How Else

But how else would we know we lived, they say.

How else.

If not for the tatters, the ruins, the dregs. The bones in the dust, the blown-out walls, the holes and craters and stricken rebar. The carrion for the vultures, the orange rivers, the three-eyed fish, the rivers no more.

How else would we know, they say, that we were strong and in charge of everything, counting dollars and shares, and before that, gold—going back to the beginning of commerce when getting more than was due was better than getting nothing at all. And all we did was make the transaction better, so much better, they say. And more efficient. And more profitable. Look what we took, developed, sold, got rid of. Look how we grow. Growth, they say. They use the word growth.

What they don’t say is, “Look at the bees.” Look at them there, on the dandelions, lit by a sunbeam, climbing and crawling and puttering and buzzing. “Puttering” is a word they don’t know and don’t use because it is not suitable for desks and deals and jets.

How else would we know, they say, that we could take over, take every drop, suck it dry, heave it out, roll it over, strip it bare with our pipes and drills, to make space for glass and steel and concrete and waste, for gilt-edged portraits and green golf courses and marble mansions to be envied.

How would we know we were alive and stronger and better than everyone else, better than everything else, better and stronger and more clever, if not for the grass under our feet—ours—and the sky overhead—ours—and the slurping oceans—ours—and the veins and seams of slick and heady power, liquid money, in the ground—ours. All of it ours, of course.  We are alive, they say—shrilly, desperately—when we can see what is ours.

The bees. Not ours, they shrug. Not important. Look at them, just buzzing away, fainter now. Perhaps there are fewer of them on the dandelions.

They continue to press. Trying to be logical now.

How would we know, they say…

But by now you know. You know how this works. You can speak for them. Native peoples—theirs. Culture—theirs. Land—theirs. Nature—theirs.

Natives, impassive. Culture, gutted. Land, looted. Nature, laughed at. That’s how it works.

And it’s also what scares them the most, deep down. People go on, unimpressed. Culture lives, even in the head. Land redraws itself like the river finding the canyon. Nature doesn’t need them.

And they find they aren’t actually stronger.

Their dollar signs are indifferent to them.

Their statues crumble like Ozymandias in the desert.

Their words are just words.

And the bees, placid yellow bodies against purple petals. The bees, they realize with a creeping despair, are the very center, the thing just beyond them (despite them, without them) signifying all that is real.

But—as they pout and slam their fists and sputter—but…how else would we know we lived unless everything else is dead?

Stand

For in this land, a man must stand upright, if he would live. – Clyfford Still

Who is Clyfford Still?

He was an artist. More specifically, he was an Abstract Expressionist, one of the early founders of the movement which began in the 1950s and was noted for the use of abstract forms to render the human condition. Unless you’re an art historian or an artist yourself, chances are good you’ve never heard of Clyfford Still, but it’s possible you’ve heard of his contemporaries, guys like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack.

Here’s what Pollack said about Still: “[He] makes the rest of us look academic.”

Still was an artist whom other artists revered. Whatever fame or notoriety (or the lack thereof) he would acquire in both the art community and the public at large was secondary. He was the embodiment of art for the sake of art—a staunchly lonely, some would say, but immensely free way to live in the world. He allowed himself a full expression and an unfettered evolution. He did not care what others thought, at least when it came to his art. He simply stood up, on his feet and on his ladders, and painted whatever came out of him. And his paintings themselves not only stand on their own…they soar.

(By the way, if you ever find yourself in Denver, go visit the Clyfford Still Museum, which exhibits and houses the archives of his entire life’s work. You will not be disappointed.)

But this post is not about Clyfford Still, the man, the artist.

This post is about the opening quote up there. Go back and read it again.

Substitute “human” for “man,” if you like. (Inclusiveness of the whole of humanity is a given here, not a whim). Whatever you do or don’t substitute, the message remains the same. And who better than an artist—someone living quite close to the divine—to deliver the message.

To deliver it to you, that is.

Because this post is also about you.

And in the spirit of Clyfford Still’s words, I ask:

If you are to live, how will you stand upright?

