THE MAJOR ARCANA
Pacific Ocean storm surge, heavy winter swell. A twelve-year-old sprite, the only girl in the lineup, paddles into waves the size of two-story buildings. Waves strong as elephants, strong as pillars falling over, only water is softer, more malleable, than stone. I’ve wondered since where that salt song drive to careen my smallness into thunderstorm waves came from. Oddly enough, this was my safe space: roiling ice-cold deep blue salt water. On a calm day, just being out there, sitting atop fiberglass, was enough. Water enveloping, a place to think. Or not. Ocean has taught me many things—how to read swell, tidal current, the contours of a wave. And deeper: how to cleanse myself of other people’s chaos, how to attune to a pulse more ancient and lasting than the harsh and petty banalities of people hurting one another. Barreling waves and white sharks are less scary than the unpredictability of humans. The dolphin’s fin glides by enigmatically, cutting the water’s surface at a curve, unlike the shark’s, which moves steadily across the sheen of open water.
One Christmas, when I was a child, my grandmother offered an unusual gift: she would make a donation to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California, on my behalf. What animal did I want to sponsor? I said wolf. She was furious, I was later told, that I would pick a predator over something sweet and cuddly. But, probably after a long talk with my dad, who may have offered her some ecological reasoning, she sent me a card with a photo of the Mexican wolf. I was so proud of that card, not because she had donated a token sum of money in my name for the fund-raiser, but because I had allied myself with wolf.
The High Priestess/2
Late fall just before freeze-up, on a lakeshore to the northeast of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Canada, I met Lucy Ann Yakeleya, Elder at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning. Dechinta means bush in the Dene language, and the Dechinta Centre offers a bush-based educational experience where students learn about Dene political theory, for instance, while also learning how to tan a moose hide. I found Lucy Ann in a shack beside the lake, scraping down a nearly finished moose hide stretched taut between cedar poles. She invited me to join her, showing me small things I might not otherwise notice: the veins, like small rivers, traversing the flesh side of the hide; the scars, from bullfights or wolves, on the hind side. How each step, carefully executed, matters. If the skinning is done too quickly there will be holes to patch later; if fleshing or scraping of hair is also hurried more needlework will be required. Moose hide is porous, thin yet strong, good for moccasin soles. The final scraping complete, we folded the hide and carried it outside. The air was crisp and tart as pine sap, and I’d seen bear paw tracks in the freshly fallen snow, first snow, just that morning. We sat at the knife’s edge of winter. Lucy Ann looked over at me with bright eyes. “You’ll never see rotten wood the same,” she said, smiling. Rotten wood, which has no bark, is good for making white smoke. Bark smokes black and can tint the hide. More nuances. She was teaching me. We carried smoldering logs over to a fire started by two young boys and stacked chunks of rotten wood on a pile of dusty coals, blowing so they would catch fire. “The moose spirit lingers through the entire process,” she said. Only after the final smoking, when the skin is soft and supple, is the moose considered dead.
I’d always had a certain reluctance toward giving birth, a general repulsion at the thought of fluorescent lights and a male doctor’s hands at my portal. I was also young and wayward and fighting a lot out, aware even at the time that having a child would mean passing on more baggage than I’d want a kid to shoulder. But I’d always related well to kids, to their uninhibited honesty and impetuous nature. I just didn’t have an example yet of how to give birth a way I could understand. It was on the banks of the Pira Paraná River in the northwest Colombian Amazon, where I spent two months traveling by dugout canoe and attending community meetings, that I first came alive to the potential of a serene and self-determined birth. Upon arriving in an upriver village one afternoon, I heard the news that a woman had given birth just the night before. When I saw her relaxing casually in a hammock, breastfeeding her newborn son, I was drawn to her like a moth to light. I found my way over to her and knelt beside her on the dirt floor of the maloca, longhouse. With some timidity, though mostly raw admiration, I asked her about her birth. We spoke in Spanish, a second language for both of us, and she answered my questions contentedly. Her birth story was one of independence and confident knowing; she took it for granted. I don’t think she could have imagined the effect it had on me. I began asking other women along the river about giving birth, and they all had similar replies. It was on their terms. A passage they were familiar and comfortable with. There was a common preference to labor alone, with people nearby but not in the way. Their fearlessness, casual instinctiveness, and apparent strength mirrored my own deep, unnamed vision of how I wanted to give birth one day. These women were my first example that it might be possible.
