Jana Richman One Woman's Meat: Notes from Escalante

Random Thoughts of Excess

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Food, Harris Wash, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Peace, Salt Lake City, Solitude, The Body, The Place

I’ve been wandering the desert around Escalante going on four years now, time enough for my sensibilities to adapt to my surroundings. I suspect my sensibilities always resided here; only I was misplaced. I’ve spent all but three years of my life in one desert or another, but never before—even in my childhood—has the desert around me been so “uncovered,” so devoid of concrete, pavement, buildings, and unnatural plantings. Growing up in Tooele, Utah, then a tidy, self-contained town with fewer than 20,000 residents, I didn’t know I lived in a desert, and I nurtured my ignorance well into adulthood. Moving to Salt Lake City in my twenties made that all the easier because the edges of town were more difficult to reach. In fact, many people in Salt Lake City don’t acknowledge their desert dwelling status. The Mormons promised to make the “desert bloom like a rose,” and indeed they have. The consequences of doing so will be greeting them soon enough, but for now plausible deniability is still available to most—especially the urban desert dwellers.

I recently spent ten days in Salt Lake City hawking my wares and immersing myself in hubbub. I used to love the city clamor, used to crave it, in fact. But the desert has moved into the space I once filled with commotion, and I no longer require—or even tolerate—it. At one time, I hoped the energy of the city would help me shed my rural skin. Instead it only exposed it—painfully. I see my young self on the city streets and in the restaurants now, dressed in nightclub glitter too skimpy for the cool weather, tiptoeing precariously over uneven curbs on toes crushed by heels too high—looking good if it weren’t for trying so hard, if it weren’t for that glance into the darkened window for reflected reassurance. Those windows are a problem. If it weren’t for streets lined with mirrors, it would be easier to hide from oneself in the city than it is in a stripped-down desert, much easier to distract oneself from whatever pain or shame or fear flows just under the skin. A bare desert confronts a person, which might be why we treat them so shabbily, refuse to let them be, rush to cover them with concrete and roses.

Once I settle into the studio apartment where I sleep in Salt Lake City, the car becomes superfluous. I can gather what I need—which consists only of food—on foot. In this way, Salt Lake City is like Escalante. But other than the fact that they are both filled with Mormons—a comforting familiarity for me—the similarities end there.

Excessive choice in the downtown market

A few blocks from the SLC apartment sits a sparkly new, locally owned grocery store, small by “supermarket” standards, but hip and bright and colorful. In spite of its “downtown” size, the store is stocked so excessively beyond the needs of a human body, I often stand in the middle of an aisle—especially in the produce section—perplexed by choices and stimuli overload. I call this desert blindness. My slow and confounded movements inadvertently annoy shoppers who are certain of their desire for the fuji apple among the galas, granny smiths, honeycrisps, golden delicious, braeburns, red delicious, and jonathons.  They huff their disapproval of my dawdling presence as they reach around me before moving on to snap open a plastic bag and deposit a head of red leaf lettuce instead of the green leaf, romaine, endive, radicchio, butter leaf, arugula, or plain old iceberg. I used to be able to shop like that—with certainty and speed. The desert has taken that from me.

Winter abundance in the downtown market

Escalante and Salt Lake City are the antipodes of the food world. If one were to measure the concept of food in Escalante and compare it to the concept of food in Salt Lake City, or any city for that matter, the Escalante concept would be a distant fourth cousin of a friend of a friend who married a brother-in-law’s sister’s ex-boyfriend. When I lived in Salt Lake City, I learned to eat well; when I moved to Escalante, I learned to cook well. My concept of food shifted. In Salt Lake City, I chose what I wanted for dinner then either rushed out to have it placed in front of me hot and prepared or speed-shopped for specific ingredients to prepare it myself. In Escalante, I open the fridge and pull out whatever fresh items I’ve been able to get my hands on within the last week, which then determines what I’ll eat. Sometimes I use a cookbook, but cookbooks are filled with “easily attained” ingredients not easily attained within a hundred-mile radius of Escalante. Nevertheless, I learned how to stock a pantry from Mark Bittman and how to make substitutions from Alice Waters, both of which come in handy in winter months when the few restaurants in town are closed for lack of tourists to fill the chairs. Along with a bump in my cooking skills, my advance food planning skills have soared. One does not want to find oneself wondering what to have for dinner at 8 p.m. on a winter Saturday in Escalante. If the answer is not in the refrigerator and pantry, I will go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and wait another twenty-four hours before Griffin’s Grocery opens on Monday morning where I can buy a Marie Callender’s frozen chicken pot pie and some Cheerios to keep on hand for the next time the planning goes awry.

But then there’s this: In Escalante I eat better than I ever did in a place surrounded by an excess of food choices. I spend less. I waste less. I eat fresh bread we make ourselves. (Yes, I have a bread maker; his name is Steve.) We gather vegetables, fruit, and herbs from the backyard. We track down neighbors to buy eggs. We make four different meals from one pork roast. We make a better pizza than can be bought. We use all leftovers. We throw out very little.  Yet during those ten days in the city, I was stunned by the speed with which convenience took over my eating habits.

Temple Square dressed for the holidays

To get to the grocery store from the Salt Lake studio apartment, I walk through Mormon country—across the granite slab patios of the relatively new, blocky conference center, in front of the fountain fed by city creek, and up the speckled granite stairs. I then cross North Temple in the middle of the block and make a choice. I can walk directly through the Mormon temple grounds, always an aesthetically pleasing experience with meticulous gardens of color and grandeur in every season. On this trip, the dark purple pansies, which had shaken off an early snow with a show of vigor, were just nodding off, and great quantities of yellow and orange leaves were detaching their holds from branches and dropping to greet me. Workers were busy installing and testing Christmas lights; bushes and trees twinkled.

I seldom tire of strolling through Temple Square because my mother’s comforting presence is so strong there, but if I do, I can choose to wander down what used to be Main Street and past what used to be the Hotel Utah, both now owned by the church, the acquisition of which upset a good many people. I’m not one of them. For one thing, the church’s purchase of Hotel Utah likely saved a lovely historic building from destruction.  For another thing, closing off a street in deference to pedestrians rather than cars makes me happy in the-end-justifies-the-means sort of way, although how the church ended up owning a city street still raises the ire of those who love to spat at dinner parties about the separation of church and state—or lack thereof—in the beautiful state of Utah, as if it would escape the notice of us locals had others not moved in to point it out. Of course, one is no longer allowed to smoke or have sex in the bushes on the north side of Hotel Utah, and that’s a loss, but a whole lot of chaste snuggling and smooching goes on around the reflecting pond in the shadow of the temple. Every once in a while, as we wander through, Steve and I stop to join the fun.

It used to be that one would leave Mormon premises at the cornerstone on Main and South Temple—yes, the precise cornerstone from which sprouts the Mormon grid addressing system—but no longer. When downtown Salt Lake City began its descent into decay, as so many inner cities have, the church stepped in with cash and a plan for revitalization: commerce and consumerism, two things in which the church has expertise and an adaptive sense of morality and ethics. They built themselves a fancy mall.

Now on my way to the grocery store, I cross the street from Temple Square directly into the cobbled stones of City Creek Mall without so much as a stutter step. This may seem strange to some—flowing flawlessly from the sacred into the secular, from the spiritual to the material, all of it part and parcel of the Mormon Church, but the Mormon Church is a modern American church. Whereas the Catholics had to evolve slowly into modernism—first letting go of Latin mass, still a sacrilege to some—and employ the process of two steps forward and one back (or vice versa depending upon your views), the Mormons are not faced with such a problem. Joseph Smith built his church around commerce, and as far as Mormons are concerned, wealthiness is next to Godliness, which is why separation of church and state makes no sense to them. That would be like separating religion and commerce. Why would one want to do that when they fit so nicely together?

Once in the outdoor space of City Creek Mall, I stroll next to the perfectly placed boulders along the babbling creek for which the mall is named. I only assume the creek is babbling. I cannot hear it for the noise of the crowd and the piped-in, remarkably loud music psychologically driving the consumer madness. The number of items contained in City Creek Mall among Tiffany, Porsche Design, Nordstrom, Michael Kors, Brooks Brothers, Apple Store, and ninety or so others that a human does not need must number in the millions. You have the right to remain fabulous! says the City Creek Mall slogan. The fact that I was in the city for the very purpose of waving my arms and raising my voice with “buy, buy, buy!” pleadings for my new novel is not lost on me. Please make me a part of your consuming frenzy!

* * *

Excessive space

Excessive space

When I highlight the word “desert” in Microsoft Word and click on the handy thesaurus and dictionary function—certainly not an exhaustive or authoritative source, but one that, no doubt, represents mainstream thinking—the following terms pop up along the right-hand side of my screen: Wasteland. Deprived Place. Lifeless Place. Barren Region.

Desolate Tract. If I open The Synonym Finder I can add: Dust Bowl. No Man’s Land. Devoid. Empty. Destitute. Poor. Deficient. Uncultivable. Unproductive. We believe these words. They are part of our sensibilities, part of our psyche. They are what allowed the Mormons to make the desert

Excessive beauty

Excessive beauty

bloom like a rose. They are what allow residents along the Wasatch Front to deny living in a desert.

They are what drive us to cover deserts with malls and golf courses and lawns and concrete. The mall bustles with life! Wouldn’t we rather bustle with life than reside in a “lifeless place”?

The day after Thanksgiving, Steve and I drove out the desolate tract called Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the barren region known as Harris Wash. From there we walked several miles through the wasteland of flowing pink sand, pinyon pine, juniper, sage, and

wheatgrass before settling into the lifeless place

Excessive solitude

Excessive solitude

between rust-red sandstone and a cornflower blue sky.

We rested our backs against rocks warmed by a brilliant sun and were soothed by the silence of our deprived place. Pure excess.

The Ways of Western Water

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Las Vegas, Nevada, Spring Valley, The Place, Utah, West Desert

The Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas

A little more than six years ago, Pat Mulroy, general manager for Southern Nevada Water Authority announced a plan to build a 300-mile pipeline to pump water out of the eastern Nevada valleys in the basin and range land north of Las Vegas and carry it to the thirsty city. Because the intricate designs of water aquifers under our feet don’t abide by the rules of statehood, property rights, and water rights—no matter how much we want them to—the plan also includes pulling water out from under the folks living in Utah’s west desert communities, farms, ranches, and Goshute Indian reservation lands.

A life-giving spring for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute.

When I heard the announcement, I thought surely that such an idea based almost entirely on arrogance and power would be immediately shot down by the relatively sane among us, forcing those in charge to abandon the idea. Those in charge are claiming, of course, that they can take water without doing damage to the areas they plan to drain, and those about to lose their water, of course, believe their land, their cattle, their crops, their animals, their communities, and maybe even their lives will be threatened. The truth is in there somewhere and it is this: No one knows for certain the extent of the devastation that will be suffered by those on the losing end—the sucking end—of the pipeline. If we were to use logic and common sense, something we seldom rely on anymore, one would think that draining water out from under land in the most arid state in the nation would certainly have an impact. But expecting decisions made with logic and reason in these days of scarcity and fear is almost quaint—much easier to focus on our small lives, work like hell to keep what little we have, and let those with money and power make the big decisions. So, we come to this in the west: whoever can build the biggest pipeline wins. Apparently that approach makes sense to some. In fact, it makes sense to many. It’s not that those relying on logic and reason haven’t been fighting tirelessly—they have—but they are greatly outnumbered.