Will you get up from your couch today and look out the window? Will you notice the winter trees and the chirping birds? If you live in a city, will you hear the helicopters and witness the masses? Will you wonder at the magnitude of nature in all its forms and beauty and turmoil?

And if you wonder, where will you seek your answers? Will any be found within?

Will you get up from your couch today and turn off the television? Will you ease your mind away from the noise and find a corner of silence? Or will you pace or cheer, cry or rejoice, vibrate with imminent change?

Will you get up from your desk or counter and decide the work you do is a means to an end or an end itself? Will you know that the hours you spend in your weeks and your months will be spent in an effort of love, despite hardship or conflict or despair? Will you decide that you cannot know this for sure, and what you suspect instead is that the tossing river inside you carries only weariness and anger?

Will you get up from your place of prayer, your book of philosophy, having offered your most humble self? Will you discover that you and your god are in harmonious collusion, or suffering a whirling discord? Will you be able to recognize harmony or discord at all? Or will you decide that before you can recognize anything, you must first re-acquaint yourself with your own beating heart?

Will you get up and walk down the street? Will you let your legs carry you to a destination unknown, or to a familiar glow of warmth and safety?

And if you walk through the warm, safe door, will you stay? Will you find it is all you need? Or will you seek the far-off ship and its cold, dark passage to worlds unexplored, to ideas long buried?

Will you get up and embrace the person next to you? Will you turn away in fear? Will you plant your feet and ball your fists and hope that the strength of your stance will hide the terrible smallness you feel inside?

And if you are small, will you soften your stance, hold out your hand, and ask to be touched? Will you receive the touch into every cell?

Will you get up and paint the contents of your soul? Will you sing them or write them down? Will you do it for you, or will you do it for them? Will you peer upon the deepest parts of yourself in all their maniacal sounds and colors? Or will you keep them well-hidden, silent, starved of the light of day? Will the light of day sprout them anyway like insistent roots? Will you watch yourself open and let them bloom free?

Will you stand up today and take a deep breath? Will the first filling of your lungs be a ragged burst? Will your breath be caught, constricted, unable? Or will your breath bring the air you’ve needed…the air you’ve needed for a very long time now?

Will you stand up on your own two feet? Will you climb your ladder? Will you reach the heights needed to look upon the full extent of your unstoppable life force?

And if you do, will you ask what you can do with it, and who you are because of it, and how you will let it flow free?

I ask you:

Will you stand up at all?

Will you stand up at all?

Will you decide to live?

Will you soar?

In a Quiet Moment

I used to think of myself as someone who had mastered the art of navigating change.
I acquired this view after going through what I like to term a “spiritual transformation” a decade ago.

Hold your eye rolls. I’ll explain:

It started the day before Christmas Eve, when I had been clinging for too long to the bottom rung of a ladder leading downward into a personal hell after a particularly shattering break-up. My parents, looking for something to do that evening, suggested we go see The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. Two-thirds of the way through the movie, I found myself sobbing unabashedly in the dark theater, flayed open by the realization that if Will Smith’s character could surmount the insurmountable, could still wake up every day and look for the good in the world and in himself, so could I.

It was the first of many realizations tipped off by a flurry of coincidences and synchronicities and messages, all the many breadcrumbs dropped by a universe I had been unable to see before, that would lead me to a new Self over the next six months and continue to foment during the next few years.

Hence, change.

We’re talking change at the neural pathway level radiating out to new ideas and new awarenesses, new expressions, a new language, new ways of embracing others and myself. But also change in a larger esoteric sense. A change in the subatomic space I occupied in whatever Plan was unfolding.

And so I got comfortable with this idea: that changing oneself as a human being was possible and also necessary; so comfortable with the idea, in fact, that my ego took it on as part of my new self image and grew some flouncy, flower-filled pride around it. Positioned within this impressive botanic garden of my own making, I figured eventually everyone else would want to change, too.

It was just a matter of coming across the right teacher, the right book. A matter of learning how to meditate. A matter of vision boards and gratitude exercises. A matter of being able to see how nearly everything we come to know and believe in our lifetimes can be discarded in order to expose our real selves underneath, shiny and waiting to come forth into the light.