My Danish grandfather, whom we called Morfar, determined when he was going to die. He told the family it was his time; he would go, soon, to the other side. Told everyone they’d better come and make their good-byes. My mother got on a plane to Denmark. I was in college at the time. I remember thinking about her on that transatlantic flight we’d taken so many times before, traversing between the Central Coast of California and North Jutland, Denmark, from the western edge of North America to Scandinavia. From dusty hill slopes with rattlesnakes, coyotes, and feathered sagebrush, to flax and grain fields with wild poppies, scent of candle wax, and seaside rain. Two places that couldn’t be more different. Danish relatives gathered around the living room in my grandparents’ old farmhouse to share the whiskey my mother had purchased in Duty Free. My grandmother, Mormor, was pissed off at him for leaving her so soon. The blue smoke trail of her Prince cigarette spiraling, she would curse him for years afterward. They loved each other. On the other side of the world, I had a dream of him. I dreamed of kneeling in front of his old armchair and placing my hand in his, feeling his big, knobby, callused farmer’s hand close around mine. We spoke, in Danish. And a few days later he died.
He was the first to call me out. Couldn’t tell if I was twenty-two or forty-one years old when we met. Said he saw beauty and a lot of wayward pain also, saw that I was running. Brooklyn. End of winter. Slushy streets, denim sky. I was running. I was hurting. I never expected someone to see that and give a damn. Not that I’d been explicitly taught to believe so certainly in aloneness, in going away and never expecting anyone to care that I’d gone, but some things we learn through pattern language. Shaped by storm, I’d become a tempest. He wasn’t impressed. He called me out on being reckless. He saw right through me. I am still amazed by that. There was no distracting or cajoling him. He was wary of me, yet he saw a light beneath the frayed cloak, sheltered in a crevice. “Who are you running from?” he asked, actually wondering if there was a man on my trail, someone I needed to get away from. There was no active pursuer. I was running from myself. I had a habit back then of not even finishing my sentences, as if testing to see if anyone was listening. Skittish thoughts, television static. Truth is it wasn’t so much a test as a fragmented woman speaking. I know I am not far from the homeless woman on the street talking to herself. There are forces that can push anyone beyond. And do. This was at the center of it: No one can love me. As in: I am impossible to love. My only defense: to bolt. I’d even come to romanticize it, celebrating the wounded, errant girl who believed more in lonesomeness than in her own small, warm self. He allowed me no crutch, no comfort, though he would later offer me safety. What he gave me was more like a bucket full of cold water thrown over my head. I’ve always loved cold water. Ever since I was a child I’ve gone headlong into frigid ocean waves willingly, mountain lakes and cold showers, too.
At twenty-five I moved to the Black Hills, South Dakota. I’d met a man, and I joined him there. The Black Hills are shaped like a heart; they are the remnants of ancient mountains and geographically sacred in the cosmology of many Great Plains tribes. It was there that I learned what it means to be centered. Thunderstorms hit from every direction, swooping in across the many long miles of wide-open plains. I found center in a person and in a place, and both taught me how to locate it inside my own rib cage. Love—real love, gritty and painfully honest, resolute and warm—is to my understanding a radical experience, which requires shedding what does not serve. It also asks you to stand your ground somewhere, no more running around like a half-broke mustang. Stand steady and watch the thunderstorm barrel in.
