A blanket of clouds and the promise of a cool, windy day convinced us to abandon a hike for a drive. We prepped for offline entertainment in case the hours in the car were too much for our kids—we downloaded Harry Potter on Audible and Hamilton on Spotify—we stocked up on snacks, packed books and sketchbooks, and drove back to Canyonland. After a few days here, we are becoming accustomed to the landscape: red rocks, cliffs, buttes, rivers, arches, mesas, cacti, grasses, shrubs. But, we had yet to be really in it. A few minutes from the visitor center, we turned onto a dirt road and began our drop into the canyon. A seemingly perilous, but mostly just bumpy, drive took us down 1,200 feet to the canyon floor. We encountered a handful of people along the way: cyclists on rented bikes, some slowly, determinedly pumping their legs to propel their bikes up the miles of switchbacks, others walking, pushing their bikes and wearing grim expressions, all followed by the support vehicle; pairs of tourists in Jeeps, a few other families, but not many. For the most part, we were on our own.
At one point, the road came right up next to a bend in the Colorado River, visible from Dead Horse Point, where we had seen the sun set the night before. It’s wild to stand in a place that you have seen in a million photographs, and to experience it in a way that a photo can never convey. (I take lots of pictures, mostly because the act of taking pictures, of choosing how to frame it, stores it in my mind; I have never felt, with landscapes especially, like I am able to capture the magnitude, the majesty, of what I see.) It felt so different to be close enough to see the individual cracks in the stones, the infinite shapes and sizes of the rocks that have cleaved from the cliff sides and tumbled to the base, the layers of time evident in the colors and textures and lines.
These last many months have been hard. I don’t think I have fully exhaled since August. Returning to the classroom this year after a child-raising hiatus was always going to have its own challenges: learning how to tend to school and family without short-changing either, creating the curriculum in a program that allows me a lot of freedom, becoming part of the district and school community while building the community in our classroom. In the time of Covid, the challenges have been exponentially enlarged: our community has been divided over the correct way forward in our schools, so there’s been contention rather than unity from the get-go; teachers have been working tirelessly (or at least those I know) to reach and meet the needs of students, many of whom are disconnected, disinterested, and in distress; we have been learning to teach simultaneously to screens and students, never feeling like we are serving anyone well; and everyone–teachers, students, parents, administrators, staff–has had to become incredibly flexible and adaptable as schools open and then close, as classes quarantine, as schedules change, as expectations shift. I have a fantastic group of students: bright, creative, open, game for trying new things. They spur me on, they remind me of my why, they encourage me in ways that they couldn’t possibly know. And still, it’s been hard. I have questioned every decision I have made. I have wondered if I am making the best choices for my students and for my family. I have taught myself to focus on one day at a time so that I am not constantly caught off-guard and frustrated by the endless shifts. This is now, and then this is now, and then this is now: can’t change what’s already happened, can’t predict what will come next.
Spring break has been a literal break from our day-to-day existence. It feels like an incredible luxury to step away, to reflect. But, also to not reflect, to not always think, question, wonder: to just be. Being here, being with my family, taking the time to immerse in other writers, to think and write about things other than school has reminded me that the world is wider, that my interests and concerns are broader, that every decision is not as make-or-break, as I sometimes feel it is.
I keep reading and rereading the first few chapters of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. I expect the next chapters will be equally provocative, I just don’t feel ready to leave these yet. While my experiences are very different from Solnit’s experiences, I am captivated by the questions she asks about the stories we tell, the stories that tell us, the importance of place, the ways places are often misrepresented on maps (I am making leaps and connections here; she doesn’t say that exactly). This evening, I am meditating on this excerpt:
The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper in the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story. (p. 30-31)
Being out in “the bigness of the world” is releasing me from the grip of the story of this year.
