Love and Thanks

messages-image1395101098I read a short story the other day, and in it the author did all the things I admire. Her writing was playful, light, a drift of thrushes flitting about a thicket. I was deeply taken with her.

My writing, by contrast, is more goose-like: heavy, waddling from here to there. Sometimes it flies, but it only takes flight through powerful strokes. And once airborne it soars; the light dance is not for me.

I wish it were. There is a pixie-ness in erratic movement, a detachment from worry and the future. My writing is too serious, too focused on getting a point across. Responsibility for understanding sits with me, the writer, rather than on you, the reader, and therefore every sentence is planned, deliberate.

But for a book on love that technique will never work. There words can’t fall like stones too heavy to lift again. I’d be lighting a tea candle with a flamethrower. Love deserves better treatment than that. It deserves starlings and pigeons, packs that move in unison though they have nowhere to go. That’s love. Or a version.

I know a girl who holds her heart like a grasshopper tucked in cupped hands and covered. She wants it to leap, but everywhere are frogs waiting so she keeps her hands closed.

Another woman’s beauty is her curse. She’s not sure if it’s her that men love or her container. They profess everything but whenever she speaks they go blank. Her words become an echo. Her physical beauty is only a reflection, that a woman so stunning will accept them is to say they are enough. It is the acceptance they care about. She is lost to them.

I married the same thing once, only it was smart that mattered rather than pretty. She was pretty, mind you, but it was the quick-talking brain I fell in love with. That is to say, if she was that smart and loved me then maybe I was that smart too. I couldn’t tell—I’d never been very good at looking at myself. But with her as my rearview I stared quite contentedly. It didn’t last long.

What is love? Is it a joke? A tease? Because it never seems to go as we’d like. I have an answer, one that leans on trademark and is likely deeply unsatisfying for many. But it was shown to me, so I must tell.

Love is the Force, the Matrix. It is everywhere. It binds the world together. It flows into people and pets and chairs. It moves inanimate objects and pulls apart windmills. It’s a fingerprint from god, and it’s on you.

I wish I could explain it more precisely, but there it is. Love is a hummingbird, not a goose. The goose we can predict. It takes to the sky in great heart-shaped flocks and soars south to north with seasonal efficiency. But love isn’t like that. Love is Canada, where the geese land, and the rain that slows their way. It is the hunter looking to fell them. It is the marshes where they take refuge. It is the bullet and the reed. It is all those things. But we keep looking for the goose alone.

If I love you I don’t care who you are. I look at you and I know. I look at you and see brilliance. I see you for who you are and love that thing. I love it unceasingly, without reciprocation. Love is in the viewing, the standing next to, the breathing in. It is in your scent, the brush of your eyelash, the movement of your throat as you swallow. I love madly because I must love. It has nothing to do with being loved back. Those two are not connected.

Love honors, but it does not keep. How hard to remember! But I do not honor your walk by demanding it parallel mine. I honor your walk by watching you take it, by being blown away by each stumbling step, by admiring your courage those times your heart calls you to walk alone and you heed it, cast me to dust. That tearing sound? It is me. Your walk may leave me bloody, but it amazes me just the same. Love cannot kill me because it is me. It never leaves. It flows in and out of things. Sometimes it flows into you and out of me. A river in springtime, sometimes swelled with snowmelt and rain, a river in fall, sometimes lean and rocky. All versions of love are as equal.

So where does my love live? Where can it reside if not in you, with you? Nowhere. Everywhere. In me. Because you are fleeting, and if I love you I want you to be. I want your transformation to end, for the you that is to be you always. But you are the hummingbird. Your dance I cannot understand. Your shimmer changes with every twitch. I can only watch. I can only follow you with my eyes, my hands, my body. You might linger for a time, but I can not pour myself into you. Such acts are temporary.

So where does my love live? It lives in me. It is me. It is my body and being. It is my every heartbeat and breath. That is where my love lives. I boil with it, and it overflows me. I see you and recognize another such creation, perfect and wild. But I cannot give you anything. I can only hold that love myself, let the wonder of you live in my eyes. I know that love boils in you too, that the grasshopper you carry is a feint, a distracting jellybean. Your love is not for you to give away; it radiates like a second sun. It gives no greater light for my proximity. Find a place to entrust your heart inside of you and let it power the shining. Your heart is everything—the goose and the hunter.

And what of the fear that they are here because of the container? I suffer that fear myself, but only when I am in search of a container too, when my motives are shallow too. My covered eyes allow the world to fool me. Because what is a container? If you love, you offer the world you. That is the gift. Your container is destined to die. I may love the look of you, but look with an eye for beauty and everyone is beautiful. Smart, funny, pretty, kind, everyone has pieces. The other day I drew a woman who had the most stunning lips. I wanted to kiss them, but that’s not what she was there for. All the beauty of the world sat right there beneath her nose: full, red, alive. The rest of her form, what does it matter? Where are your lips?

