trust me, but I know their limits and strengths. I know when their complaints are feigned and when they’re real. I know the fidgets of their personalities, when they’re hungry and when they’re bored. So last fall, when the school year began, I entered a very different relationship.

 

The Earth Children, whom I saw twice a week for about five hours throughout the school year, were, to begin with, mostly older than Pema. Till then, largely due to circumstance, most of the children in my orbit were Pema’s age or younger. I am not a childcare professional and, like many Americans, I spent little time with children before having one. Our society tends to be divided into age and peer groups, and, without even really noticing it, that tendency led much of the course of my life. Having a child was a great awakening, and also very disruptive. Like many new parents, I stumbled uncertainly for a bit with this new and incomprehensibly huge responsibility, but I also fell in love. As Pema aged, I became attuned to the needs of a child at two, three, four… But beyond that lay an ocean of ignorance.

 

With the Earth Children, I was suddenly confronted with a species of child I knew nothing about. The five and six year-olds raced ahead of Pema and me with social skills and physical bodies that we hadn’t yet grappled with. Pema and her friends were slow and careful, full of trust, while these kids were often dynamic and socially manipulative. I think it’s fair to say I was made a fool on many occasions.

 

But the age difference was nothing compared to the fact that I was a stranger. Almost any child will engage and have fun with a playful adult, but when the going gets tough, as it surely did, it was obvious that I lacked the children’s trust. They didn’t want my help. They weren’t interested in my advice. They might let me peel their orange at snack time, but they didn’t want to hold my hand on a long walk. This was uncomfortable for me at times, but I didn’t begrudge the fact. I had no social standing in their world. I had given them, as yet, no reason to trust me.

 

Over the course of the year, I was able to connect with the kids in Silke’s kindergarten, some in a deep and meaningful way, but it was a mixed bag. As a male caregiver in a role mostly dominated by women, I held a tenuous position. I was both welcomed in and kept at arm’s length. Some of the kids adored me. Some were wary, even to the very end. This is normal, I suppose. I became a competent assistant, but at home, with my inner circle of kids, I felt relaxed in a way I almost never felt at school.

 

*

 

“Okay, hold on,” I said, Pema and Francis now safely on the shore. Their shirts were speckled with dark flecks of water which landed, then dried and disappeared before my eyes. I could feel the cool drips on my own back. Looking them both in the eye, I attempted to discern their level of comfort. I was willing to head to lower ground, about thirty feet below, where I had spied a calm pool of water with a sand bank carved into a wide arc on the ledge. But, if they had the patience, I wanted to visit one more place first. Pema glanced around casually, but Francis, exhilarated by the thundering fall and the nervous tension of present danger, kept his eyes directly on me. He was attentive to the tension in my muscles, the look on my face. But here on the shore, he seemed content enough, at least for the moment.

 

“I’m going to climb over there for a minute!” I shouted, partly to gauge their reaction. I held my hand up to indicate a small ledge in the cliff behind one of the falls. From the rock island I could make a short leap to that ledge and, it appeared, shimmy my way to a position behind one of the falls. It was much too narrow and wet to bring the kids there, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. Plus, children, like adults, live vicariously. Simply seeing me do this, I knew, would fill them with wonder. Pema and Francis nodded approvingly.

 

*

 

With the school year ended, I’ve spent the last two weeks with my core group of kids. It’s given me a chance to reflect, and though I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the Earth Children, it’s become clear to me that I want something more. What Silke does with the kids is, by all traditional standards, radical, daring and exquisite. An educator with more than thirty years of experience, her attentiveness with the children is stunning to behold. Watching her is like watching the hands of a master craftsman. She is the picture of grace.

 

I’m decidedly less graceful, but there are moments, like that afternoon amongst the falls, that fill me with a sense of possibility. That is how I want to educate my children - climbing down two-hundred foot cliffs, under thundering waterfalls and along sandy shores. It is a lesson not just in place, gravity and wonder, but in cooperation and listening. It requires us to be in tune with each other, and my education is at least as rich as theirs. As a team, we support each other, moving our limbs and bodies across the landscape almost as if one organism, determining strategies and sheltering our hearts in one another as needed.

 

I would never have attempted such a trip with the Earth Children. The size of the group, even at just ten kids, was too large. I would not have trusted their attentiveness and surefootedness, and they, in all likelihood, would not have trusted me. To undertake such a trip requires a deep and lasting intimacy. That is, to undertake the kind of education I seek requires a deep and lasting intimacy, and this goes for the classroom as much as the cliff edge. The entire concept of children being grouped together into twenty or thirty peers with one adult at the head is, on one hand, just silly to me. On the other hand, it is profoundly sad. We adults have largely abandoned our children to others who, attentive as they surely are, can never replace the care of a loving adult. I want children who grow in body, mind and spirit, not just in intelligence. And, god-willing, I want to mature into a wisdom that complements that growth. Whether that can be done with more than three or four kids at a time is an open question for me, though I currently doubt it. But this I’m sure of - it cannot possibly be done without intimacy, love and trust.

 

*

 

Pushing off my left toe, my center of gravity dangled for one brief moment between the rock island and the ledge, over the gushing waters below, and finally extending down through my right foot and onto the massive rock cliff behind the falls. I stood on a crack barely two-feet wide, with little space in which to turn. Slowly, carefully, I tiptoed my way around to face Pema and Francis, who, catching my glare, smiled from the safety of the shore.

 

“Dad!” Pema shouted, “over there!” Her arm waved back and forth, pointing to the small cavity behind the falls. Francis’s eyes grew wide as he watched in anticipation, and his lips curled ever higher. Turning to Pema, he wiggled in uncontained excitement, reaching out to touch her body. Pema clenched her fists and shook them in quick, eager movements, a posture that reminds me so dearly of my brother. As Francis reached in, she put her arm over his shoulder and held him tight. I showed my teeth. The roar of the waterfall coursed through my body, as much a feeling as a sound, surrounding all of us with a sense of its power. I stepped sideways, slowly, cautiously, my hands feeling for the wall behind me, toward the cavity behind the falls. One foot, slide. One foot, slide.

 

The week before, Francis and I had watched a tiny boat crafted of Styrofoam and leaves make its way, calmly and casually, through a pool of water under a tree root. Afterward, we looked at each other, having both just witnessed a small miracle of space and time.

The Waterfall

It was the fullness of day and the walk down the road, half a mile or so, was dusty and hot. Cars and trucks, seeing the three children lined up beside me, slowed down as they passed and the people inside waved silently from their closed windows. Their tires, black and sooty, kicked up a haze of brown dust. Finally advancing past the last house on our rural road, Pema, Ada, Francis and I took a quick look at the water tumbling down the acequia before it slipped into the culvert beneath our feet, gurgling, and exited the other side. We turned off the road, stepping lightly through the cactus and litter, and disappeared into the folds of the earth.

 

“Ksshshsshhhshshsh…” the sound was formidable. Though only an eight foot drop, the waterfall lapped at our ears to the exclusion of everything else, save our shouts to each other.

 

“Francis is nakey!” followed by giggles.

 

“Can I take my shoes off, Joe?”

 

“Joe?”

 

“Dada, where’s my swimsuit?”

 

“I’m thirsty!”

 

Within minutes, the children’s clothes were strewn about the carpet of orange-brown juniper needles, scattered over monoliths of stone. Their bodies, not altogether naked, jostled for position under the cascading water. Turning to each other with wide grins, they tightened their muscles against the cold crispness of the water. Feet and knees fidgeted. Arms pressed to chests. Skin rumpled in goose flesh. We were here. We were gloriously and fully here.

 

Satisfied with the smallness of their environment, the children began arranging themselves into the landscape. Shoes in the puddle over here. Mud on the stone walls over there. Dry dirt scattered onto the surface of the deepest pool. And rocks. Placing them carefully, the children began to form a U-shaped wall in the central channel of the stream, behind which formed a sort of harbor. Shoreside, I tidied each child’s clothes into a small pile in the sun, released the burden of my backpack to the earth, and climbed into the shadow.

 

Place is such a powerful consciousness. Just minutes ago we had been surrounded by the enduring emptiness of New Mexico. Now, three children and I inhabited a small precipice in the rock, no more than a hundred square feet, with just enough boundaries - the rock wall, the canopy of the juniper above, the sound of falling water, the narrowing gaps in the ledge - to give us place. We were sheltered, carved into the earth by sound and shadow. I sat and looked at the kids, feeling the coolness of the water on my ankles, the dry scales of the juniper branches under my palms. Shifting my hips to accommodate the uneven ground, I felt the soft crunch of twigs and smelled the subtle perfume. Decades. Centuries.

 

“I need a boat,” said Francis, looking for his shoes. Pema, filling her pink sandals with rocks and mud, was holding forth in officious detail on an elaborate series of causes and effects that led to why her boats needed so much ballast. Ada, who couldn’t have agreed more, had gathered rocks and mud from the shore and was busy, as Pema held the sandal open wide, cramming as much in as possible.

 

“I want a boat too,” Francis said again, this time raising his chin, circling his lips into an O on the final word, and producing the bending notes of a two-syllable diphthong. “Francis, you can get your own,” Pema said, not missing a beat. Pondering his options, Francis stood there for a second then called out “Joe?” Then, looking left and right, “Joe?” He, like all the children, knew I was nearby, but in the consumption of their play they had lost track of my precise location. His eyes finally landed on my smooth, dun-colored shirt behind the craggy, gray branches of the juniper. Looking up into my face, he said, over the roar of the waterfall, “Joe, I need a boat.” He is so matter of fact.

 

I smiled and looked at Francis, then Pema and Ada. I hesitated for one last moment, reluctant to let go of my prize possession - observation - and slowly rocked my weight toward my right ankle, the stronger of the two.

 

Ducking under the stiff branches, I made my way along the carpet of juniper, over the hot, smooth stone, three footsteps into the cold water, and out the other side. A bank of mud lay moist and ready, and as I crouched down to a squat, hugging my knees to my chest, I noticed the slight adjustments, flexors and tensors, keeping my center of gravity over my ankles. The soles of my feet, covered in loops and spirals, gripped tentatively to the wet mud, and as I set about searching for materials I questioned whether my grip would hold, or whether some child, climbing onto my back, would tip the scales and the two of us would tumble into the water’s edge. We were going to town later.

 

I dug my fingers into the moist earth, forming a crude ball, thinking about boats and the fact that these are the kinds of things I think about, and treasure, when Ada slopped her muddy hands around my neck and leaned her weight onto my back. Her legs kicked up joyfully, my collar was smeared with an alkaline-smelling paste, and, lo and behold, toes flexed reflexively, my feet kept their grip. My ankles, the crux of the equation, kept their pliable rigidity. I nuzzled my neck into Ada’s skull. I am a remarkable creature.

 

“Hey!” I shouted to Ada, bobbing my head forward, a typical comment, by which I meant to imply that I was upset, and by which she knew that I was happy. “Silly Joe Joe,” she shouted in my left ear, a bit louder than my liking, as we craned our necks in that curious sort of intimacy, skull to skull, but not face to face. “Joe, I need a boat,” said Francis.

 

It might have been that a car drove by at that exact moment. We were, after all, only thirty or forty feet away from the dusty road. But I can’t really say. The height of the stone ledge, over which the waterfall poured, blocked our view. The juniper branches held us close. The modest trickle of water, diverted several miles up from the same river which now ran a couple hundred feet below, was all our attention required. But most of all, the sound. The sound of that waterfall filled our space on earth so completely that no one else dared approach. We were magnificently alone.

 

I dropped the mud ball in my hands, surely no boat, and scanned for more materials. Francis, staring blankly, keenly followed the direction of my face, but not the movement of my eyes. How do you see the same thing? Even a piece of bark has multiple surfaces and underneaths. Ada released her grip on my neck, followed by the sound of two muddy footprints, four receding splashes. Francis leaned closer, his elbow grazing my shoulder. Within the three-foot radius of my wingspan, I spied a small white piece of litter, picked it up with the pincer movement of my fingertips, and brought it into to my focal range. Francis leaned in. The softened crust of an egg carton, the piece of Styrofoam was hardly distinguishable from the shape and dry-weight of driftwood. I turned to Francis and smiled.

 

A small leaf was growing nearby and I plucked it from the mud. Anchoring its stem into the surface of the litter, the broad leaf unfurled like a wide, green sail. Featherweight, such a craft, I mused, would be unsinkable. I held my small creation up to Francis, who, not missing a beat, sneered, “No, I mean a real boat.” Like a shoe.

 

I placed the Styrofoam boat in the water and watched as the current, taking it quickly from my hands, soon veered and dawdled along the U-shaped harbor. The water was only an inch deep. The little boat bobbed slowly and for a moment I wondered if it would remain stuck amongst the rocks, but then, just as suddenly as it sprung from my hand, it tumbled back into the central current and rocketed over the ledge into the next pool. Francis and I looked on curiously. The boat, its tiny sail now drooping a bit sadly, reappeared a couple feet downstream. Idling quietly through the deep pool under the canopy of juniper branches, it slowly passed underneath a small root, which arced from the shore and disappeared below the pool of water. Approaching the next ledge, it finally tumbled over, gone forever. Goodbye.

 

“AghhmmMMMhhh…” Francis said, the pitch of his noise rising to the excitement in his heart. I agreed with my eyes. Moments like this help explain why time and space are, as Einstein famously declared, really the same thing. To observe a space properly, one has to see something move through it, or form it, like clouds in the sky, or the way a cathedral’s vaulted ceiling somehow conveys a grandness that the blue sky, ever more vast, does not. Space contains itself. Or the way a lost balloon, released from a child’s grip, suddenly gives one the moment to ponder all that space above one’s head. In any event, that little boat floated placidly under the small arch of the tree root, one moment in the endless progression of time, and suddenly it was not only the space that existed, but us too. Francis and I, lucky ducks. Who knew? We turned to each other and smiled.

 

Content with his discovery, and not immune to the shouts and splashes coming from Ada and Pema, Francis peeled his attention away from me and moved into the orbit of the other children, no boat in hand. Alone once again, I searched about for more boats, something a bit larger, a bit more palpable. I picked up a long, thin stick and rubbed it carefully over my palm as my eyes poured over its surface and texture. Suddenly, like scent on the wind, Silke arrived, giving shape to my mind. I snapped the twig in my hand, and, to my delight, spied plenty of grass on the opposite shore. Shifting my weight, once again, onto my right ankle, I stood up with what felt like even effort, but what I’ve come to know is the dominance of my right-handed body. The weight of my adult frame, now at the full majesty of my height, draped over my shoulders, down the east face of my central spine, bearing slightly heavier on my right hip, the cotton sturdiness of my right knee, ankle, metatarsals, tiny swirling patterns of skin. Easing my left foot into the creek, coupling the muscles in my abdomen against those in my lower back, I ducked under the branches and made my way, slick, grimy stones, back to the other side.

 

Reaching down, left hand on the earth, I pivoted on my ankle, arranging my body so that the children were in my view. I came to rest. The shore, this shore, was much drier than the other, and as I adjusted my shoulders and neck between two sloping branches, crunching the twigs under my hand and hip, I smelled once again the sun-drenched perfume of desiccated juniper berries and slow-rotting branches. I slipped my feet into the cool water. Selecting twigs for straight segments, I set about snapping them into finger-sized lengths, making a modest pile of them at my side. Then, recalling Silke’s woven-grass crowns, I placed my hand on a stem of grass, felt the joyful rasp of its grainy texture, and plucked.

 

I placed two twigs in my left hand, watching through the branches in my periphery as the children walked out of the stream and advanced some distance into the sun on the opposite shore. I could hear their noises, but not discern their speech. Holding the twigs in my left hand at cross angles, I began to wrap the corner joint with the leaves and stem of the grass in my right. Passing over and through the joint several times, I wrapped the remaining length of grass over the twig closest to my right hand, advancing like a spiral down its length, then reached for another twig. Weaving a second piece of grass into the first, I began wrapping the second joint, a third, a fourth. After a few minutes, I had a basic square frame, about the size of my hand, which, twisting gently at each corner, seemed to bear some weight. Grabbing one more piece of grass, then another, I proceeded to stitch in twigs along the mid-length of the craft. The grass, much to my liking, was bulky and frolicsome, so that the dead ends of the leaves and seed heads protruded here and there. The entire creation was visceral and rather untidy, wooden and leafy. “Is that for me?” Pema asked. I had caught the children’s attention.

 

It had taken me ten minutes or so to make the small boat, and, knowing the children’s proclivity to possessiveness, I hesitated. “Okay, here’s what I’ll do,” I began, setting the boat in the grass at my side. “I will make one for each of you. But it takes me time. So, give me a minute and then I will share two with you. For now, this one stays with me. Then I’ll make a third and you will each have one. Sound good?” They nodded approvingly. They were not impatient. Grasping another thin branch in my hand, I set about snapping it into finger-sized lengths.

 

By now I was having about as much fun as a man can withstand. The children, playing contentedly nearby, were engaged creatively. Harmony was amongst us. The sun, dappling easily through the canopy of juniper, was warm and not too hot. My feet, cool and liquid in the gentle stream of water, were tickled lightly about the ankles. I engaged the muscles of my stomach and lower back, and leaned back, peering up at the sky through the gray-green foliage. All the way.

 

Stories, that is - words, have an inherently linear quality. But life, in its greatest moments, is like the texture of children along a creek bed, rotten, wet, dry and alive. Time inhabits space, like we do, giving it shape and form, forward and back, anchored in our palms, unfixed like balloons.

 

My mind reeled like the lens of a camera, receding to wider and wider frames. The ledge, the waterfall. Just a few feet away, the next ledge, then another, the long face of a rocky cliff that descended hundreds of feet past dozens more waterfalls, each unique, to the riverbed below. The canyon, the mountains in the distance, the irrigated fields of our neighbors. The miles and miles and miles of sagebrush. Underneath one of those sage plants, a darkling beetle climbed over the dirt and rocks. A cactus bloomed, slick and oily with red. It was just another day.

 

Ada, perhaps mocking my reverie, walked up and slid a moist, cold handful of mud down my shin, over my ankle, and onto my foot underneath the water. Pulling myself back up, I smiled and waved my head, then watched her turn and run off. Fingering, gently at first, a piece of grass at my side, I allowing my hand to slip over the smooth texture of the stem, the coarseness of the leaves, the spotty contours of the seed head. I looked about. The children were spreading thick, wet mud over sun-baked stones. Resetting my grip at the base of the grass stem, I held firm, and plucked.

The End

I had been walking the mountain since I unzipped the soft nylon flap of the door to my tent at five that morning. Having traveled a northern arc through the Gambel oaks and fallen ponderosas in early twilight, I crossed several flowering meadows of grass as the sun broke free of the mountains, then turned west, following the cold waters of the acequia. Circling back south, well below my tent site, I meandered over several more oak-shrouded hill tops and had by now nearly completed the circuit I had begun that morning. It was about seven-thirty and as I pressed my feet into the soft, dry dust of the earth I was looking forward to breakfast. Headed back to Lama Foundation, I was grateful for this last quiet moment before returning to what I knew would be a busy day when, suddenly, I heard a rustle at my side. Something in the oaks. A large something.

 

*

 

There were more than two-hundred people circled inside the Dome, the iconic central building of Lama Foundation. It was Friday evening during the 50th anniversary of this unusually long-lived community in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico. As expected, there was a large gathering for Shabbat, Lama’s usual Friday ritual, and as the crowd stumbled through a series of transliterated Hebrew chants I sat dejected. I had hardly slept the night before, and I wouldn’t sleep much that night either. But that wasn’t the cause of my suffering. As I looked through the crowd, full of intimate faces, I felt sad because I had the sense I had let everyone down.