The drive went on a bit. Eventually, the road turned to pavement. Kids got quieter. I dozed. By some good luck, I woke up a few minutes before we would have passed the turn off to Poison Spider Trail (no, thank you) and Dinosaur Tracks (yes, please). We found a spot on the side of the road and walked up the hillside to the trail/rock field leading up the cliffs. On one giant slab of rock, we saw the first of a handful of theropod tracks, their three toes obvious. We walked further up the hill to the rock wall for another rare sight. Petroglyphs, the carvings a pale tan etched in the dark red rock, were clear: a hunter with bow and arrow, animals, some birds, maybe some mountains? It was thrilling.
It’s a strange thing, a moving thing, to imagine the many worlds and experiences that have overlapped in this one place, the layers of history visible not only in the layers of rock, but also in the tracks of long-extinct creatures and the artwork of people who lived here hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It was the perfect way to end our day. “The expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape.” I am able to inhale a little more deeply, exhale a little more fully, every day we are here.
Bradbury Challenge (7)
The miraculous has meaning and definition only by comparison with the nonmiraculous. That is, for an event to be declared “supernatural,” we must first have some concept of the “natural,” the ordinary course of events.
I love this particular excerpt because it draws attention to the notion that we can only completely define a concept by including what it is not. To be miraculous, to be “supernatural,” we must agree on what we mean by “natural.” Lightman reveals, in a few paragraphs, the development of our implicitly agreed upon understanding of the meaning of “natural”: orderly, predictable, and lawful (as in, following scientifically proven laws). Therefore, things that are supernatural are outside of that order usually attributable to some sort of divine presence. It’s interesting, too, to consider the difference between “supernatural” —with connotations of beyond, better than, more complex and mysterious than the laws of nature—and “unnatural”—which suggests being contrary and threatening to, disrespectful of, the laws of nature. I’m fascinated by the ways in which our ideas are shaped by language, so often in ways that we don’t know or consider.
It is the immensity, I believe. the hugeness of things below. The darkness of dreams.
But I am woolgathering. Forgive me. I am not a literary man.
This story is familiar and strange, mysterious and creative, clever and funny (not the story, but the telling). I have never thought of myself as someone who likes the strange and dark in what I read, but I am also finding that I am pulled into this territory by writers that I love. Neil Gaiman–I can’t get enough of his writing these days–has drawn me in. I have habits in what I read, and it’s really interesting to step outside of my preferred genres to explore something new. Gaiman explains in the introduction that he was asked to write a combination of Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft. I had to look up Lovecraft: I knew his name, of course, but didn’t have any idea what he wrote, just knew that he was a cult favorite, that his books filled the sci-fi shelves, and had never much appealed to me. In fact, he defines some of his writing as “weird fiction”—I didn’t even know that was its own genre (of course, I suppose you can create your own genre!). I was intrigued, but not sure I’d dig it. Dig it, I do–or at least as Gaiman has written it–such a strange combination of the inexplicable, the bizarre, the unearthly and the concrete, the knowable, the deducible. Possibilities abound: not just in this particular story (though, that’s true, too), but in writing: I am seeing so many who defy expectations about what and how we write.
… So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone …
TammyB shared this poem in her blog a couple of days ago, and it really struck a chord with me—so many notes at once. I jotted down a cascade of responses and questions as I read and reread it:
- Horror at the idea of burning letters, partial poems, lists – there is so much magic, so much potential, a record of the moments, the gestures, the words that comprise our daily lives.
- Freedom in being released from the cumulative weight and mental space occupied by all of these words that have served their purpose, that have done their work
- Appreciation for ritual, for a clean slate, for ceremony — perhaps the experience of the ritual is more powerful, more meaningful than revisiting the old scraps of paper ever could be.
- How are we defined by the things we accumulate, the things we leave behind?
- What do we gain by letting go?
- Why am I afraid of letting go?
- Could I burn all of the accumulated bits and pieces, which are, in truth, only a fraction, only a random collection?
- If I keep the small bits, if the collection becomes curated, is it an accurate reflection? What is a true reflection?
- If I burn the papers–notes from friends, scrawlings from our children, lists of things to be done–will I remember? And if I don’t, does that matter?
- What if I burn these things and come to regret it?
- Fire purifies