I can’t fully explain. Either you get this or you don’t. But if you don’t, please come back to me. Reread, looking for pigeons rather than eagles. Majesty cures for a while, but humility allows a glimpse of the world around us. I am not wise, I can barely explain. But the river in springtime flood can carry us away without explanation. Love is like that. Don’t worry about the words themselves. Trust the feeling. Wade in. Worry about nothing. Worry about not drowning. That would be scary.

Wednesday After

13403970_1509050489121031_6107610005133950721_oI caught the most amazing wave today.

My arms and shoulders were still tired from handstand class, but the waves were peeling long. My friend Mike sent me a note that he was going to Higgins Beach, and in the aftermath I decided to join. I entered the water in full neoprene—hood, gloves and booties even—and hopped my way out as far as I could against the surge. At the last break of whitewater I started paddling. A few waves crested over me, crashed and pushed me under, but after a few surf sessions in recent weeks I’ve developed enough fitness that I got out.

But barely. These were big waves, and by the time I pulled beyond them my shoulders were spent, my arms slapping the water. I sat up, let the ocean roll beneath me. I’d done the hard part, made it past the breakers, and now was recovery. I sat for 7 or 8 minutes, bobbing.

Then I started chasing waves. They were big and loose, I kept missing their pull. They came with enough force, but I was far out and they lacked shape. I kept sitting up and looking for something to carry me.

Then it came. I’m not nearly the surfer as I am a climber, but this wave wanted to teach me. I felt it buck underneath me, steep and rowdy. I paddled to match, pulled with everything left in the marrow of my shoulders. And it took me. Suddenly I was sliding down its face. I hopped up, shooting forward in the gathering maelstrom, turned and grabbed the wave’s shoulder, its crest roaring and tumbling white at my back. I felt it catching up, saw churning in my periphery, but I augured deep, carved into her flesh as the wave rolled forward. I was on the brink, just a step ahead of the tumbling, in the pocket, my board carving a dividing line between blue face and crashing white. I’d landed here before, but never on anything nearly so big—it was taller than me, snarling like a wolf at my feet. But my fingers were in its mane, and I held fast.

I don’t know how long it lasted—like those infrequent moments where I hold a handstand it felt like forever, but it was seconds, 20 or 25 maybe, or maybe only 10. I rode the flashing teeth, danced in their spray, felt the board rock and toss, dragged my fingers against the ocean’s lips. She seemed to rise to meet me, to push me with an angry kiss. I shot forward, ahead of the white and onto a less turbulent elbow. I bounced down these final tendrils to the foam of the beach, where I jumped, leaving the beast to the rodeo clowns.

It was incredible, perfect. It still feels like someone else’s memory.

From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

14188296_1606188992740513_8342364284182226130_oI used to think the North Atlantic was mean. All the stories of shipwrecks and European sailors tossed around in icy waters. Growing up I watched winter waves pommel the shore, saw fog swallow roads, houses and fields, watched hurricane swells grab a 40-foot lobster boat and toss it like a seashell. The sea was raw power, the North Atlantic menacing.

Then last fall I visited the Pacific. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains, to soak in hot springs, wander rainforests and paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out West, cities face inward. They sit on water but don’t risk open ocean: San Francisco has the Bay, Seattle the Sound, Portland the Columbia River but north of sunny Southern California few outposts brave the sea. And so the Pacific is forgotten. Those placid and welcoming bays and bodies come to represent western water. The ocean lies eclipsed.

But four hours west of Seattle it sits guarding America’s edge: water dark as arterial blood rolling and falling onto itself like a wounded animal, roiled, frantic, ferocious. Unpredictable. Great trees tumble among a constant roar. Seafoam stretches for miles. Wind dashes the shore with tendrils of saltwater, everything glistening and cold. Drizzle falls from a sky only a shade lighter than the water. More trees sit half-buried in sand, ripped from the shore by past assaults, now imprisoned.

This is no Puget Sound, no tranquil shoreline. Here the full force of 5,000 unbroken miles slams unceasingly without stories or reputation to precede it, just a quiet pounding of the American West. Uprooted trees the size of small buildings swing like toys in a perpetual grey of clouds, drizzle and churning. The Pacific marks an endpoint, and there is no mistaking its edges. America closes and it takes over. No abbreviations.

New England is different. The East Coast is warmer, more gentle, dotted by islands and inlets that break up a full assault. Any water runs only a short distance before intersecting land. Only hurricanes carry the intensity of the everyday Pacific.

But home carries its own mysteries.

I arrived in early evening. The ocean stood calm, a mirror of lobster buoys and boat masts. Fog sat heavy, the coastline waning in either direction, an easy day to get lost. I parked at the boat ramp and pulled a paddleboard from the roof. An oversized surfboard mostly meant for lakes and ponds, on the ocean it feels like a thimble. But there is magic in braving something so vast atop something so small. A seagull screeched from the rocks. Cormorants dotted the nearby mooring balls, their wings outstretched like goblins. Everything stood suffocating white. I buckled my life jacket, slid the board into the water and cast off.