 

Shabbat at Lama is a unique event, something co-created at each gathering. Like most things at Lama, which celebrates the festivals and practices of all the earth’s religions, the essence of it is simple and joyful. Jewishness is not a prerequisite. I was raised Catholic, but I felt perfectly at home there, along with all the Hindus and Buddhists and what-have-you’s. So long as one knows the basic songs and prayers it’s easy to participate, and there’s always room for improvisation. Casual and inclusive, it’s rare to walk away without a bit of pep in one’s heart.

 

So, gathered amidst the largest crowd I had ever witnessed at any one Shabbat, not to mention the Dome itself, I could tell right away that I had made a mistake. As one of the central planners of the weeklong anniversary, I had invited a celebrated Rabbi from down the mountain, a leading figure of Jewish Renewal, to lead the service. Sparked by the Hasidic Rabbi Zalman Schachter, Jewish Renewal is a vibrant movement within Judaism that focuses, much like Hasidism, on ecstatic and accessible spiritual life. But unlike Hasidism, the movement is open to everyone, even gentiles. Schachter, who first introduced the practice of Shabbat to the residents of Lama Foundation in 1976, was an Orthodox Hasidic Rabbi who later experimented with the sacramental use of LSD and has been photographed with the likes of Ram Dass, the Dalai Lama, and countless other religious leaders. In other words, he fit right in at Lama.

 

On the surface, then, our Rabbi seemed like a good fit too. She had been to Lama before, in fact many times, and we had met on several occasions. She had literally written the book on Shabbat, the one from which we often read each Friday. But as she sang, leading us as gracefully as possible through a series of phonetically challenging Hebrew phrases, my own heart began to sink. I realized that I had missed the essence of the event. We didn’t need a celebrated Rabbi. We needed the familiar songs, the lightness and depth shaped by five decades of Lama’s unique multi-religiosity. As the last rays of the sun shone through the large, eight-sided window of the Dome, I knew that many in the crowd felt the same way and were missing the familiar songs that, no doubt, would have united the gathering through five decades of remembrance. Our Rabbi, lovely as she was, didn’t know that. I did, and I felt a pang of hunger and remorse. I looked up at the skylight in the center of the Dome, an eight-pointed star, through which I could see the blue light of dusk turn to gray, and frowned. Then Otis walked in.

 

I had met Otis the year before, when he was only two years old. His mother, Chloe, had visited before and had returned to Lama to reconnect and share the uniqueness of this mountain community with her son. Specifically, she had come to Family Camp. I had nothing to do with that particular camp, at least not officially, but since I was one of the few men who attended the whole thing, I managed to be a somewhat useful figure. It turned out to be a turning point in my life. It’s where I met Silke.

 

As I lowered my head back down from the skylight in the Dome, Otis, now three, began weaving his way through the crowd near the entrance. Shabbat at Lama is usually formed with one circle of people, closer or further from the center depending on the size of the group. Near the center, a Shabbat might be only eight or ten folks, at the outer wall a circle can easily hold sixty to seventy. I had never seen a Shabbat large enough to require two concentric circles, but the crowd that evening spilled well beyond that into a ring of chairs along the wall, with a loose hodge-podge of floor cushions, row upon row, nearly up to the center. As we sang - awkwardly, but not without gusto - Otis filtered his way past the chairs in the outer ring, through the cushions on the floor, taking no notice of the two-hundred some human voices belting out the uncertain melody, and began making his way to the center, casual and surefooted as a mountain goat.

 

Silently, as if there was no one in the room at all, he found his way to the altar in the middle and, with absolute patience and attention, began circling the altar, looking at the objects inside. There were three brass chalices and one silver one. Four Shabbat candles, in brass stems, flickered in the breeze. The windows and doors were open, but it was still ravishing hot. The odor, pleasant or unpleasant, was distinctly human. Step by careful step, Otis walked along the central octagon, mirroring the path of the skylight above, each foot landing softly on the joint between the wooden boards of the floor and the star-shaped earthen interior. There were flowers, many flowers, fabrics and wine bottles. Reflecting the light of the shimmering candles, each bottle oozed a rich, dark plum color, the grape juice a soft rose. Maybe he sensed the coming sweetness, or the table-sized challah underneath the embroidered cover, but he didn’t reach out or say a word. Never once did he turn to the crowd. He just kept circling, taking it all in with his eyes.

 

I scanned the room for any sign of his mother, wondering if she would snatch him away from us, or whether our Rabbi, in an attempt to keep our focus, might gently, or rather more coarsely, guide the roaming child to his seat. But no one even made a motion. Otis just kept circling, each step impeccably soft and unhurried, gently observing the altar as if there was no one else in the room. We kept singing. In fact, it was almost deafening. Finally, after three complete revolutions, having satisfied the curiosity of his eyes, he veered off in the direction of his mother, who sat in the circle some distance to my right. In the background, the chorus of two-hundred plus voices caromed off the triangles and diamonds of the massive geodesic dome. Long since untrained against modesty, even if a bit awkward, we shifted and pulled our voices through the challenging consonants, occasionally producing the vowel tones of music. The Shekinah had arrived.

 

*

 

It was the next morning, less than twelve hours later, that I saw the bear. By then I was going through my plans for the day, identifying who I needed to speak to, and when, that I heard the first rustle in the branches nearby. The oaks are mere shrubs, hardly taller than me, but the foliage was dense and the animal, whatever it was, was completely hidden. The thought of a bear crossed my mind - I had seen one out this way years ago - but I shrugged it off. It could just as easily have been a deer or coyote, either of which were more likely. Anyway, how could I tell in that green thicket? I glanced back to the path without even stopping.

 

Half a minute later, around a bend in the path and up the slope of the next hill, I turned around, looking back to where I first heard the rustling in the oaks. I now had a perspective over the whole hillside. Even if it was just a deer, I would like to know, the constant iteration of sound and fact being of use to me. Then, there it was, a patch of black fur rifling through the brush. Nothing else could be that black, but I sat and watched patiently. Every ten feet or so the dense mesh of green oaks opened upon an empty space in which, as the animal moved through, I could make out the coarse outline of a bear ambling carelessly, gracefully. I never caught a full view, just a blackness moving through the sea of green that covered the mountain. I stopped and watched as it made its way, purposeful, but in no hurry, to the top of the hill, and then disappeared over the next ridge.

 

*

 

That evening, after a day of nonstop planning and coordination, I sat once again in the Dome. Purposefully an empty space, the Dome is circular in shape, but capable of being formed into almost anything. This time, the chairs formed two wide rows in the back, which faced an improvised stage. The cushions, which we had been repurposing all week, were pooled between for sitting and reclining up front, which is precisely where I sat. I wished for a bit more obscurity, but Pema, who sat in my lap, had picked our spot. I was exhausted and a bit grumpy, but I hoped that wasn’t obvious.

 

It was no surprise to me when, after a couple of songs and performances, I began to dislike everything. I sat with a guarded expression, but a few feet from the performers, holding Pema tightly, trying to mask my displeasure. As one performer finished her piece, I couldn’t help wondering what all the fuss had been earlier that afternoon. There had been so many tense conversations, so many nits and nats between the big personalities. That’s what all the planning and anxiety had been about? Geeze louise, people, get over yourself, I thought. But I smiled and clapped like everyone else.

 

As the woman exited, another woman, of some notoriety, began taking the stage. The sun had receded below the horizon and the room was infused with the same dim twilight I had witnessed earlier that morning as I walked through fields of wildflowers and grass. But that had been ages ago. Earlier, as we were setting up, I had gotten the impression the woman was going to sing, but instead she sat down and began to read several short stories to the crowd.

 

“…like rotisseries,” she said, enunciating the word with relish. She spoke humbly, softly, yet with an irony that was a bit eerie for my taste. She had been describing an autobiographical sketch of her childhood, in which she had spent a long stint in the hospital due to a severe back injury. “Rotisseries” was her word for the children, burned all over, which, she told us, lay in beds that rotated, presumably to minimize the scarring and re-injuring of their flesh. I grasped the analogy, which brought to mind the slow roasting chickens in an oven, but I wasn’t pleased with it. These children, she told us, wailed constantly.

 

Megan, who was sitting next to me, kept looking at my lap. Finally, I looked too and recalled, somewhat to my horror, that Pema was still seated there, barely ten feet from the speaker. The sun had set fully and even the twilight had receded considerably. Two compact fluorescent lights, suitable to Lama’s modest solar array, gave a soft light behind our storyteller, whose face was lit from underneath by the bluish glare of her computer screen. My eyes scanned the periphery, recalling the joyful mood of the space in which I dwelled, the place I had experienced countless blessings and joys, and began to feel an inner horror.

 

*

 

Earlier that morning, before encountering the bear, I had discovered a moth buzzing quietly on the ground. Its wings, a blend of creamy orange and milky tan, beat profusely but to no effect. It shuddered around the dust of the path, but was clearly not going to fly again. It’s easy to walk past such a thing, and I often do, but this time I turned and stopped. Its wings created a small hum on the dry floor of the earth, but not enough to lift the thick grub of its body into the air once again. Alone in the dust, beating its familiar muscles and clawing its legs, it could no longer produce the graceful flight it had experienced for much of its life. I knew that in a short time the ants would find it. The symbolism somehow captivated me, as it had many times before. Butterflies are so elegant and flowery. Moths, with their nocturnal activity and uncanny attraction to candle flames, somehow invoke the power of death.

 

*

 

Two days prior, I sat under the canopy of a colorful parachute with Silke and the Earth Children. It was our last day. My last day. I was a bit sentimental, and, per Silke’s request to “dress up,” I wore my finest clothes - pinstriped shirt and tie, with thin, gauzy argyle socks. We walked one last time over the creeks and rocks we had stepped upon since last fall, through cold winter days huddled around a fire, then the witness of spring and now summer. An ominously dark shade of gray descended over us as we ate our final meal together in the forest and, as Silke, oblivious, told her story, I waited to see if or when I would interrupt her.

 

The last day, I thought. The very last day.

 

Quickly, we scavenged all our loose articles and swept the leftovers into the small blue cooler we had borrowed from one of the parents. Clothes were strewn all over the forest floor, and there were napkins, folded into stars, hanging from the trees, which now began swirling in the approaching wind. Dousing the fire, with Silke in the lead, I glanced once again at our school house in the woods, and made for the exit, trailing the kids in the rear.

 

We hiked at a good pace for twenty minutes, wondering if we would get soaked. The excitement was palpable. All year we had managed to evade any real downpour, at least, I had. Silke once, but only once, had managed to get stuck in a big storm. Anyway, wouldn’t it be funny if this was the day, our last? I was excited. Finally approaching the parking lot, we stopped. The children milled about while Silke and I, and two parents who had come down to join us, strung the parachute in the trees, more of a wishful rain cover than an effective one, and we all sat down underneath. The forest floor was green underneath, and the stream, which we had explored all year, bubbled nearby. Over our heads, the red and orange patches filled our imaginations with color. Silke, not surprisingly, had a story to tell.

 

Thirty minutes later I was racing up to Lama.

 

*

 

I walked home after our last evening in the Dome feeling a bit defeated, a bit sour. I poured my frustration out upon others, circling words and thoughts in my mind, blame being a satisfying game for an hour or so. But the real ache in my heart was something else, my own lack of - what was it?

 

I was tired. It was late, and the moon, only a crescent, was behind the mountains anyway. The darkness of the mountain was palpable, but, Pema’s hand securely in mine, we climbed over the familiar rocks in the path and around the bends our feet knew well. Silke walked with us, up to our tent.

 

“I just don’t get it,” I said. “Why waste your talent on cleverness and pain?” I scrunched my face into an expression of disgust. “It’s like Steven King,” I said. “Good writing, but why? For fear?” I was grasping to complete my thought, but really I was grasping to soothe my heart. “I don’t respect that…” then I trailed off.

 

“Anyway,” I continued, after a few steps in silence. I turned to Silke, “Thanks for watching Pema. I feel bad. You were amazing.”

 

Silke, knowing I was in a foul mood, held my hand, like my complaints, lightly. She had spent the entire day with Pema, missing every event, and I had been so busy running around that I wasn’t even able to find her, or Pema, most of the day. At some point, I gave up trying.

 

“You know, Joe,” Silke began, “you have nothing to apologize for. I spent the day just as I wanted. I got to experience Lama through the eyes of a five year-old child, the person who perhaps knows this place better than anyone else. We went to the spring and Pema showed me every turn in the path, where the roses bloom and the pine cones gather in puddles. We sat by the spring for almost four hours weaving a basket together out of grass.”

 

“I didn’t weave it. You did,” Pema offered.

 

“Yes, but you gathered all the grass,” Silke countered. “And really,” now turning back to me, “Joe, Pema gathered grass and sat with me for four hours. Think of that. I hardly encounter children with that kind of patience, willing to see a project like that through. And I had never made a basket entirely of grass before. I didn’t know what I was doing. But we did it. Together. I couldn’t have spent the day more joyfully. All these events and people and things…” but she trailed off. We were approaching the tent.

 

“God, Silke,” I said, looking at the tent flap, recalling my morning walk for the first time since breakfast. “Did you know I saw a bear today?”

 

“Really, Dada?” Pema asked, excited.

 

“I was so busy I never told anyone. I didn’t even remember until just now.” I shook my head in an expression of wonder, and some pain.

 

*

 

On the last evening of Lama’s 50th anniversary, amidst another large crowd of people, Megan, my ex-wife, the mother of Pema, now the Coordinator of Lama, asked me to stand up. Ram Dass had just spoken to the crowd, via video conference, and the energy in the room was ecstatic. I was a bit broken down.

 

“Two and a half years ago,” Megan began, “Joe began the vision for what we’re experiencing today. Without him, we would not be gathered here and we wouldn’t have had all the wonderful events and teachers that we’ve had this week.” She gave a big smile, and everyone looked at me admiringly. I had been getting compliments and thank-you’s all week, but this was the first time it was in front of everybody.

 

I smiled and nodded humbly. I was grateful, but I really just wanted to be outside with my daughter, weaving a basket of grass.

Small Shelly Fossils

“I found one!” Wolfie shouted, happy to grab the center of attention. He held his hand under my nose, revealing a reddish-brown stone barely the size of a computer chip. Etched delicately within its surface was the unmistakable contour of a clamshell about the size of Wolfie’s fingernail.

 

The shale protruding from the hillside was only a few feet across, but as the children and I scraped through the broken bits on the path, we found dozens of mineralized fossils. Most, like Wolfie’s, were shards of tiny clam shells, but we had found several that were fairly large (a lima bean) and complete. We had also found the engraved spiral of a snail shell, and a few mysterious images we couldn’t readily identify. Pitched on the side of a steep hill, over 7,000 feet in elevation, and within a vast desert many hundreds of miles across, Wolfie held in his hand a tiny remnant of an ancient sea.

 

“Is this one?” Advah asked, standing upright at my side. Shy at first, she had been dawdling in the shrubs nearby as the other kids plunged to their hands and knees to find the first fossil. Pema had found one quickly, then another, and another. “Hey, no fair,” complained Wolfie, who was eager to catch up. Fortunately, Silke had the foresight on the hike up to establish that all the fossils would be put in a bag, regardless of who found what, so that each child could take home at least one. “Here’s one,” Autumn said dryly, placing it in the bag. Solid as a rock, matter of fact as stone, she doesn’t need much acknowledgement. “Hey, here’s another one!” Wolfie shouted, holding it up for everyone to see. Ruby, who sprawled lazily on the ground in front of me as if drugged by some soporific, found a fossil and handed it to me as if it were all she could do to raise her arm above her head.

 

Within a matter of minutes, most of the children had found at least one. Some, like Wolfie and Pema, had found half a dozen. But Little Bear and Advah were still struggling. So when I turned to look at Advah’s open hand and replied, “That is definitely one,” she smiled. Now part of the gang, she returned to her dawdle.

 

“Teee-cher,” Little Bear whined. She sat on the pile of stones opposite me, nearest Silke, to whom she directed her lament. Little Bear, though only six, has a way of looking right through you with the sort of skepticism one would expect of a teenager. One burns under her gaze, and she’s not shy about it. Given a simple task - like finding a fossil in a pile of rocks that evidently had thousands of them - she will refuse to do it, or even to look at them. Scraping her hand noncommittally over the shattered stones, without looking down, she complained, “I can’t find one.”

 

“Little Bear,” I said, looking her in the face, “you’re not even trying.” She smiled a guilty smile, preferring the intellectual gamesmanship of a test of wills. I rolled my eyes and turned back to my task. Little Bear. Geeze Louise. Pain in the butt. Still, I admire her. I don’t like people telling me what to do either.

 

*

 

There are thousands of shale beds like this all over the world, evidence not only of a life that predates our modern ecologies, but a complete rearrangement of the oceans and continents. Around 540 million years ago, a relatively short, but unparalleled biological event took place and quickly spread over the earth. Referred to as the Cambrian explosion, prior to this life on earth had consisted solely of single-celled organisms, like bacteria. Tiny and austere, almost invisible, it had been that way for billions of years. The small fossils we were discovering were the remains, or, what’s more likely, the ancestors of that sudden proliferation of life into a diversity of multicellular organisms that, to our modern eyes, finally begin to resemble animals. During the Cambrian period, the basic construct of every type of creature was born, including echinoderms (sea stars and cucumbers), arthropods (insects and crabs), and chordates (vertebrates like fish, reptiles and humans). But it’s the mollusks, like the clams and snails we were finding, that we tend to recognize in fossil beds, because of their hard shells. Often called “small shelly fossils,” the mineralized remains of these proto-creatures can be found all over the world, though the creatures buried in the bed of fossils in which we dug may have been decidedly younger, perhaps as recent as seventy-million years ago, when New Mexico was last covered by a vast inland sea.

 

*

 

“Okay children,” Silke said in her we’re-about-to-do-something voice. “Who wants to go to the waterfall?” I looked up from the pile of rocks I had been scanning and caught her gaze. Autumn and Advah were eager to go, as was Little Bear. Ruby sat up. “Those of you who wish to stay can keep looking for fossils with Papa Joe,” Silke said as she began to rise. It was no surprise that Pema and Wolfie, who had been the most engaged, decided to stay.

 

“I found one!” Wolfie shouted as the others climbed down the embankment. Each new discovery elicited the same proud exclamation. He reached his hand into the bag, which now held dozens of tiny fossils, and plunked it inside. Pema, a little more discrete, but with a big smile on her face, added another. At this point, I was only picking up the really good ones.

 

*

 

Four days later, I was walking with Pema and Silke in even higher mountain terrain, some twenty miles or so from the bed of shale we explored with the kids. It was Father’s Day and we had, per my little ritual, gone to an isolated grove of wild roses to pick their delicate pink petals. There is about a two week window where the blooms cover a large stretch of the mountain, which just happens to take place over Father’s Day. The air, perfumed by millions of simple five-petal roses, is intoxicating. Just walking there is pleasant enough, but Pema and I have experimented with making rose water, which we bottle into little blue glass bottles and top with spritzers. By collecting a gallon or so of petals, uncountable thousands of fragrant, delicate blooms, we can make enough rose water to give to friends and keep a few for ourselves. Pema enjoys spraying the little bottles, as do I, and all year long we have the odor-induced memory of a Father’s Day spent idly wandering the fragrant mountain.