As a human you’re always looking for absolutes. You’re always looking for the end of truth. This is it; this is all I need to know. I can stop looking now…and so can everyone else. After remarkable stretches of profound change, we arrive at a new place of understanding about ourselves and the world and assume that’s all there is. We can rest easy, uncork the wine, put up our feet, enjoy the view.

But it doesn’t work that way. Despite our self-congratulations, change is a constant, right?

To illustrate: recently I’ve had a changing viewpoint about change, you could say.

Some change I love. When spring turns into summer. The end of a project and the anticipation of what’s next. The shifting positions of the planets and what it means for my horoscope. The genius who created a way to fast-forward through commercials. Whistleblowers.

But some change I’m less willing to navigate. I’m conflicted about it. Some change I downright loathe. Like most hand-held technology. The unwitting surrender of our civil right to privacy. The idea, practice, and growth of partisan journalism in its shrillest, ugliest, most manipulative form. Automation. Big data instead of human contradiction. Artificial intelligence. Dating via an app. The willingness to disrupt whatever exists so thoroughly and thoughtlessly, like a gleeful child knocking over a tower of blocks, that the scattered blocks are never retrieved…the resulting wounds never healed.

In other words, the kind of change that happens as a reaction to personal impotence, as a reaction to the desire to control something, knowing that in the end we control very little.

And yet my changing viewpoint is not just a summary of change gone wrong since that will always be debatable, nor is it a doomsday call. The sentimental part of me which wants to reflect softly over the past year isn’t willing to throw generous cuts of Armageddon into everyone else’s End of Days soup and sprinkle it with cynicism.

Because I don’t actually believe in an End of Days scenario. At one time I would have. But then Will Smith and The Pursuit of Happyness came along and stared me in the face.

My changing viewpoint is this:

The artifacts of societies and cultures will continue to evolve. The way we exist in the world will change even faster for younger generations than it already has for us, and there will always be people who are left behind, who lament the good days gone by, and I will probably be one of them, surrounded as I am by my teachers and books and exercises and pride. I don’t know where any of this change is actually headed, what it will look like, how we will wear it, eat it, earn from it, live in it, or love in it.

What I do know is that I am no longer a master at navigating it. I never was. I just needed, all those years ago, to attempt it in the first place and see where it led.

So if the tenacity of the human species coupled with the capacity for any one person on this earth to change themselves in truly miraculous ways, freed of the shackles of habit and entrenched responses to life—if any of this is a signpost pointing toward another, brighter possibility for all of us, then we must believe in our ability to attain it.

How we get there, the transformation required to start that journey and reach a new perspective, is an individual feat. Transformation may or may not happen to you (although beware: Will Smith has another movie out this holiday season). But it could happen to your best friend or your mother or your car mechanic. After that, everyone else is fair game. The ripple effects of change, the waves of new truth, eventually arrive on new shores.

In a time of change, in a season of reflection, in a quiet moment, be good to yourself and others. Be open. Be thoughtful.

Look around. Look for the good.

I’ll see you next year…

This is What It Looks Like

I saw an article a couple of days ago about the post-election aftermath in which it mentioned a guy who was participating in a protest in New York City. His sign read (something to the effect of): “I’m not usually a sign guy, but WTF.”

My sentiments exactly.

When my boyfriend called me on the early evening of Thursday, Nov. 10—two days after the carnival sideshow that was the campaign season this year came to its culmination, after which a large percentage of us slid into a new reality and I spent those forty-eight hours unable to stop crying—and he told me he’d seen on the news that a protest was gathering in downtown Denver, I hung up, ran to my car, and went.

It had been many years since I’d taken part in any organized group display of opinion. There was the time I’d spontaneously joined the Native American drum circle in college with half of my sociology class. I think I also signed various petitions on various issues back then with furious aplomb. But as life carried me forward and my priorities changed, I didn’t think I had it in me anymore. There was my career to worry about, my rent to pay, my vacations to plan.

And yet, apparently I did very much have it in me.

Fifteen minutes after getting the call, I parked my car across from the Justice Center and started walking. I was by myself, carrying only my car keys, my phone, and my driver’s license, lest some proverbial shit go down and I, or my body, needed to be identified. (My boyfriend: “Be safe. Don’t get arrested.”) I walked past homeless people sleeping in corners. I walked past security guards going home for the night. I would never have walked alone on dark city streets before, but somehow in that moment I wasn’t afraid.