For the most part, we humans are proud of our hubris and proud of our pride and so on and so forth. We puff up with our “can do” attitudes while we yank nature around like a toy on a string—building dams, clearing land, diverting rivers, installing levees, poisoning topsoil, soiling the air, and sucking water out of the ground many times faster than it can be naturally replaced. (Case in point, in fewer than 100 years we have depleted the Ogallala aquifer, one of the nations largest underground water sources, which took nature more than 10,000 years to fill during the Ice Age.) Even when nature roars back to put us in our place with droughts, dead crops, toxic food, dust storms, melting glaciers, dried up aquifers, beetle-eaten dead trees, forest fires, broken levees, and flooded cities, we refuse to go. We will not be pushed around by nature. We stand our ground. Rebuild. Find new chemicals to kill new pests. Genetically modify our food. Put air filters in our homes and stay inside. Dig up more land and build more dams to secure more energy sources to run more air filters because it’s too dangerous to go outside. We’ve pitted ourselves against the very thing that keeps us alive—nature. And most of us seem to be placing our bets on humans. You have to love that sort of egotism or blind faith or pure stupidity or desperation or denial or delusion—whatever it is that keeps us building pipelines. It’s like placing a bet on the Detroit Tigers in the bottom of the ninth with two outs when San Francisco is up eight runs.

During the recent presidential debates, some of us were concerned that neither candidate spoke about caring for or attempting to reverse the damage we’ve done to the earth and our environment. Instead we heard “energy independence,” two hollow words proclaimed with either delusion or deceit or a combination of both.

On a Facebook page in response to a lament that the environment is not part of the political discussion, someone posted this comment: “It’s hard to care about the environment when the economy is bad and people don’t have jobs.” In other words, we have more pressing problems. But the truth is, we do not have more pressing problems. That comment was written as if the environment and human suffering were two separate issues. They are not. Every day, through our transgressions against the earth, we add to the suffering and destruction of humans not to mention many other species. We cause cancers with a chemical approach to mass food production. We destroy clean water supplies fracking our way to “energy independence.” We cause oceans to rise, which destroy homes and kill people with every big storm. We add to hunger, homelessness, and joblessness by clear cutting forests and building dams, displacing people who have survived from the land and the waterways for generations. “The environment” is not a peripheral issue, it is not a separate topic that sits “over there.”  It is the one single thing that does the most to either create or relieve human suffering, depending upon our actions. The destruction of the earth is an end game. As E.O. Wilson puts it, “one earth, one experiment.”

But our politicians know us well. They know that in spite of our compassionate rhetoric about the jobless and the uninsured, we care less about human suffering in general—especially if it resides outside of our daily observation in other towns, states, and preferably countries—than we do about alleviating our individual fears and protecting our own individual comfort levels—no matter how large or small either of those things might be. That’s what this presidential campaign is about—provoking our fears while promising to alleviate them. But it soon won’t matter at all if anyone has a job, or if someone has to pay inheritance tax, or if most of us are uninsured. None of us are insured against unbreathable air, lack of water, and toxic food. More pressing problems? The storm that just hit the east coast should tell us otherwise. The dead crops in the Midwest should tell us otherwise. The number of people dying around the world—including here at home—from tainted water and food-borne illnesses should tell us otherwise. And the very conversation of a 300-mile, multi-billion dollar water pipeline should tell us otherwise.

* * *

When I heard the pipeline announcement, I “got involved,” “became active,” wrote lots of letters, met with people, wrote an editorial for the paper—the grind that we grind through on every issue that nudges us closer to the finish line of the human vs. nature race. I love those tireless activists on the ground, on the front lines, but I’m not one of them. I bring up the rear. I’m the support unit. I burn out quickly and trundle home to write, having been shown once again that the page is my only access to activism.

Three questions kept popping up in my mind on this issue: Who builds a city of excess like Las Vegas in the middle of a desert that demands restraint? Who sets up a water-dependent agricultural operation in the driest state in the nation? And once both of those things are definitively established involving real people living real lives in the only way they know how, what happens when the water runs out, worlds collide, and things screech to a halt? So I began to write.

In the meantime, back when I was working on my MFA at the University of Arizona, three fictional characters introduced themselves to me and started rattling around in my head, spilling tea, and having conversations among themselves. They were three generations of women from the same family—twenty something, forty something, and seventy something—all wanting to have their say from the perspective of their age and gender. But they lacked a story and a place so for years they’ve been hanging around in my brain as if in a doctor’s waiting room, looking at their watches and kicking up a fuss now and again about how long they’ve been waiting.

When Pat Mulroy announced the plan to build the Las Vegas water pipeline, she offered those three patient women a backdrop to their story. I offered them a place—the sparse and beautiful Spring Valley, Nevada, nestled between the Snake and Schell Creek Mountains—and set them loose on the page. They took what was offered and ran with it, all of them anxious to be heard: Nell, 76, a Spring Valley rancher; Kate, 46, Nell’s daughter and the deputy water resource manager at the Nevada Water Authority; and Cassie, 21, Kate’s daughter, a student at UNLV.

The three of them began talking in earnest and often over the top of one another, but before long, because she couldn’t trust Nell to tell it like it is, Nell’s sister-in-law, Leona, insisted on adding her voice from the older generation. As Leona says about Nell, “Darn near every story that comes outta her mouth has some sorta bend to it that don’t belong there.”

I was curious to hear their stories, curious to know how Kate, who grew up on the ranch in Spring Valley, ended up in her position at the NWA touting a plan that she knew would devastate her mother’s life. What had happened between them? What path led her to a position diametrically opposed to her family and upbringing?

The story that the four women told about family secrets, family lies, family tragedies, and many flawed human decisions that spread and trickled through the place and the people like the water aquifers under their feet, surprised me.

The result is The Ordinary Truth, out in bookstores this month. My intent in writing about ideas such as the pending Las Vegas pipeline, which is still on the table and still moving forward, is not to tell readers how to view it or how to think about it, but simply to get readers to think about it. In other words, I want to bring up questions, not offer answers. I realized in writing this book that the issue of the Las Vegas water pipeline—like most of the environmental urgencies we now face—is extremely complex. It’s not a question of good versus evil, right versus wrong. There are good, sincere people trying to do the right thing on all sides of this issue, and there are no easy answers. The truth—the ordinary truth—is that there may be no answers at all.

In its starred review, Booklist says, “With tough women and sensitive men, desert-dry humor, hot-springs sensuality, heartbreaking secrets, escalating suspense, and a 360-degree perspective on the battle over water, Richman’s twenty-first-century western is riveting, wise, and compassionate.

The phrase in that review that thrills me the most is “a 360-degree perspective on the battle over water.” If we ever hope to stop the assault on our life-giving planet and, in doing so, save ourselves, we cannot afford to operate from our morally righteous pedestals, from our positions of certainty, from our place of first demonizing the opposition before we begin a conversation. What I found while researching this book is that the people who will be most affected by any decision made through power and wealth are often those with the quietest voices on all sides of the issues—not only the small time rancher who will not be able to water her crops and the Goshute tribal member who will not be able to water his livestock, but also the low-wage-earning janitor who sweeps cigarette butts off sidewalks in front of the Bellagio dancing fountains in the city of excess. They might indeed hold wildly divergent points of view from one another, but they often still share a love for their families, a love for their geographical place, a love for humanity in general, and a desire for the single necessity in life they’ve always taken for granted—water.

* * *

If you would like to read more of the story behind The Ordinary Truth, you can find a Q&A here and a book excerpt from The Ordinary Truth here.

The Ordinary Truth is available through your local independent bookstore, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

For those of you in Salt Lake City, please join us for a book launch reading and celebration at The Kings English on November 14, at 7 p.m. For those of you in Moab, please join us at Back of Beyond Books on November 30, where I’ll be reading with Erica Olsen, author of the short story collection, Recapture.

For those of you in Escalante, big book release celebration coming up soon! I might as well kick off the party season here in Escalante where we celebrate Thanksgiving, Solstice, Hanukkah, and Christmas all the while pretending Escalante is a sleepy little town that shuts down in the winter when the tourists leave.

In the next few months, I’ll be speaking in Kanab, Utah, and possibly Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. Events will be posted under “News and Reviews” on this website. I’m happy to visit your book group in person, by phone, or by skype. Please contact me by email at janarich@scinternet.net.

The Struggle for Convalescence

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Convalescence, Escalante, Utah, Mindfulness, Salt Lake City, The Body, The Mind, The Place

“I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worthwhile.”

–George Bernard Shaw

For the past two weeks, I have been viewing the world through the haze of the common cold. My head is filled with the sort of thick and furry dryer lint that catches in the screen after I wash the cat blankets. I’m told that a cold that lasts beyond a week could be something else, something more serious—pneumonia or bronchitis. I don’t have either of those; mine is all in my head. But it is quite serious. A war has been declared between body and mind. My body is demanding convalescence and my mind is refusing. I have work to do.

My mind operates under the impression that I engage in really important work, that I am indispensible to the daily goings-on of the world—at least the small world I inhabit. My body, on the other hand, knows the truth—that if I were to take a few days or a few weeks or lie down and die tomorrow, life would go on relatively unaffected—not my life but life in general. A partially edited manuscript on my desk would have to go back to its owner; my absence at upcoming readings would cause one or two folks to pause before they shrug it off to irresponsible behavior; a university on the east coast would send me first a concerned email, then a terse email, then a termination letter after several deadlines pass; my brother and sister would wonder if they might inherit anything (they won’t); and my husband would have to attend to the unpaid bills and refill the cat dishes. In other words, my life could be cleared away in a rather tidy and rapid manner.

I spent the first week of my illness in Salt Lake City where I went to speak to a writing class, attend a reading, get my hair cut, and visit friends—most of which I did not accomplish. Instead, I sat in a chair, a box of tissue on my lap, in a small studio apartment across the street from the Mormon conference center. Unable to think clearly enough to work or read, I stared out the window. When the sun became strong enough, I ventured out of the apartment to the lawn where I sat to watch the parade of devout Mormons make their way to conference. Every woman who walked by with her gray hair sprayed hard against the fall breeze reminded me of my beautiful, devoutly Mormon mother. I can’t be Mormon, but I have a tender spot for those women. I adored my mother, but I’m blaming her for my inability to convalesce.

My mother died a very old woman at the age of seventy-nine. For the last ten or so years of her life, she convalesced from one thing or another—falls, congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, skin torn to the bone, and my father. At some point she embraced her illnesses, sank into her couch in the television room, and set out to live the remainder of her days as a convalescent.

I dare not relax for fear my common cold will define my days and nights.