 

Having collected a couple Tupperware containers full of petals, we were descending the mountain on our way down to a shady patch of aspens surrounding the stream below when a small rock happened to catch my eye. In the shadow of a much larger stone, tucked under a sprig of grass, the rock was about the size of a half-eaten pancake, whitish-gray in color, with a dappled pattern of black spots. I have seen thousands of such rocks - in canyons, rivers and mountain tops - and this one did not strike me as particularly remarkable. For goodness sake, I told myself, mildly exasperated with my proclivity to pick up things I don’t need, what is it with the rocks? But that momentary hesitation was enough to cause me to bend down.

 

I know this gesture, and this inner conversation, intimately. Even as I reached my hand out, I was ready to discard it. Then again, maybe Pema would enjoy holding it for a bit as we walked down the hillside. Whatever impelled me, I managed to get all the way down, sidelong the large stone, under the sprig of grass, and pluck the small rock off the earth. It took no effort. No part was half-submerged under the dirt. I didn’t have to pull or dig. As I stood back up, raising the rock to my eye, I unconsciously wiped off a thin film of dust with my thumb, feeling the grit slide off its surface.

 

Even before I got the rock into my prime focal distance, I could see - and feel - that the black spots were not spots at all, but holes. Dozens of them. As my hand crossed my waistline, I began to identify another, subtler pattern, unrelated to the holes, of concentric stripes. And in fact, the rock appeared bluish, not gray, with a creamy-orange color that fell along the contours of the stripes. Well, I thought, still not quite recognizing it fully, this one appeared to be worth the effort.

 

“Hey Pema, check this out.” The words formed in my mind, but the final execution was interrupted as I turned the misshapen rock over in my hands and recognized, with a little incredulity, the rounded clasp, or umbo, at the hinge side of a clamshell. I held a fossil.

 

I turned the rock over several more times, trying to clear my head of such a preposterous conclusion - I have been in these mountains hundreds of times; I know hundreds of other folks who walk here; no one, to my knowledge, has ever reported a single fossilized anything; the location on which I stood was unremarkable in almost every way, with no other indications of fossilized material, nor even the types of rocks that contain fossils, or, for that matter, any other rocks like the one I held. Still, by the time Silke caught up to me, asking, “What did you find?” - a mere handful of seconds after it first caught my eye - there was no question that this was a clamshell. It was a fossil unlike any I had ever seen.

 

I shook my head. Of all the rocks, of all the places? There was nothing really remarkable in the way it had appeared, under the shade of the stone, under the sprig of grass. I recalled my hesitation. It was just a rock. I could have easily ignored it and been another twenty feet down the path. No one would have noticed. Not even me. Why me? Why now?

 

In my bag, which hung loosely from my shoulder, thousands of delicate, pink petals oozed an intoxicating atmosphere that surrounded me as I stood there. Even my fingers, as I held the mineralized shell to my eyes, brought that pleasant fragrance to my nose.

 

*

 

“But can I just see it?” Wolfie pleaded. He was nearly on the verge of tears. Autumn and Advah, having retreated to the waterfall, had been playing together for twenty or thirty minutes. It was hard to tell precisely what they were up to, but they each appeared to have something, whether real or pretend, wrapped up in layer upon layer of leaves they had stripped from the trees and shrubs under the waterfall. Behind the waterfall, which slapped constantly into the pool of water at our feet, was a large cave strangely reminiscent of an immense open clamshell, in which I now sat. Silke had retreated back up the hill with Pema and Ruby, she and I having switched places, so that I was now down by the waterfall with Autumn, Advah, Wolfie and Little Bear. Little Bear variously kept to herself, per her norm, or came up to me with open arms and, through clenched teeth, issued her characteristic, “eesh,” by which she meant she wanted me to pick her up.

 

Wolfie, having just joined us, immediately wanted to know what Autumn and Advah were up to, prompting Autumn and Advah, who had already been playing an insular, secretive game, to establish their boundaries clearly. Whatever they held, it was not for Wolfie. Unable to escape that temptation, Wolfie began to stew with longing.

 

Wolfie trusts me, but he doesn’t look to me like a father figure. In other words, he doesn’t expect me to win his battles for him. But he was so distraught over the game Advah and Autumn were playing , that he finally broke down and, within earshot of me, started to cry. “They won’t let me see it,” he said in plaintive tones, real tears forming in his eyes. He so eagerly wanted to see it, to know what it was, that it was real. His mind could not let go.

 

I’m sympathetic to any child’s sense of exclusion, but there was nothing really wrong here. I don’t think everyone needs to play with everyone, at least not at any given time. It was perfectly fine for Autumn and Advah to retreat into their own space for a little while. And I believe requests for sharing are often veiled demands to simply take something for one’s own. So I looked at Wolfie sympathetically, knowing his anguish was real, but I wasn’t about to solve the problem for him.

 

“Wolfie,” I said, “it’s okay for the girls to play by themselves for a bit. It’s not their responsibility to show you everything.” Then, as a courtesy, I turned to Advah and Autumn, “But hey, girls, there’s no reason to make a big deal of your secret either. Don’t entice Wolfie, okay?”

 

Wolfie did his best to move on, running off to Little Bear, who was up the other side of the hill, but he never completely forgot. A little later, as we gathered together to head back down for lunch, Wolfie was still plying for a look at the sacred bundle, while the girls, fancying their power over him, played up the secret. It had grown into a fairly complex behavior, and even Silke, who was hip at this point, was having trouble unknitting the social fabric.

 

We moved on. Down the hill, we walked past the cairns and rock totems we had built along the way up, saying hello to them, our “guardians”, the climbing trees, the “old man’s beard” (lichen) hanging from tree branches. The change of scenery helped, but the power of the secret never completely went away.

 

*

 

Pema and Silke were impressed with the little fossil I had found, but they weren’t as mystified as I was. As we walked down to the stream, Pema asked to hold it. I resisted for a second, not quite ready to part with my secret, then I thought better of it. “I just want to put it in the water,” Pema said. “Okay,” I replied, “but don’t let it go.”

 

What is it about novelty that is so enticing? Or, better yet, what is it about possession that is so intoxicating?

 

I had just spent the morning picking roses with my daughter, pretty much the best way to celebrate Father’s Day I could imagine. Why had I, just then, found this fossil? I had walked this path countless times before. It stymied me. I was having a hard time getting past it. Surely it was just an accident, but the incredible unlikelihood of the find pressed into my mind. It just didn’t make sense. Was something magical afoot?

 

Pffft. I don’t believe in magic.

 

*

 

By the time we got down the hill, Wolfie was crying and pouting uncontrollably.  He wanted so badly to see, to understand. It occupied him so completely that he could hardly focus. Silke had separated the kids into a precise order, to minimize the effect on all of us, but it hardly made a difference. Everyone was suffering from the tension. We were walking in a spectacular forest, filled with birdsong and the buzz of cicadas, but we hardly noticed. I tried to soothe Wolfie, but the girls hadn’t done anything wrong. Wolfie was going to have to live through this.

 

*

 

Before the Cambrian explosion, the only easily identifiable evidence of life were colonies of bacteria, like stromatolites. Pools of bacteria that grew in shallow seas, stromatolites resemble the similarly named stalagmites, the mounds of stone that “grow” from the floors of caves. Over millions and millions of years, these small pools of bacteria collected bits of dirt which eventually calcified into layers of rock, slowly building up into towers that can still be seen today. The bacteria themselves are gone, but the towers stand as evidence of some of the earliest life forms known to have existed. One can still find living stromatolites though, but they are not as plentiful as they once were.

 

For billions of years, this was the primary force of life on earth - tiny little bacteria digesting sunlight and other substances, giving off tiny puffs of gasses like oxygen. Eventually, these tiny creatures synthesized the entire atmosphere, which had, till then, been largely been comprised of volatile volcanic gasses, like hydrogen sulfide and methane, and massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Untold quadrillions of little bacteria, living for billions of years, made it possible for animals, including you and I, to live and breathe.

 

*

 

After lunch, the kids and I were playing by the riverbed. Silke was the Mama, I was the Papa, and the kids clamored back and forth on various errands involving mud, sticks and leaves. Advah, in a moment of mercy, had finally showed Wolfie the small fossil she had wrapped in her layers of leaves, and harmony was reestablished. It was a good fossil, but not unlike the dozens we already had in our bag, many of which Wolfie himself had found. Satisfied, Wolfie forgot about it instantly.

 

*

 

I mostly think that the fossil I found on Father’s Day must have been dropped there by a child or adult years ago, or perhaps even recently. Finding it is still special, but, like an arrowhead, it’s more a sign of humanity than geology. After all, it was right along the path and is unlike any stone elsewhere on the mountain. It was so out of place, so conspicuous and yet hidden, that I can’t quite imagine how else it got there. Still, I’m intrigued. It is much larger, maybe ten or even a hundred times the size of the ones we found near the waterfall, blue with orange highlights. Tiny impressions cover it, even forming a dime-sized hexagonal matrix near the umbo, or hinge, that resembles a wasp’s nest. There is part of me that wants it to be magic. A secret just for me.

Why I Teach in the Wilderness

Megan and I were sitting on a small wooden bench outside her one-room house, grateful for the sliver of shade sequestered against the wall. In the distance, the sprawling network of buildings that make up Lama Foundation were illuminated by the midday sun. Behind us, on the other side of the house, we knew, lay mile after mile of wilderness, and to our right, down a steep embankment, was a lush crease of aspen trees. Up the hill on our left lay the half-completed Dargah, undoubtedly one of the world’s more unique burial shrines.

 

Pema and I had just driven up the mountain and the three of us were lingering as a family for a stretch before I headed back down alone. Though Megan and I are separated, a bond of love and trust remains and these moments are precious to us, we, who used to share nearly every waking minute together. While Megan and I chatted, Pema was eager to show off the bow and arrow Silke had made for her from a willow branch. Orienting the bow in her left hand, not without some effort, Pema took the arrow in her right hand and placed it on the string. Drawing back, she held the tension briefly between her left and right hand, then let fly a short, but graceful arc of flight. Only two days prior, on a long walk on the deserted mesa, I had found a small arrowhead which I later showed to her.

 

I often begin my stories with a brief sense of place, identifying what lies north, south, east, west, perhaps the temperature, or the position of the sun. It helps me feel embodied in the story, which for me unfolds more like a description of a painting than a series of events. It’s particularly relevant this time around, though, as is the small, but exceptional coordination of Pema’s two hands placed, not symmetrically, but in concert upon the bow and arrow, left and right, and the exquisite sense of forward movement thus propagated. As Pema walked into the brush to find her arrow, I turned to Megan excitedly. “See?!” I said, “This is why I want to teach.”

 

*

 

Ask any three year-old which is forward and which is backward, and they will unfailingly point in the right direction. Ask them which direction is up, and they will look to the sky, which is down and they will touch the earth. Simple enough. Then ask them which is left, which right. Usually they will hesitate a moment, then eyeball you to see if you give away the answer. If you don’t, they’ll sometimes refuse to answer or, most commonly, take a guess. At best they have a fifty-fifty chance of answering correctly. Ask them repeatedly (as I’ve been doing with Pema for years), and you will see a pattern. Ask a four year-old, a five year-old, or six. By seven, the majority of children seem to have left and right mastered, but even at six I observe the momentary hesitation, the peripheral looks to friends or sympathetic adults, hoping to find the answer from someone else. Left and right, it turns out, is not a concept that is easily grasped.

 

Having said some such thing to Megan, she countered with, “Yeah, but maybe it’s more of a conceptual challenge than a lack of real understanding. Maybe it’s a language problem.” I tightened my expression, shrugging her off. “Yes,” I replied, “perhaps. But children don’t seem to have any difficulty with the concept of forward or backward, or those words, nor up or down, nor, for that matter, old and young, clear and opaque. Why should this be different?”

 

At first this peculiarity of left and right might appear to be simply an interesting observation, but I’d like to suggest that it is an excellent doorway into observing and understanding the neurological development of children, that is, human beings. In other words, yourself.

 

*

 

The Eye

 

In his book The Tell-Tale Brain, V. S. Ramachandran, the visionary neuroscientist, describes an experiment with one of his patients. He asks the man, who is utterly blind, to identify where an object is in his field of vision. The man, who has lived for years with a lack of eyesight, at first objects, stating the obvious - I can’t see anything. I know, Ramachandran says, but just try. Curiously, the man was able, quite to his own surprise, to identify precisely where the object was. Repeating the experiment in different locations, Ramachandran was able to identify that the man, perfectly blind, was able to locate the object with almost 100% accuracy. How is this possible?

 

The brain, it turns out, has multiple feedback loops for visual patterning. In other words, a healthy sense of sight is actually the healthy functioning of many distinct neurological pathways all happening at the same time. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, but they all inform each other. The result, which any healthy adult experiences as a simple fact of life, feels unified, like one thing, but it’s actually a multiplicity of concurrent events. In the patient’s case, his conscious neural pathways had all been damaged by an injury to his head, but at least one unconscious pathway was still intact, as were the physical apparatus of his eyes. Though the man had no conscious awareness of it, he could still, in some sense, “see”. He just didn’t know that he could.

 

*

 

You may be beginning to wonder, given the context of a blog about outdoor experiences with children, where exactly this is going. So it is perhaps worth mentioning that this is probably my most ambitious project to date, something that grew out of my conversation with Megan as we sat in the shade of her mountain home. If my aim is true, I hope to lay down the foundation of why teaching young children in physical, outdoor settings is, I believe, the best way to educate not only their bodies, but their minds. On the surface, much of what Silke and I do looks like playing in rivers and forests with children, but I’d like to share a picture of the inner workings of that education, something, like Ramachandran’s patient’s latent eyesight described above, much more hidden, almost unconscious.

 

*

 

Next time you are with a friend or lover, ask them to stand still and then take a long, close look at their face. Hold your focus on one location, their eyes or nose. Hold it for five, ten, fifteen seconds without shifting your eyes. Try for a minute. What you will notice, if you can resist the urge to shift focus, is that your friend’s face begins to melt into a strange obscurity. Peripheral elements like the cheeks and lips, or hairline, drift into the background. Colors and peripheral scenery blend together and even the focal point begins to form images that seem, somehow, not quite right. Hold this focus for minutes and it starts to get psychedelic and uncomfortable, almost fearful. Yet, we know nothing is really happening. Our friend’s face is still perfectly round and healthy. With a quick blink or a shake of the head everything is back to normal.

 

A healthy eye operates a series of movements, called saccades, every few seconds. Even when we hold a focal point, the miniscule muscles of the eye shudder, or sort of vibrate, and this constant movement forms complete images in our brains, which in turn produces them to our awareness. The images we “see,” the form and shape of our friend’s face, the room we occupy, the trees or shrubs outside the window, or the motion of butterflies through a landscape of wildflowers - all are formed by observing multiple perspectives and changes. Static images tend to be lost to us.

 

Try looking at the night sky. Whether you’re in an urban setting with a few hundred stars, or, like myself, in a rural area with an inexplicably intricate surface of milky white light, if you focus on one star and hold it, you will probably notice that the whole field of imagery falls into disrepair. Stare at one star for long enough and it simply disappears. The eye, or rather the neurological function of eyesight, when presented with one color or image will actually project the opposite in its place. We observe this whenever we look at the sun, or a simple black square on a white piece of paper. Hold that image for only a few seconds and then turn away, or even close your eyes, and the shape and form of the image is, somehow, still there. It is not a pigment or a remainder of light left in your eye, but a function of your brain.

 

If you wish to see the fullness of the night sky, you will have to first look at one star, then another, shifting regularly, performing the eyes saccades, to keep the entire image in your grasp. Thankfully, this takes little to no conscious effort. It is what we are doing all of our waking life, and the result is a visual-spatial world if immense richness.

 

*

 

The Ear

 

Alfred A. Tomatis, a famous, but unconventional otolaryngologist (an eye, ear and throat doctor) advanced several important theories in his career. Having been born in 1920, the bulk of his work predated the current widely-held understanding of the brain as a plastic organ, that is, an organ of change. Until quite recently, scientific consensus believed the brain to be static. Because neurons do not repair and reproduce as vigorously as most of the other cells in our bodies, and often not at all, it had been widely held for years that the brain, though remarkably diverse and complex, was more or less a fixed structure. Input information, and, like a computer, the brain kicks out the results. Today, due to the work of Tomatis and many others that view is changing.

 

Tomatis began his career like any other otolaryngologist, treating patients. In his case, that included several notable opera singers. In time, he observed something remarkable. The men and women who were regarded as the best singers had something in common. They heard the best. That led to his theory, that speech and sound formation are largely led, developmentally that is, by listening. In other words, the sounds we hear inform the sounds we make.

 

Tomatis’s work had implications far beyond the opera world, most notably in children and adults with hearing and speech impairments. In particular, he noticed, it was the higher pitches that our ears tended to misinterpret, and the result of this lack of “correct” hearing was a disorganized voice. But he went further, because people with hearing and speech impairments often had a whole range of cognitive impairments which were often diagnosed as learning disorders, autism, sensory and motor-skill difficulties, and even mental illness. Hearing impairment led to a disorganized voice, which led to a disorganized mind, which often led to estrangement and isolation.

 

Tomatis developed a therapy, now known as the Tomatis Method, which used the work of composers like Mozart and Bach, along with recordings of the patient’s own mother’s voice, to create an individualized therapeutic approach to teach his patients to hear better. His patient’s hearing was improved, but what happened next was shocking. By training the ear, he found, not only was speech and language improved, but a whole range of cognitive functions. People who were regarded for much of their lives as developmentally slow, even imbeciles, were suddenly capable of reading and accommodating the subtle cues and strategies of social bonding. They were transformed. Further, because many of these people had been ostracized or neglected, they also commonly suffered from depression and a variety of other mental illnesses in response to their cognitive lapses and social estrangement. His technique, which was simply designed to improve a person’s ability to recognize and distinguish sounds, particularly in the upper ranges, was so successful that even people without noticeable hearing or speech problems began to seek him out for help with their learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, sensory processing and motor-skill difficulties, depression, and other forms of mental illness.

 

Not surprisingly, the medical and scientific community found his theories and results hard to swallow. Improve someone’s hearing and they suddenly become smarter and more sociable? It was too easy. But most of all, because his work implied the growth and regeneration of the brain itself, something doctors and scientists at the time could not accept, his theories and therapeutic approach were mostly sidelined as “alternative”, considered controversial, and remain so today. Yet, with the growing consensus around brain plasticity, there is an expanding network of doctors and therapists who practice his method or who are developing their own methods based on a refinement of his work.

 

Tomatis himself wrote several interesting books and countless articles, but I first read about his work in Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing. The follow-up to Doidge’s bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, the book is full of interesting case studies about the burgeoning field of brain plasticity - the dawning scientific and cultural awareness that the brain is, contrary to a century’s worth of established theory, actually quite maleable. It is worth a basic explanation of this concept.

 

Until quite recently, scientific consensus held that the brain was largely a static organ. A person had the chance to educate and inform its development through childhood, during which several key developmental stages had been identified, but by the age of twenty or so - you got what you got. That turns out to be entirely false. The brain is a highly responsive organ, like a muscle, and while it’s true that neuronal cells do not regenerate easily (though sometimes they do, even in seventy year-olds), the use of the organ is a constantly changing and dynamic event.

 

As Doidge puts it - neurons that fire together wire together. Each synapse, each connection in the brain, is enhanced with repeated use. There are observable physical changes, like the thickening of neural connections, that make the connection more likely to connect again in the future. In other words, the more you think something, the more likely you are to think the same thing in the future. This follows for every aspect of brain function, i.e. motor and sensory control, but also things like memories, ideas and even emotional responses.