I made it to the City & County Building, then across Civic Center Park to the State Capitol, where all was quiet and mostly deserted. For a moment I had a sinking feeling that the news had been wrong, that my boyfriend had misunderstood, that if there was a protest happening at all, it was maybe five or ten people wandering about without aim. The deep cynicism that most of the time lies dormant in me reared up.

And then, crossing 15th Street toward the 16th Street Mall—a long, open-air stretch of tourist shops, bars, and restaurants that runs through the middle of downtown Denver—I spotted a few people carrying signs. They seemed to be heading somewhere with urgency. I ran up to them, fell into step, and asked, “Are you part of the protest?” They said yes and they were trying to find it. We headed to the mall together: a youngish guy and a girl, a woman in business casual looking like she’d just left the office, a middle-aged couple holding hands, and me. After walking several blocks, we saw another group coming toward us from the opposite direction, also carrying signs, all of us wondering where to go. A homeless man on the corner kindly pointed and said: “That way.” We turned the corner and that’s when we saw them, a wave of people about to step out onto Speer Boulevard.

There was, indeed, a protest underway. And it was big.

As we joined in and made our collective way down Speer en route to the State Capitol, I saw in the crowd women and men. I saw black people, brown people, white people, young people, old people. I saw parents with young children and babies. I saw LGBT people wearing rainbows. I saw people walking with their bikes and skateboards. I heard people banging on drums. The majority carried signs. Some had megaphones engaging us in constant chants:

Not my president*

Show us what democracy looks like
This is what democracy looks like

Latinos: Si se puerde
Everyone else: Yes we can

Women: My body my choice
Men: Her body her choice

F**k white supremacy

And many, many other chants, including “The Apprentice sucked.” Present in any serious situation, a breath of humor. We laughed. It might have helped that there was a good amount of pot being smoked, this being Colorado and all.

We walked past medians in the middle of the street where people had also gathered, clapping and cheering us on while journalists snapped pictures. We walked past a group of Muslim women in head scarves who waved and cheered. Several people in the crowd walked over to them and shook their hands as the crowd passed by.

We were lucky to have a balmy night. Winter hadn’t yet arrived in Colorado, as it hadn’t for much of the nation. Temperatures had stubbornly stayed well above average for weeks. Walking kept us even warmer, along with the energy and camaraderie in the crowd.

I kept waiting to see opposing protest from the other side. It’s very possible there was some, though I never witnessed any firsthand. Most everyone we passed let us go without incident or showed their support in some way. When I was initially with the small group walking on the mall trying to find the protest, eight to ten squad cars sped past us, lights blaring, along with a truck filled with police in camouflage riot gear holding rifles. Having seen this type of militarized police presence only on TV when other protests throughout the country had been covered, it was sobering to see it with my own eyes just a few feet from me. But as far as I could tell, the police never made their presence felt during the actual protest, beyond directing foot and vehicle traffic so that we could make our way down the main city thoroughfares, and making a loose perimeter around the government buildings for security, I assumed. I read later that some of the police showed their support by shaking hands with the protesters.

When we got to Civic Center Park, the protest took on even more meaning. We trudged over the grass and through muddy ruts in darkness to get to the capitol building. People stumbled. There were concrete steps and sidewalks we couldn’t see. An elderly woman nearly took a nose dive when she missed a curb, but two people grabbed her and kept her upright, helping her on her way.

As we poured across Lincoln Street, the State Capitol loomed large. Behind us stretched the expanse of the park with the equally imposing City & County building at the other end. In this space, flanked by symbols of a government we’ve come to love and hate, revere and distrust with equal measure, the energy rose even higher.

A black mother with her two sons—if I had to guess, ten and thirteen years old—marched directly in front of me. The kids were brave, chins lifted, the mother holding their hands as the three of them chanted together. I began to cry. I put my hand on her back.