* * *

I have a friend who tells me she has learned to move through her life as a majestic elephant—slowly, mindfully, with purpose. At first I had trouble merging the two—the small-boned, fat-free woman and the majestic beast, but, indeed, I can see majesty—splendor, dignity, power—in her movements and hear it in her words. She is seemingly full of joy, love, and peace, and she shares them generously. She tells me I need to nap, listen to music, get a foot massage, and sit on the back porch in the fall sun to watch the remaining leaves fall. Convalesce. Restore. Recuperate. Relax. My body lunges at the thought, but my mind is mortified. Deadlines will be missed and commitments will be broken and many things will fall through very wide cracks! She doesn’t have this problem because (1) majestic elephants are apparently wise enough not to accumulate unrealistic deadlines and too numerous commitments in the first place, and (2) majestic elephants do not swirl in circles of self-induced chaos. They simply go about each single task in front of them, one after another. She provides either inspiration or jealousy steeped in self-loathing—my choice.

* * *

Black Walnut Tree at Rest

Black Walnut Tree at Rest

Last night I walked to the writing shed in pure darkness after everyone—husband and houseguests—had gone to sleep. The moon was but a sliver, but the crunching of the browned grasses under my feet told me when I had wandered off the bare dirt path. I did an hour of editing before sinking into my reading chair and reaching for my box of Kleenex to blow my nose.

The world had changed during my ten days in Salt Lake City. The leaves on the giant black walnut tree and the three smaller cottonwood trees in the front yard had yellowed and dropped without my attendance. The frosty mornings have taken the lives of the herbs and tomato plants. The grass and weeds have gone dormant. The apple trees are still full, but production is down. It is a time of rest and restoration for those willing to embrace it.




The Perfect Trail

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Antone Flat, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Kindness, Peace, Roundy Trail, Security, The Body, The Mind, The Place

Roundy Trailhead

North of Escalante, about six miles up the road that goes to Posey Lake on the Aquarius Plateau, off to the right, the Roundy Trail cuts across Pine Creek and winds a quarter-mile through sage and juniper before snaking directly up the mountainside. From the pullout just past the cattle guard, the high, steep ridge discloses no obvious route. Once it starts up the craggy, red- and white-faced rock dotted with vegetation, easy-to-miss rock cairns offer small guidance in navigating turns and twists on a kaleidoscopic trail of red, orange, and purple pieces of shale—slippery when wet or dry. The trail climbs steadily for two miles before depositing a hard-breathing hiker on the top at a place called Antone Flat. From there, one can stroll through juniper and ponderosa to the edge of the world and peer over into deep, endless canyons of slickrock.

Because it is short and close to town, one could hike it daily. And if one were of a Buddha nature, that would be the wise thing to do. Steep, slippery, and easy to lose, the trail requires strength, endurance, balance, and focus. Once you have all of those working, it sets up the perfect Buddhist paradox: at the same time it demands focus, it also requires letting go, getting out of the mind, trusting that the foot will find its place, trusting the animal instincts you were born with. It requires comfort with shifting ground and uncertainty. I believe the Roundy Trail to be a path of enlightenment.

The other day I decided to hike to Antone Flat when it seemed I had none of the requirements—strength, endurance, balance, focus, or trust—on hand. There are closer, easier trails when one is feeling like a semi-attached piece of rusted sheet metal banging repeatedly against the shed in the wind. But that’s where I found myself.

I tightened my bootlaces and skirted along the barbwire fence down a washed-out gully, splashed through the creek and stumbled across the desert floor through anthills larger than my kitchen table until an obvious rock cairn alerted me to cut in and start the climb.

As I settled into the ascent, I attempted to empty my mind. It does not go willingly. That’s not to say that it’s filled with important data. Very much the opposite. It’s like the kitchen garbage that is three days beyond when it should have gone out—filled with stinking waste and buzzing with fruit flies—full of lies I tell myself, imaginary conversations with real people, real conversations with imaginary people, useless essential information, fantasies, nightmares, scenarios worked out in all sorts of ways. Chatter. Endless noise without a gap big enough to stick a foot in. All of that is a good thing if the intent is to be spit out onto Antone Flat without seeing 360-degree views of earth and sky, without realizing you’re sweating like a human, and without feeling the punctures in your leg from the cactus you didn’t know you walked through.

Roundy Trail Surface

The trip down, though, is a different story. It forces the issue. I start out clumsily, still listening to the noise in my head until I trip and skid far enough down the trail to scare myself quiet. Then I drop into a zone, a crouch-step where I focus only on my next move and go quickly before my mind can catch up to my body. I get comfortable walking on floating pieces of shale. The slips are nothing; I recover quickly. Easy going. Relaxing. I maintain the zone for a good five minutes before I realize that it has been four minutes since I’ve seen the last rock cairn, calling for me to stop, lift my head, look out at the world, and retrace my steps until I’m back on the path.

If I choose to look closely at my motivations, which I don’t often choose to do, I would guess that I found myself on that path because it most closely resembles everyday reality—the ground shifts under my feet, rock cairns disappear, and another storm rolls in.

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron. She suggests that we cause our own suffering by relentlessly searching for solid ground that simply isn’t there, by incessantly clinging to disappearing markers as the next storm rolls in. Of course, she’s right. I’ve clung to one buoy after another looking for the final flotation device. Whether it be financial, emotional, or physical security—I want my lifetime warranty. Then I can stop holding my breath and go about my life in a relaxed and cheerful sort of way.

Security Marker

We are a society of guarantees, promises, contracts, assurances, pacts, treaties, and pledges. Till death do we part. Some of us would even like to be insured beyond death so others have taken it upon themselves to offer such a thing. Nevermind that the foolishness of this approach is flung back at us daily in the form of divorces, lawsuits, broken promises, bankruptcies, lapsed warranties, broken hearts, and suicides. We shall not be dissuaded in our march toward security.

Pema Chodron proposes that we might instead want to cultivate a level of comfort with impermanence and uncertainty since that seems to be what life offers us. “Lean into the sharp points” of life, she says. Instead of attempting to encase our hearts in something like a little pocket protector, we might do the opposite—unwrap our hearts, open them to pain and suffering, expose what she calls “the tender spot.” From that piercing of the heart, she claims, comes compassion and light, a relaxation into today’s reality instead of a grasping at tomorrow’s illusion.

Radical. Logical. Difficult to implement.

But I’m trying it out. I’ve started meditating twenty minutes a day—not as easy as it looks—but I worry (a non-Buddhist thing to do) that in the midst of all this loving kindness I will become too appeasing, that my writing will lose its edge. I write essays, and according to the essayist and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate, one of the roles of an essayist is contrariety. And I love that role—the “opportunity to bristle” as Lopate puts it.  When I voice my conciliatory concerns to Steve, he assures me that will not happen. I’m not sure whether that is a compliment or an insult, so I decide to let it go without judgment (a Buddhist thing to do).

As I slip and slide down Roundy Trail, trusting the flow of groundlessness, I make a conscience decision to also let go of my husband as security guard, as guarantor of my happiness, as permanent sentinel of my heart and well-being. I believe we can show each other more love, more kindness, and more compassion if we let loose the security strapping. Maybe we can live more presently, allow for more spontaneity and playfulness, joy and passion, if we are not busy demanding promises of and making promises to one another.

This will take some time and practice. Letting go of security—even if it’s only an illusion—creates a feeling of, well, insecurity. But I’m doing all right with it. I’ve already let Steve go as far as the post office without first promising to love me forever. Tomorrow, we’ll try the grocery store.

The Monsoonal Flow of Kindness

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Kindness, Monsoons, The Mind, The Place

There is no need for complicated philosophy . . . the philosophy is kindness.

–Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama

Monsoons have arrived in Escalante. Brash, vociferous monsoons carried into town on raucous winds and dumping fat, lavish globs of rain. At the very moment I write this, lightening sparkles around me, thunder bellows, clear water falls from the sky—one minute battering insistently, the next descending gently—and squishy mud forms around the porch of my writing shed as if it were the gift I’ve been waiting for. And it is.

The monsoons have been present in Escalante for three weeks now. Those whose job it is to predict and report the weather call them violent storms. I call them kind, benevolent storms. My phone was deadened for a day and the water ran urine-yellow from my kitchen faucet for a week. Still, I wouldn’t call those consequences—my loss of modern conveniences—acts of violence.

No doubt someone will point out to me that such storms are violent because they can be, and often are, deadly. A young husband and father was struck and killed by lightening during a recent storm, and in the not too distant past hikers have been killed in flash floods, common in nearby canyons during monsoons. But death itself does not denote violence. In my mind, violence requires intent. And monsoons are just monsoons—there’s no violent intent involved.

Monsoonal Flow --Photo by Cassady Croft

Of course, one could then argue that if monsoons cannot be violent nor can they be kind and benevolent, as I have described them. I suppose that is true. Monsoons are indifferent to humans. But I am not indifferent to monsoons; therefore, I choose to receive them as kind. After a summer start of scorched earth, smoke-filled air, empty lakes, disappearing rivers, and a dry, dusty yard—a stark preview, no doubt, of summers to come—I can’t find anything but kindness and compassion in the monsoons. Others are free to receive them as they wish.

* * *

Last fall, Steve and I attended a gathering of about fifty people interested in a new collective consciousness—a consciousness that would reconnect the human mind to the reality of the human habitat, a consciousness that would remind us that humans can live without fossil fuel, airplanes, and cars—and, in fact, have done so in the not too distant past—but they cannot live—and never have been able to live—without clean air, pure water, and non-toxic food. Because a physiological adaptation to such a state is unlikely, most of us know—if we are conscious at all—that the choice among those things is quickly approaching.

As one might expect, based upon who has the most to lose in the game of chicken we’re playing with the earth, the average age of those in attendance at the consciousness gathering was approximately 20-30 years my junior.  The crowd was hip, young, smart, and creative, and it showed in their manner of dress, in the expansiveness of their art, and in their relationships to one another. I felt the opposite of all those things: old, dowdy, out of place, and shunned. Steve—a redneck hippie intellectual who is comfortable in his own skin and, therefore, comfortable in any group—fit right in. For five days, we camped among the youth, sharing meals and conversation. It was not easy to keep my defenses up for a full week, but I managed.

On the final day, the group came together to bid one another farewell with a few final words from each of us. I had nothing to say, so while others spoke, I occupied myself with formulating something simple, something that wouldn’t give me away as the only person who had not been transformed by the experience. But I kept getting distracted by the words of others—words that contained what seemed a genuine outpouring of love, not only for everyone in the room but for humanity and life in general.

When it came my time to speak, I could not. While everyone patiently waited, I wept. A young man—a burner (a devotee of Burning Man) in his early 20s with wildly free, shoulder-length hair and face paint—sat next to me on the floor. As I attempted to speak through tears, he reached over, gently but firmly wrapped his large hand around my forearm just above my wrist, and held onto me until I stopped crying long enough to utter a few words. Afterward, as everyone one stood to leave, I touched his arm and thanked him. He smiled and engulfed me in a tight hug.

I don’t know that young man’s name, I don’t know if I will ever see him again, and I don’t know that I would recognize him if I did. He gave me the simple but momentous gift of kindness and taught me something about myself: I contain my own segregation. I carried it into that gathering. At the moment of my vulnerability, at the moment I let down my defenses, he bestowed unrestrained compassion.