Fourth of July. The salmonberries ripe, red as sockeye. I landed in Wrangell midmorning. By early afternoon I was walking with the only other new arrival to join the Alaska Crossings team last minute and midseason. They had needed a few more hands to help lead wilderness trips for youth. The other guy had been there since the day prior and got wind of a lumberjack competition happening in town, asked me if I wanted to join. We could sign up for the “Jack & Jill” race. He was burly, I was wiry; I figured I could at least give it a go. There were hefty logs and stumps, saws of different dimension and use strewn about, excited locals. It came our turn to use a two-person handsaw to cut as quickly as possible through a fat spruce stump. I don’t know how we managed it, but we won. The prize, a whopping seventy-five bucks to spend on beers that night while that small southeast Alaska town gave a kick-ass fireworks show. A few days later, I would head upriver to join a crew leading a troop of twelve- to seventeen-year-old boys on the tail end of a seven-week journey through the bush. A few weeks after that, I would join another team from start to finish, this time a group of girls, some of whom wanted to be there but most of whom came from painfully dysfunctional homes. We would canoe through the fjords, hike across into Canada, and trek up Mount Edziza and then canoe the Stikine back home to Wrangell. We’d anxiously watch a moose swim through the fast current directly toward our camp before it noticed us and changed direction. We’d find caribou antlers and hear wolves howl. We’d make a groove living together, sleeping forty-nine nights on mossy, earthen ground. By the end of the trip, I wouldn’t really be the guide any longer. I would need help from one of the girls to find my way into a shop and use money again. I’d trained myself to another lifeway and was dizzy; she was excited to buy a Twix and a Coke. There is more I could tell but won’t. It is enough to say that it was good medicine for everyone and that the real teacher was all around us. Going was what mattered, going each new day toward the unknown.
In a blizzard, bison face the sweeping wind and sideways snow head-on. Some sixty million strong in North America until the slaughter of the late 1800s brought them to near extinction, now the bison are returning. Coming into close contact with them was its own kind of initiation. During the summers I lived in the Black Hills, I spent every afternoon I could walking among the bison. There was a herd at Wind Cave National Park, a fifteen-minute drive away, and becoming familiar with them entrained me to a steadfast rhythm. Being in their company reminded me how to live more gracefully, with strength and tenacity. The tenacity of surviving genocide. Earth drummers who stampede thunder, they can also be as quiet as a rabbit. Out hiking one afternoon, I came across a lone prairie rose at the edge of a ponderosa grove. Crouching down to take a photo, I looked up instinctively and my eyes met those of a bull bison, watching me through a stand of saplings a few feet away. I jumped backward, paradoxically afraid of catching him off guard when I was plainly the jackrabbit. We observed each other through the saplings for a long time. He, nonchalant as ever, found a comfortable place to lounge in the dirt while I leaned against a tree trunk laughing at myself, grateful for the company.
Alone in a café on my twenty-first birthday in Xela, Guatemala, I bought myself a glass of vino tinto. I would spend the next three months traveling across the highlands to interview community leaders, local NGOs, and Canadian miners, researching transnational mining and indigenous resistance for my undergrad thesis. My most reliable company: a dusty blue backpack and my journal. These inanimate objects became kindred friends in concrete motel rooms on springboard mattresses, where I’d sit with a stack of hand-pressed tortillas and some fresh fruit from the market. This was to be one of the loneliest periods of travel in my life, but also one of the most important. In learning, through such proximity, the classic pattern of deceit in the extractive industries and the resulting environmental destruction, I became haunted. I would also come to wish many more people were haunted by the suave tone of the Canadian mining official I spoke to before flying to Guatemala City in his private helicopter, and by the unwavering stance of entire Mayan communities showing up to consultas to say no unanimously, and by the ongoing indifference, and brute violence, they would continue to endure through the forcefulness of a mining company in cahoots with a government that functions because of condoned exemption and bribery. Lonesomeness, while hard to endure, is also at times essential to walking past what is comfortable or familiar and going where you may have something more to learn. I am glad I was never afraid of it to begin with.
Wheel of Fortune/10
When I was twelve, my dad took up sailing. He went so far as to get himself an old run-down wooden schooner named Quasilla and fix her up. Took classes on navigation, seamanship, and the like. We began making day trips out of Morro Bay and into open water. I’d sit perched on the bowsprit while we bucked heavy swell. That summer, we packed up and set off for the Catalina Islands. It was a few days’ sail to the closest island, and we would spend over three weeks at sea in all, traveling between island coves and harbors. The eldest, I became first mate, helping with rigging and sails while my mom fretted over the two younger kids. Already prone to outbursts and gifted with a sailor’s tongue even on land, she did not particularly enjoy the voyage. She had her reasons; her husband was not the most adept sailor, but with some fool’s luck we managed to pull the sails down just in the nick of time one afternoon when we’d come barreling into a small cove and nearly taken out another boat. I liked the adventure. The sense of doing this on our own, as a family. It would be our first and only trip like that. It would be the first time I realized I wanted this kind of hands-on journeying in my life. I can still see myself on the bowsprit, dangling my feet toward the quicksilver curves of dolphins leaping in the bow waves.