Gathered in front of the capitol building, the crowd stopped as more and more people made their way across the street and spread out across the front lawn and steps. The Denver Post estimated thousands of people showed up that night, with the main protest going on for about two hours and a smaller group continuing on into the night. We stood and chanted and looked around us, at everyone who had chosen to do the same thing that night, those who had to get up early and go to work the next day, those who were tired and possibly hungry, those with small children who wanted to show them what all of this was about, those who had dealt with enough strife already for any one lifetime to handle, and those who simply wanted to be there in support of everyone else because it seemed like the right thing to do.

After awhile I walked back to my car several blocks away and went home. My brother and my sister also knew where I’d been, and when they asked me how it was, the only thing I could think to say, after two days of shock and grief, was: “It was medicine.”

Our country wasn’t founded as a democracy. Not really. Those in charge didn’t want mob rule. They didn’t want the average citizen to have a voice or a vote. Those who didn’t own property couldn’t vote; neither could women; to say nothing of the slaves and native peoples whose rights, lands, and basic humanity weren’t recognized—all of which was accepted and condoned at the time.

Democracy here sprang up separately, as its own movement, as a natural progression of the multitudes thrown together and realizing they deserved more.

To think that at one point in history my voice and vote wouldn’t have counted for anything—both as a woman and as a person without property—is unconscionable. It’s even more unconscionable that some people would have it that way again.

I have no illusions about this country. Not anymore. I can’t un-know what I now know.

What I do have are two feet. And a voice. And a fire within that somehow still lives on, through all the distractions of youth, all my petty worries and concerns, all the years of indifference when, from where I stood, things hadn’t seemed so bad.

And when combined, these simple things—my feet, my voice, and my fire—means I also have power.

Democracy, always an experiment, forever faced with destruction, forever challenged by fear and angst and spiraling economic realities, forever mocked by those who deliberately aim to keep populations ignorant and confused for their own gain, is—at the end of the day—not something conferred upon us by lofty people in bits and pieces as their whims decree.

Democracy is something we give to ourselves, as our duty to each other.

And this, at least on that night, is what it looks like.

To all of you out there who believe in the experiment, keep believing. And if you can, go out there and show it.

*Depending on whichever you find more legitimate—the electoral vote or the popular vote—“not my president” conjures up different feelings and ideas. But all who chant it know exactly why they, as individuals, are chanting it. And as we know, free speech will always make someone uncomfortable.

Ephemera

I woke up two hours before my alarm this morning in a rage. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I gave up and watched a bad show on Bravo, which is always good for reassurance that other people are crazier than I am.

Except that I’ve been crying for forty-eight hours—over everything. A random Maroon 5 song. A wacky poem my dad emailed me this morning. A conversation last night with my boyfriend in which I said to him that I felt ineffective and defective. A text thread with a teacher who had to explain a lot of things to a lot of kids yesterday.

I have not been so emotionally distraught in years. Years. Nor have I been so aware in some higher reach of my being, in a place that I seem to only stumble upon by accident when the moon is in Capricorn or some such celestial occurrence, that my emotional state is for nothing. That it means nothing. That it is passing through. That impermanence, cursed as it often seems, is also—in that most maddening way of nature—a blessing.

When I was depressed and angry for the better part of my twenties, I woke up one day when I was thirty and the world was different. I was different.

Every wrenching break-up and crushing disappointment I ever experienced left a trail behind that, in time, grew over with the vines of wisdom.

Every person I ever hated, every punching bag I ever deemed unworthy or wished would “get theirs,” became just a soul walking down the street all by themselves, heading into a future unknown. Any commentary on their journey eventually seemed so stupid; any hatred floated away like dandelion fluff.

I suffered third-degree burns on my legs when I was a child. I don’t even have the scars anymore.

Where does it go?—all the angst and churn, the recoiling and revulsion, the well of sadness we spend days, weeks, months drawing from with the reliable old bucket quenching our melancholy, our futility, our dread, pulled by the squeaking chain sounding a discordant symphony in our brains. Where does it go?—the bruise, the cut, the imprint of the impact.