* * *

Last month the New York Times published an essay in which I shared my life-long struggle with fear. In the online comments, some scoffed, some simply called me foolish, and some argued that I have no right to my fear. They pointed out that I live in a beautiful place, that I have a good-looking husband and a cat. They, thereby, proclaimed me unworthy of fear. I agree! That’s precisely what I tell my fear every morning: go away; you have no reason to be here. I am not deserving of your presence.

Others urged me to hang onto my fear, even suggesting I may not be fearful enough, especially when it comes to my physical surroundings. They told me the same thing the signpost that graces the trailhead near the Escalante River tells me: “You Could Die Out Here!” Precisely why wandering a vast, magnificent desert calms a person like me.

Many more readers—online and through email—reacted with the simple philosophy of kindness. I was stunned—perhaps naively so—by the sheer number of such messages I received. Some called me courageous for sharing my fear in a public way, informing me that fear and shame often operate as a pair, and, indeed, that was the message of the angry readers: you should be ashamed of your fear. Some wrote to me of their own struggles with paralyzing fear, irrational fear, fear that greets them every morning and haunts them throughout the day. Fear, it turns out, is democratic—it is not gender specific, it is not geographically specific. It does not care about skin color, sexual orientation, class, religion, profession, trade, talent, intellect, friends, family, love, or income level. No one is deserving of that kind of fear, and no one need be ashamed of that kind of fear. To those who reached out to me in the vein of kindness, thank you.

* * *

The other day, a friend of mine received a great review from Publishers Weekly for her forthcoming novel. I was truly happy for her, without qualification. I’m embarrassed to admit that for much of my life I’ve experienced petty jealousy with the good news of friends. I did not understand that joy can be shared, that there is plenty to go around. I did not understand that one person’s good fortune does not supplant another’s. Opportunities for joy should not be squandered. Same with kindness. If I don’t carry kindness in my soul, I have no way to receive it from others.

* * *

Monsoon Waterfall --photo by Julie Trevelyan (www.wildgirlwriting.com)

Steve likes to run in the desert; I like to walk in the desert. Both of those things are made more pleasurable by the kindness of monsoons so we’ve been going out often—starting at different points and meeting in the middle. We typically go out after the monsoon has passed but the remnants linger—pools, quicksand, the scent of sage, and—if we’re lucky—waterfalls over slickrock. Sometimes we’re out when the monsoon arrives, so we tuck under an alcove to watch the storm through wide eyes and a panel of water or climb to the safety of high ground from which we watch the river rise, turn muddy, and gush below us.

Washed-smooth and moisture-packed sand is a joy to travel over. It requires no trudging; it’s like walking on a sponge. As I walk, I can’t stop myself from looking back at my perfectly formed footsteps, especially if I’m walking barefoot. I’m somehow fascinated by the way they follow me—teasing and fun, a playful existential game, but a game with a moral I’ve yet to figure out. Once while walking together in post-monsoon sand, Steve and I noticed that I—a smaller and slighter body—was leaving deeper prints than he. I attributed this to his lightness of spirit. So I continue to check the tracks behind me, expecting that one day I’ll turn and see no trace of myself.

The Human Intrusion

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante, Utah, Peace, The Catskills, The Mind, The Place

“The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity.”

–E.O. Wilson

During the past few weeks, I left my desert home for a variety of reasons, the first being only that I was invited to do so by an old friend with whom I wished to reconnect after a twelve-year pause. Being comfortable with the natural comings and goings of friends throughout a life, I approach all such reconnections with trepidation, but in this case, the reunion was reason enough to vacate my dry and thirsty plot of land and suffer the repugnance of airplane travel. I had missed her easy laugh, her love and knowledge of books, and our shared neuroses.

The promise of a view such as the one I now gaze upon through the upstairs window of an old farmhouse in the Catskills provided yet another motive for risking the lives of my water-dependent herbs and tomato plants in Escalante. The view, quite simply, is green. Green upon green. Green behind green. Green in such magnitude a desert dweller might find it monotonous, almost crushing in its closeness. But I don’t find it so. I’ve never lived in such a place—I’ve been a desert rat most of my life—so I’m unable to explain the nostalgia that flushes through me upon arrival. But synchronicity often follows me, and within the pages of the only book I carried with me, E. O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, I find my answer: the savanna hypothesis of human evolution. When given a choice, people of different cultures, countries, and backgrounds overwhelmingly look for three characteristics when choosing a place to live: a height from which they can look out over a parkland with scattered trees near water. In other words, says Wilson, “habitats resembling those in which our species evolved in Africa during millions of years of prehistory.”

Outside the window, a tamarack tree, gentle in its grandeur, spreads itself upward and outward—at least seventy feet tall and twenty feet wide from its trunk in every direction. I don’t know much about trees. I don’t know much about anything, really. I spend a good amount of time outside, but my ignorance about the nature of things is generally widespread. Information seeps in and leaks out in equal parts. Wilson believes that if we were all better educated about the inner workings of the natural world, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the mess we’re currently in. I’m sure he’s right.

Catskills Garden

Fifteen feet up, the slender trunk of the tamarack splits, and two trunks grow side-by-side, equal in proportion, equal in production, a perfect partnership. I don’t know if trees have identifiable genders. I could “google” it, but sometimes having the short, quick answer is not nearly as satisfying as immersing oneself in the essence of the thing. This tree is female. Not a hard, athletic female, but a soft, lithesome female. A rare female without insecurity or conceit.  Through its wispy tendrils and tiny cone baubles, I can view the thick lawn running out to meet the tall-grass meadow and the trees beyond, many of which are hemlock and syrup-bestowing maples. The gardens sprout pink and white peonies, purple lupine and iris, lavender foxglove, orange and pink poppies, yellow sundrops, and white wood anemone. Near the vegetable garden, a stinky, as-of-yet unidentified bush sporting creamy, swaying feathers turns away plant-seeking deer. A slow, dark creek crawls through the yard and into the woods. The nostalgia of prehistoric recognition makes me want to lie in the meadow and weep.

At night I sit in the dark expanse of the lawn and watch the joyful, erotic dance of fireflies. I remember seeing fireflies as a child in Utah, but I’m not sure if my memory is real or fantasy. I haven’t seen them in more than four decades. I check with my husband, also a Utah native; he tells me the memories are fantasy.

Birds come and go from the tamarack paying no mind to me. They don’t admire us the way we admire them. They don’t keep a people journal to jot down where and when they spotted a particular type of person sporting certain colors and singing a recognizable song. With few exceptions, says Wilson, almost everything in nature can survive without humans, one of the exceptions being three species of body and head lice. Humans, on the other hand, need almost every species on the earth for our survival—especially the insects—though we are loath to admit it. Wilson is too polite to say so, but when it comes to “living Nature,” we are defiantly ignorant, and we protect our ignorance with gusto.

According to my two housemates who are knowledgeable about such things, there are good birds and bad birds, desirable birds and undesirable birds. I can’t tell the difference. I tend to pick birds the same way I pick sports teams—whoever has the best colors gets my endorsement.

For the most part, all birds look pleasant to me, though one particularly large and confident blue jay does throw its weight around at the bird feeder, bullying the others. I’m assuming it belongs in the undesirable category, which I confirm at dinner. “Blue jays?” I ask. “They’re assholes,” is the response—a widely agreed upon characterization that makes me giggle for its sheer humanness. But this bird sports a handsome crown and gorgeous deep blue—almost periwinkle—wings and tail etched with gray and white design work. No wonder he’s cocky. Yet he’s common. The more rare the bird, the more desirable the bird, which explains why most humans are undesirable—we are not nearly rare enough.

* * *

In my backyard in Escalante, a large cherry tree annually produces copious amounts of dark red bing cherries. Each year we share our crop with the birds—or more accurately, the birds share their crop with us. They take the top half of the tree, and we take the lower half, a perfectly reasonable arrangement. We have no ladder high enough to reach the top branches, no desire to bottle cherries, and a limited digestive capability for fresh cherries. This year, however, I began to notice activity in the cherry tree long before the cherries were big enough or ripe enough to pick. The chirpy visitors were yellow-breasted, orange-headed birds—excellent team colors. Possibly western tanagers, though I know as much about birds as I do trees.  Although the bird’s colors would put it on my “winner” list, it turned out to be a cheating bird—a bird that doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the rules; an impatient bird—a bird that could not wait for the cherries to grow and ripen; a greedy bird—a bird not willing to share with an inferior species of cherry picker.

In fear of losing my summer opportunity to sicken myself on cherries, I asked around town for a resolution. “Throw a net over the tree” was the most common response I received, which perplexed me. I don’t have the largest cherry tree in Escalante by any means, but “throwing a net over the tree” would require either a helicopter drop or a buildup of scaffolding. Instead, I pulled a chair up to the railing of the back porch, propped my feet up, and watched the birds clean me out. To their credit, western tanagers—if that’s what they were—are tidy birds. I now have a cherry tree full of stems and pits still nicely attached to the branches. No mess on the ground. I’ve not yet decided whether or not the western tanager is a desirable bird.

* * *

The scent of the Catskills mountain air blowing gently through the lace curtains into the room where I write is unknown to me. The woods of the East and the woods of the West don’t carry the same scent. The woods of the West never fail to catch my heart with their pine-infused, dry-rotting mustiness and dirt, and I could tell by watching my friend when she first got out of the car that the woods of the East catch her heart in the same way. The smell here is more alive, coalesced and smoother—like a perfectly mixed cocktail with a little froth on top. The smell in the west is a shot of tequila followed by a shot of vodka followed by a shot of whiskey—strong and distinct. I believe the difference might be due to the spacing of plants—I can’t smell bare dirt here.

The sound in the Catskills is also unfamiliar. Birdsong rules the airwaves. Clear, vibrant, and contained—as if the woods keep the sound near. In the open space of the West, the birdsong escapes, always in the background instead of the foreground. I’m most startled by the absence of a familiar summer sound—the tish-tish-tish of irrigation sprinklers. Here, I’m forced to acknowledge the unnaturalness of the sound that has soothed me since I was a child and still often does.

One evening I and my housemates sat on the porch of the art studio built in the woods next to the creek and caught glimpses of the setting sun through the trees, a somewhat frustrating experience for someone used to wide horizons. It felt like sitting in the back row at a music concert where the stage can be seen only occasionally between the bobbing heads of people. But there’s something comforting in the way this place repairs itself around the human intrusion with such abundance, such luxuriance, almost as if it is saying, “settle in, you’re welcome here, we’ll just fill in around you.” The beauty of rainfall.

The arid West cannot accommodate us so easily. It cannot fill in around human intrusion in a few seasons or a few decades. It does not have the capacity to do so. The land around my Escalante home appears spectacularly tough—reddened and baked rocks, jagged, running cliffs, deep gulches exposing rocks more than 270 million years old, Entrada sandstone goblins and arches—the quintessential picture of the rugged west. But it is not tough. It is an extremely fragile ecosytem, and each day the degradation from human intrusion becomes more apparent. I feel lucky to live amid such beauty, but it can break your heart on a daily basis. We have damaged it beyond repair—there is no doubt about that—and we remain defiantly ignorant about the consequences.