 

But the converse is also true - use it or lose it, as Doidge says. If, for example, you are not using the full extent of your brain’s visual or auditory regions, those neurons, like an atrophied muscle, tend to wither. The connections are no longer robust. Perhaps you were excellent at algebra in ninth grade, but unless you’ve been using those skills since then, chances are the connections are rusty. Further, neurons in underdeveloped locations are often taken for other tasks. If you are not a good listener, your brain might, unbeknownst to you, co-opt those listening neurons to, say, read a complicated spreadsheet. If you’re entirely deaf, vast sections of your auditory regions might be used for visual tasks.

 

But here’s the important part, and why this is so relevant to child development - neurons are used for many purposes. Thoughts are not so much the linkage of one neuron to another, but an entire constellation of neurons firing together. It is the pattern of firing that produces specific thoughts, intentions, and motor control. Often these “constellations” involve neurons in many and distinct regions in the brain, so that by strengthening neural connections for one task, we often inadvertently strengthen others. This is why Tomatis’s patients, after learning to hear better, suddenly developed the increased mental function that aided them in spectacular ways. The fluidity of the brain’s function is what we’re after.

 

The easiest and most direct route into a young child’s brain is through sensory stimulation and the development of motor skills. Young children quite literally do not have the physical regions in place for higher order mental functions like abstract thinking or ethical choices. But we can lay the groundwork for those functions by helping them build a fabric of neurons that is fluid, awake and alert. We do this by moving our bodies, by climbing trees and feeling the texture of the bark. In shoes, our feet become one-dimensional sensors of weight distribution. Barefoot, they become rich organs of sensation as we ooze through the mud. Looking far into the distance we see the mountain tops. Focusing close on the ground we discover colorful wings on beetles and moths. We wade through rivers and roll on tummies, listening to the wind shake the leaves. We watch storm clouds approach, then veer off to the east, or help to find sticks for the fire. By giving children a rich physical environment to explore, we set the stage for cognitive development later in life. The purpose of outdoor education is not simply to romp and play in the woods. It is to develop alert and active minds, minds that later on can be used for a whole range of functions. We want to turn on every neuron.

 

*

 

I have a movement practice, something that has developed organically over the fifteen years I’ve been doing it and which I simply call “stick”. The piece of wood I use, actually the woody stem of an old houseplant, is about two inches thick and three and half feet long. I twirl this stick, sort of like a baton, from hand to hand in multiple directions. The motion, like a dance, is intricate and full-bodied, so that my feet and torso are guiding the movements of my upper limbs and body as I twist and spin and try not to fall over. The motion of the stick, which is sometimes spinning very rapidly, passes fluidly from hand to hand, around my back, through my legs and over my head as I variously kneel, squat, stand and jump.

 

I am a little shy about this, so I tend to do it outside, far from anyone else. Still, friends and neighbors occasionally see me performing my little routine and whenever they do they tend to be transfixed. “Wow, Joe!” they often say, “Is that some kind of martial art?” From the outside it may appear so, but from the inside it feels like I’m about to fall over all the time. It’s not uncommon for me to lose my grip on the stick and send it flying awkwardly through the air. It’s awkward because that is precisely the point - I’m trying to fall over. Or rather, I’m trying to just barely not fall over. By moving and twisting in every possible direction, I hope to reach the boundaries of my balance and strength and thereby slowly spread the conscious control of my body further, like water seeping into a sponge.

 

Several months ago, I determined that I could safely manage to stand upright on the sides of my feet, i.e. bow-legged, ankles down towards the ground. Now, I can squat in such a position and then stand back up. Over time, by waving my arms and throwing off my center of gravity, I will further test and gain my balance, further and further.

 

This practice grew out of a simple desire to exercise and train my body without paying for a gym membership. Like most modern humans, I don’t need the bulk of my body’s potential physicality, but, like many of us, I find the maintenance of my physical body is vital to my mental and emotional health. But what has surprised me is that, like Tomatis’s listening therapy, this practice has without a doubt improved my mental function. Never before in my life have I been capable of holding the richness of awareness and experience as I do now.

 

*

 

Hark back to how I began this story, Pema’s left hand on the bow, right hand threading the arrow on the string. Left and right, tension, and yet her curious inability to identify which is the left and right side of her body. I have asked her dozens, perhaps hundreds of times about this. My intent is not to quiz her and elicit the correct answer. I simply want to learn for myself what she does and does not recognize. What amazes me is that in the roughly two years that I have been watching, asking and casually informing, she has not improved in any way I can discern. She knows that there is a left and a right, but when I ask her to identify them, whether her left hand or the left page of a book, she still has something like a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. I have since asked many three to six year-olds and found much the same lack of awareness. And, keep in mind, no such problem with front and back, or up and down.

 

I invite you to ask any child this light-hearted and simple question (never forcefully, as if there is a right answer) - which is your left hand? Or, which is the left page of a book? Do you see the bird on your left? Touch their left hand, give them something to hold, a texture, a movement. Look for opportunities, as I do, to lightly and casually remind them. And continue to ask. Almost any child can be taught to recognize the letter A in the matter of a day. But I think you’ll be surprised at how confusing this division of left and right is for them. I am.

 

When Pema first picked up the bow and arrow Silke made for her (she is right-handed), she held the string, not the bow, in her right hand and the arrow in her left. She focused on getting the arrow, which had a crude v-shape on the back, onto the string. Somehow, she knew that was critical, but even after observing several other children hold and shoot an arrow successfully, she appeared to have no sense of the proper orientation of the objects, bow and arrow, in space.

 

As I watched Pema turn the objects around, holding them variously in awkward and uncertain ways, it dawned on me how complicated the spatial arrangement of the world is, and how much we, as adults, take it for granted. We tend to look at the world through our own eyes, forgetting that children have not yet developed the sensorial or spatial focus that we have. They are not little adults. They are children, and they are only beginning to learn.

 

While Pema focused on the string and the v-shaped crotch of the arrow, she had no sense that the bow, much less the arrow, didn’t even face forward. If she had managed to get the arrow on the string and to produce tension, she would have shot herself in the knee. I watched her for some time, pleased at her determination. Finally, I began giving a coherent instruction. “Put the bow in your left hand,” I began.

 

*

 

Walking the Mental Landscape

 

I walk often. By “walk” I mean something more than just the locomotion of my body, for I’m not referring to the short, and sometimes long, distances I roam with Pema and other children, nor the movements back and forth of the basic chores of life. When my activity is simply walking, which is a considerable amount of my waking life, I am doing much more than moving my body. I am exploring my mind.

 

Homo-sapiens, it could be said, were designed to walk. Our bodies evolved into this form of motion hundreds of thousands of years ago, and there’s considerable anthropological evidence that this standing posture had much to do with our physical and mental development. Our hands, now free, evolved into incomparably delicate tools capable of fine motor skills most other animals merely dream of. Unlike other apes, this posture also allowed us to roam extensively, covering distances in a matter of hours or days that no other ape could afford to do. The sensory input of our hands, as well as our eyes, now placed high atop our bodies, helped develop and awaken the organ of our brains. Our rambling lifestyle exposed us to novel environs such that, even as much as 100,000 years ago our ancestors were living in lush rainforests, arid deserts, frigid mountaintops, coastal regions and almost every imaginable landscape.

 

The precise history of human evolution is not really of consequence. However the story goes, it’s evident that for hundreds of thousands of years a human’s primary mode of transportation was his or her own body, and that meant walking. The last hundred years or so, since we’ve had access to motor vehicles, bicycles and other modes of transportation, even horses, has had little effect on the physical make-up of the body. Evolution moves slower than that. This being the case, our biological systems - veins, nerves, intestines, heart - are all still fitted to our erect posture and ambling movement. Walking, and not just any physical activity, is uniquely fit to our bodies, therefore our minds.

 

I have the great fortune to live in a beautiful and remote place in the world. From out my door, without stepping foot in a car, I can walk in almost any direction, along quiet dirt roads with juniper and pinon, cottonwoods and sage, coyotes, jackrabbits, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and all sorts of wildlife. If I have the inclination, I can walk along the Rio Hondo, down into the Rio Grande Gorge and into a vast tract of wilderness that essentially doesn’t end. This landscape, if you’ll walk with me down this road, is my mind.

 

*

 

Joshua Foer is a memory champion, literally. Using a method derived from an ancient mnemonic system, one which allowed bards and poets to memorize epic stories word for word, like Homer’s Odyssey or the Q’uran, Foer was able to defeat some of the most lucid minds in the world in a range of memory tasks, a subject he subsequently wrote about in his international bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein. The US Memory Championship, which Foer won in 2006, is staged with a series of tasks designed to test the limits of a person’s memory, i.e. memorizing the sequence of a random set of cards, a set of names and faces, random numbers, etc., and the participants are judged on their accuracy and speed.

 

Foer’s method, which he calls a memory palace, involves imagining a house, ideally a location you already know, like your own house. When faced with the task of memorizing an impossibly long series of cards, in order, he suggests places each card in a location within that imaginary house. With a well-defined “palace,” one can set each card in a specific location, say the eight of hearts on the upstairs bedroom windowsill, then the jack of spades on the pillow, king of clubs at the top of the door, and the rest down the hallway, through the bathroom, downstairs, into the kitchen, etc. When asked to repeat the sequence, one simply walks through the house and recounts the cards. Easier said than done, sure, but with a little practice, even the most forgetful person can use this method to memorize vast strings of cards that would astound any passersby. With a little practice, even you could recite a novel-length story without referring to the original document. Given a lifetime of practice, like any hafiz, you might be able to repeat the entire Q’uran, word for word, without as much as one mistake. Generations ago, when computers did not exist and even books were rare, such people were priceless.

 

In 2017, Psychology Today reported a new study published in the academic journal Neuron which compared the brains of memory athletes to folks given six weeks of training in the memory palace method, also called loci. The regular folks not only achieved similar feats of memory, but made physical changes to their brains. This is precisely what Norman Doidge was writing about - brain plasticity. It is precisely the affect Alfred A. Tomatis, the otolaryngologist, discovered when he observed his patients not only hearing better, but performing better at a whole range of cognitive tasks, including mental health.

 

Let’s return to walking in a real palace, or, if you will, a real landscape. If you’re anything like me, you may not be all that impressed with Jonathan Foer’s feats of memorization. Memory, after all, is only one aspect of mental function, important to be sure, but I want creativity and intelligence, not mere rote memorization. And what I really want, and want to help children develop, is wisdom.

 

In a recent article in Scientific American, award-winning psychologist Robert Sternberg voiced his concern about the influence of standardized testing on American society. “Intelligence,” he argued, “that is not…moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have. What it leads to is people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense.”

 

Asked point blank, “Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?” he responded thus:

 

Yes we do… Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values. You know, it’s easy to think of smart people but it’s really hard to think of wise people. I think a reason is that we don’t try to develop wisdom in our schools. And we don’t test for it, so there’s no incentive for schools to pay attention.

 

I often find myself worn out from the week, from work, or just the over-stimulation of the kids I am with. Though I live a somewhat alternative life, I am still subject to the hectic pace of raising a young child. To reduce the impact of stress on my mood and behavior, I walk frequently, and I am very aware of the affect this has on my mind. Like the memory palace, I walk the landscape of the earth around me, places that I have passed through many times before, but which I have populated with memories and thoughts from dozens, hundreds of walks. By the time I return home, even if I left in downright anger or pangs of sadness, I usually return at peace. I’d like to describe why.

 

It is my opinion that, in the four walls of my bedroom, which doubles as my office, I am constrained by certain patterns of thoughts. The objects I see remind me of tasks to do, places to go, or items I need. Much of the time it is quite cozy, but there are plenty of times when I feel stuck and, no matter what I do, I cannot break out of certain mental habits. I become stuck in the same thoughts, the same walls, the same stains on the couch. Who hasn’t had this experience?

 

My mind, thankfully, inhabits a larger landscape than my office. It simply requires me to visit it. By walking my physical body through that landscape, connecting to an ancient source of movement that keys up all my biological systems, I do not necessarily solve all my problems, but I do open up the fullness of my mind. I see trees and hillsides that remind me of moments long ago, thoughts I had last year. I see grasses swaying in the breeze, recalling to my attention the suppleness of my own body. In the spring there are apple blossoms, and in the fall purple asters. After thirty minutes or so, what seemed so pressing and unfortunate back in my office (crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch - the sound of my feet in gravel), is obviously only a small portion of my life. Given the chance to visit the full landscape of my mental faculty, I am afforded the opportunity to re-prioritize, or, as the case may be, simply to take a break from a thought process that wasn’t serving me.

 

I am familiar with many of the trees and bends in the paths, the houses, electrical lines and stones. I love nature, but I love broken glass and plastic bags stuck in branches too. My mind, that’s how it is. I remember where I saw a tarantula, and when that one cottonwood tree lost its branch. In the spring, I remember the months of dry, click-clacking branches, and in the fall I remember the faint scent of olive blossoms. This memory palace, if you will, is populated not with a mere sequence of cards, but a sequence of images and memories, sounds and odors, slopes and even grades. It contains intricate instructions (left foot here, right hand there) for how to transform frustration into joy, or (right foot here, turn around this way and smell) how to allow a subject to drift into the unconscious while listening to birdsong. My memory palace is the landscape of my neighborhood, the landscape of my body. It is my mind, my gymnasium, my dark and silent night. I move in it. I watch the pattern of raindrops, connecting physical neurons in my brain to physical locations in space and time. My brain needs silence, just like it needs activity. So sometimes I set things down, over here, by the pinon that once had an owl in it. Then I walk away.

 

*

 

“Forest school is great, you and Silke are great,” Megan said, brushing us aside politely. “But the thing I’ve always thought, the thing I remember so much from my trips to Japan and China was that education was physical. Even in the monasteries, well before they taught meditation or anything, they taught the children to master their bodies. Only later did they introduce stillness or anything like a mental practice.”

 

My whole face lit up, mostly in excitement, but partly in consternation. “Megan,” I said incredulously, “That’s the whole point! Do you really think we’re just taking the kids into the forest to play around and get dirty?”

 

*

 

Genome, Microbiome and Emotions

 

In April 2003, the Human Genome Project, a joint venture of scientists from all over the world, orchestrated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Education, announced the complete map of the human genome. A massive scientific breakthrough, it had huge ethical and philosophical implications for humans as, for the first time, we literally had the instruction manual for human development. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that human DNA was only part of the picture.

 

In 2008, the NIH initiated another project, the Human Microbiome Project, an overarching study that potentially dwarfs that of the Human Genome Project. In an article written in 2012, they published the following: “The human body contains trillions of microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1.” In other words, though a small portion of our bodies’ weight is bacterial, the majority of the cells, and therefore the DNA, we carry is not human.

 

In his book I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong describes the history of microbial science and the dawning awareness that each human, far from being a single entity, is a biome to herself. Not only are we populated at every level of our body, inside and out, by a multitude of bacteria and other single-cell life forms, but many of the basic digestive processes and chemical syntheses required for the support of human life are performed by bacteria - not our own cells - and the DNA they carry.

 

In 2012, Nature published an abstract of a study they published the same day. In it, they state:

 

The human body contains about ten times as many microbes as human cells, and most of them live in the gut. The new study, published today in Nature, shows that, between them, those microbes contain 3.3 million genes, dwarfing the human genome's 23,000. [That is, less than 1% of the genes in the human body are human. More than 99% come from bacteria and other microbial sources]… Fewer than one-third of the genes catalogued in the paper are well studied, and about 40% look like poorly studied genes from known bacteria. Finally, more than 25% of the genes have never been seen before, which suggests that unknown species may be living in our guts.

 

What, you might be asking, does all this have to do with kindergarten education?

 

A growing body of data…shows that microbes in the gut influence behavior and can alter brain physiology and neurochemistry… Researchers have drawn links between gastrointestinal pathology and psychiatric neurological conditions such as anxiety, depression, autism, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disorders—but they are just links. - Scientific American 2015

 

In other words, the bacteria that live in our bodies, and especially our guts, not only digest our food, but actually contribute to the chemical and physical syntheses of cognitive function. Take a second to reflect on that. A “gut feeling” turns out to be an apt term. Yet, before I get too far, it’s worth repeating the last line - “they are just links.” As with any scientific study, including those I referred to earlier, we should be cautious about making sweeping generalizations. Even the most entrenched scientific theories, like the immutability of particles, sometimes turn out to be wrong. But more important than this, as with any theory, new or old, it must be born out in practice.

 

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for the hard science to catch up. We can test our theories through daily practices and note the effects, positive or negative, they have upon us. Precisely why things happen is not always as important as that they do. So far I have been alluding to the development of a child’s motor skills, sensory apprehension and control, and their cognitive ability. Surely, these are vital for any healthy child, as they are for any healthy adult. But emotions, to my way of thinking, are the most important field of personal inquiry.

 

Recall Robert Sternberg’s comment quoted earlier. “Intelligence,” he argued, “that is not…moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have.” I could not agree more.

 

*

 

In 1997, I took the SAT’s for the second time. My high school counselor, seeing that I had scored fairly high on my first test - even getting a perfect 800 on the math section - encouraged me to take the test a second time. I had not done poorly on the English portion, but if I did just a little better I would qualify as a National Merit Scholar, which would aid me in obtaining scholarships, college entry, etc. I suspected it might be of some advantage to the school too, a locally prestigious high school that sent many graduates to Ivy League schools. My brother, who had graduated the year before, had also been a National Merit Scholar, and that year the school graduated several others along with me.

 

I rarely speak about this, because it sounds like boasting, which it is. But I raise this in light of Sternberg’s statement, which I think is perfectly appropriate to the trajectory of my life after high school. I didn’t go on to do anything remarkably destructive, nor anything that remarkably good, but, aided by the egocentric idea of my own intelligence, I set about a college career and ensuing vocation as an engineer with rigor. I applied myself. In 2002, I graduated from college with the highest awarded salary of anyone in my class. I would have gone on, in all likelihood, to be a very successful engineer. Fortunately for me, I fell into a depression instead.

 

I was no monster, of course, but I had no real wisdom, no real insight in life. I simply had a high functioning intelligence. My entire academic career, that is, the social fabric of my life, had up to that point given me the impression that what I wanted was a high-paying and competitive job. No one, not in high school, college, or elsewhere, had ever tried to teach me wisdom, or to question the prevailing social custom that job equals money equals happiness. But wisdom is hard to come by, and nobody is to blame.

 

What was most painful, however, was that no one ever taught me about my emotions. No one even tried. It was as though the most fundamental aspect of life - how I feel - was something that I was just supposed to pick up along the way. Not mathematics, of course. That was taught every year, with proper strategic courses orchestrated from grade school to high school, so that by my second year in college I could tackle the really heavy stuff, like Calc IV. Um…hey guys…what about sadness? Joy? Anyone?

 

*

 

“If you look at the hard neuroscience that has emerged in the last year alone, all the fundamental processes that neuroscientists spend their lives working on are now all shown to be regulated by microbes.” That is John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, quoted in the same article in Scientific American I referred to earlier.

 

Emotions, as we all know, are famously hard to describe or control. In the West, we tend to refer to them as being formed and guided by our hearts, using this conceptual break to identify the difference between an emotional feeling and a mental thought. Scientifically, however, emotions and thoughts are not so distinct. Both are constellations of neurons, firing in conjunction with chemical signals in our blood. Many Eastern philosophies, like Buddhism, eschew the dichotomy between thoughts and feelings. Sitting patiently on the shore of consciousness, the Buddha watched thoughts go by, including emotions and sensations. In his estimation, all are objects for the awareness.