It goes where the leaves go, when they shed from the trees. Buries itself under the snow in deep winter where it dies with dignity and soaks back into the ground and feeds the roots of something new come spring. In this cycle, we pull back and turn away. Once shed of us, this stuff that was once ours is left alone to do its thing. We are no longer responsible for it. Nature takes care of that. Nature knows what we as humans refuse to acknowledge: that we are as impermanent as everything else, as impermanent as our monuments, our constructs, our ideas, our failures, our blindness, our pain. Even our triumphs. Even our joy.

The heart lifts one day. The rage subsides. The ice crystals wink in the sun.

And the question arrives:

What do you want to do today in this great experiment of shimmering ephemera that never ceases to mesmerize…?

What do you want to do today?

The Beginning

The Pilanesberg game preserve in South Africa sits on a volcano that imploded millions of years ago before there was anyone around to understand time. It forms a large circle somewhere between the city of Johannesburg and the Botswana border, marked by mountains, hills, valleys, and open spaces—geographic entrails coughed up from the inward heave.

During the rainy season, everything turns green and tuberous; in the dry season, sun-baked, hard, yellow; so that there is a constant shift between green and yellow, wet and dry, give and take. Watering holes appear and disappear. Skies scatter into cloudless blue, then gather into towering thunderheads. Gullies and washouts scar the red dirt tracks. The animals, no stranger to cycles, breathe deeply and usher newly dropped young into rhythms determined long ago in some tectonic age.

Scrubby bushes hide sprawled lions, bellies swollen with a kill. Tall grasses are crushed underfoot by marauding rhinos. Hippos surface, spouting mud, then sink again. Herds of wildebeest, impala, and zebra roam the hill sides. They are often seen together in threes, compatible species who have learned to travel, sleep, and eat together, and warn each other when danger is close. Giraffe stand motionless in all their strange alien beauty, staring without concern across the valley, unaffected by the things we believe to be true.

And the elephants. These lumbering creatures, touchable and yet completely untouchable. Matriarchal families with complex and rigid social structures, belying uniquely human emotions, carry a deep sadness that comes from their unwanted collision with our desires. And yet they are full of life, with their happy trotting babies and their show-off youngsters, their grumpy old men and their great wise women, relentless in their stewardship, keepers of tradition. They walk in packs along the side of the road, their soft, soulful eyes looking away in search of peace as voyeurs snap pictures. We wonder how they could ever be angry. We forget all the many reasons why.

Everywhere the smaller, near-invisible, less glamorous members of the bush go about their business unnoticed. Chameleons cling to tree branches. Turtles scuttle under foot. Birds flit, dive, twitter. Bull frogs sing their guttural vibrations at pond’s edge, calling for suitable mates. Snakes lie coiled in the shade. Termite mounds disguise entire ecosystems of plumbing and venting, workers and queen.

Even the plant life in Pilanesberg hums with purpose. Thorny trees make a sharp tangle for an unsuspecting traveler but are food for giraffes who can digest the thorns. A particular leaf oozes a white latex that causes violent illness in humans but helps rhinos with upset stomachs. Camphor grows in abundance to soothe rashes and bug bites. Mushroom fields provide fertile ground for tree roots. If you know where to look, you can navigate for days the friend-or-foe labyrinth of root and stem, branch and leaf covering the volcanic hills.

***

Janco was eight years old when he was playing in the cage, scratching near the edge of a patch of grass looking for a snake he wanted that had slid out of sight. He moved slowly and carefully as he had been taught. Nearby was the lioness, Asha, who had nosed through the wire of the fence to her two cubs who were mewling in plaintive voices. Several yards away Janco’s uncle rummaged through the feed bins while down the road his aunt cooked in the house. The day was warm but clouds were already showing on the horizon, which meant it would rain later, maybe around dusk.

He scratched once more at the grass, aware of Asha pausing, looking his way.

An ant scrambled over the top of his shoe and waved its body in the air, in search of food or a fight. He flicked it into the dirt, watched it skitter through the cage. Suddenly he was bored. There were hours left in the day.

He turned to head back to the house.

There was a quick electric parting in the air, the low whoosh of paws on sand and an unearthly growl riding above it. Then all went dark with the impact, a swift and decisive greeting of flesh and claw and bone.

Two months later, he woke up in the hospital to metal in his head and femur, and the pink ropes of scars across his torso and legs. But he was alive and would recover.