The proponents of tearing into 2,000 acres of public land near Bryce National Park to extract coal have promised to “rehabilitate” the place at the end of thirty years of destruction. Such a promise is both laughable and sad. Cleaning up toxic air and water is the simple task. How does one put rocks back together after they are blasted apart? How does one replace the animals (including humans) killed in the process? How does one rebalance the native insects?

The loss of insects is something that would, of course, be laughed out of any discussion about the pros and cons of coal mining. We seldom hear environmentalists arguing on behalf of insects, yet close to fifty percent of all insects are endangered due to human intrusion. Once we lose insects, we lose flowering plants because we have no pollinators. We lose herbs and trees and shrubs dependent upon insects for pollination, including fruit trees. We lose birds that prey upon foliage, fruits and insects. We lose insects that turn soil and ready it for planting. The natural ecological balance is not only a beautiful thing; to the human, it is a necessary thing. “We have only a poor grasp,” says Wilson, “of the ecosystem services by which other organisms cleanse the water, turn soil into a fertile living cover, and manufacture the very air we breathe.” In other words, every species we lose—even an ant—nudges us toward our own demise. Yet, we continue to toy with the delicate balance of nature like children playing with matches, like drunken teenagers playing Russian roulette. The boast of “rehabilitating” the land back to a “pre-mining” stage is nothing more than a perfect combination of hubris and gullibility. We believe it because we want to believe it. We want to believe we can have benefits with no costs. Defiant ignorance.

* * *

From the desk in the farmhouse’s upstairs bedroom in the Catskills, I hear the gurgle of the “tiny creek” that runs through the woods. That’s the way the owner of the house described it—a tiny creek. The tiny creek is deeper and faster than the Escalante River crossing I encounter on my daily walk around the circumference of my town. At the west end of Escalante, I trundle down the powdery banks of the river and cross without hesitation. Without getting wet. The water comes no higher than the soles of my shoes.

Further downriver, the Escalante widens and deepens as it picks up the creeks of the Aquarius Plateau until it theoretically feeds into the Colorado River. However, it can no longer reach that great rushing river. Instead the Escalante runs into the unnaturally still waters of Lake Powell—the backed up bathtub of the Colorado River.

Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell, offers another striking example of brazenness and credulity, trading short-term results for long-term destruction. The sacrifice of Glen Canyon was only the beginning. The dam fundamentally changed the Colorado River from a raging, brown, silt-filled river into a clear, serene river carrying less than ten percent of its pre-dam sediment, permanently altering the formations of the Grand Canyon and killing off native fish. Most people don’t care. We prefer slow-moving, clear water to a raging, muddy river anyway, we have a hard time empathizing with the Humpback Chub, and we are notoriously inept at thinking beyond our own lifespan.

When I return to Utah from the Catskills, the Escalante River crossing on the west end of town is dusty bone-dry, and my state is on fire. So far more than 175,000 acres have burned. The neighboring states—Arizona, Colorado, and others—are also burning. The fire closest to my house has burned 8,200 acres and is 10% contained. The skies above my house are filled with smoke. My house is not in danger, but my soul and my psyche are. The fire was started by a spark from an ATV.  So far this year, 393 out of 438 Utah fires were human caused. In other words, 90 percent of the fires were preventable, unlike those caused by lightening strikes.

People who don’t care about the Humpback Chub care about the fires because they want to go camping, hiking, and fishing. They want to roast hotdogs and marshmallows over a campfire on the Fourth of July. They want to light sparklers and firecrackers. They want to ride ATVs and shoot guns that create sparks. As Americans, it is their right to do so. The line connecting the disappearance of the Humpback Chub to the smoke burning our nostrils is too dotted to follow, and we have no interest in connecting the dots anyway. Defiant ignorance.

Many work to repair the damage we’ve done. They reintroduce species—frantically trying to reestablish nature’s balance—and make pleas to the powerful with a few successes and many failures. In the mountains above my home, native beavers, having disappeared due to trapping, were reintroduced. They happily splashed around North Creek reservoir for a few weeks before someone trapped them, bashed their heads in, and threw them back into the reservoir—a clear statement to those who would dare attempt such acts as balancing the natural order of things.

Some will rise above such horrific details and keep working in spite of the unconditional violence directed at them. I so admire those people, but it feels a bit like trying to carry the Colorado River in one’s cupped palms. Holistically speaking, I have little faith in the ability of humans to manage nature. Even the most laudable kind of “nature management” seems close to an absurd idea, an idea borne out of the egos, and possibly the desperation, of humans. Yet I still believe in individual acts of redress, individual attempts to save the living environment, which is nothing less than a very commendable attempt to save ourselves. Maybe those small balancing acts will make a difference. Maybe it is my own defiant ignorance—rather than the smell of burnt earth—that tests my faith. If E. O. Wilson, with his vast knowledge of the regenerative capabilities of nature, can remain optimistic this many years after he began to shout warnings into seemingly deaf ears, why not me?

* * *

On my way from Escalante to Salt Lake City to catch the plane that would deliver me to New York, I followed a 4×4 Dodge pickup towing four ATVs—humans’ most triumphant tool of destruction—up the road over Boulder Mountain. Traveling rather close to the trailer’s bumper as I waited for my opportunity to pass the slow-moving vehicle, I nearly joined the group when the brake lights came on and the truck and trailer came to a full stop. In front of the truck, a mama blue grouse (I think) and five chicks scurried around and eventually crossed the road. While the mother darted back and forth to herd the chicks, I chided myself for my preconceived notions about the driver of the truck. He had stopped. He risked having me plow into the back of him—my own damn fault and not his problem—to allow three-inch-tall babies safe passage across the road. It is possible, of course, that this person might return to the mountain three months from now during grouse hunting season and kill the very birds he just saved. Nevertheless, he stopped.

For the Love of Books

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in The Mind

“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Anne Fadiman

I was going to write about love this month (I always think I’m going to write about love), so off I went in search of a book of essays by Bertrand Russell in which I remembered reading his thoughts on love. (I believe Russell thought a lot about love—as do I—when he wasn’t busy formulating the logic of mathematics.) While searching for that particular book, I came upon Anne Fadiman’s charming collection of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Some of you more organized book lovers will note that Anne Fadiman and Bertrand Russell are not typically near one another on most bookshelves—whether they be organized alphabetically, chronologically, by subject matter, or by country of origin—which speaks to my out-of-control, random shelving system and my daily frustration with finding the book I want. What I usually find instead, though, is the book I need—a book that immediately relieves my frustrations.

Books have a wickedly strong gravitational pull, which is why my bookshelves are dusty. Here in Escalante, where the spring winds are mighty and bare dirt is plentiful and air-conditioning consists of opening and closing the windows at the appropriate times, the books are practically speaking in unison: “Why bother? Put down the dust rag. Pick me up instead.” My mind quickly does a cost/benefit calculation; dusting has never come out ahead.

Books that have once stunned me with their simple beauty are the books most likely to reach from the shelves and graze my hand with ethereal fingers. Fadiman’s book is one of those. When I saw the faded green spine of its jacket, I experienced a subtle flush of delight. I extracted the book and backed into the nearest chair where I spent the next hour in quiet bliss.

Book lovers tend to cling to their books. They hoard books. They believe that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are furniture. They are art. They are beauty. They provide warmth and security and comfort. Companionship. Joy. Sadness. Love. Sentimentality. Familiarity. Longing. A stirring in the gut. An opening of the heart.

I recently witnessed a spontaneous book-loving competition on facebook when a friend lamented that she had to schlep twenty boxes of books to a new house or trim the shelves. The responses went something like this: “Only twenty boxes? I moved fifty boxes three times in two years!” “Only fifty boxes? I moved seventy-five boxes from coast-to-coast twice!” “Only seventy-five boxes? We had to rent two trucks—one just for our books alone!” And so forth. I, of course, filled a semi-truck and trailer to move my books to Escalante.

In all sincerity, I can attest to the unpleasantness of moving books. Friends will help you move those books once and only once. Any second or third moving date will conflict with a surprising number of travel plans and relatives in town. Family members, however, cannot slip away so easily. My husband’s son, Jackson, has helped move our books numerous times. He responds in the same way each time, “fucking books,” and then gets to work. He’s also a lover of the written word, but he has a remarkably healthy detachment to material objects. I believe he can carry most, if not all, of his material possessions in a single backpack. He did not learn his healthy detachment from his father.

When Steve and I moved in together eight years ago, we both came with books. In her essay, “Marrying Libraries,” Fadiman writes of the treacherous territory a couple enters when attempting to merge books. Steve and I have tried to trim the collection several times and have failed. We found some duplicates among Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and E.O. Wilson, but because we are both margin scribblers, giving up “my” copy of a duplicate meant emotional severance for one or the other of us. I’m glad we failed to thin the stacks. After eight years, I’m just beginning to wallow in his books of philosophy, theology, eco-psychology, and he’s just beginning to explore my books of fiction and creative nonfiction. Through the years, our books have shared the same messy shelves—we are equally slothful book filers—but they maintain his and hers designation. Every so often we come upon a book that we both lay claim to. I consider that divorce prevention.

We were drawn to our house in Escalante because of its many large windows and abundance of natural light. Great reading spaces, we thought. It wasn’t until we got here with books and shelves in tow that we realized windows take up wall space. We’ve yet to find a remedy for this—we currently live among books stacked upon the floor and when they get in the way, we move them to another part of the floor, adding to the chaos of finding the book we want and contributing to the joy of stumbling upon a book we’ve forgotten.

All book lovers have emotional attachments—verging on mental illness—to their books. When a book lover brushes by the shelves on her way out of the room, familiar spines catch her eye, and a thin smile touches her face. Without awareness, her fingers stroke the spines and memories flutter through her mind and body. There are the books that got me through my divorce—the entire Harry Potter series; Midnight’s Children shared the couch with me through five winter days of the flu; the slim, bumpy one, Here is New York, fell into a creek and was dried out on a rock; the green one with a missing jacket and yellowed pages, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, belonged to my mother and still smells like her.

Those books share space with books that have not yet been read. It’s a quirk of mine—maybe a character deficiency—that I refuse to read books when there’s a lot of hubbub surrounding them. The chitter-chatter takes away from my own experience, makes the reading too impersonal, too “groupy,” and I’m apparently unable to ignore it. So I like to give it ten or twenty years then circle back around when others have moved on (and when I can buy the book for 75 cents in a used bookstore), which might be why I usually find myself sheepishly answering “no” to the question, “Have you read . . .?” (I feel the same way about movies. One of these days, I’m going to watch “Titanic.”) Those unread books tucked in among the well-read books provide me a great deal of comfort—they’ll be there when life becomes catastrophic. When all hell breaks lose, I’ll take one of those books off the shelf, sit down under a reading lamp, and I’ll be fine while the world crumbles around me.