 

I like to say I had a mid-life crisis at twenty-two. It took me years to recover, but having got that out of the way, at thirty-seven I’m now running on all cylinders. My intelligence is no longer hijacked. I would not characterize myself as wise, but I will say that my priorities are in tune with my gut. I listen to my microbes. I listen to my hands. I even listen to my hair as it blows in the wind. I treat each one like good friends. I take them for walks and show them my neighborhood. Look, this tree - last fall it shook its brown leaves in a heavy wind and I watched it, gently transfixed by the sound and its movement. It was sunny and just beginning to cool down for winter. My eyes, they moved all around it, and I even heard the different tones in some of the leaves. Each shape, I guess, makes a slightly different sound. A few weeks later, I was walking by and I noticed one of its biggest limbs had broken off, which then lay at its side. My heart sank. But guess what? The tree just kept living, as if it was no big deal. Imagine that, a whole limb. Then, as winter receded, beautiful lime-green leaves erupted all over, but the dead limb still lay on the ground.

 

*

 

There are as many ways of educating children as there are children in the world. I only have one story, one version of the truth. In my story, the children explore the sensuous world with their hands and ears and eyes. They roll and tumble and get comfortable on their bellies. They walk. They even complain about it, and they don’t mind it if I’m grumpy on occasion. We learn by following our curiosity, turning it into creativity. Mud mixed with sand feels so gritty. How lovely it is to make a merry little duck of it. The insects, if you look really close, have spectacular coats of color. A song can lift our hearts.

 

When I first started working with Silke, I was amazed at how effortless this all was for her. After thirty-odd years of teaching, everyone knows she has a gift with children. What amazes me is that few people know why. They think we take the kids outside to play and romp in the woods and rivers. And, surely, we do. But this is not merely play. This is actually the most direct route to wisdom, to emotional integrity, to intelligent and well-guided people. The purpose of all this physicality is the awakening of consciousness.

 

*

 

I still ask Pema on occasion which is her left hand, which is her right. I’m not really looking for any specific answer. I just want to know where she’s at. I want her, when she’s ready, to know where she’s at.

 

*

 

Silke, in her work with children, refers constantly to the four directions - north, south, east, west. This has a lot to do with her interest in indigenous spirituality, which holds the directions as sacred, populating them like a memory palace with all sorts of animals, colors and characteristics. Often, the four directions become six with the addition of up and down, sky and earth. Sometimes we even have seven, the inner dimension.

 

Each day at Taos Earth Children, though we explore vastly different landscapes - desiccated canyons with dry bones, rivers with marshy shores, flat mesas with, at first appearance, little more than sagebrush, or sometimes lush aspen groves - we begin with a song:

 

Down is the earth (reaching down with our hands)

Up is the sky (reaching up with our hands)

There are my friends (a symmetric movement beginning from the heart and arcing into two opening circles toward the rest of the group)

And here am I (returning hands to chest)

The earth is firm beneath my feet (stomping vigorously on the ground)

The sky is high above (reaching straight up and parting hands in two symmetric arcs down to our sides)

And here I stand so firm and strong (hands to chest)

All things to know and love

 

*

 

Post Script

 

I wish to be clear that everything I’ve written is from my personal point of view. I have alluded to Silke, who I hold in great esteem. She is a major player, but not the sole influence on my thoughts on child development. While I suspect that she would agree with a great deal of what I have said, hers is the considerably more advanced pedagogy and I would regret anyone taking my words for her thoughts.

 

Taos Earth Children is an outdoor kindergarten in Taos, NM. You can find out more about the school at www.taosearthchildren.com.

 

*

 

Addendum

 

I have focused, in some sense, on my interest in teaching children, but it is no mistake that much of what I’ve written is valid for myself and, I believe, many adults. My interest in education extends far beyond that of children, though I don’t really see myself as a teacher. Like my work with children, I see myself more as a playful part of the common exploration. The children are learning about what it is like to be a child. I am learning what it is like to witness and occasionally shepherd young children into human beings. In most cases, I am the one who benefits most.

 

It is my belief that a village is the best model of education, whereby we each have the chance to witness and learn from each other - child from elder, elder from child, man from woman, laborer from accountant, webmaster from farmer. Education, in its most ideal setting, should not be about peer groups. It should be a social setting for the benefit of all.

 

I am actively working to make this happen.

 

*

 

References

 

Ramachandran, V.S. The Tell-Tale Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011. Print.

 

Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.

 

Doidge, Norman. The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

 

Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein. London: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.

 

Denworth, Lydia. “How to Train Your Brain Like a Memory Champion.” Psychology Today, 8 March 2017. Web. 12 June 2017.

 

Wallis, Claudia. “Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of ‘Smart Fools’?” Scientific American, 31 May 2017. Web. 12 June 2017.

 

“NIH Human Microbiome Project Defines Normal Bacterial Makeup of the Body.” National Institutes of Health, 13 June 2012. Web. 12 June 2017.

 

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes. New York: Harper Collins, 2017. Print.

 

Hellman, Andrew Bennet. “Gut Bacteria Gene Complement Dwarfs Human Genome.” Nature, 3 March 2010. Web. 12 June 2017.

 

Smith, Peter Andrey. “The Tantalizing Links between Gut Microbes and the Brain.” Scientific American, 24 October 2015. Web. 12 June 2017.

Al-Saqiya

I watched a small bird take flight from a stalk of mullein, only moments ago. As it did, the movement of the bird initiated a counter movement in the stalk so that it swayed back and forth in still air. It was 5:40 AM.

 

I was walking.

 

I spent the early morning, as I often do, walking in the last glimmer of darkness, watching the world form into color and shape. These are golden moments for me, but of late my mind has been restless. I have much to do, like everyone else, and my mind, made rigid with my strategic thinking, has had a difficult time settling into the soft elegance of real attentiveness. Grieving my loss, I picked up a small pile of dirt and passed it back and forth in my hands as I walked, slowly rubbing its tiny grains into the folds and creases of my hands. The palms, the backs of my knuckles, the wrists.

 

Today is June 3rd. Memorial Day has come and gone and school is out. I see signs of it everywhere, children I never encountered before suddenly shouting in backyards, riding bicycles down the street, eyeing me, a thirty-something Caucasian male in uncertain clothes, suspiciously. But the Earth Children, Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, continues. Just two days ago we were at Farmer Ron’s, bottling grasshoppers and mulching raspberries. Next week we’ll be back in the forest and maybe even catch a waterfall.

 

Silke decided long ago that her school year would go through summer solstice, ending June 22. This has been a mild point of confusion for parents and students alike. Like it or not, summer is here. The excitement and boredom is palpable. Griffin, one of the Earth Children’s mainstays, had his last day on Thursday, while two older children, now out of school, joined us. Something is ending, and something new is taking its place.

 

All this was on my mind this morning, creeping into the silence I would otherwise have preferred. The moon had already set and it was black as black as black. I once wrote stories about a fictionalized woman, based largely on myself, and the rocking motions of her steps. Crunch, crunch, crunch, the sound of gravel underfoot. Now I write about children, and the olive trees are blooming again. I’ve been waiting so long.

 

I ladled another scoop of dirt into my hands, watching plumes of dust drift into the air as I passed it back and forth, the light and warmth of a summer’s day already stealing back into the black silence.

 

I’ve been working with Silke since last fall, about the same time I’ve been writing this blog. Children. Me. Pooling the dirt back and forth between my palms, I listened to its quiet song play under the clear tones of the acequia trickling nearby. The songbirds, who in the dead of winter would not have made a sound, were like a landscape of noise. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Cheer up, cheerily. Cheer up, cheerily. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Missing loneliness.

 

Two days ago, after dropping the kids off after school, I found myself at the library, scrambling to get inside to use the internet for a couple hours of paid work. As I trampled through the prairie dog dens in the parking lot, a familiar fragrance caught my nose and I immediately smiled. Russian olives. Last year I had become so intimate with this scent, like the inside pocket of a vest. It was so small, so erotically and sensually mine.

 

Russian olive trees are everywhere in Taos, a legacy of the Forest Service and its precursors, which recommended them as drought-hardy trees well into the 1900’s. Eventually, they established themselves so successfully that they were redefined as an invasive species. Such a human story. With their dry, silvery leaves and nitrogen-fixing roots, the plants are masterful survivalists, but, like litter and plastic bags, I have mostly only heard people disdain them as a problem. So when I discovered an enticing fragrance wafting in the air a year ago, it took me some time to track it to its source. Turns out the trees are somewhat known for their perfume, but discovering it for myself was a rare treat. Trees. I get it. They are a nuisance. So are people and beavers, and uncomfortable silences. But oh, the joy of tactile discovery, of real apprehension between two species; fleeting moments of appreciation.

 

This year, May had come and gone and never had I rediscovered that special scent. I waited and watched as the elms, another introduced and now invasive species, bloomed. The cottonwoods, apples, apricots and oaks. Flowers before leaves, that is the pattern, no? I assumed the same for olives. So when their silvery leaves began to come out a few weeks ago I was curious but a little wounded. Had I missed the flowers? Had I lost my attentiveness? Like a man who has lost his wallet, I looked over and over in the same places, not so much concerned about the wallet or the trees, but my mind. Clutching their thorny, copper-colored branches, I found the velvet leaves were already sheltering long drupelets of tiny early olives. The fruits, miniscule and pulpy, are not palatable for humans, but birds make a feast of them when they ripen into rust-colored pips.

 

I don’t know the orchestration of the olive tree. I have read about beavers, and even seen videos, but their intimate lives are foreign to me. Even the magpies, who call attention to themselves in every possible way, are strangers. The grasses, purple, green and blonde, grow under my feet without any formal paperwork. Names, you see, make things invisible.

 

Two days ago, before visiting the prairie dog town at the public library, I had been at Farmer Ron’s with the Earth Children. Our task, Ron had told us, was to catch grasshoppers and shuttle them, alive if possible, into some plastic bottles and cans he had scrounged up for the purpose. We ran into the field, excited, pouncing on the little buggers, which littered the landscape. Last fall we harvested rows and rows of blue, red and purple corn here, but nothing was planted just now. “A grasshopper can eat three times its weight a day,” Ron told us, maturing and reproducing at breakneck speed. I cupped my hand and grabbed one, then another, a third. They were everywhere, but each individual was too fast. Plus it was hot, and the tiny insects had the kick and vitality of the midday sun. Every time I opened my hand - nothing but empty air. It became instantly clear that if they matured and reproduced at anything resembling the speed of their frantic movements, it would be impossible to stop them. Without chemicals, that is.

 

I managed, with great calm and lightning reflex, to catch half a dozen or so over the course of the hour. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them. Aside from Griffin, who probably caught more than I, the children largely gave up, as did most of the adults. The whole swarm of us moved idly through the field, kicking up a dust of grasshoppers. Organic food. Local farmers. Kids. My God.

 

“I got one!” I shouted, pinching the squirming abdomen with my fingers. With just enough pressure to stifle, but not kill it, I could feel it writhing uncomfortably in my hand, sending eerie signals through my skin and nerve endings, into my brain. “Who’s got a bottle?!” I asked, standing tall, as the children rushed to collect my treasure. Pema, who shadowed my movements closely, had received the bulk of my victims and now began to boast, “I caught five, no six!” She held up her bottle for everyone to see the crook-legged insects stirring about uncertainly. She hadn’t caught a single one, but neither, for that matter, had most of the kids. As some of the grasshoppers climbed over others, it was evident that two or three were already dead. Gentle as I tried to be, I’m certain every one of the bugs I caught was fatally injured. I wiped the smear of green-brown blood from my moist hands.

 

I have been debating about the future of this blog. My work with children, far from over, has only just begun, but what began as a creative side project has become but one small piece of a much larger vision. I am a storyteller, a weaver of sorts, and the story has gotten dense. I often have the sense that my mind, or hell - call it the soul, pieces stories and language together of its own accord, while I bear witness. And no one has to listen to my stories more than me. I catch moments like raindrops and turn them into channels and streams of consciousness. It’s tiring, actually. Since last fall, I have been slowly watching the rivulets form behind berms and leak into cavities, visiting ponds. Each story, each small cupping of the earth, seemed distinct, the thread of consciousness merely a finger’s breadth in the wet sand. It was small, silent, mine.

 

But I am not, it turns out, as soft and silent as I wish. My mind, pulling and channeling the rain, eventually follows all those little elbows and slants to the creek bottom. It stalks the pattern of rivers, of otters and geese. I am still silent. I am still observing. But I have woven raindrops into plumes of water, and watched as the heavy rush of snowmelt heaves stones and loosens tree trunks. Patterning. Observing. Naming. I am so tired.

 

Softly, gently, hands in the earth. Spilling dirt palm to palm, the sound of gravel underfoot. The problem with being a storyteller is that I believe too much.

 

Just yesterday, I took Pema, Ruby and Francis down to the pond. A small declivity in the natural curl of the land, it was dammed up with dirt years ago. Still, it’s much too dry here, so the pond only brims with water when filled by the ditch, the acequia.

 

The people in this land did something interesting years ago. Taos is an old city, much older than most of the towns and communities of the American west. The first Europeans to come here in the 1500’s were Spaniards. Scouting out the rivers and springs, they eventually dug a system of canals in the earth to redirect the steeply flowing river waters to irrigate their houses and fields. Being Spanish, they named these small ditches acequias, and they are still the lifeblood of human activity in New Mexico. Every little community has its acequia, and its story.

 

The Spaniards that dug these life-giving channels probably had no idea that the name, acequia, was originally Arabic. The name derives from Al-saqiya, rooted in saqa, to give drink. Andalusia, that unique romance of Christians, Jews and Arabs that thrived for centuries on the Iberian Peninsula, had, by then, been ravaged. The European conquest of the new world, led largely by the Spanish, was fueled by that brutal infighting. In 1492, a conspicuous year to be sure, the conquest of Granada wiped the last speck of Arab blood from the country and its collective history. That is, their story was erased. But nothing can be truly forgotten, certainly not something as magnificent as the Andalusian culture. It just went underground, coursing in the veins and the language of the very people who denied it. Acequia, to give drink.

 

Our acequia, the Acequia Madre del Llano, flows on the south side of the property, at the top of a steep hill, where, once the gates are opened, the water courses down through a series of switchbacks till it levels out at the bottom of the valley. From there it passes through our chickens, waters our gardens, and irrigates our fields and trees, many of which are Russian olives. Water, chickens, vegetables, trees. Europeans. Grasshoppers. Invaders. Finally, at the far northern edge of the property, the water drains into a series of sloppy curves and berms till it is ultimately deposited in the pond.

 

“Will you take my alligator for a ride?” Francis asked. He was talking to Ruby, directing her from the shore. “No, that way!” he shouted. Having only just turned three, Francis was reluctant to go in the “deep end”, where Pema and Ruby, now four and five, walked in to about chest height. Last year, Pema and Ruby stalked these depths with hilariously oversized life jackets, a sort of security blanket like Dumbo’s feather. Totally unnecessary. All magic. Stories.

 

“Bring it here!” Francis shouted, immediately demanding the return of the small piece of wood that, for him, formed the essence of an alligator. Pema had one too, so did Ruby. There were four alligators all told, baby alligators in fact, each one a sliver of an old board that had been left rotting in the pond years ago. Last year, when we had first discovered it, it had a v-shaped gap at one end and I had playfully called it an alligator, dragging it around the surface of the pond. Pema and Ruby quickly took it up, and every time we visited the pond they would run for the alligator, that is, a 1x6 piece of rotting lumber about five feet in length. There is a knot in the wood just above the mouth, giving a hint of an eye.

 

A few months ago, when the acequia still ran dry (in winter), Silke had joined us in making fairy houses on the dry bottom of the pond. We gathered red willows and multi-colored rocks, dry sunflower husks, soft green sage, and grasses. Silke, being resourceful, found an old piece of wood and shattered it in pieces with her bare hands to make a commanding little palace. “Oh, the alligator,” I said, not without some heartbreak. “What?” asked Silke, oblivious. Pema just shrugged. Everything is filled with meaning.

 

Now the summer’s heat warms the pond and has awakened the real salamanders and frogs that live, buried deep in the earth, through six dry months and freezing temperatures. The board is still here too, just in pieces, and, as it turns out, the baby alligators are much more manageable. Francis, heaving the board above his head, threw it far into the water. “Get it!” he shouts. The story continues. In the willows, barely two or three feet above the children’s heads, two red-wing blackbirds shuttle back and forth, feeding babies. Some of them will grow up a non-distinct brown. Others will be jet black, with lovely patches of red and orange on each wing. Both will sing like mercurial waters.

 

I quit my job recently, not that I had much of one. I usually spend about fifteen hours a week working freelance as an administrator for a local non-profit, but that will be shifting in the fall. I’ve decided to focus full time on Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, the Earth Children. We just released the website last week. After another year with Silke, I plan to take Pema and three to four other kids through the 8th grade. There is much to do, but there’s plenty of time to do it. If those eight years go anything like I suspect, we will do spectacular things. Education has become my lifestyle. These kids, me, hell - how can I pass up that opportunity? I will figure out a way to make the finances work.

 

As I walked through the dark this morning, I had all this and more on my mind. So many transitions. So many stories. So many ponds and rivers and smeared courses of blood; people I used to be. I still catch raindrops, like that tiny bird taking flight from a stalk of mullein (God, that beautiful sway), but my mind is more often wrestling with rivers and ponds, Al-saqiya, giving drink. The vision that is forming in my mind, the story if you will, is a life’s work. I can tell that I am up to the task, but there are moments when I miss the deep silence of black on black on black.

 

Ed. Note - Check out the Taos Earth Children at www.taosearthchildren.com

I Will Raise Fierce Daughters

“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.”

 

The sound filled the little canyon, resounding off the walls like a drum. Instinctively, I turned toward the stone cliff, over the crest, from where it originated. Taught like a canvas tent, I waited one, two, three seconds for another sound. Pema, in the sand at my feet, gleaned onto the seriousness of my awareness. “What is it?” she asked.

 

“Shhh,” I demanded, “Quiet.”

 

We waited four, five, six more seconds; then ten; fifteen. Meanwhile, my eyes scanned the edge of the cliff, some twenty feet above where we stood, waiting, watching for movement. Nothing. Finally I relaxed, took a deep breath, and turned to face Pema, my body chemistry rebalancing into a garment of loose fitting joy. “Did you hear that?” I asked, eyes wide and smiling.

 

“Yeah.”

 

 “What do you think it was?”

 

Pema looked blank for a second, then answered, “What do you think?” She knew the question was loaded. She is used to her father finding motions and sounds and animals, but the seriousness in my attentiveness may have seemed a little embellished. After all, it was only a woodpecker, right?

 

I turned to Silke, who sat high on a boulder above our shoulders. With a tilt of my head, I indicated the same question: What do you think? I already knew what I thought, a fact that hung obviously on my face despite all my attempts at neutrality. I didn’t want to convince these two with the power of suggestion. And, of course, I was a little pleased with the sensitivity of my apparatus. That was no woodpecker.

 

“A woodpecker?” Silke answered casually.