Not Asha. Her two cubs were back on the farm, now motherless.

As he healed, as he came back into his body from the dream of confusion and searing pain, everything changed. He had broken the cardinal rule and turned his back on a lion. But in so doing, he would embark on a love affair.

***

Outside, the rain against our thatched roof sounds like a train. Lightning flashes in the room which darkens again to the triangle of lamplight in the corner. Moths prickle in the mosquito net. The smell of soap from the shower mingles with the rain and wet earth and the smoke from the campfire still on our clothes.

Flash of lightning again, and there—a zebra, staring in, ears cocked. But no. It’s just the rain in insistent stripes down the sliding glass door and the deck chairs beyond and the electric fence.

I wonder what he’s doing now, Janco. Whether he’s with his colleagues, organizing their equipment, consulting maps, reading about a new species of bird. Eating in the dining room. Planning his day off. Sleeping in a narrow bed. Dreaming of the mundane.

I think about how he survived the lion attack when he was a boy, and his face when he spoke of it. How he had made it his mission to learn everything he could about lions and their world, to walk their paths, to study their rituals, to give them the space they required. I think about space, how we think it is ours for the taking.

He drives us out in the mornings and again in the afternoons, stopping the truck every ten yards, full of information and enthusiasm, pointing here, listening there. Soft-spoken, capable, young. Alive. As alive with aliveness as I’ve ever seen another human being. Crisscrossing this old volcano, we who paid money to come here will never, ever understand—not really—but are nevertheless moved to tears at the sight of a lone rhino down in the valley, an elephant trek, the oldest migration of animal to water happening right there in front of us while our hearts beat harder in recognition. We know with despair in our hearts that we have removed ourselves from this ancient dance, and oh how we long to be invited back in.

***

In the storm, rain coming in sideways, trucks follow each other with headlights on. The procession stops. Guides’ voices crackle to each other over their radios. Janco grabs something on the dashboard, makes sure the truck is in gear. We sit forward, eyes searching in the dark.

There.

Janco says, “Be very quiet and still.”

We hold our breath, hovering.

He shines a point of red light out into the night. Through the rain, we see a beige shape coming closer. The shape is a lion, a male we are told. The lion makes his way, unhurried, between our truck and the one in front of us. Janco keeps the light trained on him. He tells us that the red light does not startle or stress lions, that it’s for everyone’s own good.

For a brief moment, I feel the electric parting in the air as Janco did when he was eight. There is a steel frame around us; a rifle lies across the top of the dashboard within reach. Janco is a trained guide with countless hours of field time under his belt. He has spent nights alone in the bush. He has crept within feet of animals who could end him in one swift movement. He has survived such a movement, still intact. He is in charge of us, this twenty-three-year-old who understands more about the earth and its inhabitants and the stars than we ever will.

But we don’t need the gun or his protection. Fear is not present here. Instead, we watch, bracing against the seats. We have let this creature pass on, undeterred, ungrasped by our wanting, reaching selves. We have achieved something small and yet not insignificant. We have not turned our backs.

The lion disappears into the dark. Up and down the line of trucks, red lights switch off in a gesture of respect. The ceremony is over.

***

We lie on the bed holding hands, listening to the storm continue. Spent. Undone. Wordless.

We are here, in this place, regardless of name or rule or border, irrelevant to the monuments we have built to ourselves, the systems we blindly uphold, the violence we call just, the concerns we insist are real. We are here, somewhere between earth and sky, with animals who never needed us, and plants who offer without expectation, and storms that rage with cosmic abandon. And that is when we know.

We have come back. Back to the beginning.

Word Play

Warning: the following is about to get super nerdy.

A woman I used to know from childhood recently showed me up on a vocabulary quiz making its rounds on that time-wasting, insecurity-inducing, why-do-I-care-so-much super highway we refer to as social media.

When the quiz came to my attention, I quickly jumped aboard and finished it without too much sweat on my brow, I proudly noted—only to be taken down a few notches when my “grade” came back. Turns out I seem to have the same breadth and depth of vocabulary as a “30-year-old professional,” I believe is how they worded it. Considering the fact that I have a good ten years on any 30-year-old and have been making my living for some time now as a writer, I was—to say the least—not satisfied at all with this (highly scientific, I’m sure) assessment.