Book lovers’ opinions vary broadly in the area of accepted treatment of a book. I have no shame in the treatment of books—I’ll scribble in their margins, turn down their pages, and crack open their spines. I once had a plain gray sweatshirt that I deeply loved, and I wore it until it fell off my body. When I see a book that is falling apart from so much use, I think, “that book is well-loved.” Others think the opposite. A friend once said that she loaned a book to someone who returned it with a cracked spine. My friend was appalled and devastated. Needless to say, she never loaned a book to me.

Upon completion of a good book, the reader experiences what feels like a small death. You want to linger in the book’s world a bit longer so you leave it on the coffee table for several weeks after you’ve read the last page—it seems wrong to reshelf it and be done. Moving on to another book is like getting another cat after old Whiskers died—it might be good advice, but one needs to move slowly. Otherwise, that kitten, that new book, is annoying as hell, and you long for the one that’s gone. When I finished Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I tried to read The Fool’s Progress by Ed Abbey. After the first fifteen pages, I began to have violent fantasies about gouging Abbey’s eyes out (speaking metaphorically, of course). I wanted Henry Lightcap’s grumpy, raspy voice out of my head and the lyrical beauty of Bel Canto back in. Apparently, I had moved on too soon. After I finished Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, I read through several issues of old Harper’s and The Sun magazines before I could ease myself into another book.

In the spirit of de-cluttering my strewn-about books—or at least not piling on the clutter—I purchased a Kindle and tried to talk myself into loving it. But I don’t. At first, because I live in a town without a bookstore or a library, I liked the immediate access to “books” that Kindle gave me, and I could certainly see the advantage of traveling with ten books on one slim device. But I hate reading on it. As many anti-ebookers before me have pointed out, reading a book is more than a visual experience.

Book lovers love the weight of a book in their hands, as if they are holding the world created inside the book. A slim book holds the promise of carefully selected words, of simple yet weighty words of passion and meaning. A fat book holds the promise of a deep and rich world that will sustain the reader for days. Readers love the smell of a book, they love the sound of turning pages, they love brushing a hand over the cover and wondering about the design and color choice. I miss all of that when I read on a Kindle. “Oh, you’ll get used to it,” people tell me, but I don’t believe them and here’s why: After three years, I still miss reading a morning newspaper, and if I could get one in my town, I would happily eat my breakfast with newsprint-stained fingers. “I get my news online!” people say as if that’s something that hadn’t occurred to me. When I tell them I like to read a newspaper rather than a screen, they say, “Oh, you’ll get used to it.” How long might that take? I am beginning to doubt that I have enough years ahead of me to get used to an electronic world even if I had a desire. And I don’t. That’s not to say that I won’t use the electronic world when it suits me—but I reserve the right to complain about it.

The thing I hate most about reading on a Kindle is the lack of a full two pages of text in front of me. To get even one full page would require text the size of a needle tip. I feel like a child when I read on my Kindle. Here’s a paragraph for you to read. Now’s here’s the next one. And when you’re finished with those you can have another. There’s no scanning allowed—not backward or forward—because there’s not enough text available to scan. It’s like working for the federal government—you will be given information on a need-to-know basis. I can’t even have a page number, and since I can’t judge the book by it’s weight—all books weigh the same on a Kindle—I can’t feel the book. Instead of page numbers, I’m given a percentage, as if I’m being graded on my ability to proceed through the book—25%, now 38%, keep working and you’ll get 100%! You passed!

And how does one stumble upon a forgotten book on the tiny bookshelves of the e-world? How does one recall the childhood year spent yearning for a talking pig after reading Charlotte’s Web or the spontaneous tears months after reading Where the Red Fern Grows if not through the nearness of the physical object? Those might be the thoughts of a sentimental fool, but I believe those things matter in a life. A friend who recently set out on a trip with her young children sent out a call for suggestions for iPad apps to keep the children engaged while traveling. I was saddened by that. Gone are the days when a child falls deeply into the pages of a book for hours, for days, for a lifetime.

I have a single pine board that serves as a bookshelf in my writing shed. Steve pulled it out of the scrap-wood pile to construct a fence around the garden, a purpose it served grandly for two years before I pulled it from the garden to use as a bookshelf. It usually holds three or four dozen books, the titles of which change often depending on my moods and my needs. But a few books remain here permanently, within easy reach, to remind me of what life is and what life is not. To remind me that I cannot live according to the expectations of others. To remind me that integrity to a life is all that matters. To remind me that I should never be careful. To remind me that obedience is for children not for adults. To remind me that today is a good day to die and, therefore, a good day to live. To remind me that life is finite, as is the earth’s ability to support human life. To remind me that humans have lived without oil and cars and planes and electricity but they have never lived without water and clean air and non-toxic food. To remind me that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the anatomically modern human is about 200,000 years old and the odds are pretty damn good that the earth will out-survive us. To remind me that there’s a difference between hopefulness and delusion. To remind me that hopefulness and hopelessness are not the only choices. To remind me that I cannot end suffering. To remind me to live in benign presence.

Two books linger on this shelf, always within reach: Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals both written by Charles Bowden. They are horrific in their raw brutality and heartbreaking in their lustful splendor. They will not let one shy away from the cruelty of human toward human, human toward animal, human toward earth. Nor will they let one turn away from the throbbing life of hummingbirds, honeysuckle, paloverde, salvia, bush hackberry, and the brazen, sensual night-blooming cereus. I’ll leave you with a few disturbingly candid lines to ponder from Blood Orchid:

“Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness. Imagine that the problem is not that we are powerless or that we are victims but that we have lost the fire and belief and courage to act. We hear whispers of the future but we slap our hands against our ears, we catch glimpses but turn our faces swiftly aside . . . Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us because we lose our machines but gain our feet and pounding hearts.”


Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Boulder Mail Trail, Death Hollow, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Sand Creek, Solitude, The Mind, The Place

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

–May Sarton

In mid-April when the weather turned expectedly warm, Steve and I stepped out for our first backpack of the year on the 16-mile Boulder Mail Trail, a route that traverses up and down, in and out of canyons carved by creeks that drain the Aquarius Plateau to the Escalante River. The trail was once used to deliver mail by mule to the small town of Boulder, Utah, hence the name. Being modern Americans, we started out by dropping a car at the trail’s end less than ten minutes from the house. There’s a certain silliness to that. One sets out for no reason but the pure joy of walking across the desert and instead of simply continuing the walk home—maybe another four miles—we leave a car where the trail widens into a road. I could try to justify the action in all sorts of ways (everybody does it!), but the truth is that walking home would demand nothing more than a shift in thinking about where the hike ends. Additionally, the possibility of reaching wilderness from my front door without the aid of an automobile—something few Americans can do—excites the hell out of me. Next time.

Sand Creek

From there we drove a second car to the trailhead in Boulder, Utah, about 30 minutes from the house, and wandered through juniper, pinion, sage, and cactus under a canopy of non-threatening clouds before dropping into the first slickrock canyon to camp for the night at Sand Creek, a peaceful, inviting cut of water through white sand and stone. After setting up camp under a juniper overlooking the creek, we walked upstream to exhaust the afternoon. After wandering an hour or so, we splayed our bodies on a rock and discarded shoes and socks. We listened to Sand Creek gurgle, watched the sun and clouds compete for space in the sky, and beyond that did absolutely nothing.  And I realized sitting there, my feet dug deep into the cool sand, that I seldom do absolutely nothing, that I seldom allow myself to be silent and still for extended periods of time without the aid of some distraction, usually a book. And I further realized that the practice of such stillness is soothing—and maybe even necessary—to the wellbeing of a human soul.

The next day, we climbed out of that drainage in brilliant sunshine and hiked about five miles across desert and slickrock before I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of Death Hollow, our destination for the second night. Two things about it yanked me to a stop. The first was the stupendous beauty of the place, the sight of which brought me then, and the memory of which brings me now, to a point of speechlessness. There are only so many times you can repeat the phrase, “oh my God” before you start to sound like the triple-rainbow guy on You-Tube. After a few exclamations, I clammed up, dropped my pack, and crouched down on the rock for a moment to catch my breath. Once I recovered from the visual magnificence in front of me, the second progress-halting aspect of Death Hollow came into focus, which was a beckoning rock cairn that teetered on the edge of a 650-ft drop into the dark gorge below. With that came the lingering story of how Death Hollow earned its name when a mule slipped off that particular trail and plunged to its death.

Now would be the time to admit that I have a malady known as Benign Positional Vertigo (BPV), which is episodic and, as the name implies, positional, meaning it comes on by tipping the head in a certain way, in my case upward and to the right. When it hits, I tend to bump against walls and zigzag like Wahoo, the town drunk who lived up the street from me as a child. As the name also implies, it is benign, more accurately described as simply annoying, unless, of course, one intends to camp creekside in Death Hollow, in which case it takes on a new severity. I pushed the thought of it out of my mind, assuming that I would have no reason to be scanning anything above me and to my right.

When we reached the teetering rock cairn, which gave us a view of only the single next rock cairn, which would be the case most of the way down—meaning you have to trust that the next one will appear when you need it—Steve stopped me and said, “every step counts, stay focused.” I appreciated his reminder, but I had pretty much reached that conclusion on my own. If you’ve ever been mentally frozen in a place with that kind of exposure—and I have—you know there’s little psychological wiggle room. It’s one of those times where deep contemplation is not only useless but dangerous. Intention and flow are everything. I set my intent and my mantra—my way of staying focused—and stepped out.

From the depths of Death Hollow

Once we set up camp, rinsed off in a deep, clear pool, found a place to sit in a lingering splice of sunshine, and poured ourselves a titanium cup of wine (we pack light but we don’t give up the essentials), I was struck again by the splendor of the place. Death Hollow runs faster and deeper and with more vigor than Sand Creek. In other words, it cuts a more striking path—its rock walls taller, its vegetation more flush. The profound beauty of Death Hollow, however, stems from the fact that it remains inaccessible enough and inhospitable enough—its favored flora is Poison Ivy—that we found ourselves in the increasingly rare condition of utter solitude.

Throughout my life I’ve been pulled toward solitude, and I have found the maintenance of such within a marriage, within a community, and within friendships a difficult thing to balance. Generally speaking, our modern society shuns solitude and the people who seek it. In her 1987 book, Hide and Seek, written from a small trailer perched in the desert on a bank of the Colorado River, Jessamyn West writes, “It is not easy to be solitary unless you are also born ruthless. Every solitary repudiates someone.” I feel the truth of West’s words. At times I find the recoil of repudiation so great that I’m encouraged to tell an outright lie—I’d love to but I’m committed elsewhere!—rather than admit my desire for solitude, as if such a desire represents a weakness in character. From what I have witnessed, it is more difficult for women—the traditional caretakers of others—to both demand and grant solitude. In my experience, we are slower than men to demand solitude and possibly quicker to feel repudiated if someone demands it from us.