I didn’t even know the people whose house it was, but that didn’t matter; I swore loudly and threw my plastic beer cup across the room when I heard he was there—the man who’d raped a high school friend of mine, pinned her down and forced himself into her. I had one thought: He has to go. I don’t know why I felt it was my responsibility to tell him to get the fuck out of a place where he may have belonged more than I; all I know is that my temper surprised everyone around me: the guys throwing the party, the friends I’d come there with. No one knew what to do with a young woman abruptly prepared to fistfight a football player three times her size. He left. There can be great power to bearing witness, to calling out an act of cruelty and making it known. A power greater than body size or force.
The Hanged Man/12
Late summer, sophomore year of undergrad. A few days before leaving, I asked a girlfriend what else she thought I should pack. A skirt, she said: something comfortable to wear on rest days, to feel the air swoosh between my legs. I liked the thought of it, the value of it, the expression of a woman on a reckless trip with three young men, but I didn’t pack a skirt. We left from Bakersfield after staying with the parents of our friend who’d already been once around the country this way. He’d learned the hobo tricks. His folks reluctantly dropped us off at the train yard. We waited in the heat and dust until an empty boxcar stopped within reach. Took off north. Boxcars were the best; we could stretch a hammock up inside them and still have plenty of room to move around. Boxcars were also lucky, and trains didn’t always stop for you to board. I would learn how to hop on while running. There was a lot of canned food and throwing rocks to pass the time. Water jugs filled at any chance and kept full for good measure. We never knew how long a freight train might get waylaid or where we would stop next. The joy of it was in riding through open country, the air fresh, or rolling down the tracks at night, the stars overhead like quartz blooming. After maybe a week, we made it to Portland, halfway to our destination of Glacier National Park, Montana. We knew we’d have to make a run for it at the train yard on the outskirts of town. Late at night, with no sign of a train coming, I curled up like a fox on a gravel slope beside blackberry brambles and fell asleep. I have no idea how long I dozed, but I awoke with a jolt. The train had arrived and wasn’t stopping. I reached for my pack and jumped up, my legs weak with the pinprick of heavy, awkward sleep. I scrambled up the gravel behind the trio of boys and in the blur of it all I fell, hitting my forehead on rocks. In defiance of my shaking legs I pushed ahead, toward train cars going at least ten miles an hour, a fast clip. The boys hopped on. Dizzy from falling and my legs still asleep, I was overcome with desperation to throw myself on that train. Some greater wisdom took over, and I didn’t sacrifice myself that night. I surrendered, saved my own life. That was the first time I chose to stand instead of run.
After Dixie died, I no longer believed in God. Not that I had much faith to begin with, having been to church maybe twice, but still, at seven I’d absorbed a vague notion of some masterful grandfather in the sky who kept benevolent watch on us little people alive on planet Earth. But when Dixie—protector and best friend, a Rhodesian ridgeback and Catahoula mutt, raven black with white paws and a ridge down his spine—was run over, I cursed the fucker. Screamed at that sky-god with hot wet tears and small clenched fists.
I was thirty years old when I visited my paternal grandfather’s grave for the first time. Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Glendale, California. In the Eventide section. (Near Graceland.) Lot 76. Space 3. Searching stone markers with numbers branded into concrete, I followed the slope of the graveyard hill. When I finally saw his gravestone I swallowed salt water; it surprised me how much I could feel. Next to my grandpa Charlie’s grave was the grave of his firstborn son, Geoffrey, who died a toddler. August 9, 1945, the same day Nagasaki was bombed. Sixty thousand dead and, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, one small boy. I’d brought sunflowers, placed two stalks upright, one on each side of Geoffrey’s plaque. I started with him, the baby, the one who died first. Then I placed four more flowers, circling the gravestone of my grandfather. I lay down on my side and let the ground press up against me, hold me, directly atop my grandfather’s grave. The grass stubble beneath my legs felt comforting. Then I fished out the rose quartz, one small polished stone, from the left-hand pocket of my faded black jean jacket. I’d been carrying the quartz around with me for weeks. He loved rose quartz, my aunt once said, like he loved doing somersaults into ocean waves, building toy cars, and wood carving. Like he loved his kids, until sleeping pills, sold in absurd quantities after World War II, the same era when excess war chemicals became what we now know as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, killed him. I buried the quartz in the dirt on the edge of the gravestone.