 

*

 

Earlier that day, after school with the Earth Children, Pema and I had come home to a couple quiet hours. Francis was away visiting his grandparents, and Ruby, who had been with us in Bone Canyon that morning with the Earth Children, had since gone home with her mom. That left Pema and me with a rare evening to ourselves and nothing in particular to do. I had been rubbing my hands greedily at the thought all day. As I loaded the girls into the car at the end of the school day, I pulled Silke aside and said, “I think I’m going to take Pema to that side canyon, you know, with the platform. There’s a big pile of sand at the bottom. I think it will be fun to play there. Plus, I have a secret. Want to come?”

 

When Silke arrived later that afternoon we talked briefly about our day over a bowl of mung bean soup. “Ugh, mung bean soup. Gross,” Pema said, snarling her lips into a predictable expression. I offered her plain kidney beans instead, which she gobbled up contentedly. Then, holding up two swimsuits to Silke, Pema invited her to choose one. Silke chose the navy blue one with the frilly waistline and pink flowers. Pema happily agreed. As she changed into her new outfit, I said, “Hey pup, I’m not sure we’re going to have time to go to the river.”

 

“I know. I know.” Pema said confidently. “But maybe we can go after.”

 

“Yeah, we’ll see.”

 

I grabbed a jar of muesli from the fridge and a few other snacks. Then I hefted a five-gallon jug of water into my hands. “I’m bringing this,” I said, beaming. “Can you guess why?”

 

“Because you like challenges,” Silke answered, rolling her eyes.

 

*

 

Humping over the terrain, weighed down by the awkward volume of water in my hands, I was about as pleased as a caterpillar on milkweed. We walked along the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge, not quite at the top, but a good five hundred feet from the river below.

 

“Dad, look!” Pema shouted.

 

“What is it, pup?”

 

A turkey vulture, rising from the depths below, leveled off on our left hand side as we ambled over the path. Facing into the wind, it appeared almost motionless. Then another drifted into view, its broad wings stretched out like a silent, sentient kite. A raven, speeding in from the other direction, wings bent like a W, began cawing loudly, and the vultures veered off.

 

“Hey, look over there!” Pema said, eyeing two people down at the river on an old tree trunk. Towering above them, we could make out their general forms, one of them evidently naked, stretched out in the sun. “I see some naked floaters,” Silke said. Pema laughed, repeating the phrase in the same sing-song voice Silke had used, “I see some naked floaters.”

 

After lugging the water over boulders and loose dirt, I was happy to set it down as we approached our destination. It was around five o’clock. The sun was still high and hot. To the south lay a little side canyon. I had visited, alone, just a week ago, Silke having mentioned it to me once. “See down there,” I said to Pema, pointing to a big pile of sand that stood at the bottom. “I think we’ll have fun.” Pema’s eyes took it all in, the canyon, the gorge, the river, the sand. She squeezed her body excitedly, clenching her teeth, arms shaking with anxious joy. “Yeah, Dad. Let’s play in there.”

 

“Exactly,” I said, purposefully keeping my secret. “But first, can we eat some muesli? I’m hungry.”

 

Silke eyed me and indicated the platform, a question in her eye. She had been here many times before. A small island of rock that protrudes into the open air above the river, the platform overlooks both the side canyon and the gorge itself. Like an isthmus, it has only one entrance, from the northeast, all other directions a precipitous drop fifty to a hundred feet below. I smiled and nodded. “Let’s eat out here,” I said, “and then maybe we can head down.”

 

We held hands as we stepped over the rocks and cracks, approaching the edge carefully. The wind was strong, so we sat down near the ledge and looked down at the huge expanse below. The world often seems so vast in New Mexico’s landscapes. Pema, whose confidence was bolstered in my presence, sat casually a foot or two from the edge, pleased to have two loving adults to share the experience with. Spotting the sun bathers, she pointed and shouted, “I see the naked floaters.” She thrust her finger over the ledge and leaned forward. I had no real fear, Pema being a slow and cautious child, but I was poised to grab her at a second’s notice. I trust encounters like this, but only because I have great respect for gravity, and my own limbs.

 

“Look Dad!” Pema shouted, as two ravens, twisting and diving beneath our feet, competed with the wind. Their purple-black feathers ruffled like our own wind-tossed hair. “They have a nest nearby,” Silke said. “I’ll show it to you later.” Then a sudden gust blew Pema’s sunhat off, launching it instantly over the edge of the little rock island. She didn’t lunge for it, but I grabbed her anyway and leaned back. “Let it go, pup,” I said, holding her safely in my arms. “It’s not worth it.”

 

I expected to watch the hat, purple and floppy, drift playfully to the bottom of the gorge, a fleeting compensation for the loss of the hat. We could get another one. But I saw nothing. Peering over the ledge, I saw, to my surprise, that the hat, purple with a small embroidered flower, had landed only a few feet below in a small contour rock. Though the wind blew fiercely at our backs, it must have formed some kind of eddy and the hat now lay there as motionless as if on a dusty shelf. My brain, instantly, almost unwantedly, rifled through the handholds and distances in proportion to my body. I tapped Pema softly on the chest with my open palm. “Can you stay here with Silke for a second?” I asked. She nodded, climbing over to Silke’s lap, knowing that if she had said no, I would not go.

 

“Are you going to get the hat?” Silke asked, incredulously.

 

“It’s actually not that far,” I answered, unfolding my limbs to their full height.

 

“And you say you don’t like risks,” Silke laughed.

 

*

 

“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.” The sound filled the little canyon once again. I stopped and stared, waiting for a second call. Silke, who had been singing a gentle song, stopped to listen, while Pema, climbing a rock on all fours, craned her head in my direction. I smiled. Now I was sure of it.

 

*

 

After carefully plodding our way down the steep embankment off to the side of the rock island, occasionally lowering Pema down over large boulders and ledges, we had nearly surfaced on the bottom of the little canyon. High above us, the rock island loomed like a tower in our midst. As we stepped from the sage and dirt onto solid rock my feet relaxed and a small pool of water came into view. This was what I had really come for. “Water!” Pema shouted, excited to share the news of her discovery.

 

On top of the rock island, with its panoramic views of the gorge and distant mountains, the world may have felt vast, but here, only a few hundred feet away, within the steep walls of the side canyon, silence and intimacy prevailed. The change in geography has a tremendous effect on minds and hearts. The world becomes small. Senses dilate and sharpen.

 

The pool of water at our feet was perched at the very edge of the little canyon, where it drops into the gorge below. If it was raining hard enough to feed a small trickle of a stream, after filling the pools and gaps of the upper canyon, this would have been a splendid waterfall. During the brief, but torrential, rains that sometimes accompany the violent thunderstorms that wander the mesa during hot summer days, there would be enough water to knock me over. Now, bone dry, this tiny little pool was all that remained.

 

“Look, pup!” I said, “Mung bean soup.” Hardly more than a few algae-filled gallons, the viscous green water was, I knew, the source of much life in this little canyon. No doubt the ravens and vultures that we had seen earlier, and their diminutive cousins, perched themselves here for an occasional sip. Deer and big-horned sheep came through, evidenced by the hoof prints we later found in the sand. But the real reason I brought Pema here was, when I had come last week, putting my own hand to the precious cavity of water to wet my face and neck, I was shocked to discover, of all things, tadpoles. There was not a source of water for miles in any direction, except straight down, and it hadn’t rained since then. As the lengthening days grew more hot and summery, the sun, I knew, would dry out this little pool in no time. That’s what the jug was for.

 

“Okay, pup,” I said, “You explore the water with Silke. I’m going back for the water jug. Sound good?” I waited, feeling for any signs of hesitation in her, but Pema had already flung her hat on the ground and set about pulling her shoes and pants off. She’d be in the water momentarily. I looked at Silke, who gave a silent nod, and climbed back toward the rock island.

 

*

 

“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.” There it was again. Though the sound never repeated in short intervals, this had been at least the fifth or sixth time we’d heard it, and by now I was almost certain. Each time I paused and listened, hoping to hear a second call with my full attention, but, eventually disappointed, turned back to whatever activity we had going. We had spent the last hour exploring the little canyon, the sand and rocks and old, weathered trees.

 

Though the exact same rhythm and tone of a woodpecker knocking on a hollow tree, the sound had a slightly different timbre. Something struck me as rounder, purer. The frequency of each note was somehow more concentrated, less scattered, as if the vibration filled a more uniform cavity, like a drum, as opposed to the irregular protrusions of a hollow tree. But the main thing was, a woodpecker would repeat itself. I couldn’t say for sure, but I was guessing it was a toad.

 

After visiting the algal waters a week ago, I had climbed up the canyon several miles, following it all the way until it eased indistinguishably into the flat expanse of the mesa high above. Along the way, and not far from where we now stood, I had seen a horny toad. At least, I thought I had. Catching the movement in my periphery, I instinctively turned to shine the light of focus on the place where it had stirred.

 

A couple weeks prior, while out on the mesa with Silke and the Earth Children, we had stumbled across a horny toad and, Griffin being Griffin, he had snatched it in his hands before most of us even knew it was there. We spent a good twenty minutes looking at the tiny creature, each child getting a chance to hold its crusty skin and slivered toes. “Is it really a toad?” one child asked. “No,” Griffin stated confidently. “It’s a lizard.”

 

So I was surprised when, looking more closely, my eyes began to dissolve the squat lizard under my focused gaze and reform it, plainly, into a desert toad. This was no lizard. It was an honest to goodness amphibian, here, among the rocks and sand of an endless desert. I was familiar with the chorus frogs that inhabit the Hondo Valley where I live, where water trails down from the mountains high above, as well as the leopard frogs and bullfrogs Pema and I sometimes visit at the muddy waters of a local park. But I had never seen a creature like this, squat and fat and dry. It was about the size of small sandwich, and it was nervous. Scrambling between the nearly invisible stillness of its camouflage skin and quick, short hops, it made its way under a safe rock.

 

*

 

“Dad! There’s tadpoles!” Pema shouted as I returned with the jug. She was belly deep in the water.

 

“Tadpoles?”

 

“Yeah,” Pema shook her head vigorously. “I saw them.”

 

Duong. I set the water jug down on the rock, Silke eyeing me humorously. I tried not to strut too openly, but, after all, I had just carried forty awkward pounds of water half a mile or so into the wilderness and down a steep canyon with no trail.

 

“Dad! You should pour the water in here!” Pema’s eyes lit up at the thought.

 

“Exactly,” I said, unscrewing the cap.

 

*

 

Sheltered in the little canyon on the west side of the gorge, though the sun would be up for some time yet, we had already been bathed in shadow for an hour or so, shortly after Pema got out of the water. The heat of the day, reminiscent of New Mexico’s hot, dry summers, was now cooling into the magic of a desert evening. The whitewash of midday’s light was softening into blues, purples and magentas. Pema, now playing in the sand pile, was pressed against the bottom of a small vertical cliff, quietly engaged in her own world. About twenty feet above her, over the crest of that cliff, the sound had intermittently poured down on us, just as water would have in heavy rain.

 

“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.”

 

I paused. Silke, who had been playing percussively on the boulder underneath her feet, grew silent. Pema, her back against the cliff wall, slowly arched her neck backward and up. We all waited, just as we had many times before. Then I heard something totally unexpected, a static froth of a sound, as if whoever was making it was clearing their throat.

 

“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk,” came the first call again, ringing clearly through the little canyon. And again the frothy little response, quieter, less precise, but unmistakable. I smiled. Then again, the call and response.

 

While the sun set on us, Pema, Silke and I sat in the cooling canyon, watching the light of day fade into the color and shape of an early summer’s evening. The sand at my feet was still warm from the sun. Ravens circled in the distance of the gorge. Cliff swallows would soon be out. Above our heads, a desert toad called for his mate. She had answered. Sheltered in the only pool of water around for miles, save for the precipitous drop to the river below, were the tiny signs of their new life.

 

“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.”

 

It was a lullaby.

Mother's Day

“A good story is the filament of consciousness, the wick of the soul; it is the fragrance of butterscotch, the sudden familiarity of a desert toad.” - Gabriel Abdallah

 

I stood on the precipice, a soft glow of magenta in the rocks underneath my feet. It was a small plateau, high in the air at the corner of a side canyon along the Rio Grande Gorge. A violet green swallow sailed continuously in wide circles around me, its wings stiff like the sails of a ship. I could sense the stillness and rigor of its fat torpedo of a body, and the sudden shudder of movement as it broke from its natural elegance to pursue an insect. Hunger.

 

I shook my head and peered down to the canyon below. A friend had called me here, her own wings fluttering like those of a red-tailed hawk. Or were they owls? I pretended not to remember. Off to the east, a little ways up the side canyon, a small pool of sand attracted my attention, as it had once before. “Pema,” I thought, “I have to bring Pema here.” Then, as if hardly noticing it consciously, my eyes scanned the rocky ledges, the patterns of sand and sage growth, and slowly resettled on the surface…wait, was that a pool of water?

 

The unmistakable jade green of algal waters, couched about a hundred feet down from where I stood, was undeniable. Perched at the very edge of a yet much taller cliff than my own, the pool of water would have been the final resting point for rain and runoff as it slipped through the side canyon after a heavy storm. The swallow, careening by, was now followed by a partner whose identical coat of green and violet purple were indistinguishable to my eye. I had once seen hundreds of these creatures, twisting and cavorting over the troubled surface of the river, scrambling after a cloud of insects I could not see. Up and down the river, as far as I could see, an entire summer’s worth of swallows in one magical hour, identical in their purple-green pajamas, soaring in the liquid of my own breath.

 

Now there were just two, and as I followed their tangential movements near the edge of that lower precipice, I asked myself, “Had they gone down to the water?” There were people here once, I knew, wild souls from America’s suburban landscapes who had come to find themselves. My eyes imagined their careful steps leading back up the canyon, perhaps coming to rest on that pool of sand. The surface, choppy and broken, had clearly been trampled by footsteps. As my friend had danced with the birds here on the ledge, the others had descended to the depths below. “I need to bring Pema here,” I thought.

 

“Dad,” Pema asked, “can we get this one?” She had a small candle in her hand, whose glass tumbler had an image of Mary holding baby Jesus. Jesus, with remarkable dexterity for such an infant, held his hand up in a two-fingered blessing. Someone, presumably the candle maker herself, had glued several plastic sequins and baubles to the image, which added a three-dimensional sparkle, a plastic mysterium. “Perfect,” I said, “Mama will love it.”

 

“Can I hold it?” Pema asked.

 

“Yeah,” I answered, turning our cart toward the produce aisle, but not before noticing an unsightly plum-colored candle. It lacked the gems and baubles of the other, but its name, smeared across the gold tinfoil of the wrapper, jumped out at me: Dragon’s Blood. It was three days before mother’s day.

 

Two weeks prior, I sat along the edge of the Rio Grande, far from home, but in a spot that wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. A friend had thrown the leftover remnants of a burrito into the river, a spontaneous offering to the spirits of that place. I had finished mine on the road. The river was muddy brown, swollen from spring melt, and the increasingly fervent tosses of my friend were not sacred enough to escape the eddies that traveled the shoreline. As we stood there, watching soggy pieces of tortilla circle pitifully around our toes, it started to sprinkle. I looked up at the sun, shocked to feel raindrops just then. I turned to my companion with wide eyes. Maybe the burrito had worked after all. I removed my hat, having heard a story years ago about Muhammad. Whenever it rained, I was told, the prophet would take his hat off to receive the blessing of God’s water directly on his skin. Muhammad, like me, had lived in a desert.

 

As I scrambled down the boulders, careful not to step on a cactus, I watched the swallow, still circling the air before the promontory. She was all grace. I crawled out of my eyes, into the fluidity of that bird, that sky, reminded, as I stepped awkwardly amongst unsteady rocks, that I was once a liquid creature myself, curled amongst the comforting eddy of my mother’s womb. Like those soft tortillas, she had kept me from the raging peculiarities of a muddied river. Apparently, I even had a tail.

 

Arriving at the pool of sand, I saw that the footsteps were not human after all. Other wild souls had come here, I guessed, maybe deer. But out here, clutched against the vertical ledges of the gorge, I suspected big horned sheep, whose sure feet and nautilus horns more frequently inhabit this landscape. I scanned the surroundings for anything out of the ordinary, or, as it may have been, for all the ordinariness the little space could contain. I’m like a thief with eyes. But I’m remorseful too. To the north and south, a steep, but navigable slope led up and out of the small cleft of the side canyon, and to the east, the way I would eventually exit, lay a small cliff of gray stone like a bank vault. Twenty feet high, it formed an abrupt end to the sandbox now at my feet, except, with its tiny crevices and cracks, my eyes immediately sensed it was navigable. Turning back to the west, where the swallows still played, I set my intentions on that small pool of water.

 

“Dada?” Pema asked.

 

“Yeah, pup.”

 

“Can you write, ‘We love you. Pema and Joe’?” Pema pushed the paper towards me, a sheet of paper folded in half lengthwise, so that it was tall and skinny. We had spent the last half hour drawing pictures and writing messages on our improvised Mother’s Day card. “That’s me and Mama,” Pema had told me, pointing to two people with long, sticklike fingers protruding from round orbits which resembled palms. Each had a long, colorful dress and long hair. “And that’s you,” Pema said, pointing this time to a somewhat shorter person with the familiar dress and hands. “He has scraggly hair.”

 

On the other side, which Pema had neatly divided in half with a straight line, she had drawn a second picture of Pema and Mama, while on the other half I had drawn, rather pleased with myself, a goat. The middle of the card had two “monsters,” above which Pema had handwritten numerous scribbles that resembled cursive. She translated, slowly and with evident pauses at each period, “These are words. I wrote them. Anyway. These are monsters. But they’re not scary. Because. That’s what I wanted to do.” She ended the final sentence with an inflection and a laugh, as if I might think monsters weren’t a good fit for a Mother’s Day card.

 

“Okay, pup,” I said. Using a blue-green pencil, I wrote, “We love you. Pema and Joe,” above the picture of she and Mama, and the goat.

 

“Then,” Pema continued, “Say, ‘We have special things for you. But we can’t tell you what they are. We love you. Except, they’re food.’”

 

“Okay,” I said, writing down her words carefully.

 

“We love you. Pema and Joe,” she said again, and again I wrote it down.

 

My mother died on April 17th, 1981, two months after my first birthday. She was pregnant with her fifth child. I have no conscious memory of it, but I know facts. She had a “multi-focal myocardial infarction.” Her heart suddenly stopped working. I cannot picture her face, or any part of her body. I have never been able to, but I have a dreamlike memory of my brother, who was two and a half at the time, telling me that when she died her face fell into a bowl of yoghurt. I picture the three of us in our old dining room, my father away at work, my sisters, who were ten years older, at school. The room is brightly lit through the large front window, and my brother sits on her lap. My mother, seated at the butcher block table, has one arm around him and the other hand on a spoon. Strangely, I have the sense that I am standing on the floor, looking up at them from some distance. One minute we’re all there sharing a completely innocuous and lovely moment, and the next she is face down in yoghurt. I can feel the light coming in the window. My brother and I never say a word. We never respond.

 

This is surely not how it happened, but whenever I think of that particular moment this is what I recall. Apocryphal as it must be, it is the only memory I have of her. Three years later, when my dad remarried, I have a distinct memory of the two of them, the woman I’ve always known as my mom, and my dad, leaving the reception in a helicopter. I can say for certain that that never happened, and yet, I can still picture the way the tables were set, dancing with my aunts and uncles, and the big cake. Everyone was so joyful. Eventually, as the evening wore on, still dressed head to toe, the two of them walked out of our church social hall, past the boys bathroom I would use hundreds of times as a child, and down the hall where my brother, years later, as president of the student council in eighth grade, would successfully petition to locate a Coke machine, the school’s first and only. Passing out the heavy wooden doors, my parents walked some distance on the cracked blacktop and, amidst the swirling blades, stepped into the open rear door of the helicopter. We all stood there, shouting and waving, while the two of them waved back.