Only in hindsight—once we’ve measured the “production” of solitude—have we been willing to accept it from the likes of John Muir, Carl Jung, and Thomas Merton to name a few who insisted on periods of extended solitude. (I’m not tossing Thoreau into the mix since his solitude was somewhat exaggerated. Not only did he walk to town from his cabin almost daily, but he had a near continuous stream of visitors to Walden Pond.) And still, even after we’ve seen what can come from solitude, we hold it at arms length. We fret when our children spend too much time alone. We can barely walk down a tree-lined street alone. We want to share the moment with another, as if it isn’t quite real unless another confirms it. Upon telling friends that Steve works ten days a month in Salt Lake City while I stay in Escalante, some have offered up alternatives for my “aloneness.” I dare not tell them that I look forward to that time of solitude because it seems impolite to do so, and, unless I’m talking to another solitary who will understand immediately, it requires too much explanation.

We humans have gone to extreme means to distract ourselves from solitude and avoid it altogether—television, internet, email, facebook, texting, cell phones. Cell phones remain, to me, one of our most perplexing inventions. I concede the convenience factor (especially now that phone booths have all but disappeared), but to be regularly available to others—even those I love—is one of the most unpleasant ideas I can think of. I don’t believe my life is diminished from not owning a cell phone, in fact, the opposite. Based on the number of people I pass on city streets who are seeing nothing more than a small screen in front of them, I daresay my view is more expansive than most.

According to the omnipresent research, human beings are social animals, relationship-forming creatures. Some research goes so far as to say that our immune systems are deeply affected by the relationships we form—that bad relationships can sicken us and good ones can heal us—and further that relationships determine how we feel about ourselves and how we view the world. I don’t doubt this research at all. Certainly humans innately seek companionable mates like many other animals, and certainly good, nurturing relationships—whether it be with lovers or friends—fulfill human needs and enrich our lives in innumerable ways. But I wonder if we’ve internalized the research to such an extreme that we’re caught in a cycle where the research drives our actions, thereby creating more confirming research, which further drives our actions to the point that we’re near incapable of solitude. The benefits of solitude come slowly and require enough patience that we let them develop before we reach for the nearest distraction. Are we now in a place where we are no longer able to process such benefits?

In one of my favorite books, Fifty Days of Solitude, Doris Grumbach profoundly captures the fears and rewards of self-induced isolation. She does this in a mere 114 pages. I believe that to be one of the benefits of solitude—the waste of words falls away as if in a smelting process that leaves only precious stones. Of her decision to give herself fifty days of solitude, Grumbach writes:

In this way, living alone in quiet, with no vocal contributions from others . . . I was apt to hear news of an inner terrain, an endolithic self, resembling the condition of lichens embedded in rock. My intention was to discover what was in there, no matter how deeply hidden . . . if I dug into the pile of protective rock and mortar I had erected around me in seventy-five years, perhaps I would be able to see if something was still living in there. Was I all outside? Was there enough inside that was vital, that would sustain and interest me in my self-enforced solitude?

Perhaps the fear of answering Grumbach’s last question in the negative is what keeps many of us from seeking solitude. As she sinks into her fifty-day solitary routine, Grumbach arrives herself at what the research tells us—that our relationships determine how we view ourselves:

Our points of reference are always our neighbors . . . our close and distant families, all of whom tell us, with their hundreds of tongues, who we are. We are what we were told we were, we believed what we heard from others about our appearance, our behavior, our choices, our opinions . . . Rarely if ever did we think to look within for knowledge of ourselves . . . Would we think we existed without outside confirmation? And how long could we live apart from others before we began to doubt our existence?

Has the creation and popularity of social networking given us an answer to those questions? Or has it merely provided us with an opportunity to avoid them?

As Grumbach begins to understand “the great gift of time alone” she looks back with dismay on opportunities lost, times when she found herself living alone and couldn’t embrace it. “I was lonely because I had no experience with solitude,” she writes. I can relate. I’ve had times in my life when solitude was imposed rather than chosen, and I spent much of that time hand wringing. The irony, or maybe the strange twist of the universal plan, is that as soon as I let myself settle into the great gift of time alone it disappeared in the form of a lover or friend. It seems solitude readies one for relationships. And maybe the opposite is true also.

Steve, not quite alone, on the Boulder Mail Trail

The other day I asked my husband, who is also a solitary, to think about the longest period of time he’s spent in complete solitude—no conversation with another, no human intrusion except books and music. A wistful look came over his face, and I could see that he has missed his extended periods of solitude—for him also, solitude is difficult to balance within a marriage. What would have once been a solitary camp for him in the bottom of Death Hollow is no longer. Solitary week-long backpacks were once his. And, of course, they could be still. He knows I would not consider myself one of the repudiated. But it’s more complex than that, as the delicate balance between solitude and relationships tends to be. Because we are both solitaries, we like each other, and we like spending time together as inconsistent as that might sound. In other words, we never get enough of either option, togetherness or solitude, so the choice of one comes with a sacrifice of the other.

I now find myself in a marriage, in a town, and among friends where solitude is, indeed, acceptable. This is a place—metaphorical and literal—that I’ve searched for my entire life without success. Until now. I have a few theories to explain how this change came about at this stage in my life. One theory is that we’ve reached a critical mass of humanity populating the earth, and the tremendous noise we generate has simply overwhelmed our ability to live within it. Something, some innate survival instinct, is telling us to dash for cover, thereby, making solitude not only acceptable to many but preferable. Maybe that’s just me.

My second theory is that the town I’ve chosen to live in is remote and, therefore, attracts fellow solitaries. I think there’s some truth to this. But again, this rouses the solitary paradox. Never in my life have I felt comfortable around others the way I do here. When I am extended a social invitation here, I am free to say, “nah, I don’t really feel like it,” without explanation and with knowledge that I will likely be invited again, which makes me truly like the people here. That, of course, raises the likelihood that I will not only happily accept social invitations but extend them as well—an act that is foreign to my pre-Escalante life—because I enjoy the company of my fellow Escalantites. A solitary’s quandary.

My third theory is that I have subconsciously, over 55 years of life, inched myself to a place where solitude lingers near and can be accessed without commotion. I’ve placed myself in such a geographic location, and I’ve placed myself in such company. If someone, say a 20-year-old woman in desperate need of solitude, were to ask me how I managed to get here, if she were to ask me to provide her with a template for getting here, I would suggest to her that she take a more direct route than the one that trails behind me. Who was it who said “seek and ye shall find”? Was that Matthew? Wise disciple. I’m pretty sure he was talking about solitude.


Caring for the Near and Dear

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Peace, The Mind, The Place

In the last week, as in every week before it, a multitude of calls for attention, compassion, caring, money, and/or time devoted to issues, injustices, and actions found their way into my life. Most of them came by email, some by facebook, some by phone, some in person. I counted thirteen not including those that I indirectly summoned by reading the newspaper. Often they are prompted by something I’ve said or written. Issues begat issues. Feminism, environmentalism, poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, violence, healthcare, education, animal cruelty—every possible topic brings with it a flood of legitimate concerns, a long list of related injustices, and usually numerous unconscionable acts committed by those with power.

To put it bluntly, I’m overwhelmed by the competition for caring.

The problem is twofold. One, the opportunities for moral outrage are plentiful, multifaceted, and urgent—many worthy of compassion, energy, and time. Two, I’m vulnerable to gravitational pulls and better at soaking up messes than Bounty paper towels. As my father used to say when I’d crumble under his directed anger, “You’re too damn sensitive!”

About eight years ago, sitting alone in a Tucson apartment overlooking Time Market on University Avenue, I had either an epiphany or a breakdown. Maybe both. It was a time of loss—the end of a marriage, the loss of a home, the departure of friends, a change of jobs—and for the prior few months I had spent an enormous amount of time wallowing in fear and self pity. On that particular spring afternoon, I experienced a palpable feeling of things being settled—for better or worse. In that moment, I realized I had to find my way to a life of peace, although, having never before experienced such a thing, I had no idea what it might look like or how I might attain it.

I have a CD of Bikram Choudhury leading a yoga class, and at a certain point of instructing a student on a posture, Bikram says, “What are you waiting for? Somebody going to help you?” Although I didn’t hear this CD until years after that Tucson moment, I somehow heard those words that day.

What I learned in the eight years since is that peace is not attainable. It’s not something one acquires and keeps forever more. It’s a practice—much like yoga. Some days a yoga practice flows smoothly, and one feels the beauty and fullness of the human body in movement. Other days, every posture feels like a battle of will between body and mind. The practice of peace is much the same. But peace is not a monthly, weekly, or daily practice; it’s a moment-to-moment practice. And both practices—peace and yoga—require an act of letting go.

Five months ago, as I began this blog, I came late to the party of facebook. I had avoided it for years in an attempt to restrict exposure to my aforementioned susceptibility to being yanked off course with little enticement. But I had gone too far, pulled the restraints too tightly around myself, and isolated myself. So I joined facebook, the modern way of connecting with the world. Yet, I don’t feel connected. In fact, the opposite. After spending twenty minutes on facebook, I’m frazzled. It’s not the everyday banal posts that trouble me. In fact, there’s something I find almost soothing about the photo of dressed-up deviled eggs with eyes of black olive bits and noses of carrot snips posted by my once-removed sister-in-law. It means someone has found a way to care about this small source of delight in a world of beleaguering madness. What I’m having trouble facing in facebook are the posts that shout, “here’s something you should care about, something you should be outraged by, something you should get involved in, something you should share with others, something you should not remain silent about. Look! Care! Do something! At the very least, show you have a conscience by “liking” the post.”

The irony that I make such posts myself is not lost on me. I find these posts—and emails—useful and informative, even laudable, which is precisely the problem. I do care. But I’m struggling with the practice of peace amid the injustice, violence, outrage, hatred, chaos, manipulation, and absurdity circulating through my world. Is it possible to live with both peace and passion? Is it possible to fill a life with beauty when I’m daily notified that the very places bringing beauty into my life are being destroyed in front of me? Can I continue to carry love inside of me while being assaulted with the death of it around me? In short, is my capacity for caring vast enough to contain the magnitude of the demand?

Part of my care fatigue is caused, I believe, by what I perceive as the lost art of argument. The comments on facebook and elsewhere reflect an atmosphere where we are quick to take a stand, quick to take offense, quick to make assumptions, quick to draw conclusions, quick to employ ad hominem fallacies, and as self-righteous as humans can possibly be. Although we could easily rename the ad hominem fallacy after Rush Limbaugh who has reprehensibly perfected the service of it, I don’t find these unfortunate traits to be the private property of either the right or the left. Many—me included—were outraged by George W. Bush’s insistence upon setting up a false delimma—you’re either with us or against us—but it seems we’ve since adopted such a battle cry on almost every issue. We don’t have discussions; we have stand-offs.

Another part of my care fatigue comes from the fact that I’m slow to arrive at certainty. I like to sit with issues, ponder them, think about them, toy with them, discuss them with people who don’t think the same way I think, and let my thoughts develop and evolve unhurriedly, but that sort of approach can only be done one small issue at a time. Perhaps that’s why it is out of favor—we’re operating in crisis mode. One must adopt a position immediately. I envy those who seem clear and certain about the answers because deep in my heart, on many issues, I believe we have arrived at a place without answers.