On the other hand, the woman who sent me the quiz—I’ll call her Wanda the Word Nerd—was labeled as a genius akin to Shakespeare. And while I don’t doubt her intelligence or her hefty vocabulary (although I have no way of knowing she didn’t just sit there with an open dictionary the whole time she was taking the quiz), I did suddenly doubt my intelligence and vocabulary.

I mean, it’s easy to forgive the meagerness of one’s own lexicon when comparing it to people like the late Christopher Hitchens or the current Rhoda Janzen or, well, any Vanity Fair contributor, whose scarily prodigious vocabularies are equal only to old-school comedian Dennis Miller’s wealth of obscure references. But because I don’t count myself in any of their companies, I didn’t—until recently—feel particularly lessened.

Wanda the Word Nerd is another story. She falls within a range we’d call socially normal (meaning she’s not a savant or anything) and has a job in software. Unless she’s got a secret late-night obsession with Webster I don’t know about, there’s no good reason I should fall short of her in the god-damn quiz!

Other than, I might just be lazy. And I’ve been out of school for awhile. Since no one is asking it of me, I’m not asking it of myself.

Which is why I thought: maybe it’s time to start asking.

So I started making a list.

Every time I encountered a word in a book or an article for which I had a hazy idea at best of its definition, could use it only uncertainly in a sentence, or flat-out didn’t know what the heck it meant, I wrote it down and looked it up later.

That’s how I came to have more than a passing acquaintance with salubrious and inchoate, among others. (I’ll prove it to you: My trip to Whole Foods today offered a salubrious journey into fresh fruits and vegetables, while leaving the ebook I’m supposed to be working on in an inchoate state.)

I know what you’re thinking: since most people in this country read somewhere between a fourth- and an eighth-grade level (don’t quote me on that; it’s the nearest I could get doing a cursory search), why bother with a bunch of multi-syllabic, utterly pretentious-sounding terms I’m unlikely to use in my paid writing anyway?

Sure, part of it’s my ego. But the other part is that enlarging my vocabulary is about crawling out of the slump. Which is to say that I, like a lot of people, end up using the same words over and over again. (Sidebar: my dad uses perspicacious an inordinate amount of times—I’m on to you, Dad—finding ways to slip it into regular ol’ emails and conversations just because I suspect he likes the sound of it). The words I use often also happen to be words I like the sound of…or words that convey the right meaning…or words that have that special sauce when special sauce is what I need. The problem is they end up forming an exclusive club of which few new (or lesser-known or slightly vintage or downright oddball) words are allowed entry, and therefore deteriorate into a puddle of stale, obvious, tweed-wearing, ascot-donning, cigar-smelling, leaves-a-grit-in-your-mouth, fuddy-duddy old mud I’ve grown tired of.

If my brainy friend Micha were reading this, he would run all of my written pieces through some kind of big-data-driven, only-the-government-has-access word-parser and find out which words I use time and again (and send them to me in an easily readable chart for quick and shame-filled reference). He could probably even tell me how many times I string together a host of words with hyphens to create a kind of bumbling, stumbling, Frankenstein of an adjective when I can’t think of a more appropriate one-word adjective to use…you know, on account of my lagging vocabulary…and my apparent unwillingness to sift through a thesaurus.

So I figured learning (or re-learning) all the words on my list can only help me, since I’m pretty sure that one day I actually will need to call upon a larger phraseology, like when the late Christopher Hitchens visits me in a dream and asks me—me!—to write his memoir.

Which is why I’m brushing up on nadir (don’t want to reach that point again after another vocabulary quiz) because I wouldn’t want to seem jejune or anything. Can’t have a recalcitrant attitude when it comes to my own work, now, can I? Can’t be querulous or doggerel. That’ll just seal my bathos (not to be confused with the pathos you might be feeling right about now to the tune of Concerto for Sad and Pathetic Violins No. 1).

And just you wait, random clients for which I write: I might throw in a sneaky specious to jazz up that fourth-grade-sounding paragraph about politics…and you might actually like it—and, perhaps, be inspired to start your own list.