 

By the time I was ten years old, all of my mom’s sisters, my birth mother that is, had died of sudden heart failure. Except one, my aunt Lori. My sister Lori, her namesake, died in 2010. I didn’t even attend her funeral.

 

“Dada look!” Pema shouted from the back seat. It was early morning and we were driving to meet Silke and the Earth Children for a school day. Instinctively, without slowing down, I turned my head to the side of the road. Beyond the fence, in a green pasture, lay what appeared to be a dead horse. The dappled gray body lay on its side, its neck limp and awkward. I would have thought nothing of it, horses do occasionally lie down, but what filled me with uncertain horror and an awful sense of peace was the fact that three other horses stood sentinel nearby. Spread evenly at a distance, each facing sideways, they surrounding their dead companion in a circle. There was no movement.

 

Shortly after my mother died, I went to live with my aunt Marge. Aunt Marge and Uncle Jim, who were not relatives, but close family friends, lived with their three daughters in a duplex a few blocks from my dad’s house. Soon after I arrived, Aunt Marge had her fourth child. Andy would be my constant playmate in childhood. My brother had gone to live with my Aunt Connie, my dad’s sister, who had one girl my age and soon gave birth to a second. The four of us, cousins, grew up like best friends. My sisters, who had been the product of my mother’s first marriage and would have been about ten and fourteen at the time, went to live with their father. I hardly ever saw them again. I have no sense of how much time this all took, but at fourteen months old I had lost not only my mother, but my dad, my brother and two sisters. It went on like that for two years or so while my dad studied law during the day and worked at the bus station at night. Finally, remarrying with the decidedly bold gesture of a helicopter, my family reunited, now regathered as a small nuclear family of four.

 

It took about half an hour to get ready. Megan, who had always been a scrappy hundred pounds, now, at thirty-six weeks pregnant, weighed in at a hundred sixty-five. It was early January, just past the new year. Donning elastic pants with the legs rolled way up, a huge wool sweater, lambskin hat, gloves and scarf, we were about to head up to the kitchen. Our small house was comfortable and warm, but we had no water or kitchen. We lived in a community, a beautiful location on the side of a rural mountain, but one whose winters were fierce. Tying Megan’s boots while she sat in a chair, I slipped on her Yak Traks, a sort of tire chain for her shoes, handed her the two walking poles, and we set off.

 

The trip was only a few hundred yards, but it was a fairly steep climb. The entire landscape was buried under several feet of snow, and the path, which we traveled several times a day like this, could be slick and icy. Megan, lumbering with a body almost twice her normal size, slowly made her way up the hill. Pema, girdled inside, would have only felt the soft undulations as Megan rocked, slowly and carefully, from one foot to the other.

 

Women.

 

Pema and I were in a hurry, so we did not linger for the dead horse. It passed out of view behind a row of elm trees, along with its sentinel cousins, as quickly as it had appeared. Ten minutes later we were in the parking lot, waiting for our carpool, when we got a message. Silke was at the gas station. The car she had borrowed, with extra seats for the field trip, had suddenly died at the gas station. “Do you have jumper cables?” she asked. I did.

 

With three children piled in my own backseat, I quickly informed two other parents who had recently arrived, and we pulled, en masse, out of the parking lot. The gas station was nearby, and as I maneuvered under the metal canopy of the Conoco station, so as to be face first, engine to engine, I could see the other parents circling round Silke like a wagon train.

 

“Are the lights coming on?” The owner of the car, one of the children’s parents, had gotten the distress call and come to check it out. “One of ‘em,” I shouted over the din of the congested gas station. Nearby, cars sped by at fifty miles an hour on their way to work. Others pulled off, paused, then skirted the heap of cars piled around the two pumps out front. “Let’s try to jump it anyway,” I offered, not sure of what else to do. I hooked up the cables, but nothing happened.

 

“You’ve got to hit the starter,” another woman suggested, the parent of one of the children who now sat patiently in the rear of the van. “Do you know that trick?” I was skeptical as she went to her car to retrieve some tools. I wouldn’t want someone banging around my car. Then I looked at the kids piled in the back, clearly enjoying the spectacle. The woman returned with a hammer and a small crowbar. “It has to be metal,” she said, peering under the hood for the starter.

 

Years ago, before Pema was born, well before Megan and I had gotten married or even conceived of having a child, we took a long hike near a remote lake on a sunny, but blustery day. It was Megan’s birthday. We were both grad students, studying philosophy, and we spent many days wandering the empty austerity of New Mexico’s landscapes, debating and discovering our inner dreams. On this particular day, after fumbling down a cactus-covered slope in flip flops, we came to rest under a great big cottonwood tree near the shoreline of a small river. It was so empty and quiet, save for the occasional gusts of wind. Megan arranged a few photographs and set a candle into the sand. After sharing some memories and saying a few prayers, she lit the candle, cupping it with her hand to shelter it from the wind. It burned solidly for a few seconds as she took her hand away, and continued to express herself. It was a lovely day. As the wind circled our modest enclave, the candle inevitably began to sputter. We looked at each other and shrugged. Finally, the candle blew out. I watched a small trail of smoke waft into the air. “Oh well,” we seemed to say, looking at each other warmly. You can’t control everything. Then I glanced back down. The candle was relit.

 

I grew up with my mom and dad and brother in the same house I had lived in with my birth mother and two sisters. Now, it was just the four of us. Thirty years later, when Megan and I visited my family, I took her down the old street. I was shocked at how shabby our little house looked. All the siding had been torn off and the white paint on the porch was peeling wildly. The maple tree out front was gone. Still, there was the big window that opened out from the dining room. My mother was hardly older than I was as I stood there, peering in. I had eaten countless meals in that room, including the “dirt” my mom made once for my birthday, somehow mixing Oreos and other things into a crude slop that, sweet like candy, resembled the stuff of the earth. She had put it in a bowl and stuck a bouquet of plastic flowers on top. Two gummy worms climbed up from the soil and hung limp over the edge.

 

“Turn the key!” she shouted, giving a light tap on the crowbar. The car instantly turned over. I looked up, smitten with reality.

 

Two months ago, I sat with a friend along the Rio Grande. Like Megan, she had arranged a pile of photos, a few sacred objects, and was saying a few words about the men and women in her life. We had no candle, but she had lit a small piece of charcoal and reached into a small bag and placed a dark maroon crust of something on top. I looked at the bag, which read Dragon’s Blood Resin. “What is it?” I had asked.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

As it heated up, the crusty resin morphed into a thick, blood-black slurry that heaved and puffed with sickening air bubbles. It released a perfume that was, let’s say, unpleasant. “What kind of incense is this?” I said, pretending not to love it’s awful, burnt tire smell.

 

Halfway up the rock wall, I felt around for the final handhold I would need to climb up and over the bank-like vault of the canyon. HI had made my way to the small green pool at the edge of the cliff, but I still had a long day ahead of me. The pool, which had sat in a small depression at the edge of the cliff, held not more than ten gallons of water. The violet green swallows had circled one last time and curved their way around a bend, and far below, the raging waters of the Rio Grande drained by. Megan and I separated two years ago, when Pema was three years old. Throughout the course of our relationship, and ultimately our marriage, we had often recalled that moment down at the lake. Neither of us really believed in miracles. Still, that candle. As I had turned to leave, gearing myself up for the climb, I reached down to wet my hands and face, and that’s when I noticed. Tadpoles.

The Sand Pile

Pema, Francis, his mother and I were sitting in the shade of a big cottonwood tree in a pile of wet sand. The sun, now well above the mountains, was crisp and bright, and as I leveled the sand in front of me I could feel the damp, cool grit between my fingers. It had rained last night. Pema had excavated a hole nearby and was busy filling it with grass. Francis, who had been complaining to his mother about the lack of shovels, finally took notice of Pema’s progress and promptly set his fingers in the sand at her side.

 

“No, stop…” Pema whined, drawing the “o” out in each syllable. She looked up at me with pleading eyes, while Francis, who had now found his passion, began tearing into the side of the hole with relish. Receiving no immediate response from me, Pema turned to Francis, placed her hand firmly in front of his, and said, this time more forcefully, “No, Francis. Stop.” With the edge of her palm, she drew a perpendicular line in the sand. Francis, who had stopped momentarily to listen, looked up with a dull, determined face.

 

The four of us had been traveling the circuit of New Buffalo since early that morning, the kitchen, the garden, the chickens, the mud pit. Along the way, I had stashed two eight-foot posts, a large sign and some tools in the rear of a borrowed car. With the backseat down, the posts, stretching from the trunk to the front seat, left just enough room for two car seats, a driver and a few snacks. Ada was due any moment, and as soon as she arrived I planned to whisk her and Pema off to Lama, where I hoped to install the sign, or at least set the posts, while the girls played nearby. Francis would stay home with his mother.

 

But Ada wasn’t here yet. In fact, she was late, and I was growing more and more anxious. “How’s the waiting?” Francis’s mother had chided me moments ago after a trip to the kitchen. I had been sitting on my haunches by the compost, peering down the long, gravel driveway, expectant like a gargoyle. Pema and Francis, playing happily in the rotten food nearby, had discovered two dead, swollen worms in a puddle that had formed in a crease of the tarp that covered the compost. “Ugh, gross,” Pema said, poking at them with a stick. Francis, eager to commiserate, shouted, “I hate worms!” His mother sidled up to us and laughed, relaxation in her every movement. I hated that. “Is it like razor blades in your flesh?” she asked, poking fun at my impatience. Ugh, friends. My internal clock is rarely off by more than two minutes, and, if I guessed right, which I was trying not to do, it was almost ten o’clock. I had planned to leave at nine.

 

Now, as we sat in the sand, a modest journey from the compost, I was starting to wonder if something had gone wrong. “I should check my phone,” I said, my nervousness spilling into twitchy, erratic movements, which I was attempting to contain by putting my hands to the damp earth. I wasn’t so much concerned about Ada and her father. I had already blamed them for setting me back an hour, ruining my day, possibly my week. Now I was busy scurrying about in my mind for a resolution, trying to figure out a way to make up that hour by the evening. I hate changing plans.

 

“Francis won’t stop digging in my hole,” Pema said, now with a hint of exasperation, that old familiar tone. She looked up at me with the same pleading eyes, but I could see she was now on the verge of tears. She was still composed, just barely, but I could feel the change in her muscle tone, the floppy recklessness that is a telltale sign of floundering. I looked at her, observant but uncertain.

 

Two years older than Francis, Pema has every possible advantage over him, but she’s not assertive. Francis, on the other hand, has no hesitation to assert his will. This has raised a persistent conflict, because Francis, who straddles the border between toddler and small child, is still mostly governed by the early developmental sense that everything - his mom, Pema, the sand, the hole - is his. After meandering uncertainly around the sand pile for a minute or two, he now had his eyes set on Pema’s space, which, after all, she had arranged so pleasantly. It was beautiful, and, as humans are wont to do, he set about taking the beautiful thing for himself. We all pick flowers.

 

But even more than this, Pema is the queen of Francis’s youthful heart. “Can I be here?” he asks constantly, looking to Pema for approval. “No…” Pema will whine, softly pushing her foot or wrist toward him, grasping for some kind of boundary. “How about here?” he asks, having moved back in some incremental way. He simply wants to be near her, to emulate her, to touch her, to hold whatever she does, to laugh at her jokes and disdain what she hates. Ugh, those worms. But rarely does he discern the effect all this has on her. Whether the two are playing joyfully, Pema is wilting, or, as the case may be, they are facing down a standoff, Francis is by and large enjoying himself.

 

The result is commonplace - Francis expresses his love with violence, while Pema, feeling invaded, falls apart. Parents with siblings see this all the time. These two, single children growing up in community, are much the same. Most of the time, to be fair, it’s harmonious, but we cross this bridge several times in the course of a day. And, children being the capable animals they are, they draw upon every possible resource at their disposal, including me and the other adults.

 

“No!” Francis shouted, with that gravelly, throaty quality by which he meant to establish his gravity of purpose. He reached decisively over Pema’s hand and, fingers dragging through the earth, drew back a large clump of sand. Excellent move, I thought. This was precisely what I was trying to teach Pema. “Look, you can’t hit,” I had told her several times in the last week, “But you can speak clearly. No Francis!” I had shouted, sticking my finger out to demonstrate firmness, “Whining isn’t effective.”

 

To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether hitting was okay or not. Overwhelming someone with outsized force is, surely, regrettable behavior. But I often wonder whether our culture forgets the value of forceful touch. Animals communicate with their bodies. It’s how dogs learn, how chickens establish pecking order. As adults, we rarely encounter situations where we need to speak with the force of our limbs. Our voices carry enough potency. But children, who need to develop and progress through the full range of emotion and communication, live in a much more physical world. It had confounded me that Pema, almost twice the size of Francis, with a compliment of words and social devices to match, would not resort to her evident advantage. How could she be so often overpowered by a toddler? Francis, of course, is dear to me almost as my own child. I wasn’t looking for Pema’s advantage over his loss, but I was curious to see the two establishing some sort of fair play. In other words, I wanted them to work it out for themselves.

 

“No!” Pema shouted back, surprising me a bit with her vehemence. She looked at me again, but I gave no sign of interference, nor approval. I was waiting. She slapped her hand uncertainly across Francis’s, grasped a modest amount of sand and pulled back. Francis’s mother, who was only a couple steps away, sat still. Social encounters are complex, and while she and I have a tremendous amount of trust and admiration for each other, inevitably we have different thoughts and strategies at any given moment. I was curious how this would play out. I think we all were.

 

“No!” shouted Francis, who set his hands down in the sand, roughly halfway between the two, looking up with determination. How blissful to be so focused, I thought, so clearly purposeful. Then Pema began to waver. Her face pealed back into a hiccup and cry, searching me out. Her limbs were becoming rubbery. She wanted her space, but she hesitated at Francis’s determination and she was waiting for me to step in. But I didn’t.

 

Then Pema, to my surprise, set her eyes with full-blooded anger at Francis and, piercing our ears, shouted, “Nooooo!” with the kind of high-pitched squeal and force that leaves no uncertainty. I’ve been there before. She was digging in. But before Pema had even completed her breath, Francis took up the same cry and, I could see, his hand was rummaging on the ground for a handful of sand. Things were escalating. This was war. I sat, not two feet away, transfixed.

 

I have stepped between many conflicts between these two, and many other children as well. There are times, surely, when it must happen, but I often wonder whether my interventions are best. There is a certain violence I impose with my big limbs and rational language. Even the power of soothing words is a sort of imposition. I have held children against their will. I have rescued those in distress. Salvation, resolution itself, is a sort of violence, where the adult’s agenda takes over. The crux of it isn’t the perfection of my arbitration. The crux is that I want the kids to develop their own strength, not rely on mine. I want them to have the opportunity to learn from their experiences, their strengths, their weaknesses, and, yes, their mistakes. I want them to have the opportunity to be assholes, without me swaggering in with all the tools of a modern ape.

 

Francis pulled his hand, now full of sand, into the air. Everyone, including Pema, could see that he was about to throw it. Then he hesitated. His mother and I watched. For half a second, no one moved. It’s easier, in some sense, to watch your child try to stick up for himself than it is to watch him take advantage of another child without interfering. “Francis, I think you will regret that,” I said, calmly, but without moving. The moment for bluffing over, he threw the sand at Pema’s face. Bullseye. You can’t really miss with sand.

 

I fully expected Pema to dissolve into crying at this point and to come rushing to my arms. Francis throws things at her all the time. It doesn’t really hurt, but it does invade her space. Instead, Pema, reaching down, grabbed a handful of sand and threw it directly back in Francis’s face. Score! Francis blinked, a little surprised, and immediately retaliated, while Pema, egged on by the flood of emotions, flung two, three handfuls of sand in Francis’s face. It was great.

 

Ten minutes later, we were on the road. I had failed to check my messages all that morning, only to find out that, when I did, Ada’s mother had sent me an email at eight o’clock. Due to a recent bout of illness, Ada wouldn’t be joining us. I was waiting for nothing.

 

“So, Pema,” I said, halfway up the mountain to Lama, “How are you feeling about throwing sand and all that with Francis?”

 

“Fine,” she answered. She was calm and spoke plainly.

 

“Do you want to talk about it, or say anything?” I asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Well,” I answered, “can I say something?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Well, pup,” I said, “First of all, I don’t think throwing sand is a good idea. It’s never really nice to throw things or hit people.” I paused.

 

“I know,” she answered, matter-of-factly.

 

“But, you know what? I was glad to see you stick up for yourself. Francis really loves you.”

 

“I know,” she answered, just as plainly.

 

“He just wants to be near you, and share things with you.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Problem is, he just doesn’t know how to stop himself. He’s too young.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Yeah,” I said, the dust kicking up around us as we traveled the dirt road.

 

“Pema?” I asked.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Love you,” I said. “I don’t know…that’s all.”

 

“Yeah, me too.”

 

I got home later that evening, spying Francis and his mother next to compost pile. Pema and I had had a full afternoon, digging holes and setting the signposts, wandering the trail between the lower parking lot and the workshop with a wheelbarrow full of tools and, at one point, a two-hundred pound slop of cement. Afterward, I had dropped her off with her mother.

 

“Where’s Pema?” Francis asked, eyes wide with excitement, as I walked over to say hi. This is his usual greeting.

 

“She’s up at Lama with her mom,” I answered.

 

“She’s with her mom?” he asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Francis’s mother smiled. “Did you get the sign up?” she asked.

 

“I put up the posts, but I decided to let the concrete set before attaching the sign.”

 

“That’s probably a good idea.” She said.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Where’s Pema?” asked Francis, who often repeats this line of questioning two or three times.

 

“She’s up at Lama with her mom,” I answered.

 

“Yeah,” he said, knowingly, then added, “I hate worms.”

IMG_20160303_173059.jpg

Fresh Ground Peanut Butter

“Can I have one more peanut butter?” Francis asked. He had walked through the garden gate and now stood behind me as I rocked, full-bodied, back and forth in front of the grain mill. “Yeah,” I answered, my breath a bit short, happy to have a little break. “Climb on up,” I said, indicating the tree stump nearby. We stood in the shade of the workshop, next to a long wooden table covered with garden tools and irrigation supplies. Over the fence, I could hear the girls filling their jars with a leaky hose. I had been vigorously pumping the handle of the mill for over half an hour, but I had yet to get through half the gallon of nuts I roasted that morning.

 

“Take a finger from the dish,” I told Francis, who looked up with some uncertainty. A giant wad of peanut butter clung to the workings of the mill, hanging precipitously in the air like a freeform sculpture. Earlier, as the kids and I had watched eagerly for the first signs to ooze out of the mill, they had scraped and eaten it directly off the mill itself. I had watched, not without some consternation, as every sign of my effort disappeared into their smiling mouths.

 

Francis stuck his finger greedily into the pool of golden brown paste, still warm from the friction of the steel burrs. I smiled. As I had pumped the handle, the wad of peanut butter clinging to the mill occasionally calved, like an iceberg, dropping fresh clumps into the glass dish below and melting, to the constant vibration of the table, into the flat, shimmering pool of nut butter in which Francis now had his finger, up to the third knuckle. Scooping up a thick glob, Francis stuck his finger into his mouth and smiled. “Mmmmm…,” he said, eyes lighting up with delight.