This niggling feeling that the answers are not there, that we have extended past the tipping point, I believe, resides at an unconscious level in many of us, the fear of which adds to the vitriol of the discussion and may deter the process of finding creative alternatives. Some are of the position that I have no right to argue or point out a problem unless I can also propose a solution to the problem. It’s the “if you don’t have an alternative solution you have no right to argue against mine” defense. Whenever someone intimates that I should shut up if I can’t propose a solution, my inner skeptic flares. It is this stance that leaves us with overly simplistic answers to complex problems and solutions with unintended consequences. We, of course, have every right to argue against the means without having a solution for the end. Isn’t that what public discourse is supposed to be about, the discussion of ideas and issues before arriving at a conclusion rather than the stomping around insistence of right solutions? At times wrong action is obvious. Right action may not be quite so apparent, but that does not negate one’s right to comment on the wrong action. Fracking, for example, seems to me to be an act that is utterly deplorable and destructive, an act that can in no way be justified, and an act that should be stopped immediately. Yet I have no answers for the nation’s dependence on energy. My gut instinct is that we must—and will when we have to—become less dependent on energy, but there is no simple, clear, easy process and the answers remain fuzzy. So be it. A state of uncertainty is not the worst thing; certainty can be far more dangerous.

We also seem ready to ignore the nuances of any given issue, as if recognition of such might give our opponents an opening. I find myself grossly over-generalized, placed into camps based on a particular point of view I’ve expressed in the past, as if my opinions can then be extrapolated to every related issue. It causes me discomfort. Every issue is unique; every argument is nuanced. In addition to being slow to arrive at certainty, I’m also hesitant, once I’m there, to gather every related topic into the circle and proclaim confidence on all of them.

To approach issues thoughtfully within the life of peace to which I am committed means that I cannot be tugged by gravitational pulls but must instead be narrowly selective. The activists I most admire are those who devote their energy, passion, and sometimes their entire lives to a single cause, recognizing, of course, that every single issue is interconnected with every other. Those focused in their approach—Jane Goodall comes to mind—also find in their work, I believe, joy residing alongside sadness and beauty residing alongside ugliness. When the fist-pounders come calling with related issues, the person singularly focused has guts enough to say, “I care, but my focus is here.” Unless we are invested in thinking “you’re either with me or against me,” that answer is more than acceptable.

The truth is I have to let go of more than I grab onto. I have to spend fewer hours of my life being morally outraged and more hours of my life at peace. I believe this is a worthwhile pursuit. I believe that peace spreads from one person to another, that if more people were committed to the practice of individual peace, we may find a way to approach the enormous problems that we face with less fury, less noise, and less need to convince others of our rightness.

Where peace and passion unite: Calf Creek Falls, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

I have decided to grab onto the most near and dear, to expend what energy I have within a close circle because caring in a small, non-technological way makes sense to me. It feels real; it feels manageable. In my mind, small cells of caring dotted across the earth can’t help but bind into connective tissue that then supports the growth of healthy organs. My focus is the community of Escalante, Utah, and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a place that allows a perfect union of peace and passion.

Staying Home

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Hudson River, Loss, The Mind, The Place

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.

–George Moore

I have not traveled much. Over the years this fact has caused me a great deal of shame, but as I settle contentedly into middle age—calculated as if I plan to live beyond one hundred years—the shame of undone deeds sloughs off like snakeskin. It used to be that when those more experienced than I spoke of their travels—a topic that serves the conversation of my demographic in the same way health issues serves those thirty years my senior—I would mumble incoherently, afraid of revealing my nomadic shortcomings. Now, however, having gotten my insecurities down to a near-manageable simmer, I boldly yank the New York Times travel section out of the Sunday paper and stick it under the kindling in the wood stove.

One Sunday, though, before I could get the paper sufficiently scrunched up, a front page article written by Paul Theroux caught my attention with this sentence: “‘Don’t go there,’ the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place.  I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice.”  Really? The stay-at-homers are wagging fingers? Was he pointing at me? At this age, I try not to wag my finger at anyone for fear of losing it, but Theroux’s accusation left me literally cold as I abandoned my task of fire building to ponder his essay.

Over lunch one day, an acquaintance informed me that she considered travel an essential part of educating her children, a part she had taken seriously. I smiled and enthusiastically nodded my approval while she spoke of faraway places that had transformed her children from ordinary, ignorant Americans into fabulous, worldly-wise adults. I could find no point upon which to disagree with her, but a twinge of defensiveness edged along my spine as I translated her words: traveling equals wisdom; not traveling equals ignorance. Before and since that moment, my overactive hackles have been raised more than a few times in causal conversation with globe-trotting friends. It is possible no judgments are being thrust upon me beyond those I’m thrusting myself, but I suspect otherwise. “She’s never been anywhere!” friends exclaim when someone exhibits a less than enlightened attitude, clearly explaining the root of the problem as if stepping on a plane in Cincinnati and stepping off in Bombay immediately transforms one from a narrow-minded nitwit into Ghandi. It’s true that I can come up with an endless list of wise and wonderful people who travel broadly. But I can also name quite a few idiots who do.  I’m guessing the ratio in the non-traveling population might be about the same. Admittedly, I could be wrong.

But who, exactly, is the doing the finger wagging: Theroux’s know-it-all stay-at-homer or my crowing traveler? Likely both. But it matters not. As my astute husband once said to me, the fewer topics we insist on turning into moral issues, the better. Whether to travel or stay home can be, I suspect, easily removed from the category of “moral issue” if we choose to do so. And I do.

My parents never had the means to travel any farther than the Grand Canyon—reached by car in the middle of July with a kid hanging out every window to ward off heat prostration—so my siblings and I did not emerge from the nest in a cosmopolitan sort of way. I didn’t get a passport until I was in my 30s, and it expired before it was used. I didn’t use a passport until I was in my 50s because the only two countries I’d ever visited prior to that—Canada and Mexico—didn’t require one. I cling to my simple explanation—I can’t afford travel—which is not quite true. The truth is that I can’t afford to travel the way I would like to and I don’t like to travel the way I can afford to.

I like to travel deeply rather than broadly. It matters not to me that I’m able to produce a long list (or better yet, photos!) of the places I’ve been and the various things I’ve seen. A recent ten-day trip to Rome left me feeling like a pre-verbal child sitting in a corner fascinated with her rattle when the family dog snatches it away and runs out the door: frustrated and wanting to scream, “I wasn’t finished with that!”

Don’t get me wrong. Rome was filled with gasping moments of art, food, city roaming, more art, and more food. But that’s the problem—mere moments of being there juxtaposed with horrendous hours of getting there. In another article in the NYTs travel section (it can be tough to get that section wrestled into the stove) a travel writer described today’s first class air travel as only slightly less horrible than coach, a fact I cannot attest to, but I can attest to the dreadful experience of coach.

I’ll readily admit that one of my numerous neuroses is being trapped in an enclosed vessel with many of my species while we draw in and expel one another’s breathing air. The only thing worse is to put that vessel afloat on an ocean where one cannot escape for days; hence, my aversion to cruise ships. It’s not the germs that bother me—I’ll eat a piece of food off a dirty floor worry-free if I can get to it before the dog does—it’s the people. And it’s not that I don’t like people, but I like them to be appropriately spaced like, say, tomato plants in the garden. Two summers ago I learned that if tomato plants—or people—are too close, they become tangled in one another’s vines and drag one another into the dirt, thereby creating the perfect milieu for fleshy tissue, mold, and ant-infestation. This process can happen quickly and catch a person sleeping. A transatlantic flight is more than ample time.

I take comfort in the fact that my anti-travel neurosis dims in comparison to that of this blog’s inspiration, E.B. White, who was so averse to being in close proximity to an abundance of fellow humans, he missed his own wife’s funeral with full acceptance and understanding from his family and friends. I need family and friends like his.

So I ask myself, where might I go, what final destination (to give it a travelesque sort of tone) might provide me with the sophisticated maturity of one well traveled without the degradation inflicted on me at both ends of the episode? After thinking about that for a while, I revised the lofty goal of sophisticated maturity—likely out of my reach—to one of simple joy, and before long came up with the answer. It’s a location to which millions of people from all over the world annually arrive after subjecting themselves to hours of great discomfort and risk: Southern Utah.

In her recent book, My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir, Susan Fox Rogers writes, “I was handed the Hudson River when I moved to Tivoli [New York]. I did not choose the river, but I saw that I was lucky to have the Hudson to play on, to explore, to turn to for comfort.” She then proceeds to get to know the Hudson River. I mean really get to know it. She sits on its banks. She swims in its waters. Over the course of three years, she paddles north and south in her kayak exploring its islands, its industry, its history, its flora and fauna. She makes the treacherous paddle around Manhattan Island. She knows the birds that nest on the river’s islands; she knows the fish that swim in its depths. She knows the river’s tides, and she knows the river’s traffic. She knows where the rocks hide at low tide waiting to scrape the bottom of her kayak as she comes and goes from landings, and she knows where the deep shipping lanes are. She knows the river on windy days, sunny days, and cold days. She knows the river with ice floes, spatterdock, moonlight and dense fog. She insists on paddling at night to know her river “by feel, by scent.” She explores the crumbling icehouses of a bygone era along its banks, as well as the mansions and their various occupants through the years. She knows the PCB levels in the water. She’s come close to being crushed by a barge, and she’s seen a bloated body pulled from the river; she knows its dangers. And she knows the people who know the river better than she does.

I want to know my place—the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument—the way Rogers knows the Hudson River. Unlike Rogers, Steve and I did choose our place. We chose it because this was often our “final destination” when we had three days, one week, two weeks, a month—whatever time we could manage—to get away. We came here. Over and over, among the many travel choices we could have made, we returned to this place. Every time we came, we sank a little deeper into the desert. That’s when I realized I don’t want to travel broadly; I want to travel deeply.

Still, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place I live. Rogers has inspired me to do otherwise as she did many years ago when she tapped me on the shoulder at the University of Arizona where we were both attending grad school and suggested we hike. From that point forward, I followed her up trails, over mountains, into the desert and into the woods. Still, I never knew Tucson or the surrounding desert and mountains the way she did. I suspect she’s known everyplace she’s ever lived in a way that few residents do.

I’ve been in Escalante three years now. It’s time to get to know my place. It calls me so strongly I yearn for it as one yearns for a lost love. It’s time to travel deeply into the deserts and canyons and allow them access into the depths of me. On the Hudson River, Rogers found solace for recent loss, gained compassion for the choices she’s made, and came away with an understanding of what anchored her to this world: love. Gifts bestowed upon her by the river, by traveling deeply into her place.

I may or may not be given gifts of equal value by traveling deeply into my place. I suspect the gifts depend more upon the person than the place. As Rogers has written, “By now I knew, of course, that if I loved the river, the river was indifferent to me.”  And therein lies the wonder of a place—it is indifferent to our pain, our fear, our prerequisites. And it is particularly indifferent to our love for it, which only makes us love it more. What a place offers depends, of course, upon what a person needs.

The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is vast. Getting to know it could easily take the rest of my life. I have set a travel goal for myself of simple joy. I am fairly sure my travel itinerary will exceed expectations.