I had the only bedroom on the main floor. My room was a small forest-green square with a large window that opened wide a few feet from the ground. It faced the olive tree. We lived in town then, about eight blocks away from my best friend, Chris. High school was easy enough, but at home there was an undercurrent of stress. My mother was depressed; my father, distant. Rebellion comes in response to something askew; it is, I think, a haphazard attempt to find one’s own way. The house still at night, I’d crack open the window and climb out, skateboard in arm. I would stride quietly to the sidewalk before taking off and riding the eight blocks downhill to the simple whitewashed house with an old tree overarching. I’d climb the tree and land directly on the balcony of Chris’s upstairs room, arrive like a raccoon. I’d hang for hours with whoever else happened to be visiting. Son of a single mom, Chris had his own space and an independence unique among kids our age. His was a second home for all of us. We’d smoke pot, talk, and laugh. I would go downstairs into the kitchen and warm flour tortillas over the gas burner. I’d spread them with butter and eat them standing up, while on Chris’s mom’s stereo Bob Marley played softly, always.
I received a text on Christmas morning: “We leave tomorrow.” And good thing we did, otherwise we would have been bucking through the gale-force winds that brewed up on our tail just after we reached Catalina Island. I took my usual perch on the bowsprit, swinging my feet above the mounting swell, and watched Morro Rock shrink from view. I’d spent a year loosely preparing to crew onboard this boat while the captain, an old friend from childhood, worked on fixing her up. Melita—a rosewood and cedar Tahiti ketch. In my free time, I’d sanded and varnished her spars in the dusty tack room of my family’s barn among saddles and hay bales, listening to a scratchy radio late into the night. I’d stocked her with grains and coffee, red wine and whiskey, homegrown tomatoes I dried in the summer sun and stuffed into mason jars, sprinkled with thyme and oregano and doused in olive oil. While holding my breath, I’d cleaned her cabinetry with spray-bottle cleaning products made for ship grease. She was good to me, Melita. She taught me patience. She cradled me to sleep. She wasn’t a fast boat, but she was strong. Melita means, endearingly, little Malta. The boat had its roots in the tiny archipelago republic nestled smack in the center of the Mediterranean. South of Sicily, east of Tunisia, north of Libya. There is a father-son story contained in her hull: the father the shipbuilder, his son the one mad enough to track her down, buy her back, fix her up, and set sailing. Malta is where the father met his first wife, and where his two sons from that marriage, the one a sailor, returned with their mother when the couple split. Sailboats are known for this, acting as containers for life’s reveries and losses, dreams and broken hearts. Melita got me to La Cruz, just north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where I hopped off.
I’ve heard it said that prairie dogs sing for the rain. Standing on their hind legs with their tiny paws pressed together in sun salutation, they do look like they’re praying. I was hiking in Wind Cave National Park one afternoon when I came to the edge of a prairie dog town. They started hollering in that high-pitched way they do, calling to each other, messenger calls, warnings. I sat down in a patch of shade beneath a ponderosa on the hill slope leading to their village and began to sing. I am a cautious singer, keeping my soft, unsure voice to myself. But I let them hear me; I abandoned my defense. Within moments they quieted down, and then were silent. When I stopped singing, we all sat there quietly together under the warm midday sun.
Anne Carson stated it confidently: “I do not believe in art as therapy.” Upon reading these words, I sighed with relief. She had said it. I had nodded. Art, the dedicated work of making. Therapy, the tenacious work of healing. Nodding, I realized two things about myself. One, I had matured as a writer, an artist. Two, I had healed some deep fissures in myself. Otherwise, I might have retreated at her comment, belligerently disagreed. There is no way around the curvature of grief; one must lean into it, buck the heavy swell. To write well is to name pain with beauty and strangeness. That’s the art of it. Creativity, which could just as well be a word for God. Learning these things was one of the greatest freedoms of all. Some people think writing is easy. I want to tell them, try to face yourself daily in the salt pan of the empty page. Try to go there and come back unscathed.