Under my feet the mirror shook. Strands of seaweed buoyed by air sacs stretched towards the surface. A loon called inside the mist. The blanket muffled a bell buoy and held shorelines distant. I coursed around a small island at the periphery of the bay, a line of rock mostly buried by the tide. Huddled pines climbed above a highwater mark so low winter storms must sweep the whole of it. But the only moisture touching the pines today was fog.

I paddled to the island’s beach—sand and stone dotted by shells and seaglass—and pulled ashore. White-grey peeled its way across the water, but for a moment the sun broke through. Trees opposite peeked green. From my perch I watched the Atlantic’s shifting mood, an ocean in utter calm.

Our constant neighbor, moody but not malicious. Our porch and guest space for welcoming in the wild. Angry? Mean? Barely. So much more gentle than the Pacific, she allows us to sit on her islands, lets us look into her reflection.

The clouds descended with resurgent fog. I looked back to the mainland’s faint outline, only silhouette now, and walked back to the sea. I slid my board into the mirror, the only ripples ours.


This piece appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

The Road, and Everything Else

The Road, and Everything Else

IMG_7411.JPGThere’s something about the road.

It doesn’t matter how many times people write about it, how many times people say it, the truth of it always resonates: There is something about the road. Maybe it’s the unsteadiness of it, the unpredictability. It cracks people open, leaves them vulnerable, open to spark and tangents. It pulls us in unforeseen directions, leaves us with fresh perceptions. There is something beautiful about it. Something primal.

I was outside just after dusk last night. 100 steps from the house was silent, dark. Then a flash of green, and another. Slowly they multiplied, a sea of beacons blinking around me: fireflies. The first of the season? I couldn’t tell. I hadn’t noticed them before last night, but was that because they weren’t there, or because I’d been distracted? I don’t know. But seeing them was like magic.

How much to we forget to see? How often do we look at the world as mundane because we have grown accustomed? And once we’ve stopped seeing, how do was see again?

That is the gift of the road. It brings us back to our senses, to our sense of wonder. The things that we grow accustomed to at home become new again in our absence. The fireflies regain their spark.

I hit the road in a few days. A week of freediving in the Florida Keys, then out to California for some friends, diving and climbing, then up the Pacific Coast to surf, climb and explore the Pacific Northwest. From there I catch a flight to Belize where I’m working with high school students on a service-learning project for three weeks, then diving for a week. Then it’s back to the PNW, and who knows, maybe more climbing, maybe Canada, maybe drive east.

But as much power as the road has for revealing the richness of our existence, I’m still caught among a mixture or emotions. It’s strange to be preparing to leave again. Today marks two weeks since I got home, barely time to settle after two months of climbing, diving, surfing and friends, adventures that began on one coast and ended on the other. It’s been two weeks of family, friends, oceans, rivers and lakes, cliffs and mountains, coffees and laughter. There are so many things that make life rich, and adventure is but one of them.

Adventure, however, is the one I know well. My heart can throw itself into lost wandering at a moment’s notice, barely a change of clothes in hand. When I was 15 I started carrying a toothbrush, a towel and a fresh pair of underwear with me everywhere I went. I wanted to be ready to wander, always. It’s a habit I’ve only built on over the last two decades.

IMG_0400But there is another version of adventure, a kind that doesn’t require plane tickets and mountains; an emotional kind, a personal kind. It is standing in front of a roomful of people and speaking honestly about something that scares you. It is taking the stage to sing, talking to a friend and admitting you were wrong. Saying “I don’t know” in a roomful of colleagues. It is revealing your heart, your beautiful raw self, with openness and vulnerability, being your true you in a crowd. Those are a different kind of adventure, the kind that build build bonds not just to ourselves or to one another, but to society, to community. They are nature, but not as we normally seek it. They are us in our natural state, us as us.

Those, I find, are rarer on the road. They may be there with one person, or with a few, but to throw ourselves into the depths of our community and be our richest, rawest selves, we need society. We need a critical mass of humanity. We need room to be among the members of our tribe.

That is not the adventure I’m known for. That is the adventure of musicians, artists, dancers, not those we typically call “adventurers.” But it is in the same spirit, lives within the same reckless heart, that someone takes to the stage for the first time to act in a play. To climb a mountain is no more daunting. This is the full spectrum of “adventure.”

My life of late has been full of the mountain kind. It has been full of rope and remote places, plane tickets and passports, oceans and overhangs. Some call it “Living the dream,” but lost along the Pacific Coast Highway is only one kind of adventure, and many versions call. The Dream includes every version of risk.

The Road. That is one thing, and I will soon be back on it. It is a course I can easily take—my bags are still always packed. But the other version of recklessness—the vulnerable human kind—calls too. And to access it takes more than plane tickets, more than wandering. It takes people. It takes community. It takes a crowded room. It takes a willingness to cut through the mundane, to reveal things normally kept hidden. It takes a bold heart, one poised for emotional destruction, not just physical.

And just like wandering the remote enclaves of nature, there is tremendous beauty hidden on these adventures, moments full of richness and light. But they are seen together, shared, not lived alone.

There is something alluring about that. As alluring as the road.