 

I like to call myself a gourmand, by which I mean to contrast myself to a gourmet. A gourmet might linger over a plate of rich, savory food for an hour, taking the time to make each bite a unique blend of the delicate flavors arranged across the plate. Fresh basil, cheese, tomato, toasted bread, cilantro and olives - eating is a whole experience. I prefer simple foods, and it rarely takes me more than five minutes to gather them and shove them into my mouth. Plates, in most cases, aren’t even necessary.

 

To me, the quality of the food is about the quality of the ingredients and how they act on my body, not how they taste. Sure, I like it if things taste good, but so long as they don’t taste bad I don’t particularly care. I also like plain foods, like peanut butter, apples, bread - foods that are comprised of only one or a handful of ingredients. I like to observe how each food acts on my body, and by maintaining a baseline of routine and simplicity I have a fairly clear window into how each affects my energy level, my mood and the course of my day.

 

All this is to say that I’m extremely boring, and the kids know it. While other parents will make chicken and rice with creamy sauces, or sweet rolls with cinnamon, dates and sugar, I offer things like sliced local apples, fresh roasted peanuts, homemade bread and muesli. Children new to my care usually love it, but after spending weeks and months, sometimes years, with me, they tend to get a little bored. This is a common theme in my life. At first glance, pumping the grain mill just outside the garden gate, I appear unique and interesting. After a while, I’m just different and boring.

 

I’d been out of peanut butter for weeks. A couple months ago I bought fifty pounds of peanuts. I was delighted to have found organic peanuts grown in southern New Mexico that were still raw. Organic peanuts are easy to find, but almost always roasted. Once roasted, the oils quickly degrade and become rancid. Fact is, basically every jar of peanut butter in the store is already rancid. I know this seems picky, but my palate, being used to simple flavors, is sensitive enough that I can taste it. Plus, I know a little bit about what those rotting oils do in my blood stream. That’s why I wanted raw peanuts. When my order arrived, via my local co-op, the nuts, which were shelled, were still covered in their little red skins, like old fashioned bathing suits. Perfect, I thought.

 

After dodging a few bad roasting experiences (the paper skins aren’t easy to remove efficiently in large quantities and they smoke if they get too hot) I had mostly had good luck roasting them. I had made some good peanut butter here and there, but I hadn’t, as yet, found a consistent and reliable way to do it. The Vitamix, a commercial grade blender, didn’t cream it. It made more of a flour. I had used a friend’s juicer once, which did a good job, but then he moved, along with his juicer. I also have access to a professional kitchen, with a large, high-quality juicer. I tried that once, and it was perfect, but making a gallon of peanut butter takes a long time, and the clean-up is significant. I felt like an imposition on the kitchen staff, something I don’t want to do regularly.

 

“Do you guys still have that grain mill?” I asked Francis’s mother one day. We were in the kitchen at New Buffalo, where both of us are regularly engaged in long food projects. I’m constantly dealing with half-rotting apples, or making something I call cereal. She makes kim chi and fermented dosas. Once, I watched her make a huge jar of pate from dove organs. Others make cheese from the sheep’s milk. Being a community kitchen, we mostly share common pots and pans, but each of us has a few specialty items that we like to keep to ourselves. Delicate tools are, by and large, a no-no in a community kitchen. I have a large stainless steel pressure cooker I’m especially attached to, and when I first arrived I decided to share it with everyone. Of course, it was dropped at one point and the handle shattered, along with all the intricate locking mechanisms. Out of commission for a few weeks, I finally located replacement parts and fixed it. The other day, I saw a note in the kitchen that read “Anyone seen the kitchen thermometer?”, under which was scribbled, “Got bent. Threw it out.” If I had a heavy duty grain mill, you can be sure I wouldn’t leave it in the kitchen. But Francis’s mother and I are old friends. I figured I could borrow it and try it out, so long as I returned it. Plus, on a sunny day, I could just attach it to a sturdy table outside and grind away.

 

“I want a bite!” Ruby said, peering through the gate at Francis and me. She had a glass jar in her hands, half full of water, mud all over her hands and face. “Me too!” Pema shouted, somewhere off to the left, not wanting to be left out. “Sure,” I said, “Just…wash your hands first.”

 

Making food with the kids is always a good time. They love to cut vegetables for soup, mix bread dough, or scoop dry ingredients into containers for muesli. At first I resisted it, thinking they would make a mess of it, but I quickly realized it was my own persnicketiness that was the problem, not them. By making small adjustments to my methods, and just relaxing, I can cook and prepare things in almost the same amount of time as I would solo and usually we have a grand time doing it. Hand-ground peanut butter, it was turning out, was a series project, but the kids were perfectly content bouncing from my side to the garden, and back, as the inkling struck.

 

Silke said this to me once, and I’ve remembered it ever since - the goal of a Waldorf teacher is to be meaningfully engaged in a useful task and to let the children play nearby or join in as they see fit. In other words, standing around and watching the kids is a recipe for disaster. A corollary to the rule, as I’ve discovered, is that, while the kids enjoy the occasional input of creative energy I can infuse into a game, the best thing to do is back off once they are engaged. Otherwise, the play centers around gaining my attention or approval. I want to foster the kids’ creativity, not my own.

 

It can be very hard not to invade a child’s play space, especially when, from the outside, I can see that it’s so rich and imaginative. But time and again I’ve seen myself, or another well-meaning adult, enter the subtle boundaries of play space to say hello or to give an approving smile. Who doesn’t want to share in that joy? But the consequence, I’ve found, is often to break the spell of the children’s own world. Suddenly, no longer in China on a beach full of crabs, the children look around and realize that, after all, we’re just at home and those rocks are just rocks. The chickens are just chickens. Bereft of their former world, the kids sometimes cannot find their way back and we quickly degrade to that familiar sense of uncertainty and boredom. Once again, the kids begin angling for attention and approval. So I’ve learned never to disturb that play space unless I have to. I work, or play as it may be, alongside it.

 

“I’m full,” Ruby said, her finger a slimy mix of peanut butter and saliva. “Yeah,” Pema agreed, pushing out her belly for emphasis. “Yeah,” Francis copied with a giggle. The flat pool of oily peanut butter had been, due to some disturbance, whipped into a frenzy of choppy waves. A massive chunk of peanut butter still hung precipitously above the waters. No time for a boat ride.

 

The kids hopped off their stumps and ambled back to the garden as I put another cup of peanuts in the hopper, each nut ringing with a merry clink, and set to grinding. The table began to shake, the peanut butter began to settle, and the familiar whirr of the steel burrs played upon my ears. My body was one constant motion, shifting my weight from toe to toe, foot to foot. With each cycle of the handle, the giant wad of peanut butter slowly grew. To my right, on the ground, were the layers of clothing I had shed as my body, much like the peanuts through the workings of the mill, heated up. Over the fence, I could hear the kids refilling their jars under the hose.

Blue Speckled Teparies

“Why are you being so mean?”

 

Esperanza was disgusted with me. Advah, shivering, was crying into her jacket, and Autumn had her hands in the air, as if hoping I would only come to reason. Me too. We stood in the rain by the van, next to Farmer Ron’s shed where earlier we had shelled blue speckled teparies, a small bean native to New Mexico. The rest of the group was in the far north field.

 

Spring was in full bloom at Ron’s heirloom seed farm in La Villita, but a late winter storm had come in the night before, leaving a chill in the air. Swirling clouds of rain gave way to patches of bright sun, and strong gusts of wind shook tiny flowers from the cottonwoods nearby. Only twenty minutes ago we had been sitting in the sun eating a late lunch, stripped down to our t-shirts. Then, as we walked to the north field to check on our peas, the sky grew dark again and began to shed heavy drops of rain. Autumn, Esperanza and Advah had left their jackets behind, and I had run back with them to the van.

 

Rifling through the van, we found Autumn’s and Esperanza’s winter jackets in the back seat; Advah, her sweater. “Where’s your jacket, Advah?” I asked, poking through the backpacks and snow pants piled on the floor. “I don’t need it,” she answered, pulling the sleeves of her sweater right side out. “You don’t need it, my butt,” I thought, walking to the trunk. Advah, a thin rail of a girl, has complained of cold all winter. At times, out in the woods, while the other kids romped in the snow and cold temperatures, she laid on the ground under a heap of dry leaves to keep from freezing, her face popping out of the ground as if she were planted there.

 

I walked around to the front passenger seat and opened the door. Leaning over to rummage through the contents, I could feel thick drops of water falling on my back. I too was underdressed. Earlier that day, in the first bout of rain and wind, Esperanza’s father had handed me a thick down vest. But, like the girls, I had shed it when the sun came out.

 

I looked across to the driver’s seat, spying a white and pink jacket. Bingo. As I grabbed it, I looked out the back door, still open, and saw the trio walking in the other direction. “Hold on, girls!” I shouted as I ran from behind the van, waving the jacket in the air. “Advah, isn’t this yours?”

 

Earlier, as we shelled beans under the corrugated metal roof of Farmer Ron’s shed, listening to the staccato of raindrops overhead, Advah and Autumn had quickly withdrawn into their own world. The beans had already been shelled and threshed last fall, but a fair number could still be found in the tangled mass of vines. Each child had been given a plastic Easter egg in which to deposit their beans for safekeeping, but as the other children dutifully hunted through the yellow and green spiral-shaped pods, searching for the little gray beans speckled with blue dots, Autumn and Advah giggled off to the side, repeatedly inserting one bean into one of their eggs, shaking it, and then uncovering it.

 

This is a common pattern. All the children have their favorites, their besties, but Autumn and Advah are without question the most bonded. They hold hands when we walk, sit next to each other at lunch, and generally do almost everything together, creating a dyad that is, for the other children, hard to break into. Advah, who is a year younger, looks up to Autumn as if she were the queen of her heart and will copy essentially anything Autumn does. Autumn, one of the oldest and strongest of the girls (and all the children), has a healthy and admirable self-confidence. She is often the center of games and social groupings, and she knows it. She can be a bit capricious with the other kids, but she is a constant friend and advocate to Advah, whom she genuinely loves.

 

Enter Esperanza, stage left. Bright, lithe and capable, Esperanza is the same age as Autumn, and just as socially astute, but as a relative newcomer to Taos she hasn’t yet had the time to develop longstanding relationships. She doesn’t command the social power that an old-timer like Autumn does. Esperanza is quick to join their games, but if Autumn and Advah are being exclusive, Esperanza will reluctantly try the lead with some of the other children in an alternative game. Still, she craves, at least at times, to be part of the alluring team that Autumn and Advah create. Don’t we all?

 

“No, I don’t need it,” Advah spoke back to me, as I caught up with the girls. Her hands were buried stiffly into the thin pockets of her white sweater, and her shoulders were hunched to her ears; the very expression of cold. “No, Advah, come on. Don’t be crazy. You need to put your jacket on.”

 

“No, I’m not cold!” she gave back, looking at me with her big, wide eyes. There was a fierceness to her expression, something that was unfamiliar to me, but I shrugged it off.

 

I’m all for reasoned inquiry and balanced conversation with the kids. I trust them, and in order for them to trust me I believe it’s important that they recognize that I’m willing to listen. Still, I’m used to this game of give and take about jackets and hats. I play it with my own daughter, Pema, all the time. Given the circumstances, the cold wind and increasingly heavy rain, I stated, directly and without any room for negotiation, “Advah, absolutely not. You have to put this jacket on before we walk back out.”

 

“No, I’m not cold!” she shouted again, now quite upset. The situation, to my displeasure, was escalating. Advah eyed me defiantly, while Esperanza and Autumn stared dumbly, watching us. I held the jacket in my hands, feeling the chill of the fat drops as they splashed about my shoulders. Everyone was wondering what I would do. Me too.

 

I knew I had only so much leverage with these three. While they’re plenty used to me in the context of the kindergarten, none of these girls are regular playmates of Pema’s. We don’t have the longstanding bond of trust and love that I have with some of the other kids. To them, I’m just Miss Silke’s assistant, Papa Joe, a somewhat laughable companion and storyteller. But everyone knows who wears the pants in this group: the woman with the felt and the German accent.

 

“Okay, listen,” I said, my mind searching for a tenable solution. “If you don’t want to put it on, okay, but you need to take it with you.” The quickest way to relax the tension with kids is just to let go, and this seemed like a reasonable compromise. I held the jacket out to Advah, who grabbed it out of my hands, thrust it to her face, and began to cry. Damn.

 

I was losing ground, but the situation was not impossible. Then Autumn, who empathized with her friend’s tears, began arguing on her behalf. “Why does she have to wear a jacket if she’s not cold?” she said to me, waving her hand at Advah to accentuate her point. I could hear exasperation in her voice, but it wasn’t, as yet, directed at me. Autumn is a stoic and reasonable girl, and she’s not easily shaken. Esperanza, on the other hand, quivers like a bowstring. “Yeah?” she said, following Autumn’s lead, a flood of emotion in her voice, “Why does she have to wear a jacket?” The situation provided a rare opportunity for Esperanza, who no doubt empathized with Advah’s plight, to take up with the two girls.

 

There is nothing more powerful than an outsider to bond a group of people together. The problem was, the outsider was me.

 

At this point, it was clear that the jacket wasn’t exactly the issue here. I had begun to parse out, so it seemed to me, the various issues at play, but it wasn’t doing me a lot of good. I was still driving us over the cliff. Advah’s defiance seemed exaggerated. I guessed that it might have to do with something else, possibly a lingering exchange with her older sister, or another child at school. Feeling unequal to those challenges, she saw me as a safe bet, an opportunity to stand up for herself and exert her control. I get that. At the same time, I was cold, and, carrying several distinct memories of Advah’s deep chills last winter, I felt determined to keep her warm. Surely, I had her care in mind, but I think I also wanted her to be warm as a sort of proxy for me. Autumn, thank God, was largely a bystander, perhaps the most reasonable of us all, but Esperanza, chancing upon a rare opportunity to bond with Autumn and Advah, accelerated the conflict by, now quite vehemently, siding with the two in one of the most potent ways possible - identifying the enemy. Me.

 

Advah, who now refused to look at me, wept bitterly into her jacket, while Autumn sidled from foot to foot, waving her arms and rolling her eyes with increasing irritation. I longed for Silke’s expertise, but I also want the freedom to negotiate these trials myself. Esperanza, now emboldened, employed that tried and true pillar of rhetoric, grasping the moral high-ground. “Why are you being so mean?” she asked, by which she declared, with righteous indignation, that I was a bully.

 

Mean. What a vicious word. It’s not one we experience much in adulthood. Adults use other words and subtleties of expression (don’t be a jerk), but we rarely accuse someone, face to face, of being such. Children, who are constantly testing the waters of language and power, don’t have that hesitation. “Don’t be mean,” a child will say, one hand grasping a shovel another child is using, by which they mean something like, “if you don’t share that with me, I’m going to accuse you of being an asshole. And, if you’re not careful, I may even get an adult to agree with me.” People are so clever.

 

“Girls,” I said, speaking to Esperanza and Autumn, an obvious strain in my voice, “Can you give us some space? I need you to walk ahead and give Advah and me some room to talk.” I quickly knelt in front of Advah, separating her from the other girls. I was ready to listen. “Hey Advah,” I said, hoping to draw her out with a change of tone in my voice. “Look, if you don’t want to wear the jacket, that’s fine. Maybe I wasn’t listening well enough. I’m just concerned because it’s raining, and you look cold. But look, I don’t care. I care about you, and you seem angry and sad.” I sat quiet for a moment, hoping to hear something from her. But Advah, who had withdrawn into a cave, was having none of it. She did not remove the jacket from her face. Esperanza and Autumn, though silent, kept the tension at a fever pitch.

 

I decided to back off. Maybe we all needed some space. The girls grouped together and we walked in the rain, silently, joining the rest of the group at the end of the lane. The lilacs were in bloom, and the bushes shook and swirled in the wind like the surface of the sea in a storm. I felt anxious, like I made a big mistake. Damn, we were just getting jackets. Maybe I was wrong to insist? Maybe my tone was too direct? Whatever it was, in the matter of fifteen minutes I totally lost these three kids.

 

As the adults walked along the path, cheerfully talking about heirloom beans, we spotted a llama in the distant field. I could feel the silent language moving through the rest of the kids like lightning. “Papa Joe was being mean,” I heard Esperanza whispering to Wolfie. Pema, who was getting chilled again, took my hand, as I dragged my feet in the dirt. I looked at Silke, who, hands firmly in her rain jacket, looked a bit cold herself, and said nothing.

 

We caught up with the llama, whose dark brown wool was getting wet. She came up to us for a moment, chewed some grass, then moved on. It was almost time for us to go. “I screwed up,” I said quietly to Silke, exposing myself with a half-smile, as we slowly made our way back to the van.

 

On the car ride home, I told Silke what had happened. She and I sat in the front seat. Pema and Wolfie sat behind us, and in the way back, Autumn and Advah talked quietly. Esperanza had gone home with her father. I didn’t want Silke to fix it for me, or explain it away, but it was important for her to know the mood and tone of the children. Plus, I felt like an idiot and it’s helpful when I admit it.

 

“When I was in Germany,” Silke said, after listening to my story. “My first year of teacher training. I dreaded the moment the teacher would walk out of the room. The children know, and they will test you. You should see it as an initiation.” Yeah, I thought, but it didn’t help much.

 

“Silke,” Advah said, as the van slowly climbed out of the Rio Grande Gorge and onto the top of the mesa, just south of Taos. The view of the valley is expansive and rich, framed by snow-capped mountains. In the middle, the gorge, zig-zagging like a massive lightning bolt, continues unimpeded for miles.

 

“Yes, Advah?” Silke answered.

 

“Remember you said we could have a piece of that gum when we got out of the gorge?” I was delighted to hear Advah talk, even if she wasn’t talking to me. The van belonged to Advah’s mother and father, who had loaned it to us for the trip. Advah, knowing its ins and outs, told us there was a little cup with some pieces of gum leftover from her birthday, and Silke had promised that, if the children were quiet and rested through the gorge, they could each have a piece once we climbed out.

 

“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” answered Silke, wondering if they would remember. “Where is it?”

 

“It’s in the little, um, underneath the little one.”

 

“You mean here?” I asked, opening a small door under the radio. “No, no, not there,” answered Advah. Silke was driving, so I began poking around for the gum. “Here?” I said, pointing to the console between the front seats? “No…no…” Advah was searching for how to describe it, but she wasn’t quite getting there. “Over there,” she said. Finally, I pointed to the glove compartment in front of me. “Yeah!” Advah rang out, “That’s it!”

 

I opened the little door and pulled out a plastic cup. Inside were seven small squares of gum, yellow, red, pink and orange. I shook them noisily. “I want red!” Wolfie shouted. “I want orange!” Pema answered. “Okay, wait, wait,” I answered, not wanting to be the arbiter of colors. Grabbing two yellows, a red and an orange, I reached back with my hand to Advah. “I’m going to give them to Advah,” I said, “since they’re hers. There’s one for each of you, and Advah, you can give out whatever colors you like.” She smiled and looked happily as the four little squares dropped into her hands.

 

“I got orange!” Pema reported happily. “Hey, guess what?” Wolfie said, “I got red!” The two yellows, silently, went into the hands of the friends in the way back, who, no doubt, shared a knowing glance. “Guess what color I want!” I shouted, perking up for the first time since the incident with the jacket. I turned around and looked at Advah briefly, who looked up at me. “Blue speckled teparies!” I shouted.

 

I would have stood in the rain for days for that smile.