A twang and rattle. The sound of someone crashing into barbed wire. We cocked our heads sideways, casually. We sat on a bench in a campground, a patch of ground full of RVs on a plateau at the edge of Rapid City, South Dakota. We were the only two people sleeping in a tent. Out of the shadows: a cougar, with a face like the sun, lit by the glow of our campfire. I stared, thoughtless, for a long dreamlike moment while the cougar stared back at us, unflinching. Until, on impulse, we both stood up, hit by a delayed recognition of the hunter in our midst, a presence so commanding. In that same instant, the cougar fled, a flash of tawny fur bounding away into shadows. The neighbor turned up the volume on his television. Our fire crackled. Cars continued to barrel by, white headlights heading southbound coming toward us, red lights glowing and then receding to the north. By the glow of a tea light in a mason jar, I collected hair from a single barbed wire, on the lowest strand, to remind myself that this was real. I placed two soft blond hairs into a tiny plastic bag with crumbs of sage for safekeeping.
I never expected to live in San Francisco. I grew up a ranch girl in a valley of oaks, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, herding cattle, roaming the sunburnt hills covered in dusty thatch. Cougar habitat, with ample places for them to hide, track, hunt, find refuge. I was told always to take the dogs with me when I went hiking. That, and to make myself big, in the case of an encounter, advice that seemed ridiculous to give a child. Stretch your arms out wide and yell like a drunken sailor. I’ve done stints in cities including Portland, Copenhagen, and New York, but I’ve tended toward places with expanse, where I could make an easy dash to the forest or the hills. Oddly enough, San Francisco became the place where I could lay down my burdens. Not because there is anything particularly easy or peaceable about this city, but in a sense because of the opposite. The wooden buildings that lean into one another, as creaky as old sailboats, like those many old sailboats sailors left to sink in the bay when they finally made land here, desperate and crazed with gold fever. The sound of sirens that mingle with the squawk of parrots, redheaded conures let loose here, now comfortably at home with the seagulls, pigeons, and red-tailed hawks. The homeless tent encampments, the man with a pet boa constrictor on the sidewalk, the crack addict on my front step, the sidewinding streets, end of the line, edge of the West. Surrounded by traffic, cement blocks, and streetlights, I’ve had to learn how to find the spaciousness I am accustomed to finding outside, inside myself. To close my eyes and go there. You can never take the land out of the child. The contours of terrain remain tattooed onto one’s forehead, echoed in the curve of one’s back, the geography of the soul. The beauty of it is that I’ve learned I carry the land with me; it is part of who I am, what I am made of.
At the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, you can purchase copper and silver replicas of old Viking pendants. I’ve received a few of these over the years as gifts from Danish relatives, the first on the day of my “milestone” party, a substitute for the traditional confirmation celebration when I was fifteen. The pendant is circular, with the hull of a Viking ship cast in relief, stern and bow curving like ferns, and the outline of a fish below. A gift from two of my closest cousins and their mother, my aunt. I wore it for years, on a chestnut leather cord around my neck. Until, one day, on my ritual morning dash into the ocean, I dove under a wave and the necklace was swept off my neck, over my head, and lost to the salty waters. I felt like I’d lost my protection, a piece of myself swallowed up by the swell, a tether to something old and soulful gone. Then, over a year later, I gathered some friends to walk the five or so miles of shoreline from the beachside town of Cayucos to Morro Rock. I was ahead of the group, talking to a former roommate, when we hit a rocky outcropping about halfway to our destination and he bent down to pick something up. I stopped walking to see what he’d found. It was blemished on the edges with the vibrant blue of rusty copper, and the leather cord was salty and stiff, but without question it was the Viking pendant I’d lost diving under water three miles north over a year before. Of course, I snatched it from his hand. My friend was at first quite startled by my behavior but soon came to understand. I bought him a fine bottle of tequila to say thank you.